Priest Kid, a queer mother/daughter novella about Episcopals…early pages


PRIEST KID

By Lyralen Kaye

 Prologue

My mother’s sermons smelled like oranges. Lying in my single bed on Sunday mornings, I woke to the smell that seemed to waft up from the clean white pages in the manila folder she used to carry them to church. A folder she never changed, even then interested in recycling.

I’d go downstairs to where my father leaned his weight onto an actual orange, squeezing juice for me into a glass measuring cup, but it seemed as if the smell lifted us all —my mother in her car, driving alone to the church, my father and I following in his, a half hour later.

The smell placed me next to my father in the second row pew where we always sat, my fingers sliding over the shining wood as I tucked my skirt around my bare legs. Each week I refused the joke books and tic-tac-toe my father offered and instead watched my mother on the raised platform of the chancel, her dark curly hair falling over the Episcopal vestments patterned in gold.

And when she ascended to the pulpit, and began to speak, her words opened around me like tiny packages filled with that bright, sweet scent. Standing in the light of the stained glass, my mother explained the world. She lit up with grace—because she possessed it, the real thing, that dignity, that power—and she’d look down once in a while and meet my eyes, letting me know the biblical quotes and poetry, the small jokes and lessons, were just for me.

And then it was over. A quick hug from her before she went to the line of waiting parishioners if I was lucky. If not, I watched them gather around her. The Sermon on the Mount all over again.

I went back home with my father where he’d watch football or grade papers and I’d go up to my room to read and wait, curled on my single bed, hoping there were no baptisms, no deaths, no marriages, no Bible study classes to keep her from me.

My mother, the love of my life, who I waited for, and received like a blessing, late at night after her visits to prisons, to the dying, to the homeless, and then early in the morning before I left for school and she went to her office at the church.

Not like other mothers.

So determined to do right by everyone.

And I can’t even say she forgot me, ever. She squeezed me in after school and before Eucharist, on evenings when she could leave her responsibilities alone. I don’t think she ever forgot to try.

But still, I waited, hours and hours, maybe that whole first part of my life.

Not for my father, who made me dinners, who tucked me in. But for the parent who always had a list of people for whom she needed to be that shining figure of grace.


Chapter One

 When I head home from Stanford to visit my mother, the vibration in my body turns up, until my cells sing like notes from a 12 string guitar. Too many notes, really. Longing, hope, the prayer that peace will come, that I will be like her, that I won’t, that she’ll tell me what to do, that she’ll listen, for once, without comments or questions.

I could be the subject of my own psych dissertation. Really. Mommy issues. Give me a break.

But I can’t help tracking the way she looks, from that first moment in the airport terminal. Tonight will be no different: I’ll search for her face, try to catch her before she sees me. Will her bones hold the suffering she sees every day, will the skin and muscles pull her face into heaviness? Or will she have been able to set it aside? It’s not whether she’ll light up—she always does—it’s the effort it will cost her. It’s the dimming of her on holidays, or any time the people she serves falter, need, cry. Where do I go, wanting home, if she hasn’t found a way to arrive?

I thought about skipping Easter. I’d already skipped Christmas—not a popular decision—and it seemed easier to miss again. The wish and the hope—I wanted to skip them. Because no one with compassion could bring her one more problem to solve, right? And I had nothing to bring her but the mess I was making of my life.

I bought the plane ticket the week before, my finger hovering over the mouse for a long moment before I clicked. My father demanded to pay and I let him. As I always did. Because then he could do his Dad thing, puffing up a little, getting protective, getting into the my little girl, I’ll do anything for you.

Annoying and sweet.

I twist my too thick hair into a braid before I walk off the plane, down the long tunnel of hallway, over the thin carpet and linoleum, under the fluorescent lights, down to baggage claim, where he waits, hands in his pockets, the familiar blue-button down.

He’s alone. She didn’t even come.

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My first published short story, circa 1990: Butch and Beehive


I’ve had reason to go searching through older writing. And yes, this is dated. We’re no longer so closeted (thank whatever/whoever). We’ve embraced all genders. We understand looksism and lifestyle porn, even though we still believe it. I’m just wanting to say hello to the 27 year old Lyralen who wrote this story. I kind of like her. I remember sitting in a writers group in Cambridge, MA, with the half of the group who loved this story fighting with the half who hated it. Volume started to rise. People leaned forward so much they were almost standing. The teacher finally stopped the free-for-all and asked me what I thought. I said, “If it’s causing this much controversy, it’s ready to be published.” The very first place I sent it to was Phoebe. They sent me an acceptance letter that I received on my birthday…the birthday that ended an extremely hard year. As the Grateful Dead said, “Keep on truckin’.”

