"Watch where the fuck you're going, lady!"
I shook myself conscious, away from the cukooland that I'd been wandering in for what seemed like hours. The javelin of abuse hurled from the sleek Cadillac had struck me into activity. I couldn't decide whether I was shocked at the language, though I'm no innocent, believe me, or the fact that he'd called me "lady." Now on several accounts I am definitely no lady. You could dress me up in Chanel, Christian Dior, whatever, paint my face richer than a Pre-Raphaelite on acid and a lady is not what you've got yourself. I figured he'd been sarcastic with me and that made me want to go and make him suck on one of my boots. Maybe both of them if he was real lucky. But I also wanted to thank the bastard. God knows how long I'd been roaming the parking lot like a crazy, amusing the kids and scaring their parents. So what the hell was I doing? It was a simple task, nothing big, everyday to most folks.
"Honey, on the way home could you pick up some fish from Coleman's, I know it's out of your way but it's got the best seafood department in town and you know how Mom loves swordfish steak...I may even make it worth your while, cutie." Anne liked to act all coy with me, knew that always had me curling like the proverbial puppy. Some time over the last few years, I'm really not sure when exactly it happened, I'd found myself in the lad of domesticity. A bizarre, intriguing place with its own rules and dangers never imagined. I guess I'd been heading this way for a long time, horrifically ensuring that my life took on the camouflage of that of my parents. It scared the hell out of me but not as much as other things scared me. I'd dropped out of graduate school, cliched but I was tired of reading about life and thought it might be nice to have one of my own. Take contro, you know the stuff. I wanted to get as far away from the pale and uninteresting as I could. So what did I do? Wound up a roofer like my Daddy before me, only this is my business and I get to choose if and when I want to dangle from scaffolding and ogle at the tits and asses below. But, you see, I'm a gentleman and would never do anything like that. The classic American story of upward mobility. Who knows, maybe my daughter will own the factory producing the supplies. Not that I have a daughter but I can see Anne springing that one on me soon, with a wink of an eye and lick of her bottom lip. That would complete it all for her. Anne always, and always will be, the all-American girl. She has a home to keep that would give Martha Stewart the orgasm that she needs; Mommy and Daddy and Sister and Brother so accepting it's sickening: family barbecues on the holidays and domestic appliances for Christmas; a little job down at the doctor's office, and a big ole butch with a fat wallet and a dapper wardrobe, though I do say so myself. Yeh, reality check, this is 1997 not 1953. It's all that she wants and why should I complain?
I should complain because I took all the right classes when I was in school and I am a perpetuator of the patriarchal order, or some such bullshit. Anyways, I know when to be cynical about it all, to recognise my self-parody, but you show me a gal that wouldn't like to have every basic need taken care of by a Haley Mills lookalike and then thanked for everything like your the biggest fucking hero she's ever seen. Whatever, maybe I'm happy, maybe I'm not, but this is me now and for the first time in years I've felt safe. That is until I pulled into Coleman's parking lot, figuring that just this once would be fine, no big deal, everyday stuff.
But it had been a big deal. As soon as I'd leaped out the truck and brushed off my pants it had hit me. The days before the muscle-work and the color coordinating at J.C. Penney. Pulling the all-nighters, struggling to write anew all the old observations in fashionable prose. Living on a diet of cold black coffee and cheap brand cigarettes (Anne had since got me on to Sleepytime and carrot sticks). This was no nostalgic flashback of rosebud lipped youth, romantic trysts in ivy-covered halls where I discovered who I was and how I could change the world. No, this was much darker. She was in there. Behind the seafood counter, under the European breads display. Her voice calling me over the loudspeakers, drowning out the cocktail lounge version of "Born to Run." Eyes watching me from the instant savings vouchers. So I'd flipped, zoned out, wandered the parking lot, wondered how after all these years she'd finally found me, just when I'd thought that I could let down my guard. Dusk was only just gathering, like a bunch of expectant fathers, pacing, excited, fearful. Damn it, I thought I'd be safe here. Coleman's even closes at 10 p.m., hours before witching time. Anne where were you to hold my hand? To catch me when I fall, damn you.
