When we walked up from the Lorimer stop on the L train—my favorite of all the L stops—the first thing we saw was a 24-hour natural food market glowing in the dark of the quiet, eerie, perfect Brooklyn street. The first time I went to Brooklyn I was grossed out. It didn’t have Manhattan’s anxiety or chaos; it was still and smug. We went into Sunac; we’d been damp in the armpits on Union Avenue so the air conditioning stung and I pointed to the Marlboro Lights at the register. I liked how clean the store was. It was the kind of grocery store I would want to shop at if I had money to burn. The shelves were organized—not a brown soy cereal box out of place. We trotted in our sandals out into the balmy dirty air. For no real reason, Rachel was wearing a 1970s disco gold halter dress, and it flowed to her strong dancer calves.
“I don’t know why I’m nervous,” I panted, pounding the top of my pack against my palm, the way my smoker friends in high school had taught me. “I thought the cigarettes could help with the talking.”
“We need to talk to people tonight,” Rachel agreed. She tucked some of her thin hair behind an ear in her frantic mousy way. “You need to meet some lesbians.” A lot of the time Rachel moved as if in fast-forward. She brought her hand to my shoulder and the lightness of her touch made me twitch away. She tilted her head. “How are you doing?”
I lit one cigarette and sucked. My veins swelled immediately; I could feel it. I was wearing cutoff shorts and a red backpack instead of a purse. I felt like a hiker. I’d just hacked my hair to my chin and it didn’t suit my Arab nose.
“I cried for a few hours and now I’m better.”
“You never cry,” she said, her voice grave.
It was cute, how much Rachel always cared. We looked straight ahead, afraid of the eye contact. Rachel didn’t like being touched either.
When we were 18 and roomed together as freshmen, unfolding our accidentally matching blue bedding on the plastic college cots, she asked if it was hard to say goodbye to my parents. Trying to be cool in a gruff voice I said no, I didn’t like hugs. The only picture I put up on my wall next to my bed was a black-and-white snapshot of Bob Dylan chasing a wheel in the street in New York when he was 20. She taped up a collage of pictures of her Jewish single mother and all her hippie beaming friends who wore hemp chokers around their necks and said she had no excuse but she didn’t like hugs either. The rib lines on Rachel’s collarbone were exposed because the dress was cut low and there was a breeze and I was pretty sure she’d thrown up her dinner.
“Maybe you’ll hook up with someone tonight,” she tried.
We turned the corner and saw the black awning of the Metropolitan, where I had become one of the regulars. The 150 dollars I spent on a shitty fake that claimed I was 23 and from Philly was worth an empty refrigerator because I was becoming a City Lesbian, which was much better than a College Lesbian.
“Keep Jane Taphouse away from me, whatever you do.”
Jane Taphouse was a 35-year-old redheaded butch lesbian with a very long face who last time at the bar had bought me rum and cokes until I got drunk enough to lead her on but never let her kiss me. She had been talking to me on Facebook. Her wife had left her the month before.
“I don’t want to be reminded that she’s the best I can do.” I knew this was harsh but it didn’t even sound like my voice when I said it so I didn’t feel any guilt.
“That’s not true,” Rachel squeaked.
“It shouldn’t be so much to ask to be with someone young and cute and my own age,” I said in the hard voice.
“We’ll avoid Jane Taphouse.” Rachel rubbed the spot in between her eyebrows.
We went in and I went to the bar while Rachel went to the ATM. There weren’t many people there yet. Some dykes were playing pool. The walls were red but it was too dark in the room to tell. The bartender was
She leaned on the counter and looked at me expectantly. She’s tall and her bones stick out and she wears loose T-shirts with the sleeves hacked off and tight jeans slung low on her narrow hips. Tonight her hacked up shirt was red so we sort of matched because my flannel was red too.
“PBR,” I said. “Please.”
She has black eyes that are not amused and dyed jet-black ratty hair and bone structure just falling short of being horsey. She cracked open a silver can and pushed it foaming toward me. Rachel and I walked to the outside patio so I could smoke some more.
