Chapter 6: To art
Tammy took a sip from her glass. “Why are your martinis so awesome?”
Charlie was sifting through the hanging clothes packed along one wall of his Bruce Waynesque walk-in closet. “Mostly because practice makes perfect, and also because James Bond—though it pains me to say ANYTHING about Sean Connery that doesn’t include the phrase, ‘Yes, please’—is an idiot: shaking is no better for a martini than it is for a kitten.”
“Ryan always shakes his martinis. A lot.”
Charlie paused to shoot over his shoulder at Tammy a, “In other news, water is wet” look. After rifling through his clothes for another moment, he cried, “Here it is!” and pulled from the rack a spangly, strappy flapper dress practically begging to have a “Hi, I’m ZELDA!” name tag slapped on its front—except that it was beautiful, and looked real.
“Whoa,” said Tammy.
“I know. Isn’t it fantastic?” He held up the dress before her. “I bought it at an estate sale years ago in San Francisco. It belonged to Jackie Gordon, the famous drag queen who headlined at The Beige Club on Broadway and Powell during the 50’s. I had it altered once for a friend of mine in New York who’s about your size. What do you think?”
Tammy, suddenly feeling self-conscious, shrugged.
“Do you want to wear it?”
She looked into her twinkling martini for a moment, and then at the shimmering dress, which seemed to be intimating to her that perhaps it knew something about her that she hadn’t quite yet learned herself.
“I really kind of do,” she answered softly.
* * * * *
“CHRISTMAS?” said the girl with the high cheekbones and straight golden hair parted down the middle, hippie-chick style. Tammy quickly reminded herself that this was Maggie, Todd’s sister. “He left you on CHRISTMAS?” Maggie’s expression was a collision on the intersection of Confused and Disgusted.
Maggie’s friend, Samantha—striking blue eyes, black hair cut shorter on one side than the other—said, “You’ll have to excuse Maggie; she gets a little excited. I think what she’s trying to say is, ‘CHRISTMAS? He left you on CHRISTMAS?’”
“Who DOES that?” said Maggie.
Tammy shrugged. “Men who can’t stand the thought of being married to their wives for one more second, would be my first guess.” She looked down at the glass of champagne she was holding in her lap, and right away decided that her New Year’s Resolution was to see a specialist about the out-of-control amount of water being constantly created by her eyes.
“Oh, my God,” said Maggie. She put her drink down on the coffee table before them, rose, and stepped around the table to where Tammy and Charlie were sitting side by side on the bar’s only couch. She sat in the empty space beside Tammy, and then turned and opened her arms.
As they hugged, Maggie whispered in Tammy’s ear, “You got this, girl.”
Never in her life had Tammy held on for so long to the hug of a stranger.
* * * * *
They were in the Top of the Monk; or, rather, they and all the rest of that night’s patrons had been transported—by a million tiny white lights everywhere; by the 20’s jazz winding its way through the air of the pre-Prohibition bar; by the sparkling Eiffel Tower constructed on the bar’s rooftop patio, where men and women dressed in period clothing stood sipping their cocktails and overlooking the city’s lights and buildings—to Paris in the 20’s.
An hour or two into the evening, Tammy, still seated on the couch but now leaning back against Charlie, whose arm was draped comfortably about her shoulder, said, “This place is so beautiful.” She gently tugged Charlie’s fingers. “And you look like Fred Astaire.”
Charlie sipped his manhattan. “What I look like is Fred Astaire’s rarely noted younger brother, Bubbles Astaire, who, sadly, never danced a step in his life.”
Tammy slapped his hand. “No. You look amazing.” She gazed up at the crowd gathered around or near their couch, table, and three-chair oasis. “I can’t believe how many of these people you know. Who are they all, again?”
“Well, you’ve met Maggie and Sam there. And of course you know Todd.”
“It’s so good to see Todd again—and to eat his FOOD. That soup we had before coming here was unbelievable.”
“I know. Todd could make tetherball tartare you’d kill to eat again. Surrounding him are people from his restaurant—or maybe magazine reporters, he’s getting so famous. And I believe most of the women there talking with Maggie and Sam volunteer with them at Our Voice, which, as I believe you’re aware, is the sexual assault prevention agency for Buncombe county.”
“And Maggie’s also a singer?”
“No, Maggie teaches yoga, and has a pottery studio in the RAD. Sam is the singer-songwriter. She plays all over town. Sam also has a farm—AND she built her own house.”
“Right? The girl has mad life skills. When the apocalypse hits, we’re ALL meeting at Sam’s farm. Do not forget.”
“Not at Todd’s restaurant?”
“Hmm. Good point. Okay, new plan: We swing by Todd’s restaurant, we make Todd feed us, and THEN we head for Sam’s.”
As if on cue, Maggie and Sam started to move, along with their group, towards the door leading to the patio. Maggie broke from the rest, though, and came over to their couch. She extended her hand towards Tammy and wiggled her fingers.
“We’re gonna step out for some fresh air,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful night. You two come with us, k?”
“That sounds like a great idea,” said Charlie. “Tam?”
“I’m in,” said Tammy.
Once the two of them were on their feet, Charlie said, “Let me go get Todd.”
As Charlie moved away, Maggie, who’d been joined by Sam, came to one side of Tammy, while Sam stepped around to Tammy’s other side. They both hooked their arms in hers. As the three of them headed for the patio door, Maggie said, “Have we told you how much we love your dress?”
“You did, thank you,” said Tammy. “Isn’t it something? It’s Charlie’s.”
Sam laughed. “Not anymore it’s not. You OWN that thing.”
