L. L. Babb
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL YOUR LIFE?
In a minivan borrowed from Connie’s sister, Connie and Lori were on their way to the town of Locke. Connie drove, keeping her eyes straight ahead. So far there had been no road signs for Locke. On the first leg of the trip, Connie had jabbed at the radio buttons, changing the stations—music, talk, static, music—then, somewhere around Antioch, she seemed to reach a detente with the ominous murmur of NPR. Lori’s hearing was not the best, but she hesitated to ask Connie to turn up the volume. The two-lane road crossed back and forth over the river, over drawbridges and through the Sacramento delta sloughs. The morning turned sunny, the sky above them was a giant, blue bowl tinged gray at the horizons with the dissipating fog, and although there was a considerable amount of traffic, they were making good time.
This trip was Connie’s idea, Locke being the location of one of her favorite restaurants “in the world.” Lori had been to Locke once, years earlier, with her husband, Frank, before he ran off with his coworker. Now Lori was single again at sixty years old, and she had a roommate, Connie, all within six months.
Something rather surprising had transpired between Connie and Lori the night before. Somehow they kissed. Lori had learned that Connie was gay several weeks after they’d become roommates. Now Lori wondered if she might be gay, although this morning she wondered if it was just a phase she was going to go through, like the time she thought she could paint portraits or learn scuba diving.
If she was gay, Lori thought this trip might be their first official public appearance as a couple, though Locke was hardly more than a ghost town. If Lori remembered right, most of the buildings lining the two or three short streets were sagging and boarded up. There were a few art galleries, an antique shop, and Connie’s ultimate destination. “The restaurant is all the way in the back of a bar,” Connie had told Lori when she suggested the road trip. “It’s a hoot. There’s no menus or anything, the waitress just comes up to you and asks, ‘How do you want your steak?’”
In the days leading up to the weekend, the whole adventure had seemed like the kind of thing two women who were new friends and roommates might do together. There was a lot of planning for the three-hour trip, which began with the BART train from San Francisco to the suburbs to pick up the minivan from Connie’s little sister. Connie’s sister seemed to assume that Lori and Connie were in a relationship. Lori had lived her entire life without someone thinking she was gay, and now it was as though the kiss the night before had left a mark on her for everyone to see. As the sister handed the keys over, she requested that only Connie drive the minivan, “for insurance reasons,” and that they be careful not to leave any personal items in the van when they brought it back, “because of the children.” Lori wondered if the sister thought that she and Connie would be returning from the day trip with the back seats full of vibrators and strap-on dildos and pornography.
Lori tried to catch Connie’s eye and smile, but it seemed that Connie was in one of her moods. Sometimes Connie needed lots of quiet and coffee in the morning.
Connie’s sister stood in the driveway watching as they backed out, her arms folded across her chest. She wore such a thin dress. Lori didn’t know any women who wore dresses on a Saturday except her mother, God rest her soul. Thinking about her mother made Lori feel a tight inward cringe. Her mother would have been appalled if Lori turned out to be gay. Her mother would roll over in her grave except, of course, her mother had been cremated. What would be the cremated equivalent of rolling over in her grave? Lori imagined her mother’s ashes, far-flung into the ocean, quivering at the notion that she might have a gay daughter. Not in my family, those ashes would say. Or maybe her ashes had been consumed by a fish, then eaten by a bigger fish, then pulled out of the sea and were right now being eaten by a stranger dining in a restaurant. She could see some heavyset man forking a bite of fish with her mother buried in it into his mouth, and then the essence of her mother was assimilated into his bloodstream. Was that bit of her mother flipping over as well?
They passed a front yard where someone had built a ten-foot-tall Christmas tree made entirely of green wine bottles, stacked and glinting in the sun. It must have taken years to erect what was now a permanent holiday decoration. The whole thing looked like a lot of work—the assembling, the maintenance, the drinking.
