Chapter 38: Climate change
Upon walking into Charlie’s house on that freakishly warm early evening, Tammy heard Todd yelling at his father.
“I get it, Dad, okay? You think I’m a loser. You know, you really should learn a new song. That one is just so old already!”
Frank was on his usual stool at the kitchen counter. “Could you be a little more dramatic, Todd?” he said. “And loud, too? I don’t think the neighbors heard you.”
“Tammy!” said Charlie. “Boys, Tammy is here. Let’s try to act civil, shall we?”
Tammy put her purse down on the coffee table. “What’s going on? Todd, what’s wrong?”
Todd plopped himself down on the couch. “Nothing,” he murmured.
“Didn’t sound like nothing,” said Tammy. “Frank?”
“What are you looking at me like that for? I’m not the one who’s leaving you and me here.”
“Is this about what I think it’s about?” said Tammy
“Probably,” said Charlie.
Going into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine, Tammy said, “So you took the job, Todd?”
“Of course he took the job,” said Frank. “Why wouldn’t he take the job? He thinks it’s going to make him a star. He wants his own TV show. ‘Cooking With Fruits.’”
“Did you really just say that?” said Charlie.
“Of course he did,” said Todd. “That’s my dad.”
“Oh, quit your whining,” said Frank. “Good Christ, since when did ‘gay’ mean ‘no sense of humor’?
“Frank, stop it!” said Tammy. “What is the matter with you?”
“What is the matter with YOU?” said Frank. “Not that any of this has anything to do with you anyway.”
“Really? Let’s find out. Charlie, are you and Todd moving to L.A.?”
“Yes,” said Charlie.
“Oh, so, gee, this actually has a lot to do with me, doesn’t it, Frank?”
“But of course it does,” said Frank. “How could I forgot that everything revolves around the world’s greatest artist?”
Todd wearily covered his face with his hands. “Dad, will you please just stop?”
Tammy went and sat on the couch beside Todd. Putting her arm around him, she said, “Todd, I can’t believe it took me this long to say this, but congratulations on your new job. That is so, so wonderful. What an accomplishment. I’m so happy for you. We’re all so proud of you. Aren’t we, Frank?”
“I’d be prouder of him if he stuck to one thing,” said Frank.
“Really? You couldn’t just—” said Tammy.
“What are you TALKING about, Dad?” said Todd. “I’m a chef. Okay? That IS what I do! That IS my thing.”
“Then be a chef here. Finish what you started here. Don’t let all your employees down here. I know you’re gay, but can’t you still be a man?”
“Oh my God!” said Todd.
“You’re always quitting one thing and moving on to another,” continued Frank. “Try stick-to-itevness sometime, Todd. You might like it.”
“You’ve been married THREE TIMES!” said Todd.
“Okay, stop it, you two,” said Charlie. “Just stop now. Everybody take a deep breath. Frank, I believe I speak for all of when I say, with respect, that you are being a colossal dick.”
“Well, that’s something you’d know about, isn’t it?” said Frank.
“Not as much as I’d like to know about it, but that’s another conversation. Now can we please just talk about what Todd’s new job is going to mean to all of us?”
“Well, I’m only sort of moving,” said Charlie. “I’m going to spend half my time in L.A., and half my time here.”
“Oh, you are?” said Tammy. “Not to be completely selfish about keeping you near me. But that’s the plan? Todd, does that work for you?”
“As much as it can,” said Todd. “But it’s the only way to do it. For the first three months, at least, I’ll basically be living at the restaurant. And Charlie’s got so much going on here.”
“I certainly do,” said Charlie. “And probably more work coming down the pike, too. This is a wonderful time to be in the hotel design business in Asheville, North Carolina. Which is why I’ll be spending half the week working here, and the other half in L.A., being wined and dined by my award-winning, Chef to the Stars husband.”
“Great,” said Frank. “And what am I supposed to do, live out in the streets?”
“Now, Francis, don’t be ridiculous,” said Charlie. “You’re perfectly welcome to live in the woods out back.”
