I can't remember her name.
That probably seems heartless to you. But, the truth is that when I met her I was more into having experiences and less into remembering the people's names associated with them.
It was in New York City, 1989.
I was at my first real professional conference. I was 31 years old and just beginning to actually make some real money. For so many years, I had been accustomed to living on a shoestring budget. Used to living in apartments with holes in the kitchen floor so deep that I could peer into the kitchen of the person living below me. Eating at the hospital cafeteria because I knew the cashier and she would charge me a dollar or two for every meal, after carefully looking around to make sure that no big wigs were about.
To finally have a disposable income felt very strange to me. And to actually be going to a professional conference and having my airfare and room and board paid for! Good hell. I thought I was in heaven.
I had never been to New York before.
I fell in love as we all do when visiting "the big ambrosia" as my new found friend, Richie, put it. I had met Richie on the airplane. He sat next to me, an extremely tall man at 6'4 and very skinny and gangly. A British accent. He had stopped in Nebraska to meet with a clinic that dealt primarily with Asperger's Syndrome patients prior to going to the seminar in New York. He jokingly told me on the plane that he had made the decision after staying in Nebraska that it was an armpit and he had no desire to live there. I had spent the remainder of the flight mocking him in a contrived British accent, scolding him for being a British snob and a large footed giant, who thought he was upper crust compared to us peasants on the prairie.
We liked each other right from the start.
Richie was a beautiful man in the way that Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom are classically beautiful. He looked a lot like Rupert Friend. He was fey and hysterically funny and his accent was right off of Brideshead Revisited. People kept turning around to stare at him. He was used to it, I could see that. He had the slow, deep dimpled smile that he had used to his advantage over and over with splendid results. I could see that right from the get go.
And, as I said, we got on like wild fire. He was actually presenting at the conference, a paper that he had recently had published on Asperger's and he somehow talked me into helping him set up before his presentation. Neither one of us had ever been to New York City before and we vowed to escape the dreary conference for at least one night of dancing.
Our chance came the second night of the conference. We were offered the opportunity to watch several presentations of our peers and obediently signed up for them, then took one walk around the booths and cut back out the doors like we were high school students sneaking out of gym class. We had agreed that we would both change into our racier nightlife clothes and he would pick me up at my door.
When he knocked jauntily at my door and I peeked through the peephole, I was shocked. He looked so, so, so....rock star. He had on black leather pants and a suave swashbuckling pirate top with black boots and he had moused up his hair in a crazy tousled manner that made him look like he had just stepped off the cover of Vogue.
He took one look at me and said, "Can't we do better than this, milkmaid?"
Milkmaid was his sly nickname for me after he discovered that I was actually a farmer's daughter.
I looked down at my jeans and tee shirt. I shrugged. He sighed and went through my suitcase, pronounced everything tacky and then went back to his own room and came back with a soft silky man's blue shirt. When I put it on, it went down to my knees. As I said, he was about 6'4. I was barely five feet. He then made me take off my ballet slippers and put on the only high heeled shoes I had brought, a pair of plain black ones. He looked at me and sighed again.
"Well," he said, "Since we can't wow them with your clothes, we will have to keep their eyes on your face. Where is your makeup bag?"
A makeup bag?
My cosmetics were a tube of red lipstick, some Bonne Bell blush and mascara.
He was aghast. He sent me down to the gift shop to pick up some dark eyeliner in blue and black and gold. I could only procure blue and black and he said he would make do.
When he finished making me up, I expected to look in the mirror and see a street walker. Instead, I saw a...a....mysterious looking siren. I looked well...I looked...okay...pretty good. Almost glamorous. Well, not almost, maybe halfway glamorous. At any rate. I was pleased. So was he. He pulled a gold and blue tie out of his back pocket and helped me tie it over my shirt and we were off.
He led me to a nearby subway and told me his plan. We were going to go to a bar that he had read about in The New Yorker in his room. I swallowed once nervously.
When we got to our stop, he led me down several blocks to a building where a beat was going so hard that I could actually feel it on the pavement under my feet. There was a line of hopefuls waiting behind a velvet rope. We both groaned. This was not going to be easy. The line was long.
Suddenly, an older, Prince-like black man came up and looped his arm through Richie's. Richie immediately shone his dimples at him. The man asked him if he wanted to get inside the place right away. Richie said yes.
"Wellll," the man drawled prettily. "I adore your accent, boy. Tell you what, if you dance with me twice and let me kiss you once, I will get you in."
Richie's smile widened to show his pearly teeth. He pointed at me. Asked if his friend could come too. The older man looked at me as if Richie were asking to take a pet rat in the building but he rolled his eyes and agreed, if Richie would kiss him twice. Richie said of course. So, after the older man handed the bouncer a sheaf of bills, we were allowed in. Richie leaned down to scream in my ear (it was deafening in there) that he would find me by the ladies room in an hour to check back. I nodded and he let himself be swooped away by the aging Prince.
