Fiction by Laurie Babcock
Grammy wants me to know, she thinks she once knew a lesbian.
We’re walking along the beach, the sun peeking over the horizon. Gram is wearing a sweatshirt over a turtleneck and jeans, holding her coffee in both hands to warm them up. It’s spring break and my northern blood isn’t as thin as hers, so I’m in shorts and a tank top, my sneaker laces tied together and dangling from one hand. I’ve just come out to her.
Oh, well, that’s okay honey. You know, I think I once knew a lesbian. When was that, Gram? Long time ago, long time. But when exactly? Oh, before I married your grandfather.
I have no money to go with my friends on spring break but I wanted to be somewhere warm. I begged mom. I made dean’s list, I reminded her, although I don’t mention it wasn’t hard. She said no but called back a day later and said she’d pay for a bus to Florida but I had to stay with Grammy. My mom and uncles live up north and worry they won’t know when Gram gets dementia until something happens. Mom couldn’t afford a spring break trip but she and her brothers would pay for me to check up on Grammy. I agreed immediately because Gram has a car and lives near a beach. And she’s fun, in a jigsaw puzzles and two o’clock cocktails way.
I’m not a lesbian though, Gram. I’m bi, bisexual. Oh, well, a cut from the same cloth. I think Dottie was a lesbian, though. Dorothy. She was my roommate at the boarding house, thick as thieves we were. Dottie and Mags, they called us.
I’ve never heard anyone call Gram “Mags,” including herself. I have so many questions but I’ll ask them later, after she has a cocktail in her.
Dottie worked at the Woodstock Typewriter Company and I was at the Singer Sewing Machine Company. We had our own beds, a course, but we shared a room at the boarding house where Mrs. Cyr had raised three children. She was the kind of Catholic what didn’t serve meat on Fridays. Dottie and me brought in the eggs each morning for breakfast. We’d both grown up on farms, you know. Mrs. Cyr was a good French lady and she always made ployes with the eggs.
Gram had made ployes that morning for breakfast, those buckwheat pancakes that made me know I was home or at least in the home of family. Maybe she’d learned to make them from Mrs. Cyr, or maybe she’d chosen the boarding house because Mrs. Cyr was French, like us.
I went dancing Saturday nights and Mrs. Cyr waited up in her dressing gown ‘til I got in. She’d check the time when I come in and give me, what do you call it now? This thing I’m doing. That’s side eye, Gram. Side eye! Lord, yes. Mrs. Cyr was all side eye and a pair of house slippers. I’d visit on Sunday afternoons. Who would you visit? Well, that’s what we called it. Visiting. You’d go over to a boys’ house or he’d come to yours, you’d visit a spell.
I don’t ask how many boys she danced with on Saturday nights or visited with on Sunday afternoons but I am dying to know. Another question for post-cocktail Gram.
Dottie stayed in on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Well, after a year of that, Mrs. Cyr suggested Dottie might prefer a different boarding house. So Dottie moved out.
We both watch a mom-aged woman in a bikini top and shorts ride past on her bike. The tide has come in and the woman bikes in front of us along the shoreline, splashing salty water. She waves and we both wave back. I take a step forward and bury my toes in the edge of the tide like when I was a kid.
Times have changed. Back then, there were a whole lotta people like Mrs. Cyr. Being a lesbian now, or whatever you are, well, that sounds fine.
I think of how some of my friends have really emotional coming out stories, hugs and tears of relief or screaming and cursing god. Gram’s initial response of “that’s okay honey” has unexpectedly become an “atta girl,” even if it is for “whatever” I am. Gram starts walking along the beach again. I pull my phone from my back pocket, wiggling my toes in the watery sand.
Hey, did Gram live in Mrs. Cyr’s boarding house and work at the Singer Sewing Machine Company before she married Grampy? Oh yes, there was a Mrs. Cyr and mum lived with her when she worked for Singer. Did Gram ever talk about Dottie, Dorothy? No. Did you ever hear anyone call her Mags instead of Maggie or Margaret? Good heavens, no.
About thirty yards up the beach, Grammy looks out at the water and then back at me. I wave but she doesn’t wave back. I start walking towards her.
