Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I'm back on line. Living without internet access for FIVE DAYS was, well, harrowing.

Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

April - May 2013

Nika stayed for dinner one night when Edwina was there, Allie having returned to another month of book tour. After they began eating, Nika said "I have some news. Thanks to Dr. Coy's -- I mean, Edwina's suggestion and intervention, I'd guess, I'm being allowed to pursue a double doctorate simultaneously instead of one. But it would affect my ability to work for you, starting next semester."

"Wow" said Myra. "Two Ph.D.s at once?"

"It'll make her doubly hirable wherever she wants to go" said Edwina. "She's brilliant, as you know."

"I do know. I'm sorry, Nika, I'm terrible at academese, I know the thesis you've been working on is a women's studies/linguistics amalgam about the evolving rhetoric of lesbian-feminism in the 70s, is that close enough?"

"Yeah" grinned Nika.

"So what's the second?"

"A comparison of Nez Perce vocabulary, grammar and gender-based word construction from earliest recorded sources to current usage" said Nika. "Chris offered to include me in her project."

"Hot diggity!" said Myra. "You'd be doing research for her, too?"

"Well, if you wouldn't feel slighted" said Nika.

"Slighted? Hell, I'll pay your salary for those hours as well" said Myra. "But can you really handle a double load?"

"It will add a year on to my program, which means an additional scholarship request. Doct -- I mean, Edwina is sure I can get it. And I'm a little ahead on the actual writing. Housesitting here helps me focus, I get a lot more done between bouts of swimming and hottubbing" Nika said with an even wider grin.

"You're welcome here any time" said Ginny. "And in particular, we're going to be making five trips between now and the third week in May, so you're likely to be more or less living here. Now that spring is arriving, it's going to mean adding on gardening to your housesitting chores -- mostly watering, weeding, and some harvesting."

"I'll come over and help" said Edwina, "especially with the harvesting -- and eating what can't be preserved until they get here." She and Nika smacked their lips.

The following Monday, Myra and Ginny got on Amtrak with 30-day rail passes and went first through Olympia for an overnight visit, two days in Portland, and then a sleeper cabin to Los Angeles. Five days and one painting later, they went to Tempe, Arizona, again in a sleeper, and spent three days there. Ginny used her time to sketch draft illustrations for Myra's book. From there, they rode to Austin and checked into a dyke-run hotel, where Ginny produced another painting and Myra had dinner each night with women she'd known decades earlier.

Because the train travel was turning out to be so much fun -- the rhythm in the sleeper car was especially seductive -- they used up a few more days riding the rails to Tallahassee, Florida, with a two-day stop in Atlanta to visit Claire and Leila. Myra rented a car and drove to Jacksonville, doing interviews there a couple of days before returning to the state archives in Tallahassee. Ginny produced two small canvases here.

They were running short on time and had to give up the train at this point. Ginny put her paintings in wet carriers, then had them professionally crated and shipped to Edwina. They caught a plane to NYC, where Myra haunted the Cornell lesbian and gay archives, Ginny visited galleries, and the fourth day they met up with Allie at the end of her book tour, for two more days shopping and sight-seeing before flying back to Seattle together.

For dinner on Saturday night, they'd gotten reservations to a controversial new restaurant called Level. It had been open a year, and was based on the premise that it would institute affirmative action upon its customers in a manner designed to level the imbalance which occurred in larger American culture. Customers were greeted by a seater who asked everyone to self-identify as male, female, or neither; white, person of color, or multiracial; working class, above working class, or mixed class . No judgments were rendered by the restaurant: Whatever you declared yourself to be, the staff accepted as truth.

However, upon declaration, you were given a wristband which stated in bold letters your identity for that evening. And upon being seated, you were handed a menu PDA device which the greeter had configured with your identity, one of 81 possible different configurations. When you read your particular menu, if you had stated you were a white male above working class level, you received one particular set of prices. If you were a working class woman of color, your menu's selections were priced at the lowest end of the scale. All other menu configurations fall in between and were linked to the percentage each group earned in U.S. society compared to one another. The restaurant promised that each year, as the new wage statistics were released by the Department of Labor, their menus would be recalculated to keep their prices "level".

In addition, the wait staff -- which was extremely diverse -- were extensively trained in the behavior each identity group being addressed by the restaurant policy tended to experience in public situations. These forms of treatment were also "leveled": Working women of color were treated with all the deference and solicitude usually experienced by wealthy white men, while the latter were treated with not quite rudeness, often ignored until everyone else had been served.

The restaurant opened in an expensive block of Manhattan, and an utter shitstorm immediately ensued. The wingnut right found itself uneasily wanting to demand ACLU action for "reverse" discrimination against white men of means. Various gender-wedded trans activists wrote heated blog posts about the fact that trans, as a category of oppression, was not given its own menu separate from gender bias against women. A couple of prominent feminist academics made fools of themselves by protesting the right to self-definition given to customers.

