by Beverly Burch
Even after the door slammed, Vanessa stayed at the table to wipe up the spilled beer. Then she stood, completely still, her mind wiped clean of thought before she felt a little shock wave and bolted down the stairs. Celia was already past West 78th. Once she was in earshot, she called out, “I didn’t mean it, really, not like you think!”
Celia let her almost catch up then hissed at her. “Go away, you…you…you’re a nightmare. Leave me alone. Move out. I mean it this time.”
“You’re so angry! I was just talking. I wasn’t serious.”
Celia marched off. Vanessa pursued again. “You know I didn’t mean it.”
At the entrance to the park Celia turned again. “You did. You want to go out with some man and come home to me.”
Vanessa clutched her arm. “No I don’t. I just meant, totally theoretical.”
“Your life is theoretical.”
Then Vanessa cupped her hands together like a beggar. “I meant I should make really sure, of course, that I should be with a woman.”
“Make sure? Make really sure? You needed to do that before you moved in, before I got pregnant, for Christ’s sake. You needed to make really sure before you came onto me in the first place.”
Seagull droppings splotched the path. Vanessa waved her hands up and around, hailing help down through the clouds. “Stop saying that! I was just thinking out loud for a minute. Like, you know, it would help me understand. I was so fucked up when I was with guys before.”
“Fine. Go find out. But really you just want something different. You always do. You think I don’t know that tone in your voice? I’ve got to get out of here.” Celia mimed. “Like when you’re going to quit another job. Only now you want a new person.”
Vanessa staggered around like a drunken bird, big tears on her cheeks. “No. No.”
“If you won’t move out, I will. Go home. I want to walk by myself. I mean it.”
Vanessa watched her walk away then swayed along the path until she came to the bench beneath the redbud tree she loved and settled there, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, looking like a child waiting for her parents to return. Celia didn’t return though, so she went home before it got dark.
It was after ten when Celia came back, exhausted, and she wouldn’t talk. Nothing was said the next day, and by the day after things had almost reverted to normal—drinks and late-night dinners together after Vanessa came home, now gin for her and Italian soda for Celia. Vanessa massaged Celia’s feet. Celia was always tired, so thin the pregnancy showed at three months.
Saturday afternoon, Celia disappeared for hours then walked in, announced she’d put a deposit on a studio five blocks from her job.
“Because I said that stupid thing?” Vanessa flung her book to the couch. “Why do you take me seriously? You know you could stop me.”
“I don’t want to manage you any more. You’ll change your mind again. You think I don’t know what you do when I’m out of town?”
“Not fair! I don’t do anything. You don’t know me. You just think you do.”
“I do think I do. I’ve been denying it.”
Vanessa wouldn’t help her move, but she bought a framed print, an abstract of a pregnant woman. Hmm, was Celia’s response when Vanessa asked where she should hang it. Celia took half the dishes and they shopped thrift stores together for new lamps and chairs. Vanessa stayed at Celia’s new flat that week. Whenever Celia came over, to what used to be her own home, Vanessa cooked for her. But in the morning Celia prodded her. “Go ahead—answer a personal ad. We’re friends now, even if we sleep together.”
Three years earlier, Vanessa had been eating lunch in Washington Square when she noticed Celia, slightly built and blond, gazing into the humid afternoon. Vanessa stuffed the remains of her sushi back into its carton and moved next to her.
“Excuse me. I believe we’ve met. You interviewed me once.”
Celia studied her. “Sorry, I don’t think so.”
“Long time ago, 1999 maybe, almost three years. Not your fault if you don’t remember. That was my evil twin. I’d have forgotten me too. My name’s Vanessa. You were writing a thesis on girl groups and somebody gave you my name.” She extended her hand, laughed. “Hey, how many black girls did you interview who had their own band?”
“No kidding. I do remember you now,” she nodded. “Uh, you look different.”
“My hair was natural then.” She stroked its dark sleekness. “I am different. I’m a bookseller now. It was a weird interview. My fault of course. We kind of had a personal connection though. Speaking for myself, of course. You’re Celia, right?”
“Yes. Amazing that you remembered me.”
“What you mean is how could I remember anything when I was so fucked up?”
Celia laughed. “Something like that.”
“I sent you a note a couple of weeks later in care of your department. To apologize, for the drugs and all. I sent a pass to my last show too. Maybe you tossed it in the trash. Whatever.”
“Your last show?”
“Yeah. The band fell apart. Too bad you didn’t come. We were hot that night. It was a club off Eighth Avenue.” Vanessa leaned back, smiled at the sky. “Well, the band didn’t fall apart, I did. I didn’t have a choice.”
“What did you do?”
“Went back to Cincinnati. Went on Zoloft, into therapy. I thought if I needed drugs so bad it ought to be something legal.”