“Will you look at that,” Lori said, turning her head as they zoomed past. Connie grunted. Frank, Lori’s ex-husband, had not been a morning person either. Perhaps she and Connie could landscape their own yard with recycling, though Lori wasn’t creative that way. She was a paint-by-numbers kind of person—not capable of designing anything but pretty good at following directions to recreate what someone else had dreamed up. They could make something out of Amazon boxes. Robots, maybe. They could erect cardboard robots all over the front lawn like snowmen.
Lori was pretty sure the neighbors would have something to say about that. Lori and Connie lived in the house that Lori once shared with her husband and where she had raised her daughter. She’d have to pay the high school boy she employed more to mow around robots.
They turned a corner and came upon a stop sign flashing red, warning bells ringing, a gate, and beyond that another drawbridge, this one as if the erector-set structure of the bridge had simply turned ninety degrees. A boat glided past, two tan women in bikinis and sunglasses preening on the bow. A suave fellow guiding the boat past the bridge pulled on a horn and the women squealed. Lori quickly looked at her lap. Was Connie watching those girls? If Lori turned out to be gay, would she start to ogle girls like her husband used to? Did lesbians ogle?
Lori had so many questions. She hoped Connie would snap out of her mood soon.
The bridge clanged back into place, the gate rattled to the right, and Connie eased the van forward. The tires slid queasily over the grates in the road.
The kiss. Or, more accurately stated, the make-out session. Lori tried to work through the details of how they’d gone from sitting on the couch talking about the last episode of Dancing with the Stars to what happened. There was wine, of course, a tepid red, but there was always wine on Friday nights. It was their private happy hour, a tradition they’d started soon after Connie had moved in. Was everything going to be different now? Lori liked having Connie as a roommate. She reminded Lori of those Renaissance paintings of Joan of Arc, steely-eyed and determined. Tall. The kind of woman who could pull off carrying a broadsword into a room but with a softness around the eyes. Lori had never really known anyone who was gay.
She didn’t want to stay in the house alone, but she couldn’t bring herself to sell. She had moved into her daughter’s old room, packed her married life into the master bedroom, and locked the door. She went in there every month or so to dust and vacuum or sometimes to just sit on the bed. The room was crowded with artifacts of her previous life—the wedding pictures where she and her husband looked like shocked children, the collection of owl figurines she’d received for birthdays and Christmas and Mother’s Day year after year. So many owl figurines. Her nicest dresses, hanging in the closet, collected a gray film on the shoulders. Her daughter’s stuffed animals and carefully folded baby clothes filled the bureau drawers.
Her daughter. Lori would have to come out to her daughter. There was an excruciating thought. Her daughter, who knew everything at twenty-five, who already thought her mother was a silly woman. Well, this would confirm it. Then her daughter would tell her father, even though Lori would swear her to secrecy, and her ex-husband would tell his new girlfriend. Lori felt another cringe.
What happened? The wine had made Lori weepy, Connie had laid a hand on Lori’s knee, Lori put her head on Connie’s shoulder, then somehow their lips connected and there was that first, tentative kiss, which Lori responded to with more enthusiasm than either of them expected. A lot more enthusiasm. She’d opened her mouth for God’s sake. Was this how it started? She knew people didn’t choose to be gay. Had something been lying in wait inside her all these years, a sleeping beauty waiting for another princess’s kiss?
“Finally,” Connie said, pointing to a sign. “Locke, four miles.”
The river had been playing hide-and-seek all morning, opening up in full view in front of them, a glittering brown jewel, before disappearing behind levees. Near the water, the air smelled like rotting garbage and mud, but now, as they moved away from the river, there was the smell of mown fields. Brilliant green stalks of a tall crop flew past in a blur on the right.
Connie eased the minivan down a one-way street and parallel parked effortlessly. Her lesbian superpower. Perhaps now Lori would be able to parallel park as well.
They clomped down the narrow street over the old, wooden sidewalks, Lori following a few feet behind Connie. Just like when she was married, she thought. Connie’s broad shoulders could be interchangeable with Lori’s ex-husband’s. Lori wondered if she and Connie would ever be the kind of couple to hold hands in public, oblivious to other people’s stares.
Of course first they needed to discuss if the kiss last night was the beginning of something.
