Excerpt from the recently published novel
“Put that on,” Esther’s calling from behind the bathroom door.
She’s left my cobalt dress suit on the bed, and my nicest pumps are on the floor.
“But I thought we were going dancing!” I shout to the door. The capri pants and loafers I’d planned on wearing have mysteriously vanished from sight.
“We’re professional gals having a drink and a bite out.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’d just prefer it that way, if you don’t mind.”
But I do mind and I want to understand. We’re meeting Liz and Bettie at Billie Le Roy’s in the city, a women-only club. I’ve heard them talk about it, and after much pleading Esther has agreed to keep her promise and take me dancing. I’m about to pursue the issue further when Esther steps out of the bathroom, and I have to gasp and laugh in astonishment.
“What’s so funny?” she says.
She’s wearing a close-fitting mauve dress with short sleeves, pearls around her neck and in her ears and matching lipstick. Her eyes are painted too, with lilac eyeshadow and thick mascara. I’ve never seen her done up quite like this before. Her outfits are always impeccable, tasteful and understated. The Esther standing here in front of me is a gaudier version. The heavy makeup has the effect of making her less feminine, not more. Her large hands and muscular arms, her flat chest, create a dissonance, as if she’s a man in women’s clothes. After the initial shock, I must admit that I’m excited by her new look. I take her by the hand and guide her toward the bed, but we’re late as it is, she says, escaping my grasp.
It’s very dark inside the club, though dusk is lingering out on the street. We’re here for the Sunday party, which starts early, and the place is already filling up. A stylish bartender with a pageboy haircut, dressed in a velvet smoking jacket, whistles approvingly and calls out a greeting to Esther from the bar as we enter. Esther stops to give her a kiss, but doesn’t introduce me, and I want to ask her why but it’s too loud. Surely, we’re safe in here, safe enough for Esther to acknowledge we’re together. Across the room, I’m surprised to see men in suits swigging beer out of bottles, playing pool and swapping stories loudly, their arms draped over girls in high heels and low-cut dresses.
“The butches and femmes,” Esther offers under her breath, with a look of disapproval. I take a closer look, and they’re women, all right. Their broad gestures and rooted stance, their legs wide open where they sit, give them the appearance of men, but their delicate features and hands, their slight builds give them away. The women, too, aren’t quite as they appear. They may be dressed to kill, but they’re hardly examples of feminine propriety. Their laughter is boisterous, their behavior anything but modest. One girl has her fellow pinned to the pool hall table.
I’m enthralled by this mix of woman and man. Who says we must be one thing or another? I’m finding them all quite beautiful, but I don’t tell Esther. I’d join them at the pool tables if I could, but Esther’s got me firmly by the arm and is guiding me toward the back of the bar where we enter a cavernous space. It takes a while for my eyes to adjust, and when they do I see small tables surrounding a dance floor with a stage at one end. Couples are already dancing to the latest hits. “It’s My Party” is playing, and before we even find a table I’m pulling Esther onto the floor. Esther is an assured and graceful dancer, I discover, but I am even better. I lead her, and as we move across the floor, women make room for us and call out encouragingly. I could dance all night. “Blue Velvet” comes on next, a favorite of mine, a slow dance for lovers, but Esther wants to find a seat.
She chooses a table near the entrance, which surprises me, and seats herself facing the door. I’d like the dark corner, where lovers are already making out with abandon. Women are sitting on each other’s laps, straddling each other. They’re licking each other’s ears, fondling each other’s breasts. It’s not clear where the body of one begins and the other ends, they’re so wrapped up in each other. Esther orders us Cokes without asking because she has to drive, she says. But I’m not driving and I’d like a drink, I tell her. She just shrugs and looks around.
“If anyone asks, we’re out-of-towners. We happened in here by chance, you understand?”
“Sure,” I answer, though I don’t really understand. But I’m not in the mood for contemplation. I get up and sit on her lap. She allows me a kiss, and it’s magical to be kissing Esther outside the confines of our four walls, surrounded by other women just like us. I fondle her small breasts, which she tolerates, and feel her nipples growing hard under my touch. I kiss and lick her ears, and she lets out a little moan despite herself. I’m about to straddle her, but she’s lifting me back into my chair, like a naughty first-grader. “Not now, Karen,” she says, “I have to watch for Bettie and Liz.”
