Two unassuming lesbians move onto a white-as-Donna-Reed suburban street,” Asha Fields mumbled as she stood in the drive and fiddled with her necklace, an anniversary gift from her wife-bian Keiko. She surveyed the street, ever suspicious of perfection.
“What?” Keiko inquired, picking up a small box of dish rags from the pavement. The big, butch movers (V-Haul, they were called) had at last driven away, and now it was left to Keiko and Asha to find a place for all of their things—most of which belonged to Keiko. “What did you say about two lesbians?”
“That’s what they’re saying,” Asha replied, referring to their neighbors. “They’re all watching us as we move in, and they’re saying, ‘Two lesbians move onto a street.’ We’re the start of a bad joke.”
“Oh, hush! Just grab that box over there, and let’s have some wine. We can celebrate our new home. Just you and me alone. Now that you finally have some time off, we don’t need to worry about getting a call in the middle of the night.”
Asha picked up the box as she was told. It was slightly heavier than Keiko’s, filled with plastic cups and the like. Asha much preferred plastic to glass. She had quite a collection too. Almost every theme park in the country was represented.
“Besides,” Keiko joked, “it’s not us being lesbians that’ll trip them up. Wait until they learn we’re Wiccan! Now, that’s a real stereotype—Wiccan lesbians.” She laughed, and despite herself, Asha did too. She could never stay serious when she heard Keiko laugh. Who could? It was such a light and airy thing, Keiko’s laugh. Like the ghost of a cloud.
Asha persisted as they entered their new home, “Seriously, have you seen the people around here? They all look like models. They’re way too attractive. The women look like Barbies, and the men look like gay porn stars. It’s just strange. They’re watching us. I can feel their eyes…. Oh, jeez! What if Jasper Lane is Stepford?”
“Ash, honey, you’re crazy. But then, that’s why I love you.” Keiko placed her box on the kitchen island and gave Asha the expected peck on the cheek after such a comment. “And remember, we’re not the only new residents here. There’s that man across the street. The older guy? He’s doesn’t look like a porn star. Maybe he’ll distract everyone from our nefarious doings.”
“He doesn’t count.” Asha began unpacking her box of plastic and Tupperware, though she didn’t know where to put them yet. She placed them around the box from whence they came on the kitchen island. “He’s renting. Renters don’t count. Me and you are going to be here for a while. We bought the house. He’ll be gone in no time. He’s not the type to stick around; I can tell.”
Keiko didn’t say so, but she hoped that Asha was right. She didn’t like the man across the street. There was something about him; hidden trouble. And Keiko was never wrong about these things. He was a bad actor. And she knew something about bad actors. She could sniff out a good dog from a bad one, and, given what Asha did for a living, she knew she too would soon be able to ascertain the truth about the guy.
“Get some cups, baby,” Keiko said, as she pulled the wine from her huge bag, which lay in the corner of the kitchen. “Let’s celebrate.” She grinned with that “look what I’ve got for you” expression, shaking the wine bottle playfully.
Asha chose two sippy cups they had bought on a trip to Disney World a few years earlier. Keiko poured a generous amount of wine into each, and they made their way outside again. The previous resident had left behind a swing in the front yard, and it was good sitting weather.
“You’ll be fine,” Keiko said. “We’ll adapt.”
“We’re good at that,” Asha agreed with a smile.
And that was very true. They were both very good at adapting to new situations. Why, adaptation had been the key to survival for both of them. Big situations, larger-than-life problems, had always come up, but they lived through them and remained together. Like all great couples, they drew strength from those experiences.
When they separately told their parents they were gay, that was the first grand hurdle. (Damn, they had to stretch their legs to get over that one!) Asha’s parents, Southern Baptists to the last, were none too pleased at first, but they eventually warmed to Keiko, even if the exact nature of Asha and Keiko’s relationship was never discussed. Asha was allowed to bring Keiko to family gatherings, but only as a “friend.”
Keiko’s parents were different, though. They had still not come around; they could still not reconcile their older beliefs with who she was. There had been little to no interaction between them for two years now. Asha could tell it hurt her, but Keiko never said anything, and Asha was not the type to pester a wound.