“So, I was right. Being gay does mean no sense of humor.”
“What ARE me and Mr. Personality here going to do, Charlie?” said Tammy. “Sounds like it’s time for us to move out. Not TOGETHER, of course. But it seems like maybe it’s time for me, anyway, to find a place of my own, right? And I can afford that now, so it’s no problem.”
“Well, Todd and I have been talking about that very thing,” said Charlie. “And either one of you, or both of you, are welcomed to continue living here. In fact, our choice would be that you both stay right where you are. But there is one catch.”
“There always is,” said Frank.
“You must promise, Tammy, to, every so often, throw a piece of fruit out to Frank in the back yard. We don’t want him dying of rickets out there.”
“No, but, alas, it’s about rent,” said Charlie. “I’m afraid that we just can’t afford two houses—especially not if one of them is in L.A. But if you guys can swing paying us some rent here, we’d love it if you’d stay.”
Tammy’s first thought was, No. This seemed like the perfect time for her to strike out on her own.
But then she remembered the rental market in Asheville. She’d be lucky to get an old tool shed for $1,000 a month. And Charlie’s house was, after all, in East West Asheville. She could walk to her studio from there—not to mention to Hole, Short Street Cakes, All Souls Pizza, Taco Billy, and Burger Bar, the greatest dive bar in the history of the human liver.
Back on the other hand, though, was Frank. The good news was that he had so recovered from his stroke that he no longer needed any care. The bad news was that he was still Frank.
“Frank, what do you want to do?” said Tammy.
Frank stepped off his stool. “I wanna go take a nap.” He looked back and forth between Charlie and his son. “I assume that’s okay? I still have a place to live for the next hour, right?”
“Oh, of course you do,” said Charlie. “But it couldn’t hurt to set your alarm for forty-five minutes. I’m kidding! It’s a joke! Mi casa, su casa!”
But Frank, grimly walking out of the room, wasn’t having any.
Tammy looked out the sliding glass doors, past the back porch at the bare woods beyond. She wondered if it was still as warm outside as it had been. It probably was. Then again, with the weather being what it had been lately, it could already be near to freezing out there.
Chapter 39: Whatever’s happening is happening
“Don’t you just love that they have rocking chairs at the airport?” said Charlie.
“I do,” said Tammy. “What next? Stewardesses serving beverages on the porch of the Thomas Wolfe house?”
“I know! This makes me think that when I look into the cockpit as I’m boarding, I’m going to see the pilot and co-pilot knitting doilies. Or whittling.”
Tammy laughed. Then she said, “So, I’ve been thinking. You can’t leave. I know I said I could handle it. But, I was wrong. I can’t. You’re just going to have to change your plans.”
“Just like that, huh?” said Charlie.
“Just like that.”
“But we’re already at the airport. I’ve checked my bags.”
“We’ll buy you new stuff.”
“But what do I tell Todd?”
“That blood is thicker than bouillabaisse.”
“But he’s waiting for me in L.A. He’s my husband. He’ll be so sad without me.”
“Pfft. Like husbands last. Besides, you don’t have to worry about Todd, or anything like that. He’s beautiful. And he’ll be hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. He’s bound to meet someone new.”
Tammy shrugged. “I don’t make the rules.”
Charlie put his hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Tammy smiled through the tears welling in her eyes. “No. You’re leaving.”
“Now, don’t cry. You’ll make me cry. See? Now I’m crying.”
“I’ll miss you so much.”
“I’ll miss you too,” said Charlie. “I already miss you.”
Tammy smiled a sad smile. “So it’s settled then. You’re staying.”
“You know,” said Charlie, dabbing his eyes with the handkerchief he’d pulled from his pocket, “it’s not like I’m actually leaving Asheville. I’ll still be here at least half the time.”
Charlie took Tammy’s hand in his. After a long moment of silence between them, he said, “It will be nice to be in L.A. again. As liberal as Asheville is, I’m still a gay man living in the South. And Putin is as viciously anti-gay as they come. With his boyfriend now occupying the White House, I’ll definitely feel safer living in a big city. More places to hide when the Orange One unleashes his brownshirts.”
