P.S. You’re Mine
We were living in New York City then, in a small one-bedroom
apartment on 84th Street, half a block from Central
Park West. It was our fourth winter in the city, and we had
already established our own Christmas tradition. We’d wake up
around eight in the morning, walk to the Hungarian pastry shop
on 111th Street, have hot chocolate and thick
pastries, then walk back to our apartment to open presents. The
meager gifts would be scattered beneath a two-foot tree we had
purchased just days before from the Norwegian guys on the
sidewalk outside Gristede’s, one of those trees that comes
already nailed to the wooden X. After opening presents, we would
empty our stockings. My stocking always contained expensive
lipstick and nail polish in outrageous colors, a candy bar,
maybe an electric toothbrush or pair of socks. His always held a
new CD by some British pop band, a box of malted milk balls, and
a yo-yo or other toy I’d picked up at West Side Kids on
Christmas Eve. Each year, we both pretended to be surprised by
the contents of our stockings, then devoured our candy and made
love on the big living room rug in front of a space heater.
The pastries, the gifts, the exclamations of delight over the
predictable contents of our stockings, even the lovemaking—all
of these things were only a prelude to the real event of
Christmas Day. In the late morning we would walk through the
quiet streets, our boots sinking into the snow, our breath quick
and warm in the frozen air. Our destination was the movie
theater at Lincoln Plaza. As we walked, I anticipated the hot,
salty popcorn, the darkness and warmth of the crowded theater,
the secret thrill of being a couple, quiet and complete unto
ourselves, a pair of moviegoers among fellow moviegoers. To be
this on a day when so many folks were enduring big family
gatherings in dismal towns made me feel very sophisticated. To
have met this man, to have landed in New York City, to have
avoided the inevitable discomfort of a family Christmas in
Alabama—I was astonished by my own good luck. For a few hours I
could almost forget the nagging conviction I’d had for the past
few weeks that something wasn’t quite right. I could put out of
mind the little details that didn’t add up—the empty champagne
bottle I found stashed in the trunk of my husband’s car under a
blanket covered with grass stains, the frequency with which he
had begun to go into another room and shut the door when his
cell phone rang, the increasingly lengthy business trips.
I thought of my mother’s big house at the end of a cul-de-sac
in Mobile, how the air conditioner would be cranked up high so
she could roast marshmallows in the fireplace, how the wrapping
would hardly come off the presents before she and my father
started bickering. The night before, they would have gone to the
enormous white church on the interstate to see the Christmas
cantata and eat doughnuts in the fellowship hall. The night
would have ended with a drive through the grounds of the mental
hospital on the west side of town to see the living nativity.
The drive would have reminded them of the son they lost, my
brother, who hung himself from a light fixture at the age of
seventeen, and the rest of the evening would be spent in
silence. Every Christmas Eve for as long as I could remember, my
family had gone to see the holiday display at the mental
hospital, and even after my brother died there, my parents kept
going, as if by adhering to tradition they might forget the
unspeakable circumstances that tied us to that place.
We walked down Central Park West toward the theater. The
taxis looked almost benign against the snowy backdrop of the
park; they seemed to hover over the damp highway, their yellow
shells glistening like spaceships. Snow did that to New York
City, the silence and brightness of it made the city seem alien.
On days when the snow was new, one had the feeling of being not
in the city one had come to know, but in a parallel version of
the city, a slightly altered mirror image that existed in some
other universe. That is why we continued to live there, despite
the crowds and the crime and the absurdly high cost of
everything; living in New York was like living in many cities at
once, and on any given day you never knew which city you would
wake up in.
We turned left on Columbus, left on Broadway. By the time we
reached Lincoln Plaza, our toes felt numb in our boots, and our
faces were flushed from the cold. We purchased our tickets from
the somber woman at the little window and stepped onto the
outdoor escalator that would take us down to the theater. The
joke about Lincoln Plaza Cinema was that you could wait until
the movie came out on video and watch it on a bigger screen at
home. Every showing sold out, and the theater seemed to draw the
most aggressive moviegoers in the city, the type who would make
you move two seats over so they could sit exactly in the middle,
then fight you for the armrest. Still, I loved going there,
maybe because it was where we had seen our first movie together
in New York. Later we would discover the gorgeous Ziegfeld, the
quirky Quad, the rowdy Sony on 84th, and the tasteful
Paris; but Lincoln Plaza would always be special because we had
gone there on our first night in the city. We’d seen an obscure
Belgian movie, then stopped at Gray’s Papaya on our way home. It
was July, we were newlyweds, and the sidewalks were crowded with
patio restaurants and dog walkers and girls in their summer
dresses. We purchased two hot dogs and a papaya shake to share,
and we stood at the counter to eat, watching the chaos of the
street. Back at our building, we stumbled over boxes and
suitcases to get to the only clear space in the whole apartment,
the bed. The bed was crammed in next to the window, and we made
love to the rattling hum of the window-unit air conditioner
while condensation dripped onto the sheets. To this day, it is
my fondest memory of New York.
