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Michelle Richmond

P.S. Youíre 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. Weíd 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 Gristedeís, 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 Iíd 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 lovemakingóall 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 AlabamaóI was astonished by my own good luck. For a few hours I could almost forget the nagging conviction Iíd had for the past few weeks that something wasnít quite right. I could put out of mind the little details that didnít add upóthe empty champagne bottle I found stashed in the trunk of my husbandís 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 motherís 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. Weíd seen an obscure Belgian movie, then stopped at Grayís 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 wasnít a particularly artistic tattoo, and it wouldnít 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 whispered.

"You think you know everybody," he said. It was true. We rarely went anywhere that I didnít 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, thoughóthe woman reminded me of someone from my past.

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 me.

"Sorry." I fumbled with my scarf to hide my embarrassment. "You look very familiar."

"I get that a lot."

"You remind me of this womanónever mind. Iím sure itís a mistake." In truth I was sure it wasnít a mistake, but it wasnít 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 prostituteóevery Baptist youth rally has oneówho had forsaken her lurid life on the streets for Christ. As one of the more zealous members of my churchís youth group, Iíd 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., youíre mine, bitch." I was startled and thrilled by her language, ecstatic when she agreed to let me interview her for my churchís 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.

"Youíve come up from the bottom," I said. "Maybe you could talk to him, tell him he doesnít have to be gay, that Jesus can save him from all that."

"Are you sure thatís what you want?" she asked, her earrings bobbing with each movement of her head. "Sometimes itís 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-holdersí 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 couldnít break, or was it an attempt to make me believe everything was okay? Perhaps it was a genuine affection that heíd never lost, despite his new interests.

"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 didnít know about one anotherís pasts. "People donít 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 groupóall 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 wouldnít have liked me.

"Did you place me yet?" the woman asked, opening her purse and whisking out her lipstick caseóa brown crocodile Chanel.

"Forget it," I said. "I was mistaken."

"Come on, say it." She seemed very amused by my discomfort. "What was Iódrug addict? Prostitute? Cancer survivor?"

"Iím sorry, Ió"

"Look," she said, uncapping a very red tube of lipstick. "Donít sweat it. This happens to me all the time. Iím a religious contractor." She held up a tiny mirror and applied the lipstick in two deft strokes.

"Pardon?"

"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 Iíd play a prostitute ninety percent of the time, but now that Iím 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, thatís a big word for me now. As in, ĎI realized that God wants me to be a helpmeet to my husband.í The 700 Club is my biggest clientótheyíre real into the wifely duties bit."

"Iím not sure I understand."

"Donít get me wrong, Iím not prejudiced in matters of faith. Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Wiccan, you name it, Iíve worked for them. The only group that doesnít 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. "Donít look so astonished, honey. Itís 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. Itís supposed to remind me who I am. I had this story I used to tell about how Iíd almost died in a crack house, how my pimp put a gun in my mouth and said Iíd 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 rallyóAlabama, 1985. You were very convincing."

She looked me up and down. "Let me guess. Baptist."

"How did you know?"

"With the Southerners, itís almost always Baptist." She took a small apple out of her purse and began to eat it, leaving waxy lipstick marks on the appleís green skin.

"That was a long time ago," I said. "I was a kid. Iíve changed." Why did I feel the need to justify myself to this woman?

"So, was I good?"

"What?"

"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. "Iím not particularly religious myself, but I do think faith has its advantages."

"My brother had been having some problems," I found myself saying. I didnít mean to say it, but once I started, I couldnít seem to stop. "Drugs. Well, it wasnít 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 werenít the original symptom, they were just the consequence of coming out." I had moved closer to her and was talking very quietly. I didnít want anyone to overhear. In New York City at the beginning of the twenty-first century, my story sounded almost medieval.

"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. Heís married with two kids and serving as a deacon in his church."

"Heís dead."

"Wow," she said. I could tell Iíd 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 hadnít really thought it through. Shouldnít it have been, ĎSalvation lasts an eternityí?"

"I just read from a script," she said. "Itís all the same to me. Look, Iím 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 Iíd say "thank you," as if theyíd 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 hadnít 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 guiltóthis 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 from?"

I was fumbling around for an appropriate response when the woman chimed in, "We donít. 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 didnít 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.

"Itís nothing," she said. "Merry Christmas."

On the walk home my husband asked if Iíd like a hot dog from Grayís Papaya. "Of course," I said.

"And when we get home youíll call your parents," he said, a subtle command.

"Yes."

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 affairóthat 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 brotherís 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 already crying.

My mother turned around in her seat. "Donít worry, sweetheart," she said, in that voice she used to soothe us, to make us know we were safe. "They wonít hurt you. Theyíre just a bunch of lunatics." Years later, when I went to the hospital to claim my brotherís 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 Grayís 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.

"Iím not hungry anymore," I said. "Letís 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 sleep.


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 creative writing.

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