“But I’m hardly the one we should be worried about. You’re the one who’s going to be living all alone with Frank. Are you sure you’re gonna be okay with that?”
Tammy nodded. “Yeah. Frank’s okay. Now that he can take care of himself, I probably won’t even see him all that much. And Maggie’ll be there more often. And whenever he gets too Frank-like, I can always go to my studio.”
“Okay. Well, just so we’re clear about this, you can move out of the house any time you want to. You know that, right? No notice necessary. Okay?”
“Okay. But I won’t want to move out. I love my downstairs apartment. It’s perfect.”
“Hey, so, speaking of your studio, how’s your painting going?”
“Good. Insane. I have no idea. I’m doing a lot of it. That’s about all I know.”
“It does seem like you’re always at your studio anymore.”
“I know. And, honestly, I don’t really understand what exactly is happening between me and … whatever it is inside of me that’s always apparently lived beneath the surface, and is now definitely wanting out. I almost can’t work fast enough.”
“That sounds like a good thing.”
“I guess. I mean, yes, it is. It’s just that …”
“I don’t … I don’t know. Never mind. Whatever’s happening is happening.”
“I am so going to put that on my tombstone. ‘Whatever’s happening is happening.’”
“Cool. Then I’ll put on my tombstone, ‘What Charlie said.’”
Charlie laughed. “But you’re the one who said it!”
“But you say everything so perfectly. Everything.”
“No,” said Charlie. “You do. Everything about you is perfect.”
* * * * *
In the airport parking lot Tammy sat in her car. Charlie’s plane was up in the sky somewhere, heading for Los Angeles. Maybe he’d run into Ryan and Bikini Girl at the beach sometime. She hoped so. Because she knew that, out of his love for her, Charlie would drown them both.
She smiled a little, and started her car.
And as soon as she had smiled, she started to cry.
In her idling car in the parking lot of the Asheville Regional Airport, she let it all out.
Not that she could have stopped it. What was happening was happening.
When it was done happening, she dried her eyes, blew her nose, and collected herself for the drive home.
Ready for the next, she slipped her car into drive.
The darkness of the night was just beginning to give way to morning’s first light.
Chapter 40: What had she just agreed to do?
Tammy was in her studio, painting.
Maybe she was eight years old, lying on her back on a Saturday afternoon beneath the hump of a small metal slide on the playground of her school, eyes closed, listening, the slide keeping her dry as the rain poured down everywhere around her.
Maybe she was in her backyard, screaming as her enraged father hurled hard against the fence the orange kitten she’d found abandoned two days before.
Maybe she was home alone, sitting in the pitch dark inside her closed bedroom closet, a big drawing pad on her lap, holding her favorite drawing pen poised above it, waiting to see what she would draw if she didn’t try to draw anything at all.
It was now, for her, there, all there, all of everything she’d ever continued to be beneath the person she now understood she’d had to become in order to survive it all was there for her now, still present, still whole, still alive, still witnessing, still knowing everything through the knowing of nothing—and all of it now rushing forth, gushing out, now mindlessly and with shameless urgency exploding itself onto canvas after canvas in her little white box of a studio in the River Arts District, so near the great dark snake that was the French Broad River she could feel the monster’s ancient spirit poised above it all.
Hail to that art! God love that art. God knows she had always loved that art. For as far back as she could remember, that art had been a primary lifeline for her, had always been that wondrously good thing, made of technique and history and painstaking precision, upon which she could always depend to lift her a little higher, send her a little deeper, make of her a little more.
But now, for a reason she knew not to blow apart by trying to understand it, all of that was gone. Now, instead of filling her up, what it was to be an artist was emptying her, draining her, using her. Now she was drowning, exuberantly drowning, in what art must be and what art must do when it moves in and through a person who, for whatever terrible reasons have led them to that helplessly alive state, is primed to let it be everything to their nothing, everywhere to their nowhere, the one moment into which all of their moments breathe.