And now I was broken of my trance but not of my fear. I whipped my head from side to side, caught the eye of each woman that came out of the exit. Would the silver flecks of years between us show in her hair like they did in mine? How had time changed her? Did she still have no enemies, no fear, no soul? High femme, diesel dyke, Mid-Western momma? Would I recognize her? I knew that I would and could only hope that she wouldn't recognize me. She was smooth, she knew a good fool when she saw one and didn't usually let them go. Ever.
It all happened a long time ago, so the story goes. I'd grown up in the epicenter of the middle of nowhere, early to bed, early to rise. The first sign of freakiness being hugging my bed on a Sunday morning. When I got to staying up all night reading one of them Yankee tale-telling, word-jugglers everyone around me knew that I was damned and lost to them. Praise be to Jesus for getting some thing right. With scholarship money and big promises from big professors I hit the highway and crossed into the land beyond Mason-Dixon. I'd come home. Not that all was smooth sailing. Yankee girls fucked me over despite their eulogizing my Southern virtues and I soon became cynical about the whole canning factory for ideas that's a university. The small-town kid in me emerged once in a while despite my attempts at repression but she allowed me to muse long and hard on everything that my friends took for granted. Support, understanding, a livelihood, expresso and the 24 hour grocery store. I couldn't help but wonder why the hell this was so important. I mean, what do you need beyond beer, cigarettes and Tastee-Kakes at 3 in the morning? I envisioned people suddenly realizing that they simply must have artichoke hearts at 2 a.m. and Brillo pads at 5. I couldn't understand that impulse for instant gratification or comprehend who did their grocery shopping in the middle of the night. And then I met Karol.
The evening had long since put on its overcoat and lurked about as the night and I was still staring at the cavernous pull of the white typing paper. My eyes felt fixed open, rigor mortis was setting in. I'd smoked my cigarettes, my house-mate's and the neighbors' downstairs. Nicotine clogged every pore of me and was not letting any ideas out and yet I craved more.
"Just a half hour break will do me fine," I thought to myself, throwing on my for-comfort-only sweatshirt. I scuffed along the sidewalk, hands buried deep in my khakis' pockets. It wasn't cold, Fall was coming fast and I enjoyed its arrival, liked the chance to tick of the existence of all four seasons at last. I soon came to the store. I should have just gone up to the clerk, got my smokes and been back staring at my blank piece of paper before I knew it. But no. I had to go see what people buy at 3 a.m. in a grocery store. This was a kind of upscale place, you know the ones, star fruits and fifty different kinds of coffee, not counting the decaff. I was chuckling to myself at my little sociological experiment, almost as much as the teenage boy and girl pulling out the chocolate ice cream and the aerosol whipped cream. Something told me that a sundae was not what they had in mind. Then, suddenly, I rounded an aisle and standing at the meat feezer was, I know you're not going to believe that I'm saying this, the most beautiful woman that I'd ever seen. Her baggy jeans were slung down low on her hips letting her T-shirt rise up each time she reached over. And as she reached the blonde hair, shaved at the back but long on the top, fell forward over her eyes. I thought a million and one crazy thoughts. What would that hair look like falling over me? How much of her was there in those baggy pants? I was gawking. She was holding a shrunk-wrapped parcel of horribly dark meat, lean, but it had been so long since I'd eaten the stuff I couldn't tell you what it was. She put it back in the freezer, pulled a scraggy piece of paper from her backpack, took a pen out and wrote or scribbled or did something, then placed it in her pocket. She turned around and I broke from my stare, suddenly becoming intrigued by a can of baked beans. She walked by me, then bent down.
"I think you dropped this," she looked up and handed me a small, neatly folded piece of paper. I was flustered, I knew I had no paper on me, I shook my head, stammered "I don't think so," and she shrugged her shoulders and walked out without buying anything. I stuffed the paper in my pocket, got my cigarettes and smoked and contemplated for hours, back in my room. I don't think I understood the 24-hour shopping thing because I much preferred delayed gratification. I stared at the new piece of paper all morning. This kind of play had never been made for me before.
