Bisquick Is for Sissies|
by Janet Freeman
"Bisquick is for sissies," says Sin, drawing out a long spoonful of the batter he mixed the night before and left in the refrigerator, next to the crumbled mound of goat cheese and half-empty bottle of Riesling. We're getting ready for a costume party. Sin's wearing a tight white shirt and matching briefs into which a pair of sweatsocks has been stuffed. Tonight he is Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights. I'm Roller Girl. Even though we're got two hours until the party, I've already strapped to my feet a pair of roller skates from the seventies-low-heeled, dark blue with lightening bolts streaking up the sides. The laces are bright red. My blonde wig hangs in the closet, next to the black and white checkered pants Sin wears nights he cooks down at the restaurant.
"Real men make their pastries from scratch," explains Sin, tossing into the bowl an extra smidge of buckwheat flour. Sin doesn't believe in measuring things out. "Real men aren't afraid to get their fingers dirty once in a while. Right, Geoff?"
An ongoing project: teaching me how to be manly and gay, both, the way Sin is. But I'm only one of the two, and my girlishness does little to impress. "Yes sir," I say, giving Sin a mock salute. My voice squeaks. "Yes sir, indeed."
Most people claim to have known they were gay their whole life. For me, it was different. I blame two things: a suburban upbringing and my father, a well-intentioned tyrant. Convinced my fantasies were just that—a grand delusion—I decided in high school to try dating girls. The first date was to a homecoming basketball game. When Teresa reached for my hand during the fourth quarter, I excused myself and went to the bathroom. When I came back my date had moved three bleachers down and was whispering something in Chad Bellam's ear, something that made him laugh.
I went home.
The other date lasted a while longer. We made it through dinner, dessert, and a drive out to Gravelly Point, where we spread out a blanket in the reeds and lay down to watch the planes come in at National. It was July, and hot. Michelle was wearing a tank top. I remember how pale her shoulders were, white and round, like two snowcaps. We were the only ones there and after an hour or so, she rolled over and kissed me, square on the lips. The kiss was hard, violent, even, and I squeezed her shoulders to let her know to ease up. Of course, she misinterpreted my distress and clamped down even harder. I wasn't surprised at all when the blood ran down my lip. By then it was dark and Michelle didn't know what she'd done-I didn't tell her. Instead, I pointed-it was too loud to talk-at an outgoing plane while beside me, my date took off first her shirt, next her bra. Just as she was easing herself down on me, the rumbling jet disappeared. All that was left was Michelle, smiling down at me in the quiet stillness.
"What is that?"
"What is what?"
"That," she said, rolling off me. My head dropped to the blanket and then I heard it—a loud spooky rustle, as if the reeds had been set to motion by wind, only the night was still. "Oh my god!" shrieked Michelle, jumping up. She hadn't put her clothes back on and the sight of her standing there, naked, pale skin, I imagined, turned scaly with fright, stirred strange feelings in myself, feelings I hadn't yet felt.
"Come here," I said, reaching for her hand. "It's only the wind."
"It's not the fucking wind, you idiot," seethed Michelle, snatching her shirt. "This place is infested with rats."
I jumped up, eyes searching the dark. A flash of pink, translucent and soft, slithered past. When I turned to share this with Michelle, she was no longer there. I watched her marching across the field, bra balled in her fisted right hand. Every once in a while she would pull her leg back and kick at something. Her back was straight and narrow. I watched it disappear in the distance, the rustle of rats growing louder, more urgent, with each beat of my heart. Around me, the earth was moving. I put my head back on the blanket and lay there for some time, caressing my bruised lip and thinking about Michelle's plump breasts, how surreal they looked in the waxy moonlight.