We stepped up on the deck and sat alone on a bench that looked out at the rest of the whole patio. It was all fenced in by a wood gate and if you looked up there were short Brooklyn houses with windows aglow overlooking the backyard. A few girls were sitting at outside tables, leaning on their elbows and drinking beers I wished Rachel and I could afford.
Rachel and I had nothing to say and then I saw one of my most major bar crushes walk in. She had shaggy brown hair and a weak chin and cloudy boyish eyes. She was wearing all black and she had good boobs. I’d danced with her once at some queer dance party. She’d stayed a song and then said, “I’ll be right back,” and went on to lose me on purpose. This is something I could not think about. She was smoking a cigarette. I looked away. I felt transparent, like the kind of deep-water fish that are so clear you can see their tiny special ocean organs. I turned to Rachel, looking at my fingers.
“I’m getting us water.”
I ground my cigarette under the toe of my shoe and glanced at Bar Crush, ashamed of myself for daring to look. Rachel stood up uncertainly and I gave her no indication that she was supposed to follow me, which she was. I walked fast from the deck into the dark room while Rachel trailed after me and, noticing Jane Taphouse, I zoomed to the orange water jug at the end of the bar where they’d set up stacks of cups. I filled myself a cup and another for Rachel, handing it to her while she tried to shoot me a supportive smile that I only caught from the corner of my eye. The water was cold and frosted the plastic. We stood by the jug. Rachel loved lesbians because she was practically raised by them in Portland and she partly wished she could be one after the way James had taken her virginity. Rachel was more comfortable in the bar than I was, looking around with a contented smirk on her face, and I wanted to hug her.
We stood in silence while I rearranged the way I rested my elbow on the counter to figure out what best conveyed a sense of ease. Jane Taphouse was circling the pool table and she was wearing a purple vest. Her face looked perpetually surprised. I hoped she didn’t see me and Rachel whispered, “Let’s go back outside. I saw that girl you like looking at you.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think,” she said. We went back out. The place had filled since we’d left and so there was nowhere to sit. Girls were everywhere, in dark tank tops that hung loose and Converse High Tops and 1950s sundresses and denim cutoffs and peeking-out boxer shorts. I was pleased to see that most of them had unlined faces.
I saw a table in the middle of it all with only one lady and two empty seats, so with hands gripping elbows, I approached. It was Alex, who Jane Taphouse had told us last time was a legendary lesbian. She had a black faux hawk with red streaks in it and she looked Middle Eastern like me, her black eyes lined with smoky Lisa Frank purple.
“Hi, Alex?” I said in an asking voice that was as small and nervous as possible, which proved humbleness. “We met you last week.”
It was big that we were talking to her. She was around 30 and had come to New York from somewhere in the northwest and made money babysitting an Upper East Side 5-year-old during the day. I knew this because we’d talked—no, chatted—with her the week before. She’d had a Santa Claus laugh and a rascal’s sandpaper voice and had told us that she was the self-appointed mayor of the bar.
“Hey!” she said in a bellow that was self-consciously friendly, leaning back in her chair to greet us. “Ladies! Sit!” She was pretty butch despite the eyeliner. She had boy khakis on over muscled calves and a green polo shirt and a black hoodie packed over a square torso. She ran her hand through her faux hawk. I used to not know how to talk to butch girls, or anyone who would say “I’m gay.” It used to make me tongue tied and almost paranoid. We re-introduced ourselves.
“There are some beautiful women here tonight,” she said, leaning back in her chair. I needed her to like me. The lesbians who dressed like Tegan and Sara at my school could hate me but it wouldn’t matter if the cool Brooklyn lesbians liked me. Alex squinted at me. “What do you want out of tonight?”
“Uh—” I twisted my fingers around themselves and heard the crack of knuckles. “I want to flirt, I guess.” Admission of weakness could be wise. This interested me, that another person understood that Nights have Goals.
“It’s important that she flirts tonight,” Rachel piped in. “She’s getting over someone.”
