Thomas Bulen Jacobs
She was fishy as hell. Came out onstage and the whole club exploded. My God, she was beautiful. Tall and skinny, with the Brigitte Bardot hair and the little black sweater. Red pencil skirt. She looked like she’d walked off a Godard set. Ginnie downed another appletini and whooped.
Heather, her best friend from college, was getting married next weekend. She was in town from Indiana, so Ginnie had organized a “real New York” tourist experience for Heather and her Indiana bridesmaids. They’d smoked up in Central Park. Gone to Little Korea for barbeque. Lips was their last stop for the night.
“If I didn’t—” Heather leaned in bleary eyed and shout-whispered in Ginnie’s ear. “If I didn’t know he was a guy, I wouldn’t believe it.”
“I know, right?”
It really was flabbergasting. She wasn’t using a fake femme French voice, either. Amelie le Coq was just talking, reading the audience. An older gentleman sat stiffly at a table near the front with a woman half his age.
“Sir! Sir. Who are you with? And what time does her father want her home? Oh, you’re her father? What’s that – oh, just old enough to… be rich enough… Understood. Who am I to judge? Did I offend you? I’ll get you another – what are you drinking? It’s very pink. You’re sure it’s yours? And you’re here with her? I ask, honey, because the only drink gayer than that is sperm.”
They loved it. Ginnie loved it.
“Anybody here from out of town?”
There were a couple of hoots and hollers.
“Go fuck yourselves. You think I’m kidding. They think I’m kidding. Get the hell out of my city. It’s crowded enough without all the fat assholes in sneakers and capris slowing everything down so you can triple-check the Zagat directions to the fucking Times Square Olive Garden. The Statue of Liberty is south, darlings, all the way south. Just walk until you hit the water, and then keep walking. You can’t miss it, and we won’t miss you.”
Ginnie cupped her hands and shouted, “She’s from Indiana!” She gestured wildly at Heather, who squealed with laughter. They all did.
“Indiana. Maybe you can explain what the hell a Hoosier is. No, don’t. I don’t care. Is that mean? I don’t care about Indiana, but honey, I care about you, the person. What’s your name?” Ginnie opened her mouth to answer, but Amelie shook her head. “Not you, darling. I know yours.”
It was a weird line, but Heather shouted back and Ginnie let it slide.
“Heather. Natch. And you’re here for – ?”
“I’m getting married.”
“To this guy?” Amelie pointed to the older gentleman. “No? Good. Because he’s here with your sister. That would be uncomfortable for everyone. Especially us queers. Whoops, the secret’s out. I mean, you’re not a Mormon. You did say Utah? Indiaaana. Sorry, darling. Anything between Hollywood and Hoboken and I’m an absolute mess.”
It took a minute, but Ginnie’s brain started to catch up. The cheekbones. The chin. The unhearable inflections in the voice. Her stomach turned and her happy drunk flooded with nausea. She gripped the table. She was so hot.
She rose from the table, lurched left then right as she scanned for any indication of a bathroom. She was going to be sick.
Amelie was still working through her set. Ginnie couldn’t hear. She bumped into a table, knocked it over, spilling drinks everywhere. There was a gasp from somewhere in the audience.
She threw up. Apologized. Threw up again.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Amelie’s voice was the only sound in the club. “Allow me to introduce my little sister.”
Ginnie blacked out.
When she came to Ismael was there. He had fallen asleep beside her on one of the beds in Heather’s hotel room. She’d arranged to crash with Heather for the weekend so she didn’t have to schlep back and forth to Bed-Stuy. Ismael’s arm was over his eyes. Ginnie pieced the night together. Figured that Heather or one of the others had texted him. Thoughtful. Unnecessary.
Her head was pounding but the nausea was gone.
She pushed herself up to a sitting position. Ismael remained asleep.
There she was, asleep in a chair beside the blackout curtains. He?
He was so beautiful. Still in the wig. Cat’s eye mascara. Constellations of glitter across high cheekbones. His legs were so long, shapely, perfectly shaved. And his body. So thin. His ribs were like the keys on a xylophone.
