A Change of Life
She stepped inside and looked around his living room. It had been tidied and polished and smelled of air freshener. “I guess we ought to get right to it,” she said.
“Slow down, France. Have a glass of wine.” He poured her one, and when he handed it to her, his hand trembled a little, causing the wine to swish wavily in a small red sea but not to spill. “Look,” he said again, and cleared his throat. “I promised I’d try, but you have to understand that I’ve done this with a woman only once before.”
“Don’t think of me as a woman. Think of me as a gay man.”
“But you’re not. You’re a woman.”
“Have you no imagination, Sloan? Where’s the bedroom?”
They went upstairs. Her nerve began to leave her when he switched on the ceiling light, beneath which everything looked overexposed. “Sorry,” he said, turning it off and turning on a lamp. She put her glass of untouched wine on the night table, took her clothes off, and got into the bed. He took off his shoes but then stopped.
“Don’t be such a scaredy cat,” France said, unbuttoning his shirt and unbuckling his belt. “I won’t bite.”
“No? Then tell me again why we’re doing this?”
Naked, they took quick, nervous peeks at each other’s pale body by the light of the shaded lamp. It felt like trespassing.
“I don’t know about this,” Sloan said. He had a lock of hair that hung over his forehead and he kept flicking it back. “It’s just not natural. God never meant for gays and lesbians to have sex with each other.”
France herself pushed his hair back from his forehead. It declined to stay like that and France took it personally. It seemed to her that everything in the world was doing its best to frustrate her these days, and she felt dangerously close to tears. Was it possible to get pms when you were going through menopause? She lay back and let her head fall onto Sloan’s pillow. “I have to admit I don’t feel a thing. Your dick just looks silly.” It lay against his thigh like a wilted endive. She wondered if Sloan was thinking the same thing about her body, that it looked tragically unnecessary.
“Thanks a lot,” he said. “Shall I mention that your breasts look like cumbersome protuberances?”
“They are,” she said. “I used to think I wanted to have surgery to reduce them, but Philly—” Likes them, she was going to say. “Makes me glad I have them.”
Sloan was tall and thin and despite his wheaten locks his body was largely hairless. His face had hollows, like the mountain range surrounding the school at which they both taught. “We could try some foreplay,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should never have put you through this. I just thought maybe I never gave hetero sex a fair try. You reach middle age and start to wonder what you’ve been missing.” France stroked his shoulder. “Menopause must be making me crazy.”
“You’re going to grow old as a dyke,” Sloan said. “I’m going to grow old as a bachelor.”
“You’ll meet someone.”
“Teaching at a school for girls? Unlikely.”
“I’ll find my own way out.” She got dressed and left him there. On the way home, she pulled her collar close under her chin. Trees and bushes were black against white houses and the night sky. Philomena had left the porch light on for her.
France, née Frances, and Philomena, both now hitting fifty, had been married seven years, and France was feeling restless. Their lives had become constricted, routine. France was itching for something. Not that she wanted out, but a change—? When they had joined their lives, shyly happy in their newfound love, they had wanted only a small commitment ceremony. Both families were present, France’s from Virgilina, Philomena’s from Atlanta. Officiating was a woman France had known from college, Marsha Glickson, a p.e. major then, later a physical therapist, and more recently a gay activist in the d.c. area. Marsha had gotten herself ordained online specifically in order to perform weddings, since marrying lesbians seemed to her as adequate a social protest against civil law as any other. The wedding was held out-of-doors on a warm but blowy summer day, the hems of tablecloths flapping at the corner foldovers, Philomena’s face flushed with champagne and pleasure and a sort of mild embarrassment—she was embarrassed by her happiness, worried that it might be rude to those less happy than she—and France’s mother holding on tight, lest the breeze carry them away, to the programs France had suggested she hand out. As guests entered, France’s mother went up to them and said, “Here’s a program,” and thrust it at them, not wanting to let go until she was sure the recipient had a grip on it. France and Philomena, standing side by side before Marsha, had sneaked glances at each other. When France looked straight ahead, it was at Marsha’s dark wavy hair, a pageboy with a rhinestone clip at her right temple, and Marsha’s round eyes and full red lips.
“A lipstick lesbian,” France would whisper to Philomena in bed that night, eliciting from Philomena a small choked giggle. They had read that phrase in a novel.