All she had to do was keep up with it, be there for it, get out of the way and watch it happen.
So that’s what she did. And that’s what she was doing when she finally became aware of the soft knocking upon her closed studio door.
She ignored it. They’d leave. Art happening. Nobody home. Closed door.
Except then her closed door was slowly opening up.
“Hello?” It was a man’s voice.
She would kill him. Whomever it was, she would kill him with the brush in her hand.
It was Stan, the painter from down the hall. He had the nerve to open the door to her studio, and then to poke only his head inside, as if his head, all by itself, wasn’t all that intrusive.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said. Tammy only stared at him. Pushing the door open a bit more, he slowly scanned the filled canvases leaning against seemingly every available space in the room. “Wow. Have you been working here for a solid week now?”
Tammy involuntarily tightened her grip on the handle of her brush. “Can I help you?”
“I’ve come to ask if you’re planning on participating in the Welcome to the Neighborhood Party.”
“The Welcome to the Neighborhood Party. It’s this Thursday. Noon till seven.”
“No. I don’t know. I’m sorry, but I’m—”
“It’s not mandatory or anything. But it’s a nice way to show your work. People wander through all our studios, maybe see something of yours they like, maybe buy something of yours they like. I can tell you, I’ve had some really nice sales from these kinds of—”
“Sounds great, count me in. But I need to get back to what I was doing, so—”
“Say no more. When the muse calls, eh? I’ll leave you to it, Tammy. See ya’ on Thursday.”
The moment Stan restored her solitude, Tammy was back in the eye of the hurricane, holding her brush out, touching its bristles to the sky-high wall of the tempest swirling everywhere around her, catching its infinite colors and through some magic of current flowing them onto her canvas.
Somewhere in the midst of it all she realized that her hand was stuck in midair, the tip of her brush hovering just off the canvas.
What had she just agreed to do?
Chapter 41: Showtime
The following Thursday afternoon found the door of Tammy’s studio propped wide open.
And what does a door propped wide open say? It says, “C’mon in! Look around! Assess my artwork, person I’ve never seen in my life! It’s all for sale! It’s like a product you buy! This isn’t awkward at all!”
That’s what it seemed to Tammy that her open door was broadcasting, anyway.
She was facing that door, sitting behind her recent purchase from the Habitat for Humanity thrift store, a dark, handmade, rustic little workhorse of a desk, like something she might have come across at an open-air market in Tijuana, its sides and drawers festooned with big tropical flowers carefully carved by some obvious artisan about whom she knew she’d never know a thing.
She tried to remember how in the world she had ever agreed to participate in this “Welcome to the Neighborhood Party” being thrown by the Riverview Station, ostensibly as a way of celebrating the opening, just behind the Riverview building, of the Wedge brewhouse and 12 Bones chewhouse, both of which she had already personally welcomed by becoming a regular customer.
Then she remembered what had knocked her so far off-track that right now, instead of painting, she was at her desk, unnerved, apparently incapable of coming up with a single sane-sounding thing to say to randoms who nonchalantly wandered into her space from the hallway outside, strangers who, while she tried not to look at them, looked at her work, which they of course had no way of knowing was her latest and greatest, was her everything, was the distillation and expression of all she’d ever known and nothing she could ever put into words, one large canvas of it after another, with each one set around her studio for their E-Z Viewing Pleasure.
And, so far, not one of the visitors to her studio had said a single word to her about her work. Not one. Total silence. They came in; they looked; they maybe smiled at her; they left.
It was torture.
She didn’t really know what it was.
Part of her cared, a lot, about what people thought of her work. Another part of her thought that part of her was ridiculous.
The two parts were at constant war with each another. Nobody was winning.
Stan! She had Stan to blame for putting her through this. She thought: Stan was the man who could derail Cezanne.
And then—what with no one being around and all—she let herself laugh a little.
“Havin’ a good time, I see.”
“Makayla!” said Tammy. “Come on in, please! How are you?”