If she was cruel, she could force away the illusion. She could see the stark contouring makeup on his nose, his cheeks, his jawline. The too-large hands, the Adam’s apple.
There were ten years and four siblings between them. He was in his thirties now. So beautiful.
Ismael woke. Ginnie turned to him, kissed him on the nose. He stretched with a groan.
“What time it is?”
She fumbled in her purse for her phone. “It’s nine.”
“I have to go.”
“Today Stelio’s moving.”
“Today? Where’s he moving?”
“Ok. Thanks for coming last night.”
“It’s a nice hotel!” He laughed.
Ismael rose from the bed, pulled on his clothes. Ginnie still could not believe that they were together. Ismael had the body of a featherweight boxer. Beautiful blue and gold tattoos – tigers, elephants, peacocks – on his forearm and his back. Her previous boyfriend had the body of a tube of cookie dough and the skin to match.
Ismael kissed her again, then slid his hand quickly under her ass to squeeze. She slapped his shoulder and he grinned. He scooped up his black backpack.
“You’re as beautiful as your brother.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Talk to him.”
“It’s a dual chance. Yeah.”
“It’s what I mean. Bye-bye.”
He made his way quietly out of the hotel room.
Ginnie turned back to her phone.
He was awake. She moved her eyes to him, then back to her phone. She didn’t know what to say. It had been almost eighteen years since she had last seen him. She had been a child. Third grade. What do you say about your love life to an adult you’ve never known?
“We talked for quite a while last night.”
“How the fuck did you recognize me?”
“You look exactly like Mom.”
It was too much intimacy. Ginnie’s back tightened. “What do you want? What do you want from me?”
He seemed surprised.
“I should go.”
He rose from the chair.
“Are you sure?”
“Because I do want to know.”
The girls had cut out to give them space. Heather at least knew some of the backstory. That there was an older brother, gay, estranged from their conservative parents.
They took a cab down to the East Village. Neither spoke. Ian was still in drag. The cab driver kept glancing at him in the rearview mirror. He was so beautiful.
His apartment was on the fifth floor, a walk-up. He moved slowly up the stairs.
“Is everything ok?”
“Drag is a bitch on your body. It was a long night.”
His apartment was tiny. Neatly appointed. He lived alone.
“You’d kill me if I told you what I pay. I moved in fifteen years ago; ninety-five? Yes. And I’ll die here, honey.”
“Christ, you’d better.”
He went through French doors into his bedroom, emerging with a stack of clothes. The wig was gone.
“You’re so thin.”
“The secret, darling, is methamphetamine.”
Ginnie choked back a laugh. She didn’t know whether he was joking. “Are you serious?”
“Forgive me, Mary Virginia, for I have sinned. It’s been two years since my last consumption. It was brief, it was marvelous, it was a catastrophe – and it’s over. Now, I tell people I’m a vegan, which is mostly true. I still like the bone. And because I am but a filthy queen – and I mean that literally and figuratively – I’m going to shower.”
He disappeared into the bathroom.
His walls were lined with cheap hanging IKEA bookshelves. There was no television. Ginnie looked at the books. A French-English dictionary. There were novels in English and French, mostly musty old paperbacks, their pages like sheets of crisp phyllo. She took one off the shelf. A bookmark from the Strand slipped out. She fumbled to put it back, unsure of its place.
He showered for a long time. When he emerged from the bathroom, he was transformed. He wore dark jeans, a tight black t-shirt and a charcoal hoodie. His hairline was receding; he kept it close cropped. The face that she knew from her memories was there; older, of course. For a moment her nausea returned.
That’s when she saw his eyes. With the makeup gone, she could see the swelling, the blue-brown rings that overflowed cavernous sockets.
“Do you want to order something or go out?”
“I think – do you want to go out?”
“I’m not ashamed. I didn’t do this to myself.”
He reached for his keys. A pair of oversized Holly Golightly sunglasses for his eyes.
“What are you feeling? Cuban? Of course you’ve been to Veselka? Oh, but it’ll be a zoo.” He set a finger to his lips in a pantomime of pensiveness.