“That drug was great. I felt like I was wrapped in cotton the whole year. But I don’t take anything now, legal or otherwise.”
“Didn’t you tell me you hated Ohio?”
“I was into hating things. Cincinnati was a relief actually. I mean, New York wasn’t a total disaster, with the band and all. But me?” She shook her head. “Too many illegal substances, too little sleep, too much sleeping around.”
“It’s nice to see you’re in a better state. How’d you get to book selling?”
“Long story, short—I was still insulated by Zoloft when I came back. I got a job in a vintage clothing store. Then a used bookstore, then Barnes & Noble. The assistant manager was fired because a customer said he made a racist remark. So I got his job. Management’s not hard, if you’re sober.”
“Yeah. They’re interesting actually. Personal history all over them. You know—a nice fedora, some guy who liked to spend money. You get a pair of women’s leather tie shoes and you picture her walking everywhere, not caring how she looked. They give off heat—a life in a piece of clothing. The people who owned them, walking around in other clothes, like new people. You think changing your style changes who you are?”
“No.” Celia laughed, then looked at Vanessa. “Or yes.”
“So what are you doing these days?”
“Not sociology any more. I switched to psychology. Still at NYU. I’m working on a dissertation that doesn’t want to get finished. On teenage girls. Self-abuse.”
“You’ll be a good therapist. Something about you made me look at myself. You were so together and all. The way you said you were a lesbian and didn’t bat an eye.”
“So what happened in Ohio? How did you manage?”
“I spent afternoons quilting with my mother. Funny, huh? I just did the drone work, cutting scraps, sewing what she pinned. Monotony’s a perfect antidote. By the time I got there I was an electrical wire snapping in the wind, sparking every time I touched something.”
“Quilting. Like occupational therapy.”
“I guess. My sister had gotten married and moved to England, my brother was in graduate school. I was the prodigal child, home after a wasted life. Just me and my mother. We spent a lot of time in the backyard together. She’s into gardening too.”
“And your father?”
“He’s a periodontist. At the office all day. Didn’t see him much. I waited tables at night.”
“Was your mother happy to have you home?”
“Ha. All I can say is she didn’t trash me for blowing a scholarship at Sarah Lawrence or all the late night calls from New York asking for money and she could have. My mother’s kind of conservative. She votes Republican. I can never figure out where I stand with that woman.” Vanessa grimaced. “I shouldn’t be telling you this of course or it might just seem like a sober repeat of that interview. But nice to see you. Maybe we’ll meet again for lunch here.”
They met on the same bench twice the next week. Vanessa invited her to a free Carmen in the park that Saturday. They went early and Celia brought food. The opera made them swoon. “I could come over,”Vanessa said. It was eleven at night and Celia didn’t protest. They slept together that night.
The next morning Celia said, “I don’t want to be your new thing, being with a woman, like it’s an adventure.”
“Understood. Not an adventure. And I don’t want to be your new thing, the black girlfriend.”
“Understood. Not an adventure.”
Three months later Vanessa suggested she move in with Celia.
“Really? You’re really that into this?”
“I’m really that into this.”
“Are you in love with me, Vanessa? You don’t say it.”
Vanessa wrapped her arms around her, kissed her. “Yes. I would call this love.”
The first year was idyllic. A mutual passion for Japanese movies, indie music, and Toni Morrison novels kept them eager. Vanessa wore Celia’s clothes. She made an appointment with Celia’s doctor because she thought she had a thyroid problem, like Celia.
“Just leave my shoes alone,” Celia laughed. “I’m not sharing shoes.”
Celia finished her dissertation and found a job in a clinic for adolescents, precariously funded by the city. Sleep seemed to be the thing that differentiated them. Celia went to bed around ten, fell into oblivion. She loved sleep. Sleep was Vanessa’s enemy. She stayed up late, often tossed for hours. Night was a void she could disappear into. Chaotic dreams, sometimes terrifying, plagued her. “I’d feel more solid if I had a past. The way my family erased everything, it might have warped me somehow. No family stories. No tragedies, no wild escapes, no nothing. Apparently a tornado picked my grandparents up in North Carolina, dropped them in Ohio instead of Oz. In a white neighborhood, with a private school. How would I know who I am?”
“Vanessa Wallace.” Celia cuffed her lightly on the chin.
“Not enough. When I sold used books, I always wondered why people sold them off. You’d see dog-eared pages, underlined passages. These books mattered to them. Whenever I asked my mother about our history, she’d say, ‘It doesn’t mean anything now’. Then she’d turn on the radio or ask me to run the vacuum.”