France’s mother had said to France, after the guests had left and the crystal and silverware and china had been brought indoors, washed and dried, and packed for the return trip to Atlanta (Philomena’s parents were the ones with money), “You treat Philomena right, now, honey. She’s as sweet as they come, and you’re real fortunate to have found her.”
“Of course, Mother,” she said.
“It’s not always so easy, you know,” her mother said. “Once you’re married, things get mixed up. What made sense in the beginning can get a little crazy.”
“She’s going to be fine,” her father said, entering the kitchen. “After all, she’s a doctor.”
Her father still insisted on pointing this out whenever possible, although what France had was a doctorate in Classics. She had done her dissertation on gender and transgender in Greek literature.
Her father was standing in the archway between the kitchen and the dining room. He was still in the suit he had worn to give her away but had changed into his slippers, which made him look short and rumpled.
During the major fight that had ensued when she came out to her parents in her first year of grad school, she had shouted, “And henceforth you will call me Fran . . . ”—stumbling on the k, realizing that would be asking too much of them, and coming to a halt after the ce, leaving the s in limbo—“ . . . France.” “Fraynse?” her mother asked. “France,” France said, definitively. Her parents, who already thought she was weird for staying in school so long, never mind the lesbianism, had complied.
“We’re not kids,” she had said to her mother in the kitchen after the ceremony. “We’re middle-aged, for chrissake. We know what we’re doing.”
“Middle-aged,” her mother said. “When I was middle-aged, I thought muddle-aged would have been a better term.”
Now things had gotten mixed-up, and what made sense in the beginning was beginning to seem a little crazy. She tried to broach the subject to Philomena, who listened gravely and then said, “You think our sex life needs enlivening?”
France felt her heart beating in her temples. “I didn’t say that. I said—”
“—that we’re getting old,” Philomena said, quietly.
“Not exactly,” France said, not wanting to upset Philomena, but that was it exactly, because in fact France felt as if she had already lived her life and now everything was ancient history. She had been around from the beginning of civilization. She felt like a ruin, ransacked and with no more treasures someone might want to cart off. The first twinges of arthritis were like little alarums of the future, a future that would be even older and more run-down than the past. She had not understood that time could be so tricky and underhanded, trapping her before she sensed she was in danger. Nothing excited her anymore; nothing pulled her away from herself. Was nothing ever to change, to surprise her, again?
“So,” Philomena said, “you think our sex life needs enlivening.”
France started to protest again but, to her own surprise, said, “Maybe.”
“Okay,” Philomena said. “What do you have in mind?”
“I don’t have anything in mind. It’s just . . . I don’t know. A feeling.”
“Let me give this some thought, France.”
France’s shoulders drooped. How could thought help?
France remembered having been maddened by her passion for Philomena. She had been wild as a maenad for any sight of her truelove. She remembered the way the whole world had been a picture frame around the face she cared for more than any other. “Do you remember—” she said, then stopped, because Philomena’s face, not framed by the world but small and kind and seen only in the corner of France’s eye, told her that she did.
France’s parents had died within six months of each other, two years ago. She drove to Virgilina for the funerals, but Philomena had to stay home to run the nursery, which had become so successful that she was tied to it. France and Philomena lived in the western part of Virginia, where France taught at a prep school whose enrollment kept shrinking even though it was known as an academically superior institution. The school provided some faculty housing on campus, the low rent offsetting painfully low salaries. It was a five-minute walk for France from their house to her office. In the distance, blue mountains spread a watercolor wash against the white sky. The mountains, cool as water, covered in rhododendron in June and flecked with wild white dogwood in early spring, red and gold in autumn, were porous with hollows, hidden depths where jack-in-the-pulpit and bluebells thrived. Hemlock, poplar, and oak cloaked the mountains when fog did not.
She cut past the library with its footbridge over a stream in back, entering her office building by a side door. The school’s handful of buildings attempted to evoke the antebellum era, with plenty of red brick, white columns, wide plank floors, and verandas. When weather allowed, classes often met under the magnolias in the green square at the center of the campus.
Every March, on or near the Ides, France and her students put on a play or pageant. The event was held in the Waverly Auditorium and lights were dimmed. A guitar was substituted for the lyre and there was always someone who could play a recorder or a flute, and in their flowing Grecian chitons or Roman togas, the girls could be shepherds and nymphs, noble mortals and ignoble gods and goddesses, Nereids, maenads, and maidens morphing into trees. Every March, France was entranced by the transformation of reality into myth. She supposed it was what she loved about the ancients: the way they had of stopping time by turning it into a story. Why couldn’t she and Philomena do that? Why couldn’t they live more mythically, instead of plodding from day to day like everybody else?
