Grace and I just barely got inside Dandridge Library before the rain really started pouring. Our hair and minidresses were mostly dry, but our backpacks were a bit damp. I know, I know. We should've brought an umbrella along. But we just wanted to have a nice walk around downtown Dandridge after school before heading to our respective homes.
After we put our backpacks on the floor next to a coat rack and umbrella holder near the front doors, we looked outside, pointing at the dark sky and the flashes of lightning. Every so often we could hear a rumble of thunder. Some rumbles sounded very close, others were further away. We watched as dogs sheltered as best they could beneath the library's roofed-over front entrance. They shook themselves as best they could and then batted their front paws on the front doors.
We sadly shook our heads at them. The dogs finally gave up. Some curled up near the front doors, while the rest ran off into the rain, followed by people who tried to cover their heads with purses, books, folded newspapers, or whatever they had available.
“If only we could give the dogs shelter in here, but the library doesn't allow pets,” I said.
We heard an older female voice behind us, shushing us. “Please try to keep your voices as low as you can, ladies. This is a library, not a sports event.”
Turning around, we saw one of the librarians. It was Ms. Zelinsky and she didn't look too happy. The rumor at school was that she and Ms. Courbet, Grace's French teacher, were sisters. Even if they weren't, they certainly looked as if they were.
Chastened, we whispered in unison, “Yes, ma'am. We're sorry, ma'am.”
“That's better,” the librarian said quietly, happier now. “Now, then. Is there anything you're looking for or was this just to get out of the rainstorm?”
“A little of both, I guess,” Grace said softly.
I glanced at her in surprise. “Don't tell me you still haven't written your essay yet.”
She nodded. “I haven't even picked a topic yet.”
“You've had a month to do it,” I whispered.
Grace nodded unhappily. “This is true.”
“There's something you aren't telling me,” I whispered.
“Not here,” she whispered back. “Later, when we have more privacy.”
“A most excellent idea,” Ms. Zelinsky said quietly. “In the meantime, why don't you both find books to read and a chair to read them in until after the rainstorm?”
“Yes, ma'am,” we said, picked up our backpacks, and did as she suggested.
Since I'd already written my essay, I decided that I was going to give Stephenie Miller's vampire/werewolf novel, Twilight, another try. It hadn't done much for me the first two tries. Maybe the third time would do the trick.
I found two unoccupied chairs at a table near the reference section. I was already finished with Chapter 1 when Grace finally appeared with a small pile of books.
She put them on the table, sat down across from me, and sighed softly. “If only I was more like Dad and less like my stepmother. Dad would never have procrastinated this much.”
“Mind if I look at them?” I asked quietly, nodding at the books.
“Be my guest,” Grace said, pushing them toward me. “I just don't feel that inspired. I don't know how you do it. It seems like magic.”
“It isn't magic,” I said. “I've just learned not to postpone things that I don't want to do. I try to take care of the most unpleasant things first. That way I get to do what I want to do that much sooner.”
“Easy for you to say,” she said.
“Was it easier when you were still a boy?” I wondered.
Grace thought about it, then shook her head. “Not really. I was probably even worse about it back then.”
I thought about that as I looked at the books she'd chosen. They were mostly about Shakespeare, including a collection of his plays.
The essay was for our English class. We had several choices of what to write about, which was supposed to help get us started. I chose to write about the different theaters that Shakespeare and his fellow actors performed at on both sides of the River Thames in London, England. I wondered what Grace had chosen.
“This should be enough,” I said, pushing the books back toward Grace. “But that depends on what you're writing about.”
She sighed again. “I just don't know. What could I possibly write about that hasn't been written about over and over again? The lack of female actors? They weren't allowed to have any back then. The boys played girls and the men played women. Prejudice in Othello and The Merchant of Venice? The supernatural and relationships in Hamlet? Done, done, and overdone.”
I smiled, an idea occurring to me.
Grace saw the look on my face. “What are you thinking about?”
“What about the lack of gay and lesbian relationships?” I suggested.
“I'm not sure that there were any in Shakespeare's company,” she said. “Unless you know something that I don't.”
“Maybe not in his company, but there were in his plays,” I said. “Beatrice, Hermione, and Portia, to name three. And then you have Cleopatra's household in Antony and Cleopatra.”
Grace looked interested. “Do you think there's enough material for an essay, though?”
“More than enough,” I said confidently. “In fact, I'll make you a deal.”
“What sort of deal?” she asked.
“If I help you write your essay while we're here, you treat us both to ice cream at an ice cream parlor,” I replied.
“Dairy Queen?” Grace asked.
“I was thinking more like Ben & Jerry,” I replied. “Something to cool us off after our heated discussions. That is, if you can afford it.”
“I think I can,” she said. “And you'll really help me with my essay?”