They’ve not shown up, and Esther seems most interested in worrying about their arrival. I give up on getting her attention and feast on the sight of bodies of women moving across the floor in all their glorious difference, moving as one. “I Saw Her Standing There” comes on. I catch the eye of an astonishing looking Black woman dressed to the nines in a white tuxedo and tie. I’m sorely tempted to ask her to dance, but I lose sight of her in the gathering crowd. And then, from out of nowhere, she’s pulling me up to dance, and she’s even more beautiful up close if that’s possible. She has the carved features of an Egyptian queen, the scent of sandalwood, the strut of a young man. She takes me confidently into her arms, and we dance body to body to “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” We’re locked into each other, moving to the rhythm as one and then we discover a rhythm of our own. As the song comes to an end, she speaks into my ear, and her voice is girlish, high pitched, not at all what I’d imagined, and I’m taken aback I admit, and she’s asking me if I’m going steady, and I say yes, and she says that doesn’t matter, her name’s Shirley and she’s here every Sunday. The music stops and the drag show is about to begin. I thank Shirley for the dance and tell her I’ll look for her next time. As she disappears into the crowd, I wonder if I will see her again and what would happen if I did. Meanwhile, the excitement in the room is palpable.
But Esther is on edge. I feel it, and it’s starting to affect me, too.
“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” she says.
“Why not, for goodness’ sake. I like it.”
“Well, that’s good,” she snaps and resumes her suffering. It dawns on me that Esther can’t have fun in a conventional sense, in the way that others do. She’s incapable of letting her hair down.
“Why can’t we have fun for once? It’s not a crime.”
“I’m glad you’re having fun,” she answers grimly.
But despite the gaiety, neither of us is having much fun now. She’s spoiling it for me. I turn my chair away from her to face the stage and vow to ignore her. A swaggering gentleman with a moustache and fedora is removing his jacket, his tie, his suspenders, his creased trousers, to Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” and my temperature is definitely rising. We’re all snapping our fingers in time, apart from Esther, that is. Then he’s tearing off his shirt revealing large, full breasts and pulling a banana from the crotch of his boxers, and the room erupts in laughter. As he moves from table to table offering bites, Esther rolls her eyes, but I pretend not to notice. The boxers come off and the women roar. A man with a woman’s body stands naked before us.
“I want to leave, Karen.”
“Oh, please, let’s stay just a little longer.”
Suddenly, the lights go on, blinding us all, and a harsh male voice echoes through a megaphone. “Stay where you are and get some identification out. If you try to move, you’ll be arrested.”
We hear shouts and cries from the bar and pool hall, breaking glass, the scraping of chairs as paths are cleared, shrieks of pain and the thumps of blows. Women are being roughed up, perhaps beaten. We’re frozen in place. None of us dare look the other in the eye. The naked performer scrambles to cover herself in her men’s smoking jacket. An officer strolls across the room toward her. He’s got a smile on his face, like he’s taking a walk in the park, but his hand is on his gun.
“Let’s have a look at your papers, Mister,” he says. She turns away from him, shielding her breasts. “What’s the matter, what are you hiding, huh? Let’s see.”
The policeman pulls her jacket out of her grasp, grabs at her crotch. “Where’re your balls, huh? Someone chop ’em off? Or are they up your ass? And take your hat off when I’m speaking to you, fella.” As he knocks the fedora off her head, thick red hair spills over her naked shoulders. The officer steps back, faking astonishment. “Well, what have we got here? A female pervert! I think you better follow me.” He yanks her arm roughly. She screams out in pain. He starts to pull her across the dance floor by the hair, which quickly proves to be a wig, perhaps the final gesture of her act. “Fucking dyke,” the officer says, “no dick, not even any hair.” He grabs her by both arms now and she’s struggling to escape, whereupon he knees her brutally, throws her to the ground, turns her onto her stomach and handcuffs her. The once-cocky fellow is now a whimpering girl. We watch in horror as he hustles her, naked, out of the room.
