Something Other

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Deborah was a rebel child before she met me. You can see it in the old photographs. The one I love best is taped to our refrigerator. Her hair is bubblegum pink and her legs are draped over the back of a couch. In that photograph, she is the kind of beautiful that makes you wonder whether she has all the confidence in the world or absolutely none.

I am sitting in five o’clock traffic in a car that smells like spilled coffee and sand. I’ve been told there is an Ethiopian grocery store somewhere on Fairfax, and that I need to stop there on my way home to pick up two bottles of honey wine and a pound of unroasted coffee. I had just finished cleaning the teeth of a fidgety greyhound when Deborah called to tell me this. My clothes were damp with dog slobber, and I had wanted so much to ask what a white Jewish girl from Pasadena, who had Pottery Barn sheets and a cat named Stewart, for Christ’s sake, needed with two bottles of honey wine and a pound of unroasted coffee from the Ethiopian market on Fairfax. But she’d sounded so thrilled about the whole thing on the phone, and I was the one who named our ridiculous cat anyway, so I told her of course, I’d get anything she needed.

Theodore is coming to dinner. I’ve been with Deborah almost three years and heard every story she’s ever cared to tell, but I had never heard Theodore’s name until he emailed Deborah a few days ago. She explained that they had lived together their first year at Berkeley, on opposite ends of a hallway in Clark Kerr. She’d moved off campus as a sophomore, into a dumpy little apartment on Virginia Street, but she still saw him hanging around, doing the dishes naked at the co-op where she went to chain-smoke with her friends. Theodore got married after graduation, Deborah told me, to a stranger with glossy black hair; but he’s divorced now, moving to Los Angeles for a new job.

“It’s funny he should get in touch with me now,” she said over dinner one night. “I’ve been thinking about those days a lot lately.”

There was a bowl of cucumber slices between us on the table, soaking in a puddle of rice vinegar. Deborah fished one out of the bottom and held it between her teeth, sucking the sourness out of the pallid green flesh. When I asked what it was she’d been thinking about, she chewed her lip and stared at the wall above my shoulder. “Not anything about Theodore, or even really about Berkeley. About the semester I spent abroad, more than anything else. I just felt so together  when I was in Barcelona; it was like I’d found the answers to everything I’d ever need to figure out. I almost didn’t come home, did I ever tell you that? Spring semester was ending, and I spent two weeks getting drunk every night, trying to work up the courage to tell my parents I wasn’t getting on the plane back to California.”

“What made you change your mind?”

She bit down on the cucumber. “I guess I never really did. The plane showed up one day, and I got on it. When I got back to school, I signed up for the LSAT and everything just started happening.”

The Ethiopian market stocks macaroni noodles and boxes of Lipton Tea on the shelves above the Berbere seasoning mixes, the bulk bags of lentils. The woman behind the counter is listening to Car Talk and biting her nails. She is the one who scoops the green coffee beans out of a burlap sack and weighs them for me. Before she seals the paper bag, she asks whether I’m sure I really want unroasted beans. I realize I’ll have to roast them myself before they’ll brew good coffee, don’t I? The question makes me blush. I’m not like Deborah, who carries herself like she belongs everywhere. I’m a yellow-haired girl with a face like a soybean. I grew up in a suburb two hours outside Chicago, eating casseroles my mother made from Rice-A-Roni and canned mushroom soup, and the best thing to assume when someone like me walks into a room is that she doesn’t know what’s going on. Yeah, I tell the woman. I know the beans have to be roasted.

I get the expensive wine. I can’t remember the last time I paid thirty dollars for a bottle of anything, but I don’t want to be that woman: the frugal lesbian with bad shoes, the girlfriend who casts a shadow over a nice dinner because she can’t bring herself to pay for grownup wine. I love it so much when Deborah’s excited, so I’m trying hard not to think about the seventy-eight frivolous dollars I’m about to spend, or how hot the wine will get in my car while I’m stuck on the 405, or the fact that I’ve never heard of the man my girlfriend is bringing to dinner. There’s a bell over the door that tinkles when I leave, and the sound of it follows me out to the parking lot, into the traffic, home.

