Copyright © 1999 Barrie Jean Borich. All rights reserved.
When I Call Her My Husband
Linnea and I have been lovers for all these years, and I wonderare wemarried?
I ask her as we sit at our red kitchen table, in our South Minneapoliscorner duplex with peeling walls and crumbling Victorian trim. Outside,the stoplight on Portland Avenue sends a shallow green, yellow, redwash in through the front windows as gearhead cars and accessorizedCaddies with dark-tinted glass shriek through the intersection. As downtowncommuters in tidy Hondas plod home south after work. As Harleyguys rumble past with pipes clattering. As red Isuzu Troopers with bigspeakers in the back cruise by slow, bellowing with low bass, hip-hop,thump-da-thumps. As another family of kids we haven't seen before careensaround the corner on bikes, the little ones on Big Wheels, pumpingto keep up with tires growling and buckling over loose stones andbroken glass.
Inside, our three cats lounge beneath the ceiling fan. Our dog digsthrough her basket of bones and toys. We are surrounded by the clutterof ourselves. Snapshots of friends and nieces. Funny postcards ofwomen in vintage drag. Homemade valentines too sweet to throw away.Herb tinctures, and big bottles of vitamins. Big bottles of olive oil andevery kind of tea. Glossy urbane magazines and mail-order cataloguesfor things we never orderbooks on tape, or down comforters, orloose-fitting casual clothing. Piles of clippings from the Village Voicethat we don't have time to read. City newspapers and poetry books or volumesof lesbian and gay theory or books about quantum physics or StarTrek or dogs. Our moderate collection of plastic dinosaurs, including thefive-foot-long, blowup pteranodon hanging from the kitchen ceiling.Our large and varied collection of holy statues and candles, Catholicand Orthodox, mostly the Madonna, along with a few other saints andgoddesses: Saint Lucy with her eyes on a plate, Kannon with her manyarms, Marilyn in plunging black décolletage, shell ladies from ocean-beachresorts, and a piñata rendition of Madonna (the pop star) wemade a few years back for a party. All this is seven years of us. So are wemarried?
I ask her in the summer as we ride in her Chevy Blazer truck on ourway to a week in a one-room cabin on the shore of blue-gray and unblinkingLake Superior, the dog's head hanging between us from herspot in the back as the forests along the northern highway grow moreblue-green and needled.
I ask her in the winter over big bowls of steaming seafood soup at ourusual table, between bright white walls and abstract prints of fish, in thenonsmoking section of our favorite restaurant, run by a Chinese familyemigrated here from Vietnam. Mostly daughters, black-haired and halfour size, one-by-one they interrupt us to admire the silver jewelryLinnea buys me at gem shows, to ask us questions about our relationship,to describe how their lives are changinga wedding engagement, a newbaby, a college acceptance on the East Coast.
In all these spots, public and private, I ask Linnea, "Are we married?"
Her response is always to move closer, pull me closer if she can. Let'ssay we're at home, lying side-by-side in the king-sized bed that webought with our only joint charge card (Slumberland). The bed is one ofjust three joint purchases we've made in our first seven years. The otherswere a TV and a queen-sized water bed that we sold later when westarted waking up aching, my back, her knees. The water bed was ourfirst joint purchase, and I cried when we bought it in our second year togetherbecause it was so complicated. There were enough boards andrubber and cords to fill up the back of a pickup truck. "I moved my wholelife to Minnesota in a Pinto," I sobbed. "And now just the bed takes up awhole truck." Now we lie on our king-sized King Koil on a plain steelbase, big enough for both of us, the dog, and a cat or two if there isn'tany roughhousing. We're still waiting to be able to afford a frame for thisextravagant mattress. We want something showy and romantic, like aVictorian sleigh bed, to match our feeling for each other. But our dreamssurpass our credit limits. If the state of marriage is determined by property,we may not have enough to qualify.
So we're lying in this bed on a Sunday evening, the dog curled up justunder my stocking feet, one of the cats annoying me by obsessivelykneading at my chest, and I ask her, "Do you think we're married?"
Linnea rolls over, shooing away the cat, resting her belly alongsidemy hip as her chin nuzzles my shoulder. "I think you're my wife," shesays.
I laugh and squeeze in closer, turn so I can kiss the soft exposed fleshbelow her ear. She is completely serious and not serious at all, in thatqueer way we learn to roll with a language we are at once completely apart of and completely excluded from.