Is she doing okay? She’s fine, mom. She’s kind of skinny. Mum’s always been skinny. She made us breakfast. I drove us to the beach. I told her I’m bi. Oh? How did that go? I think she already knew. Well, maybe. Thanks again for this, mom. You’re doing us a favor, kiddo.
I pocket my phone and catch up to Grammy standing along the shoreline, looking out at three guys chasing one another on jet skis. She lets me put my arms around her and we walk back to her car. She moves to the driver’s side so I hand her the car keys from my pocket. After a few prompting questions, I get us back onto memory lane.
Dottie moved out of Mrs. Cyr’s boarding house to the other one, the one run by Mrs. Kelly across town. It was a little closer to the typewriter company, so nobody asked too many questions about the move. Mrs. Kelly served baked beans with salt pork at breakfast, even on Fridays.
Gram’s raised eyebrows tell me serving meat on Fridays makes Mrs. Kelly a different kind of Catholic than Mrs. Cyr.
Mrs. Kelly had five daughters and a son. Everyone knew the Kelly boy was a little off.
I knew from childhood experience, “a little off” was code for gay.
She was a few years older, but Dottie married that Kelly boy. She would have been a beautiful mother. But she and the Kelly boy never had children.
On a long stretch of road, Grammy slows as she approaches a red light. When red changes to green, she keeps slowing so I tell her, “it’s green, Grammy.” She steps on the gas. At her apartment complex, she hits the curb block with her front tires before putting the car in park. As she opens her door before I’ve unbuckled, I realize she never put on her seatbelt.
Grammy, do you want lunch, a cup of tea? Lunch sounds fine, just fine, but I was thinking a White Russian. It’s not too early for you, is it? No, Gram, not at all. I’m on vacation.
We have lunch on her lanai, overlooking a mass of overgrown palm trees and saw palmetto. We make a second drink and start a thousand-piece puzzle of a couple under an umbrella walking in the rain under a canopy of colorful trees. The border is done and Gram just points for me to work on the left side while she works on the right. I ask her what happened to Dottie and the Kelly boy but she says she doesn’t know.
But I do know, if I was a man, I wouldn’t be a gay man. Gram, I don’t really think it’s a choice. Oh hush and be happy to have choices.
She raises her glass and we toast, to having choices.
I had to choose. Not between men and women, a course, just between all the men.
I laugh and try to imagine my skinny grandmother seventy years younger.
How many men, Gram? Oh, well, your grandfather was the only one I had eyes for, the only one. Sure, once you set your eyes on him, but what about before that? No shame in the game, Gram, you can tell me.
She leans back in her chair and with the hand not holding her drink, she smooths her pant leg with an arthritic hand. She blinks dramatically and shrugs slowly like a woman with secrets.
How many men did you date, Gram? Oh now, I had a lot of suitors, a lot of fellas. I wouldn’t call it dating. You’d go and visit with a boy at his house, his mother would be there. She’d play the piano when it was time to leave. Mostly Catholic boys, you know, but there was a Methodist, too. Mrs. Cyr didn’t know about that one.
We laugh heartily and toast, to Mrs. Cyr not knowing about that one.
There was a Jewish one, too. Gram, what? He knew the Pope. A Jewish boy who knew the Pope? They’d gone to school together in Poland. Gram, that doesn’t make any sense. The Polish Pope? Oh yes. Grammy, John Paul II would not have been Pope when you were a girl. No, later, later, after Carl died. After Grampy died, there was a Jewish man? Oh yes. A lot a Jews at his school and they wouldn’t let the Pope play with them. A course, they call it football over there. They call what football? Soccer.
My head is reeling as I try to understand what she’s saying.
Gram, how long did you date the Jewish man? Well, now, Jesus was a Jew before he was a Catholic, honey, and Ira and I, we were just friends. He’d come over and we’d have a drink, play a few hands of cards, that’s all. I wouldn’t call it dating.
Gram asks if I want another drink, but I tell her I shouldn’t, I need to clear my head, take a walk. I hit the call button before I’m fully outside the apartment, whispering into my phone.
Did Grammy date a Jewish man who knew the Pope? What?! Did Gram date anybody after Grampy died? What are you on about? It’s not possible Grammy thinks Jesus was Catholic, is it? Well, now, she might think that.
