Monday, March 10, 2008


(The kitchen of Scott's hut, north shore of Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica)

Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post two days. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.

Autumn 2005 - Winter 2006

After thinking it over for a while, Myra sent Jaime an e-mail, telling him that she missed his presence, she understood how hard it must have been for him, and that she would do whatever she could to help Margie eventually reclaim their friendship. She thanked him for waiting until he got back and could talk to Margie in person before telling her about his change, instead of doing it via text message or over the phone. She also offered a listening ear in the future, once Margie got to the point where she wouldn't feel betrayed by their contact. He wrote her back instantly, saying "Thanks with all my heart. Let me know."

Once the first week of school was behind her, with the endless questions of friends making life a hell on earth for Margie, she focused on crewing and hanging out with Amy's friends. She got asked to a Halloween dance by a boy Myra thought she didn't like in a particular way, but it made her happy to be asked and they allowed her to be picked up by him in his parents' car. She turned down a second date with him.

Ginny asked Margie if Jaime was out at school. Margie said "There's gossip. But I haven't said anything, and neither has Amy. He -- I don't think he's seeing anybody. I guess he's still hung up on that guy from camp." Her voice was bitter, though not as much as it had been.

Ginny surprised them all by saying "Well, to quote Bart Simpson, how is it that something can suck and blow at the same time?" It made Margie laugh unrestrainedly.

David came for Thanksgiving, joining in the cooking at the shelter and looking more animated than Myra thought she'd ever seen him. He stayed through Margie's birthday, and Ginny pleaded with him to remain another week, to spend the yartzeit of Helen's death with them. In the end, though, he said he wanted to be in Denver that day, to visit her grave and go to his own temple. Cathy told Ginny that he had become highly popular, as a handsome and single older man, not just among the widows at the temple but also at his retirement community. Ginny scowled as she told this to Myra, and Myra hid her laugh.

He was not going to spend the December holidays with them, either, because it would be Navit's first Hanukkah and Elena was at that age when lighting the menorah and getting nightly presents was insanely exciting. Myra and Ginny had enough notice of this to plan the legendary trip to Antarctica for themselves and their kids. Carly was refused permission to accompany them -- this time, Pat was taking them all skiing at Stowe. Edwina balked at joining them -- "Just too many hours in the air and on a rolling ship for me" she explained -- so she and Allie decided to use her break doing family history research in Mississippi and Alabama. Myra looked disconsolate at missing this.

But both kids were over the moon about the "expedition", as they called it. Over a period of two weeks, they would fly to Punta Arenas in Chile and visit a nearby wilderness area before boarding ship for the Falklands and South Georgia. Myra got choked up whenever she thought about getting to see Ernest Shackleton's grave, and she memorized much of "The Wasteland", especially the lines from "What the thunder said":

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman -
But who is that on the other side of you?

They would go on to Elephant Island, then the Antarctic peninsula where Myra would get to walk into Scott's hut. She'd bought top of the line binoculars for them all, including two with video-recording features, and they'd gone to the REI outlet sale earlier in the year to stock up on polar outerwear. One day's itinerary offered kayaking, which Margie and Gillam jumped at, giving Myra the willies but she could not protest. Margie insisted on giving Gillam lessons in their pool with the kayak she'd gotten for her birthday.

Ginny booked a large cabin for her and Myra, studying deck plan charts and consulting weather logs to determine which one would offer the best sunlight through a window. Once again, Margie and Gillam had to share a cabin, but Myra and Ginny promised to switch out when they got tired of each other. Myra assumed Ginny would paint -- and Ginny certainly packed for that possibility -- so she weighed down her own suitcase with field guides and historic journals as well as her laptop.

Ten days before their departure, Carly rode the train to Seattle and Myra made fried chicken for shabbos dinner. As they all began eating, Ginny said "Every time I eat this in this dining room, I feel the serendipity of it all."

"What do you mean?" asked Myra.

"I thought I told you. I closed on this house the day before I came to the potluck where you finally talked to me -- where I ate this chicken for the first time" said Ginny.

"Wow. No, I didn't know that" said Myra, feeling a small thrill down her back.

"Yep, I was on a roll. I was making a life for myself, and when I saw your Honda outside that night, I decided to have another try at getting your attention" said Ginny.

