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Authors: Kelly Cogswell

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Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (8 page)

BOOK: Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger
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“Embrace your inner faggot,” he tried to teach Boy Kelly, twirling his glass. “Never be ashamed.”

I ran into Ana Simo around the Fourth of July. She seemed smaller than usual, sweating there in the street, in her white sleeveless blouse. She told me Tampa had gone well. They’d put together a pretty good march on City Hall and forced the mayor to at least make a statement denouncing hate crimes. Tampa dykes had really opened their arms to the Avengers, shaved heads and all. Then she asked why I hadn’t gone. Either to Tampa or the Dyke March. “Weren’t you co-chair?” And I told her what happened at the wedding party in Baltimore. She got upset, wished I’d said something. But I just shrugged. We stood awkwardly, shifting around.

Ana made me uncomfortable. I’d felt something that time she worked the door for a party at P.S. 122, and I gave her a hug and felt the curve of her waist under a silky dress. Nothing happened, though, not then. We didn’t click either, that time or two during the prep for the Dyke March in D.C., when I went over to her apartment on First Street to check in with the Ministry of Propaganda. She always asked such terrifying questions, had I done this or that, though she always said, “Never mind. I’ll do it.” Or “I think Carrie’s already working on that.” And we’d begin to talk about other things, like what it was like to be seven years old with your personality already in full bloom. And purely yourself because you weren’t on anybody’s radar as a female yet, not even your own.

We wondered if we could ever get back to that. I still do.

I flirted once, or tried to, during one of these sessions. We were standing in her kitchen looking for food, but there wasn’t much unless you liked bananas or raw tofu dripping from a bag. But when I made my carefully deniable approach, she immediately brought up her most recent ex. “Those olives were hers. Want some?” I turned some interesting shade and ran all the way over to Kathryn’s apartment where I got stoned and complained bitterly, as always, about my incompetence with girls.

When we got done dithering, Ana and I made a date to see
Orlando
that Sunday at the Angelika. We met in the lobby, which was so cold I started shivering. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a movie. There was always the TV to watch. Or the river. Our small talk was riveting. “God, it’s hot.” “A scorcher.” We bought our tickets and deferred nervously to each other when it came to choosing seats. “Wherever you want.” “I don’t care,” she fibbed. “Me neither,” I lied.

Quentin Crisp was Queen Elizabeth. I whispered to Ana he’d been in my house just the year before eating pancakes with a cloak draped over his chair. Then I mustered up what courage I had, inched my hand over, and took hers. She didn’t scream or invoke her ex-girlfriend, so that was good. And we left them there, the two hands, like a Berlin Wall, marking the point we were joined and separated, getting sweaty, holding us together. I hoped she would do something. Because I didn’t know what to do next, except sit there, my hand going numb, until the credits ended.

It was still broiling when we left, walking west to the Hudson piers where it smelled of salt and fish and rotting wood. From a distance, Lady Liberty watched over the cruising men like a kind of saint, and blessed them as they looked for lovers or, having found them, locked mouths or hands or got hand jobs beneath a brutal sun. There was something comforting about it. All that faggy sexual energy, none of it directed toward us. We walked toward the end of the pier, admired the water, and began to kiss. Kissed some more. Sat weak-kneed down on the soft splintering planks as the gulls screamed. After a while of that, we got up again to hail a taxi and stumbled to Ana’s soft, air-conditioned bed where we stayed for about a week until she had to go to a meeting for Dyke TV, and I went back to Avenue B.

II. Enemies Within

Workers of all countries unite in peacetime,

but in war—slit one another’s throats!


R
OSA
L
UXEMBURG

10.

I courted her with pints of chocolate Häagen-Dazs and lines from Calderón de la Barca, “¿Qué es la vida? / Un frenesí. ¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión/ Una sombra, una ficción . . .” What is life? A frenzy. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a lie. I took her to Kathryn’s where we gave a command performance as The Sextets.

