|Did Neil Armstrong Eat Here?||Elizabeth Burnett|
The person Astrid is to dine with used to have long, loopy hair and a many-voweled name whispered in corners of lesbian cocktail parties, softly, like unfolding bed linens: Olivia.
A year ago, just before Astrid moved away to the mountains, replacing silk with flannel, Olivia demanded a new pronoun. She wanted to be called "he," and let's face it, the transition was a little difficult for the lesbians, even with the haircut, since Olivia's breasts stressed shirt buttons when she reclined on leather sofas, palms propping her head. A generous handful of women knew these gems intimately, not including Astrid, who wasn't instantly charmed by lawyers like Olivia with twelve-month tans, cufflinks and woodsy cologne. (Astrid could especially do without the woodsy cologne.) To curtail confusion (she? he? it?), to avoid sounding like a downhill ski experience ("shhh-hee"), Olivia chose a name. Nearly thirty, she could take any name, Connor or Mitchell or the truly robust Dalton. Options heaped like a vat of melon balls -- Spencer, Augustus, the delicious possibilities! -- and then s/he settled on Bob.
Testosterone injections, mastectomy, hysterectomy, and now Bob's mostly a man.
Five feet tall, but a man.
The lesbians hadn't known any female-to-males, personally. People like Bob appeared in art books or on afternoon talk shows -- lurid, vaguely pornographic, like a vibrator on a coffee table. Many women wished for male attributes at one time or another -- to pee without sitting! -- but honestly. Wasn't this taking it a little far?
Astrid can't fathom this desire for surgical alteration. She can't imagine feeling that your body is a lie. Except maybe your thighs. Astrid has always believed that her thighs belong on someone else. Her ex's new girlfriend, for instance. Charlene Peterson, aerobics instructor.
On Astrid's first return to the city, she bunks with her friend Madeline, a computer technician. That's software, not evening wear, and Madeline doesn't own an iron. She suggests steaming clothes by the shower, leaving Astrid's shirts wrinkled and damply warm. Astrid buttons blouse number two and spins to her friend, who sits primly on the bed like a flight attendant braced for take off.
"Pond or plum?" Astrid says, hands on hips. "Cast your vote."
Madeline shrugs. "I'd prefer you didn't bring her back here."
"And call if you're gonna stay at her place."
"His place." Astrid smiles weakly. "He's a he, remember?" Certainly Astrid won't bed Bob. Can he -- she doesn't even understand the state of his equipment. Astrid has a girlfriend, besides.
Madeline exhales deeply: "Right." She moves to the doorway. "Do you need a drink? Because I need a drink."
Astrid remembers Olivia at the head of brunch tables. Olivia, pre-pronoun confusion, surveying diners from her daddy place, fingering the starched collar of her pinstriped shirt, sipping her Sunday cocktail, elbowing a lover: "Look at all these ravishing women! How did we manage to meet such foxy ladies!" And her lover -- Justine or Sara or Bess -- would smile uncertainly, like she'd secretly learned the table was going to be bombed.
Astrid occasionally chatted with Olivia at these events. Olivia said things like, "You're an intellectual lesbian. I love those."
"Intellectual?" Astrid's neck flushed with the compliment. She'd majored in Communication Studies, after all, and only once made the dean's list. A fluke.
"You're among the five percent who choose to be lesbian," Olivia said. "For social or political reasons."
Choice seemed to Astrid the dirty word of dykedom. You "discovered" or "realized" some latent desire, you didn't just wake up one day and "decide," like selecting a pair of socks. All right, maybe it was a choice. So what if it's a choice? Astrid admired Olivia's bold statements, the mix of flattery and presumption. She found Olivia mildly fetching, like a dress with a surprise zipper down the front.
She was startled to hear from Bob, six months after she moved, three months after she broke up with the woman who was the reason. His new voice had the tinny musicality of a teenage boy's. "I look better than I sound," he said. No acne. Intact hairline. He'd lucked out, so far.
On the phone, Bob dizzied Astrid with questions, pressing her like a courtroom witness. He wanted to know if she'd move back to the city, and which qualities she most treasured in a man. Astrid's answers were full of question marks. "Kindness?" she said. "Sensitivity?"
"Okay," said Bob, "but you don't need a guy who's gonna clean the toilet or anything."