Once they were standing outside, and had silently taken in the view, Maggie turned to Tammy. “So, Charlie tells us that you’re an artist,” she said. “A painter.”
Tammy folded her arms across her front. “Oh, no. I mean, I teach art. Or I did, anyway. I got laid off a few months ago. But for ten years I taught art—painting, mostly—at a junior college in San Diego.”
“Oh, gosh,” said Sam. “Ten years. That’s a long time.”
Tammy put her hand on Sam’s arm. “THANK you. I thought so.”
“Why do you say you’re not an artist?” said Maggie.
“Yeah,” said Sam. “If you teach art, you’re an artist.”
“Well, I haven’t done any of my own painting in a long time,” said Tammy.
“Boy, have YOU ever come to the right place, then!” said Maggie. “Asheville is where people DO their art.”
“It really is, isn’t it?” said Tammy. She pointed a finger at Maggie. “You’re a ceramic artist.” She shifted her finger to Sam. “And you’re a singer-songwriter.”
“She sure is,” said Maggie. “Sam’s songs will change your shit up. She’s the real deal.” For that Sam delivered a kiss to Maggie’s cheek.
“And Charlie designs furniture,” said Tammy. “And Todd is the Chagall of food.”
“The Chagall of food!” laughed Sam. “He IS! He’ll love that.”
“And have you met Todd and Charlie’s next-door neighbor, Isaac?” said Maggie. “He’s a writer. He wrote a HUGE bestseller, a memoir about growing up in Mocksville, a little town not far from here. A lot of his book takes place in Asheville, too.”
“Now he’s writing a novel,” said Sam. “If his publisher will let him, that is.”
“Like they have a choice,” said Maggie. “I don’t think a lot of people tell Isaac what to do.”
“No, I don’t think so,” laughed Sam.
“But that really IS a lot of artists, right?” said Tammy.
“Oh, for sure,” said Maggie. “Just about everyone we know is an artist of some kind. They’re all actors, musicians, performance artists, photographers, or they direct films, or run a recording studio, or a printing press, or—”
“Or they make cocktails like THIS,” said Sam, lifting her glass.
Tammy and Maggie made a trio of glasses in the air. “To Kala,” said Tammy.
“An artist if ever one lived,” said Maggie.
“Everyone’s coming out of the bar,” said Sam.
They were—and leading the exodus was Charlie, who looked to be somehow carrying roughly enough drinks to start his own club.
“I do love a man who’s good with his hands,” said Maggie.
“Come take these!” said Charlie, hurrying their way. “It’s almost midnight!”
The three quickly found resting places for their old drinks, and took their new ones from Charlie.
“This bar has great service,” said Tammy.
“What are these?” said Sam.
“Side cars!” said Charlie. “Kala lined up a bunch of them on the bar. It’s what we’re all toasting with instead of champagne.”
“YES!” said Maggie.
In what seemed half a moment the patio had become packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder. Tammy felt herself burrowing into the warmth of it.
Everyone stood facing the patio’s winking, blinking, and downright towering Eiffel Tower.
And then the call started.
“TEN! NINE! EIGHT!”
Tammy caught her breath. She looked about. Everyone was holding up their beverage, buzzed and beaming, roaring the count.
Charlie put his arm around her shoulder.
Charlie hugged her. “Happy New Year,” he said.
“Happy New Year, Charlie,” Tammy said into his chest.
“Happy New Year!” Maggie said to her, pulling her into a hug.
“Happy New Year!” said Tammy into the long woolen scarf draped around Maggie’s neck. She closed her eyes. “Thank you,” she murmured.
Just as Tammy and Sam had released their happy hug, a second roar went up from the crowd. Tammy didn’t know its cause. Perhaps something had happened, or someone she couldn’t see had done something.
Maybe in Asheville they cheer the New Year twice.
Whatever its origin, Tammy let the power of the sound lift her up.
Holding her glass high against the darkness, she cried, with all of her heart, “TO ART!”
Chapter 7: Walk a mile
The earnest hipsterish guy on the pavilion stage said into his microphone, “If you, or anyone you know, has ever been the victim of sexual violence, raise your hand.”
Immediately Tammy felt the blood draining from her face.
She couldn’t move.
While the hands of seemingly every one of the hundreds upon hundreds of people crowded all around her shot up into the air, she did virtually all she could, which was to stare at the ground near her feet.
The guy on the stage talked some more, and, once everyone had lowered their hands back down, Tammy felt herself returning to herself. She took a few deep, slow breaths, lifted her head, and looked about herself once more.
She was in Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville, on a warm Saturday morning in May, at Walk a Mile, a fundraiser for Our Voice, Asheville’s non-profit organization dedicated to providing services and support to the victims of sexual violence. So, she reminded herself, it was hardly freakish that so many of those gathered to do the walk had been okay—or even more than okay—with identifying themselves as they had.
Todd’s sister Maggie, Maggie’s friend Sam, and a bunch of their friends volunteered at Our Voice. And Maggie, a regular and always welcomed presence at Charlie’s place, had, from the beginning, been clear, not to say pointedly so, about one thing: Tammy would be joining in this year’s Walk a Mile.
“I know you’re loving this view,” Maggie had said to Tammy just the weekend before. They were on Charlie’s back porch, where Tammy had spent more or less the entire four months after New Year’s Eve sitting on an adirondack chair-with-an-ottoman, during the cold winter bundled in blankets like a human burrito as she gazed out at the lean, spare barrenness of the valley between Charlie’s house and the few older homes across the way, a view which the turning of the season had transformed into a lushness so thick that at this point Tammy half expected to see tigers, silverback apes and toucans gamboling about with the Ashevillian groundhogs and tree squirrels.
