With studied slowness, Danny pulls our beat-up white van into the parking lot of Cullards’s Diner, another dubious stop on the Folk Music festival circuit taking us through California. Poor Danny. He’s a gay man, a kick-ass bassist, and the only member of our band, Nebula, not involved in our two butch–one femme triangle. He shoots me a sympathetic look, rolling his eyes as Dot (short for Dorothy) tosses her long black hair and pretends not to bat her eyelashes in the direction of Jay (short for Jayne), our blond, also butch drummer. Jay’s blushing, sitting on her own hands, balancing on one blue-jeaned butt cheek and then the other. I know they’re trying to spare me, since Dorothy and I split a year ago. But it’s not working, and we all know it.
—Okay, folks, bathroom break, caffeination, and then Mick, you’re up, says Danny.
Mick is short for Mikaela. Which only my mom calls me. And even then, only when she’s she’s upset with me, because I haven’t answered to that since middle school.
—Coffee’s on me, says Jay, with a careful but cheery glance at me.
—All good, man, I say. Stickin’ with tea. But thanks, I say. I am nothing if not polite.
I hop out of the van and beeline it into Cullard’s while Danny takes care of gasoline and Dorothy and Jay do … whatever. Don’t want to think about it. Same old scene as always. Cullard’s is like a diner joint outta central casting. Chrome tables. Black and white tile floor. A half-clean, marbled grey formica counter which a collection of California hippies and Conservative truck drivers share in what is at best an uneasy truce. Glass coffee pots are always full but on the wrong side of scorched, and a yellow-smeared copy of the New York Times wilts over a plate of scrambled eggs. A squat truck driver with “God is my GPS” on the back of his navy jacket scowls when he sees me. He scrunches over, less to make room for me than to avoid catching my queerness, no doubt.
—Could I get a cup of brewed tea, please? I ask the waitress. Sally, I think. She seems to recall seeing me. I flash her my best sweet, well-brought-up butch smile, look at her appreciatively and just a second too long. Like a lot of straight girls, she takes the bait and smiles back.
—Sure, hon, coming up. You … you with a band that comes through here on the regular? she asks, swooping another pour of burnt brew into the truck driver’s mug.
—Yes ma’am, I say, with another smile and stage twinkle.
—You got Danny with ya? she asks. These poor women. Danny is a sweetheart and handsome too, but his love belongs to another boy, a med student back in Brooklyn. I know he doesn’t mind setting hearts racing though, if it helps the band in any way.
—Yes ma’am, he is. He’s just refuelling the van at the moment. He’ll be here in a minute, I say.
A moment later, she hands me a tall, tiny-waisted mug of dark tea with just a swirl of milk.
—Thanks, I say, and take a sip. It’s perfect, and I close my eyes to curl my hands around the shape of the cup and take in the clean taste of tea, the respite from Dorothy. Sally winks and moves onto serving the woman beside the truck driver. I pull the Times off the eggs and start to read. It’s kind of a joke around the band that I need to read all the time. Or write. Or pick guitar. I write most of our songs. I don’t know what it would hurt more to give up—playing guitar, or playing with words. I actually hate the New York Times and its faux-scientific paternalist crap. At least it’s always decently written, and you can’t say that for every newspaper these days. I’m scanning the latest article on gun control after Sandy Hook when my cell pings. Elena. I feel my lips turn up, my cheeks warm a bit.
So…have you told them yet? OMG Connor is driving this morning and I hope we make it to the Sacramento venue alive. See you there? 🙂
Elena is the guitarist with this other roots music band we sometimes play or tour with. She’s a fierce out-and-proud femme, gorgeous, and sweet to boot. We banter a lot. Trade books. Tune up together. We’re close enough that she knows I’ve decided to leave the band but haven’t told them yet. She knows all about Dorothy, Jay, and the whole mess. And I like her. I like her a lot. But the breakup with Dot was only a year ago. And I’m not sure what a butch with a broken heart and an uncertain solo career has to offer a woman like Elena. But at the moment, she’s one of the only good parts of a really hard bit of my life, so I text her back.
Not yet. Not til we do the last show in Berkeley. You guys will be in Sacramento too? That. Rocks. 🙂 🙂
I want to send Elena a winky emoticon, or maybe even a blue heart or something, but I don’t. Danny claps his warm, wiry hand on my shoulder and glances down as the blowing-a-kiss emoticon pops up from Elena’s end. My cheeks are so hot now I know I look like a butch tomato. Charming.
—Is that Elena? Danny says, with a big grin. Mick—what are you gonna do about that? You know she likes you. You like her too.
—Yeah, I say. But not yet.
—Don’t wait too long, he says. You could use some joy. And she’s amazing.
There’s a goofy grin all over my face as Danny and I walk towards the van.