I’ve walked out into the parking lot so I can’t be overheard.
Mom, Grammy just told me she dated a Jewish man from Poland, his name was Ira, and he played soccer with Pope John Paul II when they were children. Well, now, there was a foreigner, it was Ira, she talked about him quite a lot. And she did have Manischewitz in the fridge once. Mom, Gram had a boyfriend! There is no way, honey, no way.
Back in her apartment, I find the kettle whistling on the stove. I turn the burner off and move the red-hot kettle with an oven mitt before going out to the lanai where Grammy is still working on the puzzle. She has one of her own crocheted blankets over her legs.
Gram, did you want a cup of tea? Oh that’d be nice, dear, thanks. No, Gram, I mean, you left the kettle boiling. Oh, well, I was just getting up but since you’re already up…
She trails off and attaches the couple and their umbrella to the completed border. My side of the puzzle is twice as complete as hers. When I bring her a cup of tea, she’s abandoned the puzzle and is holding a framed photo of her with my mom and uncles.
I remember that day, do you, Gram? We were all in Bar Harbor. Oh, is that where? I couldn’t think of where. Yeah, it was right after, oh, sorry, I forgot her name. It was after your sister died. My sister? Yeah, Gram, your sister. Well, Vivi died when she was a baby. Not Vivianne, Gram, but Dickie’s mother. Lilian? Yeah, Aunt Lil.
Gram looks like she wants to say something but she doesn’t. I wonder if she’s forgotten that Aunt Lil died.
Grammy, how come you only had three kids? Oh, well, my mother finally told me how they were made.
I laugh and sit down next to her. She hands me the photo to put back on the table next to me.
You mean you stopped having sex? No, no, we just started using a, you know, a thing. What, a condom? They had condoms back then? A course we did. Back then! We had fire, too, and the wheel. I had got my girl so I told your grandfather to get one a them things. What, just the one? Well, you only needed one then. And what, reused it? A course you reused it. Gram, gross! Well, we’d all gone through the Great Depression, honey. Don’t judge us too harshly.
When Gram lays down for a nap, I call mom again.
You never told me Gram used condoms. You are making that up! I am not, she just told me herself. My mother never used condoms! Mom, not condoms, plural. Just the one. They reused one condom. Well, that is the way they were made back then, they were rubber not latex. It doesn’t matter. My mother really said that? I asked her why she stopped at three kids and she said, she got her daughter and so she made Grampy get a condom. Well, now I know she’s got dementia! She got her daughter! As if she ever wanted me a day in her life! Mom!
When Gram wakes from her nap, she’s a bit groggy.
When did you get here? Last night, Gram. You picked me up at the bus. Oh, yes, yes. We went to the beach, remember? That’s right, that’s right. You told me about Dottie and the Kelly boy, and Ira who knew the Pope. Who told you all that? You did, Gram. I never! You did, I swear! You even told me you made Grampy use a condom. That’s a hateful lie! I never said that!
She gives me a little taste of Mrs. Cyr’s side eye. My phone rings and my friends are video-calling from Miami. They’re on a beach, lying on towels, everyone in the least amount of clothing permissible by law. It looks warmer there and I can hear they’re having a good time.
Hey! It’s four o’clock in the afternoon! But it’s five o’clock somewhere! It’s hard to hear you. I know, can you believe this? We just wanted to know. Did you tell her? Yeah! She’s right here, say hi! Hi, Natalie’s grandmother! Say hi, Gram. Well, hello there. Oh my god, she’s adorable! She was cool, weren’t you Gram? You said, that’s okay honey. That’s okay honey?! Are you serious? That’s hysterical! That’s hysterical, honey! You were cool, weren’t you, Grammy, when I told you I’m bisexual? What’s that, honey?
My friends aren’t talking now. The beach is active around them but their faces are frozen in worry.
Bisexual, Gram. It’s when someone is attracted to both men and women. Like if a woman is attracted to men and women, they can date either men or women. Just women, though, that’s the lesbian? Right, Gram, that’s the lesbian. It’s funny you should say so. I was just thinking, I think I once knew a lesbian.