France and Philomena cooked together, chopping and tossing in tandem. France knew when she was supposed to add the dressing; Philomena knew when it was time for her to fill France’s glass with ice water and her own with milk.
After the dirty dishes were in the dishwasher, France joined Philomena in the living room. “We’re doing the transformations this year,” she said.
“Oh, good,” Philomena said. “I like the transformations.”
She was referring to the script France had come up with a few years ago, a series of skits enacting some of the metamorphoses of Zeus in pursuit of love.
“The students always have fun with it. They like the costumes.” The students would cut out a handful of cardboard feathers, paint them white and draw black branching spines on them, and stick them here and there on Zeus when he (or rather, she being a he) became a swan. “They’re inclined to think a rapist swan is nothing to worry about.”
“Better a swan than your prom date,” Philomena said.
The students’ concentrated energy charged the auditorium with a buzz of excitement. So much to do, so short a time to do it in, the students groaned, while liking very much the experience of being under the gun—a friendly, pedagogical gun. France went to the rehearsals, offering advice when asked, sometimes suggesting an alternative interpretation, but mostly she merely prodded and encouraged. Her students liked her, she knew. On their end-of-the-year evaluations, they wrote things like Professor Meade really knows her stuff! and I thought dead languages were boring until Professor Meade made them come alive for me. But once a student had noted, cryptically, Still waters run deep, and France had pondered it for weeks, wondering if the student had thought her dull, not a good teacher at all. What was eerie was that it was not the first time she had been described that way. When France was in the seventh grade, the girls in homeroom used to pass around spiral notebooks that they called “opinion books.” Each page had a student’s name at the top, and anybody could write an opinion of that student on that page, and everybody did. Someone had written, under “Frances,” Still waters run deep. She later discovered that her homeroom teacher had written that. Now she was the teacher.
Probably, she thought, there was a place in her like a secret, silent pond, where the undercurrents were stealthy but significant and deepwater life burgeoned and thrived. But then again, she thought, who didn’t have a place like that in them?
She was picking up her mail in the departmental office when she ran into Sloan Phillips. “Ready for the Ides of March?” he asked.
“Maybe this year we should call them the Ideas of March,” she said. “They want to know what Ovid means. Usually they just want to know what costume they get to wear.”
“That’s a good sign.”
“Maybe,” she said, “but it’s keeping me busy. And I still have to write about a thousand letters of recommendation to colleges.”
“We don’t have a thousand students.” He sighed. “We used to, before the world went coed.”
“Sloan, the world has always been coed.”
“That’s interesting,” he said. “Is that really how it looks to you? And I thought it was all female.”
France had grown up in a small three-bedroom house in a town that was itself a marriage between Virginia and North Carolina, that odd couple. She had had two parents, one male and one female. And for years she had wondered how she could ever tell them that her life was not going to be like theirs. It wasn’t only that she didn’t want them to be disappointed in her, though it was that, too; it was that she didn’t want them to feel rejected by her. She loved them and she didn’t want them to think that she had decided that what they were wasn’t interesting enough, or intelligent enough, or good enough, for herself.
She had stayed indoors, reading at the desk her parents had bought for her, with its ink well and cubbyholes and letter files, its rolled cover, and wondered if there weren’t some way she could transform herself into someone else. A girl who liked dolls and tea sets. A girl who named her pet hamster Fluffy and her pet mouse Squeaks and her pet white rabbit Grace Jones. A girl who squealed with all the other girls when boys looked at them and who would eventually bring home one of those boys to be reviewed and approved by her father. Her mother would whisper to her, in the kitchen, “He seems like a handsome, respectable young man,” and if she didn’t marry that young man, if she veered off course for a few years, had an affair with a married man, threatened to cut her wrists, began to date again but in a hopeless, doubting way, so many of the men afraid of commitment or immature or bisexual, sooner or later there would be another man, unafraid, mature, not bi, and they would discover themselves in love and get married and start their own family.