—Yeah, she is, I say. And the the image of Elena’s sparkly eyes gets me through the next two hours, and all the pleading looks Dot sends me. I drive and drive and drive. Danny and I sing, nailing tonight’s harmonies while Dot “rests her voice.” The sun begins to set as we pull into the Sacramento place, one of those bars that serve local organic food. Which means that the crowd will be an equal mix of students, old hippie profs, and yummy mummy families from the neighbourhood.
Our gig is what you would expect of a twelve-year-old band on the brink of internal collapse: professional, but distinctly lacking in magic. Danny is valiant, Dot’s vocals stay strong, but Jay’s usually inspired drumming falls flat, and I’m playing and singing softly, trying to blend into the background. Double butch fail. We pack up in silence and then make our way to the miserable but clean, disinfectant-smelling motel where we will spend the night, Jay and Dot in the main pink bedroom, Danny and I in the odd orange alcove by the kitchenette.
When you’re a musician, sound slides in through your pores and slips through your veins to zing your very marrow, which is how I wake up to a noise halfway between laughter and tears, a muffled scuffling of bodies landing very much on the side of joy. Against my better judgment, I pull on an old sweater and twist my torso around the alcove wall.
—So will you? Things are messy now, but once we get her out, they’ll be better, I promise, says Jay, who is on the ground.
—Oh my gosh, oh my Gosh, YES! says Dot, her hair a bed-smashed, wavy tangle over a silky mauve nighty.
Jay, on one knee, is looking up at Dot, whose face shines down at her. A blind man couldn’t miss it, that look in her eyes—a honeyed softness of gaze once reserved for me, in our holiest naked moments. Then Dot realizes I am, in fact, there.
—Mick, what are you doing up? she blares, deftly hooking her glittery left hand behind her waist.
I turn on my heel without a word and go back to the alcove and out the sliding doors connecting our suite to the parking lot. By this time, Danny’s up, and he crawls out with me into the cool waning night.
Two green wrought-iron chairs take up the three-flagstone-wide patio, which is separated from the parking lot by a frail lilac bush. Danny sits on one, his knees tucked up to his chin, one hand clapped under each armpit for warmth, as I pace in front of him in tears. A moment later, the glass door unsticks itself and Dot and Jay tumble out to join us.
—Maybe we should just do this now, says Dot.
—Do what exactly? I say. I know what she means, but given her betrayals, I’m not inclined to let her away with ellipsis.
—C’mon, Mick, do you really want to make this harder than it has to be? says Danny. Purpley pre-dawn light has dug out the hollows in his cheeks, and his hands are shaking, as they sometimes do when he’s tired. But he’s looking at me, and his tone is kind.
—We need to break up the band, says Jay.
—I can’t do this anymore, says Dot. The drama in the air, all the misery in the van every time you look at me, Mick. There’s this … thickness to everything between us all now, and it’s seeping into our music, you could feel it tonight.
—You can’t do this anymore? YOU can’t do this anymore! I say. I turn away, stop myself from going on, but it’s clear to everyone what I mean. Danny unfolds himself from the chair, walks over, and put his arm around me. He tucks me into his lean chest, tips my teary face onto his shoulder, and then he begins to whisper.
—Mick, man, don’t do this. You already know where this is going. And you know who comes out winning in the end, you knew it from the beginning, Dot, she’s always the winner. Mick, go, man. I’m going too, Dot and Jay can do this on their own. Mick, you’ve got a future. You ARE the songs, the words, the melodies. What does your uncle always say about you, hon? That you play the guitar like it’s a limb you’ve been missing your whole life? You don’t need her, hon, you never did.
For some reason the kind things Danny says about me make me cry even harder. My chest heaves like a frightened four-year-old’s. Danny just holds me and lets me wipe my nose on his fleece sleeve, and then we turn away from the lilac-scented lawn and walk the three steps back to Jay and Dot, who are standing very still.
—Okay, I say. You’re right. It’s over. Let’s do the Berkeley gig, and then sort out how to cancel from there.
—It’s for the best, Mick, for all of us, Dot says.
Dot walks over to me and tries to grab my hands but I just put them up in front of me, palms out, like a wall.
—Sure it is, I say. Yes. There’s a shielding in my face that Dot reads and gets, and then she turns on one heel and goes in.
Somehow we get through the farm to table gig in Berkley. Elena’s band is there too, and the one good moment of the night is when I hear her solo on the last tune, that expressive, lilting soprano let loose on a gospel tune. I close my eyes for a second to lock it in, the freedom and swing of it, her voice a pocket of red berry sweetness in my ears and behind my eyes.