Asha still dreaded the thought that her parents might one day find out, on top of the whole “lesbian thing,” she was a Wiccan too. Lord save us all, she thought.
Keiko believed she would never have the chance to lay that particular shock on her own family. It was a sad, strange relief to her. Divisions, she reassured herself, are saviors and killers at the same time.
But still, laying aside all their varied issues with family and world tradition, they were a happy couple. Yes, they were content to at last have their first house together. Not an apartment, not a rental, but an actual house, a house for them and their future family.
“I feel them,” Asha said, breaking into the suburban quiet around them.
Keiko was at first alarmed. She thought maybe Asha had been attacked by bugs or ants crawling on the swing. It did look a little worn, after all. “Feel what?” she asked. Then she realized what Asha had really meant. “Honey, they’re all probably just normal people like you and me. You’re making them out to be some crazy caricatures of suburbia, some nutty writer’s fantasy. We’re not in a book or TV program, babe. Their lives are just as ordinary as ours. They have the same simple worries that every other American suburbanite has; nothing more. There’s not a mechanical Katharine Ross in the bunch.”
Asha swallowed some of the sweet wine. Together they pushed the swing ever so slightly, a squeaky hinge responding to their efforts, and a new summer breeze glided past.
“Their eyes.” Asha peered mercilessly up and down the street. “I just know they’re watching us right now.” She said this with a hint of playful dramatics, trying to make Keiko laugh again. “They’re all probably hidden behind the curtains at their windows. I wonder if they know I know they’re watching us.”
“I wonder if they know we’re watching them,” Melinda Gold remarked. “I mean, it’s not like we’re hidden behind curtains here on the patio.”
She sat properly, not a wrinkle or crease anywhere, clothing or skin (she had recently discovered Botox), and drank her morning coffee opposite Cassie Bloom, Becky Ridgeworth, and Vera on the large front patio of Cassie’s magnificent and much envied cul-de-sac. The morning coffee at Cassie’s was a ritual now. It had been for a while. Each morning the four of them gathered at Cassie’s to discuss the worthiest news and gossip from the night before. And there was always gossip. Always. What was the point of living in the suburbs otherwise?
Melinda had given up the expensive coffee she had been intent on drinking for a while—the infamous kind that came from a monkey’s bottom and was somehow suitable for human consumption. She had seen it on Oprah. Aside from disgust at the thought of drinking coffee strained through monkey intestines (she had given up eggs as well; in fact, anything that came out of a living creature’s backside was now out of the question), she found she much preferred to brew her own anyway. Or better yet, to run down the street and purchase some of the fresh-made cappuccinos from the cute little coffee and pastry shop that had just opened. Still, to this day, she really couldn’t figure out what had possessed her in the first place to drink monkey diarrhea, Oprah or not. It wasn’t as if it was a book, gosh darn it!
“They’re certainly a lovely looking couple,” Becky said, peering down at the new arrivals as they swung delicately on the swing in their front yard.
“I introduced myself this morning,” Cassie informed them all, her voice as regal as ever. “There’s something going on there. I’m certain of it.”
“How do you mean?” Vera asked, ready for the juicy details.
“Well,” Cassie began as she set her mug down and leaned forward, as if her voice might carry down the hill and throughout Jasper Lane, “I saw one box in particular—some of their things—and it had some very strange symbols scrawled across it. Pentagrams and stars and half-moons.”
“What’s it mean?” Becky inquired. “Are they Satanists?” It sounded an absurd question, something a third-grader might ask, and they all broke into a fit of giggles.
“They’re most likely Wiccan,” Cassie recovered herself to reply.
“Oh, Wiccan lesbians.” Vera yawned. “How tired. How… Willow.”
“So, they worship Satan?” Now, Becky was deathly serious. This sort of gossip had never hit Jasper Lane before.
“No, dear,” Melinda said gently. “There’s no devil in Wicca. The devil is a Christian invention.” She and Becky had of late been getting along. It was an attempt for both of them to stay in the good graces of Cassie.
Everyone at the table stared at Melinda with some surprise.
“What?” Melinda shrugged. “I do research every now and then. One can’t stay in the dark all their lives, can one?” She took another sip of her coffee, proud that she had shown herself unpredictable to her friends. The computer had exposed her to whole new worlds. Melinda loved to hang ten on the Interweb.
