Out of Houston

When I think back to that bar in Houston, the one that offered us mahogany and beveled glass and a brief reprieve from our hot, damp lives, I can still see Lynda and me: my blue-jean jacket, her skeleton earrings. We’ve swiveled onto our stools, and she’s paid for our drinks. She is laughing, leaning into me, and I nod, slowly agreeing to something.

Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

We were graduate students then. Grad students inspire little pity because their misery is self-generated—what fools to chase education to such an extreme—and they are often obnoxious. Now that I am a professor, I catch whiffs of that familiar stink on them: a mix of sweat and burritos, of ego and anxiety.

But the agonies of graduate school don’t feel manufactured and optional while you’re going through them. They feel like hell. When I finished my orals, for some reason on Wuthering Heights, I went home and wept to General Hospital, my daily, and, I am not proud to say, singular guilty pleasure. I’d become unhinged enough to think of getting a couple of cats, of naming them Edgar and Heathcliff, and of finding this enormously amusing, but I doubted that I could support two feline suitors on a teaching assistantship.

Yes, life as a TA was tough, but what other choice did we have? To work full-time? A Maynard G. Krebs shriek formed in our sensitive throats. The poorer and older of us already had been there, done that. We’d slung enough hash to fatten whole towns, coming home with pockets full of crumpled bills, our hair smelling of other people’s food. Or we’d put in our time at pink-collar jobs, playing secretary in skirts and fingernails. We’d filed and phoned and tried to write poetry on the side, knowing that no one in Poe-Biz would take someone like us seriously.

Being in a creative writing program changed that.

We got to call ourselves writers, not secretaries, not waitresses; we deemed this to be a sacrifice worth making.

I remember breaking down to spend fifteen dollars on a lamp so I could have a decent light to read by. And dragging a mattress and box springs—a lucky find by the apartment Dumpster—up three flights to my lair. Sleeping on that bed was like lying on a slab of rock, with smaller rocks randomly embedded in the primary boulder, but I took pleasure in getting off my two-inch foam pad, in my upward move away from a cigarette-stale carpet.

Lynda was no better off than I. Her apartment had air and light and nothing in it. Well, a card table and two folding chairs, her pink three-speed propped against a wall, a plugged-in radio. I don’t think that I’m erasing furniture from my memory. I recall an impromptu gathering: after one of our fellow students had shot himself in the head, wham bam, dead and gone, a stunned and drunken group of us sitting on the hardwood floor, our backs against the wall because there was nowhere else to sit.

It always looked as if Lynda could be packed and on a plane in half an hour. And she could. Yet in the end, she chose not to fly but to drive her dirt-brown Honda Civic home to Washington. She’d had enough, gotten her MA, screwed around for another year in the PhD program while her beloved awaited and, apparently, issued ultimatums, as beloveds are wont to do. Lynda wanted company. It was a long way to go alone, especially in that rusty bucket of hers.

We had both come into a bit of luck, having been granted the two creative writing fellowships offered that year: five thousand bucks each. The director called me first, and I asked if I could tell Lynda, my best friend, the news, so I rang her up when she was still in Seattle. First, I told her that I’d gotten a fellowship. There was that half-second pause of disappointment, discouragement, despair before she breathed into the phone, “That’s great. That’s really great. Congratulations.” “Oh, yeah,” I said as if I had just remembered something. “You got one too.”

In Houston, we celebrated by ordering fancy lady drinks. I liked something the mahogany and glass bar served that tasted similar to strawberry tea with cream, and Lynda always fancied Pernod, that awful liquid licorice. She would have been a great Absinthe drinker.

We said that we should buy ourselves leather jackets, cocaine, and sexual favors, but we didn’t do these things. I paid bills, bought books, and forked over a thousand of my five so that one of Lynda’s questionable friends, a kindly Charles Manson lookalike, would rebuild the engine in my flame-red Karmann-Ghia. I also decided to take a summer off from teaching in Houston: one of the all-time worst ways to spend that season, wading through one hundred percent humidity into frozen classrooms filled with restless, albeit friendly, Texans.