“All right. Now you gotta tell me what were you laughing about, all by yourself in here.”
“Oh, it was nothing. It was just something that popped into my head about Stan.”
Makayla arched an eyebrow. “Stan down the hall Stan? Our Stan?”
“That’s the man.”
“Well, I’m just gonna let you keep that to yourself.” Like any would-be customer of that day, Makayla took her time surveying Tammy’s paintings. Unlike anyone else, though, she offered an opinion. “Damn, girl,” she said. “You are the shit.” Then she turned to Tammy. “How are you doin’?”
“Well, I’m doing fine now. That was nice. Thank you.”
“I don’t do nice. I do honest. And I gotta tell you that while I don’t know if you’ve sold any of your new stuff yet, I am certain of one thing. You will.”
“That face isn’t saying nothing.”
“It’s just that . . . I don’t know. The whole selling thing is something I’ve never really dealt with before. You know that I taught art at a junior college in San Diego for ten years. Well, it sure never came up there.”
“You’ve never shown your work?”
“Yeah, but not necessarily to sell it. Just at little school shows, or at the county fair, that kind of thing. But this is different. Artists here in Asheville actually sell their work.”
“Not as much of it as we’d like to, I can tell you that.”
“But it’s part of what you’re doing. It’s part of what everyone in the RAD is doing.”
“Not everyone. A lot of people keep studios out here so they can have a place to work away from their home. And, speaking for myself, I find it inspiring to be around other artists. Also, I need the socializing. When I worked at home, I’m talkin’ about I never came out of the house. It wasn’t good. I was headin’ towards pretty much forgetting how to socialize altogether.”
“Oh, my God. You are totally describing me. People have been coming in here all day, and I think they think I’m some kind of hand-wringing mute or something. What do you even say to someone who’s standing there, staring at your work? ‘Please buy it’? ‘Please love it’? ‘I’m sure it’ll match your couch’? ‘Does my pain bring you pleasure’?”
Makayla laughed. “You might not want to open with that one.”
“But you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do. Listen, it’s hard. Your work is your life. Every painting is a birth. It’s not easy, selling your children.”
“But you do it, right?”
“And your work is amazing. You’re the best painter I’ve seen here; you’re one of the best painters I’ve seen anywhere. If I ever painted one of your pictures, I’d take that picture, run away with it, and never come back. I’d just sit in some motel room out in the middle of nowhere, staring at it all day. How can you stand to sell even one of your paintings?”
“Because I know that people wouldn’t buy that painting if they didn’t love it. I don’t want to sit talking to my paintings all day. I want other people to talk to my paintings, to be with them, to make them a part of their lives the way they’ve been a part of my life. Don’t you love the idea of something you made becoming a part of someone else’s life? Of it bringing them the same joy it brought you?”
“Yeah. I guess so. Right. You’re right. I’ve just never thought of … well, any of this. And I don’t know how it works for you, but I gotta say, I don’t find doing my paintings particularly joyful. It’s more like actually giving birth, you know what I mean?”
Makayla laughed. “I do.”
“What are you two laughing about?” It was Stan, now standing at the door.
“About giving birth,” said Makayla. “And how much it hurts.”
“Oh,” said Stan. “Yikes.” He came into the room. “Been a good day for me today. How ‘bout for you two? I had a guy come in who’s the owner of this new restaurant they’re opening in town. He’s gonna buy some of my stuff for his restaurant, and maybe one of my largest pieces for his banquet room.”
“How wonderful, Stan,” said Makayla.
“No kidding!” said Tammy. “Congratulations. We were actually just talking about what it’s like to sell your own artwork. Do you ever have any trouble selling yours? Emotionally, I mean?”
“Why would I have trouble selling my work?” said Stan. “I don’t paint to not sell my paintings.”
“That’s the exact attitude I’m lacking, right there,” said Tammy.
“Well, nobody says you have to sell your work,” said Stan. “An artist is an artist is an artist.”
“Exactly,” said Makayla. “Your work is yours to do with whatever you want.”