But the place was filled to capacity every night, and the wait staff were vocal about proclaiming that, in fact, women tipped as well or better than men. It became trendy for a few months to "cross-identify", to deliberately label yourself a category you were not so as to experience how another group was treated, and in many instances to pay as much as 50% more for this opportunity. And all threats of lawsuits, boycotts, and indignation faded away because of that brilliant initial process: Each customer self-identified. Complete autonomy could not logically be called oppressive.

The two women who created the restaurant were interviewed endlessly, on Good Morning America, in the Wall Street Journal, in a long New Yorker profile. One was from the Dominican Republic, the other from rural South Carolina. One was straight, one was not. They had met as scholarship students at Columbia and become best friends as the only women of color in a computer programming class. They went on to found a successful software company which made them solid millionaires, and after launching foundations to spend as much of their wealth as they could, one night over dinner in a place where their platinum American Express cards still left them treated shabbily by every member of the staff, their fury had sparked the idea for Level.

The cheapest menu was still a break-even cost. But those who were emotionally attached to the identity of man or white found it too uncomfortable to "slum it" more than once or twice. After six months, almost all the white people who ate at Level claimed whiteness, and this was even more pronounced among men, insuring a steady profit for the place. After a year, three-quarters of the clientele on any given evening would be women of color, who began referring to it among themselves as "LaVelle" and using it for all kinds of meetings. It was affordable, they were treated like valuable human beings, and the food was excellent. The wait staff were given hefty raises, the menu was upgraded to match that year's wage imbalances, and the owners resisted the call to franchise. One was enough to prove their point. They were creative women, they had other ideas in their hopper.

Myra, Ginny, and Allie had an absolute blast there. Ginny kept saying "Frances should study this place for ideas." Allie kept seeing women who reminded her of Edwina, but she said that was happening every place she went, she could hardly wait to get back home and resume her normal life again. She had been spending her solitary evenings in hotels working on her next book, with a working title of "The First Africans in America". She brought her sketchbook to dinner, to show her friends, and most of their discussion centered on her work.

For dessert, they had three choices -- the menu was small and focused -- of chocolate cake, peach pudding, or raspberry sorbet. They ordered one of each and shared. They returned to talking about the restaurant itself. Allie said "It's a little like the old 70's notion of a potluck, except with mens invited."

"And more meat options" said Myra. "Wait -- I didn't mean that the way it sounded..." But the other two were laughing hard.

Ginny said, "Well, potlucks are how Myra and I found each other. Best dating service ever, if you ask me. I don't know how young dykes are managing these days."

"Chris and I were talking on the phone last week about that potluck at my house where -- well, you got the news that Gil had died" said Allie. "The reason why she and Sima weren't there is because they were burned out, so they got drive-through tacos and went to see Mask instead."

"My god" said Myra.

"She still feels guilty about it" said Allie. "I mean, they drove us to the airport the next day, but she's always wished she'd been there right away."

"I don't remember them driving us" said Myra. "My memory for that whole time is so spotty. Except you right in front of my face, I remember that. And you at the funeral."

"I ached for months that I wasn't closer to you yet, that I couldn't be part of the grieving process with you" said Ginny. "I still feel like I missed out on something important."

Allie stared at her. "You was there, that night. You arms were around her while she cried, for at least an hour."

"Yeah, I know, but she didn't really register me, and she didn't call for months after that -- " said Ginny.

"She did register you. My god, don't you get it? That the reason why when she came up for air, when she was ready to start over, you was at the top of her list -- because she already knew how you'd be at the worst time of her life." Allie turned to Myra. "Why haven't you told her that?"

Myra was looking wide-eyed at Ginny. "I guess...I didn't know it myself. It was all subterranean."

Allie took the last crumb of chocolate as she said "You two idiots sometimes."

During their extended trip, Myra and Ginny had called Nancy every few days and had an over-the-phone session with her, laying a new foundation for their connection to one another. Nika was keeping up with the data Myra was downloading in her direction. Myra called Chris and/or Sima every few days for long chats, and Ginny was able to keep her breakfast dates with Cathy except when they were on the train and in a risky cell zone service area. The only relationship which seemed to grow distant was with their kids, all three of whom were consumed with final coursework. Myra often felt guilty about Carly not having them around to visit; from their e-mail exchanges, however, he seemed to be in good spirits and getting out for social events surprisingly often.

Margie was due to receive her Master's Degree on Monday, May 20th. The entire extended family had train and hotel reservations for the weekend before. Cathy flew in from Denver as a surprise, which moved Margie to tears -- but it was a very emotional weekend all round. Margie had a full-time rare document restoration job waiting on her, and she was justifiably proud of herself. She said they needed to save at least another year before starting the restaurant, and with a promotion at Simpatico in the wings for Frances, it was just as well, they thought.

