Diane

By Steven Masterson

t may surprise you that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but it didn’t surprise me. It happens all the time. Many people would say I was on a mission of folly, but I knew it was a run toward survival. Sitting alone at my kitchen table at two o’clock in the morning, pickled with booze, remorse, and self-pity, I’d quit. A drunken decision, but it was the best I could do. There was nothing more.

Heading south on I-95, with an open beer between my legs, bottle of vodka on the dash, and a half a joint in the ashtray, I was a menace to society. I was going to where I would blend right in: Washington, D.C. I’d spent the night in my head throwing away my life’s broken pieces and shedding the skin I’d been crawling in. Now I was on the move.

But I never made D.C. The draw had been my brother, not the other drunks and misfits, but the anchor was my son, Hazen, and he was in Massachusetts. Crossing the vast expanse of Rhode Island was enough to kill my dreams of maybe passing out with a Kennedy in the park or watching senators chase their hookers around the water fountains. It was just too far. A lot of the good things in life are, but the best thing in my life was my son and I wanted to keep him as close as I could. Close ended up being 120 miles. It was the best I could do.

New Haven is no Washington, D.C., but life isn’t always what you think it is, is it? I thought I’d married the perfect woman, she the perfect man. We’d spent the last year in perfect hell. It had left me sitting at my kitchen table at two o’clock in the morning drowning in self-pity.

Now it had brought me to New Haven. I didn’t know anyone here, except for a guy I had met just once. I had his address in my pocket. There wasn’t much else in there. I didn’t have any money; drunks often don’t. Just enough for beer, vodka, and the gas to D.C. In New Haven, with beer in the cooler and vodka on the dash, I had a cash surplus. Maybe tomorrow I’d eat.

But money really wasn’t an issue. I had a skill taught to me by an uncle in the family business, and got a job an hour after I got to town. I guess drunk upholsterers weren’t an oddity down here either, but unless I wanted to pass out in the park without a Kennedy, I’d need a place to stay. I had an address in my pocket.

“Washington is too far,” my friend Donna had said. I knew she was right when she said it, but I didn’t know where else to go. “Go to New Haven. Go to ernst. He’ll help you.” She said it like the Promised Land was just over the horizon.

“Who the hell is ernst?”

“You remember him. You met him at that party, out on the back porch by the keg.”

“The guy with the hair?” She gave me her “you’re an idiot” look. It was a stupid thing for me to say; my hair reached halfway down my back. “The one with the black leather jacket with the safety pins all over it, his hair all greased up and piled into that Little Richard pompadour? You mean that guy?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Stop in New Haven and check it out. It’s only two hours away. Far enough, but close enough to come back. Here’s the address.” She gave me a piece of paper and I stuffed it in my pocket, but there was no way I was going there. I had a brother in D.C. and I wanted an up-close look at those senate cloakrooms. I told her I’d think about it and hit the road.

So now I stood in front of an apartment door on Whalley Avenue in New Haven, unsure whether to knock or not. I thought about sleeping in the park alone and rapped on the door. It was opened by a woman. I liked what I saw. She stood there waiting for me to say something.

“I’m looking for ernst,” I said.

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“Not really. Could be an hour, tomorrow, or a couple of days.”

“My name’s Steven. I’m a friend of his.”

“I’m Diane, one of his roommates.” I thought she gave me a strange look when she said it. But I had to go forward; the park hung on in my head.

“I was hoping I could talk to him tonight. Any idea where he could be?”

“No,” she said, again with the look. Then she said, “You can come in and wait for a while. Maybe he’ll show up.” She stepped aside and motioned me into the apartment; then she closed the door on my past.

So what had she opened it up to? My continuing education.

ernst didn’t come home that night, and I spent the night on the sofa. For the next two days, I got up in the morning, went to work, and came home to Diane. She took me out. One night it was performance art, the next an underground gallery for an exhibit of one of her friend’s work. These were not black-tie affairs. To me it seemed more like a benevolent Halloween, all goons and ghouls banned. Marilyn Monroe evening dress, red lips talking to spike-haired punk. Big beard, motorcycle jacket, and chains arm in arm with a blond flower child. A hush-puppied, elbow-patched college professor skipping through the people, waving his hands in front of his face and giggling. I’d never seen anything like it.

I didn’t really understand the art and it didn’t matter. I had never seen such a diverse collection of people. I lived in a small conservative town where high school football was king, and the police chief walked on water. Women were good girls or sluts, and men were greasers or jocks. Longhaired hippies and braless chicks upset the balance, but those were your choices. You had to belong. These people didn’t seem to care and I liked that feeling. And I really liked Diane. Except for those two looks in the hallway a couple of days ago, I hadn’t detected anything else false, at least on her part. She seemed to be the person I saw. She’d introduce me with “This is my friend Steven from Massachusetts,” and it felt warm and gracious and caring. I was her friend. We talked a lot, she drank, and I drank a lot. ernst hadn’t come home yet, and I still hadn’t told Diane the details of my friendship with her roommate. I’d told her everything else.