Celia’s mother Sigrid was a big blond woman who visited from Sheboygan. A lesbian daughter with a black girlfriend was fine with Sigrid. Her husband had died young from a stroke so she lived alone. At sixty-two she rode her bicycle to her office until snow and ice stopped her. Celia seemed a lot like Sigrid to Vanessa, capable of anything. She liked Sigrid at first—a liberal-minded mother, keen to see her daughter. But after Vanessa quit another job Celia told her, “My mother says it’s a good thing I went into adolescent psychology so I can understand you.”
“Thanks a lot, Sigrid,” Vanessa said. “Maturity’s overrated anyway.” She refused to go to Sheboygan again.
At the end of their second year, Celia pressed Vanessa to come with her to Thanksgiving. Vanessa agreed then cancelled. “I’m getting a cold. I can feel it coming on. I’m not getting on a plane. You’ll have a better time without me anyway.” On her return, Celia found her on the couch surrounded by take-out cartons, watching reruns of Friends. She picked up the remote, clicked off the TV. “I want a baby, Vanessa.”
Vanessa put her hand on her heart. “You met somebody. You want to get married.”
Celia made a face. “I meant with you, you turkey.”
“With me?” Her mouth twisted, an expression of horror.
“If you want to. And pretty soon.” Celia was thirty-three.
“No way. It wouldn’t be fair to do that. The child would be stigmatized.”
“You mean having lesbian parents.”
“Well, yeah. No father. It’s irresponsible.”
“Oh, so you’re Ms. Responsibility now? You could say the same thing about black families, like they shouldn’t have children because racists won’t like them.”
“Don’t go there, Cele. It’s not the same. Racists at least think it’s normal for black families to have children. As long as they’re married and don’t have too many.”
“It’s about what other people think? Lesbians everywhere have children these days. We’re in Manhattan. How can someone so flaky have such a reactionary heart?”
“You don’t understand. You can’t, not with Sigrid for a mother.” A look of something alien tightened over Vanessa’s face. “Go ahead if you want. Your choice. I’ll get used to it.”
When Celia made an appointment at a fertility clinic, Vanessa erupted again. “Not that way! You don’t understand what it means not to know who you are. If you have to do it, at least know who the father is.”
“A donor,” Celia said. “OK. I’ll consider that.”
Vanessa was startled, assuming, as always, she had no impact on others. The subject vanished for a while, but when she started noticing men on the street she was stirred: this one could be a donor, she thought. Or better, she might want him for herself. Maybe she did want a child.
Late winter Celia befriended Jake, the program director at her clinic. Gay, forty, HIV negative, single. Sometimes after work he walked her home through the park. Vanessa began waiting for them beneath a redbud tree she claimed, a reminder of Cincinnati. Spring came early, with more wildflowers than she could remember and the redbud was a mass of pink and white blossoms for weeks. One afternoon, Celia called Vanessa to say she was having dinner with Jake.
“I want to come too.”
“No. We want to talk.”
“I’m a good listener,” Vanessa said.
Celia came in late, flushed. Jake had agreed to be the donor. Vanessa said nothing. Celia pulled a basal thermometer out of her purse. “I bought one of these on the way home. Can you get into this? You would so love a baby.”
Celia charted her morning temperatures. One morning she announced it was time to go to Jake’s to retrieve sperm. They took a taxi up Broadway and arrived at an old brownstone. Celia handed Jake an empty jar from her purse and they waited on his leather couch while he disappeared to the bedroom. When he returned there was a scant spoonful of cloudy fluid at the bottom of the jar. Back in the taxi, they looked at it with dismay.
“A flood—that’s what it feels like, when it’s sliding down your leg,” Vanessa said. “Maybe he doesn’t have enough.”
Celia kept the jar warm between her legs. At home, they turned the lights low, lit candles. Celia lay on her back while Vanessa squirted the semen in with a syringe. Celia propped her legs against the wall, willing gravity to get that one good sperm on target.
“If it’s a girl you can’t go naming her Jessica or Rachel or Emily.”
“You name her.”
“Uh-uh. That’s your job Cele.”
That night in bed, Vanessa wrapped her arms around Celia. She had another one of her bad dreams, this one about a shipwreck on Lake Erie, a place she vacationed as a child. Pure disaster. When Celia’s period arrived on schedule, Vanessa tried not to show relief. They went to a bar with Jake and downed glasses of gin. “I believe in my boys,” Jake said. “It’ll happen.”
The next month they went through the ritual again with candles, baby music. Celia got her period again and there was another night of gin. The third month they skipped the atmosphere and watched TV while Celia’s legs were propped on the back of their couch: maybe relaxing would work better. The fourth month Celia went alone to Jake’s, inseminating herself in his bedroom.