I should spend the summer in Berkeley, Lynda told me, in that beautifully cool bar. I could see my mother, drink Peet’s coffee, and stroll under the Liquidambars, which blessed my shoulders with drops of their mysterious water. After another drink, I agreed to make the drive with her to the West Coast even though I would have to buy a one-way ticket back to Houston in August, even though it would be a long haul, and even though her tiny car, like mine, lacked AC. She made it sound good: a road trip, two girlfriends taking to the highway, a last hurrah. Lynda could be silver-tongued, and I can make rash decisions.

Usually I flew home on my annual pilgrimage to California, but the year before Lynda’s invitation, I had elected to take the train instead. My on/off ex/boyfriend dropped me at the station, then waved me off as I mounted the metal steps onto the car. Someone directed me to my seat, which was plush enough but did not recline a single inch. I felt a band of panic tighten my chest. Forty-eight hours, they’d said. Forty-eight hours in that seat? I couldn’t imagine enduring this, but the landscape already clipped past the tinted windows.

My seatmate was twenty, a handsome bagger at Kroger’s. We talked for awhile, then drifted downstairs to a small “screening room,” which ran B movies all night long. At 6:00 a.m., talked out, sleep-deprived, we were propped up on our elbows in the observation car, sipping too-hot coffee from Styrofoam cups and watching small, wild pigs jog around the seemingly endless prairie. He kissed me goodbye in San Francisco.

On the way back, I hung out with an eighteen-year-old guy who was traveling with his mother. Young men and trains go together, I guess. As we strolled around El Paso, he gallantly made sure to stay on the street-side of me, puffing up his chest, my protector. Having waved goodbye to his mom, we found a quiet spot and made out to while away the hours. I arrived with hickeys blossoming on my sleepy neck, but my ex/boyfriend didn’t seem to notice.

Let me set the record straight: mostly, I don’t want anything to happen to me. I want to stay where I am, usually prone. I want to eat in the same restaurants and order the same food because it was good before and it’s bound to be pretty good again. I like routine, comfort, security. But a vixen in my head sometimes says, “Take the train. Sit in the observation car until dawn. Let that boy slip his eighteen-year-old tongue between your lips.”

So I arranged everything, got new contacts (another fellowship expenditure) and prepared to depart with Lynda. The day before we were to go, I grew convinced that one lens wasn’t sitting well on my eye. How could I leave and not be able to see?

“Oh, honey,” Lynda murmured. She had a good voice, sincere yet amused. “I’m so sorry,” she said, then added, “I hate it when I get like that.”

After a moment, I realized that Lynda wasn’t saying she was sorry my contact didn’t sit right; she was sorry I was crazy. Okay, so Lynda turned out to be right. Eventually, the lens did seem to fit. I accustomed myself to it, maybe.

We drove off, Lynda wiping the dust of Texas permanently off her cowgirl boots, I temporarily retreating from the confusion of loving and hating somebody I wasn’t exactly sleeping with anymore.

The trip was a drag.

We talked, sure. That was the good part. Lynda assured me that I was open-minded when I told her I feared I was judgmental. She made fun of the red bandanna on my head and all the bobby pins that I helplessly had stuck into my layered hair to keep it from getting wind-whipped. One arm grew stiff and pink; then the other. My nose reddened. By the end of the first day, my throat ached from shouting over the sound of the engine.

Lynda leaned to the left of me. I was a liberal and a feminist. She was a Marxist and a lesbian. She told me, laughing, that I kept her in touch with the mainstream. It is true that I made her watch The Princess Bride. Munching popcorn, she looked over at me with a buttery smile of surprise. “I thought it would be more ironic,” I said, but she shook off my apology. Lynda took me, along with half a dozen rowdy cowgirls, to see Desert Hearts, a sensitive and sexy lesbian love story. I tried to interest her in thirtysomething, my favorite television show at the time; she sat on my Salvation Army couch and scoffed. “You mean it’s all about these whiney white people?”