“I AM loving this view,” said Tammy. “I’ve never seen winter become spring. I’ve never seen any season become ANY other season.”
“It’s so amazing, isn’t it?”
“It’s shocking. It’s hypnotic. How is the growth here so dense? Weeds don’t grow in San Diego the way trees do here. Houses that, like, YESTERDAY were right THERE, are gone today, completely hidden behind all those trees. And the green of the trees! I had no idea so many shades of green even existed. Look at all that new green, that young green. That TEEN green.”
“‘Teen green.’ I love it. Charlie said you bought paints?”
“I did. I finally want to paint. All that crazy green did it.”
“That is so awesome.”
“Hey, is the Walk a Mile really next weekend?”
“How I’d like to be there.”
“WHAT?” laughed Maggie.
“I’d like to be, but, darn the luck, I really can’t be sure that my legs even work anymore. See? I can barely move my toes. So I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it after all.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to drag you there if I have to.”
“Okay, fine. But I’m warning you: for me, it’ll probably be a Crawl a Mile. If that’s something you think you can live with, I suppose I have no choice.”
“Oh, good, then it’s settled,” said Maggie. “See you there!”
But so far at the walk Tammy hadn’t seen Maggie or Sam. Not that she’d really expected to. She knew they were out there somewhere, working the event.
For his part, Charlie was down in Florida, being instrumental in turning a long-abandoned beachfront motel into Florida’s next hot spot. And Todd was at home, capturing whatever sleep he could before that night’s marathon chef-fest.
Which left Tammy alone in the crowd to, for one, conspicuously not raise her hand at a moment when she might have.
And she appreciated the degree to which she was really anything but alone. Surrounding her were countless women, children, dogs, and, most noticeably, men, many of whom were wearing flouncy skirts and form-fitting dresses, and almost all of whom, it seemed, were endeavoring not to wince as they struggled to walk gracefully, or at all, in the women’s high-heeled shoes in which they were determined, in a show of solidarity, to walk a mile.
“And now,” said someone on the stage, “let’s walk!”
As Tammy moved with the crowd toward the beginning of their stroll through downtown, a man in front of her tottered in his bright red stiletto pumps. For support, he put his hand on the shoulder of his female companion, whom Tammy guessed was his wife.
For a moment Tammy saw herself as the man, struggling to stay upright, leaning for support upon Ryan. He would save her. He would stop her from falling.
At that moment a small rise on the pavement caught the bottom of Tammy’s sneaker, causing her to stumble a moment before regaining her balance.
She would have slept with him. He was a senior, the handsomely disheveled star of her college’s art department, a true artist destined for great things. Tammy was a freshman, a nobody. She was shocked when one of her paintings had been accepted into the university’s big year-end show, which everyone knew was essentially a farewell showcase for HIS great work.
She was even more shocked when her painting received so much positive attention. The college newspaper had even done a story about it.
And then, out of nowhere, he had asked her out.
She had no idea that he even knew she existed.
She would have slept with him. She had been excited about the possibility of that happening between them.
But he had a different agenda for the evening they spent together alone in his messy flat.
If he had even planned it.
Perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps he’d had no choice but to become what he’d become that night.
Tammy didn’t know. She didn’t care. All she knew was that suddenly she was on the floor with his hands tight around her neck. All she knew was that her life was in danger.
She understood that, and she understood how much he enjoyed knowing that she understood that.
That was the fun part for him. The part he liked, the part he was after, was the moment when he knew that she had become willing to trade getting hurt by him for whatever he might do to her if she continued to resist him.
* * * * *
Everyone on the walk through downtown Asheville was so nice: laughing and talking together, supporting one another, enjoying the camaraderie of a common cause. At every street corner, Our Voice volunteers cheered on the walkers, whistled for them, clapped for them. Cars honked; people waved; strangers smiled. All the walkers bobbed their signs up and down. Only Yes Means Yes. Break the Silence, Stop the Violence. My Body, My Choice.
When, while helping direct the walkers across the intersection of Haywood and College, Maggie spotted Tammy, she screamed and waved at her to come over. Tammy did, and received, right there in the middle of the street, a big and happy hug.
“Isn’t it GREAT?” said Maggie, as the two of them walked back to the curb.
“It really is,” said Tammy. “I’ve never been to anything like this.”
“And all the men in high heels! Don’t you LOVE that guys would do that?”
“Yes,” said Tammy. “I do.”
Maggie put her hand on Tammy’s arm. “What’s wrong? You look so sad all of a sudden.”
“No,” said Tammy. “I’m not. I guess I’m just thinking.”
“Do you want to stay here with me? Help me direct traffic?”
“No, I’m good,” said Tammy. “I want to finish the walk.”
“Okay. That’s beautiful. I’ll be at the big Our Voice tent when it’s over. Come find me, okay?”
“I will,” said Tammy.
And she rejoined the walk.
Which she finished in silence, rarely looking up from the sidewalk.
When she was back in Pack Square Park, where the walk had begun, Tammy thought she’d break from the crowd and simply head back to her car.
But she found herself wanting to do something different. She found that she wanted to pass through the arc of black, white and red balloons that marked the official end of the course. So she continued walking in line with the crowd.
And she did walk through the balloons.
And when she did so many people cheered for her. People she didn’t know, had never met, couldn’t know.
They were congratulating her. Congratulating each other.
Celebrating the joy of what they had done, the goodness for which they had stood, the rightness of the fight to end sexual violence.