When the stick in the home pregnancy kit turned blue, Celia brought it into the bedroom with her and kissed Vanessa. “There’s a baby coming, sweetie.” Vanessa hugged Celia, tearful. The next day she bought a layette with lavender flowers along the edges, then a stuffed rabbit, a plush rattle, an expensive baby quilt.
Celia had no morning sickness, no yearning for sleep. “I’m charmed,” she declared. “I have a feeling it’s going to be an easy pregnancy.” Vanessa teared up often, for no apparent reason. Her moods migrated to her stomach and left her vaguely nauseous. She was careful what she ate in the mornings and began to feel tired, couldn’t stand to cook. Celia chopped vegetables, stirred them in the wok with tofu, doused them with soy sauce, sesame oil. The aroma of garlic and sesame brought Vanessa back to the kitchen.
One night Celia reported that her mother wanted to come for the delivery. Sigrid was in heaven over the pregnancy. Vanessa silently picked at the contents in her dinner bowl, separating the tofu and vegetables with her chopsticks. She drank a long swallow of beer then another. Celia prodded her. “Are you going to tell your mother soon? Ever? This is her grandchild too.”
Vanessa went to the cupboard and searched for a beer glass. “A white baby. Born to another woman. Yeah. That’ll feel like her kin.”
“You’re going to tell her, aren’t you?”
Vanessa shrugged, went to the refrigerator and pulled out another beer and began pouring it into the fluted glass. The words just leapt out. “I think I ought to go out with a guy some time, just to see.”
Now that Celia had moved out there were days Vanessa imagined the pregnancy didn’t exist. Even living apart, they were almost the same as before; talking on the phone daily, together most nights. A rainy December morning Celia called her at work. “I’m bleeding. I had a few streaks this morning and now I can’t stop bleeding.”
Vanessa found her curled on the bathroom floor. Her belly was cramping violently. “It’ll be okay, Cele. This probably happens all the time.”
“No, it doesn’t! You’re not supposed to bleed like this. Not at fifteen weeks.”
Celia wept violently, doubled over on the toilet. In the emergency room, where the miscarriage was confirmed, she was stoic—angry because Vanessa’s relief was unmistakable. Vanessa came home with her but Celia asked her to leave and not to call for a few days. She couldn’t stop calling, but Celia didn’t answer and didn’t return the calls. After four days of no contact Vanessa found a note in her mailbox. I’m moving to San Francisco next week. I have a ticket and a room in a friend’s house. Jake’s taking my stuff. After her signature Celia wrote, It doesn’t matter what you say.
Vanessa took a taxi to Celia’s, banged on the door. When Celia opened it, Vanessa screamed. “You can’t do this! You decided without even talking to me! Just like getting this place. What about us?”
“I have to get out of here. There is no us.”
“You’re wrong! What about me? You’re uprooting me too.” Celia placed a box of books by the door. “Why are you like this? I can’t go on without you, you know it. Besides, that chair belongs to me, not Jake.” Celia carried another box to the door.
“What can I do? Tell me, what can I do?” Vanessa asked.
“I don’t even know what I’m going to do.”
Vanessa stayed up all night and left work early to beseech Celia again. She found a note taped to Celia’s door: I decided to go today. I’ll call. Vanessa swore loudly then collapsed on the floor and sobbed until a neighbor opened her door to ask if she should call someone.
The first month, Vanessa woke disoriented every morning. At work she kept reaching for her phone—she could call her, and she finally did, but Celia’s voice was flat, tired. Time zones and thousands of miles separated them now, more than Vanessa could imagine covering.
Early in April, she went to the park after work and sat under the bare redbud tree. She considered taking drugs again, anything to relieve her longing. She tried to console herself: I can go out with anyone I want now.
There were men all around her. The one walking along the path looked Latin. Who would she be if she slept next to him every night? The guy behind him had a briefcase and might be wearing Armani. If she married a man like that, then what? She leaned back against the bench and studied the tree for answers. To her right a twenty-something man with red hair was absorbed in a book, oblivious to everything around him. She used to like younger boys. If she had sex with him, would she feel like her old self?
She listened to the cadence of foreign speech, studied tattoos on a teenage boy. A few guys smiled at her, nodded, turned to take a second look. How effortless, she thought. Men are so easy. There were black men, brown men, white men, domesticated and feral. If she wanted someone new, newness was all around. Some of them had to be available. She was overwhelmed. Enough. New already felt old.
Beverly Burch’s second poetry collection, How A Mirage Works (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2014), won the Sixteen Rivers Press competition and was a finalist for the Audre Lorde Award. Her first, Sweet to Burn (Gival Press, 2004), won the Gival Poetry Prize and a Lambda Literary Award. Her poetry has appeared in New England Review, North American Review, Antioch Review, Willow Springs, Southern Humanities Review and Poetry Northwest. She is a psychotherapist in Berkeley.