“Darling! I know an absolutely lovely place to brunch.”
Now, standing in his tiny apartment without the drag, Ginnie was struck by how gay he was. An old slur, long out of use by even the lingering homophobes of her generation, filtered up from the depths of her memory: swish. He was swishy. She was embarrassed by the thought; she had read her Judith Butler (which was there on the shelf, of course), seen Paris is Burning.
It was just that she remembered him as so big, so powerful. So butch. He had played football in high school. He was the fucking prom king.
All of it entirely in the closet, of course, at the conservative private Catholic school they, the six of them, had each attended in turn. It was better now, not perfect, but better. Even when she went through ten years later, the old verboten seemed to swirl around his memory.
She was lost in thought. He held the door open with one foot. “Ginnie?”
“Can I leave my bag here? I don’t want to carry it all over.”
“On the couch, darling.”
They went to a new place in the neighborhood, all white tile and repurposed wood. There was room at the bar, but Ian insisted that they wait for a table. They filled the silence by poring over the menu, perfectly torn rectangles on miniature clipboards. When a table opened in the corner they slipped into place across from one another. Ian removed his sunglasses, set them neatly beside his napkin. They ordered coffee. The waiter scanned Ian’s face, opened his mouth as if to speak. His gaze flipped to Ginnie, and he seemed to think better of it, slipping briskly away.
“How do you want to do this?”
He thought for a moment. “Well, I just wanted to start by saying thank you. For doing this at all.”
“It’s fine. For now, it’s just morbid curiosity. I don’t know you. I think I have a lot of pain about you. Which I have not even begun to deal with. I don’t know if I even think of you as a brother. To just be honest. OK? I was fucking eight years old when you left.”
“That’s more than fair. Do you want to start?”
The coffee arrived. The waiter lay his fingertips gently on Ian’s shoulder. “Is this what it looks like, honey? Do I need to call someone?”
“It’s exactly what it looks like, but I’m safe now. This is my little sister.”
Ginnie smiled stiffly.
“If you’re sure, honey. Let me get your order because things are pop-p-ping here this morning.”
They ordered and the waiter disappeared.
“Has anything changed with Mom and Dad?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Honestly, no. I left for college and everything was exactly the same. I go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I call Mom from time to time. They don’t know anything about my actual life.
They know I’m at Hunter. They have no fucking idea I’m dating Ismael.”
“Where’s he from, again?”
“Yes, well, imagine taking him home to Dad. He wouldn’t say anything but he’d find a way to say something.”
“The quick version of everyone: Trish got married five minutes after college and has three boys. Anthony is married and they’re trying, which is Mom’s way of telling me his wife is checking the viscosity of her vaginal mucus. She still wears a veil to mass. Eric is in graduate school in Chicago, something to do with math. I email with him sometimes. He’s busy, but he’s the only one who doesn’t jump down my throat every ten minutes. And Elizabeth is getting married this summer, and they’re moving to Colorado. We were close until college, and then I don’t know what happened. We drifted.”
“I mean, I’m you without the fight. I left for college and I turned into a feminist and a liberal and an atheist. I fornicate for my own pleasure and I don’t feel guilty about it. I smoke so much weed I should buy stock in it. Ismael is not my first boyfriend. Oh, and Dad’s retired so now he goes to mass every single morning.”
“So do I.”
This surprised her.
Their food arrived. The waiter set down their plates and refilled their chic white porcelain mugs. Ian thanked him, said a few words to himself under his breath. With his thumbnail he drew a tiny cross on his chest.
Ginnie wanted so desperately to change the subject; not to seem like an impertinent little shit.
“So tell me about her. Amelie. What’s the tea?”
“Very good, darling.”
“Well, I mean, I love Drag Race. Have you – ”
“Oh, of course, but so has everyone. At any rate, Amelie le Coq is a comedy queen. I mean, she’s gorgeous, but she’s nasty. She lip-syncs, but honey, she doesn’t dance. She’s in the rotation at Lips, but you can find her all over the city.”