Bob, Olivia, this person has always had an unusual effect on Astrid -- a cage of tangerine butterflies set loose in her chest. Lately she's departed his phone calls winded, electrified, mysteriously rearranged. Bob makes her feel like she's run a marathon without enough oxygen.
Madeline's doorbell chimes. In the mute foyer, Bob clasps Madeline's birdlike hand. "I think you met my sister, Olivia."
"Oh yes." Madeline quickly sips her scotch. "Striking resemblance."
Then Bob eyes Astrid like a lingerie salesgirl who might model for him -- privately, in the dressing room -- and promises to shuttle her home before sunrise.
Frizzy salad, fishy cakes
Bob chose this restaurant on the basis of square-footage and lighting. "Above all," he says, holding the door for Astrid, "you don't want to feel like you're in a cafeteria."
The roomy circular booth has an arched red back like a spaceship or millennial throne. It reminds Astrid of the soundproof shell that used to hide Miss America contestants while finalists were interviewed, one by one. Those girls! They all wanted to be nurses! Their hearts quivered over preschoolers and rice cakes!
Sliding into the booth is like trying to ice skate across chenille pillows. Astrid heaves to the elbow of the crescent. Bob sits close, lovingly massaging stubble on his jaw. He touches Astrid's lavender sleeve, hopelessly rumpled from her suitcase. "You look stunning," he says.
Astrid's cheeks cherry. She has a flirtation problem. That's what friends, bartenders, postal workers, nephews have said. A flirtation problem. Can she help it if she blinks often? If her crossed-arm stance presses her breasts in an upward direction? Astrid sighs lightly and studies her menu. The script looks complicated, dense, like moon graffiti.
"Are you surprised?" Bob glances at his pectorals.
Astrid says she might be. If he hadn't sent the pictures. Shirtless Bob muscling a barbell, bending to shadow twin scars on his chest. Suited Bob, tie loosened, jacket flung gamely over one shoulder. Sultry Bob propped against a blank wall, squinting appealingly into the morning light. There were these photographs, and letters replete with possession -- My dear beautiful...My sweet -- casting Astrid as a pregnant young wife in Jersey accepting epistles from overseas. There was the typed thirty-page journal entry documenting a lap dance Bob purchased in Vegas. Astrid leaked this missive to several friends, parading it like a tropical bird or ten-dollar suede coat from the thrift store. There was the draft of Bob's book -- Why Women Choose Women: Be a Better Man, Win a Lesbian -- which Astrid tossed in a remote drawer and left there.
Bob lifts his leg. He yanks his pants at the ankle to reveal a furry calf. "Monkey boy!" he says proudly.
Astrid sees a dog in pink booties, out for a twilight stroll.
Bob's little forest vanishes under the table. He says he's still hoping for chest hair.
"Won't be long now," Astrid says. "If your legs are any indication."
Bob examines the puffy wine list. "This is my first date in months. I've been hibernating. Waiting for my voice to settle."
"Date?" Astrid brushes wispy blond tufts behind her ear.
Bob grins Hollywood teeth. "Are you flirting with me?"
"People always think that," she says hotly. "Why do people always think that?" At the next booth, a waitress with a tall pale neck grinds pepper on a ring of salads. The muscles in her forearms twist like serpentine ropes under water.
Bob resumes the elementary explanation of stocks he initiated in the car, though Astrid has no investments and very little interest. The Dow, he says, is just an average of the thirty biggest companies on the stock exchange.
"Really," says Astrid. "I always figured it was an acronym for some covert political agenda. Down On Women. Disgusted Over Welfare. Distended On Wontons."
"That's how I'm financing my surgeries."
"Wontons?" Astrid remembers an E-mail joke. What's the difference between men and government bonds? The bonds mature. "When do you get your -- " she slows, like a semi approaching a toll booth.
"Lower surgery? April first."
Initially, he only planned to do the upper. "She's perfectly happy to strap it on," an ex told Astrid. "I mean he." But there was the confusion of pap smears, the problem of completion.
Now, Bob says if he had to choose between being six feet tall and having a six-inch functioning dick, he'd take the height. "How tall are you exactly?" he asks.
Astrid says five-nine.
Bob sighs heavily. He likes the idea of a woman resting her head on his shoulder while dancing. He wants to carry his bride across the threshold. He's dreamed about it since he was three.