Just ahead of us on the escalator, a petite woman with an
expensive haircut and knee-high boots huddled in a woolen coat,
clutching a small blue handbag. She was a sort of Manhattan
everywoman, and I would have thought nothing of her had she not
lifted her hand to tuck her hair behind her ear, revealing a
tattoo on her right wrist. It wasn’t a particularly artistic
tattoo, and it wouldn’t have been startling were it not for the
fact that I had seen it before. The tattoo said p.s. The letters
were about two inches high, in an elaborate script.
I nudged my husband. "I think I know that woman," I
"You think you know everybody," he said. It was true. We
rarely went anywhere that I didn’t see someone who, at first
glance, looked like one of my colleagues at the enormous public
relations firm where I handled mid-level accounts. Usually, upon
closer inspection, it turned out to be a stranger. This time it
was different, though—the woman reminded me of someone from my
She turned her head and I finally got a good look at her
face. Yes, I did know her. Or had known her briefly, a long time
ago. I felt a chill go all through me, remembering my brother.
What on earth was this woman doing in New York? She certainly
had cleaned up well.
"Stop staring," my husband said, but it was too late.
"Do I know you?" the woman asked, leveling her green eyes on
"Sorry." I fumbled with my scarf to hide my embarrassment.
"You look very familiar."
"I get that a lot."
"You remind me of this woman—never mind. I’m sure it’s a
mistake." In truth I was sure it wasn’t a mistake, but it wasn’t
the sort of thing one casually mentioned on the escalator. I
recognized her from a religious youth rally I had attended in
Alabama twenty years before. Back then, she was gaunt and
aggressively sexy, decked out in tight red pants and hoop
earrings. The theme of the event was "Salvation Lasts a
Lifetime," and she had been the featured former prostitute—every
Baptist youth rally has one—who had forsaken her lurid life on
the streets for Christ. As one of the more zealous members of my
church’s youth group, I’d been rewarded a backstage pass and had
met her face to face on opening night, right after the pizza
bash. When I shook her hand, I had noticed the strange tattoo
and asked her what p.s. stood for. "My pimp forced me to get
that tattoo," she said. "Just to remind me I could never get
away from him. As in, p.s., you’re mine, bitch." I was startled
and thrilled by her language, ecstatic when she agreed to let me
interview her for my church’s newsletter. In truth, I had an
ulterior motive. The interview took place the following day at
the Tiny Diny, where over bacon and thick buttered biscuits I
told her about my brother, his struggle with homosexuality.
"You’ve come up from the bottom," I said. "Maybe you could
talk to him, tell him he doesn’t have to be gay, that Jesus can
save him from all that."
"Are you sure that’s what you want?" she asked, her earrings bobbing with each movement of her head. "Sometimes it’s
best to leave well enough alone."
It shames me now to think of what I said to her, but I
remember my words clearly. "How can you leave well enough alone
when someone desperately needs help?"
We reached the bottom of the escalator and stepped off. We
were forty-five minutes early for the movie, but the
ticket-holders’ line had already begun to form along a red
velvet rope. We filed in behind the woman, who was smiling now
and seemed keen to continue our conversation.
"Want popcorn?" my husband asked. I wondered how he managed
to maintain the day-to-day courtesy and affection, even as he
deceived me. Was it merely a habit he couldn’t break, or was it
an attempt to make me believe everything was okay? Perhaps it
was a genuine affection that he’d never lost, despite his new
"Yes," I said, "and something sweet." I did not know how long
I could play this game. For the time being, confronting him was
out of the question. As soon as I brought up the empty champagne
bottle, the secret phone calls, the increased frequency of his
business trips, we would have to discuss the issue and come up
with a solution. I would have to force him to choose; he would
expect nothing less of me. Because I had no way of knowing how
he would choose, I remained silent.
"And a Diet Coke?" he asked. I nodded.
I was glad to have him step away. We had met in our early
thirties, and there was so much we didn’t know about one
another’s pasts. "People don’t change that much," he had said a
few months before when I mentioned that I would have liked to
have known him as a child. "As you grow older you get smarter,
maybe fatter, you change your hair, possibly your politics, your
taste in music, but your essential character remains the same."