“That’s what you do?”
“It’s what I do now. I work seven days a week. Drag in the evening, mass in the morning, and a modest little life of reading in between.”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
Ian sighed. “Oh, but my love life could be a novel. This.” He indicated his eyes with a whoosh of his splayed fingers. “I have a sugar daddy. His name is Brad and he’s just this bear, enormous and fierce. He’s dark and brooding and also kind of a villain. His line of work is loathsome; he’s an i-banker, and he’s always traveling, so we have an open thing. But I’m very, verrrry petty and I hate it. I’m not the one in Brazil every month with Paulo. I’m very frequently done with Brad, until he comes back and takes Amelie out to dinner. How are your pancakes?”
They were. Just the slightest hint of lemon and ricotta.
“I know, this place can werq a brunch.” He took a spoonful of farro with roasted tomato and herbs, popped his eyes in ecstasy.
“You go out with this guy in drag?”
“Oh, sure. I go everywhere as Amelie, when I feel like it. He loves it. The day drag makeup is different, but I pass. None of his colleagues knows he’s gay. Whenever I’m out with them, at least one tries to steal me away. Amelie can be very seductive. And like I said, our thing is… open.”
Ginnie giggled; it was hilarious. She stifled it. She wasn’t ready to be charmed. Not yet.
“But he hits you?”
“Well, that whole thing with Brad is over. I have been in that kind of thing before, and I managed to get away. The meth helped.”
This time she didn’t let it take.
“Why haven’t you tried to be in touch?”
Ian was quiet for a long time. The waiter came by, asked whether there was anything they wanted. Ian took more coffee, black.
“I’m not sure I know the answer to that.”
“That doesn’t really make me feel good.”
“Let me ask you this. When, exactly, would you have been ready to hear from me? How long ago?”
If she was honest, it would have been two, maybe three years. She didn’t answer.
“Maybe it was foolish, but I kept waiting for a sign. And I know everything has changed, it’s not the same thing to be gay now that it was then, but from what you’ve told me you’re the only one who can take me where I’m at. Maybe Eric. So, I thought about it, I thought about it all the time, but whenever I sat down to email or call there was a voice at the back of my head saying, you might be closing a door forever. And maybe that was just fear talking, but I listened to that voice because at least it was being honest. Which I didn’t really trust any of the others could be. And I didn’t really think about you, Mary Virginia, because in my mind you were always still just eight years old.”
“What did you do after you left?”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“I think so.”
Ginnie tried to pick up her coffee but her fingers trembled and the cup tilted, spilling the coffee into her saucer.
“Hooking and mass? How did that work?”
For the first time she sensed that she had hurt him. He only lowered his eyes but she had seen that look on her mother’s face when her father’s moods turned cruel.
“I forgive you. I didn’t go to mass, then. I, too, have been an unbeliever.”
She didn’t like the hint of condescension in that. But maybe she was being defensive. “I don’t have any moral qualms with it, you know.”
“Well, I was good at it. I had eighteen years of profoundly repressed Catholic gay to satiate. I learned a lot very quickly.”
He took a sip of coffee.
“Anyway, I made enough money to enroll in college. I kept it up for spending money. There was a robust market for it.”
“Where did you go?”
“You went to fucking Notre Dame? I went to Notre Dame. Everybody else stayed in Mass. When did you move to New York?”
“I transferred to Fordham for my last two years, and I’ve been here since. In that same apartment.”
“What was your major?”
“Political science. You?”
“Philosophy, but I’d like a job, you know, ever, which is why I’m in social work at Hunter. Can I ask you a question?”
He made a face. “As opposed to…”
“I’m being serious. What happened? When you left. I never figured it out.”
Ian was quiet for a long time. The waiter came, delivered the check. Ian left cash for the whole meal, and they allowed the motions of leaving the restaurant to fill up the vacuum between them.
Outside again, Ian asked what time it was. Ginnie checked her phone and told him.
“It’s Sunday. I’m going to go to mass. The full shebang. Walk with me? Then I can give you my key and you can get your things from my apartment.”
