Sunday, May 17, 2009


Painting by Julie Speed (Painting by Julie Speed)

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.

January 2020

Ginny spent three days in Painterland, taking a break one morning to have a session with Nancy. Myra had her own visit with Nancy the day after that, focusing on grief despite a bone-deep wish she could simply go numb and ignore the jagged hole in her life. Other people did, why can't I?

When Ginny finished this painting, it was a portrait of Carly sitting on the bench under the sycamore with Charlie leaning against his knee, the two of them laughing uproariously. There was a resemblance between them that looked almost like father and son.

“Hell and damn” said Myra when she saw it. “Gillam's going to want this one.”

“I want to give it to him” replied Ginny. “But – we need to talk about income.”

“I know we spent an excessive amount last year” said Myra. “And all of Chris's medical bills are not paid yet.”

“More to the point, my painting sales for the last half of the year were very sub-par. I've got that New York gallery wanting a show in May, and we can get by until then. But – most of what I've done lately are paintings of people we love. Or related ideas. And the truth is, all I see myself doing for a while is more of the same. I want to paint each of us, over and over.”

Myra gazed at her curiously. “Something about mortality?”

“I guess” said Ginny, looking irritated. She never liked to speculate about the motivation of her work until a canvas was done or a period of emphasis had passed. She seemed to think too much self-examination would jinx her muse.

“So...If you're not painting stuff we can sell, then our only income will be the pension we're drawing. Which, once the medical bills are paid, will be enough, Ginny.”

“Enough for us as usual, yes. But not enough to do our usual contribution to the Feminist Fund. Not enough to handle another medical emergency, god forbid. And the income you're producing is going directly into the grandchildren's education funds, which is a relief, of course.” Ginny trailed off.

“Well, are you wanting to sell some of the portraits, then?” asked Myra, trying to sound calm. The idea of losing the picture of Chris, or of the six friends, or any of Ginny's self-portraits, made her sick inside.

“I've got a few ideas” said Ginny. Myra took in a long breath. Ginny's ideas were like sun breaking through clouds. “One thing is, I need to publish a volume of my paintings, it's that time in my career. You know, I've got slides of over 500 canvases.”

Myra whistled. “You're a dynamo, Ginny Bates.”

“My agent thinks a book like that will actually increase demand for my work. Which might mean higher prices for what I do sell. I, we, could also invest in getting copies of paintings with that new laser technology, which recreates surface appearance, so if something has to be sold, we can have a duplicate to hang here that's almost like the real thing.”

“Nothing's like your real thing, Gin. But yeah, that's an option.”

“Also – I thought about putting an exclusion on portraits of family members we sell, that they only go to museums where they can be viewed by the public. Which means we can still go visit them from time to time. But only if whoever the portrait is of gives their okay, like you did with Hettie.” Ginny clearly wanted some kind of reassurance from Myra.

“We can talk about it as a family, Ginny. Have you discussed this with Allie?”

“Not yet. You first.”

“Well...If the choice is between some of those sales or not contributing to the Fund, I – too many people out there need the money in the Fund, Ginny. People are starving, I never forget that.” Myra began trying to think of ways she could cut back severely in their household budget – not their own food, she had to give her family organic produce and besides, supporting local farmers contributed to a greater good. And they hardly ever went clothes shopping. But she could stop ordering books, instead use the library even more --

“Myra, what's going on? Are you worrying about money?”

“Seems like that's what we're both doing” said Myra.

“No. Not worrying. Reassigning priorities, maybe. Look, I'll inventory what I have for possible sale and we'll go over that together, then with the family. We're still rich, Myra, by any historical comparison we're rich. We'll talk this out. You looked so hopeless there for a minute.”

Myra smiled tightly. “I'm going to start buying lottery tickets again, how's that sound?”

Ginny hugged her and said “What number will you use this time?”

“Ahh...I'll let each of the grandkids pick one number, and you can choose the last, okay?”

“Okay. Mine will be 34, then.”

“What happened when you were 34?” asked Myra.

“No, moron. That's our next anniversary.”

“Oh, right. What is that on the lesbian gift register, latex or Preparation H?” quipped Myra. But Ginny didn't laugh. She said “I need to go eat and lie down”, gave Myra a peck on the cheek, and headed down the stairs.

Two days later, Myra and Ginny had a couple's session with Nancy. Once they were settled on Nancy's chair and couch with tea, Nancy took Ginny's pulse beside her and said “Okay, what do you want to address today?”