The waitress with cordy arms eyes Bob like a sequined feast, tucks the wine list against her side, vaporizes. What do you call a woman who knows where her husband is every night? A widow.
"The surgery isn't about gender anymore," Bob says, "it's about surrender. Time to stop bucking at the universe." Bob raises his pinky in a kind of toast. "I'm gonna have a tiny penis," he says, with only a freckle of sadness.
Astrid's eyes widen. In truth, she has encountered several negligible penises. There was the vegan football player. The cellist. There was the surly young yachtsman, but that was years ago. What do men and parking spots have in common? The free ones are mostly handicapped or extremely small. "Well," Astrid says finally, "what can you do?"
"The big ones are totally unreliable," Bob says. "You pay a hundred grand, give it a test run, and it falls off. I'm going the natural route. To keep sensation. The clitoris grows anyway with all the testosterone."
The wine bottle is sweating. The waitress's tongue flicks the coral corners of her mouth as Bob takes the inaugural sip. Astrid studies the waitress -- isn't it time for a haircut? -- and orders the frizzy salad.
"Frisée," Bob corrects.
Astrid waves her hand dismissively. "Just bring me something green."
Bob orders the seafood appetizer. He slides out of his jacket. "Science is improving all the time. Eventually I could get an upgrade. But the shrink at the sex confirmation clinic" -- Bob clears his throat -- "she said, 'What you will find is that women want most of all to be loved.'" He lifts his glass. "You'd date a guy with a tiny penis." His voice is like a peep of light in an inky corridor. "You would, wouldn't you?"
Astrid has passed a quarter of her twenty-eight years as a lesbian, with the perplexing exception of her twenty-fifth year, devoted, at least mentally, to a lanky, lisping man who moved pianos. Seven years ago, she lay limp in her college dorm, dumped by the yachtsman. She waved off friends' ample-hearted tea offerings with crusty tissues, punctuated the soupy silence with an occasional howl. One week of this, and suddenly she found herself chanting lewd songs at women's rugby parties. A keg, an athletic jersey, and hello, sister!
Astrid conceived the switch as a kind of nouveau vegetarianism, independent of morals and politics. She could backpedal at any moment, perhaps not without a night of stomach cramps. Astrid was flexible, fluid, fearless. A product of liberal education and bean burritos.
She graduated from college. She moved to the city. Her neighbors were lesbians. Her co-workers at the gallery were lesbians. The bus driver -- "Buenos dias, sunshine!" -- lesbian. The almond-eyed Italian at the deli counter, also a lesbian. Even in her new home in the mountains there were lesbians. (Were they really lesbians, or did they just have that hair?) The straight world snapped shut, sharply, like scissors. This suited Astrid fine. How many honest, intelligent, caring men in the world does it take to do the dishes? Both of them.
"I get it," her mother said later, dressing for a New Year's masquerade. Her costume consisted of red tights and an antique sword. A tarnished silver sheath shielded her chest. "After all that heartache, you needed someone softer." Then her mother shot a smile that said Astrid would eventually return to the realm of true challenge and pleasure. The galaxy of men.
But Astrid doesn't choose soft women. Her lovers have spiked hipbones and narrow lips. Her lovers have notched fingernails, and startle at the words intimacy and commitment. Their bathrooms frequently lack toilet paper. Their sheets are rough, like mulched potato chips.
It's like dating men. Without the perks.
Sometimes Astrid still feels surprised. She's taken ballet, after all. She doesn't check her car's engine oil. It's only been two weeks since she learned how to open the hood! How did she arrive at this place of parades and potlucks? Astrid likes the film festivals, though. She likes tank tops, and the cunning smoothness of a woman's cheek. There is nothing quite like waking up next to a woman's familiar curves, the feeling of singularity -- We are the only ones -- does desire always feel like that? There is nothing in this world like a woman's kiss -- gentle and hungry, sweet with completion.
In the regal spacebooth, Bob asks when Astrid's been single. He says he never had a clean shot, even when he was a she. He pokes his beef dinner, lowers his fork and sighs. "Tell me about this latest."
Astrid describes her new girlfriend, Ida. Pastry chef. Fisherwoman. Ida has a wolf tattooed on her thigh.
"I have a tattoo," Bob says eagerly. He pulls his thin white shirt taut over his bicep. "The male and female symbol. Intertwined."
Astrid nods -- "I see" -- but she can't really make it out at all. Bob's armband looks hazy, like a clouded constellation.
