I’m standing at the bar. Rita is on the dance floor with her hands around another woman’s waist, as they shuffle their feet to a Texas Two Step. The music is country western, continually, every ditty easy to shuffle or stomp to. The tunes are strummed by some good old boys in cowboy hats. Those pluckers won’t be going home with any of these ladies tonight, not even if they threw in a bucket of Boone’s Farm. Right now, I’d give my right arm for vintage Billy Joel. At least I could appear to be mingling, singing along with Billy. You won’t find Billy in this neck of the woods.
I’m always uncomfortable at these places, trying to look inconspicuous at the bar, or more covertly hidden in a small table in the corner – waiting for Rita to survey the prospects within the sisterhood. In the days of Prohibition, this dive could have been a speak-easy. There is no neon sign flashing – no billboard with pictures of Bubba and the band. Nothing. The entrance is in the rear of a parking lot. Just a plain gray steel door that blends perfectly with the plain gray stucco. If you didn’t know it was there – if you didn’t know what goes on behind the gray door – it would go unnoticed – the janitor’s entrance, perhaps. Not like some of the other places in Manhattan – The Duchess or Georgia, where you can actually see the Lesbians from the street window.
The barmaid, which I guess she is, glances in my direction.
What’s your pleasure?
She places her hands, palms down, on the bar. Her fingers are chubby and stubby and her nails cannot really be considered nails because her fingertips have grown over the tops to give her fingers the look of puffy erasers. She could never scratch anything with those nails, and I conclude that’s how she wants it – after I imagine where those stubs might venture.
What’s your pleasure?
The barmaid is friendly enough. Look at me, she might contemplate, I’m a hefty woman often mistaken for a man was it not for these unpleasant and unwanted bloated symbols of womanhood, and for years I was unaccepted by everyone. Even my family has a hard time eating when I’m at the table, but here, in this place, I am acknowledged, one of the fold. And, not too many people notice my mustache. I’m sure she feels safe in this place.
What’s your pleasure?
I open my mouth to speak, to tell her that I am not sure what I want. She is not speaking to me. She is asking a tall, lean woman who just walked up to the bar. This one actually looks like a woman.
When she places her hands on the bar I notice her hands are slim, almost athletic, as if they work out or walk several miles every day to keep their shape. Ms. Lean has just come from the dance floor where those disciplined digits probably clapped off a few more ounces. I don’t look at her directly. I just notice her hands, those long fingers lounging casually on the dark oak. It takes only a moment for Ms. Lean to get her Coors Light. Hefty plopped it down causing the foam to jiggle. I watch lean hands lift the glass to her mouth. She takes a couple of healthy gulps. Without such completely feminine hands, her beer chugging might be considered downright unladylike. As she lifts her elbow, I glance over. She is in profile. Her nose is as trim as her hands, and her chin slightly pointed. I notice that her small breasts are pointed as well.
What’s your pleasure?
I don’t look up to see if Hefty is talking to me. She’s not. Some woman at the other end of the bar is asking for a seven and seven. Her pick of a drink is as outdated as her wire-rimmed eyeglasses and helmet hairdo, both from the days of the Billie Jean phenomenon. I look away. My attention is drawn back to Ms. Lean. Slender hands and small breasts and foam. I laugh to myself because the image I recollect is one from a photo layout in Oui Magazine back in ‘76. That’s when I met Rita. We were both working for the NYPD.
I was a recently married young woman with a husband that recently stopped sleeping with me because he said he was too tired from his job. He worked in a bank. Rita was just as young, but not married. Rita and I had not yet exchanged a single word, but I had the feeling that she was laughing at me – that she thought I was silly – silly to be married, and silly to be gushing over a certain handsome cop. I didn’t like the feeling. I actually went out of my way to be her friend, just to show her that I was not silly. The cops worked swing shifts; the civilians were on steady tours. Rita and I were on the same tour. She always knew when the handsome cop was about to swing into our tour. She could tell by the silly grin on my face.
One day I brought in a tray of lasagna and meatballs. Rita was strolling through the kitchen just as I took the food out of the oven. I forked a meatball and held it up to her.
Want a meatball?
Rita is a Leo, and everyone knows that when you feed a cat, they always come back.
We got chummy. I talked about the handsome cop. She didn’t talk about anyone.