After walking just a little way through the balloons, Tammy stopped.
She closed her eyes.
She raised her right hand into the air.
She held it there.
Chapter 8: HB2 and BB-Q
“Have you eaten?” said Charlie.
“Not since breakfast,” said Tammy.
“Oh, good. Come with me to 12 Bones. I’m meeting a friend of ours there you haven’t met yet, a young transgender woman named Donna. Today is Donna’s birthday, so I’m buying her lunch at one of the all-time greatest barbecue joints ever.”
“I’m in. But are you sure she wants a stranger at her birthday lunch?”
“She does if it’s you. I’ve told her about you. She wants to meet you. And I want you to meet her. Donna needs as many good people in her life as she can get. Coming out as a woman hasn’t been particularly easy for her. But, throughout ALL that she’s been through, she remained her total sweetheart of a self. You’ll see. She’s also an AMAZING car mechanic. A true motor head. She’s like the Fonz—but even smaller, and a blonde. You’ll love her.”
“I already do,” said Tammy.
* * * * *
When she came through the door of 12 Bones, Donna was wearing pink clogs, scruffy flare-leg jeans, an old plaid button-down shirt with its sleeves cut off at the shoulder, and a sherbet lime scarf tied into a band that was keeping off her forehead her golden hair, which was parted down the middle and flipped up at her shoulders.
Tammy thought it was as bold and cool a look as she’d ever seen on anyone.
At one point, early in their meal, Tammy accidentally launched off the table a spoon, the business end of which, prior to that moment, had been benignly burrowed in her bowl of baked beans.
“Oh, my God,” said Tammy, helplessly watching the utensil as it sailed end-over-end through the air. “I should never gesture. I am so sorry.”
“Lemme get it,” said Donna. She pulled two paper towels from the roll standing on their table, wadded them up, dipped them into her glass of water, tore off another towel, and then went to collect Tammy’s spoon from the floor. Moving like some kind of a Jedi janitor, she bundled up the spoon in the dry sheet, and then used the damp ones to wipe up the little messes it had left in its wake. And all the while she pleasantly chatted.
“I swear,” she said, “if I ever tried to stop gesturing when I’m talking, I’d explode. Don’t ever stop gesturing, Tammy, or you might, too. Besides, think of how much FUN this spoon just had.”
“It was pretty airborne,” said Tammy.
“Oh, it’s definitely now the Evil Knievel of spoons,” said Donna. “All the other silverware in this place will be talking for YEARS about the time when THIS spoon flew.”
As Donna went off to exchange the soon-to-be legendarily spoon for a clean one, Tammy said to Charlie, “Is she the nicest person in the world?”
“I’m voting yes,” said Charlie.
At the other end of the meal, when every plate on the trio’s table looked like a starving Tasmanian devil had gone berserk on it, Tammy said to Donna, “Okay, may I just say that you look like what I think Doris Day WOULD have looked like if she’d been allowed to be as hot as she really was?”
Donna nearly choked on the final sip of her beer. “You may,” she said, putting her glass down. “And you just made my day—no, scratch that. My year.”
“Speaking of your day, Ms. Day, it is REALLY packed in here,” said Charlie. “I’m sorry I didn’t sit us outside. I can barely hear myself think. Then again, when’s THINKING ever done me any good? Can I get us all another beer?”
Donna held up her hand. “No, no, one’s enough for me.”
“It is?” said Charlie. “No offense, but since when?”
“Since HB2,” said Donna.
“Oh,” said Charlie. “Ugh.”
Donna mouthed the words, “I have to pee.”
“But don’t you remember?” said Charlie. “The bathrooms here are unisex. Another reason this place rocks.”
“I remember,” said Donna. With her big pale blue eyes, she quickly, and almost furtively, scanned the room: to her left, seated diners and the line of people waiting to place their order; just across the narrow floor behind Charlie and Tammy, the busy soda machine and the two bathrooms; to her right, more diners at their tables. “I’d just rather not,” she said.
“Are you okay?” said Charlie. He turned in his seat to also look about the room. Doing so moved into his line of vision something that Tammy, seated to his left, had been mostly blocking from his view, but which throughout her meal Donna couldn’t have missed if she’d wanted to. It was a group of six guys gathered around two little tables they’d pushed together—thick, rough-hewn anti-groomers who looked like the sort of hard drinking, hard punching hardheads whom people like Donna and Charlie had had reason in their lives to learn to fear.
“Is it those guys over there?” Charlie whispered to Donna.
Donna momentarily glanced in the opposite direction from the men, toward the front door. Looking back at Charlie, she said, “No, it’s not those guys. I mean, not really. One of them does look an awful lot like this guy who used to pound the crap out of me every day after high school, which is, actually, freaking me out a little. But he’s not the same guy. Mostly it’s just—I mean, you see the line for the bathroom. There’s always a few people waiting in it. If I go stand in that line, I will definitely be on display. And as nice as Tammy’s been about how I look, no thanks. Plus, you know: I wouldn’t want to put anyone in the awkward position of having to ask me for my birth certificate.”
“God, what’s happening in this state is so horrendous,” said Charlie.
Tammy reached across the table and put her hand atop Donna’s.
“It hasn’t exactly been a great couple of months,” said Donna, softly smiling at Tammy’s hand on hers. Then she looked up at Charlie. “But don’t worry. I’m sure it will get better.” She shrugged. “I mean, I guess it will. I don’t know.”
“And that’s the whole problem, isn’t it?” said Charlie. “We never really know if it’s going to get better. Or stay better if it does.”
“Well, for now, what I DO know is that I never pee anywhere but at home,” said Donna.