They walked a couple of blocks. Ginnie wouldn’t have noticed the church. Its façade was dull brick. The name of the church was emblazoned on a staggered section of the outer wall. There were three narrow windows set into the inner wall, the stained glass so dark as to be unrecognizable. A red door opened into a small chapel. There was a simplicity to it that Ginnie liked. There was none of the opulent Gothic of their parish at home.
“There’s a Catholic Worker house around the corner.”
Ginnie raised an eyebrow.
“Right.” Dorothy Day, whom their father still could not forgive for her abortion. Or her socialism. If he had a fucking clue…
Ian reached into his pocket for his keys, but Ginnie said she would sit with him. It was early for mass, so they slipped into a pew at the back. Ian knelt for a moment and bowed his head. Ginnie clasped her hands in her lap. She tried to feel something, to search for a resonance.
“Do you remember Father Sebastian?”
She had lost herself in thought. A Filipino priest puttered quietly around the dais. “Sure.”
“I don’t remember how, but somehow I realized he was gay. I came out to him. He walked me through my initiation. He was very cool about it, told me that there was nothing to be ashamed of. I asked him whether that’s why he was a priest.”
There were more people now. Not many. They sat in small clusters here and there. The priest disappeared to dress in his vestments.
“What did he say?”
“He said he was called to be chaste. Called to be a priest. Tried to invite me to see that this was a great gift from God.”
Ian was quiet for a moment.
“He tried to kiss me.”
“What?” She spoke the word louder than she wanted to.
“Not right away. That was later. I rebuffed him. He apologized profusely. I never said anything, not even when he outed me. I assume it was him because there was no one else who knew. No one. Someone accused us of being lovers, but we both denied it. It got back to Dad.”
Ian was quiet for a long time. Still the mass did not commence.
“We had so many furious conversations behind the doors of his study. I’ve never known such shame, not even when I was…
“They kept him on because we both denied it, and they must have seen that we were telling the truth. But I was coming to see a deeper truth.”
There was a low hum of organ music and the mass commenced. A young Latino boy led the priest to the altar, crucifix held aloft before them. Ginnie rose; spoke the words required of her: “And with your spirit.” She did not make the profession of faith. She sang the songs, some from memory. She did not look at her brother.
When it came time for the homily, she fell again into her thoughts. To be there with her brother – there was a muscle memory in it, something she could not have remembered if she tried. She had tried. She had erased him from her childhood. Even the memories of the last weeks he was home, his figure, his self, had been effaced. All that moved in those memories was a ghost.
Ian stiffened and the homily intruded into her thoughts.
“…why the Bible tells us that Adam said when Eve was made, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ That is why the Church teaches that man should be with woman, it’s Genesis, it’s God’s plan written from the first creation.”
At first, she was not even sure what she was hearing. She’d half-listened to the Gospel. How the fuck did the priest get from there to here? She thought about storming out. Showing this rambling bigot that this, this is why people leave. It was like a poison, and it seeped from generation to generation. It had curdled her parents’ love, and they had passed it along to her brothers and sisters…
She turned to Ian, who sat staring at the rim of the pew before them. Absently, he reached out and touched the leather-bound hymnal with a finger. Set his hand back in his lap.
Ginnie closed her eyes. For the first time, she felt that he was really quite small. That he was, too, quietly strong. She was ashamed of herself. Of their parents. Of this mass.
When it came time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, she scooched her legs to allow Ian to pass. She had taken Communion many times since the falling away of her faith. It kept the peace under her parents’ roof; what passed for peace. Her mother had insisted for years on keeping an eighth chair at the table. For the symmetry.
She watched him in the Communion line. The narrow shoulders, the neck bent in contemplation, even as he moved. When he stepped up before the priest, Ginnie saw the darkness cross the man’s expression. He saw what Ian was unafraid to be. Bile rose in her throat. Her hands trembled. Her brother crossed his arms over his chest. Bowed his head. The priest made the sign of the cross at his forehead. Careful not to touch. Muttered a benediction, unheard. Ian stepped aside.