In the back of her mind, Lori unpacked an incident from middle school, a memory shoved in a shoebox along with the embarrassing crush she’d had on her elderly art teacher and the too-short, blue gym romper with her last name written in black marker across her back. Buried under everything was that time she and Del Buchanan had stepped into a closet for “Seven Minutes of Heaven” during her first boy/girl party. As soon as the door had closed, Del shoved one hand down the front of her jeans and the other up under her shirt. Lori liked Del. He was a funny-looking boy with a lazy eye, a blonde Afro, and Birkenstocks. The popular kids at school called him Garfunkel and let him hang around with their crowd sometimes, like a court jester. He was a visiting celebrity to Lori’s crowd of gawky adolescents. At the party, when someone yanked the door back open after only thirty seconds, Del’s hands were still in the vicinity of where they had started, and Lori emerged, clothes askew, blinking into the light. Del draped his arm around her shoulders the rest of the night, as if he was claiming ownership, and then never acknowledged her existence again after that. The rumor around school was he had called their half-minute of heaven in the closet a “mercy grope.”
Perhaps the kiss last night had been some sort of charity on Connie’s part.
Now Connie pushed through a pair of Wild West saloon doors. The bar was just as Connie had described—the yeasty smell of mildew and despair hit Lori as soon as she stepped inside. A neon jukebox glowed and blinked in the corner. Hundreds of blackened dollar bills and several pairs of what looked like dingy panties were stuck to the ceiling. How did they get up there? Two pale men at the bar, bent larvae-like over their drinks, didn’t look up as she stood there blinking.
In the back, meagerly lit by a wan fluorescent light, were half a dozen picnic tables, the kind where the benches attached to the tables with metal clamps. Were the owners worried that customers would walk out with the benches? The red-and-white checked tablecloths that Connie had rhapsodized about were just thin sheets of patterned plastic stapled to the tables. A kitchen area was partially visible behind a half wall in the back of the room. All the tables were occupied with tourists in shorts and visors, middle-aged gray men, and brightly dressed grandmothers. High up on the walls were the mounted heads of every antlered animal Lori had ever seen: deer, various types of antelope, a moose, a rabbit. A thin woman carrying a line of plates on one tattooed arm swooped past them, saying, “Sit anywhere.”
“Isn’t this great?” Connie said, the most animated she’d been all morning.
They had to share a table with another couple. Connie and Lori sat at the far end, twisting awkwardly to get their legs under. Their tablemates were silent—the man sawing at his steak, the woman watching him with a hostage-like expression. The plastic tablecloth was grimy. The knife protruding from the peanut butter jar looked sticky.
They ordered their steaks. The waitress returned instantly with two slabs of T-bones that barely fit on the plates, a stack of plain white bread, and two Budweisers. No glasses.
Lori’s ex would be in heaven here. This was the kind of place he would have been thrilled to go to. When they were married, Lori always did what Frank wanted to do. Now he was off trying to please someone else. Her daughter had told her that the new girlfriend made him go to the ballet. A ballet! This was the same man who refused to go to a movie with her if he thought the title was too “girly.” Now he was going to ballets, and she was here, surrounded by dusty dead animals, drinking beer from a bottle.
She had spent her entire life going with the flow, like a cork bobbing along in a stream. She could trace each step along the path that brought her here, bouncing from one thing to another, buffeted along by what other people wanted. Here she was at twelve years old, pulling weeds in the front yard for a penny apiece, when the neighbor, Dr. March, drove by. He lowered his car window to ask if she was available on Saturday nights to babysit his two boys. After high school graduation she morphed into Dr. March’s receptionist at his general practice. Soon there was this patient, her future husband, staring at her each time he came in for his yearly physical. Their brief courtship, their wedding, her father giving her away in the church like he was passing the baton in a relay race, her mother nodding her approval—in retrospect it all seemed like someone else’s idea that she followed along without thinking. Even her daughter just fell into her life, just like that; they hadn’t even been trying and Lori was pregnant. Frank said one child was enough, though she thought two would be better, but Frank got a vasectomy. When Dr. March retired, he handed her over to the doctor who took over his practice, Frank fell in love with someone else, and she was now, perhaps, a lesbian.