Gillam, Jane, and Carly's commencement was not until ten days later, on May 29th. Patty and Thea's graduation gift to Carly was a trip for the three of them to Tokyo, leaving the day after graduation. Carly was beside himself: He had been fascinated by Japan since he was a little boy. He had somehow found time this last semester to study Japanese, and his proficiency already was impressive to Myra.

Gillam was nervous in his phone call to his mothers where he explained that after graduation, he and Jane wanted to spend a week alone "talking out our future". Myra said of course, she understood. All five of the kids and partners promised to be in Seattle for the weekend of Ginny and Myra's 28th anniversary -- definitely by shabbos on June 7. After they hung up from this call, Myra turned to Ginny and said "They already know what they want to do, Jane and Gillam. It's not about making decisions, it's about accepting job offers and hiring movers. Our anniversary present is going to be a bombshell piece of news."

Ginny pulled Myra onto the daybed and said "I'm afraid you're right. He's most secretive when he thinks he's going to hurt us."

"We'll still have one whizz-bang of a party, and at least you and I are in solid new territory" said Myra.

"Cathy's not going to make it back for the boys' graduations. Get this, she's going on a cruise with a few of her friends!" said Ginny.

"Oh, excellent" said Myra. "Remember when we went to the Galapagos?"

"Which part?" said Ginny. "Getting to sit with those ancient tortoises, or swim with iguanas, or -- perhaps the nights on board, in that small cabin?"

Myra grinned wickedly. "The tortoises, of course."

Before they had left in early April, Ginny had finished stripping her dry sink. Now she spent a day applying coats of stain, lightly sanding and cleaning between each coat. As it dried, she set out tomatoes and other plants she'd started. The next morning when Myra got up, Ginny was dressed and about to leave the house.

"Going back to that nursery to see if they've gotten in anything else unusual?" asked Myra.

"No, I'm hitting the thrift stores again, for another piece of furniture" said Ginny. "Listen, don't eat that leftover risotto yet, I have an idea for a salad with it."

"What piece of furniture? We're kinda full up here, Ginny."

"I don't know, whatever needs rescuing."

"I guess I don't know what redoing furniture means to you, then, if it's not to fill a need for the house" said Myra.

"In a way, it's reversing what I do as a painter. I take a blank object and turn it into something -- well, not exactly functional, but still substantial, by applying paint. With refinishing, I take off paint others have applied badly and restore an item of beauty. Actually, it's similar to what Margie's doing, also" said Ginny with a jolt of comprehension.

Myra wasn't completely awake when she mused "Maybe you should combine the two -- use a stripped piece of furniture as a canvas. Paint on a table-top or do a chair a la Ginny. I can imagine the outlandish creatures that'd crawl up the legs of a chair or peer out from the back support."

Ginny turned and stared at her. "You mean I don't have to stay faithful to the original grain of the wood, don't you? Or -- pieces which are too far gone to bring the grain back, I could prime and convert into a white blank. Or metal -- those wide aluminum dining chairs that so many eateries like these days." Her expression flooded with excitement. "Oh, Myra, I cannot believe I've never thought of this before!"

"Galleries will go apeshit to sell it" grinned Myra. "There goes your summer."

"Well, yours is going to be buried in writing, que no? I mean, don't you have all the pieces in hand to complete all three of your volumes?" said Ginny.

"I'm nervous about admitting it, but in fact, I think I do. Just as at least two of the kids start a new stage of independence -- we're going to be too busy to mope, aren't we?" said Myra.

"I hope if Gillam and Jane do 'breed', as Margie calls it, they wait a couple of years so we'll have time then visit them often. But we need some interim period to keep focusing on us, our lives as artists" said Ginny. "Do you think they're using condoms or the pill?"

"I don't actually want to know" said Myra. "I've never once in my life had to personally connect sex with pregnancy, and I like keeping it that way."

Ginny kissed her, whispering "my purebred pervert", then headed for the door, saying "I'm taking the Volvo, in case I need the roof rack."

"Remember to grab ropes from the carport cupboard" Myra called to her back. "And a tarp, it's raining a little."

As Ginny shut the carport door, the phone rang. It was Gillam, and after they talked for a minute, Myra put the phone down to go out front and catch Ginny, flagging her down on the street. She leaned on the door and said "Gillam's on the phone, asking to come Thursday morning before our anniversary, him and Jane. He says he wants to talk with us."

"This is it, then" said Ginny sadly.

"Yep." Myra lowered her mouth to kiss Ginny lightly.

"All right, tell him -- them -- to come on, I'll be glad to see them." She kissed Myra back and put the car in gear.

© 2008 Maggie Jochild.

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