By the time she was in graduate school, France had become comfortable with herself and began to believe it was not unreasonable to expect that people who cared about her should also be comfortable with her. That didn’t mean she wasn’t a bit flustered by how quickly her parents went from being horrified to, as they put it, “looking on the bright side of things.” Nor could she even make fun of their desire to do that—her parents were not semanticists, and all they meant by “the bright side” was that they refused to be disappointed, depressed, disgusted, or any other disagreeable “d”-word by their daughter’s choice of—another merely semantic issue—“lifestyle.” In fact, it wasn’t long before her parents began to brag about their daughter the lesbian. Modestly, of course; discreetly, of course. But they dropped oblique allusions to it in the get-to-know-one-another coffees in the basement of the Church of the Holy Ghost between Sunday school and Worship. It made them feel a little breathless, as if they were breaking the rules, coloring outside the lines. Her parents’ faces shone with the effort and excitement of being unconventional, even risking ostracization. Perhaps risking consignment to the fires of damnation. It gave them an adrenaline high. They had a brave, brilliant, path-breaking daughter and her specialness reflected on them, because it was they who had taught her to be true to herself and honest with others. Her mother started referring to Ellen DeGeneres’s mother as if she knew her personally. Her father developed theories that he expounded at the auto parts store where he worked. He would straighten the taillights hanging on a display rack and say to the visiting salesman, “This is a dangerously overpopulated planet. Nature has to find a way to curb population growth. And what else would a woman need a man for now?” Purchases were rung up on a computer on a counter; the computer was new but the counter was old and chipped. He’d lean on the counter and tell his boss, “There’s nothing a man can do that a woman can’t do.”
He knew some of the men thought his daughter was sinning her way straight to hell but he dared them to say so to his face.
“Poppy,” France said, home for a few days. “You don’t have to tell everyone I’m a lesbian.”
“I can’t help it, France, I’m so darn proud of you.”
She wanted to tell him it was not as if she had gotten tenure. Having a same-sex partner was not like getting your dissertation published. But to her father, it was a lot like that, an achievement requiring character, courage, and commitment.
One Sunday the preacher at her parents’ church delivered a sermon about how marriage was meant for a man and a woman and anything else was unnatural. Her parents had risen from the third row and walked straight up the aisle and out. They didn’t go back for two weeks. The third week, the preacher turned up on their front porch. “Please come back,” he said. “Y’all’re a vital part of our congregation.”
Her parents made him promise to keep his opinions about same-sex relationships to himself.
They started going to church again, but thereafter her father always referred to it as the Church of the Holy Moly.
France asked him what the Church of the Holy Moly could possibly mean. “It means the Church of Holy Shit,” her father explained, “but I can’t say that around your mother.”
When she did get tenure, she was living with Philomena. Her parents sent her a congratulatory bouquet of flowers. They had not yet met Philomena and didn’t know that she was a florist who dreamed of having her own nursery. They didn’t know France would soon be able to get all the flowers she wanted for free. They had been a bit afraid of meeting Philomena’s parents the first time they all got together. Philomena’s parents were soignés, with good shoes and grammar. Still, by the end of the evening, everybody loved everybody. Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Pleasant loved her parents and her parents loved Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Pleasant because all of them loved France and Philomena and France and Philomena loved each other. Dr. Pleasant was a plastic surgeon. Mrs. Pleasant imported oriental rugs and sold them out of her house. carpet diem, she had named her business, which seemed to France like proof that she and Philomena should be together. Thinking back to that night, France wanted to cry. Where were her parents now—who had been so sweet, funny, and forgiving? Where were her warm, generous parents—who had been so cute? The only answer to that that France knew: in the church cemetery in Virgilina, where they were dead as dead languages, mulch and dimming memory, fading even from the memories of their friends who were still alive, given that some of those were no doubt in various stages of Alzheimer’s, or in any case weren’t as sharp as they used to be, since that was the lot decreed by the gods for humankind.
On impulse, France drove out to the greenhouse. Philomena’s parents had bought the nursery for their daughter. If they weren’t going to have grandchildren, they had said, by golly, they were at least going to have a nursery. “Tell me,” France had said, “please tell me they didn’t really say that,” but Philomena apologized and said no, they had said that.
Philomena was wearing red tennis shoes with white socks, a blue denim jumper over a red turtleneck sweater, and a Mickey Mouse watch with a green band. She had potting soil on her hands and under her fingernails, and her apron said flower power. Philomena wiped her hands on her short apron. Seeing France, she raised her eyebrows as if to ask, What brings you out here? France loved Philomena’s eyebrows; they were lighter than her light brown hair, they were golden, like rays of sunshine, and brightened her delicate face.
