On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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I’m depressed. My girlfriend left me. Then I got cancer of the colon, so I had to have my large intestine removed, cut out, the whole thing, gone. I’m a lesbian alone with no large bowel and an ostomy bag hanging off the front of my abdomen. Who’s going to love me now?
OK, so my girlfriend left me four years ago, long before my ostomy, for reasons that have nothing to do with cancer. That doesn’t make it any easier. It was hard enough trying to find someone to love me before this damn bag of shit took over my life.
I don’t have the kind of family that talks things out. They never talked to me about having a girlfriend when I had one. They never talked to me about her after she left. They never talked to me about having a colon. Now that I don’t have a large intestine, they don’t talk to me about the fact that it’s gone.
I go to my parents’ house for dinner once a week. I’m not ready for solid food yet, so my mother cooks a special meal for me. No one complains about all the mashed vegetables or the bland lasagna. Except my sister, Jane.
“This is stupid. Why are we all eating mush?” she asks. My brother’s wife shushes her. But Jane leans over to me and whispers, “If you were still on intravenous feedings, we’d stick needles and tubes in each other’s arms and Ma would hook us up to IV bags to eat.”
After I mope around for a few months, Jane decides that it’s time for me to start getting out more often. She says that nobody who matters is going to care whether I have an ostomy. If they do, to hell with them. Jane is married. She’s happy. She wants me to be happy too. She thinks that I should work a little harder at it. She thinks that I should avenge myself on the cancer and my ex-large intestine by being happy. I think she should back off and let me wallow in depression until I’m damned good and ready to be happy.
Jane loves to dance. I used to love to dance too. She harasses me until I agree to go dancing with her. I’m afraid she’s going to take me to that place with the phones where she met her first husband. You sit in a booth with a number on it and hope that somebody thinks you’re cute and gives you a call. I don’t ask where we’re going. I just want to get it over with. I’m asleep in a chair in my living room, dressed in my best T-shirt and the only jeans I own that fit over the ostomy bag, when she drives up and blows the horn.
She drives straight to the GirlsClub, the only lesbian bar in town. She jumps out of the car like she’s here every Saturday night. “Come on,” she says. “I haven’t been here in twenty years.”
We were in high school the only other time Jane was at the GirlsClub. I had made the honor roll and Jane convinced our father that I deserved a ride in a ’67 Buick, so he let her drive his car. We were on our way home from a basketball game, and she claimed that the GirlsClub was where all the dykes hung out. The place was taboo, so she wanted to be there. I told her she was full of shit, and how would she know where dykes hang out? I should have known better than to challenge her. She drove into the parking lot with her ponytail swinging like she owned the place, same as tonight, except that now the ponytail is gone. That night we got carded and thrown out at the door, but we got an eyeful. It made a bigger impression on me than it did on Jane.
It’s after ten and the place is filling up. Women are joking around, checking each other out, making noise. Jane grabs the only empty table and makes herself comfortable. She cranes her neck to get a good look around the room. She pays no attention to me. I’m happy to be left alone. Finally she gets her fill and asks me what I’m drinking. “Bud,” I say. I shouldn’t be drinking beer. The yeast in it is going to bubble up and make noise when it empties into my ostomy bag.
She walks up to the bar. I take a good look at her. She’s wearing tight, acid-washed jeans and a french-cut T-shirt. I’m used to taking good looks at her. All my life I’ve helped her decide which jeans make her ass look good and which color blouse shows off her blue eyes best. Usually when I look at her it’s like looking at myself in the mirror: you get so used to yourself that you never really know what you look like; you never get the big picture.
Now what I see wakes me up. I must be seeing what other people see when they first look at her. She’s a sexy, plump, ripe-looking woman, all curve in tight clothes, but that isn’t what gets my attention. What amazes me is that you can see her personality in the way she moves, the way she carries herself. I always knew she had guts, but I never knew you could tell that by looking at her. I’m sure of it now. And I’m sure that the other women in the bar see what I see. I keep watching her. She’s older, she’s smaller, and she’s got on tighter clothes, but she looks a lot like me. She looks the way I used to feel.
“Quit staring.” She plunks down two Buds.
“You look pretty good,” I say.
“Pick out a nice woman who’s not your sister, stare at her, and tell her how good she looks.”
“Shut up. Since when are you afraid of a compliment?”
“See anybody you like?” Jane asks loudly, turning around in her chair and taking in every woman in the place.
“Jesus. Will you shut up?”
“Why? You’re in a bar and you wouldn’t mind meeting somebody nice. Big deal.”
“No. You’re in a bar and you’d like me to meet somebody nice.”
“What’s the point of going through all the trouble of being q-u-e-e-r if you can’t even look at women in a bar? Pitiful.”
I decide to sulk. What would she know about how much trouble it is to be a lesbian? What does she know about how it feels to have an ostomy? She’s never depressed. She’s too busy poking her nose in other people’s lives to get depressed about her own. She keeps looking around, watching women on the dance floor. She doesn’t even notice that I’m sulking.
Suddenly I’ve got her attention again. “Let’s dance,” she says.