“Oh,” Alex said, her thick black eyebrows rising. “Who?” I felt my breaths getting panicky. She looked at me more closely. “How long were you together?”
Smoke was everywhere, looking like incense but smelling like cancer; the conversation of lesbians all around us was swarming the patio, and as if out of thin air Alex produced a new beer for me to drink. I sipped. Alex slapped the hand of a passing retro girl in a grey pencil skirt, glanced back at her ass, and she then turned to look at me again.
“We weren’t together,” I said very fast, feeling like a fraud. “Just some girl I was chasing all year. It looked like we were starting to kind of finally date.” Alex nodded, being a good listener. She had black gloves on with the fingers cut off. I felt nervous telling her about it, which I guessed was a sign of maturity because I used to love to air out my own filthy laundry. “But someone new entered the picture and it’s all off now.” She nodded again, being a sympathetic listener.
“So what’s your type?” she asked. That’s what Jane Taphouse had asked me. I was learning that this was a question that mattered to lesbians. I considered Samantha and her hair and her magenta lips and her lemon yellow sundresses. I considered the butterflies I usually got when I saw a pretty girl walk like a boy. I considered how cute girls are the way their legs stick out from little skirts. I considered the girls who keep their keys on chains from the belt loops of their jeans because they’re too proud for purses and how cool it sounds when they walk.
“I don’t have a type,” I said. I glanced at Rachel, who was sitting with her legs awkwardly crossed. She was looking at her nails, and stopped to rub her nose, irritated by all the smokers.
“What’s your type?” Alex turned to her and leaned forward.
“Oh—I’m straight,” Rachel giggled. She bit skin off the side of her thumb and her eyes crinkled like a baby. “I have a boyfriend.”
Alex’s smooth face cracked into a huge laugh. She slapped her knee. She fell back hard into her chair, laughing, stopped for a moment to look at Rachel, and then laughed more. “Oh, honey,” she cackled. “You’re going to have fun here.” Rachel laughed with her; Rachel always laughs even if she doesn’t know what’s funny. Alex calmed down and fixed her eyes back onto me.
“You have a type,” she assured me and before I could help it I frowned. This annoyed me. This was the same thing that made me worry standing before my mirror if I should keep my hair long just because I tended to want girls with long hair more. It made me feel sick at myself and it made me feel like gays were shallow.
“No I don’t,” I replied, laughing a little to soften the terseness of my answer.
“What did this girl you’re getting over look like?” she asked.
I tried to hold my smile up and looked at my PBR. I looked around at the room. Alex was right. There were hot girls out tonight. A girl in a white wife beater and a harsh face of dark features. A girl with wavy hair and sparkled eyes, tight jeans and heels. The girl I danced with once in all black who knew she was out of my league.
“She was girlie and boyish at the same time,” I shrugged, hanging my head. “I don’t want to talk about her.”
“How did she dress?” Alex asked. “How long was her hair?”
“She wore jeans. She dressed simple. She has sort of short hair.” She had curves but she was slim. She preferred to have a bare face but her features were so thick and colorful she wouldn’t have needed makeup anyway. I would have liked her in a dress or boy’s jeans, I wouldn’t have cared. Other girls I’d notice because they were in heels and I wanted to fuck the idea of that, or because they were trying to talk like James Dean. With her it was innocent.
“Well, I guess I’m not like that,” Alex said with a wave of her hand. She pulled out some tobacco, grimy and leafy in a plastic bag, and started rolling a cigarette on the table with the tips of her dainty fingers.
Then a girlie girl in navy satin sat with us with her straight dude wingman. She spoke in squeals. Her straight male friend had a brunette lumberjack beard all over his face. My grandma told me never to trust a man with a beard. She said that it meant they were hiding something. They revealed that they were both straight and yesterday had tried out a sex club and he watched her go down on a girl. I felt dirty being around them.
I went to get more beer. I stopped in the doorway to say hi to Gene, a tall transguy who looked like Matt Dillon and had had triple Ds before he’d gotten them cut away. My voice got severely sweet when I tried to make small talk and he nodded until I stopped talking so he could get out to the patio.