“But I do want to sell it,” said Tammy. “I want to be a working artist. That’s one of the reasons I moved out here. And I can’t do that—I can’t be an actual, real working artist—if I don’t even want to sell my stuff.”
Stan looked around himself. “Then it’s time to slap some price tags onto these paintings. And don’t underprice them, either. These are good. They’ll sell.”
“But you don’t have to rush into anything,” said Makayla. “You can take your time.”
“If I keep taking my time,” said Tammy, “I’ll end up running out of time.”
“All right, then,” said Makayla.
“Well, my time for today is over,” said Stan. “I’m closing up. Beer’s on me if you two care to join me at the Wedge.”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” said Makayla. “Got somewhere to be.”
“I think I’ll just stick it out till the event is over,” said Tammy.
“So I’m on my own,” said Stan. “Okay, well, if either of you changes your mind, you know where I’ll be.”
About ten minutes after she was again alone in her studio, Tammy heard a group of people coming up the stairs down the hall.
“C’mon, there’s some more studios up here,” she heard a woman say.
“Oh, goody,” said another woman. “This place is fabulous!”
Tammy came out from behind her desk, quickly and quietly moving towards her door. But once she’d pushed it halfway shut, she stopped, head down.
Then she pulled her door back open, all the way, and retook her seat behind her desk, which someone had made and sold and she really, really loved.
She dropped her hands to her lap, and clenched them tight together. Then, relaxed, she rested them atop her desk.
The group was just outside her door. They were going to come inside.
“Showtime,” she whispered.
Chapter 42: Dance to the music
Friday night, and Tammy and Makayla were sitting together over beers at a table inside the new Wedge behind Riverview Station.
“Okay, so he just took your money?” said Makayla. “He cleans you out, just like that? You’re at a jazz festival, and you go to an ATM for a little cash, and that’s when you find out that he’s taken all your money?”
“That’s how I find out,” said Tammy. “Account balance: zero. None. Empty. Drained. Left me as broke as … as . . . —”
“As his own sense of decency?”
“Yes, that’s how broke!” Tammy laughed—but then stopped herself. “Not that it’s funny. It’s not. It’s terrible that Ryan’s the way he is. I don’t know how he lives with himself. And actually, more importantly—more important to me, anyway—I don’t know how I lived with him for as long as I did.”
“Maybe he wasn’t always that bad? People do change.”
“But do they, really? I mean, you’re right. Like, for sure, the more successful Ryan’s business got, the more attention he paid to it. If he had been less successful in business, maybe he would have become a nicer person, a better husband and father. I’d like to think that, anyway, because it would make me seem like less of a fool.”
“You’re not a fool.”
“Maybe. But I’ve spent a lot of my life—I think maybe all of my life—blinded into seeing only what I wanted to see. I wanted Ryan to be a good, loving man. And what I’ve been lately coming to realize is that my desire for Ryan to be that good loving man was so powerful that I kind of continuously willed myself into failing to see the man that he actually was. Does that make sense?”
“Oh, girl, I wish I didn’t know how much sense that made.”
“Oh, no! You, too?”
“Yes, me too. Yes, most women, I think. What woman hasn’t fallen for a man, and gotten involved with him, and given him everything it’s possible for her to give—only to find out, or, like you say—and this is really so much worse in a way—just plain ol’ come to realize, that he’s really only in the relationship for the good it does him. That all he’s ever really wanted from the two of you being together was everything he could get for himself.”
“Yes! It’s always been about him.”
“And all you were was just a means to an end, baby. That’s all. When all along—or certainly at the beginning, anyway—you thought that you were the end, that you were the reason, that you were the purpose.”
“That you were the prize.”
“Yes! That you were the prize. That’s what you thought. That’s the dream you were livin’. That’s the lie you were living. That’s the lie he was helping you live.”
“Yeah, they give you just enough.”
“Just enough! Just enough to keep you going, to keep you in the game, to keep that fire burnin’.”
“Not—at least not in my case, that that took a lot of, well, wood.”
The two of them threw back their heads and laughed so loudly that people at the Wedge’s other location heard them.