Sin and I started dating after I took a job as a dishwasher at Matilda's. Technically Sin was only in charge of desserts—in addition to the restaurant, a shop down in DuPont also sold his pastries—but you would've thought it was the entire kitchen he commandeered. He was always sticking a fat finger into a steaming soup pot, hollering for another leek or shallot. If anyone minded, it was hard to tell. The other cooks worked around Sin, they rarely worked with him. And, nights when he'd slipped out to the back alley for a quick snort, sauntering back into the kitchen, sleeve-wiping his nose, a fevered bounce to his black-soled sneakers, those were the best nights. Standing over the butcher-block table, rolling dough to the point of evaporation, pounding it to nothingness with his meaty fists, Sin would suddenly, unexpectedly, burst into song:
Down on the corner, out in the street
Willy and the Poor Boys are playin'
bring a nickel; tap your feet
Everyone was soon singing along, plunking mussels one-by-one into steamers or whipping red-skinned potatoes into molten peaks. Even the waiters, coming in and out, would find themselves caught up in Sin's routine, dropping trays and dancing a slippery jig. Sin was like that: he set the tone. If he was in a bad mood—which was often-the rest of us went about our chores with callow meekness. Once, I accidentally dropped a wineglass while loading the dishwasher; a handsome waiter named Roberto stooped with me over the broken glass, holding the dustpan while I swept up the shards. Sin had run out to pick up some sugar from a grocer's up the street. In his absence someone had switched on a small transistor radio. Salsa flooded the dark kitchen, the whole room brightening as if someone had yanked open a window. Roberto dumped the broken glass in the trash bin and, imitating gentlemanly courtliness, bowed deeply, extended his hand. Blushing, I took it. I hadn't removed my yellow rubber gloves—they were wet but Roberto didn't seem to mind. He drew me to his chest, showed me the steps. One, two, three, four. Up, back, side, side. He smelled like spearmint and clove cigarettes. Our bodies pressed together; I pulled back, startled by his hardness. Roberto thought this hysterical, he threw his head back, laughing, He kissed my cheek. I intuited we had ourselves an audience. Roberto too, because it was to the room that he announced me as his little nino and with equal equanimity, implored me to call him Bobby. Someone clapped, we took our bows. I felt giddy, excited. He was a good deal older than me, Bobby. A thin, spidery scar transformed his cheek into a seascape. I'd always been afraid to ask about it but now, on the verge of parting, I found courage.
"You want to know what happen, mi nino? I'll tell you," said Bobby. His mouth wet against my ear, his voice a pepper-ground whisper. We stood by the sink, alone. Water dripped from the tap onto a cheese grater. "Is you sweep. You sweep and sweep. Still, more glass. You breaking all the time. You breaking every night you come in here and the big man watching you. He watching and waiting, my friend. He waiting 'til you break for good and then he's gonna sweep you up. You'll end up like that man in the bible, swallowed whole in the big whale's belly."
Swallowed whole? Big whale's belly-Sin?
Bobby, bored with our exchange, had crossed the kitchen and stood bantering with a waitress. His scar twitched as he talked; I found it repulsive. Excuse me, I mumbled. There's something I need to take care of. I went into the bathroom. I closed the door. I kept the light turned out. I sat on the toilet. I still trembled, only I wasn't sure if it was from fear. I'm not sure how long I stayed in there, but it wasn't until I heard Sin's familiar drumbeat boom, "Okay, assholes. Who fucked with my raspberry torte?" that it felt safe to come out.
And so I did.
"See that?" asks Sin, drawing out the batter so that a line of it ropes sloppy and loose from bowl to spoon like a lasso without a neck to cinch. "What you want is a nice thick batter, just like this—thin enough to suck through a straw but thick enough to stick a knife in deep."
"Maybe the cook should just accept the batter the way it is," I say, skating from one side of the kitchen to the other. I crash into the pantry and fall to the floor. "Maybe the cook should quit trying to change the batter into something it's not."
Things weren't always this way. I wasn't always comfortable sticking up for myself. The old me would've hovered in the doorway, hands fisted deep into empty pockets. The old me would never have contradicted this man standing at the stove, much less while wearing secondhand roller skates. No—the old me would've waited to speak until I was spoken to, as if Sin were my father and I his wayward son.
"Food is like sex," says Sin, with a frown. "It's only ever as good as the person wearing the apron."