**

Deborah is barefoot in the kitchen when I get home. Her work clothes are strewn around the living room: heels next to the table, stockings balled on a chair, suit jacket over the back of the couch. She’s at the sink in her skirt and slip, peeling potatoes with the water running. When I come up behind her and put a hand on her waist, she cranes her neck over her shoulder and kisses me without putting down the potato in her hand. The counter is spread with foods whose uses I can’t anticipate: yellow spices and heavy cream, cabbage, shallots.

“It looks like a fiesta in here,” I say. Little glass jars of spice are lined up in a row, and I pick one up to read the label. It’s turmeric. I unscrew the lid and sniff it.

“I don’t know that they have fiestas in Ethiopia,” Deborah says.

“Well, it’s pretty then.” I put the turmeric down. “Though I don’t fully understand what it is about this guy that inspired you.”

Deborah’s shrug is a whole-body affair, her arms spreading open like a gesture of blessing. “I thought it would be fun,” she says. “It feels like we haven’t had anyone over here in so long. I can’t even remember the last time we ate anything more interesting than spaghetti.”

She isn’t trying to make me feel guilty, but I do. When I met her, Deborah worked in the immigration department of a private law firm in Beverly Hills where she won green cards for the pretty wives of European expats. I was the one who encouraged her, when the offer came a year ago, to quit and move to the immigration clinic where she works now with refugees and mail-order brides and mothers about to be separated from their citizen kids. She was proud of the choice, and I was proud of her, but she sleeps less now and frets more and works long hours while her corporate friends go out for drinks after work. There are four potatoes on the counter. I pick one up and help Deborah with the peeling.

Theodore arrives right on time. He’s tall, and good looking in the way that people who have recently transitioned to liking themselves often seem to be: meticulously groomed and dressed, with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up in crisp symmetry that begs me to imagine him standing at the mirror, adjusting them by centimeters until they’re perfect. He has brought Deborah an expensive-looking bottle of olive oil, and though I don’t know him I suspect right away that he did not stand starting at it in the store, wanting to buy something nice but wary of spending so much money. Deborah takes his hand in both of hers when she tells him hello. She has put on the long, light dress she wears when she’s feeling earthy. Theodore kisses her on the cheek when he greets her, but to me extends his arm for a handshake. I’m both grateful for the formality and a little put off — I don’t want to be kissed, but the handshake makes me feel manly and inelegant.

There’s wine and bread and a puddle of olive oil poured into a little glass bowl. The apartment fills up with the smell of frying potatoes, of coffee beans roasted and burned and roasted again. There’s cider-soaked cabbage and bright sauces laid out on the table in good serving dishes, the ones Deborah bought the year she volunteered to have her family over for Thanksgiving. The ends of her dress trail in the air behind her while she lays things out. Theodore is sent to sit in the living room and eat his own olive oil. I’m sent to sit with him so he doesn’t feel awkward, but the two of them talk easily over the back of the couch, so I just sit and sip my wine. Stewart sits in my lap, and I pet him behind the ears. He has one eye and a stump for a tail, but his fur is thick. The night I brought him home was the night Deborah asked me to move in with her. “I love this cat, and I love you for loving this cat,” she’d said.

Deborah comes out of the kitchen with a pitcher of water and waves us over to the table. She sits down with a bright exhale, and in one fluid motion reaches across the table to rest her hand on Theodore’s arm. “So, you’re here in my house,” she says. I think of the way she used to flirt with me across restaurant tables. “But I don’t actually know why you’re here. You have to tell me about this new job you’re starting. You were very vague in your email, but now I’m feeding you, so you’re obligated to entertain me.”

Theodore smiles and takes a spoonful of potatoes. “I’m editing scores with an independent film studio,” he says. “I’ll be going between the directors and the musicians and the visual people, making sure the music fits with what’s happening at any given second. It’s a lot like the work I was doing in advertising, except I make less money and don’t hate myself.”

I wonder as I listen why directors can’t just talk to their composers themselves.

“Were you making a lot of money in Seattle?” Deborah asks. “Theodore, I never thought you’d be a sellout!”

Theodore hasn’t stopped smiling. His teeth are white but uneven, with one long, pointy canine disrupting the whole left side.

“I’ll be honest,” he says, “that’s not actually as much of a joke as you think it is. I hated working in advertising. Everyone is wasting their lives selling crap, and they all know it’s crap, and know they’re crap for selling it. We were all just prostitutes for global capitalism.”