Myra thought This bottomless well of grief. Boring as it is. But before she could speak, Ginny said “Sex. As it exists, or rather, doesn't exist in our relationship.”

“I don't think it's fair to say it doesn't exist” Myra protested.

“It doesn't as we once defined it. There's been a sea change and from my perspective the tide is continuing to go out” said Ginny, only a faint hint of bitterness in her tone.

“Do you make love now?” asked Nancy.

“No” said Ginny as Myra said “Yes”. Nancy raised her eyebrows, and Myra jumped into the gap. “I mean, we haven't in a while, but we've not decided to stop lovemaking. I've simply had – other things to deal with.” Myra let her own voice sound aggrieved.

“As have I, Myra” said Ginny, refusing to take the bait. “And whether it's a decision or not, the fact is, the last time we made love was the night before Chris's birthday. Are you saying you've not had any sexual desire come up the past two months? Or that other demands have superseded desire?”

“I – well, no, it hasn't really come up, and yes, if it had – I wouldn't have known how to make room for it” said Myra.

Nancy asked Ginny quietly “What about you and your desire?”

“I've been consumed with mortality questions, yes. But Myra and I were doing it together, in extreme intimacy. Which was expressed in every way we could manage, except sexually” said Ginny. “I found that exception glaring. To be so close and yet not even kissing much after a while – I have a hard time believing it was accidental. Especially -- “

Nancy waited a few seconds before nudging Ginny.

“Especially when Myra was – kissing Chris. However you defined it internally, Myra, I don't believe it was devoid of desire for you. So, you removed it from our relationship but not from your life. That's what it looks like to me.”

“You said it was okay with you, Ginny, and afterward, you said you were glad for us” began Myra, her voice rising in anger.

“I said it and I meant it. But that doesn't mean we never talk about it, never deal with it. Especially since – well, there was a replacement that occurred. I think, in fact, I've been extremely reasonable about it all” said Ginny.

“I fucking did not replace you with Chris” said Myra, trying to control her outrage. “I'm still here. And it's not just because she died.”

“You are here in every way except as my lover” said Ginny. “You have not allowed me to make love to you for over a year now. You say you're working on it, but I see no evidence of it.”

“Maybe you just have to take my word for it, or is trust out of the question because I kissed somebody else?” said Myra, wanting to pick a fight.

“I have taken your word for it. What I'm saying now is that I need a change. I need for the change that has occurred between us to be reflected in how we relate” said Ginny.

Myra's anger suddenly sidelined into fear. “What kind of change are you talking about?”

“You can continue to do whatever you need to do for yourself. But I don't feel okay about us having this inequality in our intimacy. It feels heterosexual to me, or at times S/M-y. Which is not a choice I've made to explore with regard to my sexual expression. So as long as you can't let me touch you sexually, then I don't want you to touch me that way, either.”

Myra gaped at Ginny. She was trying to find evidence of Ginny gaming her, but she could tell Ginny was deadly earnest. And sad about it, she looked really sad.

There was a long silence. Nancy stood and came to sit on the arm of Myra's chair, putting her fingers on Myra's pulse. “You seem shocked” she remarked.

“I fucking am” said Myra. “I don't know where this came from.”

“I told you we needed to bring this to Nancy” said Ginny. “I mentioned how long it had been, and -- “

“So, what, you're not going to kiss me any more?” demanded Myra.

“I'd rather not kiss with erotic content” said Ginny.

“How am I supposed to know what that limit is for you? Just slam into it and have you pull away from me? That sucks, Ginny.”

“I know what it's like to have your lover pull away from you” said Ginny mildly. “I don't mean to hurt you.”

“If you honestly think this is going to make me move any faster on what I'm trying to fix inside -- “ began Myra.

“I'm not trying to do anything about your work” interrupted Ginny. “Your work is your work. I'm simply telling you a limit I've reached.”

“This feels completely unfair” said Myra, her voice breaking. Nancy began murmuring as she retrieved a small bottle of oil to rub a few drops on Myra's forehead. She spent the rest of their session going back and forth between them, clearing blockages and retesting muscles. By the end, Myra felt resigned. As if I didn't have enough gaping bleeding holes in my life she thought, walking out to the car. She put the key in the ignition, then stopped and looked at Ginny.

“Is this going to leach out into other ways we're close?” she asked.