"So she can bake a pie," Bob says, his voice elevating to an adolescent soprano. "What about passion? Does your stomach drop when she walks in the room?"
To commemorate their five-month anniversary, Astrid wrote Ida a poem, aided by library research ("You capture me/like a sinking fly, like a/nymph catching trout," etc.), and Ida cried. Sparse tears, but sweet nonetheless. Wasn't that passion?
Bob offers his recipe for passion. A wraparound porch in Napa. Weekly bouquets. Ballroom dancing -- "But," he says, "under no circumstances can you wear heels." He fills Astrid's wineglass. "We'll have a cleaning woman. You can pick out my ties. Women love picking out ties. I'll call you when the Dow is up and say, 'Honey, get yourself dressed. I'm taking you out.'" Bob's eyes are shimmering brown pools. "Really," he says, "I don't see how you could refuse."
"Get yourself dressed," Astrid repeats. She sees herself naked on a chaise longue, dizzying the crimson contents of a tall glass with her finger. What are a woman's three favorite animals? A mink in the closet, a Jaguar in the garage, and an ass to pay for it all. Astrid touches the chunky chain at her collarbone.
"You're doing it again," Bob twinkles. "You're flirting with me."
Astrid nibbles a forkload of salmon and studies obscure murals on the wall. Astronaut or angel? She can't decide.
Bob touches her hand. "I'd make a devoted husband."
What's one thing all men at singles bars have in common? They're married. Astrid picks up the sprig of parsley on her plate -- "garnish" her mother says, wives know these things -- and eats it. "Marriage," Astrid says lithely, "the vocabulary of ornament." Her eyes blaze with a joke. "Why are married women heavier than single women?"
Bob shakes his head.
Astrid grins, encouraged. "Single women come home, see what's in the fridge, go to bed. Married women come home, see what's in bed and go to the fridge."
Bob slumps against the booth. He gazes at the waitress, now shoving a pencil into her hair, then back at Astrid. He dishes a multiple-choice question. If a guy insulted Astrid on the street and Bob went after him, would she be shocked by his response, charmed or offended?
Astrid crinkles her nose. "None of the above."
"What's the insult?" She's dimly aware of failing the quiz. "I need a few specifics here, Bob."
"You're missing the point entirely."
"Scared," she says finally. "I'd be scared."
"But you want male protection," he says, filling in the blanks. "You like chivalry."
Astrid remembers boyfriends. The physical bulk. Safety, like an August patch of shade. She had liked the sturdy arms around her, the plainly mapped future. But there was always an undercurrent of exasperation, the throwing up of hands and desperate fumbling out of clothes. The frail cry of the zipper. A certain roughness always rolled in. A dog came to pee on the picnic, and where were the napkins? Despair seeped through, the product of some indelible difference. There was no way to mop it up.
The waitress returns. Here's Bob with his sleek shirt and graceful, sooty eyes. Forget gender-bending: Bob's busted the seams right open. He's man and woman rolled into one. The perfect package. The waitress plants her palm on the table and leans forward, predatory. Her name must be Doreen. Doreen the Space Invader.
Watching Doreen depart, Bob says, "I may be vertically-challenged, but I always get numbers from the sexiest women in the room."
Astrid nods. "They intuit your female energy."
"Female energy?" Bob regards Astrid like she just waxed his legs. "You think I have female energy?"
"Well," she says, "you spent a lot of years in a woman's body."
Bob says he never, ever felt like a woman. A kid on the playground, he always wanted to be on the boys' team. And everyone thought he belonged there. He folds his napkin in a tidy, sympathetic square and smiles feebly. Astrid wants to trace his rich pink lips with her finger. She wants to rub his bristly cheek.
Bob says, "What are you gonna do if I meet someone else?"
Astrid shrugs. "Be happy for you, I guess."
"Wrong answer!" He smacks the table twice, fiercely. "You prefer someone in waders?"
"Hey" -- she makes a flat, choppy gesture with her hand -- "leave Ida outta this."
Bob eyes Astrid like a brilliant canvas. Like a twelve-pound amethyst dropped from the sky. "Look," he says, "I'm trying to behave."
Instinctively, Astrid cups her hand around the back her neck. She wants to fill the silence. Say something. There is nothing to say.
He inches toward her, kisses her in the safe zone, on the cheek. His lips. Like blushing ribbons. Like the silky insides of a pumpkin.