Maybe for most people that was true, but I felt no connection to
the girl I had been at ten, or even fifteen. She was shy,
overweight, and fanatical; I was outgoing, healthy, and
devoid of religious conviction. I was more than a little ashamed
of who I had been back then, ashamed of how sincerely convinced
I had been that half the people I knew were going to hell.
Ashamed of how easily I swallowed everything they fed me in
youth group—all that stuff about how gays were perverted and
Americans were the chosen people and my body belonged to God and
my future husband. If he had known me back then, surely he
wouldn’t have liked me.
"Did you place me yet?" the woman asked, opening her purse
and whisking out her lipstick case—a brown crocodile Chanel.
"Forget it," I said. "I was mistaken."
"Come on, say it." She seemed very amused by my discomfort.
"What was I—drug addict? Prostitute? Cancer survivor?"
"I’m sorry, I—"
"Look," she said, uncapping a very red tube of lipstick.
"Don’t sweat it. This happens to me all the time. I’m a
religious contractor." She held up a tiny mirror and applied the
lipstick in two deft strokes.
"You know, religious contractor. I go to spiritual gatherings
and talk about how my life has been changed by the power of the
almighty. Used to be I’d play a prostitute ninety percent of the
time, but now that I’m older I more often get cast as a
housewife who left her family to start a career but then saw the
error of my ways. Helpmeet, that’s a big word for me now.
As in, ‘I realized that God wants me to be a helpmeet to my
husband.’ The 700 Club is my biggest client—they’re real into
the wifely duties bit."
"I’m not sure I understand."
"Don’t get me wrong, I’m not prejudiced in matters of faith.
Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Wiccan, you name it, I’ve worked for
them. The only group that doesn’t seem to be in need of my
services is the Buddhists, although I have attested on occasion
to the spiritual ecstasies of tantric sex." She put the lipstick
back in her purse. "Don’t look so astonished, honey. It’s a job,
not a calling."
"So you never were a prostitute?"
"No," she sighed. "Not in the strictest sense of the word."
"What about the tattoo? P.S.?"
"My initials. I had it done in Cleveland about five years
after I got into this line of work. It’s supposed to remind me
who I am. I had this story I used to tell about how I’d almost
died in a crack house, how my pimp put a gun in my mouth and
said I’d be worth more to him dead than alive. You tell any
story enough times, you almost start to believe it."
"I remember that story," I said. "You told it at the youth
rally—Alabama, 1985. You were very convincing."
She looked me up and down. "Let me guess. Baptist."
"How did you know?"
"With the Southerners, it’s almost always Baptist." She took
a small apple out of her purse and began to eat it, leaving waxy
lipstick marks on the apple’s green skin.
"That was a long time ago," I said. "I was a kid. I’ve
changed." Why did I feel the need to justify myself to this
"So, was I good?"
"Was I good? Did you, like, get saved?"
"No," I blurted. "But my brother did." I glanced over to the refreshment stand and was relieved to see
that my husband was waiting in a very long line.
"Good for him," she said, expertly tossing the apple core
into a trash can several feet away. "I’m not particularly
religious myself, but I do think faith has its advantages."
"My brother had been having some problems," I found myself
saying. I didn’t mean to say it, but once I started, I couldn’t
seem to stop. "Drugs. Well, it wasn’t drugs at first. He came
out to my parents, and they really made life hard for him.
Eventually they went so far as to have him committed. The drugs
weren’t the original symptom, they were just the consequence of
coming out." I had moved closer to her and was talking very
quietly. I didn’t want anyone to overhear. In New York City at
the beginning of the twenty-first century, my story sounded
"Same old same old," she said. "If I had a dollar for every
kid who pretended to find God because he thought it would save
him from being gay." She opened her handbag again. This time, a
bag of Tootsie Rolls came out. The purse seemed bottomless, like
a magic trick or a cartoon. I imagined her pulling a bowling
ball out of the purse, a pair of skis, a three-course dinner.
She held the bag out to me and I took one. The candy was stale
and stiff, and it hurt my teeth when I bit down.
"So, the kid got saved," she said. "Good for him. Let me
guess. He’s married with two kids and serving as a deacon in his
"Wow," she said. I could tell I’d really caught her off
guard. She had no idea what to say.
"Salvation lasts a lifetime," I said.
"Hey," she said, regaining her composure, "if it gets you
through the day."
"No, that was the theme of the youth rally, salvation lasts a
lifetime. You ended your speech with that line. I thought it was
kind of weird, like the event planners hadn’t really thought it
through. Shouldn’t it have been, ‘Salvation lasts an eternity’?"
