Thursday, June 26, 2008


(Maggie in Winter of 1983, San Francisco)

This is a short-short story that is, once again, mostly true. This is how I first heard of AIDS -- though once it had a name at all, it was called GRID for a while, Gay-Related Infectious Disorder.

The Red Queen was Arthur Evans.


In 1980, everyone wants Alby. “Everyone” is her girlfriend Randy, of course, plus the other two young dykes in Randy’s household, Francie and Leo. Alby is over there all the time. Their Victorian apartment has three bedrooms and no living room, but the entry foyer at the top of the stairs is huge and opens onto the kitchen, also big and bright. This serves as their common space unless it’s sunny, when you’ll find them on the balcony off Francie’s room, three stories above Castro Street between 18th and 19th – Faggot Central. They spend entire afternoons on the balcony, naked, young, hairy, with Alby at their core, the object of all desire.

Alby has two roommates of her own; they all moved here from a separatist land collective in Colorado. They live in a railroad flat near the original Levi Strauss factory in the Mission. She’s not going home a lot right now because her roommates, who are a couple, fight every day. Whatever they tell you they are fighting about, what’s really up is monogamy. They agreed to monogamy back in Colorado, when the number of out women in their small town was a list you could put on paper, and besides, they were newly in love. Two years later in Lesbos by the Bay, they are reduced to making three-month fidelity contracts. Another contract is coming due.

Jude, her middle class roommate, keeps saying Okay, let’s GO for it, let’s have three months of NON-monogamy. Lee, her working class roommate, is itching to cut loose, even bought a black leather jacket although she’s too pale to look good in it. What’s stopping her is: the idea of someone else being with Jude makes her flat-out crazy. She’s trying to figure out a way to have her cake but keep Jude on bread and water. This week her plan was based on class, how Jude’s privilege should keep her at home working on “issues” while Lee gets to experiment with the notion of “plenty”. When Lee runs this theory by Alby, Alby just busts out laughing. Since Alby has the impeccable credentials of having been raised poor, Lee knows it’s back to the old drawing board.

Alby and Randy are nonmonogamous but it’s not so hard for them because Alby mostly doesn’t care who Randy wanders off with, except for that weekend she spent with the woman from a CETA training, a new dyke from Oregon who wound up giving them both Trichomonas. That pissed Alby off. Alby’s slept with her ex twice and messed around with lots of women from their political group since she and Randy got together, and Randy is real relaxed about it all. But Randy draws a line about Alby going after women from Randy’s “inner circle”, says that’s incestuous. The inner circle includes Randy’s roommate Leo.

Leo wants to be a star, and is extroverted in the way that makes her friends thinks they’ve wandered into a rehearsal when they are with her. Her hair curls no matter how short she cuts it and is the color of strong red zinger tea. She earns enough to pay for rent, veggies, and tap lessons by working three nights a week as a stripper for the Mitchell Brothers. Alby doesn’t like to think about Leo stripping, and instead focuses on the hilarious skits Leo writes and performs at benefits. Leo saves the abandoned shopping lists she finds in carts at grocery stores and creates characters around these fragments of a stranger’s life. Alby’s favorite is the woman who sweeps into the store wearing a power suit and no smile. Her heels click rapidly against the floor like a playing card in a kid’s bicycle spoke. Her voice is impatient as she calls out the only items on her list: “TRIScuits………..”Summer’s Eve.”

Years later, Alby would think of Leo as a butch who cleaned up well. But in those days, well-bred political dykes didn’t let butch and femme have even a chair in the corner. By the time Alby will bring herself to admit that Leo’s bulging biceps and tucked in shirts are what really does it for her, Leo is living in Los Angeles and has made an appearance on the Gong Show. She was supposed to have been in some terrible Olivia Newton John movie, but Alby sat through it twice and never spotted Leo. She isn’t in the L.A. phone book. At least not under Schacter, her real name. Her stripper name was Leo Rising, but that isn’t listed, either.

Back to 1980. Randy’s other roommate, Francie, works part-time at a rock and bead store in the Haight. She plays the dulcimer and sings them stuff at night like “Blow the Candles Out” or “Matty Grove”. Alby keeps pestering her to change the pronouns in Matty Grove, it has the potential to be a great dyke ballad, but Francie refuses to butcher a classic, she says. Well, see if that attitude gets HER into Alby’s pants. Francie came right out with her attraction to Alby, asked if there was a chance. Alby used Randy’s no-inner-circle rule with a rueful grin, but softened it by giving Francie a back rub. Francie’s hair is too long for Alby anyhow.

Randy’s room has a bed that is bigger than a twin but smaller than a double. Alby complains about how little room there is to sleep in. Randy says Alby should be glad she has a bed at all – Randy is only 18 and barely getting by. She also says what’s the problem with spooning together all night?