I decided to find the bar and immediately ordered a gin and tonic. Gulped it down. I was pleased to be asked to dance almost immediately and after that, it was easy peasy. I danced with both men and women, black and white, Hispanic, one man in Arab garb. I stopped to take a break now and then, breathless. This bar was like the city it lived in, electric and rambunctious. Teeming with life and a pulse that seemed stuck on 98. I met Richie dutifully at our appointed hour and he was there waiting for me.
"Are you having fun?" he asked. He had what looked to be lipstick smeared all over his mouth. I asked him if he had been kissing girls. No, he laughed. He had been kissing boys with lipstick. So much more fun. Did I need to leave or did I want to stay? I could tell that he badly wanted to stay. I agreed to stay for another hour and then meet back here. He leaned down to shout in my ear that he felt so at home here, wanted to dance forever. I smiled.
I ambled back to the bar and remarkably, found an empty bar stool. I nabbed it and ordered another gin and tonic. A man sitting next to me in a creamy suit with a sharp brown tie and suspenders told me that I should try a cosmopolitan. I looked at him more closely and realized that it was not a man, but a woman. I asked what was in a cosmopolitan. She told me that the only cosmopolitan that was good was made with something called "Stoli ohranj vodka" and freshly squeezed orange juice and other juices. She said that this bar made them exactly that way and motioned to the bar tender to make us two. The drinks came back and I reached to pay for mine, but she shook her head and pulled a wallet out of her jacket pocket and bought them.
"Okay," she said. "Take a sip." She watched me, waiting. It was delicious, I told her. She smiled. Shrugged. "Told ya," she said. We tried to talk while we drank, but it was nearly impossible. We tried though, and kept laughing as we misheard each other over and over. She quickly cocked her head as a new song came on and then grabbed my hand.
"You have to dance with me," she said, "It's MICHAEL!"
The song was Beat It. We danced to it and then C'mon, Eileen came on and we danced around to that as well. She was an able dancer, not great, not terrible. I tried to keep up. We had agreed to take a breather when another song came on and she let out a yelp. "This is my all time favorite song!" she told me. "WE HAVE TO DANCE TO IT!"
I began trying to move to it. It was another Michael Jackson song, but not nearly as easy to dance to as Beat It. We improvised, I let her hold my hand over my head as I twirled like a ballerina, trying not to teeter on my heels. She dipped me. And then, oddly, we were both in perfect sync. We began moving together. The music slid into my blood stream and took hold. I began, for the first time ever, to feel a song in my feet, in my arms, in my heart, in my nose, my eyes, my mouth. We swirled and tangoed, our bodies touching, staying locked together and then pulling apart. It was incredible.
Except for one thing. When we had been locked together,when she had been behind me, swaying close with me, her arms around my waist, I had felt something. A hardness. A solidity.
A penis. I let it go until the song ended and we were standing close together, smiling. She leaned down and I let her kiss me softly and then yes....felt it again. I cautiously backed away, just a little. I gave her a curious look. She threw her head back and laughed.
"Um, what is THAT?" I asked.
"My dick," she answered, I thought, pretty carelessly.
I blinked. Started to sputter something about how I thought she was a woman, etc.
She smiled, very, very kindly. She was going to help this hayseed.
"I have my strap-on in place," she said. "I wear it most of the time."
I tried to shrug, to act as if I encountered women with strap ons regularly. I didn't. She was my first.
I checked my watch and realized that I was a few minutes late checking back with Richie, told her that and we walked to the bathroom. Richie was even later than I was and so she and I took the opportunity to kiss a little. Finally, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Richie. He had a man who was even taller than he was in tow, a strapping Jethro of a man, a lumberjack in New York City. Richie told me that he and the man were going to stop at another bar and then head home, did I want to come along? It was a gay bar for men, he warned me. I shook my head no. Richie offered to pay for a cab ride home for me. The woman whose name I can't recall stepped in and said that she would be glad to see me home, on the subway, though. She said that she lived in Brooklyn and it wasn't far out of her way. Richie looked at me questioning and I nodded my assent.
I did things like that when I was in my thirties. Trusted so easily. But, truly, I sensed that she was trustworthy, although I wasn't all that attracted to her. I hoped that she didn't expect us to sleep together. Richie and his date left, their arms slung around each other and I turned back to the woman. Let's call her Bette because, honestly, she deserves a name. She was a nice woman, one of the good ones.
She asked if I wanted another drink and I said maybe one more, but I wanted to buy. She shook her head. Said that when she had the strap-on on, she bought the drinks. She bought two more cosmopolitans and we drank them, standing close together. She began kissing my neck and nibbling on it, I inhaled her smell. It was nice. Something earthy and misty, not male, not female. Finally, she pulled away from me and said she would see me home if I was ready. I said okay and we walked out to the street.
We walked, holding hands to the subway. She stopped suddenly and turned me towards her, making direct eye contact.