“I understand,” said Charlie. “I wish I didn’t, but I do.” Resignedly, he stood from his chair and spread his arms. “Give us a hug before you go, beautiful.”
Donna rose from her seat, stepped around the table, and walked into Charlie’s embrace. They looked like a kitten hugging a bear.
“Happy birthday,” said Charlie.
“Thank you,” said Donna.
Donna and Tammy held their hug a long time.
“I’m so glad I met you,” said Tammy.
“Me, too,” said Donna. “We’ll hang out again.”
“I hope so,” said Tammy. Quickly wiping her tears away, she said, “Sorry. I can’t seem to stop crying lately.”
“Me neither,” said Donna. “Especially if by ‘lately,’ you mean since around 1995.”
Tammy laughed. “That feels about right.”
As Donna was walking out of the restaurant, Charlie, slowly retaking his seat, said in a low voice, “Oh, crap, crap, CRAP.”
“What?” said Tammy. “What is it?”
“Well, now I know why, or why ELSE, Donna wanted to leave.”
“See the guy two tables down from us, by the door? The big guy in the green polo shirt sitting with a couple? Head like an anvil?”
“Yeah, I see him.”
“That is Frank Spruce. He’s the pastor of a Southern Baptist mega-church in town. Some ten thousand people a week attend his service. He does as much as anyone in this state to pass and promote anti-LGBT legislation. His whole ministry is based on why LGBT people aren’t really human. And poor Donna would have been looking right at him. And there’s no WAY he wasn’t staring daggers back at her.”
“And for sure Donna knows who he is?”
“Everyone in Buncombe County knows who he is.”
As if on cue, the pastor rose out of his chair, said a few words to his dining companions, turned, and started walking towards the bathroom—for which, at that moment, there was no line.
Charlie bolted to his feet, and with one big step blocked the path of the pastor, stopping him in his tracks.
“Why?” Charlie said to the pastor. Not since the days when he lived in her house had Tammy seen Charlie look so distressed.
“Excuse me?” said the pastor. He backed up half a step, but then planted his feet and put his hands on his hips, puffing out his chest. He was as tall as Charlie, and looked like he knew his way around a gym. “Can I help you?”
Speaking loudly, Charlie said, “Yes, you can help me, and everyone in this place, by telling us what you think gives you the right to preach that God wants transgender people to have to show their birth certificate before they can use a public restroom.”
By the time Charlie was done asking half his question everyone in the restaurant had fallen silent.
Everyone, that is, except for a dreadlocked woman standing at the soda machine. “That is one fair question,” she said.
The pastor locked his eyes onto Charlie’s. “I’m glad to hear you’re so interested in learning about the Word of God. You see, that is exactly what I preach—that, and that alone. I preach the Bible, my friend. I preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I preach family values.”
“FAMILY VALUES!” said Charlie. “Since when are family values hating and persecuting others? How is making an unGODLY amount of money off FEAR MONGERING a family value? You don’t preach anything LIKE what Jesus Christ taught. Jesus taught compassion. Jesus taught CARING for the outcast, for the fearful, for people who are bullied and beaten up. Jesus COMMANDED his followers to love others as they love themselves. How does that have ANYTHING to do with the disgusting bigotry against LGBT people that YOU preach?” Charlie’s eyes had turned red and moist. He was now almost pleading with the pastor. “How do you not understand—how do you not CARE?—that you are destroying lives?”
Tammy stood and came to Charlie’s side. She put her arm around him. Then she turned to the pastor.
“The right thing for you to do now is apologize to this man, or leave,” she said.
An Asian woman standing behind the restaurant’s cash register spoke.
“Yes, Mr. Spruce,” she said. “Please either apologize to our friend, or leave. We here at 12 Bones are proud supporters of family values that are actual family values.”
The lady at the soda machine started applauding. Others joined in.
By the time pastor Frank Spruce and his companions walked out the door, every person in the restaurant was standing and clapping—including the six men in the corner.
Tammy looked out the restaurant’s front window. It took her a moment to realize that she was seeing Donna, who, having just driven her car slowly across the parking lot, was seconds away from pulling into the street.
“Oh, thank GOD!” cried Tammy, running for the door.
Chapter 9: The ex calls
Charlie joined Tammy in the 12 Bones parking lot. “Too late?”
Tammy nodded. “Darn curve in the road.”
“I’ll call her and tell her to come back.”
As Charlie was raising his phone to his ear Tammy’s phone buzzed, a surprise given how few calls she ever received. She pulled out her phone, certain it was a junk call.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t.
It was Ryan.
Tammy immediately turned away from Charlie and began walking toward where the parking lot ended just before the bank of the French Broad River became level ground.
Halfway across the lot, while still walking, she answered the phone.
“Hey, Tammy,” said Ryan.
Tammy silently stayed her course until one more step would have sent her headlong down the short bank and into the river.
“Did I catch you at a good time?” said Ryan.
Tammy turned to look at Charlie, just then returning his phone to his back pocket. He gave her two thumbs up and a quick wave. She returned his wave and then faced the river again. “I’ve got a minute.”
“Well, Tam, listen. I’ve been thinking about all this stuff that we’re going through. It’s all so hard, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s not all one hundred percent my fault. But knowing that I caused what’s happened between us doesn’t make it hurt me any less.”
“I mean it, sweetheart—sorry, I know I’m not supposed to call you that anymore. But I’m serious. I know you think that I’m here having nothing but a grand ol’ time, living it up, partying, whatever. But, believe me, it’s not like that.”
“What is it like?”