"Full of yourself" grinned Myra.

"You said it. And poor Donna Neely, she was trying so hard to get you to talk to her. I watched her for a bit, watched you ignoring her, and after I got my plate, I cut her off at the pass. Zoomed right in on you" said Ginny smugly.

"I have no memory of her at all there" said Myra, wonderingly.

"She was sitting next to you. I knew what she was experiencing, but that night, I was going to be the one who broke through the Myra tunnel vision, and by golly, I did" said Ginny.

Myra locked her gaze with Ginny's, down the length of the table, remembering that first stirring of what she had called fear that night, not understanding then what was happening when she looked at Ginny. It hardly seemed possible that they were once so tenuous. It felt like a close call. Ginny's face, looking back at Myra, melted in an expression no one else ever saw.

After ten seconds, Chris said "Do you two need the room?"

Embarrassed, Myra said "No. Sorry." But she kept darting looks at Ginny, who returned them, as the meal progressed. Carly didn't eat much, complaining of feeling bloated. Ginny made him some herbal tea and he sipped at that instead of having dessert. Myra felt his forehead and detected no temperature. When he left to go upstairs early, Myra nodded at Gillam to go with him, saying "If he starts feeling crummier, let us know."

Margie left the gathering early, too. Myra suspected she had a movie she wanted to watch on her laptop and didn't argue -- some nights she was clearly still missing Jaime acutely.

Their friends left around 10:00. Ginny, loading the last cups into the dishwasher, said "Are you going to work late?"

Myra said softly "No, I'm heading for the bedroom right now. Will you lock up and turn off the lights?"

When Ginny came to the bedroom five minutes later, Myra met her just inside the door, pulling her into a slow, delicate-traveling-into-unending kiss. Eventually, Ginny wiggled free long enough to make it to the bed, tugging Myra after her and on top of her, with her legs spread. They kept kissing a while, until Myra said "I'll lock the door, you close the blinds, and we'll meet back here naked?"

They could still move like 20-somethings when motivated. Back in bed, there was enough light for Myra to see Ginny's face below her. She took her time -- when they were both this on fire, it could go like a short fuse or it could come in like a slow tide. She wanted the latter tonight. She wanted every second she could have with Ginny.

She did turn around so they could suck on each other's breasts at the same time, which always made them breathless and a little crazed. She sensuously kneaded Ginny's belly and hips, but refrained from putting her hands between Ginny's legs until she righted herself again, able to see Ginny's face. Ginny's expression when Myra parted her lips was always amazing, as amazing as the silky soak of Ginny under her exploring fingers.

Eventually Ginny slid her knee up over Myra's hip and pushed against her, so Myra slid her thumb into Ginny, gently pressing the inner walls open, feeling inside her own vagina the ache she knew she was easing in Ginny. She alternated between thumb inside, fingers moving up and down labia, watching Ginny's face for clues when to switch. Or sustain.

This was lovemaking in its most elemental, generous form. All in the world she wanted was to give pleasure to Ginny. So, when Ginny maneuvered one hand down and tried to push apart Myra's thighs, Myra resisted for a moment, lifting her mouth from Ginny's breast to say "I can have my turn later, this can be one-way for now."

"No, no, I need to touch you" said Ginny urgently. Myra knew what she meant. She shifted position so Ginny's hand could reach her, and gasped over Ginny's breast as the circuit was closed between them. Measured tempo was abandoned then. Two minutes later, Myra had flung herself onto her back, her groin still spasming intermittently, as Ginny laughed exuberantly and curled into her side, saying "My god, I nearly passed out that time!"

They didn't go to sleep right away. Instead, they reminisced about that night at the potluck, revisiting moments and premonitions not quite recognized at the time. After a while, Myra got up to pee, and when she heard a knock at the bedroom door, she turned on the light and unlocked it to find Gillam, who said "Are you up?"

"Yeah, what's wrong?" asked Myra. Ginny sat up, looking for her T-shirt.

"It's Carly, his stomach has gone back to really hurting again. He said it was hurting like this last night, but he didn't tell anybody because he didn't want to have to stay in Olympia" said Gillam.

"We'll be right up" said Myra, looking around for her own shirt and pants.

Carly was curled in the bed, hugging his belly. This time, when Myra felt his forehead, he was hot and sweaty.