"I need to tell you something," she said. "I need to tell you that nothing is going to happen with us tonight. I have a girlfriend. She is home visiting her family in Washington, DC this week and well, I can't cheat on her. I can't do it. I shouldn't even have done anything with you. It just sort of happened, but I need to stop it. Now. She called me around 9 tonight and I told her that I was going to go to bed early tonight, but I came here instead and although I'm really glad that I met you, I should have really kept my word to her. So. Just so you know." She took a deep breath and waited for my response.
It was relief. I told her that I understood completely. That I was only here for two more days and then I would be heading back home and well, I was tired and had a busy day ahead of me tomorrow. I thought she was fantastic and I had enjoyed myself a lot, but that I wasn't looking to laid tonight either. She and I smiled at each other, a good decision taken care of now. We started walking again and she put her arm around me and hugged me, leaned down to whisper in my ear that she DID think I was attractive, though, she wanted me to know that.
I said "ditto."
She burst out laughing again.
"Where are you from?" she asked. "You sound so...so..freaking midwestern."
I told her that I was actually a farm girl from Iowa. This made her laugh again.
"Aw...fuck," she said, smiling broadly. "I always wanted to fuck a farm girl from Iowa. Seriously."
I shrugged. Giggled in a way that sort of appalled me. It sounded so cutesy. So...yes...so hayseedy.
We got on the subway and settled in. We sat close together, knees touching, leaning in close to talk seriously. I found out that she worked at a video store but hoped it wouldn't be forever. What she really wanted to do was be on a crew that made videos. I told her about the convention that I was in town for and she shook her head.
"NO!" she said. "I have this farm girl image in my head and I seriously don't want to shift to thinking of you in a white coat. Please. Tell me that you work hard on your farm....."
"I work hard on my farm," I told her, deadpan.
She leaned back and rested her head on the back of our seat. "Better," she said and leaned down to kiss my cheek.
I looked around me. The subway was crowded and it was nearly two in the morning. Back home, the streets would be deserted and everyone fast asleep under the prairie sky. Not here, though, I guessed. Never here. And quite honestly, if we had been back home, there would have been astonished stares at two women kissing and snuggling together on a seat. I liked this better. Much better. But, hey, the prairie was my home.
When we got to my stop, Bette offered to get out with me and walk me to my hotel room door. I said no, that I was fine. She admitted that it was a spanking clean neighborhood and she was sure I would be fine and it was late and she did have to be at work at noon. I told her that I actually had to be up at 7 to help with a presentation at 8. She made a face.
"Too fucking early," she said. I agreed. She gave me a quick kiss as the doors opened. I thanked her for my drinks and a wonderful time. She smiled and as the doors closed, she bowed gracefully and said it had been her pleasure. I believed her.
The next morning, I was awakened by a rude phone call at 6:30 from Richie.
"Just wanted to make sure you were awake and ready to help me," he said, much too cheerily and much too alertly.
I groaned a little and said that I would meet him at the conference room door in an hour. I swung my legs to get out of bed and for the first time felt my punishment for dancing for hours in high heels. I ached all over. It would be the beginning of rude discoveries just like this for me. The beginning of my journey with rheumatoid arthritis, with pain and with, well, aging. I was 31, though, and the memories of my twenties were still close ones. It would take until my forties before I really accepted my limitations.
I met Richie as planned and snickered when he pulled away his black turtleneck to show me his hickeys. Called him a giant footed slut. We finished up the conference but didn't slip away again, instead we went along with docile groups to check out museums where I stood holding back tears as we viewed Van Gogh's The Starry Night and Irises. Richie coaxed me into the Avant-Garde section but the works there didn't move me much and I ended up back in the room with Vincent's works and cried into one of my sleeves a little.
I fell in love with New York just like everyone does. But, mostly in the way that those of us from the midwest or the south probably do. It is like seeing something so different from your daily life, so pulsing with movement and joy and knowing that even though you have joy in your life, it is a quieter joy, a smaller package. Nothing like the brawling sweep of New York joy. It is something to be treasured. I did treasure it, I still treasure it whenever I go back. One day I will take Liv to New York city.
Richie and I have stayed in sloppy touch over the years. We send Christmas cards. The last time I saw him in person was in Charleston when Liv was a toddler. I had gone with a friend to a conference on Autism and he was there, with his lover of several years. Richie is now Richard and he and his partner live in England. Richard teaches at Cambridge and his lover owns an old fashioned millinery. Richard is considered an expert on adults with Asperger's syndrome. He was still a pretty man when I saw him, but an aging pretty man. His dimples were still intact, but he was getting a bit jowly. I showed him photos of Liv and he showed me photos of their cat.
I never saw "Bette" again, but I surely wish her only good things in her life. She was a good person, a great kisser, an okay dancer and a helluva lot of fun. Every time, I hear this song, I think of her and I close my eyes, savoring the end of the song where Michael goes off on a scatty tangent, his voice joyful and slippery.
Reaching out to touch a stranger
Electric eyes are everywhere
See that girl, she knows I'm watching
She likes the way I stare
If they say why, why
Da da da da
Da da da da
I loved dancing with you. I hope you are well and happy.