Finally, stubbing out my smoke and knowing what I had to do I unraveled the paper. In a neat hand there were simply the words "Meat counter-3 a.m.-soon." Now most people would have thrown it right away and laughed with their friends about how embarrassing it was to leave anonymous notes to cute chicks that you never had any chance of knowing. But no. I bought more cigarettes and coffee and TasteeKakes at 3 a.m. for the next week than was humanly possible. And no sign of her. Thinking how pathetic my life was standing near a meat counter in the early hours of a Sunday morning instead of snuggled up to some smooth skin, flushed with fucking, dreaming of pancakes and the New York Times in the approaching morning, she appeared. Her hair was red now but that was her. She fixed her green eyes on me and slowly walked toward me.
"Well, hi, haven't we met here before?" she whispered at me. Again I was flustered.
"You left me a note...to be here...I've been here for nights no," I replied, partly pissed off with her.
"Well, good. I'm Karol, Kip." She stared at me intently. How the fuck did she know my name?
"Uh, how the fuck do you know my name?" I tried to break the stare. She smiled.
"Oh, I don't just do this with anyone, I wanted to make sure I was dealing with someone...compatible." And before I knew it she pinned me over the open freezer and sunk me with a deep kiss, I was feeling her tongue caress the insides of my toes. She threw herself backwards and looked at me sprawled there.
"Yeh, you'll do." She reached out her hand and pulled me up, squeezed my butt and almost frog-marched me to her car. She said nothing in the drive back. My life flashed before me, this was all new and terrifying. For the first time in my life I was not in control of myself. Karol was the first and last and always. The priority of priorities. She all but threw me into her apartment, played with me, made me beg, danced for me, bit me and made me love it all. When one of us claimed exhaustion the other chastised, sneered, called her a wimp. We smashed lamps, tore curtains and blinds, flooded the bathroom and raided the fridge. I was overwhelmed and overwhelming. I felt like the Duke of Earl, the King of New York and the Angel of Harlem all rolled into one big pleasure party. The relief of not finding another soul sister!
The slanted sun of September speared me in the eyes and spiked me to turn away from it. Karol had a pen in her hand and was scribbling on a piece of paper again.
"What are you, an urban poet goddess or are you just putting together another pick-up parcel?" I enquired with a grin. She turned and smiled. Folding the paper she put it in a money tin, turned the key and dropped it beneath the bed. Then she stuck her finger in her mouth, puled on it, withdrew it and I felt her hand creep up my leg.
"Oh no, what do you take me for? I'm strictly a one-woman woman. And you're that woman. For now!" She laughed as she moved her finger within me. I didn't think I could stand it again when suddenly she stopped, grabbed my head in her hands and looked right at me.
"Move in with me. Tonight." She wasn't joking.
"But..." I began.
"Do it!" she hissed at me.
And so I did. That day. Lucky I travel light> I called my friends. All of them thought I was crazy but I knew that they secretly envied it, the risk, the danger, none of the predictability of the usual U-Haul ride. Amazingly it worked. Karol worked in a coffeehouse by day and worked me by night. We did all the things that couples do so I've no need to nauseate you by telling you them., haven't you, Boo Boo Bearkins?!
One night, just after Karol had thrown me off her and I was staring at the ceiling thinking that I was the luckiest dyke alive she got up and began to dress.
"What are you doing? It's 2.30 in the morning, and it's snowing," I quizzed as a face-full of winter clothes hit me.
"I want us to go and do something different. Let's go to the store!" she exclaimed, dragging me up and fitting me into my clothes.
We got there despite the car bouncing along like a rabid kangaroo. I was beginning to think that she wanted to be all nostalgic, a strange kind of anniversary rendezvous near the meat counter, but she pulled me close.
"Ever shop-lifted?" she whispered.
"Hell, sure, as a kid, gum, comics, that kind of thing," I replied.
"How about it?" she giggled. "'Cept now you're a big girl you gotta go for big girls things."
Now I had no moral high ground to ride up to and survey the territory below but I wasn't sure.
"Aw Karol, this is kinda dumb," I began to turn away. She stopped smiling.