 

Butch and Beehive

First Published in Phoebe , Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 1990

The hostess always seats them in my station, which makes me wonder if she knows. Every time she leads them through the dining room, I cross my fingers behind my back like a child, hoping for a continuation of this silence, the protection I need no matter how it constricts me.

Beehive and Butch and what the other waitresses call them. They’re sporadic regulars here. Butch is fat and her hair is greasy, her face round a soft with small eyes and mouth that turns down. She wears suit coats and walks with her feet pointed out: she looks like she could fix a car, shoot a good game of pool, laugh loudly from her belly.

Beehive is skinny and she wears polyester pant suits, dangling earrings, and pancake make-up. She must have had terrible acne as a girl: her face is pockmarked and deeply scarred. She has dyed black hair which she wears teased into a bun that reaches six inches above her head. When you look at her you can see an entire history: family, grade school, high school, secretarial jobs.

I believe that in grade school the other children shot spitballs at her and snickered when the teacher called on her for questions whose answers she didn’t know. They hung signs on her back. KICK ME, the sign would say. Some children did kick her. She would turn around with terror sprawled across her birdlike and scrawny face. The abuse was so familiar that it took hours for her to realize that the sign was there. It need not have been.

Later, in high school, when the acne came, she sat home every weekend. No one asked her why she never had dates. She lay on her bed on those nights, trying not to think about her mother’s shame. Perhaps she dreamed of foreign countries, exotic people, reading romances and waiting for an adulthood where such things might happen to her. Then she might forget the sounds of this daily life: the giggles and whispers, the boys barking and calling her a dog. She would wear silks, and layers of chiffon. She would drink champagne, sit on balconies overlooking the ocean, gamble in Monte Carlo. She didn’t know that her body would always reveal her childhood, that her posture would be permanent; the shoulders curved forward over her breasts, the hanging head.

Maybe she has told Butch these stories. When Butch smiles her face is so gentle that I know she would console her lover. I would have protected you, Butch must say. This is true. I believe Butch herself has a story of solitude, a lonely kind of caring for others. She looks tired of being strong. She might have had a father like mine, a man who drank and yelled. She took his blows while her mother and sisters watched. Then she wore a thin veneer of toughness out into a world that would always see it as strength. There she learned that it was a curse to be stronger and smarter than most boys. But she didn’t mind enough to pretend to be different, mostly because she already knew that she liked women best. The problem was getting them to like her. It was a problem that didn’t last long. The few friends she made lasted, drawn an held by the tenderness in the way she listened. Still, she too dreamed. She wished for a way to tell women what she wanted, a way to draw them from their fascination with men. It made her wince when one of her friends would say, “I wish I could talk to him like this.”

But now Butch listens to Beehive. I like to watch them, I like to imagine that the true strength in Butch is her softness. This gives Beehive ease. Sometimes it is enough, when Butch loves her, so that she feels small parts of her history falling aside.

When I first go to their table my voice is soft, and I know that I am trying to let them see that I understand. They are sitting across from each other in the booth they always wait to get, the air between them charged with excitement to be out. Their heads lean forward so they are almost touching, talking so intensely that they barely look up to order their drinks. Butch orders for both of them without taking her eyes from Beehive’s face. I try to move away quickly, but Beehive smiles at me, demurely, like a young girl. Suddenly we are involved in the simple conspiracy of feminine women. I don’t want to smile back. It’s hard that they are so ugly, so stereotyped and visible. When I do smile I am trying to cover the deep and insulting pity I really feel. I wish I wasn’t so sure that Beehive has been with men and that her feelings were like mine.

I think after high school she met a boy in church. At first she was bewildered when he called, and she endured the sudden awkwardness of his gropings, wondering how she could feel so little love, gratitude, so little of anything. Everyone was shocked when she left him, including herself. Almost immediately she had an affair with her boss, a married man who small and balding. He must have been gentle with her, like a teacher. He made few demands, an helped her to move into an apartment. Their affair lasted for many years, until she left the job. After that, he stopped calling. It surprised her that she didn’t mind this. She was already friends with Butch.