The last time that Lynda had gone west she had done so with her love, the woman with almost the same name as mine. Lynda’s girl had lived with her in Houston for a few years before she called it quits. She was pug-nosed and fair, with small breasts, short hair, and strong legs.

A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out.

Once Lynda’s girlfriend told me about working at a gas station, squirreled away all night in a glass box. A young man circled around her for a while. Finally, he asked, “You a boy or you a girl?” “Girl,” she’d answered. Then he asked her out. Obviously, he was attracted to her any which way, but he wanted to make sure he’d gotten the gender straight. I loved that story, but I don’t remember her telling too many tales, at least not to me. Hearty and able, she worked at the natural foods market. I felt weakly feminine around her, the effete geek that Lynda dragged home to share their dinners of brown rice and saitan, the straight chick who didn’t even know what saitan was, for Christ’s sake.

On our road trip, I wanted to stop in real restaurants. I longed to be served, to be indoors, and to be out of the wind. Lynda objected. She and her girlfriend had eaten peanut butter and crackers by the side of the road, and they were perfectly happy. “I’m not going to sit by the side of the road and eat peanut butter and crackers,” I snapped.

As a vegetarian, Lynda had a hard time in the places we tried. She ordered cheese sandwich after cheese sandwich, and paid what I’m sure she felt was too much money for them. In New Mexico, at some in-between restaurant in some in-between town, I’d contentedly tucked into my turkey club, and she seemed mollified that they had pasta salad on the menu. Then her dish came: iceberg lettuce leaves beneath a mound of cold spaghetti, on top of which wobbled a large glob of mayonnaise. Pasta Salad. The cook must have put those two words together as best as he could. Lynda laughed but put her fork down. “I don’t think I can eat this,” she said, and she sounded close to tears.

It isn’t easy traveling with someone you’re not sleeping with. Of course, it isn’t easy doing so with a lover either. In my early twenties, a boyfriend and I spent three months wandering as far as our Eurail passes and limited budget could take us. We made it to Monte Carlo, to Morocco, to Athens, to Stockholm. This sounds exciting and romantic; in truth, the trek was difficult and tedious. I remember a fourteen-hour train-ride in Spain, crouching on the wet floor near an overflowing restroom, bound to each other and hell-bent. Afraid of the Babel of tongues and of men looking at me as though I were a side of beef, I clung to my guy, who came to want nothing more than to shake free of me. We parted at the San Francisco airport, each taking BART different directions towards our parents’ homes.

You travel with a partner, you break up. That’s the lesson I learned. There is greater politeness with friends; at least there is for me. I don’t get really rude until I have sex with someone. But it’s tiring being polite, and when you shift out of politeness into extended pissing and moaning, the switch can be a bit of a shock. Plus, you lack sexual soothing to help you through the other person’s terrible sense of direction, endless wheel-turning, or lead foot.

When Lynda and I checked into our first motel, she trilled with self-congratulation on her find—the place was terrifically cheap—but I remained peevish about the cracked tile and funky shower. I prefer standard brands: Motel 6, Travel Lodge. I like sterile and blank, not interesting and creepy. I fussed over the dingy shower curtain, then flopped on my twin bed in a vintage black slip that I wore as a nightgown. Lynda smoked, pleased with herself.

For the first time in our friendship, I felt uncomfortable, as if I had been traveling with a girlfriend, my bestie, and she suddenly transformed into a man.

I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

What was I thinking in that Spanish-style hovel? That Lynda would make a move on me? That she’d try to seduce me? That I’d have to beat her off with a stick? Something along those lines. I hate to admit that I suffered from classic straight-person’s anxiety: the fear that her gay friend will want to have sex with her, that she’ll be in love with her, that there will be weirdness, that there will be a scene.

