They Wear Gray Clothes

by Linda Niemann

When that April with its surging shoots bit me and Betty with the travel bug, we made for Mendocino, the California shrine of the Virgin of Arugula. Sailors knew it as an easy place to run aground.  Fog and a two-lane highway. Country stores selling Greek olives and balsamic vinegar.  Victorian farmhouses converted to two-hundred-dollar-a-night B&B's. Over the river and through the woods. Me and Betty, my new flame.

Betty was forty-five and having her first lesbian affair. We had drifted in and out of each other's Berkeley social circle for years, and while I was resting up from working on the railroad somewhere, Betty made up her mind. 

"Too bad," I told her, "that men are pooping out just about the time that women are kicking in." She smiled that certain smile.

"What's so amazing," she said, "is you can have all the sex you want. Without waiting for a penis."

"Waiting for a penis," I said. "Kind of like taking the bus in L.A. But of course, I was born there and I spent the night in my first car, a red Dodge dart, a piece-of-shit secretary's car. My mother picked it out.  I drove it to death and then I got the Landrover tank. Symbolic of my marriage, which I cashed in on my ‘56 Chevy, symbolic of my divorce."

"And now?" Betty lowered her voice and leaned over the picnic table where we had been snacking on oysters and baguettes.

"Now I have this Ford 150 plain Jane which will go anywhere and do anything anytime, which is symbolic of us."

"I don't know about the plain part," said Betty, "and you also forgot the 'with anyone.'" 

Betty was a reporter and an expert on investigations. Former lovers, those misdemeanors, belonged on post office walls. Too many indicated a criminal tendency, perhaps a future felony. Everything I did was under scrutiny and read like a rap sheet. Betty had told me, for example, that liars usually glance to their right while lying. Even though I had never lied to Betty, this information was disconcerting. Had I been turning right anyway?

"You always have everything you need," Betty said after I had pulled out an oyster knife from my glove box. Her tone indicated there might be something wrong with this. A compulsion perhaps. "It makes me feel like I don't have to do anything. That you'll always have two of everything."

I thought about what was always packed in my truck. The four rain suits, the two sleeping bags, the two parachutes, the camping food for weeks, the two down jackets, the two woolen hats, the two wetsuits, the four silk undershirts in the military knapsack behind the driver’s seat, the shovel, the ax, the traction ramp for snow, the battery-pack Christmas lights to string around the window and gussy up the desert night.

"I guess I am just ready to go," I said. “In case I meet my true love at the Kwik Stop, we can head into the sunset right then and there." Actually, it was a side effect of my life as a railroad brakeman. I never knew when I would be called to go to work or where.

"It just means you're lonely," Betty said with authority. “You haven't learned to be alone, yet." Her oyster was being uncooperative. "Oh shit," she said, putting down the knife. “I can't do it."  Her look said she knew I could, and maybe there was something wrong with that. Something show-off.

I put my hand on hers across the table top. Hers was a sensitive hand, pink and soft and nail-bitten. It didn't go with her mind.

"It's finding the hinge," I said. "It's always in the same place, but all the oysters look different."  I held her oyster and traced its coastline with my thumb. "Here," I said, "Where it indents." I slid the knife into the shell and twisted. The oyster squished and parted in my hand. Inside was a fat one, with brown curly edges and a translucent lump near the lip. It smelled like ocean. It was the color of winter. I added two drops of red Tabasco and held it up to her.

Betty smiled. The oyster was enough. The sun came through the clouds and I could feel its warmth on my back, my wool sweater soaking up heat. Under the table, Betty entwined her legs with mine, and little electric tingles ruffled the hair on my arms.

"This is wonderful," Betty said. “Give me that knife back." She picked up another oyster and found the hinge right away.

Betty had been reading up on romantic getaways. She had a glossy bed-and-breakfast book that guided Berkeley intellectuals up the yellow brick road to cappuccino and scones, to linen sheets and cut flowers in the rooms, to bedroom views of the cold surf and warm fires with piñon logs. Our bejeweled feet would sink into Chinese pile as we ripped the charmeuse silk from our aerobic hard bodies.

My vision was more subdued. I had looked in the gay papers for a women's retreat. I thought of cabins tucked deep in the woods. Retired therapists at the desk. Massage. Shiatsu. Herbal tea. Walks on the windy sand. A picnic under a cypress tree, its branches folding over us like a friend, the silken parachute our tent.

The lesbian motel in Little River was named Fools Rush Inn and its front path was weedy and damp. The cottages seemed dark and needed paint. We sat in the truck in the driveway while Betty looked them over with the eye of an appraiser. She turned again to her book.