Once, I recited the litany of all the places I’d stayed after the shaving performance when the Colombians kicked me out of the Rego Park apartment. There was the house in Long Island packed with South Asians that I came to by way of a Filipina woman from Performance Studies. Then there was the housesitting gig in Flatbush where a bunch of young black men surrounded me on the train once, asking “Happy about Bensonhurst, you racist skinhead?” Until one guy finally said, “It’s just her ’do, man, like that singer,” and they moved off, reluctantly. Then the sublet in Park Slope. Then a retreat to Cincinnati. Then back for a studio on SoHo’s Grand Street. And a room in Astoria with a Basque–Puerto Rican dyke who taught me how to make pasta. Then a share in Harlem, with a heterosexual Bengali poet who dated an ex-boxer, drank nothing but scotch, and made me dinner in exchange for the Marlboros I got as a perk for temping at Philip Morris where I fortuitously met Marie. Then an illegal hostel in a West Village brownstone run by a Dubliner dyke, before Ireland itself, where for a month I was the first out dyke everybody’s parents met. Then an all-Hispanic building in Williamsburg infested with rats so big they only left paw prints on the glue traps. Finally Avenue B.

I still thought it was an adventure, all those worlds I passed through, my around-the-world trip in 690 days. Though maybe when I told her those stories I was hedging my bets again, offering a warning that I was a rolling stone, wouldn’t last. Ana’s friends, too, were skeptical. Maybe because I was quite a bit younger than her. And had no roots. Ana herself told me, “I keep waiting for a shoe to drop. First one, then the other.” But the relationship took, like an unexpected graft.

Ana even stayed sometimes in the loft, pushing Audre Lorde and H.D. and Artaud off my mattress to sweat in solidarity, though her bedroom eight blocks away was cold with air conditioning and complete with a real bed, real walls, a door, and a son in the room across the hall who departed from the story as quickly as possible. There was an ailanthus in the backyard. You could hear it rustling in the wind like a jungle creature. When it rained, the heavy green leaves pressed up against the window. I discovered bright red lipstick in Ana’s medicine cabinet.

We talked sprawled out on her living room floor because there was no couch until I demanded it years later, and if you didn’t want tetanus you’d avoid the chairs around the table that were made of skins and twigs and rusty nails. There wasn’t much besides that but a piano in a niche, tons of plants, a few paintings. The empty space was handy for rehearsals, she said. And meetings. Delivery guys asked if it was a dance studio. And we would sometimes turn on the music and fling ourselves around the room. I did a mean rendition of Isadora Duncan trapped by her own scarf.

We told each other all our stories. I’d still go off on my mom, who was occasionally joyful but mostly ranted and raved, all strung out on Jesus and tranqs and gallons of Maxwell House Instant brewed in the dangerous cup. Then it was my multiply married sisters, and my father who was barely there, working out of town when we were kids, and after the divorce was such a schmuck about that tumor thing.

But I also told her about that summer after college that Heather and I went up to her mother’s farm in northern Kentucky and had to kill hornets in the attic and replace panes of glass. There was a garden with basil, lemon basil, purple basil, lemon balm, oregano, peppers, squash, and corn. In the heat, the fragrance of the herbs rose up to the house where we slept with old sheer curtains pulled up over us to keep off the ticks and mosquitoes. In the mornings, fog covered the mountains. I churned out poems. Once, when I went upstairs to write, there was a five-foot snake draped over the baseboard. I read a poem to it about Moses and snakes and God’s rod. It listened, then slithered away.

And Ana, at first, told charming, innocuous tales about her hometown of Cienfuegos, Cuba, and the nuns at school who made the little girls wear wool socks even in the tropical heat, and how she’d gum up her sewing exercises with her sweaty little fingers and bring them home for her grandma to fix. She said she never was very good at crafty things like that, but I figured the problem was simpler. If she didn’t learn, she’d never have to do it. Still, she admired the nuns. They were from Philadelphia, sweating, red-faced, and independent. If something difficult needed doing, like lifting a heavy record player or a film projector, they rolled up their sleeves and did it themselves. They didn’t bullshit. Weren’t ashamed of being smart. They taught the girls English along with the Hokey Pokey. Put your right foot in, pull your right foot out. Though when the electricity went out, they declared such a thing would never happen in Philadelphia. A colonialism-lite that fed an ambivalence in Ana that would bug her later. On the other hand, they were right, she said, Pennsylvania wasn’t known for its blackouts.