One day Leo offers to swap her queen size bed with Randy. Leo is not simply between girlfriends, she never seems to have any – too busy working up her next gig. Alby is excited to sleep in Leo’s bed, even if Leo isn’t there. She and Randy have been bickering all day, and Randy is still a little huffy when they lay down, so Alby has to actually work at it to get Randy interested. Near the end, she keeps reminding herself to stay quiet, not because she worries about making noise but because she’s afraid she will say Leo’s name.

Alby hadn’t known Leo might have a crush back on her until last week. Francie let it slip, saying that nights when Alby isn’t there they sometimes all ask Randy questions about what Alby is like.


Uh-hmm, Francie giggles.

In the morning Alby joins the coffee drinkers on the balcony. Coffee is all there is in the house. It’s chilly out here but the direct sun on her skin makes it bearable. Her cheeks are taut with dried eau d’Randee. When Leo suggests they all walk down the block for breakfast, the first thing Alby does is wash her face.

Next she buttons up the striped men’s shirt she got at St. Vincent’s, then steps into her white painter overalls. Her underwear is more of a debit than an asset at this point. She turns her ragg wool socks inside out to get another day out of them and laces her Vasqs tight. Since they are only going a block, she’s leaving her pack here, and in it her 9 mm. The steel toes of her Vasqs will have to be enough. She stands at the head of the stairs, considering the breeze coming up from the street, and goes back for old faithful, the baggy red wool pullover that is necessary even on (especially on) summer mornings in San Fran.

Her hair is too short to do anything but stick straight out, a dark walnut plush.

They’re all on the street waiting for her. Randy puts an arm around Alby’s waist inside the overalls. Alby’s other side is free, and she’s hoping Leo will claim it, but Francie scoots under Alby’s arm first. Leo takes left wing, and they sweep down the sidewalk. At 5’7”, Alby is six inches taller than any of the rest, and in public with her gang she often feels like Dorothy in Munchkinland. A very rough-looking Dorothy, with Munchkins who eat cunt.

No one mentions where they are going because it’s a given. Since Alby first started coming over, it’s always the Bakery Café. A year ago, a German establishment fag bought it and promptly fired all the waiters. Full of righteous honor, Alby and the others walk past the picket line that lasts for a few weeks, making a production of eating elsewhere. Leo calls the new owner “Gunter” and does a goosestep for the fired waiters, who cheer.

But restaurants where women are welcome are hard to come by in the Castro. The new waiters at the Bakery Café never make them wait half an hour just to get a menu like the snotty boys in some of the more expensive places. And breakfast is still a deal here. There is bacon for Alby, blintzes for the New Yorkers, and their non-political friends go there. After the picket line dried up, they wait almost a month, then sneak in as a group one Sunday morning without discussion or eye contact.

Before they reach the doorway to the Bakery, even Alby’s sleepy gaze notices a difference on the block. There are poppy-colored flyers on the wall around Hibernia Bank, across the street at the Chinese food place, and wrapped around poles. The Red Queen must have been out last night.

Alby and her friends know who the Red Queen is: One of the boys Leo went to camp with in upstate New York, Naphtali, is roommates with a man named Arthur. Arthur is a bespectacled Socialist faggot who will never pass as a Clone. Periodically his disillusionment with a movement that had such promise a decade earlier spills out of him in brilliant scathing diatribes which he prints on scarlet paper and wheatpastes all over the Castro. He uses the name “Red Queen” to keep everybody guessing. Alby loves his acid view, his battered hope, his East Coast rhetoric.

They stop by the nearest flyer, stapled to a light pole. Leo and Francie crowd in, and Alby touches Leo’s shoulder with her fingertips. Leo doesn’t look around. She has to get close to the print to read it – she refuses to wear her glasses – so to make up for blocking their view, she reads it out loud in one of her funniest voices.

But this one isn’t funny. This one is about how gay men are getting sick, are coming down with an impossibly rare form of cancer. One boy has even died from it. The Red Queen says something is afoot. He thinks there is a government connection. He thinks maybe it’s something in Rush or Locker Room. His words are almost shrieking. Alby stays with him until near the end, when he claims this cancer is contagious – can be spread from man to man.

Leo turns to face them. Alby feels a chill at her core, but she won’t show it to Leo. Instead, she rolls her eyes. Everybody knows cancer is NOT contagious, it wouldn’t be CANCER if it were CONTAGIOUS. Leo grins uncertainly. Randy is holding on tight. The Red Queen has really lost it this time.

Leo says, But the poppers thing, that sounds possible.

Alby agrees, Yeah, who knows what the fuck’s in them. But not cancer. And if there were something really contagious, we’d have heard, even from our fucked up media.

Randy says, No, not cancer.

Alby adds, Besides which, they only OD on poppers because they’re obsessed with sex, what do they expect?

They walk on into the restaurant.

-© 2008 Maggie Jochild; written 4 June 1999

1 comment:

letsdance said...

wow. since I didn't know until 2001that I'm lesbian, I wasn't a part of that learning/history/loss.