“‘Victorian splendor overlooking a rugged coastline. Tasteful antiques,'" Betty paused for emphasis.“‘Private hot tub by appointment.' I've always wanted to stay there."

"Fine," I said, "On to Gualala and the hot tub.” Betty put her hand on my thigh, stroking the stonewashed denim.

"I wonder how well you could downshift if I were to put my hand between your legs."

I remembered the L.A. story of Captain Max, the traffic reporter who crashed while having sex in his helicopter. Something about decapitation. What the hell, I could drive.

"Why don't we see?" I said.

The two-lane road north from Tomales Bay meandered happily between pastures dotted with matronly oaks. Sparse herds of milk cows grazed in front of weathered redwood barns. The land announced itself as beyond production; its very leisure created wealth; it merely lay there in the sun, increasing itself.

Something of that richness was in the very air, and Betty and I began to feel endowed, like heiresses out viewing their estate. Even the colors had been polished up, the flowers watered, the many greens heightened and darkened by the clouds moving before the sun. Our clothing had changed also to fit our skin, had become texture, textile, tactile. I could smell Betty's perfume as she leaned towards me to take off her sweater in the car. I turned my head towards her and our lips met as we felt the safety bumps of the center divider under our tires.

"Whoops," I said, straightening out the wheel.  

"Five more miles," Betty said, looking at the map. "Next to the gourmet deli. At least we won't starve." She adjusted her lace camisole and stroked my silk tank top approvingly.

Clothes and gourmet pizza were cornerstones of our romance. On our first date I had taken Betty to a Holly Hughes play about two Manhattan lesbians who own a second-hand clothing store. It set the tone. Just looking at her closet got me hot. In her neighborhood one morning buying scones, I stopped at LaDiDa, her neighborhood boutique. My skin flushed and the tinted cotton dresses seemed embodied, filled with breasts and hips and suggestive of Sunday papers and soft couches. The row of black suede shoes seemed full of feet. I spent wildly, buying Betty's body inside the clothes.

Betty and I both saw our affair as a chance to revel in feminine pleasures—clothes, shoes, lingerie—details that women appreciate in each other. But there was a dark side to it for me that didn't exist for Betty. I had been a lesbian longer and I knew that dress was not innocent theatricals.

* * * * *

I remembered an evening, years before, in Pasadena, when I decided to visit my local women's bar in girl-drag. I wore my mother's black crepe cocktail dress with net shoulders and a mauve velvet ribbon accenting the bodice. Some little black suede wedgies and my grandmother's black felt hat with veil and ostrich feathers. As I approached the door to the bar, two men walked past me and one of them grabbed my breast and said something about "chinga" and "puta." Indignant, I followed them down the street, hectoring them. But the real shock to me was that I hadn't remembered that I was a woman. I had been invisible for months, wearing work boots and overalls—to the point that a bum in a parking lot had called me "Mac” and asked me for a light. But with one quick change, strangers were grabbing my tits.

The real threat, though, was in my being mistaken for the wrong kind of man. One evening, on my way to switch boxcars all night, I walked through Hollywood wearing a GI poncho liner jacket over my purple overalls. A car passed me going slow. A teenager leaned out the window and yelled “Hey faggot” as the car gunned suddenly, laying rubber.

Faggot seemed to be interchangeable with dyke. They were the same mythological creature.  Another evening on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, I was wearing a dress and holding hands with a woman who had a very butch style—flannel shirts, Birkenstocks, Calvin Klein jockeys, and cut muscles from seven-nights-a-week karate practice. A black belt. She brought out the skirt in me.  Suddenly, a carload of teenage boys spotted us.

"Dyke, Dyke, Dyke."

I was glad for the karate, but I couldn't help dropping her hand. I was angry she hadn't kicked their windows out, but I was also mad that we just couldn't pass. We were in that girly-boy inter-zone. Faggot and Dyke. The woman who fucks collapses into the man who gets fucked— which is the only unacceptable image. Two femmes are propositioned, but not threatened. Not bait for the exterminators.

And so for me Betty was a stroke of luck, a safety zone where I could hide and play. Incognito. Subversive. Fun.   

* * * * *

Back in Gualala, the sun was going down as Betty and I arrived at the inn. The sea reflected the light flooding toward the horizon like a river smoothing before a falls. The manicured gravel crunched beneath our tires. We stood on the Victorian veranda and admired the view—bluffs dropping off, wind-twisted pines, surf morphing into a black cypher against garish pink.

“It’s perfect," Betty said, taking my hand boldly. “Just like you."