When I handed the bartender, who, remember, is devastating, two dollar coins, she sighed. “You’ve been giving these to me all night. I really can’t accept them. Do you have bills?” I was ashamed and plunged my fist into my backpack to produce real bills. She smiled tightly and handed me a beer. I went to the platform mini-stage where the DJ whose chubby red cheeks reminded me of my sister was bobbing beneath feathered hair. In my Sweet Voice I asked if I could keep my backpack behind her turntables, and she nodded, bobbing still and smiling at me with a flush.
I returned to Alex’s table where everyone was laughing and talking. Rachel stood up. “I have to talk to you,” she said. She grabbed my arm and shuffled me away.
“Alex likes you,” she muttered from closed teeth. “She just told me.”
“Okay,” I said, and noticed the pretty wavy haired girl sitting on the bench. I wondered if it was worth trying. Tonight was the world telling me with a gentle shake that everyone decent was out of my league. I decided to try. I had a cigarette in my pocket.
“Go with them,” I mumbled to Rachel, and veered in the other direction. Rachel, given a mission, nodded and returned to Alex.
“Do you have a light?” I asked, sitting next to the pretty girl. She smirked. She pulled out a lighter and handed it to me with a bored flick of her wrist. I held it to my mouth.
“Do you have any other cigarettes?” she asked; her voice slid out steadily. She had Disney princess eyelashes and her gray-brown waves were brightened by faint stripes of red-brown. She was sitting in a vulnerable-looking way because of the stilettos.
“Yeah, but they’re in my backpack inside.”
“Oh,” she said, looking away.
We sat in silence while I smoked. I thought I caught Gene’s eye, sitting at a table across from us with his timid girlfriend, so I waved, but he didn’t see me.
“Do you—you want me to go get the cigarettes?” I asked.
“Would you?” she shot me a glittering smile. Even though she was girlie she still had the lesbian jaw. It was comforting.
“Okay,” I said, even though I didn’t want to. She held my cigarette and I pushed through the mosh of people on the deck and went into the bar and avoided Jane Taphouse and retrieved my backpack. The DJ was by now making out with a cute girl in a granny sweater.
I returned to the bench, unzipped my backpack, and pulled out a cigarette. She smiled at it. My heart thudded a little harder. This was going somewhere.
“So where are you from?” I leveled my breaths. I was good enough to try to make grown-up bar talk. I had seen conversations like this on TV. The way the men approached Carrie Bradshaw.
“The city,” she replied, taking a drag. “But I went to college in Ohio.”
“Cool,” I said. “I almost went to Oberlin.” She nodded, grinning with closed lips, only opening them to suck on the cigarette. We sat in silence. I looked at her. I smiled at her to fill the silence. She raised her eyebrows and smiled at her stilettos, and then stood.
“I’ll be right back,” she said. She left. I heard her heels rap away. I sat alone. I sucked hard on my cigarette and looked at the ground. There was a lot of old ash and even more beer stains on the wood patio ground. I sighed and stood and returned to Alex and Rachel and all the people sitting around them. There was a redhead wearing lipstick that almost matched her hair who had joined. She was wearing a blue floral dress and she was Alex’s friend.
“Hannah is my door bitch,” Alex said. “For the party we do on Saturdays in Manhattan.” I’d heard about that party. It was infamous. Chloë Sevigny had gone to it and made fun of the lesbians later in an interview. I’d tried to get in once and they’d turned down my fake ID and the bouncer said that a girl like me didn’t belong at a party like that.
I nodded and shook her hand. She had a sort of angelic face.
“One of the best nights,” Alex began, holding up her hands for effect, “I’m sorry, Hannah, but I have to tell this story. One of the best nights was when Mark ran up and said, ‘Alex, your door bitch is being fucked by a hot tranny in the coat room.’” Hannah rubbed over her orange eyebrows and tried to smile in a good-natured way. “So I go and look, and sure enough, you’re being eaten out by the hottest tranny I’d ever seen.”