"Yes, honey," I say. "You are my wife, too." But this is not the rightword for it. I can feel the vague tensing in her limbs as she holds me, thestructure of her embrace still solid as something deeper steps away.What is it in her that is compromised, knocked off its feet, when I callher wife? A sort of manhood? But this is not the right word either. "Idon't know the word," she would say. "But I'm not a man."
So I press myself even closer, sliding my thigh up to rest between herlegs, sliding my hip up against her hip so I can feel our bones touch. Theevening sun falling through the lace we have hung on our bedroom windowscatters bright, sun-colored roses across her face and chest.
"Not your wife," she says.
"My handsome wife?" I try.
"I don't like wife."
It's true, it doesn't fit her. But who does the word wife fit? Fishwife.Housewife. I don't like it either. But when Linnea calls me her wife allthat falls away. Then it is a word filled with all the attention she givesme, plump with kisses on the neck as my thighs part to her hands. Wecan only use this word if we steal it. Hidden in our laps it's better.
Better for me. When I say, wife, her jaw muscles stiffen. She becomesstrange, unknowable to me while the sun outside falls behind clouds,while there is no light dappling our bare arms and faces, while the surfaceof our skin chills.
"OK," I say. "How about husband?"
With this word, husband, I feel her relax, the flow between us returning.Can I call her my husband without meaning a man? Without meaninga woman who wants to be a man? Without even meaning a womanwho acts like a man? Even now, over thirteen years a lesbian, I still meetmen I am attracted to, but just from the surface layers of my skin. Noman can touch my face, my lips, and cause everything in me to drop,bones to water, as Linnea can, as women like her, butch lesbians, do.Who in the world can fly you to the moon, set you to swoon, send youdown with that old black magic in a Tony Bennett ballad kind of lovefever? For me it's a woman who would rather be a husband than a wife.
When I call Linnea my husband I mean that she's a woman who has tolead when we slow dance, who is compelled to try to dip and twirl me,no matter that I have rarely been able to relax on a dance floor since Istopped drinking. She leads me between the black walls of a gay bar, ourfaces streaked with neon and silver disco light, the air so dark Linnea'sblack leather belt and both pairs of our black boots seem to vanish, leavingparts of us afloat in the heavy smell of booze and cigarettes. Sheleads me slipping under streamers and lavender balloons, in the center ofthe light cast by several dozen candles, on some friend's polished oakdining-room floor cleared for party dancing. She leads me across aSunday morning, sun streaming into our living room through southernexposed windows, so bright it sets the dust spinning. We dance clumsilyon the purple oriental rug we bought cheap at a garage sale, the wornwool covered with cat and dog hair, the dog barking and nipping at ourheels, me in stocking feet, Linnea wearing athletic shoes because thearches of her feet went bad a few years back.
When I call her my husband I mean that she's a woman I saw dressedseriously in a skirt and heels just once, early on, when she still tried tocross over for job interviews. Her head, shoulders, hands looked toolarge, her gait too long, an inelegant drag queen. This is a woman who'shappiest straddling a motorcycle, who wears a black leather jacket andsquare-toed biking boots even when she's not riding. For years I've beentelling her that her thick, curly hair would look fantastic long, wild withits own life like the hair of Botticelli's Venus or Arlo Guthrie's hair in theAlice's Restaurant days, but she will always be a woman who wears herhair short, cut to look slicked back at the sides, a grease-free DA. She's awoman who does not look like a man, yet is often mistaken for one, awoman who meets a clamor of gasps when she enters into the pale greenlight of shopping-mall rest rooms. The other women are caught withtheir naked hands motionless over the bright white sinks. The boldestand least observant among them checks her own reflection in the mirror,straightens her back, breaks from the pack to protect the others, pointsto some unseeable place on the other side of the cloister wall"This isthe women's room."
I mean Linnea is a woman who once stood at the center of the GayNineties Saturday-night throb, her Levi's tight across the ass, her blackleather boots and black leather jacket absorbing the speckled silver lightrefracting from the spangled curtains of the drag stage. She was caughtin a fast second of instinct when she swung around and decked a drunkflat in the nose. He had reached between her legs from behind to grabwhat he thought was her dick. "He got two surprises that night," is whatLinnea says about it.
I mean Linnea is a woman who is a woman because she was born witha woman's body. The large breasts and tender nipples. The monthlyswelling, cramps, and blood. The opening up into her that she will doanything to protect, even break a man's nose in the glittering dark of abar where drag queens sway on a sequined stage in sequined gowns andsequined eyelashes, their breasts made of foam rubber or silicone,their dicks taped up safe between their buttocks, as they smile like popstars before paparazzi and mouth the words of Whitney Houston songs.