"Thought that you said you'd do anything for me?" What a challenge.
"Sure," a hangdog, resigned stance came over me.
"I want a glorious 6 a.m. picnic-oysters, brie, French bread, strawberries and champagne-and I don't want you to pay a penny for any of it." I knew I had to do it. Somehow. I scurried from aisle to aisle, knowing now why she'd given me her army parka with pockets that you could have lost several Vietcong in. The oysters were tricky, Karol had to pretend to have a seizure long enough to get the server away from he stand. My shoulders sagged under the weight of it all but Karol was gleeful and I liked that.
"You did very well, for a beginner," she grinned as she dripped a strawberry in the bubbly wine. I felt accomplished, I felt strong. We sat on the floor of our apartment and gorged ourselves on the booty until she got up and moved to the bedroom. I gave her sometime and then crept in toward her. She span round holding the money tin and the paper.
"Just what is that you've got there?" I asked.
"This. Oh it's nothing. It's my shopping list. Things I've always wanted. I like ticking stuff off. And, darling, you've just given me another one to do." She put it all away and came up to me, sliding her arms under mine.
"Now we can go to bed again," she purred at me.
Things between us got better and better. I can't say deeper and deeper. I knew nothing of Karol and it seemed that we both liked it that way. I could never work her out but that was part of the thrill. One night, lolling in front of the TV, she turned to me and unexpectedly announced that "I'd really like to see you fuck someone else."
I almost lost the mouthful of popcorn that I had. Now, Karol had taught me not to be such a conservative confederate lady but this really through me. My friends were all now experimenting with "free love" but I didn't think that it was for me.
"I'm not sure...I mean...um." I really had no idea what to say.
"You wouldn't be cheating on me, if your honor is your concern, I just think it would be something real nice that you could do for me." She curled up on me and pulled my chin, staring at me through those wide eyes. She knew that putting it like that was guaranteed to make me sit up and beg.
"Well, who you got in mind? There's no way I'm touching Marie even if you shackle me down and feed me the Kool-Aid a la Jonestown," I nervously laughed. She shook her head at me.
"Hmm, sounds kind of interesting." I began to grimace. Maybe this would be fun after all.
"No, it's not going to be s easy as that. I want you to fuck with the fish." I looked dumb-founded.
"I want you to seduce the old woman behind the seafood counter at the store-right there, do her in the dead of night. And I'll be there to take you home again." She folded her arms across her chest and looked pleased with herself. Now, the woman that she was talking about was not old but when you're 21 anyone over 25 seemed about to croak. I'm sure Karol thought I was some dipsy old granny to her little orphan Annie. I'd seen the woman in a bar with her lover, both of them loud and raw. This was definitely a challenge.
"Let's go. Now. Tonight." Karol squealed like a kid just told that she could have ice-cream way after bedtime.
"Aw, we don't even know if she's working," I began, only to be interrupted.
"Oh yes she is," Karol smiled her elfish smile. "Her lover was in having coffee, complaining about how wrong it was to expect a woman to do third shift and who the hell wanted fish at that time of night anyway? I couldn't resist quipping that I'd take fish any time of day or night. She thought that was funny. She wanted me after that but I'm yours, honey," she declared and pulled me towards her. Yes, she was mine and I wanted to keep it that way.
"Okay," I nodded, "you'd better come and help me get ready."
Karol leapt from the sofa and scuttled into the bedroom, tearing open my closet.
"I know exactly what will work," she announced as she threw my black jeans, white band-collar shirt and cowboy boots on to the bed. She chose a belt with a buckle the size of Texas and cracked it at me.
"Dress, I command you," and she fell on the bed laughing.
As we left the house the chimes of the miniature Big Ben, given to Karol by some long gone English lover, struck 2 a.m. and I checked myself in the glass of the door. Not bad for a woman on a mission. We pulled up outside the store and Karol gave me a light pull on the knee and whispered "I love you." We strolled around the store, waiting for the woman to come back from a cigarette break. We watched her come back in, joke with the guy that had relieved her, slap him on the back as he went off back to stacking shelves. She looked bored enough that she may just fall for it.
