“Do not go to a wedding on a boat. You can’t get off a boat.”
I wasn’t ready for Debi’s reaction the day she got cut from the Mitchell Brother’s club dancer schedule. After seven years of continuous stripping service, she did not see it coming— I don’t think any veteran does.
I knew something bad happened. She picked me up in her Saab and started gunning down Divisadero Street, through the Castro, barreling through 24th Street, barely missing babies in strollers.
“What IS IT?” I said. I wanted to grab her hand but I was afraid to touch her.
“It’s what I always told you, it’s what I told everyone; they call you in, and you’re telling them you don’t want to work Wednesdays next month and all of a sudden, they’re like, ‘Why don’t you take a break; we don’t have anything open right now.’”
“What does that mean?”
“Yeah, right! WHAT DOES THAT MEAN. That’s the temptation, to ask, like it’s not dawning on you? And Vince is like, “Maybe it’s time for a change,” and then you’re sitting there . . . ”
“I don’t understand, you’ve been making the same money you always have, you look exactly the same!” My attempt at comfort.
“It doesn’t matter. They have a new line-up of 18-years-olds and so it’s snip, snip, snip at the other end.” Debi rolled down all the windows.The wind was fierce.
“Red light!” I yelled at Folsum Street. I wondered if she had control of the door-locking mechanism as well.
We were waiting at the light. A confident young vato, his baseball cap lowered over his eyes, walked up to the car, leaned in on the Deb’s windowsill, and made a play:
“Where you goin’ tonight, beautiful ladies?”
Debi didn’t say one word. Didn’t even look at him. She took her cigarette out of her mouth, exhaled, and with one sweep of her hand crushed out the butt— on our visitor’s forearm. He yanked his arm off the door just at the embers reached his short and curlies.
“Fuckin Bitch!” He stumbled onto the asphalt.
Deb flicked the fag on the ground and just sat there. The light turned green light. “This is a setback,” she said.
And that is the last rational word we had on the subject.
Debi did the thing everyone does when life is falling apart: she decided to get married. One of the handsome sweet guys she met at the O’Farrell. She was in love with the idea of pulling a fairy tale ending out of a bag full of shit.
Her fiancé offered to dig On Our Backs out of our considerable hole. Oh my god, there is no way he could understand how bad it was. What was she telling him? The magazine never made any money, our lesbian strip show benefits had their ups and downs, and the video money relied on keeping production going, all the time, without a break. Our creative back was being broken, not to mention our credit and grocery bills.
I’m sure Deb was ready for anything. She’d read every business article, every issue of Fortune, and watched as the flimsiest and most absurd ideas were funded with millions. But we were “girls.” We were “whores.” Making a sex magazine for “lesbians,” whoever they were at this point. I felt so cynical. When we stopped to look at the numbers, it was dismal.
Would the groom be our knight in shining capital? I knew it was absurd but I didn’t know how to make it stop. Deja vu. It didn’t feel like good times. Debi began to disconnect from the average day in the magazine office. She hid in her room with her Marlboros and wallpaper samples for her new Eichler-retro home remodel in Marin County.
We needed Deb to help us go to press, and she snapped. “If someone interrupts my wallpaper decision one more time, I’m shooting them.”
I’d look at Nan, like, “How can you take this?” and she’d shrug her shoulders . . . this too shall pass. But how would we meet payroll or keep the phone line on before we passed into oblivion?
Debi asked me to be her Maid of Honor. She agonized about our dresses. I’d hadn’t been to a wedding before; now I felt like I was stuck in the fraudulent gum of a Bride Magazine trunk show.
We were lesbians, for goodness sake. We didn’t do this. We were feminists. We “Don’t let the state be your pimp.” Who the fuck gives a shit about a wedding. I didn’t say it out loud but I talked to my own pillow in frank terms.
Aretha wasn’t one year old yet when Debi planned her wedding. I talked to my little one many nights, to calm her colicky crying. I cranked her mechanical swing after it wound down, every fifteen minutes, and said, “There is a limit to how long this can go on.”
Maybe the O’Farrell Theater was giving Debi a bigger break than she realized. By 1991, Art Mitchell had become so dangerously drunk and high that he was carrying a pistol to all occasions and had just recently fired it at Mayes Oyster bar up on Polk Street, a block from the club.
It was a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to be sure. When I was first pregnant, Artie and Jim had hugged me like a favorite niece. Art had told me with great earnestness how he chose each of his children's names and all his hopes and dreams for them. He cried easily. He brought cushions for my sore back and wanted to be reassured that I was going to have the best prenatal care in the City.
Now, he was a terror. He attacked our dear dancer Tomorrah on the staircase, called her a whore, and ripped her costume— and that was only her five minutes of his all-day rage.