Ryan sighed. “Listen, I’m going to be totally honest with you. What it’s like, more than anything else, is not having you around anymore. I find myself missing you, Doodles. I do. There. I said it. And I’m not sorry that I did. I miss you. After twenty-two years of marriage and raising two children two children together, how could I not miss you? How could I not miss how supportive you always are, how dependable, how good-natured? I don’t think I ever gave you enough credit for just being as NICE as you are. And I think you can guess how much I miss your cooking.”
“Shannon doesn’t cook?”
“Well, let me put it this way: if it doesn’t come in a box or a bag, along with a little package of flavoring, it’s probably not in Shannon’s repertoire.”
Tightened jaw and all, Tammy said, “Well, food isn’t the only way to a man’s heart, is it?”
“Ouch, Tam. Well, I guess I deserved that from you. I see that living in Asheville has toughened you up, hasn’t it? That’s a good thing. Must be those cold winters, huh? Speaking of which, I’ve been just about dying to know how you are, kitten. You’re still doing okay, right? Charlie’s still taking good care of you?”
Tammy looked over at her half-brother, waiting outside the restaurant for his friend’s return. He was talking on his phone. She looked back at the river. Half way across it, in what looked to be its slowest moving water, a mother goose and her babies contentedly paddled about.
“Why did you call, Ryan?” she said.
Ryan again sighed heavily. “I was just thinking about you, like I seem to be doing more and more every day lately, and then I felt like I had to hear your voice. And before I could stop myself, I’d called you. And I guess what it all boils down to, if I really wanted to be honest with myself, is that I’m a lot less sure these day than I guess I might have been a little earlier on that I really want my life to be separated from yours in any kind of way that would actually put an end to us, do you know what I mean?”
“Not really. Are you saying you don’t want a divorce?”
“I’m saying I’m not sure what I think about that, Tam. I just feel so confused. You’re way out there in Asheville, and I’m here trying to get through every day the best I can, and nothing’s really making sense to me anymore. And then here we both are, with lawyers and everybody gettin’ all involved in stuff that should really only be between you and me. Why is everybody so involved in our business, you know?”
“I just feel like everything is moving too fast. Like maybe we should just take a bit of time here, before we end up doing anything too final that later on we’ll wish we’d hadn’t, because things turned out differently than we thought they would back when we started signing all the papers that the lawyers wouldn’t stop shoving under our noses. Does that make any sense at all, my wanting to just slow down a little?”
“Sure. I mean, I guess. Except that I thought we had definitely decided to get divorced. You said that’s what you wanted. I think if it’s over, we should let it be over.”
“But what if we don’t really want it to be over, Tam? That’s what I’m saying.”
“Are you saying you DON’T want it to be over? Have you changed your mind?”
“Look, it’s just that so many things are happening all at once, you know? I’ve got this going on, and that, and one thing, and another, and this detail that needs to be taken care of, and that thing that needs me to deal with it. It’s all just become too much. Where’s the time to relate, to discuss? Where’s the time to make sure that everything’s in order, before we just start moving everything around so much that pretty soon no one knows where anything is at all? I don’t want that sort of thing going on with us, ruining everything we have. And you don’t want that, either. I know you don’t. The only way to stop all that kind of turmoil and craziness in its tracks is to just step back, take a breath, and collect ourselves. That’s all I want: time to, you know, collect myself. To collect us. To collect everything we care about, and make sure it all gets handled right. I wanna make sure that everything we do as we move forward works out for both of us, that it makes the most out of everything we both want and need. And I know that I can at least start to make some of that happen, if I only had some time to sort things out.”
“But it’s been almost five months. I—”
“Yeah, it’s been five months. But what’s that next to twenty-two years? Look, Tammy, I know I made a mistake, okay? I’ll be the first one to admit it. And then everything that happened after that happened, and you decided—and decided without so much as a word to me OR the kids about it—to move out of our house, and go live all the way across the country, which meant that you and I couldn’t possibly talk out what had happened between us, could we? And now, well, here we are. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t really like where we are. So the only thing I’m asking from you now is just a little bit of time. That’s all. Just some time to make sure that before we go too far down this path we’re taking, we’re both positive that it’s leading somewhere we really want to go.”
“Maybe we should figure out that path together,” Tammy said. “I could come there. Or you—”
“Maybe we should do that. I really like that idea. But the truth is that right now I am so freakin’ busy here trying to keep everything together, while I know you’re just as busy there, running around town with all the new girlfriends I’m sure you’ve made by now. So I think that, if we look at the big picture, it’s obvious that right now, just for this moment, the best thing for us to do is to stay where we are—and mostly to keep our lines of communications one hundred percent open. That is what we really need right now, more than anything: communication. You be open with me, and I’ll be open with you. That’s how we’re going to succeed at putting ourselves back together again. And if you have something that you think you want a lawyer to talk to me about, you call me up yourself and talk to me about it. And I’ll do the same to you, I promise. And together we’ll work out everything that needs to be worked out between us. And hey, you know, if part of what we find out we want to work out together is how we can get BACK together, then we’ll be able to see that this has all been for the best. That we’ve both landed exactly where we should have been—or where we should have stayed—all along. Does that sound good to you?”
“I don’t know,” said Tammy. She closed her eyes in an effort to calm her mind. “Of course there’s a part of me that would like things to work out between us, Ryan. But—”
“That’s all I wanted to hear. All I care about is that you still care about us enough to let me do what I need to do in a way that you can trust will most benefit both of us, emotionally, spiritually, physically, in every way. I’ve always taken good care of our family, and I won’t stop doing that now. So can I count on you not to move forward with all the legal nonsense having to do with our divorce, until I’ve had the time to reflect a little bit on how, bottom line, I really feel, in my deepest heart, about us doing any of this stuff at all? Can I count on you to just give me some time, sweetheart?”