We all laughed.
Then no one knew what to say and Alex announced that she wanted to dance. The bar was emptying. We went inside and started to dance. Rachel is an excellent dancer. She’d done ballet till 12 and then jazz till college. I was drunk enough to believe that I was an excellent dancer too. Hannah went to the bar and sat, crossing one leg over the other in an elegant motion that showed off her red wedges. I sloshed up to the DJ and said, “Excuse me,” so they’d stop kissing.
“Can you play something that will make me want to lose control?” I said, gripping her booth and panting in her face. I leaned in to look at her laptop.
She didn’t seem upset that I’d interrupted them. She had Charlie’s Angels hair—the TV show, not the movie.
“You want to lose control?” she repeated.
“Yeah,” I said.
“She wants to lose control,” she explained to the girl she’d been kissing, whose arms were wrapped around her. “Is there someone here you want to show that you can lose control for?” she said in a knowing voice like a wink. The girl who was clutching her pecked her on the cheek.
“No,” I said. “I just want to lose control.”
“Okay,” she said. She put a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song on. I’d been hoping for rap. Rachel and I danced some more. Alex came up and said, “Come on,” and with Hannah we followed her to the couches. There was a photo booth machine next to them.
“Let’s take a picture,” Alex said, so I followed her into the photo booth. She closed the curtain behind us. We sat on the bench together.
“How much does it cost?” I asked, bending below the seat to feel for a cash slot. “Where do we even put the money in?”
“It’s not working,” she said. I sat up and looked at her. She had very smooth skin. She kissed me. I kissed her back. I was glad someone wanted to kiss me. We kissed and it got more feverish. Her hand was wrapped hard around the back of my neck. She pushed me against the wall of the booth. I wanted to reach her boobs but they were hard to feel under all the layers she was wearing. I rubbed her chest down her waist to her hips and back up. She jerked her thigh in-between my legs. I suspected she didn’t like how dominant I was trying to be. She pushed my head over to open my neck up and kissed it into a bite. She yanked my necklace chain out of the way and I hoped she wouldn’t rip it off because it was my St. Catherine medal from my confirmation. She bit me again and I hoped even more that it would leave a good mark. We kept kissing. I sat her on the bench and then sat on top of her. She rubbed my thighs.
“You’re so on the rebound,” she said through a heavy breath. I hated when I kissed people and they made sad remarks about me in the middle of it.
“Don’t think about that,” I said. She ran her hands up my sides. I thought about how I wasn’t this kind of girl but I was probably becoming it. I kissed her more, holding her face. She squeezed my waist. She put her hand up my shirt. She put her other hand over my jeans between my legs. It was the first time someone put her hand there actually knowing where to put it and how to position her fingers.
“You’re so young,” she sighed. “You’re so young and tight.”
I laughed. She moved her hand and ran it down my thigh again. I wanted her to put her hand back. Her skill at how to place it fascinated me.
“Look at your body,” she muttered. We kissed again. Our tongues got messy together. “You’re so young and tight.” This bothered me. I wanted her to stop saying it. It made me think about how “young” is one of my favorite words.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Twenty-one,” I lied with ease.
“You’re so young,” she said sadly. “Let’s go.” She held the curtain open for me like a gentleman and stared at me until I realized we were done.
Then we all hugged goodbye and Rachel and I went out into the street. The street was dead and the air was warm. I felt smelly.
“I’m drunk,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I’m not drunk but I’m high. Alex had weed.”
“She knew what to do with her hands,” I shook my head.
We knew where we wanted to go. We turned the corner and saw the 24-hour natural food market. We went inside and got carts. The store was bright. The lights were fluorescent and the place was so clean, especially compared to the grime of the black bar we had just been in for hours. I put my backpack in the cart. I love grocery shopping and pushing down the aisles with a cart.
“This place is gourmet,” Rachel exclaimed, pushing her cart a little ahead of me.
I studied the cheese through the glass at the deli. They had Boar’s Head, the best of all cheese.