"I just read from a script," she said. "It’s all the same to
me. Look, I’m real sorry about your brother. I am."
"Thank you." I must have said that a thousand times after my
brother died. People would come up to me to express their
condolences, and I’d say "thank you," as if they’d just given me
a birthday present or complimented my hairdo.
My husband was at the front of the refreshment line now. He
handed over his money, and the kid behind the counter passed him
a bag of popcorn, a large drink, and a box of Whoppers. If he
hadn’t walked back to us at that moment, who knows what I might
have confessed. Would I have reminded the woman about how she
came home with me that afternoon after our interview at the Tiny
Diny? Would I have confessed that we ambushed my brother, forced
our way into his bedroom and demanded that he listen? Would I
have told her how convincing she was as she told him that if she
could be saved from the streets, he could be saved from his
sinful desires? Would I have described how they knelt on the
carpet together and prayed?
Surely, I would not have told her everything. I would not
have told her, or anyone, what I believed in hindsight to be
true: if my brother had not been saved, he would still be alive.
It was religion that made him hate himself, religion that held
out to him the possibility of change. When he could not change,
he thought he was to blame. Few people get through life without
being haunted by some big guilt—this was mine.
My husband joined us in the line. He held out the bag of
popcorn, and the woman and I, at a loss for words, both reached
for it at the same time. Her fingers brushed against mine, and I
pulled my hand back as if I had touched an electrical wire.
"So," he said. "Did you two figure out where you know each other
I was fumbling around for an appropriate response when the
woman chimed in, "We don’t. I just have one of those familiar
faces." The red velvet rope was unhooked and the line began to
move. Inside the screening room, she hurried to the front, while
we remained in back.
Later, when I ran into her in the bathroom, I asked, "Why
didn’t you tell him?"
"The past is the past."
"I appreciate it," I said, and then I felt dirty for saying
it, as if by my gratitude I had somehow betrayed my brother.
"It’s nothing," she said. "Merry Christmas."
On the walk home my husband asked if I’d like a hot dog from
Gray’s Papaya. "Of course," I said.
"And when we get home you’ll call your parents," he said, a
He was my conscience. He knew about my brother, he knew about
my strained relationship with my parents back home in Alabama.
But there were things he would never know about me, things that
would always exist in another place and time. I wondered if he
felt the same way about his affair—that it was separate from us,
somehow irrelevant to our lives together.
I remembered one Christmas Eve when I was ten years old, and
my brother was eight. We got dressed up in red
corduroy pants and green corduroy shirts that my mother had
made, and the whole family piled into the car to go see the
living nativity at the mental hospital. My brother and I
hunkered down in the back seat and stared out at Mary and
Joseph, the wise men and the baby Jesus. It was a warm evening,
and we had the windows open. As we drove slowly past the plastic
port-a-storage unit that served as a barn, our mother made our
father stop the car so she could take a picture. Just as the
flash went off, Joseph leapt toward the car and stuck his head
in the window on my brother’s side. "Boo!" he said. My brother
shrieked in terror and scooted into my arms. My father gunned
the engine and drove away, but it was too late, my brother was
My mother turned around in her seat. "Don’t worry,
sweetheart," she said, in that voice she used to soothe us, to
make us know we were safe. "They won’t hurt you. They’re just a
bunch of lunatics." Years later, when I went to the hospital to
claim my brother’s body, that word would ring in my ears.
Lunatics, I heard my mother saying, her voice as soft as the
dogwoods that lined the streets of Mobile in spring.
When we got to Gray’s Papaya, the lights were off, and a gray
line of snow had piled up along the bottom of the closed door.
"Maybe the Krispy Kreme is open," my husband said, hooking his
arm through mine.
"I’m not hungry anymore," I said. "Let’s just go home." I was
thinking of our small apartment, the built-in shelves piled high
with books. I was baffled by the way gratitude and love and
anger and jealousy could exist simultaneously, a delicate and
explosive mix. I wanted to hit him, to tell him everything I
knew and suspected, to make a big messy scene on the street.
Instead I huddled closer to him. I was thinking of our tiny
kitchen, how we would turn on the gas stove to heat the place
up, how we would climb into our bed beneath the heavy quilts and
Michelle Richmond's fiction has appeared in or is
forthcoming from Glimmer Train, Playboy, Other
Voices, Mid-American Review, and other magazines. She
is the author of the novel Dream of the Blue Room and the
story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. A
native of Alabama, she lives in San Francisco, where she teaches