I had never felt such discomfort with Lynda before. I was surprised when she’d apologized for wearing a thin undershirt in front of me. We were friends; who noticed loose boobs? But Lynda slept with women. She noticed loose boobs. I remember her admiring the dark, cloudy beauty of a woman in our program one night. “She’s a vampire,” I said. “She’d bite your neck and drink your blood.” I didn’t care for the woman myself. “I’d bite her back,” Lynda insisted, and I turned my head away, shy to hear the lust in her voice.

In truth, my discomfort didn’t come simply from my nervousness that Lynda might hit on me. I’ve had a number of male friends flirt with me, make discreet sexual overtures, and, in a couple of cases, overt and awkward passes. But I am used to there being a certain degree of erotic tension with male friends. As long as they don’t push things, that extra zing has been the hot mustard to the hamburger of our friendship. But my relations with men haven’t been the same as those with women. I don’t preen or purr or pose with my women friends.

Yet I’ve always liked lesbians.

When I lived in San Francisco and taught at a private high school, before I’d had enough of kids and gone back for my doctorate in the hope that I would one day teach adults, I answered an ad that promised a household of varying sexual preferences and moved into a fantastic apartment off Van Ness, with a lesbian couple, a cult-happy bisexual, and a woman who seemed to be predominately asexual, which made me the resident hetero.

The pigeon coos of lovemaking on the other side of the wall didn’t bother me, and the nutty bisexual and I got to be pretty friendly. I even let her take me to see Rama, that eighties’ guru, though I didn’t witness his bursting into a shower of lights; apparently, one needed to be enlightened to observe this.

Naïve as I was, I’d thought that the lesbian and bi women in my household also would be intellectual and political. But no. I was “the school-teacher.” The white woman in the couple worked as a cosmetologist, “a lipstick lesbian,” as she termed herself, and spent her free time giving her partner facials. “I used to go for black men,” she told me. “Then I met her.”

Her partner kept taking my typewriter, which annoyed me, but she scared me a little too, with her impressive biceps, on one of which a large, crescent-shaped scar shone. Finally, I got the nerve up to ask what had happened. “I got bit,” she explained. I pictured a mad dog, but she told me about being attacked by a former lover. “Human mouths are filthy,” she said. “That’s what they told me at the hospital.”

We never became more than amicable strangers. I often ate in my room, grading exams, half in love with a beautiful student, who sometimes drove me home in his father’s BMW.

Although I’ve always liked lesbians, I have never gone for women sexually. Well, once, when I was twenty, I made out with a woman at her birthday party. Someone had put on a tape of old Beatles’ songs, and a group of us shouted, “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND! I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HA-AH-AND!” She and I slung our arms around each other, buoyed on the endless Beatles high.

We were in the same acting class, and she’d been sleeping with our married teacher, a man I also found desirable, so I envied her position as the designated student-lover. She was pretty, as I recall, blonde. We ended up in her bedroom, and she, drunk, blathered on about how attractive she found me, about how she’d never been with a woman before.

Then she threw up in the attached bathroom. However, the waves of nausea did not deter her. She’d washed her hands and brushed her teeth, she told me. I was lying on her bed, flipping through a magazine. She wanted to kiss me, so I let her kiss me. Back then, I was “open to experience.”

My friend’s face felt thin, her skin smooth, lips soft, a mirror of my own. I didn’t feel a fire light in my loins, but I let her stroke my jeans as I perused ads in Vogue. She complimented my ass, and I like being complimented.

Finally, I told her that this wasn’t going to happen between us, and she raged more than I would have thought her capable of doing. Then she slipped out the window of her bedroom because it seemed to her less embarrassing to reemerge through the front door than to come out of the bedroom with me. I left the way that I came in and weaved home.