"Where does it hurt, exactly?" Ginny asked him.

He spoke with effort. "Last night it was at my belly button, but it's over here tonight" -- he placed his palm on the lower right side of his abdomen.

"Have you been puking?" asked Myra.

"Not tonight. I did last night. I thought it was something I ate, maybe." He looked paler than usual. Ginny pulled down his pajama pants enough to look at his belly, and it was a little swollen. Myra rubbed his forehead and said "Boychik, I hate to say it, but this could be appendicitis. We're going to have to go to the emergency room."

"Okay" he said, with some relief. It was that bad, then. Myra told Gillam "Get dressed in something warm. Pack him a bag with clean pajamas -- yours, if necessary -- a change of clothes, and his toothbrush. Lay him out some sweats and a warm shirt, and we'll come back to help him get up and dressed."

She and Ginny went downstairs and dressed in streetclothes. Ginny carried her cell back upstairs to call Patty, while Myra woke Margie and told her they were going to the hospital, she could accompany them or stay home alone.

Patty was near panic, Ginny could tell. She talked with Carly, then to Ginny again, saying "We'll be there as soon as we can." Ginny asked her which hospital she preferred. As they were getting Carly dressed, he suddenly needed to vomit again and Myra had to go into the bathroom as Ginny held Gillam's wastebasket for him. When the noise stopped, Myra brought back a wet washcloth and bathed his face.

"Are they going to operate on me?" he asked wretchedly.

"They might. But these days they do it laparoscopically, so it's much easier, just a few little holes, and you get better faster" said Myra. "Don't worry, the drugs are great."

Margie elected to stay home with Narnia, and walked them to the door to lock up after them, resetting the alarm. She promised to keep her phone on and call them if needed.

At near midnight on a Friday, the waiting room was occupied but not overwhelmingly so. Carly, however, was pushed ahead of others already there, once they collected his symptoms and took his temperature. Pat and Patty got there right before he was taken into surgery. By 4 a.m., he was back in a room, sleeping off the anesthesia. His appendix had not yet ruptured, but would have imminently, the surgeon said.

Ginny offered for Pat and Patty to come home with them, crash in the spare bedroom, whenever they were ready. They insisted on staying with Carly, of course. Gillam had to be dragged away, Myra saying in his ear "He'll need you more tomorrow, when he wakes up and it hurts. You go home and get rested, so you can be his buddy later."

Margie was asleep on the couch, the TV on to an infomercial. They went into the kitchen and made warm drinks, talked in exhausted fragments, and hugged each other before going back to bed.

At 10 a.m., Ginny and Gillam arrived to relieve Pat and Patty, Ginny shooing them to her house with a promise that they'd call for any reason at all. Myra had forced herself up and had breakfast waiting on them. They looked like hell. After eating, they went to bed and Myra went back to sleep for two hours.

Carly was released the following morning. Gillam did his best to persuade Patty to let Carly come home with him, promising to wait on Carly hand and foot, but Patty was adamant about taking him home. Which Myra completely understood and tried to explain to Gillam. Pat and Patty both were effusive in their thanks, however, and warmer than they had been in a while toward Ginny and Myra.

"He's a spectacular boy" said Ginny. "We cherish him."

Back home, Gillam was sent to do the homework that had gone untouched all weekend. Margie went rowing, and when she got back, she sat in the hot tub while Gillam did laps. Myra announced she was making veggie burgers, sweet potato fries, and Boston Cream Pie for dinner, and they could eat in the living room while watching home movies, which cheered up Gillam considerably. Allie and Edwina joined them, and Gillam set up his movie camera using a new low-light film he was trying out. When he periodically got up to shoot footage of them all, Edwina commented that his taking home movies of them watching home movies was probably creating a dangerous fold in the time-space continuum, which tickled him.

They commented their way through clips of marches, graduations, birthdays, Ginny painting, Myra singing to Alice, holiday cookie-making events, and endless "firsts" with one or the other child, now looking impossibly tiny and wobbly. There was a two-minute stretch from the Halloween party of 2002 that had a pan showing Allie and Edwina sitting next to each other, talking. They had to rewind this half a dozen times, pausing while the two of them murmured to each other about what was going on in that moment. When Margie insisted on seeing the movie of her birth again, Ginny turned red and said "Edwina, get ready for a lengthy tour of my snatch" but she put in the tape.

