My sense of hearing especially became more powerful.
I could hear sounds I had never heard before.
— Edgar Allan Poe
It was our honeymoon summer. We made out everywhere: stoops, unlit doorways. In a Checker cab, pulsing like jellyfish, the driver’s eyes shifting away in the flash of his mirror. And weaving through the nighttime crowd on Greenwich Avenue, under the ominous Art Deco shaft of the old Women’s House of Detention, cupping my hand around Rachel’s ear to dart my tongue inside in secret as we walked.
But who could tell for certain Rachel was a girl? Her long hair meant nothing in those days. We skulked along the shady margins of the street like stoner boys in work boots, low-slung jeans with studded belts and grimy denim jackets. Her pale, snubbed face was guarded, sweet but hard to see, a little like the Dutch boy’s on the cocoa-box.
We were regulars at certain Village restaurants, Rachel treating me from her allowance. Like the smokey Pink Teacup, decorated with framed photos of the Kennedys and the Supremes. A three-dollar meal came with sweet salad, a small cup of peppery soup, and bread pudding, and Let’s Stay Together, our song, played nonstop on their jukebox. The Teacup was around the corner from the gayest street in Manhattan; still, the waiters would shake their heads when setting down our lemonade, as though we were the weirdest couple they had to wait on.
And Emilio’s, which we loved for its private booths and courtyard tables in the sooty twilight. You entered the restaurant through a long, dark bar favored by old men and old-fashioned bull dykes masked like men with Kabuki leers of horny hostility. They were spooky, depressing; still, it gave me a thrill to see grownup women who dressed this way, like dapper bookies out of Guys and Dolls. We would slow down as we passed the dyke bar over on West Third, hoping for a glimpse through its doorway. Once, we saw two women charge out and start kicking each other, right on the street, and we tried to sneak in later, to “use the telephone.”
We never saw thirteen-year-old couples like us. In the Eighth Street Bookstore, we would come across tracts on a particular version of lesbianism, having to do with sisterhood and resisting oppression from men. I remember a photo of two hopelessly unsexy middle-aged women lolling naked in a fern-filled room, one benignly smiling as the other touched her nipple with a fingertip. It made us gag. We’d never want to look like that.
We were living together like lovers—but where? Having met months ago in an East Village center for runaway youth, in revolt from our teachers and homelife, we soon realized we’d never survive in the drug-addict/child-hooker limbo awaiting us outside the Youth Project doors. Rachel had given up first, heading back to split-level New Jersey. I’d begun spending nights in my grandparents’ modest apartment in Midtown, “just crashing” till I found a better place. Still, we’d managed to remain inseparable, shuttling back and forth on the suburban bus with our clothes in paper bags, never telling my grandparents how long we planned to stay. And they hadn’t objected—as yet—to our comings and goings. Worn down by the feral divorce of my parents, a full decade of private detectives and tug-of-war custody battles, meshuga was probably what they expected. After carefully looking me over, my grandmother would mildly cajole us to wash our hands, sit down for dinner. Some fresh-squeezed orange juice at least? We made sure to thank her, polite as adults. Dropping off our shopping bags before racing right out to the street again.
As we cuddled on the foldout couch, I read Rachel the Village Voice rentals:
97–99 Avenue B
3 rooms, $100 mo
See super downstairs
First Ave 13th Street
Three room walkup, tub in kit $70 month
They were like poems, haiku. I would memorize these ads each week, figuring out how much we needed for the first month’s rent, Con Ed, and security deposit, picturing the rugs and wrecked chairs we would lug four flights up from the trash, cheap botanica votives flickering in our dim bedroom. We would chat while I crouched in a kitchen bath tucked under cupboards, exposed to the chill of the room. I could feel our apartment as if we were already living there.
We believed we depended on no one but each other.
Once, when my grandparents were sleeping, and I had quietly shut their bedroom door, as I made sure to whenever we stayed there, we turned on all the lights and raised the blinds. Then we stood in the illuminated window and elaborately tongue-kissed, so the older couple across the courtyard couldn’t help but see us from their own living room. It briefly became our ritual to do this, bursting into crazily satisfied laughter when the neighbors ended our performance by yanking down their own Venetian blinds.
As traffic ebbed on Eighth Avenue, we listened to our dark, romantic Leonard Cohen records, compared our stormy childhoods, analyzed the symbols of our dreams. Sooner or later, one of us would end up crying.
Tears were a sexual thing. The wet light brimming beneath her long lashes made Rachel’s eyes more beautiful. I wanted her to cry, to make her despair by just kissing her, whispering in her licked ear. I closed my eyes, let my mouth travel down her solid body, following unreeling shapes in my mind, like the primitive landscapes on a radarscope. What were these images— mathematical, topographic? Where did they come from? I’d never guessed how vast sex was, how tightly furled. How speechless. When I came with Rachel’s tongue inside me, I would have to rise, laughing in protest, to stop her, like a fish flinging itself from the sea.
In August, we slept with every window open, awakened by trucks racing red lights, and the periodic rumble of a passing IND. If I heard my grandparents snoring, I would tiptoe down the hallway to shut their door again, as gently as the madman in “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Then I was on the clammy sheet with Rachel, skin sticking and unsticking. The sparrows were losing their minds before dawn and from between her raised knees I was tracking the subtlest stirrings inside the apartment. What if my grandmother walked in at this moment? How would I talk my way out of that one? I might look up and freeze, forget Rachel and what we were doing, and listen, completely alert, for the barely perceptible whine of their opening door.
TO READ BONNIE’S MODERN LOVE Piece IN The NEW YORK TIMES, CLICK HERE