“Dance. See all those women shaking around? They’re dancing.”
“I’m worried about my ostomy,” I lie. I’m not particularly worried about it. I had a light supper and emptied it before I left. It hasn’t come loose, fallen off, or leaked in months. I just don’t want to dance. I don’t want to dance with Jane.
“You’re afraid to dance in a room full of lesbians.” She grins.
“You don’t know a damn thing about it.” I want to hit her. “I’ve danced here hundreds of times.”
“When? When was the last time you danced? Even alone in your apartment?”
She stands up and takes my hand, dancing with me though I’m still seated. “Up,” she says. She should be struck dead by the look I’m giving her. I’m depressed enough without dancing with my straight sister in a dyke bar. She knows I’m pissed but she ignores it. She dances around me even though I’m planted in my chair. She won’t let go of my hand. It’s getting embarrassing. She’s making a scene. I get up and move around a little on the dance floor. They’re playing some whiny, new age music with no beat. I’m making plans to kill her as soon as this dance is over.
Then a miracle happens. Without so much as a fraction of a second’s pause between songs, Aretha Franklin comes booming over the speakers. Aretha, R.E.S.P.E.C.T., Franklin. No two white girls have ever danced to Aretha Franklin as well, as often, or as devoutly as Jane and I. We danced to Aretha at both of Jane’s weddings. Jane brought Aretha and headphones to the hospital after my operation. I can move to “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” I wonder if my ostomy bag can move to it.
Jane squeals, “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. — find out what it means to me,” and pulls me to the middle of the floor. She dances and shakes her sisterly ass at me. I try to stay pissed off but my ass shakes back. It takes no effort at all. I can do it without a girlfriend. I can do it without a colon. I can do it depressed or not. Our asses shake back at us from three mirrored walls. We admire ourselves. I gain new respect for the lighting and mirror arrangement at the GirlsClub. I’m sure that women of good taste are admiring us. We display ourselves generously. We know when to shake our shoulders. We know when to grind our hips. She knows how many steps I’ll take to the left. I know how many steps she’ll take to the right. We meet in the middle, shake our asses some more, then step back, the same way we’ve been doing since 1964.
Jane wipes the sweat off the back of her neck on to the back of my jeans and laughs. I’m sure that someone in the room must be admiring me. If I wasn’t depressed I’d wish it was the cute redheaded woman sitting at the table across the room. I walk up to the bar and order a Bud and an orange juice. I try leaning on the bar with my butt sticking out, but the bar cuts into my ostomy bag. I sit on a stool and hear a gurgling noise. My ostomy bag is beginning to fill. My hand slips inside my jeans. I know I’m all right, but I can’t help checking. A woman on the stool next to me says, “You OK?”
“Adjusting my ostomy bag,” I answer.
I can tell that she has no idea what an ostomy is, and she isn’t asking. She plays with a big silver ring on her baby finger. After a minute she turns to me again. “Wanna dance?” she asks.
“An ostomy bag is an appliance that you wear on your abdomen,” I say. No response. “It’s kind of a heavy-duty plastic bag that catches your waste.” She looks at me blankly. “You know, your feces, if your bowels can’t do the job.” She gives me a weak smile. “I don’t have a large intestine.” It feels so good to say it out loud that I decide to repeat myself. “My whole large intestine was removed.”
“Oh,” she says. “You sure can dance. So can your girlfriend.”
She’s ruining my big moment. I’m coming out to her and she’s not taking notice. I don’t correct her about the girlfriend. Maybe I will later. But Aretha is churning out, “Chain, chain, chain. Chain of fools,” so I say, “Thanks, I’d love to dance.”
Sally Bellerose’s story “The GirlsClub” [September 1993] was not up to the standards of your magazine. What was it that made you choose it for publication? My impression: “See how open-minded and liberal we are to print a very mediocre story about a lesbian with a colostomy bag.” Try as I could, I could not see literary merit in this story. I hardly think that a story about a lesbian who is recovering from a broken heart and a recent ostomy and who finally goes out to a bar is worth printing in a college literary magazine, let alone a magazine of your quality. Would you have printed the same story had it been about a heterosexual woman? I don’t think so.
Does the fact that I didn’t like this story make me homophobic? Heaven help us if it does, but that is a subject for another day. I just know a good story when I read one, and this story had none of the necessary ingredients.
I beg to differ with Margaret N. Barton’s letter to the editor [November 1993]. Sally Bellerose’s smart and beautifully crafted “The GirlsClub” [September 1993] went right to my heart. Bellerose draws a vivid picture of the love between two sweet, salty, spunky sisters at a triumphant moment in the narrator’s life. The voice is funny and affirming without a touch of sentimentality, and that pivotal scene on the dance floor pulses so musically that I wanted to get up from my armchair and boogie.
I have shared this story with several friends, all of whom have been moved by what we take to be its hopeful messages: that people can heal from loss, especially with a little help from those who know and love us best; and that a lesbian and her heterosexual sister can be intimate allies.
Samuel Johnson declared that “the only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.” By this measure, and any other important one I can imagine, “The GirlsClub” is fine writing indeed.