They had another viewing party on New Year's Day, to share images from their respective holiday trips. David flew in, and was there for Gillam's birthday when Gillam got a new computer with a digital editing board. He wound up staying an entire month, an increasingly familiar presence in the house. For Ginny's 50th birthday, Cathy and Michael joined them. The storage room held a tub with live lobsters and crabs for Ginny's dinner, which Myra cooked but David had to be the one to kill the crustaceans. Margie made a pair of palette knives for Ginny, of hand-forged copper with silver-wrapped handles and etching, and when Ginny saw them, she cried. She used them the rest of her life.

In early February, Carly came for the weekend. On Saturday after lunch, Ginny had gone outside to see how the winter brassicas were holding up, Margie was in the living room, and Myra was looking in the pantry while Carly and Gillam cleaned up. Carly stopped loading the dishwasher to look at Myra and say "Uh...I've got a favor to ask. When I'm going to be here for the weekend, could it be one of our chores to make dinner on Saturday night? Or, if Gillam doesn't want to do it with me, could I do it myself?"

Myra heard Margie's faint snort from the other room. Not hiding her pleasure, she said "Absolutely. You want to expand your cooking skills?"

"That's part of it" said Carly hesitantly. When he didn't go on, Myra said "If you're worried you're not doing your share around here, let me reassure you, you are."

Carly smiled. "I like hearing that, but that's not it. Not exactly. I mean, it is something about how I have a share..."

Myra waited. Gillam had stopped what he was doing to listen, too.

"I don't know how to explain this. It's...Being a boy here means something different than anyplace else. But I can't figure out how..."

When he stopped again, Myra grinned and said "Okay. You want me to let you in on another of the Bates-Josong secrets?"

Gillam looked avid. Carly nodded. Myra was certain Margie was holding Narnia still so she could hear every word.

"This is our gender theory. Since neither Ginny nor I believe that there's any meaningful biological difference between boys and girls in terms of behavior, or brain function -- not enough to matter, certainly not enough to bolster the ethnocentric, classist rules about what's masculine and what's feminine -- then we were determined to give any of our kids, no matter what pee-pee they came out with, a full set of tools to be human. Tailored to their preferences as those became apparent, of course. But you all weren't born in a vacuum, and the culture out there is overwhelming. So we had to try to contradict some of the hammering you were going to get. Make sense so far?"

Old hat, she could tell from Gillam's face.

"The conditioning that boys get is designed to divorce them from expressing their feelings easily -- except for anger and pride, those are okay. But fear or sadness, absolutely not. Boys are cajoled, distracted, or threatened out of expressing fear or sadness literally from birth, in a way that girls are not. So they freak out inside when they feel such things OR when others around them feel it. They haven't been given the tools to cope with ordinary human emotion. They are deliberately retarded in that way. And unless they choose, as adults, to overcome that retardation, with virtually no role models and certainly no societal support, they'll die retarded."

Gillam looked shocked at the language. But not Carly.

"One of the consequences is that they don't just avoid that which they cannot do or comprehend as adults, they actively devalue it. Even though connecting with other human beings, registering emotion, empathizing, learning from feelings is not only the basis for cultural development but, in fact, hard-wired into our primate DNA -- we have one group, the dominant group, who've been stripped of full ability in this area and so the entire species must pretend that it's not a valuable thing to have. You can see how dysfunctional that's made us. It has to be interrupted and reversed for our species to survive."

Myra felt a lump in her throat. She reminded herself it was fine to cry here, if it came to that. She really did love her planet.

"The other major damage that's done to boys babies, for the first few years of life, we all spend most of our time with our moms, or whatever woman is playing the mom role. We're at home, and home is the entire world as far as we're concerned. In het nuke fams, there's this guy, a dad, who comes and goes, but the real heart of existence is home and stuff like making meals, cleaning up, playing, talking, laughing -- the itty-bitty domestic joy of life. And from the moment we're born, we're working like gangbusters to acquire the skills adults have, to walk and talk, but also to take our place in the family. We want to know what our place is in this glorious web of love and learning. Our ability to learn, how we do in in those first few years, separates us from all other animals, even other primates."