I nodded. “That's what friends are for, after all.”
She smiled and we shook hands. “Deal.”
We quietly, if intensely, discussed three possible lesbian relationships in Shakespeare's plays. Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice, Hermione and Paulina in The Winter's Tale, and Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing.
As we did so, we noticed that the number of people in the library increased for a while only to shrink again. At least, we were left alone in our corner. Considering what we were discussing, I was grateful, and Grace probably also was.
“They couldn't be really blatant about it,” I said. “This was Elizabethan England after all, not ancient Greece or Rome. It had to be hidden in the play. There were enough threats that could – and often did – shut down theaters. Sometimes on the flimsiest excuses. Popular entertainment was often seen as a threat to the monarchy.”
Grace looked surprised. “Seriously? I never thought of Elizabethan England as being anything like a police state.”
“Then you should watch Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare series,” I said. “You feel like you're looking at Elizabethan England from the inside, rather than from the outside. It's almost like how it was in the South before the Civil Rights bill was signed into law. If the monarch was Catholic, you'd better not be Protestant. If the monarch was Protestant, you'd better not be Catholic. If caught, you could be tortured, hung, or burned at the stake. Or a mixture of them.”
She stared at me. “That's horrible.”
“That was life back then,” I said. “Definitely not an Age of Enlightenment or even an Age of Imperfect Democracy.”
Grace made a face and flinched. “Maybe we should just stick to those three possible lesbian relationships. That sounds more pleasant in comparison.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Shakespeare's plays have a timeless appeal over the last five centuries. Just enough ambiguity that you could interpret them in any way you wanted to.”
“Including possible lesbian relationships,” she said.
I nodded. “When in public, they had to be good at hiding in plain sight. But in private, as long as no one saw what was going on, they apparently could do as they wished.”
“It almost sounds like Victorian England,” Grace said.
“It does indeed,” I said. “Imagine for instance if we were in love with each other but there were laws against it.”
She looked interested. “Go on.”
“We'd have to find places with enough privacy before we could express our feelings for each other,” I said. “Otherwise, we'd have to run the risk of getting caught, arrested, and thrown in jail. Or, worse, forced to commit suicide, like what happened with Alan Turing, the computer genius, in the 1950s. Back then, being gay was illegal.”
“Wasn't Socrates also forced to commit suicide?” Grace asked.
I nodded. “And possibly because of something similar. Male adults in ancient Greece acted as mentors – in more ways than one – to younger males. As long as you didn't rock the boat, you could probably do pretty much whatever you liked. Alcibiades apparently didn't have any problems, but that was because he kept his intimate activities behind closed doors. What you didn't see, you can't really complain about. Oh, you could make accusations, but how could you prove that they had any truth to them?”
“It was probably even more restrictive when it came to lesbians,” she said.
“I wouldn't doubt it,” I said. “Do you think that these three relationships could've been lesbian or were they just really good friends?”
“They could be either,” Grace said. “Or maybe both. Really good friends in public, and lesbians in private.”
“Then I think we might have a thesis for your essay,” I said. “When it comes to characters in Shakespeare's plays, it's not always easy interpreting whether certain relationships were strictly platonic or possibly romantic as well. Maybe even erotic sometimes.”
She wrote that down in a notebook. “I'll type this up when I get home.”
“You won't procrastinate about it?” I teased.
Grace shook her head. “Not this time. I've learned my lesson.”
“Using Roman numerals, we'll break up the essay into three sections, followed by a conclusion,” I said. “I – Portia and Nerissa. II – Hermione and Paulina. III – Beatrice and Hero. Since it's not overt, we need to find some way to prove – or at least suggest – that their relationships weren't merely platonic.”
“Shakespeare had to be ambiguous, to avoid getting the attention of Elizabeth's police force,” she said. “If he'd been overt, they probably would've done more than just shut down his theater. They probably would've arrested all the actors and the writer.”
“Not probably – definitely would've,” I corrected her.
Grace wrote all this down as well. “So how to write about something without being blatant about it? You'd have to make both the words and the relationships seem completely normal in the eyes of Elizabeth's police force, while still secretly discussing what couldn't be openly discussed. That must've been a difficult line to walk.”
I nodded. “Now compare that with a modern relationship with the same restrictions, using my hypothetical relationship.”
“You mean, the two of us,” she said.
“Right,” I said. “Do you think we could keep the relationship alive or would it be just too dangerous?”
“That depends on if we could hide it from public view,” Grace said. “Because if too many know about it, one of them could reveal it to the authorities, and that would probably be the end of our relationship.”
“We'd have to break up,” I said. “But think what it would be like for a judge and her legal assistant like Portia and Nerissa. They had to be far more careful to hide their relationship from the public. They probably wouldn't just have to end their relationship. They'd probably lose their jobs. Better to be secret than to run a dangerous risk.”