What Beehive can’t stand are assumptions. She still works as a secretary: and the people in her office believe that her life is lonely and pitiful. She has no trouble keeping her woman lover a secret. Sometimes she feels rage for this and she thinks of bringing Butch to the yearly Christmas party. She always backs down, and the anger remains…anger that people don’t every come close enough to guess that her life has held both drama and passion; that for her Butch’s small chunky hands have a touch soft enough to draw out her pain and leave her without trembling.

I carry another round of drinks to the table. Every time it’s the same. By the fourth round they will begin to argue. Beehive drinks at least four rum and cokes and she wants more, but Butch wants her to eat to counteract the liquor. Beehive is so thin that one drink must make her head swim.

“You’ve had enough,” Butch says.

“Oh, honey, just one more, then we can order.”

“You’re smashed already,” Butch spits out in disgust. “And you do this every time we go out. Last Thursday at Helen’s you were drunk by the time we’d play two hands of cards.”

“I was not. You think you know everything.”

By this time they have the attention of the tables around them. It’s so familiar, the argument that must repeat itself throughout their life together. I am remembering the argument my parents used to have whenever the family went out to eat. My father would drink manhattans and after a few he’d start putting his arm around the waitress. My mother always voiced her humiliation in code phrases: “Larry, don’t you think you’ve had enough to drink?” “Larry, I want to go home.” The same phrases, leading to the same fight in the car ride home. My mother would sit in the back with the younger children. I would sit in the front seat next to my father, watching the road. I was always ready to tell him when to slow down, when to stop. By the time I was ten I knew all the traffic rules. And now, when my lover and I go to restaurants, we often fight, using the cues we have developed. “What do you mean I’m not being reasonable.” She says to me. “You’re not being reasonable.”

So watching Beehive and Butch, I just can’t stand it and sometimes I even feel strongly enough to walk up to the table on some pretext, knowing my presence may silence them for a few minutes. That’s what I do, carrying a clean ashtray I go over and take my time covering the old one, removing it, putting the clean one back down.

“I’d like another drink,” Beehive says.

I’m caught and I look at Butch, who glares at me.

“Would you like to order your food now also?” I ask.

“Yes,” Butch practically shouts.

“Bring the drink first,” Beehive tells me.

“Maybe I’d better give you a few minutes,” I say. The I rush away so they have no time to answer.

Their fight continues—and it is escalating. Butch has raised her voice and Beehive beings to ssshhh.

“SSSSSSSSHHHHHHH!” says Beehive.

“Don’t shush me,” yells Beehive. “I’ll talk as loud as I fucking want to.”

I stand at the small waitress station near the bar, alone. I don’t want to talk to the other waitresses now. But one walks by, carrying a tray of drinks.

“Dykes,” she mouths. “You’d think they’d at least want to keep it down so no one would notice them.”

I flinch. Bigot, I want to call her, but can’t. She has passed by and I am left with silence, my choice. You’ve never fought with your boyfriend in front of other people, I want to say. But I have no right to these words. Part of me thinks she is right. Butch and Beehive are braver than I am.

Butch is getting out of the booth.

“Then find your own way home,” she yells. It is the parting shot she takes before stomping to the door. This is a technique of fighting I also recognize; the grand exit, a bid for control.

I watch Beehive, seeing the lovers I’ve walked out on, catching the missing scene in a film I’ve seen over and over again. She stares down at her drink for a long time. She cries, the tears leaving oily tracks in her make-up. She sucks the ice cubes, one by one. The next time I got to the table she orders a drink. An another. She drinks there for an hour, maybe more. At some point she looks up and am I struck again by her fine dark eyes that are unmarred by tears and are the color of unlit charcoal.

Beehives eyes are very Latin, probably Spanish. Perhaps she has gone to Spain. She would have gone alone, and it is like a dream, a memory she has never shared. I believe this. I can see her there in the heat, held by the dark-skinned gitanos, the poverty, even the dirt. She went years ago, in her late twenties, and she remembers the music and dreams that she was a flamenco dancer in some past life. Her fingers are long and graceful, like the women who dance, turning their hands. Maybe she feels that yearning in her cigarette-stained fingertips. She certainly looks at them, long and hard, while she waits for her lover to return.