When I say husband I mean the woman lying beside me on a coolspring Sunday evening while the thinning light streaked over our bedfrom the west turns rose-colored. "You are my husband," I whisper to her,and we both laugh a little under our breaths, as we kiss, as she rocks meuntil I am nearly asleep, as the light flickers and sinks into night, as welisten to Luis outside in the yard behind ours crooning in Spanish to hisfour little dogs while his pet parrots shriek, as our dog pants alongsideour bed, waiting for her supper, as the cat kneads my chest, using herclaws, and I shoo her off to the floor. "But does that mean we're married?"I whisper to Linnea. But she is drifting off into a nap. We won't solve thistoday. The rose light flickers and I drift off with her.
The World in Our Bed
It has been in these wordless moments as we fall off into sleep, or as wearrive back to the light, awake, still together, that I have wondered.Before it was the birds, our neighbor Luis's chattering pets, that filled inthe background of my endless questioning, or it was the honk and rattleof Portland Avenue, or the heavy steps and laughter of our upstairsneighbors, their sounds creaking down through the weakening walls ofthat crumbling duplex. Now, as I look at our lives together, I see somethings have changed. Linnea and I have new windows that look out ontoa different side of the neighborhood. Another gaggle of voices screechesand coughs in the alley. Different splays of light form across the bedclothes.Still, the same questions inhabit me.
I am not the type who can disappear easily into the music of amoment, although I've learned to try, learned a little bit of the deepbreathing, the mind-release of meditation, learned to master at least amomentary physical dissolve that allows me to meld my usually fracturedconsciousness with the particular tree rustle and traffic rumble ofthe city's sunny or thundering afternoons.
Still, most of my moments overflow with other moments. I restagainst Linnea's breasts and stomach in a room where the sharp edge ofafternoon light slowly dulls to matte and grainy dusk. The hot summerwater spirits that had been writhing up from the sidewalks vanish as theevening cools. The voices of children thin as some are called home.Even in these hovering moments where I touch my lips lightly againstLinnea's lips, run one finger along the curve of my lover's encircling armjust to feel her skin against my fingertip, even here I have to work to stayin just this one place. I have to sing in low whispers, breathe, nownow, to keep myself out of daydream. This is one fact of our marriage. I amtoo easily distracted. Linnea sees just the one she loves but I'm always lost ina wide lens. I watch the muscled body of the world push between us andobscure the face of our body's love with its wide slice of cheekbone, itsglimmering and familiar slopes of skin.
The question is simple. Who are we, the two of us, together? If wecould look down on ourselves from above, what would we see? A marriedcouple, like any married couple, linked through our coupling by historyand tradition, literature and song, to the great pitch and roll? Orhuddled refugees, expatriated by our aberrations, grabbing on and flyingoff again, but at home in the sweet wildflower ditches we find along theside of a the road?
I would like to stop worrying about it. I would like to just lie here, insidethis moment, with Linnea, in our rumpled bed, on the grimy andgardened south side of a Midwestern city where I was not born. I wouldlike to touch Linnea's lips against my own, and let my lover fill all myopen spaces. I would like to let us, just us, drown out the other populations,the music of people and places that surround us even when wearen't looking out our windows. But then I am overcome with long-finishedminutes. I might recollect a dinner with our friends, a cacklingchorus made up of women who wear a tumult of natural black hair orgreen and copper weaves of imitation braids or maybe a stiff blond brushcut, and men with gray beards or homegrown dreadlocks or a sandy jazzdot on the chin, gathered around platters of organic turkey or homemadelasagna or walleye with black bean sauce.
Or maybe it's the face of my brother's wife I see, in the years beforetheir marriage, in Chicago, the first time I meet this woman who will bemy sister-in-law. Her long black hair hangs loose down the back of arumpled T-shirt. Her smile is easy, from the side of her that likes this momentof her life in a big American city, speaking a language she was notborn to and completely unafraid of her boyfriend's lesbian sister.Mitsuko's feet are slightly pigeon-toed, and she holds a glass of somethingcold in her hand, something she has been drinking as she sits up inPaulie's bed, watching television with her lover in the moments beforeLinnea and I arrive at the old apartment near the center of the city, theone with the doorman and the view of all those brick and tar rooftops,just a block from Lake Michigan.
This moment opens in my mind, dissolves into focus suddenly, withoutbidding. I can keep it to myself, or I can tell Linnea about it, buteither way the moment is fuller and more fractured than it was before,and the world, welcome or not, is here in bed with us.