When France first met Philomena, she could not believe that someone so pretty could return her love. Philomena had a wide, pure forehead, surprisingly full lips, and shapely legs that often ended in tennis shoes. She seized Philomena’s potting-soiled hand and pulled her aside, away from browsing customers and toward the hanging plants. “I just got to missing you,” France said.
“That’s nice,” Philomena said, smiling.
“No, I mean really missing you.”
The smile stayed on Philomena’s face but seemed uncertain whether it belonged there. “Okay,” she said.
“Do you love me?” France asked.
“Gee whiz,” Philomena said. She wiped her hands on her apron again. “Gee whiz. What is this about?”
“I don’t know,” France said. She thought for a moment, wondering how to explain what she was feeling. “If I were a man, I’d think it was a midlife crisis.”
“Have you bought a red convertible? Are you seeing a blonde half your age?”
France laughed dutifully, but she was trying to be serious. She wanted Philomena to be serious.
“Oh, my god!” Philomena said. “You could be! You could be seeing one of your students!”
“Phil,” France said, “you know I’d never do that. Not a student!”
“I was only joking,” Philomena said.
“I wouldn’t be seeing any woman,” France said.
France and Sloan would meet in the school cafeteria at lunchtime to discuss their dreams and fears. Sloan was afraid he would shrivel away until nothing was left of him but a husk. “The wind will whistle past me,” he said, “as if I were the last stalk in a November cornfield.” As he was weedy and blond, this was an apt image.
“For Pete’s sake, Sloan, cheer up. You are not a husk. You have an interior life.”
“If you say so.” Sloan flicked his disobedient lock.
“I do,” she said, although the pond part of her wondered what was so great, really, about the interior life, which was volatile, expectant, and delusional. One by one, she put her peas in the bowl of her spoon and catapulted them across the close tables. “Sex isn’t everything,” she said.
“So why were we trying to have it?”
Why indeed, she wondered. Maybe because the wind was whistling past her parents’ graves in the cemetery next to the Church of the Holy Moly, she thought. Maybe because she had reached a point in her life where she felt she wouldn’t mind meeting a randy swan, though only for scientific observation, not sex.
The evening of the performance France and Philomena left the house and walked together to Waverley. There were traces of spring in the air, buds on branches and a moist smell to the earth as if the ground were loosening, roots pushing upward, but it was still chilly, lights in the library holding steady and still but small against the huge darkness, and both women wore berets and gloves and coats. France went backstage while Philomena claimed two seats near the front and chatted with France’s colleagues. Then the hall darkened, and France slipped into the seat beside Philomena just as the curtain rose.
France knew that students sometimes failed to enter on cue, or even show up, that props could fall over on actors’ toes, that spotlights sometimes wandered aimlessly around the stage, looking for they knew not what, and at first she sat on the edge of her seat, but she had begun to relax by the time Leda, a lovely dark-haired girl with a straight nose and elegant profile, wandered out to think soliloquied thoughts beside the tissue-paper lake. But, France wondered, where was Zeus? Ah, there he was, or, rather, she was.
Only, what had happened to Zeus? He had feathers stuck all over him—not cardboard cutouts but real feathers, downy, snowy, fluttering, allergy-inducing feathers.
The girls must have ripped open a pillow, France realized. Well, that was going the whole distance.
While the narrator, standing stage left, told the story of Leda and the Swan, Zeus crept up behind Leda and folded his feathered arms around her. Leda struggled.
First she struggled and then she sneezed. She sneezed again. And again. She was sneezing nonstop, and so hard she could not say any lines. Someone in the audience laughed. And laughed again. Then someone else laughed. Then everyone laughed. Leda fled the stage, followed by Zeus.
Lights came up for an unscheduled intermission.
