Recently, I acquired a book of short stories written by Jackie Manthorne. The entire book was great but one of the stories was similar in some ways to my own life while still being different enough that I didn’t wonder ‘have you met me somewhere before?’.
This book is titled ‘fascination … and other bar stories’ and the bar in which, for the most part at least, they take place is called l’Entr’acte. The stories revolve around the same group of base characters but evolve to include others as this group continues their journeys.
Return to Love
“Would you care to dance?”
I turn in my chair and look up at her. Our eyes connect immediately and I think how unusual it is to see somebody else my age in l’Entr’acte. But that and her lively eyes and her smiling face certainly aren’t enough to penetrate my well-constructed defenses.
“Why not?” she asks, her eyes still twinkling with infinite possibilities.
Does she really have to know? Why isn’t she like the other women who melt away into the obscure, smoky shadows when they feel me slam the door in their faces? Cruising dykes generally don’t have much confidence; refusal can easily crush an ego which is uncertain to begin with. On the other hand, perhaps she has too much; on that basis, I rashly decide that I don’t particularly like her.
“Perhaps later, then. I’m Maxine, by the way,” she says, shifting from one foot to the other, leading me to believe that she’s getting the message, that she’ll soon grow uncomfortable enough to go away and leave me alone. “The music is great tonight,” she adds.
“But I’m not ready,” I blurt. Shit! I meant to say something else, something which would match my haughty look of dismissal, something that even someone as stubborn as she seems to be would recognize as rejection, and as final.
“You mean you’re still getting over a relationship?” Maxine asks slowly.
“Something like that,” I reply wryly. I’m thinking of my missing breast. Missing in action, as they say. Invaded and then conquered by one of the cancers of our time. We had a relationship, me and my left tit, for fifty-five years. A real solid, substantial one – both the relationship and the tit, actually. And I miss it.
“Well, let’s sit this one out and have a drink together,” she suggests, interrupting my slightly maudlin musings on the state of my lop-sided chest.
“Corey,” I say reluctantly. Must she persist, I wonder with amused chagrin as we shake hands and she sits down. But I’m quite resourceful, and I can certainly manage to be alone even if we are sharing a table. Her physical presence is only a slight annoyance, mainly because I haven’t been able to stop myself from noticing how attractive she is. It looks like some of those old familiar urges are still very much alive. These pesky feelings, these devilish needs which wake me up in the middle of the night and lead me to look at attractive women in the street and fantasize about perfect strangers. Sexual desire is probably going to follow me to the grave whether I want it to or not. Old habits die hard, and so do instincts.
It’s a good thing Maxine can’t read my mind, because if she could, she’d think that I’ve given up. Actually, maybe that would remove the purposeful gleam from her eyes and send her off to explore more fertile corners of the bar. But I really haven’t knuckled under, not where it really counts. I haven’t succumbed to that limbo state of being a cancer victim. Temptation surrounded me from day one; my doctor baited me by being kind, hospital workers set traps with their every sympathetic word and gesture, and the loss of every bit of my body hair and the nausea from being cooked with radiation and spiced with toxic chemicals exhorted me to become one of “them” – the sick, the maimed, the doomed. But I’ve been one of “them” all my life, first as a woman and then as a lesbian, so I’ve had lots of practice at passing. And then one day I chose not to pass. It was too costly, you see. The expense of being invisible even to myself was incalculable, the pain immeasurable. I gave up my straight privileges. And since then, I’ve become quite adept at fighting injustice, prejudice, hatred.
But I couldn’t fight this cancer without losing my breast, and then my lover of ten years. She left less than a year after surgery, for rather vague reasons which I was tempted to believe because the truth was much harder to live with. It wasn’t that she wanted a “whole” woman; I believed her when she said she didn’t really care about that. I think she simply couldn’t stand the thought that cancer cells might still be frolicking around inside my body, deciding in what nourishing spot to set up housekeeping and have a second go at killing me. She couldn’t tolerate the waiting, the agony of not knowing. So she ran right to the other side of the country, to Vancouver, and all I have left of her is a box of fading photos of happier, more naive times. Once in awhile she sends me a postcard of the Rocky Mountains, but she’s brave enough to not lie by saying “wish you were here.”
That was over a year ago, and that particular scar has mostly healed. I’m not even bitter about it anymore. Or so I think. But why should I trust Maxine? I see health streaming from her eyes, radiating from her pores, in the tilt of her head, in her energetic reaction to the beat of the music. She’s alive and healthy and she knows it, and she’s never had a reason to doubt that this state of affairs will continue forever. What’s more, she thinks that she has the right to be alive and healthy, and that makes me fear her.