“Sometimes I think we don’t even know what we want. We’re so programmed, right from the beginning, to give men what they want, that we don’t even know what our own wants are.”
“That’s right. We just start right in, playin’ the hand we’re given. We never even think to say, Wait a minute! What is this game? Who the hell wrote the rules to this game?”
“Exactly! Why do I only have four cards, and all the men have ten?”
“That just doesn’t seem right. And why do all their cards have colorful pictures on ‘em, and all I got are these sorry lookin’ two’s and three’s?”
“We can’t win!” said Tammy.
“The game is rigged!”
“Crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”
The two women beamed at each other from across the table.
Then Tammy slapped the table, if a little bit harder than she’d meant to. “Well, no more. I’m tired of playing that game. I’ve got a new game now.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell me, now. What’s the new game called?”
“It’s called, Tammy Gets Her Groove Back.”
Makayla put her hand in the air above the table. Two people never did a happier high-five.
“Yes,” said Makayla. “That is the only game worth playin’.”
“It’s the only game I’ve got time left to play. God knows I’m not gettin’ any younger.”
“Speakin’ of time, it’s late. I gotta git. As wrong as men are, they’re not entirely useless. I got one who does the thing that he does in a manner which I do not find particularly unsatisfying, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, my. I believe I do.”
“And that man is waitin’ for me at home right now. Walk me back to my studio, so I can turn off my lights and all that?”
“You bet,” said Tammy.
Five minutes later they were walking into Makayla’s art studio.
“It’s so weird being the only ones in the whole building,” said Tammy.
“Close the door,” said Makaya. “It’s freezing in here.”
“It is. It’s so cold in here, I don’t know how you stand it. You should trade studios with me. Tonight.”
Makayla laughed. “I don’t see that happening.”
“But you have a couch in here.”
“You can get a couch.”
“In my studio? I can barely fit my butt in my studio.”
“Oh, stop. I like your space.”
“But yours has a couch! And music! You have such a great stereo in here!” Then Tammy stopped talking. She was listening. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she said quickly. “Turn it up.”
“Oh, I’m on it,” said Makayla, already reaching behind her desk. “This is my all-time jam.”
Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” filled the room.
If ever two women had clearly never lost their groove, it was the two dancing together in the little space between the couch and the bookcase in Makayla’s studio.
Tammy felt, through and through, like all she’d ever wanted to do—and maybe, in the realest and most wonderful way, all she ever had done—was dance to the music.
As the song was winding down, she stepped closer to Makayla, put her hands on her shoulders, and said, “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” said Makayla softly.
And then, for the first time in her life, Tammy kissed a woman on the mouth.
Chapter 43: A kiss is but a kiss
“What do you mean, you freaked out after kissing your friend?” said Leslie. She had come over to the house that day to talk to Frank about something, and Tammy had asked her if she wouldn’t mind coming downstairs afterwards for a chat and a visit with her. Tammy figured that if anyone could help her make some sense of her kissing Makayla the night before, it was Leslie.
“Well, ‘freaked-out’ isn’t quite what I meant,” said Tammy. “It’s not like I started to scream or anything.”
“Well, did she?”
“Okay. So how did she react, then?”
“I don’t know. She just kind of . . . stood there. Oh, God, I feel so awful.”
“Why? I don’t get it. What happened that was so bad?”
“What was so bad was that I kissed her. That’s the thing. I kissed her. She didn’t kiss me.”
“Still not gettin’ it. Did she like the kiss?”
“I don’t think that’s the point.”
“Seems like it might be some of the point.”
“Not to me it’s not.” Tammy rubbed her hands through her hair, which was still a good deal shorter than she’d ever worn it before. She was trying to bring to her thoughts some kind, any kind, of order. “I’ve never kissed anyone.”
“Darlin’, I have a hard time believing that.”
“No, I mean, I’ve been kissed, of course. And that’s the whole point, right there. I have been kissed. Me. Men have kissed me. I’ve been the receiver of the kisses. But I have never, ever been the one who does the kissing, do you know what I mean? Who initiates the kiss. Who makes the kiss happen. I’ve never been the man before.”