The waitresses here believe that Beehive has no money of her own because when Butch comes back she always pays the tab. Then they leave.

I know that their fight will continue and I think that there are two ways that it can go. On some nights when Butch comes back Beehive looks up an expression of such relief that it becomes love. I imagine on these nights that they go home and Beehive fumbles around the kitchen making dinner, trying to pay for her rescue. Butch is grudging about making up, about forgiveness. She gives Beehive a lecture about her drinking, maybe insists that they both go on the wagon for a time. Beehive agrees, but she is thinking of Spain, bottle of vino tinto, and the wonderful loneliness of the beach in Cadiz.

But sometimes the fight goes another way. When Butch comes back to the restaurant Beehive refuses to look up from the table, and speaks in monosyllables if at all. On these nights Butch stops at McDonald’s on the way home to make sure that Beehive eats. Then she puts her to bed and they promise each other that they’ll stop doing this, hurting each other, fighting in public. They won’t go to that restaurant again for a long time, if ever. They rarely fight at home: it’s something about coming out of the house into a world that stares anyway.

Before they leave Butch always puts a one-dollar bill on the table. The check that Beehive has run up is usually thirty dollars. That pretty much means that these two women cost their waitress at least ten dollars in tips. Everyone hates when they come in. I hate it too, what they remind me of, the playground scenes that hold them prisoner, that they were not attractive enough to outgrow.

One night though, they came in and they didn’t fight. I was proud of them. During the meal Butch looked up at me and smiled. My heart leapt in my chest as if at some kind of accomplishment. They still left only two dollars…and for the first time I wondered why: whether it was ignorance or hostility. I wanted to know if Beehive would ever tell Butch about her dreams of passion, of Spain, of flamenco. I wondered if she would learn, as I had, that it was a dance made for partners who passed each other in slow turns…a dance in which you faced the man, but if your partner was a woman you were supposed to give her your back.

Erasures (for all the women breaking silence since Brock)


Erasures

A short-short story

By Lyralen Kaye

 

Cute. That was how it started. She was adorable, sweet, perfect. Then pretty. Good enough to eat. Round cheeks, blue eyes, dark hair, upturned nose. Strangers held her in their arms. She chortled, gurgled, smiled, played “I’m so big”.

Then she was older. Ten, say.

“You’re so pretty.” Her father’s hand in her hair.

“She’ll break hearts.”

Like that.

*                        *                        *

The world a maze of men’s hands, touching. Hair, face, pinched cheeks, pinched bum, the words: baby fat, who wants to hug a picket fence? The words: come here. Or, go give the nice man a kiss. Or, I don’t know what’s the matter with her today.

*                        *                        *

At twelve, thirteen, and fourteen she has no breasts to speak of. Fried eggs on an ironing board, Band-Aids for a bra, slightly larger than mosquito bites, her chest a constant topic of conversation. She does not stuff. She wishes she were a boy.

But she raises blue eyes to her father’s face and asks: for trips, for money, for friends to sleep over, for lobster dinners out, for that pair of jeans, for another ticket to a concert. He gives the girl whatever she asks for.

*                        *                        *

Pounds lost and gained. Dates unrepeated with boys she does not like. And then suddenly, at eighteen, she is beautiful. Older men follow her with their eyes. Her body is curved, and she wears cotton dresses, sheaths over the slender planes of her body, and, thinking of liberation, no bra. When she walks down the street, there are whistles, catcalls. Sometimes she smiles, sometimes she clenches her fists.

*                        *                        *

At work she is fired twice for refusing to stay after hours. Male teachers give her A’s, then casually mention their private retreats in the mountains, in the desert, by the sea. Her body is cold under their hands. When she climbs on top, she can feel something, hot and heavy as a blow.

*                        *                        *

At twenty-five she sues the boss that puts his hands on her body, settles out of court for enough to call it a win. She wears loose clothes, carries mace, goes to marches, pays her own way, sleeps only with women. But sometimes, when her lover calls her pretty, she turns, her eyes a field of accusation and pain. She drifts beyond all reach; she comes back crying. In the world, she watches how she walks, watches how she smiles, trying to erase cute, erase pretty, change the definition of beautiful.