“Well,” chimed in Miss Vera, “I’m just happy I’m not the only sista living around these parts now.”
“What are their names?” Becky asked of Cassie.
“The Nubian princess,” she winked at Vera, “is named Asha. Her partner is called Keiko. They’ve been together for some time. I know Keiko is in filmmaking, but I don’t know what Asha does. She’s on leave for a while from whatever it is. Intriguing, isn’t it?”
“What about that strange man who’s renting Cock Ring Girl’s old house?” Vera asked. Cock Ring Girl, whose real name escaped them all, had left Jasper Lane recently. (Her hubby had become the spokesman for a prominent sex toy maker after using, and thoroughly enjoying, the cock ring his wife had won for him at one of Cassie’s gay porn parties. He had written the company, saying how much he enjoyed the product, and a star was born.) “Any news on that creepy mother fella?”
“None,” Cassie said, with a hint of indignant mystery. “I went to welcome him to the neighborhood this morning as well and couldn’t get him to so much as open the door for me.”
“Very odd… and rude!” Melinda exclaimed.
“I thought so too. We’ll just have to see if our resident hermit ever shows himself.”
Vera stirred in her seat. “Child, this has got Hitchcock written all over it!”
“Just you wait, my darling,” Cassie assured her close friend. “I’ll figure that man out.”
“I know you will.” Vera smiled, shaking her head with knowing.
“So,” Becky interjected. “How’s life with Jason? Are things going well?”
Jason, Cassie’s son, had only been back on Jasper Lane for a couple of weeks. Still, whenever his name was mentioned or he walked into Cassie’s presence, she lit up as if she were seeing him for the first time in years all over again.
“It’s heaven having him around again!” Cassie exclaimed.
“I haven’t seen him out much. Does he have friends in town?” Melinda asked.
“Some… but he spends a good amount at home with me.”
“Be careful, honey,” Vera warned. “You don’t want him turning out like our resident Norman Bates down the street.”
“He’ll be fine,” Cassie said, even as her smile hinted worry. “Jason has always been what others might call ‘strange’. He’s unique—an artist. And artists are loners.” She looked to her friends for corroboration. They all smiled politely.
“Patrick called,” Melinda chirped up, ending the awkwardness. “He’ll be coming home soon, I should think. Maybe he and Jason could get to know one another better. They never really had much of a chance growing up.”
“Yes. That would be lovely!” Cassie appreciated the shift in subject. “And how is Patrick?”
“He’s well,” Melinda proudly explained. “He’s doing very well in his courses. I’m so proud of him.”
“And his girlfriend?” Cassie inquired.
“Oh, I’m afraid they’re broken up.” Melinda put on an affect of disappointment.
Cassie, Becky, and Vera said, “Oh,” with faux commiseration.
It was a teenage crush, after all. Not really worth devoting a full-out fall-to-pieces cry over, and they all knew it. Heck, Melinda thought, I didn’t even fall to pieces when the divorce from Frank finally happened.
“What’s this Becky tells me about you dating again?” Vera asked, all playful insinuation and marvelous wide eyes.
“Yes,” Melinda admitted, somewhat embarrassed. “I’m dating a wrestling coach from Patrick’s old high school. Patrick never knew him, because, well, he never wrestled of course, but….”
“A wrestling coach,” Cassie said hungrily. “Sounds hot! It’s been a while since you’ve been pinned, Melinda.”
“Well, to be honest, after Frank I was kind of worn out. And it’s true that all the nice, clean, attractive men really are gay. That’s not just a cliché. I was desperately hoping it was something women just told one another.”
“There was that man you met at the Joneses’ Fourth of July party last year. He was very attractive… and straight,” Becky reminded Melinda.
“And a porn star!” Melinda said, as if that in itself explained everything.
“Aww! There’s the old Melinda,” Cassie teased, tilting her head in mock adoration.
“Malcolm—that’s the coach—he’s just what I’m looking for. He’s just the right sort of man to jump back into the dating world with.” Secretly, there were a couple of things about Malcolm that bothered Melinda. One of these was his name. His first name, Malcolm, was a good, respectable name, very classic. “Melinda and Malcolm” sounded like a respectable couple. But it was his last name that set her on edge: Nipple! He was known as Coach Nipple!