The phone rang. Gillam made no move toward it, and Margie did not come rushing in to answer it, either. After two and a half rings, it went to voice mail. Myra grinned to herself.

"So, little girls are getting not just training in how to be with other people, how to handle emotions, they're also getting the message that when they grow up, this will be their world, too -- what mom is doing. These skills will be what they have to offer other people. They are, of course, shoved into it rather brutally and other doorways are closed off to them, but for the first two or three years, that actually doesn't matter so much because you are simply not aware of the world beyond home. Not as a concrete reality."

"But little boys are being told their life will have to be mostly in that other, outside, unknown world. They will have to compete, in ways and at tasks that make no sense at all, and when they show interest in cooking, for example, that most basic of nurturing for those you love, they are subtly or not so subtly told it's not normal for boys to have that interest. But the interests that boys are supposed to have are not things a baby or toddler can do, even if the outside world was set up to make room for them -- which it is not."

"How are they to have value, then, right here and now, when they aren't supposed to do the things of the world they know? And why does this guy who shows up for a few hours every evening get treated like the leader when he doesn't seem to do anything of emotional or practical value most of the time? What kind of role model is that? But mom gives up her power to him, at least when he's around -- although she may complain about him non-stop when he's not there. Boys can't be like mom, and they don't really want to be like dad but they don't have a lot of choice, so they fake it. They learn bluster and bravado early on. And most straight women indulge their sons, go along with their play-acting at masculinity, which I'm convinced doesn't fool any except the dimmest of boys. They know they're being patronized. But it's the only access they have to worth and value, to having a role in the web of family, and if you're desperate enough, you'll take what you can get."

Myra did let the tears well up now. She remembered Gil, and she saw a haunting expression on Carly's face. But not Gillam's, thank god, not Gillam's. She wiped her cheeks with her palm and continued slowly.

"It's unspeakable, how terrified boys are. How they are trained to be insensitive and disconnected from family, from genuine exchanges of nurturing. So, in addition to giving our son-s " -- she added the second S at the last minute -- " access to emotions, we also have made sure they have an equal role in the home. We defined male as identical to female, in the home. We carefully kept out messages to the contrary, like in books or TV, and until you started Montessori, Gillam, you just hadn't picked up the bulk of male conditioning that's traditional out there. By that time, your personality was set."

Gillam's voice was neutral as he said "Maybe you defined it that way, but I'm having to live in a world where nobody else has that definition. It's like I'm inventing male from scratch."

"I know, and I'm sorry for that. Honestly, I didn't anticipate feminism getting torched the way it has, and I certainly didn't expect my generation to raise their daughters with expanded horizons but to give up on their sons for fear of being called man-haters, I suppose. And now even the so-called queer community has rigid gender shit that's comparable to the worst of the 1950s." She remembered stumbling across the American Boyz website, and forced her mind away from it, she'd go into a tirade if she thought about it.

Carly said, "That's it, you know. That's what I feel here, way different than anyplace else. I get to be a boy here without -- wearing armor. Or being treated like I'm incompetent."

"I can't express how glad I am to hear that, Carly" burbled Myra. Gillam said, after a pause, "Mom -- are you afraid of men?"

Blam. She took a breath and said "Yes. I am. Not all the time, but enough of the time."

"So am I" he said, his voice very quiet.

"Well, Gillam, I think we're all raised to be, even as we love them. I think men are afraid of men. Just like we're all afraid of white people, of what we're capable of" said Myra.

"Some days I just wish I could blend in" said Gillam.

"I hear ya. Some days I do too. I have secret fantasies of being a housewife" said Myra, praying that Margie never chose to use this against her.

Carly began giggling. "What, are you trying to imagine me as a housewife?" grinned Myra.

"No, it's -- there's a way you ARE a housewife" said Carly. "The Bizarro version."

They were all still cackling when Ginny walked in half a minute later. Gillam was leaning on the breakfast bar, he was laughing so hard. Ginny cocked her eyebrows quizzically at Myra, and Myra said to the boys in a toneless voice "Me not understand", which sent them into wild hysterics. Ginny smiled and continued upstairs to weed on the garden deck there.

© 2008 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

Great chapter, Maggie. This could teach a lot of people about our culture's devaluation of men and women.