"What's her lover's name?" I asked, turning to Karol.
"Louise, Lois, something like that," she shrugged. She was keen to begin.
"Okay, I'm off." And I began the long walk, waves of Gary Cooper in "High Noon" washing all around me. The woman looked up and then really looked. I have to say that I wasn't a bad sight to be seen striding towards her at 3 a.m.
"Hey, just how many sales of crawdaddies do you get at this time of night?" I enquired with my best crooked grin in place. She began to laugh. She was older, the lines at her eyes puckered up and she looked tired despite the laughter.
"Oh, you'd be surprised," she answered. I'd decided to go for the sledgehammer approach, no putzing around.
"No, I think you could be surprised," and with a line cornier than Kansa I slapped my hand over hers and ploughed on.
"Is there anywhere we could be a little more...private?" Feeling the lounge lizard inside me stir and draw hard on a Long Island Iced Tea to give courage I drew closer to her. She colored.
"I have to be here, at the counter. And I have a girlfriend," she stammered. I moved behind the counter and stuck my hand in the waistband of her pants, pulling her towards me. I turned her around and kissed her. She a little too eagerly kissed me back. I pulled away.
"Do you think Louise would mind?" I grinned, and pulled her zipper down and slipped my moistened fingers inside.
"You know...em...no, ah yes, she would mind. Oh shit, the night manager." I quickly pulled out and moved back.
"Everything all right here?" the jumped-up adolescent asked. The woman nodded. He looked from one to the other of us, and moved on. Before I realised it the woman grabbed me and hauled me behind a set of crates waiting to be unloaded. Karol didn't miss a beat, as I disappeared with the woman she slunk to the corner of the counter and positioned herself so she could see between the crates.
"Oh, my God, I can't believe this is happening- that you want to-well, Louise hasn't touched me in years...and..." I know my cues. I pulled her pants down and played with her, finding myself actually thrilled at the whole thing. I knelt before her and began to kiss her, tracing small circles around her, and then as I sucked and licked, I let my fingers do the talking. I thought that the crates were going to go, and I thought of how funny it would be to have two women fucking surrounded by shrimp and salmon steaks. She tried not to make any noise but it came out as whimpering. I opened an eye and looked towards Karol. She remained stock-still, smiling and nodding but nothing more. I wanted this over with now. I pushed harder and felt the crates shudder and the woman slump at my shoulder.
"What's your name, honey?" she finally gasped.
"Oh you've never heard of the dyke with no name," Karol called. The woman almost killed herself trying to pull up her pants and push me away at the same time.
"Oh my God," she yelled. Karol's smile widened.
"It's ok, she's with me," she laughed as she pointed at me. The woman looked at me and then her face turned to thunder and she raised her hand to slap me. I ducked and moved back to Karol. She put her arm through mine and turned away. The woman was shocked, humiliated, to say anything. Karol flicked her head around.
"Now just think what Louise would say if she knew!" Karol mocked and we left the store.
"Oh you were so good, baby," she said as she covered me with kisses back at home. I was feeling very weird. I'd enjoyed it, no doubt, but felt sorry for the woman. Karol had no sympathy.
"Hell, you were giving to the poor, she should be glad," was all that she'd said. After she made me do to her what I'd just done to the woman I wasn't surprised when she pulled out the tin and crossed off the shopping list.
"Glad to oblige...what's next?" and I pretended to grab the paper. Karol's face grew sullen.
"Never, ever do that again. You only get to know what's on this when I want you to," and she folded the paper up and put it back in the tin.
The next few weeks were bliss. Karol bought me all kinds of things, stuff I knew that she couldn't afford but I couldn't say no to her. We heard that the woman and Louise had split up and that Louise was mystified as to why. The store put up vacancies and one was for the fish counter. We both laughed at that. Then one day, whilst I was tidying my books off the bedroom floor Karol announced that she'd taken a second job, to make ends meet.
"There's no need to do that, we can manage. Don't buy me so much stuff, I love you whatever," I held her hand.
"No, this what I want. I'm going to work the meat counter three nights a week. It's not much, we'll see eachother. You could come with me." She was determined. Now for all our store shenanigans I didn't like the sound of it but Karol was Karol and there would be no turning her from this.