Some days later, she left a note on my door. She wasn’t embarrassed, she said, about being attracted to me, she didn’t hate herself for it, she hoped that I didn’t either. I never responded. I didn’t despise her for coming on to me, but I distrusted the melodrama of that window-exit and the rather extended rant. Now I wish that I had written her a note, called her, something. Because I think that she was embarrassed and that she did hate herself a little for being attracted to me.

At first, I didn’t know that Lynda was gay. I came to Houston as one half of a couple (my troubled and troubling ex/boyfriend), and I was on guard against all comers (one of his troubling qualities was an inability to remain monogamous for more than a minute). Lynda had prematurely gray but hiply spiked hair and a nice figure: slender with curves. I remember watching her warily as she bounced on the balls of her feet and laughed at my ex/boyfriend’s jokes.

We were all in workshop together. She’d turned in some poems that didn’t impress me; one about a grandmother I found sentimental. But I liked what I thought was a poem in which a man tells his father that he’s “a queer.” “Lynda wrote an interesting dramatic monologue,” I told my ex/boyfriend. “Um, I don’t think it’s a dramatic monologue,” he said. I felt like a fool, but I had never heard a woman refer to herself as “a queer” before. I liked Lynda more after that.

“What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended.

Then she handed in a poem that made me want to be her friend. Lynda had down all the details of waiting tables in a nice restaurant: the fanning of cloth napkins, snapping open of a lighter. The waitress goes through her professional moves, believing a man to be a good tipper. Then she feels him tug on the hem of skirt. “What does it smell like to you?” he asks his friend. “Fish gut or pussy?” That’s how the poem ended. It knocked me out.

When my ex/boyfriend gave me the boot, I called up Lynda, and she met me for gigantic glasses of iced tea, a Texan staple, and microwaved quiche. I confessed my heartbreak and made her my (perhaps reluctant) confidante, pushing us into emotional intimacy.

As a high school freshman, I had a terrific crush on this senior, Wally Silva: long black curls and sky-blue eyes. Cool to the nth degree. One night he actually called me. True, it only happened once; then he made up with his tempestuous girlfriend and never sought me out again, but it was a magical moment nonetheless. Wally Silva called me! Unbelievable! That’s how I felt about Lynda’s friendship. I couldn’t get over that someone as hip and cool as she was liked me, really liked me.

Of course, Lynda didn’t make a pass at me that night in New Mexico. We made fun of the TV and ate potato chips until we fell asleep. In the purple morning, she happily rubbed the soles of her feet together under the sheets, sounding like a human cricket. I told her to knock it off. We kept driving.

By the time we made it to the Bay Area, we had tired of each other. My mother welcomed us, and Lynda tried to be nice, but neither of us was in good spirits. When I ran my hand over my mother’s cat, creating a cloud of fur, Lynda abruptly said, “Stop it.” Then she bought me a red wooden goat from the import/export shop on College Avenue. I had admired it, and I still do. Faded to pink, it watches me in the bath, peeking out between pots of ivy.

Lynda tried to convince me to come with her all the way to Seattle, but I refused, no longer charmed, for the moment, by her seductive offers of adventure. She went on alone, and I spent the summer sure that I had stomach cancer, smoking cigarettes and drinking heart-palpitating coffee, hanging out in my mother’s studio apartment, a flowered curtain dividing our beds.

My ex/boyfriend called to say that he was seeing somebody in the program. Seeing somebody. As if he were spending his evenings watching some woman duck-walk back and forth in his living room. I wailed into the pillows on my mother’s couch as she offered me a cheese danish from Nabolom Bakery and a glass of pucker-sweet sherry.

Lynda didn’t stay on Vashon Island very long. A year, maybe. Then a fellowship to Provincetown, a reckless move to a bad section of Brooklyn. Sirens and car horns drowned out her voice on the phone. She sounded thrilled that I got a teaching job in Rhode Island, just a quick train trip, and came to see me in my new digs on Benefit Street.