The pancake recipe is Sin's own, the secret ingredient slivers of freshly grated orange peel. I used to sit at the kitchen table, watching, as he cooked. He always set out a bowl of orange slices, just for me. I would suck the juice dry and nibble the fruit down to the seed, which I then spit into my hand and clutched all through breakfast.
I have a habit of holding on.
When I say things weren't always this way, I mean this, too: Sin and I used to love each other. Now I ask myself: how do I know this one thing and not the other? Meaning, how do I know we used to love each but no longer know what, if any, feelings we hold?
I still carry in my wallet a picture taken the night we met. Sin leans against a kitsch-cluttered wall outside Matilda's unisex restroom. He wears black and white checkered pants floured in spots, splattered red in others. Between muscled forearms is sandwiched a Pillsbury hat, and a skeptical but not unfriendly grin kicks out a sharp point to an already defiant chin.
"What did you say this was for, again?"
"My thesis," I stammered, tilting the camera to frame his Greek Orthodox pompadour. "Is your name really Sin Dee Light?"
"Only on Fridays," said Sin, puffing out his cheeks and then exhaling wearily. "The rest of the time people refer to me as Cindy."
"Today is Friday."
"Today is trash day."
"You know, when they come to collect the trash." Sin cut me a guarded look from beneath his hair's theatrical upward sweep, as if he wore an invisible wig veiling his dark, unblinking eyes. In fact I could see not only his eyes, but his smooth forehead, dappled and soft, a glossy combination of garlic-scented steam and the restaurant's idea of romantic lighting. "Perhaps you would like to see?"
Lowering my camera to my waist I said, Yes, I would like that.
I would like that a lot.
There wasn't any trash, of course.
"I told you," said Sin, shrugging a magnificent ripple across his smock's snowy horizon as he flipped open a tortoise-shell compact, pudgy fingers working the miniscule latch with impressive delicacy. Sin was a striking model-thick black hair, copper-streaked sideburns and matching beard, a killer smile, and keen, unwavering eyes. You weren't so much held in his gaze as bullied into it; what happened after that was anyone's guess. "It's trash day. They came this morning. But you can still smell the shit, can'tcha? The stink of the whole human race, carted off three times a week for your sanitized viewing pleasure," said the man who had personally delivered to a wedding party's table a bottle of Veuve Clicquot along with a surprisingly tasteful joke about corks and wedding-night hijinks. "But there's always a stink to people like us, right—?"
"Yes. They make us, they hate us," sighed Sin. "A stink-bomb shot straight from someone else's dirty ass and we're supposed to drop to our hands and knees, thank them for the trip."
"I don't know about you, but I'd like to meet this infamous GDK," I joked, referring to the crimson glyph sprayed at my feet: GDK BLOWS GOAT. "Apparently he or she drops to their knees like a champ."
Sin didn't say anything. I watched as he skillfully aligned a row of white powder along the compact's mirrored surface with a mangled plastic straw. "Care to partake?" he asked, coolly.
"No," I said, shoving my hands in my pockets. "Thanks." Sin fell silent again. In the spirit of junkie camaraderie I extracted a cigarette from my pocket. After a few false starts, I managed to explain the premise of my thesis, an exploration of gender identity whose sole purpose was to allow me to graduate on time. I held no illusions about the quality of my work, or the lackluster models I'd managed to drum up. That is, until I met Sin.
"What's it called?" Eyes cut to the moon, Sin's voice had turned nasal, locked-up by a nostril-pinch as he considered the night sky. Three stars glimmered reluctantly over the capitol. Over our tragic little lives. "This book."
"Tell me, Geoff," said Sin, leveling his gaze, deep voice returned. He regarded me with clear, sharp eyes-eyes that now held the secrets of the stars, only the message was a cold glacial glint. I stared helplessly at the ground, at the slanderous comment about someone whose initials were GDK and his or her farm-animal proclivities. What a stupid thing I'd done, I realized with despair, telling that joke, turning bawdy for Sin's benefit. I could feel his ancient, cosmic gaze locked on me. My cigarette needed tossing but I kept it pinched between my fingers. "Just what is it you are trying to prove?"