“Want to talk about it?” Maxine asks.
“Not really,” I reply evenly.
“Want to talk about something else, then?”
I laugh; she certainly knows how to be persistent without acting inpatient, and I rather like that combination in a woman. I take pity on her and start talking about nothing much: the weather, current trends in music, movies I’ve seen, others I’d like to see. She quickly realizes that I’m being cautious, and doesn’t try to steer our conversation to a more personal level. I feel a sense of relief that she’s satisfied with chit-chat, at least for the moment, and I start to relax. After all, it’s Friday night at the bar, I’m sitting here conversing with an attractive woman and sipping red dubonnet, and if my memory serves me right, that’s a very appropriate, normal thing for me to be doing.
So after awhile I let her talk me into dancing, and it feels good to be moving with the music, facing her, watching her watch me. And when she puts her arms around me for a slow dance, I’m not too nervous to appreciate the strength, the comfort or the sexiness of her body. It’s been a long time, too long. But how does a one-breasted woman begin a new affair? How does she engage in flirtation which if all goes well will inevitably lead to sex within a more or less contracted time frame? How does she overcome the loss of such an important, inspirational, sexy part of her body and the unknown, potentially negative reaction of a prospective lover?
This must be something like disclosing your HIV+ status; when’s the right time to tell? The first date? When you see it’s getting serious and likely to end up in bed? Or just before you take your clothes off? It’s a big responsibility, and it’s not always easy or pleasant to act on it. Sometimes people become angry with you because of their own failings, their own inability to deal with unpleasant necessities, with ill health, with disability, with disfigurement, with death. We’re all going to die someday, but some of us have first-hand experience than others, and some of us can even pretty much accurately predict the date.
Maxine whispers in my ear, inviting me home. Poor her, I think as I accept, she’s getting more than she bargained for. Or less, depending on how you look at it. Can I trust her not to hurt me? Perhaps I’ll have to start learning how not to be hurt by what others can’t accept. I feel very attracted to her and I want to act on that feeling. I’m still alive and it’s good to know that another woman can still find me sexy.
The drive to her house in the suburbs is long but not uncomfortable. She tells me about her middle management job in a large company, entertains me with horror stories about all the things which have gone wrong with her house since the moment the ink dried on the mortgage papers, and scatters just enough information about her former relationships throughout to keep me interested. I tell her nothing, and she respects my silence. Or perhaps she likes reserved women.
I sit gingerly on her bed as she pours wine into two glasses which she then places on the bedside table. I pick up my glass and watch my hand shake; I’m not ready, not in the least, but no matter how afraid I feel, I don’t want to turn back now. “Whatever possessed you to buy a house way out here?” I ask nervously.
“A big back yard, cleaner air, less noise, lower taxes. And I like pretending that I actually live in the country,” she replies easily.
“Do you live in the city?” she asks, her hands exploring my back.
I nod, not trusting my voice. I want to turn and bury my face in her warm, scented flesh, but I can’t; I want to run from her bed and from her house which is nearly in the country, but I can’t. And most of all, I want to escape from her enticing lips and arms and body, but I don’t. I am concentrating on not spilling my wine, but that’s not the main reason why I can’t move and finally I feel my eyes closing and the wine glass being taken from my hand. And then Maxine is easing me back on the bed and kissing me gently, her hands moving over me, removing my clothing, and I panic as my bra falls away and with it my prosthesis.
“Ah,” she breathes, and for a moment she doesn’t move. I open my eyes and look at her face, afraid of what I’ll find there but desperately needing to know. Her skin is flushed with desire, and as I watch, she reaches out and slides her fingers over the hardening nipple of my remaining breast, then explores my scar. Only then does she look at me, and our eyes lock.
She places a finger over my lips. “Later.” Her mouth replaces her finger and her kiss is soft, but her growing need is evident in the trembling of her body. I want her very, very much, and I groan and pull her hard against me, my mouth opening. I am hungry for her, for this second chance, and I want it all, every last bit of it, and I don’t intend to wait another second.
Jackie Manthorne certainly has a way with words. She, in the case of this story is the type of writer I aspire to be. A writer that draws the reader in, that gives them something to relate to, paints a picture in the mind. Perhaps one day, I will be.
NOTE: Jackie Manthorne’s book was published by gynergy books. Nowhere in the book is it stated that reprinting is not allowed. I have not reprinted her story to get credit of any sort, but to share with others, not only cancer survivors, but any reader, that there is a life after cancer.