By the time we met, her grandmother lived in Queens with Ana’s mother, with one brother not far away and another safely in France. I learned that her grandmother and mother had both been grade school teachers and never took to cooking or cleaning. Which was why Ana ate raw tofu and bananas standing in her kitchen, or whipped out the credit card for restaurants that actually had wine lists. It excited me, three generations out of the kitchen.

Ana took me to her tiny cabin in the Catskills where we ripped each other’s clothes off and rolled around on the floor until my skin started stinging from what we discovered were horrible little ants, and proceedings were discontinued for extermination. After night fell and the yellow moon came out, we went for a walk up the dirt road that climbed a rib of Scotch Mountain. And she told me about moving to Havana with her grandmother, only the two of them, right before the end of the revolution in ’58. Afterwards, a young soldier just down from the Sierra Maestra taught all the neighborhood kids how to make Molotov cocktails. Later on, the high school took students on marches, sometimes at night when they could barely see a thing. Girls were suddenly allowed to do everything. Not like in Cienfuegos when she’d fought with her parents who wanted to keep her under lock and key.

She whispered in the shadows, “You’d walk with an arm outstretched to touch the person in front of you. Like this. And the one behind would do the same. No talking.” She pushed me in front of her the length of an arm, and we walked in silence, stumbling over stones in the dark. When I giggled, she shushed me fake sternly and whispered soldiering tips, “If you pause for a rest, never take your boots off because your feet swell and you can’t get them back on.”

“Let’s go back. I’m tired.”

“Just a little further.”

Ana was smaller than the others and worked hard to prove herself. When she could, she took a crash course in journalism, got a gig at a newspaper. After work, she’d meet up with a bunch of teenagers who had started a publishing project,
Ediciones El Puente.
José Mario was the pied piper attracting all the talent. He’d roped her in as co-director. She did some editing but also managed the grunt work, making sure deadlines were met and typesetters got clean proofs. They published chapbooks and held readings and performances that were dangerously popular.

She showed me a photo once of four of the crew standing in front of the print shop in Old Havana. José Mario was smiling at something off to the side, slick in his pressed white shirt, with his dark hair falling daringly past his ears. He was the oldest at nineteen or twenty. Ana Justina was a plump black poet with a sweater draped around her shoulders and her arms stuffed with papers and books. Gerardo, an Afro-Cuban guy, was posing with each thumb hanging through a belt loop, satisfied with the world, and his own literary revolution. His shoes showed a high shine even in this faded sepia print. Ana was the most restrained, staring stiffly into the camera, all femmed up in pointy heels and a sweater set. I didn’t recognize that young girl at first. Something essential about her face had changed. Even now, when I see the picture, I wonder who she is, then remember, “Ana. It’s Ana.” And I want to reach out and touch the side of her face.

When she told me what happened, we were sitting in bed, leaning back against the smooth, dark wood of the headboard. Yellow light arrived in bars through the window blinds. Our bodies seemed dark against the cream of the twisted sheets. This was the gist of it—that some goons from state security grabbed her from her apartment and took her to jail. At first they stuck her in the general population, which was mostly poor white women busted for illegal abortions or squatting in abandoned houses. Then they moved her to a smaller cell packed with murderers, thieves, a nut case. Most of them were black, all seemingly dykes. It was supposed to be an object lesson. “Keep associating with counterrevolutionary degenerates, that’s where you’ll end up for good.” It stank of urine, sweat, damp stone, and bloody rags. The women stared at her from their overcrowded bunks. The only space left in the cell was a foot or two by the bars, where she was supposed to put her mattress.

BOOK: Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger
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