I went with her the first night, fell asleep in a storeroom and was no good for class the next day. I let her go alone the next few times and she seemed happy enough to do that. She'd been a little withdrawn lately but I figured that she was tired. I'd walk into the bedroom and see her asleep cuddling the little black money tin. I'd pick it up and put it back under the bed wondering what the hold of it for her was. I'd ask and she'd only get angry. I'd ask about other lovers that she'd clearly had but she never wanted to talk. Eventually I gave up and went with the future rather than the past.
"Hey, why don't you come and meet me as I get off shift, around 4am, and we can have breakfast," Karol sat herself astride me at the table and played with my hair. It was the most alive that I'd seen her in a while and I was happy.
"That sounds like a great idea to me," and I reached to kiss her. I noticed that she held the paper in her hand.
"More shopping?" I enquired gleefully. She nodded and smiled. The phone began to ring and a rapping at the door ensued, drawing us off in our separate directions. The salesman and friend sorted out, Karol was off to work with her thermos of coffee swinging over her shoulder. I wandered round the apartment, picking up clothes along the way. We were both pretty messy. I picked up the proofs of an article that I was writing, I couldn't concentrate, showered and dressed for my strange date, though by now nothing was strange with Karol. I saw the box under the bed, smiled at her eccentricity and went back to the living room. A short nap was in order. I picked up the article, even though it was my own work I knew that it would send me right off. I slowly flipped the photocopied pages, dropping some, rearranging them. I hardly noticed the neatly folded piece of paper blow off the table as the fan picked it up.I unfolded it and began to read- "A shopping list for Kip."
There was a big tick next to this. Finally, I could see the famous shopping list! I began to fold it back up. It was no big deal and I was no sneak. But Karol was usually so secretive. She must have finally left it for me to find. I read on.
Again there was a big tick. I scanned down. Yes, there was the fish counter woman and me, and then I couldn't believe my eyes.
No tick. Yet. Thank God! I sprang up and leapt to the bedroom. She was joking, right? I burrowed under the bed for the tin. My hands grasped it. I rattled it, I kicked it and there was no give. I breezed through my desk and found a metal ruler. I pushed and swore at the tin and finally its hinged popped. Inside was more paper, neatly folded. I gently took them out. Shopping lists, a photo of a woman attached to each one, a final pay slip from a specific store, from all over the place. She even had one from Harrods. I thought of the miniature Big Ben, looked at the photograph of the brunette with the receipts, and read the last entry on the list.
"Do Liz at work and put her through the band-saw. Slightly scrawny, older but not cheap, £1.50 a pound." A big, fat black tick stood next to this. Just like it did with all the others.
I was frozen in place. I had to unfreeze. I dropped the papers and dragged a knapsack from the closet. Throwing money, a few clothes and my degree certificate in the bag I slung it across my shoulder and tore down the steps. I bought my bus ticket and watched the city crawl away from me. I left school, me and Karol behind. I found a new career, a new house and a woman that would do all the grocery shopping because she knew that was something that I could not do.
Until today and Coleman's and her Mom's swordfish desire and I'm back 15 years and scared as I was that night I'd hoped never to see Karol again. She was there. I knew it. Silently getting away with it. Moving on.
I felt a hand grasp the back of my neck and I stiffened.
"Wow, Kip, out shopping?! No need to be so jumpy about it, gal," laughed Alice, a woman that I knew from my basketball league. I laughed nervously.
"Oh, just picking up a few things. Anne, her Mom'ya know," I shrugged back at her, relieved. Alice was climbing into her car. She rolled down the window.
"Ah, domesticity -- 'tis so sweet -- barf!!!!"
"Hey, I've known worse things."
Alice smiled again.
"Yeh, whilst you dine with Mummy-in-Law I have a hot date!" She beamed at me and turned the engine, backing the car out.
"Good for you!" I yelled, "Anyone I know?"
"Nah, got to meet her at the meat counter at Lario's, 3 am. Intriguing, eh?"
And her car growled away from me.