She was certainly not going to tell that to any of her friends.
“My dear,” Vera said. “I’ve never seen you more relaxed. He must be doing something right.” She winked.
Melinda blushed. “Vera!” She turned her gaze to the coffee in her mug, praying that her friends might never discover she was dating… a Nipple.
Oh, that word!
A clatter from the large front door of the house brought the foursome’s attention to Jason as he joined them on the patio. His hair was long and tangled, and he was a week’s gone from shaving. He looked every bit the American expatriate he had been while traveling through Europe. Barefoot and wearing a hole-ridden pair of paint-speckled jeans and a T-shirt, he carried with him an easel, a choice of paints, a glass of water, and, in his mouth, a couple of paint brushes. He unburdened himself without much trouble, setting the easel so that it was turned to him and he could paint Jasper Lane.
“Well, hello, darling!” Vera exclaimed. “Aren’t you gonna give us a kiss?”
“Hello, ladies,” Jason spoke lightly with a half-grin. He put his paints down and came to his beaming mother, kissing her on the cheek.
“What’s this?” Cassie asked, touching the painted heart on his jaw.
“My heart,” Jason answered. “Just a whim this morning. I wear it where I can see it now.” He gave Vera a quick peck on the cheek and returned to his easel.
His heart comment had struck Cassie, but she did her best to hide it. Of course, she knew Jason would wear his heart in the open now. It had been hurt plenty when hidden on the inside, hurt by his very own father. Cassie still carried guilt for remaining with Jackson for so long, for not getting herself and Jason away from him sooner.
Melinda sighed. “I should be going,” she said. “I have things to do before I see Malcolm tonight.” She rose, ever the lady. “Thank you, ladies, for a lovely morning.”
God, her smile, Becky thought. Good Housekeeping, here she comes!
“I should be going too.” Vera pushed her chair back gracefully. “The club doesn’t run itself. I’ve got a host of hot gay boys to prepare for tonight.”
The ladies all said their goodbyes for the morning to both of the Blooms on the patio. Cassie saw her three friends off with the class her position required, waving at them as they made their journey down from the cul-de-sac to Jasper Lane. After this, she sat once again at the patio table, watching her son as he eyed canvas and subject.
“Are you happy here, Jason?” she asked. “Are you truly glad to be back with me?”
He didn’t look at her, but instead put color to canvas with a couple quick flicks of his wrist. “It’s good to see you, Mother,” he replied. It was honest enough.
“That’s not what I asked, darling.”
“I know. But that’s all the answer I can offer you right now.”
“Jason, I wish I could…. Oh, I don’t know, do things differently for you.”
“Mother,” he said, at last looking at her. “I’m past whatever anger I had toward you. You did what you had to do for me. I know that now.”
The way he said it made her wonder if he knew the truth. Did he know just how far she had gone for him? As far as murder, or at least, an accomplice to it?
“I’m very happy to be with you again, Mother.” He smiled, charming and uncertain at the same time.
She was enchanted by his face; she always had been. How he could make her smile with a simple look. Which, she supposed, is why the opposite expression made her feel the failure as a mother. “Do you think you’ll ever be happy here again? In this house?”
Jason continued his frenetic painting. “This is not a jab at you, Mother, but I don’t think I ever was happy here. Not with Dad. Not with all the pressure to be what he wanted me to be.”
“I understand, darling,” she lightly replied. Still, in his sad answer Cassie did not hear a denial to her inquiry. Could he be happy again in this house? He hadn’t said no.
She rose, gathering the coffee mugs by their handles with the long, elegant fingers of one hand. “I’m going to fix myself a cocktail. Would you like one?”
“That would be lovely, Mother.” His attention never left the canvas.
Cassie walked toward the door, pausing to catch a glimpse at his work; the beginnings of an impressionist’s-eye view of Jasper Lane. Fragments, dots, and blurs fusing to form recognizable forms. But if one looked too close, it was nothing but a befuddled mess. She ran her hand gently along his shoulder. “Looks good,” she encouraged. “I’ll be right back, sweetheart.”