It was Rita that showed me the Oui photo layout. After about two months of feeding her, Rita strolled over to my station. Rita strolled. Her father was a Seminole Indian, and Rita inherited the quiet gait of the Native American. Her skin was given to her by her African- American mother. She opened the magazine to the centerfold. Two women embracing in a shower, their breasts almost touching, the soapy foam concealing body parts the law prohibits in soft porn magazines. Hands on each other’s buttocks – almost. Rita wanted to know what I thought of the photo. I told her that there were too many tits for one picture. That’s when I got the idea that Rita’s grins were reserved for women.
Back then, we, women, that is, were told that lesbians hit on straight women. I guess Rita was testing the waters. She tried again.
What’s wrong with two women touching?
Have any pictures of men? Touching each other?
We both laughed.
In the years that followed, and after I divorced my tired husband, she tolerated my talks about the power of the Penis. I listened to her lecture on the smell of a woman, and how each one is different, especially in the region between her thighs. I listened and made it a habit to mention that I like the smell of a man. She kept her magazines to herself, but there was always one argument she pressed hard:
Only a woman knows what a woman wants.
We are here in Albuquerque because Rita wants to buy a condo. She won’t be leaving Manhattan any time soon. Just wants the condo in the event she decides to retire and wander around New Mexico to stare at cactus. That is, if she ever gets a driver’s license. That’s where I come in. Rita asked me to fly here with her to help her look for a condo. Fact is, Rita needed me to drive. We’re using my sister’s car. And, we’re staying at my sister’s house.
Last night, Rita asked directions to this place.
Hermanas A Juntos?
Never heard of it.
My brother-in-law made it clear that he knew all the bars in the southwest, and was proud of it. He sat under a gallery of mounted animals’ heads.
I know all the bars around here.
I’ll find it. I kept my eyes off the heads, and spoke softly. Didn’t want him to get his gun. My sister twitched a little. She didn’t say much, but I’m sure she sided with the heads. My brother-in-law kept a watchful eye on Rita all night, as if he wanted to memorize the exact glass she used, which fork, what chair she put her black ass on, so he could toss them in the trash after we left. My sister smoked continuously, as if she wanted to create a tobacco drenched fog, in case her husband had the ability to smell a Lesbian. Should he had even an inkling that Rita slept with women, he’d willingly ask the Lord Jesus to burn the house to the ground. Rita maintained the manners of a servant.
Please. Thank you. Dinner was delicious.
Cat or not, this was one place she would not be coming back to for a free meal.
When we finally went to our room, which was my nephew’s room before he left the desert for a more lush life in Seattle, Rita looked like she had just escaped a lynching.
What was that?
We should have stayed in a hotel.
All my clothes are going to smell of smoke!
We should have stayed in a hotel!
I locked the bedroom door, in the event Mr. Shotgun sleepwalked. I gave Rita the bed, and I took the cot. Rita would have taken the bed anyway. She complained that her back was bothering her. I took the extra pillow from my cot and threw it to her. I had the pillow between my knees to make sleeping on the cot easier on my own back.
Where did you have this pillow?
Between my knees.
I hope it wasn’t anywhere near your Brillow Pad.
Take a whiff. You’re the expert.
Billie Jean’s seven and seven is sweating on the bar, and she’s back on the dance floor in a line wiggling with about thirty other women. They’re all clapping and stomping in unison. It looks like Rita’s back is just fine. And, her clothes seem to be holding up in the smoke. Ms. Lean hasn’t left the bar. She’s on her second Coors Light. She doesn’t look at me but her hand has inched over a bit. I find myself fascinated by her hand. Her nails are cropped, neatly. She doesn’t bite them like Hefty does, I’m sure. Silver rings are wrapped around two fingers. Just enough jewelry to give her the feminine edge.
What’s your pleasure?
Hefty’s back to me. Ms. Lean turns to me as if she’s waiting for my answer, too. I’m not sure what I want. White wine spritzer? No foam involved, just a little fizz.
Ms. Lean smiles.
Not a beer drinker?
No, I don’t like the foam.
She laughs. It’s a hearty laugh which in contrast to her leanness. Her hand, with those long, ringed fingers remains on the bar, as if it is waiting for something. She lifts her Coors Light with the other hand. We don’t speak again. Hefty gives me the spritzer with a straw in it. The straw still has the paper on the top. Sanitary Hefty. I take the paper off and drop it on the bar. It lands very close to Ms. Lean’s pinky. I want to retrieve it, but I don’t want to invade the space of that perfect hand. I find it difficult to keep my eyes away from her hand. My paper top and her hand are touching now. My view is fixed on the straw. I begin stroking the long tube, suggesting I enjoy cylindrical things. I know she’s drinking her Coors Light because I hear the glass touch down consistently. I think about the foam and how some of it disappears with every gulp.