A hostess in long skirts greeted us at a polished oak desk. Another couple was registering too, a businessman and his wife, I thought, judging by appearances. We all followed the hostess up the stairs to see the rooms, fresh quilted beds with cut flowers, all with views. Betty and I drifted toward the west side and I noticed the other couple hurried east, closing the dividing door behind them. 

"Why is it that straight men always seem to be herding their wives?" Betty said. "It's funny that I never noticed that particularly before."

"It's an instinct," I said. "Even dolphins do it. If showing off doesn't do the trick, they resort to coercion. Teamwork even. That's what it's called. Herding."

"Well, I wish they'd stop. It makes one feel like a sheep."

"I hope they don't stay here," I said, filling our dresser drawers with robes and books and silk G-strings. "I'd like to have this all for us. We could get something from the store and warm it on the fire with tinfoil. We wouldn't have to go anywhere all night."

By right of first appropriation, Betty and I did in fact have the house to ourselves all night. Ensconced on the couch by the fire in the Victorian living room, we toasted polenta and read while other guests slipped discreetly up the stairs after evenings on the Mendocino Trail. Around eleven, there came a ringing at the door.  Since the hostess was long gone, leaving the guests the front door key, we untangled ourselves and admitted some Italians who had a guide book and just wanted to look around. We greeted them like long lost friends. Our house was their house.  

"Bene, bene," we said. "Venga.”

Hours later, it seemed, they came down the stairs, giggling. Had they been outrageous enough to make love? It was an interesting thought.

"Hmm," Betty said, "maybe we've been forgetting something. It's just been so wonderful here by the fire. But it could be wonderful upstairs too." She drew little patterns on my back with her nail.

In our bed, Betty's body was still warm from the fire. She was wearing the long silk slip I had given her for Christmas, green to bring out the red in her hair. "The sex movie for tonight is the dance-hall girls,” she said, doing a slow striptease with her breasts and the silk stretched over them. "We are in a border town, we are puta revolutionaries, and we are getting each other ready for a room full of horny GI's who have American dollars that we need for the cause."

I lied down with pillows under my neck so she could kneel over me and hold onto the brass bedstead while I gave her my mouth to play with so she would be ready for the whole Greek navy or whoever was on Liberty that week in National City, honky-tonk Tijuana, the bridge to Juarez, Boys' Town, Bangkok, Funky Broadway, Alisal Street in Salinas, Hollywood and La Brea, taking the biggest dicks in the world, all comers, and calling my name.

"Sweetheart, sweetheart—give me more."

My fantasy was in another genre, and after I had held Betty sweetly for a minute or two I started to sketch it out for her. "The second feature is a jail fuck between two guys, one of them a hard timer and me, the young blond sweet thing in for smoking a doobie in the park. Betty?” But all I heard were soft snores.

Morning fog woke me from a bad railroad dream, switch thrown wrong, boxcars awry like toothpicks. Gualala rocks rose like schist teeth in the river’s mouth. Betty was curled up beside me, a Venus shell, spiraled into herself.

“Betty,” I said, warming next to her. “Honey, fuck me.”

She breathed hard, not saying something. Her hand moved toward me, then stopped.    With junkie desperation, I used my own hand, pressed against her, insisting, crying out. Afterward, my fear was gone, but silence filled the corners of the room. 

Betty was still not talking as we got into our robes for our early morning hot tub reservation. There had been silences like this before, often after sex or a particularly warm encounter. Betty had told me she had problems with guilt and a fundamentalist upbringing, and she preferred to try to ride these moments out rather than drag me into them. I was glad about that. While I was railroading in Texas, a woman I'd been to bed with told me she thought lesbian love was "an abomination of the last days."  But now I had the feeling that suddenly I was alone as we headed down the staircase and smelled the bacon cooking in the kitchen.

I tiptoed down the carpeted hall and peeked into the living room, scene of last night's gourmet revels. All of the other guests were sitting there primly in straight-backed chairs, as if dressed for church, waiting to be fed. Heads swiveled as I peeked around the door.  I turned to Betty who was just coming down the stairs.

"Betty," I giggled, "Come look in there. See where they're sitting—right under our room— what a flash."

She glanced into the room and I saw her whole body petrify. She turned and ran out the door. When I caught up with her on the path, she was gasping. 

"You," she finally managed to blurt out, "you're such an exhibitionist. How could you think that was funny? All those people listening to us, to you really. It's never been 'us.' It's not real sex with us—not like when a man and a woman are in love."

"Wait a minute, Betty. Stop a minute. You don't even know these people."

But it wasn't the jury in the dining room, really. They were just stand-ins. And she had taken the stand on her own behalf. I was the seducer.