On Saturday, Diane told me she was a lesbian. “Get outta here,” I said.

“Steven, I’m serious.”

“Get outta here.”

She smiled at me.

I’d heard all the jokes and the rumors and innuendo floating around my hometown but had never given it much thought. I do that a lot. But I had never met a lesbian before, at least not knowingly. I thought about it now. My entire experience with a sexual orientation different than mine flashed before my eyes. Well, it didn’t have to flash, did it? She was sitting right there. It didn’t take much thinking; Diane had already shown me who she was.

She reached out and put her hand on my forearm. “Steven,” she said. “I’m a lesbian.” This time she had a little more steel in her eyes.

“So what?” I asked.

“Good,” she answered.

“I knew it anyway.”

“You did? How?”

“Because I…”

“No wait, let me guess,” she said. “Because otherwise you’d be sleeping in my bed.”

“That’s right,” I said.

“Well, I do like you a lot,” she teased, making me like her even more.

We’d been sitting at the kitchen table, me with a Bloody Mary and Diane with straight V8, when this whole lesbian thing started, and now that it was over, we were still sitting there. Nothing had changed.

“My girlfriend Jill is coming over around eleven,” Diane said. “We’re headed downtown to hang some posters, and there’s an exhibit over at Southern that Jill wants to see. Are you coming with us?”

“Is it all right if I hang around here?”

“Sure it is. But if I leave you here, you’ll be too drunk to take us dancing tonight. And we are going dancing, aren’t we? You promised.”

“Dancing?”

“That’s right. I’ve told Jill all about you and she still wants to meet you, and you’re going to like her. Come on, we’ll have a good time.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to be in the way.”

“You won’t and besides…”

“Besides what?” I asked.

“Besides, then you can drive instead of us having to take the bus.” She smiled at me.

I smiled back. Then spent the rest of the day and most of the night being both wheelman and third wheel for two beautiful women. I hung posters on telephone poles for some gay/lesbian alliance. We visited painters and photographers, silk screeners and poets, all in different spaces in some artist co-op. People talking about things other than football or a job or each other, and me having a hard time keeping up. I was trying to absorb as much as I could. Diane and Jill were my guides, telling me what I needed to understand, and why they liked certain things and not others. They often didn’t agree. They’d shrug their shoulders and move on, leaving me to decide on my own and for my own reasons. Sometimes Diane and Jill were both wrong. We went to Southern for the exhibit there and then for pizza and beer, my treat. The whole day had been theirs.

“Do you think he can dance?” Diane asked Jill, motioning toward me with her head.

“I don’t know,” said Jill. “He looks kind of awkward just walking around.”

“Well, he can watch us,” said Diane.

“You’ll like that, won’t you Steven?” Jill winked.

I’d danced once before. Like a long-legged penguin, I’d stiff-jointed through the obligatory dances at my wedding. I didn’t step on my mother-in-law’s gown, but I had no desire to ever dance again. But Diane said I promised to take them dancing, not a promise I remembered, but it could be in the bottom of a bottle somewhere. And despite her wink, Jill was right. I wouldn’t mind watching.

“I’ll need to sober up a little first,” I said, handing Diane the pint of vodka from my back pocket. “I’ll stick to beer.”

“Good idea,” said Jill.

Back at the apartment, the girls said they were going to take a nap and went off to the bedroom. I didn’t believe them for a minute, but a nap sounded good. I lay down on the sofa. ernst still hadn’t come home.

I woke up to the pipes banging as the shower shut off. I went into the kitchen for a beer and caught Diane and Jill coming out of the bath, all warm and cuddly, wrapped in towels. “Did I miss anything?” I asked.

“Wise guy,” said Diane.

Jill just blushed.

“Why don’t you take a shower,” said Diane. “And we’ll be ready when you get out.” I didn’t believe that for a minute either. I’d been married. I figured I had at least an hour, so I shaved and everything. I even put on a clean blue T-shirt with a pocket on the chest.

The girls came out of the bedroom with little over theirs. Dresses like silk stretched so tight goose bumps weren’t hidden, slit to the top of the thigh and garters holding up their stockings, hair and makeup like Betty Boop or 1920s flappers. I thought of Van Morrison singing about girls dressing up for each other. I knew they weren’t dressing up for me.

“I see you changed your shirt,” said Diane.