“Sure,” said Tammy. “I can give you that.”
“That’s my girl. You’re the best, plain and simple. Always have been, always will be. Oh, shoot. I’ve got another call coming in. And I have to take it. Gawd, it just never quits. Thank you, Tammy. Thank you for just … well, being you. Okay?”
“I’ll talk to you soon.”
It was after she’d hung up with Ryan that Tammy noticed something in the leaves and branches just to her left. It was a length of chain tied around a tree branch overhanging the river, from which it then dropped straight into the muddy water maybe fifteen feet below. While Tammy could see how powerfully strong the current was where it entered the water, along its whole length the chain was as taut as it could get.
She wondered what the chain was attached to underneath the water that was so heavy.
During the time that Tammy was on the phone with Ryan, Donna had returned. Charlie and Donna hugged in the parking lot, and then triumphantly reentered the restaurant, where they were greeted by the crowd with round applause, free beer, and all the goodwill they could take in, which was a lot.
Tammy, by listening to Ryan, had missed all of that.
Chapter 10: Charlie’s coming out story
Standing on the eastern bank of a river already tens of millions of years old when the earliest members of that upstart species, dinosaurs, first drank from its waters, Tammy felt the inevitability of her returning to the man who, after being married to her for twenty-two years, had left her for a girl half her age.
If Ryan asked her to come back to him, she would go. She knew she would. She would painstakingly sew and patch and glue back together what Ryan had torn apart, and would then again become his wife, his mother, his sister, his friend, his confidant, his adviser, his caretaker, his maid, his cook, his nurse, his cheerleader.
And that seemed to be what Ryan wanted, too. Somewhere on the wall of the looming skyscraper he’d just thrown up before her he seemed to have left open a window to their reconciliation.
And he would. Tammy could feel in her bones that he would.
What she wanted above all was moving inexorably towards her.
And of course she felt happy about that. Of course she felt relieved, excited, optimistic, joyful.
Or, at least, that’s how she wanted to feel. That’s certainly how she had anticipated feeling if ever there came a time when she had reason to believe that her marriage would be restored.
But here that time was upon her, and she wasn’t feeling any of those things.
Ryan’s phone call had left her feeling one way, and one way only.
And that way was defeated.
How it could be that at that moment she was feeling defeated rather than elated was beyond her. It didn’t make any sense.
It didn’t, that is, until, as she stood looking out across the broad and calmly moving river, it did.
All in a moment, Tammy realized that she wasn’t going back to Ryan because she loved him and wanted to be with him.
She was going back to him because it was safe.
She had always been shy, anxious, hesitant. Ryan’s overbearing confidence made her feel safe.
It wasn’t her love, thought Tammy, that tied her to Ryan. It was her cowardice.
* * * * *
She walked over to the sturdy old picnic bench outside of 12 Bones, where, after all the hoopla inside, Charlie and Donna had relocated, in order to finish their beers in privacy and all the fresh air they could take in.
“You’re back!” said Charlie. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah,” said Donna. “It was Ryan.”
“Yikes,” said Charlie.
“Yeah,” said Tammy.
“Wanna beer?” said Charlie.
“I would, thanks,” said Tammy.
“Then have no fear, dear, for beer is near,” said Charlie. “Donna? Another beer?”
“Yes,” said Donna — followed by her silent hyper-articulation of the word, “queer.”
“Ha!” said Charlie.
As Charlie was reentering the restaurant, Tammy asked Donna if she could ask her a question.
“Anything,” said Donna.
“So, coming out seems like the bravest thing a person can do. How did you come up with the courage to do it?”
“Oh, well, in my case, it wasn’t bravery,” said Donna. “I just didn’t have any choice in the matter. It’s not like I ever wondered if I was a boy a girl. I always, always knew that I was a girl. And every day—every minute of every day—that I had to live the lie that I was one thing, when I knew myself to be another, was torture to me, pure and simple. So finally I did the only thing I could do. For me, coming out as a woman was literally a matter of do or die. So I did.” She took a sip of her beer. “Is everything all right?”
Tammy was lost enough in her thoughts to take a moment or two nodding yes. Then, speaking at the deliberate pace of someone wanting to get exactly the right words in exactly the right order, she said, “So you knew who you were, and you knew that not being who you were was costing you more than you wanted to pay.”
“More than I could pay,” said Donna. “I just didn’t have it in me to continue.”
“You two look serious,” said Charlie, setting on the table the three beers he’d carried from inside. “What are we talking about?”
“The cost of not being the person you really are,” said Donna.
“Ugh,” said Charlie, resuming his seat. “Now there’s a topic I wish I knew less about than I do.”
“Did it take a lot of bravery when you came out, Charlie?” said Donna. “Or were you like me, where you just felt like you didn’t have a choice about it either way?”
“A little of both,” said Charlie. “I didn’t actually WANT to come out when I did. I just DID all of a sudden.”
“Why? said Donna.
Charlie took a sip of his beer. “After my sophomore year in high school, my family moved, so I started my junior year at a new school. Since nobody at that school knew me, I thought I’d try to become someone totally different than I’d always been, since I’d always been a shy, quiet, nerdy, GAY kind of kid that other kids just loved to, you know, BEAT UP all the time. So I thought, here’s my chance to become someone new, strong, confident, less beatable-uppable.