Within a week, Tomorrah made her successful suicide attempt— yes, the same Tomorrah with the faithless boyfriend. Her “Plan B” had fallen to pieces. She would never get old. It felt like everything was closing in.
Ti had been let down her her family, her fiancée, her insane boss— what was going to happen to Debi? None of this had been conceivable a month before.
Debi invited me over for supper, something we always liked to do. I could see how maybe a meatloaf and two bottles of wine might loosen the lumps in our throats. I wanted to talk. But when I’d start— Debi would say, “Oh, you have to see where we’re going to stay in the Russian River this summer.” She’d get out brochures, photos, talking as if we were taking a retreat from Condé Naste.
If my eyes brimmed with tears, if I tried to say one name, one note of what we’d witnessed the past months, her mouth would tense. Her jaw flexed back and forth, like she was tasting the toad I’d turn into if I said One. More. Word.
I knew that warning strike all too well. Oh Debi, please don’t lose it— come back, come back, wherever you are. I bit my tongue and hoped for one little break, just one little something, that would save us.
The phone rang in the middle of the night Wednesday, February 27th. I was up, anyway, with the baby and her tick-tock swing-set. I kissed Aretha, “Please don’t tell me another of our girls is in the ER.”
It was a friend, Cherrie, from the O’Farrell. “Susie, Jim’s shot Art.”
“What? What do you mean? You mean Art’s shot Jim? Where are you? “
“No, Jim has shot his brother, Artie’s dead—” Cherrie broke down in sobs.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Jim will kill himself now.”
I did not know, standing there in the dark, how such a thing had happened. Self defense? Planned attack? The most fucked-up Okie intervention every gone awry? At 5AM I only knew that these two men were Irish twins and I couldn’t imagine one living without the other.
The fratricide filled every news headline in the morning. Pornography’s wages of sin were expounded upon by every prig in town. One brother killing his other half, his soulmate, was sensational enough— but add “hardcore” to it and it was as if everyone in the sexual counterculture was on trial.
Reporters called me: “Did you see it coming? Were you pressured? Were you afraid? Did you get high with them, take it up the ass before the guns came out?” On and on.
Their questions were crazy because they all assumed that sex . . . had led to violence. Not despair, not religion, not the empty bottle of abandonment. It was the unraveling of a family knot that should be all too familiar to those who have watched one half their kin destroy the other and were never be able to put it back together again.
I remembered the look on my mother’s face when she admitted her sister Frannie had died. Her fingers fretted over and over on our kitchen table, like piano keys. She was too afraid to tell me Frannie’s death was by a rope. I could see that old photograph of her sister, torn to pieces and tearfully patched with yellow tape. But the tape didn’t save Frannie. The threats and bandaids didn’t save Art. It was so late in the game. The casualties just kept coming.
Debi called me at 10AM. I didn’t try to hide my crying this time. “I can’t hear you; bad connection,” she said. “I’m calling because you’d better be on time for the fitting.”
“What fitting?” I looked at the receiver like I’d been slapped.
“We are fitting our bridesmaids’ dresses today in Sausalito, as I told you last week three times, and if you can’t pull yourself together— tappity tap tap— I’m just going to have to call my cousin in Minneapolis and see if she can do this without being a complete idiot.”
It was a moment made for the therapist’s couch. There we were, our revolutionary dreams crushed by prejudice, our friends losing their jobs, their identity and lives, strung out, crazy. Comrades whom we thought were immortal were shooting each other — and Debi was going to ream me if I didn’t get a dress zipped up.
I caved in. I moved through her fittings, her wedding, in a trance. Margie didn’t go. She told me, “Don’t go to weddings on boats. You can’t get off a boat.”
Debi left for her honeymoon the day after her bridal party. I took four loads of laundry down the street to the Giant Wash-O-Mat. I was like a baby about to get the natal veil lifted from their eyes.
Maybe it came from lifting my own infant, every day. It was a pleasure to wake with Aretha, to join her in the evening, but I felt like I was going to crack, like I couldn’t do the 50 hours at OOB and pick her up from downtown childcare and then go home, the two of us... and just maintain. I was so tired. I could cry at the shake of a diaper pail.
I’d sit there, without any dinner for myself, nursing in the rocker, hypnotized by Star Trek The Next Generation— the high point of my day.
I had one real baby. I could not carry on with another surrogate baby, the magazine. It was too much. OOB was insecure and Aretha needed… to be secure. It was plain. I remember going to the kitchen one night and deliberately lighting a candle from both ends to take a photo of what I was doing to myself. The metaphor was correct. My fingertips started to singe.
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