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Fiction LGBTQ+ American

I meet Maud Lancaster for the second time on the steps of Pembroke College in early September 1962. She’s easily recognizable with her characteristic argyle vest and braided hair, but I must not hold the same level of memorability because she asks, “I’m sorry, have we met?” And I tell her that we exchanged pleasantries at Convocation, and that we’re also in the same American History course with Professor Peterson and I’ve seen her from across the lecture hall. And that’s that, all the basic requisites for a friendship apparently fulfilled. The next time we see each other, it’s Maud who approaches first, jogging up to me on my way to calculus and asking me how I’ve been and hasn’t the weather been great lately and what other classes I have today. We have lunch together on the green and discover that we live in the same dorm, only one floor and half a hallway apart. Her roommate is “disastrous” and mine seems to only come back to sleep and shower, so she’s soon started inviting herself over to my room, occasionally at first, more often than not before long.


By sophomore year, she’s both my new roommate and easily one of the most well-known women on campus. There aren’t all that many of us to begin with and we’re all intelligent and studious, working hard to preserve the Pembroke reputation of outshining the Brown University men, no matter how apparently undateable that renders us. Still, Maud seems to shine brightest amongst us, fearless and forward, her name known by every professor who has had her in his lectures, already a shoo-in for class president come senior year. She becomes the pinnacle of the Pembroker that one Ought Not To Date, but eventually some of the boys come to their senses and stop chasing after the nearby Wheaton College girls to chase after her instead. She dates a few, breaks the hearts of several more, and all the while she’s living with me, coming back every night to our room, her bed only a few feet away from mine, close enough for us to whisper secrets deep into the night.


A few weeks after the start of our senior year, she meets Paul Kilmer, a fellow Poli. Sci. student and pompous prick of a man who, for some incomprehensible reason, decides that he should like to try and convince Maud of the female gender’s inherent unsuitability to politics. I’m not present for their discussion, but she gives him a most sound verbal thrashing that is witnessed by several other students and recounted to me later with glee. Over the next few months Paul becomes an increasingly frequent topic of conversation, mostly by virtue of their numerous arguments and hardly ever in complimentary terms, but by Thanksgiving there’s an odd gleam in her eye when she talks about him and I experience a sudden jolt of panic. She’s invited to his home in Greenwich for Christmas, comes back with a delicate amethyst pendant and talks of “maybe”. It’s all happening so fast, too fast, and all the thoughts I’ve never voiced suddenly come clawing up my throat before I’ve even had the chance to recognise them for what they really mean. For a brief and feverish moment I think that I should tell her exactly how I feel about her and Paul fucking Kilmer, but then I notice the hope in her gaze, the aching desire to hear me say that I am happy for her, and I cannot bring myself to let her down.


I try to think of her as Mrs. Kilmer. I can’t. Mrs. Kilmer. Mrs. Kilmer. It feels viscerally, objectively wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who thinks that. Mrs. Kilmer.


• • •


The two of them move to New York City shortly after graduation, and I linger in Rhode Island for a little while before heading in the opposite direction, up to Boston. I find myself a condo in the South End that’s nice enough; much too small for the nuclear family my mother is eager for me to procure posthaste, but more than sufficient for my needs. One and a half bedrooms, white walls, a small kitchen, bay windows onto the street, a stoop whose landing has been anointed with an indelible stain of undeterminable origin.


I try dating on for size and find I can’t get it to fit. I do my best to make it, I really do, but there’s always something missing, something I can’t quite articulate. My time spent with men is pleasant for the most part, but struggles to grow into anything more. The butterflies in my stomach remain dormant, the desire for physical affection never manifests itself, the inevitability of breakup is hardly upsetting. When my third boyfriend, in an eerie echo of the two before him, begins to complain incessantly about my lack of intimacy, I give up on dating altogether.


Maud calls often, at first. I visit her and Paul in New York several times, and she returns the favor whenever Paul travels to Boston for work. She wears her hair loose now, long and fair and feathered, has graduated from her argyled college look, transitioned from skirts to cigarette pants now that she’s no longer constrained by the Pembroke dress code. The feelings that I used to ignore with such ease, their true natures having since been uncovered, now refuse to be disregarded. It’s impossible to look at her the way I used to, as an ex-roommate or simply another young woman my age. Her laugh is too intoxicating, my name from her mouth feels like something unspeakably precious, her rapt gaze as I talk drives me to distraction, the way she crosses her legs demands my attention. She asks me to promise I’ll be her maid of honor when the day comes, and I do, of course I do.


They get married in October, scarcely two years after they first met. I make good on my promise, standing next to her in a sage green chiffon number in almost every photograph, and there are nearly as many of just the two of us as there are of the two of them. Maud is unaware or perhaps indifferent to Paul’s apparent displeasure at this; I find a strange satisfaction in the knowledge that he perceives me, to some extent, as a threat. In these moments, it almost feels like nothing has changed and it’s still just the two of us, Maud’s boyfriends bearing no greater significance than the late-night anecdotes they inspire. But at the end of the day it’s now Paul to whom she returns, not our dorm room, and in the weeks after the wedding Maud’s calls become increasingly infrequent until they cease altogether. Paul answers the phone every time I ring, tersely informing me that Maud is unavailable and that he’ll tell her I called again, but I never hear back from her.