“But that isn't the case with Hermione and Paulina,” she pointed out. “They didn't have public jobs that they could lose. They simply couldn't let anyone know that they had spent extended periods of time with each other.”
“And you thought that the situation in Othello could be unpleasant sometimes,” I said with a grin.
“It was at least once,” Grace said. “Iago made Othello distrust Othello's wife Desdemona. To the point where Othello strangles her to death.”
“Iago couldn't bear to let Othello, a Moor from Spain, enjoy a happy marriage with a white woman,” I said. “He had to destroy their relationship.”
“Maybe I should write about that as well,” she suggested. “If there's still any room left for it.”
“Now we come to Beatrice and Hero, whose time together is similar to that of Hermione and Paulina,” I said. “They share a bed for over a year. Of course, they could've treated each other like sisters, and therefore nothing intimate ever happened.”
“But you don't believe that's true,” Grace said.
“I do not,” I said. “We're talking about Shakespeare here. There's always more going on underneath than on the surface. Especially in romantic relationships.”
“They made each other happy, then,” she said. “Very happy sometimes.” She paused. “Didn't Charlotte Brontë and her sister Emily share a bed before they were adults?”
I nodded. “But that's a discussion for another time. We need to finish your essay. Have we reached the conclusion yet?”
Grace wrote some more in her notebook, then said, “I think we have. The conclusion is that just because you don't hear about something taking place, it doesn't mean it didn't take place. You don't need to read between the lines. Just look at modern-day relationships. Heterosexual relationships have it the easiest, as long they follow society's rules and laws. Then you have same-sex relationships, which have it more difficult. They have to be very careful sometimes about following society's rules and laws. Though some places are more lenient than others.”
“Like San Francisco's gay community,” I said. “What's quaintly called the Tenderloin District.”
“But they also have had to deal with the AIDS epidemic,” she pointed out. “Both kinds of relationships have their advantages and disadvantages. I just wish there were some way for both to be accepted, rather than just one.”
“Baby steps,” I said. “Every bit of improvement helps. As long as it doesn't get undone by the next administration.”
Grace looked thoughtful, then finished writing her essay. “I think that'll do it, Bonnie. Thanks for all your help.”
“You're more than welcome, Grace,” I said and looked out the nearby window. “The rain's stopped. Maybe the next round will wait until we get to Ben & Jerry. Ready to go?”
She put her notebook and pen back in her backpack and zipped the backpack shut. “Ready when you are.”
Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Parlor was in one of the older buildings at the corner of Front Street and Cedar Street. It had been there for over thirty years. My parents used to have dates there before they got married. When I was old enough, we'd celebrate my birthdays there. I had a lot of fond memories of visits to Ben & Jerry.
Inside, it was about half-full. Typical weekday crowd size. On the weekends it was rarely anything less than completely full. Especially during the Summer.
We joined the ordering line, looking at the available choices.
“I can help pay for it,” I offered.
Grace shook her head. “You've already done your part. This is my part.”
“What are you thinking of getting?” I asked.
“Chocolate, or vanilla with hot fudge syrup on it,” she replied. “What about you?”
“I was thinking maybe vanilla or french vanilla,” I said. “Something nice and simple.”
“They have sherbets and other fancy flavors,” Grace said.
“I've had most of them over the years,” I said. “Vanilla is something I usually don't order.”
There was a clanging of the bell above the front entrance of the ice cream parlor. We looked behind us and saw several of the high school kids. Not necessarily the nice ones. They tried to cut in line but the employees here didn't tolerate that sort of thing. Either you politely waited in line or you left the premises. There weren't any other options.
“Bonnie?” Grace asked softly.
“Hmm?” I replied, also softly.
“Were you serious about that hypothetical relationship?” she asked.
“You mean about the two of us?” I replied.
“That was only to explain that what affected Shakespeare's characters also sometimes affects real-life people like us,” I said.
“Oh,” Grace said, sounding disappointed.
“Why are you asking?” I asked, curious now.
“I was wondering if you were dating anyone or if you were available,” she said.
“I'm not dating anyone,” I said. “What about you?”
Grace shook her head.
We ordered our ice cream, she paid for it, and we went outside since there weren't any empty seats inside.
No need to hurry anywhere. The rain clouds seemed to have headed away, leaving blue sky and white clouds in their wake.
“Is there anyone you want to date?” I asked when we were halfway through our respective ice creams.
Grace nodded. “But I'm not sure if the feeling is mutual.”
“Maybe you should ask them and see,” I suggested.
She looked at me. Big serious eyes. Hesitant. “Bonnie – would you be my girlfriend?”
“I already am,” I replied. “Or do you mean romantically?”
Grace nodded again.
“But why?” I asked.
“Because I love you,” she replied.