I had purchased a shit-brown Civic similar to her old one, after the fiery demise of my Ghia, and chugged to Providence to begin my first tenure-track position. Mostly, I moved through the US mail (books and papers and clothes). Everything else had been folded in tissue, including my neon coyote, a final gift from the ex/boyfriend, and strategically positioned in my small car, while allowing enough breathing room for my little dog, Percival.

My ex/boyfriend and I drove in tandem to Ohio, where he would begin his own job. We traveled like that for days, Percy watching me from his carrier. I watched my ex/boyfriend’s drugged Siamese crawl up the back of his seat and wrap around his head. I laughed when I saw the turn signal frantically sputter on. That drive was us all over: traveling together and alone.

We swallowed mile after mile like that, past countless dead armadillos, their small bodies armored and not cute, out of Houston at last, leaving behind a lot of our history along with fluffy biscuits and white gravy. He dropped off his cat at a feline hotel and came with me to Providence, where we said goodbye for good.

As lovers, I mean. We’re still friends. Well, friendly exes. The cat died, but he’s got a kid, and I think he’s pretty happy. I am pretty happy too. I’m married to someone who doesn’t (seem to) have issues with monogamy. My mother is dead, gone to Alzheimer’s, then gone altogether a few years ago. And Lynda is long dead.

When she came to see me in Providence, she looked great, newly blond and pink-cheeked, but she flicked drops of sweat off the end of her nose as we strolled around the East Side. She bled on my ivory-colored couch: a sudden period. Unfairly, this annoyed me. My first brand-new couch!

Not much of a pet person, Lynda was prepared to dislike Percy, a frou-frou with orange Troll hair, but he put his fox-like face on her shoulder. “Well, that is cute,” she conceded.

In a Thayer Street bar, Lynda admitted that she hadn’t been feeling well, then tapped her pack of cigarettes on the table. “And this,” she said, “has got to stop.” I told her that she looked too good for anything to be seriously wrong. She said, “Isn’t that how it goes? Everyone says that she looks great and six months later she’s dead?”

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

Lynda didn’t even make it to six months: an unusual and relentless cancer, the tumors not as “meltable” as the oncologist had promised as he blasted her body with poisons.

“I’m terrified,” she told me over the phone, having limped home to her family in the Midwest. “What are you afraid of?” I asked, dense as usual. “Of dying,” she told me flatly. She wasn’t ready to meet her maker, to make her peace. Her ex sent her books on death and spiritual transcendence; she threw them out. I got together a care package that she liked: boxes of chocolates and some sort of “healing” crystal, which Lynda said she clutched to her chest as she slept.

Her ex/girlfriend was with her at the end. With Lynda unconscious, on a respirator, I talked to her former partner on the phone. “Please tell Lynda that her spirit is welcome to visit me any time,” I said. She curtly said that she would. I imagine she thought Lynda’s spirit would never want to hang out with a nerd like me. Of course, after I’d made the invitation, I thought the same thing. Of all the places to go in the after-world!

I haven’t believed in a life-after-death for quite a few years. Instead of praying, I retell stories, I look at pictures. Lynda and my mother with their arms around each other, my mother alarmingly white-haired. Lynda and me, my hair alarmingly Texanned, long with poufy bangs. The quality of the photographs isn’t good. Our faces are slightly out of focus, the outlines blurred. But I like those arms around each other’s waists. We love each other; you can see that much.

I remember one long night in Houston when I bewailed the seemingly endless seesaw with my ex/boyfriend: how could I be so damnably weak, why did I let this thing drag on? Lynda shook her head. “Miss Calbert, nothing is harder than breaking up with someone,” she told me. “The truth is, we’ll do anything for love.”

Well, she was wrong, and she was right. There are some things that are harder than breaking up with someone, and we will do many things for love.

 

Cathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of four books of poetry: Lessons in Space, Bad Judgment, Sleeping with a Famous Poet, and The Afflicted Girls. Her awards include The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Sheila Motton Book Prize, the Vernice Quebodeaux Poetry Prize for Women, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College.