• • •


The next time I meet Maud she is standing on my doorstep, hair escaping from her chignon, suitcase in hand. It is half past ten at night and I have not seen or heard from her in three and a half years. I stand frozen for a moment at the sight, then let her in without a word. She’s silent at first, clearly exhausted from her trip. I brew her a cup of chamomile, make up the sofa bed while she showers. She asks me to join her under the covers, like we used to at Pembroke when in need of comfort, and I oblige. In short, she tells me, she is no longer Mrs. Kilmer. I hold her close as she talks about what he did to her and why we haven’t spoken in so long, powerless to do much else. 


We upgrade my twin bed, which I previously had no good reason for replacing, to a king, large enough to fit the both of us and then some. It feels strange at first, a slight but unshakeable misgiving that we’re doing something wrong, but Maud says that she always sleeps sounder in my presence and feels relieved to wake up beside me, and I’m certainly not about to try and convince her otherwise. 


She's out of sorts for those first few weeks, but ultimately Maud is nothing if not resilient. Before long she's found herself a new job, and with it comes a fresh pool of romantic prospects. I watch her primp for every new suitor, welcome her back home only a few hours later and listen to an exhaustive list of their shortcomings — not that she’s specifically looking for flaws, she says, she just can’t help but notice anyway. Still, she always gives them the benefit of the doubt, gives them numerous opportunities to redeem themselves, but they never do. The men here, she laments, seem to be quite substandard. If only they had the sensibilities, the kindness, the sophistication of women, perhaps she would not be so unlucky in love.


After the fifth or sixth round of hearing her quip about how she should like to date a man with a woman’s soul, my nerves have become so frayed that I can no longer hold my tongue. She won’t find a man like that, I tell her, so she should either lower her standards, or date a woman instead. And then I make the bold — and perhaps unsubstantiated — claim that I would be a better partner than any of the men she could possibly meet in Boston, maybe even the entire country, if only she would have me.


Silence.


I can’t look at her. Voice quivering, I begin a half-hearted recontextualization of my words, when she lifts my chin and kisses me.


• • •


In the following months, I can hardly tell if I’m dreaming or awake. We are hesitant at first, unsure how to approach a situation neither of us is at all familiar with. But there’s something that clicks, has always clicked, and whatever reservations we hold soon burn off like morning mist. Our relationship remains fundamentally unchanged and yet evolves into something intrinsically different. We become a series of “but now also”s: we are still friends but now also lovers, still sleep in the same bed but now also “sleep” in that bed, still mean the world to each other but now also are each other’s world, are still as we were but now also more. And that more is ineffably glorious in the potential it holds. 


Unsurprisingly, my twenties never yield the marriage my mother so desperately desires for me, nor do my thirties, and by the advent of my forties even she can no longer will away the implications of Maud’s perpetual presence in my life — Maud, who is also, what a coincidence, happily unmarried. Maud’s parents are even less receptive to our relationship, which stings, of course it does, but we are too busy being happy for it to sting overmuch.


In our mid-thirties we pool our finances to buy a brownstone in Back Bay. We decorate it whimsically, with colorful wallpaper and the most bizarre pop art prints we can find and a patchwork sofa and far too many lamps. We hunt down strawberry-themed crockery in thrift stores and garage sales, take pottery classes and display our misshapen creations as though they are Ming vases. We watch the Boston Pride parade one year, march in it the next and every year after. I write the occasional article for the Gay Community News, while she lends her legal expertise to the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. We travel to Spain and France and Greece — Lesbos, of course, quoting and misquoting Sappho the entire time: Sweet Maud, I cannot weave – slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for you.


We go down to New York one year to welcome the start of a new decade; watch the ball as it drops, cheer when the clock strikes midnight, kiss long and slow among the throng of people doing the same. Later, as we’re making our way out of Times Square, someone says, “Maud?”


She almost doesn’t hear him, but I do and we turn to see who it is. He’s older, paunchier, and balder, but the man in front of us is unmistakably Paul Kilmer. His eyes flicker down to her hand where it rests snug in the crook of my elbow and something sours in the set of his mouth. Maud doesn’t even twitch an eyebrow, just regards him coolly and says, “I’m sorry, have we met?” And before he has the wherewithal to respond, she whirls back around, pulling me flush against her and leaning her head on my shoulder as we continue to weave through the crowd, giggling like schoolgirls.


• • •


She is seventy-eight and I am making my way up the ramp of the nursing home to see her. The home is tastefully decorated and sunny and the staff are always kind, greeting me by name and telling me to go on through, that she’s doing very well today and has just finished her breakfast. 


Not for the first time, I’m attacked by the guilt, the fear that I might have stolen something from her. I can’t help but wonder if, were it not for me, she could have happily remarried, experienced the joys of motherhood. If now she would have had her children or grandchildren visiting her, taking care of her, telling her about their lives and sharing accomplishments. Instead, the only family she has left is an old biddy who may very well be bound for the nursing home herself in a few years. And then who will be there for her?


I find her sitting by the window, her usual spot. She smiles when she sees me — 60 years on, and her smile is just as beautiful as when we first met. We sip tea and contemplate a jigsaw puzzle; I update her on the status of my latest manuscript, show her pictures of the neighbor’s cat. 


As always, it happens without warning. I see the confusion cloud her eyes for a moment, the change in the way she looks at me. She blinks twice and, polite and warm and charming as ever, asks, “I’m sorry, have we met?” And I tell her that we have, and she asks me to remind her, and I do, again.


June 23, 2022 11:43

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