Lori had no control over her own life.
Lori looked up at Connie, who was diligently cutting her steak into bite-size pieces. Connie’s lips were pursed with concentration. The desire that had swept through Lori last night seemed as if it had happened to someone else. How much was a person expected to just accept in life? Because this was too much. She would not now be gay.
Connie, as if aware Lori was about to speak, stopped working on her steak and set her knife, then her fork down beside her plate. She glanced over at the other couple and said, sighing, “You’re not eating.”
This is going to break her heart, Lori thought.
Connie sighed again. “Look,” she began, “I’m really sorry about last night. Things got a little out of hand. I’ve got be honest. I’m just not into you that way.”
Lori blinked several times.
“Oh God,” Connie said, glancing over at their tablemates, who were listening intently while trying to look as if they weren’t. The man’s face was horizontal with his plate and just inches above it, like he was trying to read the fine print on a contract. The woman stared pointedly at a handwritten sign on the wall that said No Outside Food, but she had reached up and tucked a strand of hair around her left ear. Connie said, “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been through this too many times to fall for it again.”
Fall for what? And how was Lori looking at her? “I…I don’t know what—” she began.
“If you want to ‘experiment,’ you’re going to have to find someone else. I’m not going to be your lesbian Sherpa,” Connie hissed, leaning forward, “I’m way too old for that shit.”
Why, Connie was angry. Had she waited all morning until they were in a restaurant full of people? Had Connie thought she would fall apart? Afraid Lori would make a scene?
“I really like you. I do,” Connie continued, “but I do not appreciate you coming on to me like that.”
Lori started, “No, now wait a sec…” but for the life of her she couldn’t find the next word to say. All at once she felt old and tired and incurably stupid.
“I’ve got to pee,” Connie said, standing up. “Pull yourself together. It’s a long trip back.”
Connie lifted her legs out from under the table and over the bench, then headed toward the restrooms without looking back.
Lori opened her bag, pulled out a compact, and checked her face. The mirror only showed the small, round center of herself—a sliver of forehead, her graying eyebrows, two faded blue eyes in their pouches of wrinkles, the bridge of her nose. She looked shocked, like she’d just lived through something life-changing. Now that all the excitement was over, the couple who had been listening pulled themselves up out of the scaffolding of the picnic table.
The waitress came over and looked pointedly at Connie’s plate.
“Is your girlfriend finished?” she asked.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Lori answered.
The wistfulness in her own voice startled her. It was as if she’d lost her future, even though she wasn’t even sure it was a future she wanted. She felt tears well up and then spill over onto her cheeks. She was crying.
“Aw, honey,” the waitress said, sitting down backward at the end of the bench and curling her tattooed arm around Lori’s neck.
Her touch made Lori cry harder. She sobbed in a sort of gasping, gulping way.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. You’re going to be okay,” the waitress said.
That kiss. The thing was no one had ever kissed Lori that way. It was the kind of kiss the characters experience at the end of every girly movie. It was so kind and sensual and slow, the way she had always thought a kiss should be but never was. It was a kiss that hadn’t asked anything of her but simply gave, touching all the womanly parts of her, reaching in and pulling at her shrunken ovaries and her useless uterus and her still gorgeous breasts that hadn’t seen the light of day in forever. That kiss had touched her heart. Her soul.
Lori dropped her head and let her body slump against the waitress. Her nose burrowed into the crook of the woman’s elbow—she smelled of kitchen grease and antiseptic soap. It felt so good to be held like this. The waitress patted Lori’s back once, twice, then settled on rubbing up and down with an open palm. Lori thought she could sit like that forever, just waiting for someone to tell her what to do next.
L.L. Babb lives in Forestville, CA with her husband, two cats, and a Doodle named Punky. She has been a teacher for the Writers Studio San Francisco and online since 2008. Her work has appeared in West Marin Review, The MacGuffin, Rosebud, and many other literary journals. She was voted first in the Sixfold fiction Winter 2019 competition. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.