“I hope to god not” said Ginny. “We'll work on it if it does. At least, I will, I promise you. I want you at the center of my life, always.”

“What are we going to tell our family?” said Myra.

Ginny looked bemused. “I'm not in the habit of discussing our sex life with anybody except occasionally Edwina or Sima. I don't think it will come up at dinner, do you?”

“They'll be able to tell a difference” predicted Myra. “Eventually.”

“I honestly don't see how. We're all walking raw earth these days, anyhow” said Ginny.

Myra still didn't start the car. After another long minute, she said “I did not desire Chris. Not the way I define desire, which is all tangled up with you and your body.”

“All right” said Ginny. Myra didn't think Ginny believed her, however. She felt suddenly tender-hearted toward Ginny, and reached out to take her hand. Ginny squeezed her fingers gladly.

“Let's not go home for lunch” said Myra. “Let's grab take-out bento boxes and eat on the go, walking from gallery to gallery on Broadway.”

“It's raining” pointed out Ginny, but her eyes were gleaming.

“We'll share an umbrella” said Myra, starting the car.

“Maybe there'll be a Julie Speed painting for sale” said Ginny. She'd been looking for years.

“Only, none of those creepy cardinals” said Myra, a standing joke between them. They laughed and a little of the tension drained out of the cab. Myra had to let go of Ginny's hand to shift gears.

A couple of days later, Carly and Frances were full of plans to build an ironwork canopy over the stairs leading up to Carly and Eric's apartment, behind the restaurant. Eric grew lilies in massive ceramic pots, one on each step, but two had been stolen in the last few months.

“We can have a locking gate at the bottom of the stairs that opens with a buzzer inside our apartment” said Carly. “And Eric could hang planter boxes on the outside of the grill to train vines up the sides. There'll be a roof up to and over the first landing, and we thought we could close that in as a hang-out spot on nice days for Dink and Usagi.”

“With a flat planter of bunny greens there on the landing for them” said Eric, looking at Ginny. “It won't be the paradise your yard is, but it'll do when we don't have time to bring them over.”

“Anyhow” said Frances, turning to Sima. “We were hoping you'd design the metalwork pattern.”

“Bunnies and lilies would be wonderfully apt” said Carly. “Only we're paying for this, Frances, not you. Don't take her money, Sima.”

“I'm not sure I should take anyone's money” said Sima. “I mean, I can do some design, but I don't do large pieces like this, that's Annie Gagliardi's bailiwick.”

“Yeah, we want her to do it with you” said Margie. “And that's another thing, we're not using our garage except the rafters area for storage. We want you to set up a jewelry studio out there, and we wondered if Annie would like to have some of the space, too. I know she's got a rented studio, but she complains about the drive. This would be ten minutes from where she lives now, and she could eat with us more, and we'd only ask her to pay the insurance increase to cover possible fire damage or whatever, no rent, of course. Our place is zoned commercial, and we're an artist hot zone around here.”

Sima's face slid into excitement. “I would adore having a work space away from where I live, I've never had that. And sharing it with Annie would be catalytic, I think. Shall I talk to her, or do you want to bring it to her?”

“You do it” said Margie. “Tell her to call me or Frances with any questions. Walk me home tonight and you can look at the garage for yourself.”

The following day Ginny started another painting. Myra sat up late at her desk, rewriting an early chapter of the creek girl book. Strong emotion during certain passages kept making her dizzy. She realized she was in love with the grown-up creek girl, a kind of in love that was different from how she usually felt about characters based on her. Because she's not just me any more thought Myra. She's got Chris in her now.

A little after 1:00, she noticed the time and pushed herself back from the keyboard. Two of her vertebrae flared into hot pain. Her mouth felt dry. She went to the bathroom, emptying an overfull bladder, then bent to the sink and drank cold water for a long minute. She returned to her computer and turned it off, listening for any sound of Ginny.

When she went around the corner, she found Ginny asleep on her daybed under her paint-stained blanket, Franklin at her feet. All the lights in that part of the house were off. Myra looked at Ginny, feeling a troubling ambivalence about doing what it took for them to sleep together. If you don't want to kiss me, why bother she thought. She turned off the light in her study and walked down the hall in darkness, crawling into the cold bed alone.