Zeus appeared to Europa as a girl wearing a huge papier-mâché head with horns. He appeared to Danaë as a shower of quarters wrapped in gold foil. He appeared to Antiope as a satyr, which required two girls, one for the front end and one for the rear. To Mnemosyne, he appeared as a shepherd. To Alkmene, as her own husband—and was that the scariest disguise of all? Eurymedousa saw an ant, Deois a snake. Sometimes it wasn’t Zeus who changed: Asteria turned herself into a quail and tiptoed, quailing, from the stage. France had written dialogue, sharpened and added to by students over the years, for each of the encounters, though no matter how hard the players tried, Zeus always sounded like a girl, a girl with a pure heart and gentle voice. The rest of the show went well enough, so when the curtain dropped and the students marched back for bows, and everyone clapped and the lights came up and people began to congratulate France on another job well done, she was confused that Philomena flew up the aisle and out of the auditorium, not even sticking around to say, “Sweetie, it was great. Everyone liked it when Leda sneezed.”
Or something, anyway.
Nor could France follow her to find out what was wrong, to ask if there had been something in the script that had upset her, or—or what? Was Philomena upset by something they had eaten at dinner? Did Philomena feel that, since these skits were old by now—though not to the students, who turned over every four years—she could leave France to the cast party and race home to catch Law and Order? Was Philomena seeing a blonde half her age?
The crowd was thinning and students were pushing her backstage and to the Green Room, where soft drinks and bottles of flavored water were to be had, as well as cheddar cheese cubes, potato chips, and tortillas with salsa dip. France stayed for an hour, congratulating and toasting the cast but also fretting about Philomena, then quietly snuck out.
France entered the house with her head down and shrugged off her coat and hung it on the maple rack they had attached to the wall. She shoved her beret and gloves inside her coat pocket. When she turned to walk down the hall, she found herself walking through a maze of silk scarves draped like swags from the ceiling. What on earth was Philomena up to? Stopping at the open archway that led to the living room, she called out, “Phil? Philomena?”
There was no answer. In the living room, dozens of candles in tin holders, scattered over the coffee table, the end tables, the mantel, burned peacefully, as if at an altar—which, frankly, France found a little overwhelming. Could something be just a little overwhelming? But she felt a rising affection as she realized this was something Philomena had done for her, that this was why she had left the play in such a hurry. “Philomena?” she called again.
The next room, the dining room, had orchids, enough for a greenhouse—orchids in twenty or thirty vases, orchids everywhere, white, pink, lavender, yellow. France sat in one of the dining chairs for a moment to collect herself. There were so many orchids she felt disoriented, and where was Philomena? France removed one of the orchids from its vase and touched its pastel petals to her face. It felt like Philomena’s sunscreened skin; it had Philomena’s soft smoothness, her satiny sweetness. She got up and moved on to the kitchen. Here were balloons in every color and shape, some tied to the furniture and the faucets and the handles of the refrigerator and cabinets and some cruising slowly around the room, bumping against the ceiling.
By now France felt as though her heart was being pulled out of her chest. She did not know if she felt happy or tearful or, it occurred to her, terrified, only that her heart was not her own and that the person to whom it belonged was reaching inside and extracting it and that if she found Philomena she would find her holding this heart in her hands. But Philomena was not in the kitchen.
France opened the door that led off the kitchen onto the screen porch. It was dark out here, and at first France did not see anything—no scarves, no candles, no orchids or balloons. Then, as her eyes adjusted to the moonlight, she saw that the screen door was open.
France stepped into the backyard. “Phil?” she called, and Philomena materialized out of the shadows.
“I was afraid you would be dressed like a rapist swan!” France said.
“I’d never joke about rape. Do you like it? When I was designing it, I thought of it as kind of an art installation.”
France could hardly say what she felt. She liked it—she loved it—but it frightened her a little, too. It had pleased her and made her anxious. It had moved her to some place where she was alone and vulnerable, to an edge. Tears came to her eyes. The confused complexity of her feelings made her wonder how Philomena had felt when she’d complained to her about their settled life. I was cruel, France thought. I was forgetting that she loves me. I forgot there is a part of her like a pond, deep and silent.
But Philomena had listened to her, hadn’t she? The proof was in the balloons, if not the pudding. “I can still surprise you,” Philomena said.
France touched Philomena’s face, which, by moonlight, seemed made of Grecian alabaster. “You’ll catch cold out here.”
“I have something else for you.”
“No,” France said. “Please. This is enough for one night.”
“I can’t help it,” Philomena said. “I don’t have your classical austerity. I’m from Atlanta.”
France laughed. “I’m sorry I’ve been so antsy,” she said.
“France, do this for me. Take my hand. Now, close your eyes.”
Philomena took France’s hand and France felt herself being towed toward the garage.