And the beautiful Black girl in the white tuxedo is being led away in handcuffs! “Shirley!” I cry out. She turns her head. There’s fear in her eyes and humiliation. I’m about to jump up and run after her, but Esther has reached under the table and gripped my hand so tightly it makes me wince. More officers swarm in and choose their victims. I realize it’s the butches who are being singled out for especially harsh treatment.
“Stay very still and breathe normally and remember what I told you.”
Esther takes a very deep breath in and out. She’s attempting to appear fully at ease, but her body is rigid. I glance around the room at women breathing in and out like one organism.
A baby-faced officer with downy hair where a beard should be appears at our table. “IDs please, ladies,” he says, almost politely.
“We’re not sure what’s going on,” Esther says, looking around with a surprised expression. “We’re from out of town and here on business. We just came in for a bit of supper and a drink. Our papers are back at the hotel, I’m afraid.”
The officer looks us over.
“We’re teachers,” I volunteer.
“Well, go on and get out of here quick,” he says, eyeing me, “or I’ll have to book you.”
Esther rises, head held high, and takes my arm. Looking straight ahead, we exit the dance hall and then the bar and walk slowly out into the cold night air. I wonder at her poise. I’m shaking so badly my teeth are rattling. There are police cars with flashing lights and sirens. The owner must have been late paying her dues to the Mafia, Esther says under her breath. All I know is women like me are being hauled away in paddy wagons. We keep walking and don’t look back or at each other.
“I cannot believe you told him we were teachers,” Esther says when we’ve gotten some distance between us and the club.
“Well, it worked, didn’t it?”
“It could just as easily have gone the other way. If he hated school, for example.”
“Well, I guess he liked his teachers,” I say, running to keep up with her.
“Don’t ever do that again.”
“Where are we going?”
But Esther’s not in the mood for answering.
“That was a close call,” I say, catching my breath. “Thank God, you made us dress the part. I feel terrible. You wanted to leave, and if we had we—”
“Shut up,” Esther says. “Shut up. Just. Shut. Up.”
I’m so astonished to hear her talk this way that I do shut up. We reach her car, having made a sizable detour, and drive the sixty miles back to town in silence. Esther drops me off without a word and speeds away. I stumble into the house and wash myself down, avoiding the mirror. I don’t want to see my face.
I wake up to the phone ringing. I must have gone out like a light last night. It’s Esther, just checking in, she says. I hear her soulful sigh, and the world is all right again, but different at the same time in a way I don’t yet understand.
“I almost lost control, I’m afraid. If you hadn’t been there I’m not sure what I would have done, Karen. I’d have been locked up last night most likely. If someone had dared to lay a hand on you, he’d be dead or I would.”
I’ve never heard her talk like this before, so hard and unrefined. It doesn’t fit to her person at all. I’m feeling something new inside of me as well. A small fissure is opening, filled with molten anger. We’ve been marked, branded as outcasts, as criminals. I feel shame, but also a certain shameless power of defiance.
“Come over,” I order her. And she obeys.
I meet her at the door and kiss her hard. I grip her arm and force her up the stairs. My anger leaves me heartless, callous. Esther understands and plays along. The look in her eyes is knowing, ready. There’s no room left for bodies gently lapping, no space here for the perfect rhythm of love. Every touch that was soft is rough, every tease now demand and seizure. The sweetness between us that made me weep and beg has been replaced by raucousness, by rampage. My body is a weapon, lawless. And Esther? She’s been to this place before with someone else it seems, which only serves to excite me more. I feel no jealousy, and I don’t care. We commit crimes of passion and then some. We break laws of nature, blast safes and steal treasure, ransack and lay waste to all that remains and set ourselves on fire. When we’re done, and there’s not a trace of us left, we escape into each other.
Sunday we spend reading the paper and preparing our classes. It will be good to see the children’s expectant faces. They haven’t learned to despise us yet.