Deborah laughs. “Why did you stay so long if you hated it so much?”

“Responsibilities. I had a wife; not that any of this made much of a difference to Elena in the end. I’m happy that’s over. I feel so much more like the person I used to be when I was in school. I used to be a very serious musician —”

“You played violin,” Deborah says.

“You’re sweet to remember. Yeah, I played violin for years. I thought I would do it professionally — travel with an orchestra or something — but when I got married that idea faded away.”

Deborah is nodding with sympathetic eyes. “I understand completely. I mean, look at me! I was a Spanish literature major, do you remember that? I was going to get a little house in Majorca and become a translator. Now I’m just another lawyer in Los Angeles.”

Had Deborah ever mentioned Majorca before? She must have, I tell myself.

“The thing, Deb, is that it’s just so easy. It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to act like a grownup. That’s why this change has been so good for me. There’s something invigorating about working with people who care about what they’re doing. None of this “Kung Fu Panda” bullshit. They’re making real art. I’m sure you know what I mean; you were always very artistic.”

I get up from the table then. The first bottle of honey wine is almost empty, and I reach over Deborah to get it. For a moment, my body blocks the space between them. They keep talking anyway. In the kitchen, I pour what’s left of the bottle into a glass. There isn’t much, but there are two bottles of red next to the toaster, and I uncork one and fill my glass to the top. The two wines mix together in my throat, sweet as cough syrup. I sit on the counter and let my feet dangle off the floor. Even with the door closed to blur the words, I can hear the changing registers of the voices in the next room. Theodore monologues, Deborah laughs. They’re talking about the old days: the vegans and the men who knit, how good it was to be so young and feel so much like themselves. The photograph I love is taped to the refrigerator. Nineteen-year-old Deborah sticks her tongue out at me without malice. I wonder what that girl would think of the woman who will fall asleep with me tonight, and whether she would blame me for the things that have gone wrong with her.

I try to remember the last time I had a friend who wasn’t also a friend of Deborah’s. The people I knew from veterinary school stayed in Illinois. It hasn’t been long since I moved, but I have a hard time, as I sit there tracing the alphabet in the air with my feet, remembering why I came to Los Angeles in the first place. Deborah grew up here, came back after she burnt up her savings in southern Europe, flirting with dark-eyed men she didn’t want to sleep with. I miss the Lutheran church in South Beloit, the simplicity of the minister’s black coat and white collar.

Deborah is wiping tears from her eyes when I get back to the table. She always starts to cry when she laughs too long. That was one of the first things I noticed about her when we met, at the strangely cosmopolitan Passover Seder of a mutual friend, when she got so bored during the Haggadah that she started eating her bitter herbs leaf by leaf. Theodore waves me toward my empty seat, inviting me to take a place at my own table.

“Jamie, you’re so quiet,” he tells me. “I haven’t learned a single thing about you all evening. What do you do?”

“I’m a veterinarian,” I tell him.

Deborah puts her hand over mine. “Today she cleaned a dog’s teeth.”

 **

After dinner, Deborah tells Theodore she wants to take him out. She’s got a friend in the movie industry who doesn’t live far and who she knows he’d love. They can drive on Sunset, since he hasn’t seen it at night yet. I’ve had more to drink than either of them, and when Deborah rubs my arm and asks if I’d be up for it, my lips are too numb for a smile. I tell them they’ll have more fun if they go without me. Before they leave, Deborah reminds me that we have Gatorade in the refrigerator. Theodore kisses my cheek when we say goodbye at the door. Once they’re gone, I sit in bed with the cat, watching a television show about straight people.

On our third date, Deborah drove us up the Pacific Coast Highway to a place where rocks hid a quiet corner of beach. It was the beginning of March, and the sun was starting to set. Deborah pulled over onto the little strip of shoulder and brought me out of the car with her, barefoot onto the cold sand. “Do you like to swim?” she asked me.

She left her clothes behind when she waded out into the low tide. I followed her. I told myself, treading water and laughing through chattering teeth, that it would be good for me to have a soul like Deborah’s in my life. I loved her a lot in that moment, the way I loved her the time we drove up Topanga Canyon and camped in my car by the edge of a cliff, or the time she baked a gram of marijuana into a batch of Betty Crocker Ultimate Fudge brownies and we ate them with our fingers from the pan, wrapped together on the floor watching old Nickelodeon cartoons. These days, Deborah and I both come home tired. We watch movies and go for walks sometimes. I still call her my rebel child, but I’ve found I like her best when she’s wearing sweatpants and reading Dan Brown novels on the couch.