"Bubbles," Sin is saying. "Bubbles in your batter—that's what you want. Light and airy. Anything less is too dense."
Like everyone else dressed in costume tonight, Sin and I are not destined to maintain our charade beyond the evening's festivities. We are tired, Sin and I. Tired of trying. Of pretending. Of trying to shrink our bloated-moon differences down to a pebble we could kick under the rug. Earlier tonight I watched Sin watch me in the mirror as he carefully applied make-up-a little rouge to make his cheeks apple-bright. Although it was my eyes that were searched, in his I saw the impossible: a man who still loved me.
"I always thought it was sexy," he said. "How naive you were."
He's talking, of course, about that night in the pantry. Sin, my healer. Sin, my savior. The Bad-Ass turned Concerned Nurse as he looked over my burned arm, clucking, "You hurt yourself." "Not bad. I was okay, really. Then Bobby thought…"
"Bobby," grunted Sin, shaking his head. "When did you start with that? Never mind. Roberto thinks a lot of things," he said, taking my arm. My skin felt as if it had caught fire. Sin, working carefully with a clean dishtowel, gently wiped at the butter Bobby had smeared over the burn. On the other side of the door I could hear sounds of slip-and-slide progress towards dinner: pots clanking, someone berating someone else about a bloody ribeye. Sin closed the door. "Fuckers. Everyone around here's got their head so far crammed up their ass they need a rearview mirror just to watch themselves shit." He paused, brown eyes playing with the light of the sixty-watt hanging overhead. "And believe me, they do watch. Roberto especially."
"I like Bobby," I squeaked. "I mean, Roberto."
"I'm sure you do," said Sin. "Here, hold still."
"I'm sorry, sweetie. We're almost there, you're doing good. How's that?"
"Better," I said. And it was: Sin had managed to wipe away all the grease. I watched, trembling, as he took a cube of ice from his apron pocket. His hand completely covering the ice, he gently rubbed it up, then down, up again. Redness and swelling faded, I quit trembling. Watching Sin, my heart finally articulated what it had always known to be true: I loved him. I'd loved Sin since I first saw him. I loved him and I was afraid of him. Feared him because so much of what I wanted was in him.-I thought the only way to get it was to be devoured by this man. I wanted to live in the belly of the whale. My arm, wet, chilled, throbbing, still. I lifted it to his neck. I pressed myself against him. We kissed. I had never kissed a man before, though I had thought about it since I could remember: it was exactly as I'd thought it would be. How many times in this life do we get to say that? It was beautiful. Sin was beautiful. He took care of me, he cared. He protected me and he would teach me. He was teaching me now. He was kissing me, he was loving me. He was locking the pantry door; the light went out. Darkness made electric by a cacophony of smells: oregano, basil, espresso beans. In the darkness Sin whispered: Are you sure? This is what you want? Yes, I whispered, taking his hand with newfound boldness. Still, Sin hesitated. It's a beautiful thing, he said. It shouldn't happen here. It was me who insisted. I was the one. It wouldn't occur to me until later that the pantry had no lock. Nor would I wonder why it was no one came and pounded on the door. Everyone had seen us go in together. I forgot that, too. I stepped back, buoyed by the marvelous wonder of a dream transformed. Sin lowered himself. His knee creaked and he shifted his weight, moving in the darkness so silently at times I wondered if he were really there. And then my pants were unzipped, my boxers tugged, gently, ever so gently. When it was over I remembered, somehow, to breathe. I thought: I will never take another breath that has not been informed by this moment.
I am who I am; at last I am me.
I thought: this is me, Becoming.
Skates off, I tiptoe up to my lover standing at the stove, cinch my arms around his waist. Pancake batter hisses and spits on the griddle. Sin smells heavenly, like rosemary and oregano-two things not found in the food he is making for us tonight. I close my eyes, breathe deep what's not there. Around this blank space, a question forms.
"Can you show me that again?"
Janet Freeman lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Mamaphonic, The Feminist Review, and Green Baby. This is her first published story.
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