“I can’t wait till we have jobs and can afford to buy all the gourmet food we want,” I said, my face to the glass. Rachel nudged my shin with her dancer foot.
“So was it good? Do you feel good? Or is this going to be one of those things where you’re depressed in the morning?”
“I think it’s fine,” I said. “She has a good personality. It’s amazing what an experienced lesbian can do with her hands.” I looked at the cereals. They were all organic and fancy in brown boxes. I wanted Raisin Bran. She was the first person I kissed since Adrienne.
“Do you like her?” she asked.
“Not like that,” I said. I ran my finger over my throat, where the skin felt heavy like cow skin and damp like a river rock. “Come here. I think she gave me a hickey. How is it looking?” Rachel abandoned her cart and walked to me. I was holding a box of organic cookies. She studied my neck.
“No, nothing is there.”
“Oh. Damn.” I put the cookies back on the shelf. “I wanted a hickey. Adrienne’s going to be at the party on Friday.”
“A hickey would be perfect,” Rachel agreed, walking on, pushing her cart again. “Should we get eggs? Then she would see it and be jealous.”
“Yeah, eggs. I need her to be jealous. She’ll know it came from girl’s night.” The grocery store had everything I needed. I wanted to buy it all. I put hummus in my cart. “I need some pita, too,” I said. Rachel looked back at me.
“I think I might get some tortillas for wraps,” she remarked.
“Rachel, give me a hickey.”
We looked at each other for a minute. She blinked. I shrugged.
“Okay,” she said. “But at Grand Central.”
“Okay,” I said. I put a bag of pita bread in my cart. “I’m not letting myself spend more than 15 dollars.”
We bought our groceries and then sat at a small stainless steel café table they had at the front of the store. We pulled out the hummus we’d bought and tore off pieces of pita and dipped and ate it.
“No one can know about this hickey you’re going to give me,” I said, chewing. I’d chosen a stupid garlicky flavored hummus that burned my mouth.
“No,” she said, shaking her head, her eyes wide.
“This is a total secret. As far as everyone’s concerned, I got this from Alex.”
“Right,” she said. “No one can know. This is one of those weird friend secrets. Like playing doctor when you’re a kid.”
We took our grocery bags and got on the subway and went to Grand Central, which still wasn’t open yet and there was a gate penning people in the front. Drunk people were sleeping on the floor behind the gate. We decided to go outside, where it was silent like a vault but still somehow had the Manhattan buzz. We walked a few blocks to Madison because we knew there was a 24-hour deli there, the only bright store at the base of a lightless skyscraper. We went inside and ordered a bagel with cheddar cheese to split. I put it in my grocery bag. Then we went outside again. The city air was humid and smelled like a dump truck.
There was a ledge on one of the buildings, in front of a makeup store next to the deli. We sat on it and leaned against the glass of the front window. Behind us was a display of lipsticks.
“You want me to give you the hickey?” she asked.
“I’ve never actually given a hickey before.” She leaned toward me and frowned. She pulled back and examined my neck.
“Remember when James gave you those huge violent hickeys?” I asked.
She leaned in and put her mouth on my neck. I felt her drool run down my skin. “You have to sort of bite and suck,” I said. She bit down on me. It pinched and I worried about my glands. “Suck,” I told her. A cab sailed by. There were no cars out. It was five in the morning. She tried to suck. “Harder,” I said. She started to suck and bite very hard. It hurt so much I had the impulse to jump away but then I melted into the pain. “A little more,” I said, considering. I didn’t know how long would produce a suitable hickey. I needed it to not fade too much by Friday.
People passed. She continued sucking. Rachel is the kind of person who takes tasks like these very seriously. An old woman in a sweater with a cane passed and smiled at us warmly. The kinds of people who are out in Midtown at that hour are surreal and seem like ghosts. Rachel nipped me. “Suck,” I reminded her.
Rachel worked on my hickey some more and then we walked back to Grand Central. The sun had come up by the time we were home, which for some reason made it easier to fall asleep.