“That’s never been good for me.”
“What, sweetheart? What’s never been good for you?”
“Men!” Tammy blurted. “I mean, not all men. But men. And maybe all men. I don’t know. But, yeah, men. All my life, men have been kissing me, and wanting to kiss me, and . . . kissing me whether I wanted them to or not, and grabbing me, and just being so, so—”
“So like men?”
“Yes, so like men. And it’s not like there’s ever much, or anything, you can do to stop it. Men are so aggressive. They just do whatever they’re gonna do. They want what they want, and pretty much just take what they want.” Tammy’s eyes so quickly filled with tears that before she’d finished her next sentence they were running down her cheeks. “They just take what they want. They don’t ask. They just take.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tammy, holding the tissue to her nose. “I don’t mean to dump all this on you.”
“You’re not dumpin’ anything on me, darlin’. Not at all. I know a little bit about what you’re goin’ through.”
“I think so, yes. You spent your whole life being the kissee. And last night you were the kisser. If that’s not a major role-reversal, I don’t know what is.”
“Honey, it’s okay.”
“No, it’s not. It’s not okay. It’s not okay for me to treat her the same way all those aggressive, creepy men have treated me all my life—the same way I know they’ve treated her all her life, too. Oh, Leslie. The whole time before I kissed her, when we were out together, we were talking about that exact thing—about how hard it is to live in a world where men dominate everything. And then I treated her exactly like a man would treat her if he wanted the same thing from her that men are always wanting from women. How could I do that?”
Tammy was crying for a bit before Leslie said, “But darlin’, you’re forgettin’ one thing.”
“You’re not a man. You’re not even close to being a man. You’re a woman. So it’s not possible for you to want from Makayla what a man might want from her. Even if you had desired her in a purely sexual way—which, by the way, it doesn’t sound to me like was happening in that moment, at all—you would be desiring her as what you are, which is something that no man could ever be.”
“Being a woman. Being a good, kind, sweet, loving woman. And a straight woman at that, as far as I know.”
A little laughter broke through Tammy’s tears. “I guess I don’t know about that anymore. Good lord. I don’t know what I know anymore.”
“Well, that’s not true. You do know the only thing that matters. You know that you’re a good person. And Makayla knows that you’re a good person. You didn’t do anything wrong, or offensive. You just kissed a friend of yours.”
“It wasn’t that kind of kiss,” said Tammy.
“Well, then it wasn’t. And from what you said, she didn’t hate it. She didn’t give you any reason to think that you had offended or upset her, right?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.”
“Well, besides just standin’ there, how did she actually react to your kiss?”
“I dunno.” Despite her best efforts, a smile was now making its way onto Tammy’s face. She’d also turned red as a raspberry. “What? What are you looking at me that way for?”
“I’m not looking at you any way.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not. All I did was ask you how Makayla reacted to your kiss.”
“Well, I’m telling you that I don’t know.”
“She seemed—I mean . . . who knows? She was, I guess—I don’t know. How can you tell a thing like that?”
“Well, golly gee, now. If you’re tellin’ me that you have virtually no idea how to tell if a person you’re kissing is enjoyin’ that kiss, then who am I to doubt you?”
“Oh, my God!” laughed Tammy. “I am telling you! I don’t know how she felt about it! I’m pretty sure she just thought I was molesting her!”
“Well, did she kiss you back?”
“I think you do.”
“But I don’t.”
“But I think you do. And I think she did.”
From behind her hands, with which she was now completely covering her face, Tammy said, “Oh my God!”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Leslie. “Move your head no if you are sure that Makayla did not enjoy your kiss. Nod your head yes if you are sure that she did.”
In the darkness behind her hands and tightly closed eyes, Tammy stopped, then, and waited. She waited until she was absolutely, one hundred percent, no doubt about it sure.
And then, once she was, she definitely, if ever so slightly, nodded yes.