We’ve packed up in awkward silence but Dot and Jay still want to finish their beers and chat with the owner, a friend of Dot’s mom. After all that, I just can’t do it anymore, so I make my way out back to the barn. Cows are out in the pasture tonight so it’s just a sweet space of faded barn-board and pale gold hay in bales, in the chiaroscuro of twilight. I crawl up to the loft and lie down in the hay, with my legs up the loft wall, a yoga trick my mom taught me for when the overwhelm gets me shaking.
So the worst has already happened, and I’m here. No love, no band, but alive.
There’s a sound of upward moving air, like someone sliding gracefully up the ladder. My shoulders jump up from the ground in alarm.
—No need to get up, it’s just me, says Elena. She walks the length of the loft and lies down beside me, swinging her legs easily up the wall beside mine.
—Your set was awesome, I say. Your voice in that last tune …
I can feel rather than see her smile.
—Are you okay? Elena says. My face is contorted but somewhat still, like a rubber mask, my default setting for when I’d like to cry but can’t. Just her asking starts the tears.
—They broke up with ME before I could say anything at all, I manage. And Jay’s proposed to Dot.
Then, in a complete loss of dignity, I begin to whimper and hiccup at the same time.
—I know, Elena says. Danny told me.
Elena grabs my hand and holds it in her warm one, her head turned towards me. I only half-tilt my head, and I can see her gorgeous green eyes, steady and warm, and her red curls falling over those graceful cheekbones. She’s taken off all her stage makeup and her face is floaty and fragile. It’s all I can do to keep myself from resting my head on her shoulder and curling into her like a baby to sob and be held, but if there is something more than banter between us, this is NOT how I want it to start.
So I sniffle loudly, laugh and squeeze her hand, hard, but gratefully, and I think she gets it because she squeezes back and gives a small smile. I’m aware of the moreish scent of her orange blossom perfume, mingled with her post-performance sweat. I’m aware of our side ribs touching every time we breathe in, our hands knotted between her blue-jeaned hip and mine. My sobs die down a bit and we just breathe, side by side. The silence floats up and expands and becomes a rose-gold bubble all around us. It’s a heat, almost a bursting, and it catches and clots in my throat but some of it travels down to my chest and, if I’m honest, lower down too. Suddenly I’m also aware of the swell of Elena’s breasts in that lacy blouse, and I give them a quick sideways glance.
—Hey Mick! My eyes are up here, she says, with laughter and mischief in her tone. She lets go and scrambles up, sitting against the barn wall. From the ground, her whole face is still smiling and gentle, like an image of the Madonna, but sexy. And I’m grinning in a slightly wolfish way. I catch her wrist again.
—You’re beautiful, I say. And funny and sweet and—I love hanging out with you.
She pulls on my arm and I scuffle up to sit beside her, our shoulders touching. Mine are shaking from being so close to her bloomy-sweat loveliness.
—But? she says. A shadow armours her face. It’s the most hurt I’ve seen her.
—No, no, no to whatever you’re thinking that’s making you look like that! I say.
She looks up. It’s a clear look, and even, but cautious.
—Elena, I’m crazy attracted to you, I want you … if you knew how much you’d probably run across the barn.
I look at her, rifling my hand through the wild spikes of my hair, and we both blush.
—Mick, I know you. You don’t have to fix yourself or change anything for me.
—I know, I say. But I don’t want to be a mess when I’m with you, Elena. You deserve better than that. I need to pull myself together and finish my solo album. It’s not fair to ask you to wait. Look at all the great butches you meet on the road who AREN’T in pieces with their hair full of hay!
—I dunno, I think it’s a good look for you, Elena says, the corner of her lip twitching up into her cheek.
I throw a handful of straw at her and we both laugh. Then we turn our heads towards each other, touching our foreheads together. Elena cups my chin in her palm. She presses her thumb to the middle of my lower lip, where it rests for a moment, then slowly runs it across to my cheek. My heart pulses in in my lip like the wing-beat of a tiny blue butterfly, and it’s all I can do to keep from crushing my mouth against hers.
—I’ll wait, she says, but …
—Not forever, I finish.
—And you stay in touch, okay? Every day, she says.
Elena’s standing, brushing hay from that round bottom of hers and looking at me.
—Wild horses … I say
—There aren’t any wild horses in Brooklyn and there better not be any other cute femmes there either, she says. She’s smiling, but fierce, and I so want to just hug her and hang on forever.
Instead, I grin and throw my hands up by my face in mock surrender. In the rose-gold bubble of that barn, my life in shambles, I’m awake. I lift one hand to my mouth and blow her the kiss that is still to be.
Andréa Raymond is a queer (femme) writer, yogi, and teacher from Toronto. With a Québécois dad and a Maritime mum, she also writes in French. Her 2002 French poetry collection is entitled Poèmes du lendemain 11. She would like to acknowledge her community of writer friends at Firefly.