She didn't have trouble going to sleep because her thoughts drifted back to the chapter she'd been working on. When she felt Ginny's hand on her shoulder, she resisted opening her eyes – she didn't want to answer any questions about why she'd gone to bed alone. But Ginny was saying “Wake up, there's a problem, I need your help.”

“What's wrong?” said Myra, sitting up with an instant headache. The light outside was still very early morning.

“The heater in the fish pond broke, and it went down to freezing last night. We have to keep them from all dying” said Ginny, heading out the door.

Myra dressed quickly and joined Ginny at the side of the pond. “It won't go back on, no matter what I do” said Ginny, dropping the heater back into the water.

“Do you have a back-up?”

“No. And the store that sells them won't be open for another two hours at least” said Ginny. “The thermometer is at the point where they'll start croaking. I called Kip but she didn't answer, I left a message.”

“Shall I get Sima?” asked Myra.

“What for? What the fuck are we going to do, catch every one of them and put them – where?” Ginny's voice was high and strained.

“Okay, let's think. How else could we heat up the water fast? Maybe covering the surface with something like a space blanket, and then shining heat lamps on it?”

“We only have one heat lamp” said Ginny. “The water at the bottom is probably still okay, but the upper half of the pond is chilled from the night air, it must have broken yesterday and I didn't notice it. Goddammit, maybe I should just scoop out the cold water in buckets and replace it – wait, that's it!” She ran toward the side of the house and began unscrewing a garden hose from the faucet.

“What, Ginny?”

“Get the other hose from the shed, Myra” yelled Ginny. When Myra returned to the pond, Ginny was no longer in sight. The hose she'd had lay with one end in the pond, the other end trailing into the house through the back door standing open.

Myra started for the house but Ginny emerged, trotting. She pulled the hose from the water and revealed a steady stream which caused steam when it hit the frigid morning air.

“Where did you hook it up?” said Myra.

“The laundry sink in the storage room, it's got a threaded faucet. Okay, I'll leave this at the shallow end here. You take that other hose to the deep end and get a siphon started, to drain out the excess. Lay the end under one of the trees or a flower bed” said Ginny.

“Start a siphon? I'm not sure how -- “

Ginny snatched the hose from Myra in exasperation and ran to a spot by the turned-off waterfall. She set one end in the water, uncoiled hose until she reached the other end, and put it in her mouth, giving a huge suck. Myra was horrified, and about to protest when she saw Ginny raising the end back to her mouth, but then a gush of water came out. Ginny crowed and dragged the hose to a discharge zone.

“Go bring me the water testing kit and all the dechlorinating tablets we have for the aquarium” Ginny said. She didn't have on a hat or gloves, but her face looked sweaty.

Myra obeyed, setting a kettle full of water on the stove and grabbing Ginny's gloves before returning. Ginny immediately filled a beaker with water and began testing it. Myra said “I'll make us something to eat, unless you need me.” When Ginny didn't answer, Myra went inside.

As she was scrambling eggs, Sima shambled into the kitchen. “Why is there a hose in the hall? And the back door is open.” she asked.

“Pond emergency. Heater broke. Ginny's replacing the water with hot from our inside system” said Myra succinctly.

“Does she need help?” asked Sima.

“If she does, she'll bark out orders” said Myra crabbily. Sima looked at her with raised eyebrows, but said nothing as she pulled toast out to butter. When breakfast was ready, Myra asked Sima to carry a plate and thermos out to Ginny, adding “She needs a hat, too, if she's going to stay out there obsessively monitoring chlorine.”

Sima stood with Ginny while she ate, holding her mug for her. Myra turned her back to the glass wall and ate extra bacon. Before she was done, the front doorbell rang.

“Kip to the fucking rescue” she said out loud. Kip declined an offer of tea and rushed to the pond, where Myra heard her after a minute say “Way to go, Ginny, a brilliant idea!” Sima came back in, pushing the back door as far closed as it would go, and sat down to eat as Myra was finishing.

“Two of the danios floated up to the top already” said Sima. “Ginny said they were juveniles, that probably the smaller fish will be the first to go.”

“They'll live on in the compost pile” said Myra brutally. She stacked her dishes in the sink and went to the elevator. She shut her bedroom door, closed the blinds tight, and pulled off only her socks before lying down under the comforter again. Where are you at this moment, Chris she whispered into the reclaimed dark. She cried for a few minutes before dropping back into jumbled sleep.

© 2009 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

Jesse Wendel said...

Brutal stuff.

GREAT writing. *hugs*