There were only two or three people behind him. Then there was no one. The priest turned toward the altar.
Ginnie pushed herself loudly up, moved quickly into the aisle. The priest stopped in his motion and turned back towards her. His face was expressionless. She might have been a cat coming inside on a sunny day. She moved briskly toward the altar. Planted herself before the priest. She opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue, took the host upon it. Sipped the wine.
Her face burned. The priest again turned back to the altar. She went back to the pew where Ian was kneeling, his purpled eyes closed. Ginnie sat beside him, seething. Some long-forgotten ordinance kept her from chewing the host and it thickened slimily on her tongue, until she could swallow it down. She wondered how much of her rage had to do with her politics, how much of it with the fact that they were enfleshed in her brother.
The mass ended. The priest had gone. There was low conversation among the remaining congregants. A few said hello to Ian. He waved back. He had donned his sunglasses. A couple of kids ran up and down the center aisle while their parents spoke. Together, Ian and Ginnie slipped from the pew and went outside. It was uncommonly warm.
Ian walked to the corner, put a hand on the light pole and sank to his haunches. His sunglasses tumbled to the pavement. Ginnie went quickly to his side. She put her hand on his shoulder. For a moment she thought he would faint. But Ian only took a deep breath, nabbed the glasses, and pushed himself up. He stood another minute longer leaning against the pole.
“I think it all just caught up with me.”
“I’ll get my bag.”
They walked to his apartment. He moved so slowly up the stairs. She wondered now about bruises that she could not see. Inside, she asked for a glass of water. Could she use the bathroom? Of course.
She couldn’t help but look in the medicine cabinet, such as it was. Generic stuff for headaches, allergies. Tums. Shaving cream and a razor blade. Condoms. Was she expecting an orange plastic bottle with a neat printed label saying “Meth”? Did she think he was lying?
Back in his living room, she found that her body was too tired to move. Ian was in his bedroom, and the French doors were closed. Her bag was there on the couch. She pulled out her phone. She had messages from Ismael, asking how she was, how her brother was.
There was a missed call from their mother.
She woke to find him in his chair, reading with a pair of tortoiseshell glasses on. He had a floor lamp behind the chair, draped in pink fabric. The light was nice. He set the book aside. Placed the folded glasses upon it. Ginnie squinted to see the title. À la recherche du temps perdu. She had never read it. She knew she was supposed to read it before she turned forty. She had time.
“I made tea. It’s lukewarm. I didn’t want the kettle to wake you.”
She had the faintest headache. “Sure. I’ll take whatever.”
“All I’ve got is green.”
He rose, opened a cupboard without taking a step and began to pour the tea. “Darling, I’m not thinking. I can heat the water now.”
“No. No, I just need something to drink. Can I steal your Tylenol?”
“Natch.” He swept into the bathroom and returned with two pills.
“Why didn’t you take Communion? You go every day.”
“I suppose it was an act of protest. That wasn’t the usual priest. I couldn’t let that man wield such power over me. I’m sure it’s terrible theology. He’s not the first bigot entrusted to consecrate the host, but I…”
“I took it.”
“I just thought… I just thought that since we’re… It’s my own shitty theology. I just needed you to have it.”
She took the pills with a sip of tea. They stuck for a moment in her throat.
“I just knew that in that moment that because we…” Ian’s eyes were wide. She knew that he already understood, in his small wisdom had always understood, and for this she was grateful.
“Bone of my bones,” her voice hardly a whisper.
“Flesh of my flesh.”
Ginnie began to weep.
He was so beautiful.
Thomas Bulen Jacobs was raised overseas, mostly in South America, Turkey and Spain. He is a graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. His fiction has appeared in The Nassau Review, MAYDAY Magazine, Glassworks Magazine, the gyara journal, The Oakland Review and The Oddville Press.
April Sevilla likes photography and writing poems. Sevilla always carries a camera alongside with their pen and paper wherever they go. Watching cats, clouds, rain, stars and children are what truly makes Sevilla happy.