“The problem was, I didn’t know HOW to be anyone but myself. So what I ended up doing was completely imitating my dad, who—as you know, Tammy—is a drinkin’, swearin’, chewin’, spittin’, sports-lovin’, babe-lustin’, gun-totin’ homophobe. So I was, like, ‘Okay. That’s my model for what a man’s man is like. That’s what straight guys ARE. Let’s do this.’
“So I did. I became a high-school version of my dad. And it worked! Turns out I have kind of a KNACK for drinking, swearing, spitting, and causing trouble.”
“What about for babe-lustin’?” said Donna.
Charlie’s voice got low and conspiratorial. “Oh, dude,” he said, doing a quick nod towards someone behind Tammy and Donna. “Check out that hot little piece right there.” Tammy and Donna both turned to look. There was no one there. “Man, I’ll tell you what,” Charlie continued, practically licking his lips, “give me ten minutes alone with her in the back of my truck, and she’ll be walkin’ around for days like a … like a … like a super hot chick who doesn’t realize that she had mind-blowing sex with a homosexual.”
“WHAT!” cried Donna.
“So close,” said Tammy.
“Well, it’s BEEN awhile,” said Charlie. “Plus, I didn’t wanna use the same language with you two that I used with THOSE guys. Let’s just say that I MORE than passed for straight, okay?”
“No comment,” said Donna, while Tammy rolled her eyes and took a sip of her beer.
“Well, I did,” said Charlie. “And I ended up spending the year with this whole group of guys, smokin’ weed, drinkin’, hangin’ out, not really doing anything but harassing girls, stealing crap we didn’t even want from stores, and driving around looking for a kegger we’d heard someone might be throwing.”
“Sounds like fun,” said Donna.
“It wasn’t,” said Charlie. “And then one day it really wasn’t.”
“What happened?” said Donna.
“Well,” said Charlie, “We had this kid at our school, Arnold. He was enrolled in this program they had at that school, where they taught kids with special needs in this two-room portable building that was located way out on a part of the school grounds no one ever went to. Arnold wasn’t right, physically. He was huge—like, six-foot eight, at least. Just gigantic. And he had a massive jaw, and crooked teeth, and a big rubbery mouth that was always wet, and this ridiculous haircut, with a giant cowlick that was always sticking straight up in the back, and really short bangs way up on his outsized forehead, and when he talked his jaw would wiggle all over the place, and you couldn’t understand much of what he was saying. But the thing was, he was some kind of actual genius at math. Like, all these colleges, from all over the country, were forever sending out people to study him. And NASA had some deal going on with him, where they were learning from him, or teaching him, or something like that. That’s what everybody had heard.
“Anyway, one day, right after school, one of the guys from my gang came running up to me, all excited, and he goes, ‘C’mon, c’mon! We’re chasing Arnold!’ And he runs off. So I follow him. And sure enough, for some reason Arnold had come onto our part of the school, and now this gang of guys was chasing him, most all of whom were the same guys I hung out with. And just as I got there, they trapped Arnold, in this outside corner of the school, where two walls of lockers met. So he was kind of stuck in this wedge, with lockers tight on either side of him. And he was so frightened of the gang of idiots screaming, pointing, and laughing at him—and a couple of the guys had even starting throwing things at him, I remember an empty soda can and a pencil hitting him—that he let out this sound that I can’t even describe. This WAIL. This long, anguished, animal CRY. It sounded like … I dunno … like all the world’s suffering wrapped into one horrible moan.
“And they were all screaming at him that he was a faggot. They kept yelling that word at him, over and over. It was like some kind of frenzy had possessed these guys, where they were FULLY crazy. And even though Arnold was big enough to take out ALL of them, he was cowering, with his eyes real wide and terrified, and his clenched hands pressing up hard underneath his chin, and he was kind of working his long legs up and down, almost running in place, trying to make himself small. And I remember looking at his shoes, and thinking they had to be the same black high-tops Converse made for professional basketball players, since no other shoes could be that big.
“And then I snapped. I just . . . couldn’t. Next thing I know, I’m in between the crowd and Arnold, screaming at all my friends, ‘I’m a faggot! I’m a faggot! He’s not the faggot. I’M the faggot!’ I just went nuts. I screamed that I was a faggot, that I was gay, that I wanted to have sex with guys, NOT girls, and that if they all wanted to torture someone for not being like them, they should torture ME, and not some poor guy who’s never once told them a lie in his life, when I’d been lying to them every single day for a year.”
Charlie took a sip of his beer, and fell silent.
“So then what happened?” said Donna.
“Nothing,” said Charlie. “All the guys just kind of stared at me for awhile, and then some of them mumbled some stuff, and basically they all just walked away. And then me and Arnold were all alone. So I took his hand—which was, like, THREE times the size of my hand—which seemed to calm him down, and I walked him back to his classroom. We went this long way around, where nobody was. And the whole time we were walking, he kept his head down, with his long neck and his thin, hunched shoulders. For our entire walk he never took his eyes off the ground. They were filled with tears, and he seemed really ashamed. So was I. I was ashamed that for such a long time I had been one of the group of guys who’d done that to him.
“After that,” said Charlie, “everyone in the school knew I was gay. And all their parents knew I was gay. And all the teachers knew I was gay. It was practically in the local newspaper. So I had no choice but to come out to my parents. And within literally minutes of my doing that, my dad had gone ballistic and thrown me out of the house.” He lifted his beer to Tammy. “And that’s where you come in, darling one.”
Tammy held up her beer to him. “And now you’re saving me.”
Donna raised her glass, too. “To people saving people,” she said.
They clicked. They drank.