"The way you yell while making love. Don't think that I'm your lover. And taking your hand in public, like the other day. I do it, but I cringe inside. And all you do is boast about it, play to the house. It's all a sham. I'm so ashamed I'm not here with a man."

I guess I could have left her then, turned around and gone back to the room and packed the car. It would have been better for us. But the need that had surfaced in the morning was still there. I wanted something from her, so I stayed and even followed her inside the hot tub gate. I dropped the robe and turned around naked, facing her, the bluffs dropping away to the ocean below. "Maybe things will change," I thought, getting into the water. “Maybe this will help."

Betty faced me in the tub, resting her arms on the wooden edges. 

"Betty," I said. "You like the sex with me. Things you've said. I know you mean them."

"No," she said "As a matter of fact, it makes me feel like throwing up."

I suddenly felt that way myself. 

"And you're just kidding yourself that you want me,” Betty said. "If you want a partner, why are you alone? You have a track record, after all. Thinking of yourself as such a lover. Why do you pick people like me, who are so conventional?  If you really wanted to be with someone, you'd find another lesbian.”

Betty’s words were receding, because my mind had decided to jump ship. It was no longer attached to the helpless body in the hot tub and I felt like I was watching from afar. I knew the feeling wouldn’t last and I knew what awaited me. And yet I did nothing—for the small truth in what she said, for my degree of guilt. For all my secrets and the jury in my own living room. For the fact that I had picked her to front for me, in the straight world, to make me more acceptable—two women—on a party, having fun.

And I had expected her not to choose those strangers over me. I had expected it to be easy, but without her, was it so easy?

* * * * *

Railroading in Texas, I had left behind my lover of nine years. In all that time, she never called herself a lesbian.  And while I felt erased by that, I also counted on it as an anchor. We had a push-pull act. I had large desires, grand gestures, wild ideas. Stella was the eternal virgin. She was always worried about what the postman would think if he saw us through the keyhole.

We could only be natural around other gay people and it usually took a drink or two to get that way. I had thought she was the anxious one, but when I came home from Texas for a week in San Francisco, the sight of other gay people on the street made me feel I had been let out of jail.  David had been one of our friends, an innkeeper to our trysts, and I found myself opening a vein to him in a restaurant on Haight Street.

What about Stella?" I said. "Not a lesbian, but the third woman in a row."

"And they're all more closeted than the last one," David said.

"I know," I said, “The next one will be a dead lesbian. They're quieter. Easier to pack."

"We think about death a lot around here now," David said. "That and safe sex are the two main topics of conversation. Who would have thought it, just several years ago?"

"You know what they all say in Texas," I said. "That homos are getting what they deserve.  They're glad about it. I keep wanting to ask them if God just loves lesbians, then, but lesbians aren't even on their map. It's only what men do that matters to them."

"It sounds like you ought to come home and be with your friends," David said on the way to the airport.

Entering the airplane, I looked around. I realized I was checking the passengers out. I didn't know how I looked anymore. A businessman sat down next to me, wearing something shiny and three-piece. He was beefy in a way nobody in the City was. He smiled politely.

"Did you enjoy San Francisco?"

I could hear myself say it, and I knew it was in excess of what was required. "Yes," I told him, "but there are all these gay people there."

* * * * *

Months after breaking up with Betty, I was sleeping in a room in a Market Street hotel. We had stayed here often, and it was a way for me to have her back for a while, to remember that there had been good times. I took a small room in the back, so I could watch my truck at night in the alley below. I had my own blanket with me because the hotel ones were thin, and I liked to crack the window open, even in March, to feel the San Francisco night around me.

I remembered how Betty's fingers had closed with desire, a small gesture that seemed to come from the center of the earth and that moved me like the sound of a river in sleep or cottonwoods shingling. 

The alley had been painted to resemble the Southwest. A store sold only cactus and the doorways were spirit blue. The corner housed the Zuni Cafe; its small round tables occupied part of the street. The Zuni closed at two, and I could hear them dumping glass in the dumpster below. 

I had been aware of a man sleeping below me in an alcove opposite the hotel. He lit cigarettes to keep warm and coughed all night, folding cardboard over him like a blanket. We both came in and out of sleep. We could have spoken easily and I felt him aware of me, too—there are fifty-dollar beds and there are alcoves and there is the business of getting through the night alone. And I knew that we were all star gazers, floating in an eddy of the world—Betty and I and the strangers that we feared.

Scarecrows at the crossroads, they're what we wish to be. They wear gray clothes and bullets travel through them—magnified, oblivious, and immune.

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