Growing up, I never knew a person who did their dishes naked. Everyone around me liked casseroles with Rice-A-Roni and cream of mushroom soup. I’m not sure now whether that makes me better than Deborah or worse, but I feel certain it must be one or the other.

 **

Deborah comes home early enough. I hear her rattling around in the living room, clicking across the floor in high-heeled shoes she’ll leave by the table when she goes to bed. I imagine her in the kitchen, eating cold potatoes out of the pan and drinking Gatorade so she won’t have a headache in the morning.

I mute the television when she comes into the bedroom. She is surprised to see me awake, and kisses me on the head. Her faced is flushed, though from what I couldn’t say. I tell myself that it is highly improbably that she’s been fucking Theodore, but as soon as the thought occurs to me, I realize it’s beside the point.

“I’m so sorry you couldn’t come,” she’s telling me. “We had the best time. Jillian came to meet us — I’ve told you about Jillian, right? She was a paralegal at my old firm. She quit around the same time I did, to study composition. She and Theodore hit it off right away.”

She disappears into the closet. When I can no longer see her, I ask the question that’s been rolling around in my mouth all night. “Since when have you been artistic?”

She steps halfway out of the closet. She’s standing in her underwear, hanging her dress. She’s thick and broad-bellied, and the hair that used to run wild is smooth now, tamed with expensive product. “Who said I was artistic?”

“Theodore said something about it. He said, ‘You were always very artistic.’ I didn’t know that about you. I mean, I’ve never seen you paint or anything like that.”

Deborah disappears back into the closet. She leaves her bra on the door handle and pulls a t-shirt out of the dresser. There’s a long silence, and I remember how she once told me that she loved the long blank spaces that filled up our conversations while I thought and thought about what I would say next.

“I don’t know, Jamie,” she finally says. Her voice is light and level. “I don’t think he was talking about anything specific. That’s probably just the impression he had of me when we were in school together.”

“That’s good.” There’s a hangnail on my left middle finger and I study it, bite it. Deborah picks up her stockings from the floor. She’s waiting for me to finish. “I don’t think I could stand it if you suddenly became an artist. You’d have to start talking like Theodore: ‘Ah, my work! My work makes me feel so alive!’ I mean, come on. I know he’s your friend — but Christ, what an asshole. This guy isn’t an artist. He’s a corporate stooge, he’s just stooging for a less successful corporation than he used to.”

Deborah raises her eyebrows at me. “Finished there, little tiger?”

“Come on, Deb. The guy’s a hack.”

“You’re acting like a brat, Jamie. I don’t understand why you’re getting so mad about this, when you don’t give a damn about art to begin with!”

“I just don’t understand why this guy impressed you so much. You worked seventy hours last week trying to make sure those girls in Monterey Park were okay while the INS harangued their mom. But you act like that means nothing. You respected Theodore in a way you’ve never respected yourself.”

“That’s crap, Jamie.” My name sounds vulgar the way she says it. “God, I was being nice. Somebody needed to be, since you were so busy sulking and staring at your food all night. You barely said a word, even when Theodore tried to talk to you. What, are you jealous?”

“No, I’m not jealous. I’m frustrated. Theodore wanted to play violin in an orchestra, so he gets a job corralling real musicians and then says he’s one of them? That’s bullshit. And what about you, Deborah? You suddenly claim all you ever wanted was to move to Spain and pet goats. It’s like the last five years of your life didn’t even happen.”

Deborah throws up her hands. “I’m not having this conversation with you. Good night, Jamie.” She shuts the door behind her when she leaves.

I lie in bed and listen to her. There’s the clatter of dishes, and the humming sound of the television. The lights go out.

She is my rebel child. If you tell her she’s a white Jewish girl from Pasadena, an immigration lawyer who has never held a paintbrush, she’ll tell you about the woman who sleeps in her bed, the Illinois milkmaid she educated in the music of being alive. And what if that woman is just a frugal lesbian, soybean pale and thick through the legs? What if we’re right about ourselves and wrong about each other? We would fall apart then, both of us.

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