They took me to a dance club. I may have been the only straight guy there. My dates weren’t underdressed. I felt kind of like a kid in a candy store, but it was all eye candy, and I couldn’t touch. I didn’t mind watching, but the girls wouldn’t let me be. I’d always been able to resist one woman pulling me by the arm toward a dance floor, but one on each arm was just too much. I gave in. Arms flailing about, jumping, twisting, and shaking my butt, I began to relax. I’d gone back to vodka, which didn’t hurt. Diane and Jill introduced me as “our friend Steven from Massachusetts.” That wasn’t a small detail to me. With all the drinking and jiggling and touching and laughing, it was a great night. I never even thought about D.C. I was having more fun than a congressman in an opium den.

In the morning, having no idea how I got there, I woke up on the sofa. Hushed voices from the kitchen rolled me over onto my back. I reached for my glasses and putting them on I punished myself to my feet. There’s a harsh reality to these mornings, these blackout mornings. Not knowing what you did or didn’t do while deadheaded is paranoia at its best. Stupid or stupendous, callous or caring, it’s you. You own it, and you don’t remember, but this morning I’d find out pretty quick. Witnesses were in the kitchen. The girls smiled and said good morning as I passed by to the bathroom. I was okay. They were talking to me.

“Did you have a good time last night?” Diane asked as I sat down with them.

“Yeah,” I said, reaching for the sugar.

“What was the name of that dance you were showing us?” asked Jill.

I gave her my best blank stare.

“The Watergate I think you called it,” Diane told me.

“I don’t think it’s going to catch on,” said Jill.

They’d gotten some pastries from the place on the corner and we sat drinking coffee and talking. They made fun of my dancing and I told them the things I’d liked at the artist co-op. It was almost an hour before I cracked open my first beer, and an hour later Jill got up to leave. Diane and I walked her to the door and Jill gave me a hug. “See you soon,” she said. I left the two of them saying good-bye and went back to the kitchen. The truth is, I felt good for the first time in over a year.

Diane came back, poured herself another cup of coffee, and sat back down at the table with me. “Diane,” I said. “I really like Jill. I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you. She likes you too. Even after spending time with you and even after seeing you dance.”

It hadn’t taken long, just a few days, and we were comfortable together. We left the table, moved to the living room, and spent a nice quiet Sunday afternoon. I sat on the sofa reading a Rolling Stone; Diane sat across from me sewing. She wasn’t domesticated. I don’t mean she was wild, although she was, but she wasn’t “housewife” sewing. Diane was making lilies, two inches big, black satin shell curved around a pink satin center, with small silver, blue, and red hearts hung on fine threads to make the stamen. Hand-sewn and beautiful, they were even a bit erotic. I still have mine today; I wear it on my suit jacket lapel to weddings.

ernst came home. No pompadour, his hair hung down below his shoulders, safety pins on torn jeans instead of the pin-laden leather jacket, and wearing an Oasis d’Neon T-shirt. He walked across the room and said, “Hi, Diane” and “Hey, man” to me, and continued to the bathroom.

“He doesn’t know who you are,” Diane said to me.

“I…I…”

She laughed at me. “I knew it,” she said. “You said you were a friend of his, but then you thought I’d know where he was and when he’d be back. You don’t know him.”

I thought about the looks she had given me in the hallway. “Why’d you let me in?” I asked.

“I knew you needed me to.”

There was nothing much I could say to that.

ernst came back in and sat on the sofa with me. “I’m ernst,” he said.

“I’m Steven, from Massachusetts.” He gave me his best blank stare. Face reddening, I squirmed in my seat. Across the room Diane was smiling. “We met at a party six or seven months ago. Out on the back porch, by the keg? I was with Rick and Donna?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think I remember. What’s up?”

I told him my story. How I’d had to get out of town and ended up here. That I needed a place to stay until I could find my own.

“He’s been here four or five days,” said Diane. And then, “I think he should stay.”

“Okay,” said ernst. And that was that.

I stayed on that sofa for a month, maybe six weeks, and then in New Haven for about a year. A year I’ve never closed the door on. But the time came to go back to Massachusetts. Hazen was there, and that was just the way it was.

Heading north on I-95 with a beer between my legs and half a joint in the ashtray, I left New Haven. But I didn’t stay away, and I was always welcome to that sofa. A couple of years later Whalley Avenue broke up, the roommates went their separate ways. My trips became less frequent.

I lost touch with Diane. That’s my fault, and it’s one of my life’s regrets. But it’s partly because of her that I’m a happy man today. Physical attraction got me involved with women, but after meeting Diane I needed much more. I looked for women with her fearlessness, independence, compassion, sense of humor, and yes, even a good dose of wildness.

I was lucky. I found Sheila.

And because of Diane, I’ve never turned anyone in trouble away from my door. But it’s never been a drunken stranger knocking, not even a Kennedy.

 

——————–

Steven Masterson is a storyteller and humorist who lives in southeastern Massachusetts with his wife and business partner, Sheila. Steven is an upholsterer, Sheila a decorator. Steven worked toward a liberal arts degree at Roger Williams College and is a card carrying member of the Woodstock generation. He’s no spring chicken.


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