Astrid and Bob promptly rise for the restroom, disappearing, of course, through different doors.
The stalls in the ladies room are the color of portobello mushrooms. It's a relief, Astrid realizes, to not have her date in the bathroom. Toileting in pairs prevents her from checking her teeth, only to later discover pepper lacing her gumline like a humiliating disease.
A gravely voice by the sink: "If I lived in China I'd be happy with rice patties and straw hats. But noooo. I have to fall for this, like, totally unavailable guy."
Astrid zips her pants, peers out of the stall. Tall figure. White shirt. Doreen! Astrid steps into the cheap, open light. The woman turns and shrugs -- someone else entirely. "I talk to myself," the woman says. "Someone's gotta do the voiceover." She fluffs her yellow linguine hair, exits the restroom with a weighty sigh.
Astrid takes special care with her lipstick. She thinks about Ida's drafty log house, her diffident sheets and bearskin rug. She considers Ida's waders, rubbery billboards for muck. It's true: Ida can't dance. She can't even snap her fingers with audible success.
Bob's Napa sanctuary. Sapphire summer, and from every angle the wraparound porch shows coarse blond grass. Astrid's barefoot. Bob wears a linen suit and smells like a florid sunset. Music thrills the floorboards, and they are spinning. Her head is on his shoulder -- well, at least tipped in that direction. Astrid's mother appears in a sensible cotton dress and pastel shoes. She stands by the French doors, beaming with a tray of canapés.
What would it be like, returning to the galaxy of men after a seven-year stretch? Olivia would be Astrid's secret. Astrid would sacrifice generous boxes of heeled shoes to Goodwill. She'd start wearing those cutesy sandals with the meek rubber soles.
Astrid studies her reflection. She looks -- frankly, a little rugged. Mountain air has dulled her complexion. Tiny creases have hatched, multiplied. Her eyebrows recall abandoned hedges. Is she woman enough for Bob? Where are the tweezers? Who outlawed perfume?
She unfastens another button on her blouse and returns to the vacant booth. She tries to arrange her limbs in a glamorous configuration. Elbow on table, hand splayed across exposed chest. Legs crossed at the knee. Loosely.
Tick-tock. She empties the wine.
At last Bob emerges from the men's room. "Bathroom etiquette," he says, breathless. "Last week I stopped off at a bar with no doors on the stalls. This quarterback-type walked in, and I had to pretend I was taking a dump."
"Are you serious?" Astrid places her hand over his. "Did you mean it about the cleaning lady?"
"That waitress stopped me by the bathroom." Bob flashes a tawdry cocktail napkin. "She said, 'I know you have a girlfriend, but just in case.'" He tosses his head back and laughs, laughs, laughs.
Astrid considers April Fool's, the day Bob's vagina will be yanked out, his urethra rerouted. He'll go eight hours under for labia sculpted into scrotum, expanded by saline injections and finally implanted with silicone balls. Stitching. Mending. Closure. The guys -- Bob's transsexual buddies -- say the pain's so wrenching you want to crawl to one of the city's five bridges and fly.
The wraparound porch. Little brown toasts slip off her mother's canapé tray. Astrid's twirling with Bob, and her mother's forehead scrunches like she's caught her daughter in a Dolly Parton wig -- wrong style, volume, hue. These are not your jokes. The music stops. The French doors glaze over. Astrid can't any longer make out that interior. Not the vases spilling wild iris. Not the chaise longue.
She watches Bob delicately dissect their pastry dessert, and hasn't he always looked this way? The broad, shadowy jaw. The furry hands and firm chest. Just a guy with lifts.
Astrid envisions Ida wading into the river, flanked by six-foot reeds. She senses the insistent pull of the line and wants to stay hooked -- What you will find is that women want most of all -- to persist. Time to stop bucking at the universe. Some choices are immutable, gathering precious momentum across seven years. Astrid looks down, pretends that last button was a mistake, hastily refastens it. She corrects her languorous slouch.
Bob would carry her across the threshold if she'd let him. In an hour, maybe two, he'll pay the bill, fold the waitress's napkin into his pocket. He'll escort Astrid to Madeline's door. And when she hugs him goodnight, when she says he smells nice -- what is this mist -- and pleasantly pecks him on the cheek, he'll look up to the murky sky and hold on.
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