“Keep those eyes shut.”
“Let me guess. Pinwheels?”
“Yo-yos? Snow globes? Baseball caps? Ballpoint pens?”
“Okay, you can open them now.”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh. Oh, my god.”
“For your midlife crisis,” Philomena said. “So you can enjoy it.”
A red convertible. With a giant red bow.
“For the Rides of March,” France said. She was crying now, crying with every cell of her body. There was relief in it, the way her heart was spilling over, out into the world.
“I know what’s going on with you can’t be solved with a convertible. I’m not that shallow.”
France ran her hands over the hood, the side mirror, the chrome molding. She kicked the tires. Checked out the dashboard and trunk. The seats were leather. “Not any convertible, maybe, but a red convertible? It just might do it. It might solve any crisis I could ever have, now or in the future.” Philomena pulled a pair of scissors from her pocket and France cut the ribbon. She opened the driver’s side door and climbed in behind the wheel, so Philomena got into the passenger seat. France put her hands on the wheel at ten and two o’clock. “Man oh man oh man,” she said.
Philomena reached into her pocket again and gave France the keys.
“I’ve felt so trapped, you know? I love the girls, but teaching them is, let’s face it, not what you’d call brain-busting work. It’s exhausting, yes, but still, it’s like going through life with one arm tied behind your back.”
“I know,” Philomena said.
France twisted in her seat to look at Philomena. “I’m not tired of you, you know,” France said. “I’m tired of myself. I’ve been myself for so long.”
“I know,” Philomena said. Using her fingers she combed France’s hair, tucking it behind her ears.
“Probably if I had a different life I’d feel trapped in that one, too,” France said.
“Probably,” Philomena said.
“It’s just the age, isn’t it?” said France.
“I think so,” Philomena said. “Don’t you want to break it in?”
“I think maybe I’ve just been scared shitless, you know? I see the end of the road coming up.”
“It’s a long way off, France,” Philomena said. “We’ve got a lot of living to do first.”
“Yeah, let’s break this sucker in.”
France turned the key in the ignition, and when they were out on the street, zooming past the school grounds and out to the countryside, where the strong mountains held up the sky to the sky, they looked at each other by the light of the car radio, content with what they saw. “Man oh man,” France said some more. “Man oh man oh man oh man.” But it was March, and they shivered and put the top up.
Back home, they heaved themselves out of the car, closed up the garage, and went inside, completing a return journey through the balloons, the orchids, the candles, the silk scarves. As they were blowing out the candles, France began to smile. “You must have raced around like a madwoman, getting all this stuff done,” she said.
“Sloan was my coconspirator. He is a good friend to you, France.”
“He is. He really is.”
“The candles were the hardest,” Philomena said. “I didn’t want to light three on a match, so I had to keep blowing matches out and striking new ones.”
They carried one still-burning candle and an orchid into the bedroom and set them on the dresser.
France and Philomena made love that night, two women with tender hearts and practiced hands, and unbeknownst to them, Hera looked down on them from Mount Olympus and was jealous. “Zeus,” she said, jabbing her husband in the side as he slept and waking him up, “why don’t you ever do to me what they’re doing? Why don’t you ever make me feel the way they feel?”
Zeus followed his wife’s pointing finger. “This is interesting,” he said.
Hera slapped him.
“Hera, you told me to look,” Zeus said.
“You don’t have to be that interested!”
“Did you have to wake me up just to slap me? If that’s what you want to do, then fine, but please don’t wake me up to do it.”
“But look at them!”
France and Philomena lay on their backs, side by side, and their breasts seemed to glow, like lanterns. The candle on the dresser was a nub swimming in wax. The duvet was on the floor.
“Hera, there have been Sapphists since time immemorial. Where do you think the word lesbian comes from?”
“Don’t be smart with me or I’ll slap you again.”
“It’s spousal abuse, by God,” Zeus said, rolling over.
Hera lay awake in the dark, frowning. Clouds skimmed over the small house on the faux plantation-campus. It was not right that mortal women should have more happiness in their union than she did in hers. It upset the balance, so she changed France into a man and Philomena into a student. But Hera couldn’t stand the way France took advantage of Philomena, so she changed Philomena into a flower, for that was Philomena’s essential nature, and France into a creamsicle, but that simply didn’t make any sense, so then she kept Philomena as a flower and changed France into a book, and put the flower in the book, and shut it.