I sip the spritzer through the sanitary straw. Hefty was light on the spritz and heavy on the wine. The wine loosens my vision, and my eyes move from the straw to Ms. Lean’s stationed hand and finally, to her face. She is looking directly at me. I wonder how long she has been doing that. Her hand is moving. It combs through her ashy blond hair. Slowly. Her face is in full view. There is no waste on her face. It is narrow, allowing her cheekbones their prominence. Her hand is now in mid-air. Floating. Her long fingers look like silk ribbons in a soft breeze.
Ms. Lean reaches over to my wine spritzer. Her fingers curl around the glass. She pushes the straw to one side and takes a small sip from the glass. She sets the wine glass down. The fizz of my Spritzer is now sitting very close to the foam of her brew. She grins at the wine, and lifts her lovely lean face to me.
You should take it straight up.
I usually do.
Now I’m the one grinning.
Meanwhile, across the room, Rita is all grins. She’s been watching the action at the bar. My actions – the actions of Ms. Lean – observing the slow motion action of two people uncertain of the next move.
Do you dance? Her slender hand gestures to the mob on the floor. Not really, I don’t think I can follow the steps.
He hand is in flight now, and a refreshing mist breaks through the musty fusion of standard issue smells found in all flesh markets – gay or straight. It is a scent. Norell. I know that perfume. My friend Kara uses it, and men love her. The aroma of Ms. Lean’s delicate fragrance has confronted the barroom foulness – and won out.
Why don’t we give it a try?
It would be awkward for me. I don’t know these moves.
Just follow me.
Ms. Lean leads me to the crowded dance floor. She does so by placing her perfect hand squarely on my shoulder. I’m a contender being ushered into the ring by a coach who wants the spectators to know he has the winner, a boxer stepping up in class.
The dance is a slow one. Ms. Lean slides her hand to my waist in a composed downward maneuver. She does not allow any air between my back and her hand.
Give me your hand.
At the sound of the name of the object that has transfixed me all evening, I fumble, and attempt to coordinate the two hands I have worked with all my life. I takes a few moments for me to steady them and get them to cooperate. When I place my hand in hers, finally, I recognize the banality of my own. Such an ordinary hand, one without grace, suddenly elevated in rank by proxy. Ms. Lean guides my steps to the one, two – one, two three of the tune with a Texas twang. Her hold around my waist is firm. I am close enough to her to smell the Norell full strength. I wonder if she can smell my Chanel. Norell and Chanel. Perfumes that rhyme. Mingling scents on a dance floor. Hand over hand. Fizz and Foam getting acquainted in a bar.
Our breasts are not actually touching – they are almost touching. Like the women in Oui Magazine. And, Ms. Lean’s hand is at the small of my back, in the almost area of my buttock.
One, two – one, two three.
Hands, Foam – Breasts, Smells, Fizz.
One, two – one, two three.
The song ends, but Bubba and the boys don’t skip a beat. They strum a preview of the next number, while the ladies form several lines, preparing to stomp again. Ms. Lean and I release the dance hold. I make my way back to the bar. Ms. Lean follows. My spritzer is fizzled out and warm, and the sanitary straw looks fatigued. The foam in Ms. Lean’s Coors Light has settled to a white circle around the edges of the brown liquid.
Want another drink?
No, I don’t think so.
Want to get some air?
It’s a tentative reply. I pay Hefty and pick up my pocketbook. Ms. Lean does neither.
We walk out into the parking lot and into the sobering night air. The world seems different out here. I can’t hear the music coming from behind the gray door. The passing cars flash intermittent light on the us and the gray stucco.
Where do you come from?
How do you know about this place?
I come here every Friday.
I wonder if Ms. Lean is testing the waters. I wonder if she has cultivated her sense of smell.
It’s convenient for me. I live a few blocks from here.
Instinct kicks in and I take a step backward.
It’s a safe place to unwind. My husband is always too tired to go out after work.
A safe place. I guess it is, at that.
An accommodating breeze whisks by. It takes with it the enticing essence of Ms. Lean’s Norell. We, both of us, let out a hearty laugh, and we spend the rest of the night comparing stories about tired men.
Somewhere inside, behind the gray door, I imagine that Rita, too, has found her own safe place to be.