click for homepage

       The Barcelona Review

Author Bio



Guy, from the Shade Store, arrives. He’s here to put up the blackout shades in my new apartment. Like many in my family, I’ve never slept well. A good night’s sleep: always a concern. Another: that my new apartment (in Prospect Heights) is too bourgeois. When I lived in my last apartment, which was also bourgeois, I often felt like a failure because, although it was nice, it wasn’t nice enough. My sisters live in nice big houses, or relatively big houses, with numerous appliances. Now I fear I’ve overdone it. My woke friends will judge me.
            Before I rented, now I own.
            Guy is young. Wears a dark blue shirt, has dark brown hair. Telling myself I am Mrs. Marshall (as I have, of late, begun to call myself), I lead Guy back to the bedroom, where he sees the slatted wooden blinds left by the previous owner. Asks “They weren’t enough?” His tone is friendly, perhaps slightly incredulous. As I explain that I want blackout shades in addition to the blinds, it occurs to me—in response to his maybe imagined incredulity—that perhaps the blinds were sufficient. When I first saw the apartment, not long after the closing of my parents’ estate, I thought they wouldn’t be. But I’ve slept OK since moving in. And …I’ve paid for the blackout shades. Too late to return them. In the past, in my depression, I’d let nice enough apartments or OK apartments turn into not-nice-enough apartments.
            Guy gets up on the stepladder.
            I need to get to the CVS by six to pick up the Trazodone I take for sleep. There should be plenty of time. I go into the living room and lie on the divan by the white-curtained window facing the street. As I do so, I think: I am lying on the divan. Maybe it’s not a divan. Maybe it’s a sofa. But I like calling it a divan, renaming it, perhaps, as I’ve renamed myself. I take, from a pile on the ledge, The Shape of Sex, Leah DeVun’s book on gender in the Middle Ages. Light filters in. So do voices. People passing by on the street. And the sounds of Guy in the bedroom. I’m aware of him being aware that I’m on the divan, reading. What happened to Mom’s divan, the one with the purple fringe?
            Wait … did it really have a purple fringe? What happens to colors in memory? Should I ask Guy if he wants a glass of water? I want to be gracious; I hesitate; I read about the Aberdeen Bestiary, an illustrated twelfth-century manuscript, which, according to Leah, sheds light on mediaeval concepts of gender. It seems that in the Middle Ages, the binary wasn't as solidly in place as it is now. Are we the spaces we’re in?
            In a while, Guy calls me back to the bedroom. While taking down the blinds, he explains, a wooden slat at the top came off. Perhaps there’s a better way to describe it than “a wooden slat at the top.” Mom would say: doohickey. We go on the assumption there’s a word for everything. There’s not. We just don’t talk about the things there aren’t words for. Guy is nice, apologetic. As I sit on the bed, listening to him explain the problem, I tell myself he’s a nice straight male.  I sometimes have disagreements with friends about whether such beings exist. They are not in my friends’ bestiaries. In the Middle Ages, hermaphrodites, trans people, Jews, and Muslims were considered by Europeans to be more or less the same thing (this is made apparent in the Aberdeen Bestiary). Jews were believed to have both female and male genitalia. Were unclean. Were polluted.
            In my interactions with Guy, I’m practicing—in the theater of my mind—being “Mrs. Marshall.” When, in internal dialogs, I hear myself uttering “Mrs. Marshall,” I feel something akin to pride, whereas for some fifty years, “Mr. Marshall,” when I’ve heard it, has always caused me to cringe. It wasn’t a role I wished to play. “Mrs. Marshall” is. Props: my necklace, nails, demeanor. Sitting on the bed, I think of my mother and repairmen, how she acted when they came. Her friendly self-assurance, which likely I overestimate. Who doesn’t overestimate the self-assurance of others? Was she self-assured before she lived in that house, before she met Dad? When she was in Arkansas? Mom had escaped from Little Rock to New York; within a month, she’d met my father (she was nearing thirty, it was the fifties, time was running out). Within a year they’d married, within five, they’d moved west. That’s another story, all our stories contain an endless number of other stories. Mom created, in her mind, a rather magical story about her years in New York, which had, surely, some basis in her real experience of her time there. (Perhaps one definition of bourgeois is “sticking with the story.” She did, mostly.) In Arizona, where they moved, she couldn’t ever be completely at home. My parents were Jews; they wandered. In the bedroom, I try to create a vibe similar to that which existed between Mom and, say, Mr. Forzano, the carpenter, with whom she would discuss books and classical music. I try to create that vibe by imagining it being there. I don’t want the old “straight repair guy versus the fag” dynamic. If you (whoever you are) haven’t ever been a fag, you may not fully grasp the depth and omnipresence of this dynamic.
            Many years ago I lived in an apartment not far from here, in Park Slope. A lighting fixture in the kitchen needed repair. The repairman came, got up on a ladder. I wasn’t sure what I should do with myself. I sat watching him. He turned around: “What are you staring at?” he said.  “I’m not staring,” I said; went into the other room, lay on the futon, said to myself—a thousand times—I wasn’t staring at you. How endless my self-reproach. If I were a woman (in the old-school sense), would I still have been ashamed? Would the repairman have had a problem with my gaze? Once, on the F train, a boy said: What are you looking at, faggot? Once on the D train, once … doesn’t have to happen often. The fear’s the thing.
            Past Guy, outside the windows, ivy flutters. I rearrange myself on the bed. How to situate myself in space has always been a problem. The shame of being in space wrong. My father didn’t love the way I moved through space. The fem qualities of my gestures. He was of his time. Time, like space, is a container.
            Hermaphrodites, in the Middle Ages, occupied a space between the human and the non.  Jews were thought to be hyenas. Mom played the role of Mrs. Marshall. We lived in the desert into which Phoenix was spreading. Our house was off Jackrabbit Road. There was a sandbox, an atrium, a mulberry tree.  At dusk we heard coyotes howl. Our furniture: Swedish modern. We—the children—didn’t know Mom and Dad were new at being suburbanites. Our whole lives they had been. But not their whole lives. We didn’t know they were playing a role, that the whole thing was, in a sense, a ruse. Perhaps we could smell it, though, like the scent of creosote. We lived on land that was stolen. All land is. I still might make it to the CVS.
            Interrupting my reverie, Guy tells me the wooden doohickey has to be glued back on. (He doesn’t say doohickey.) He’ll have to do the same, he explains, with the other blinds as well. I tell him to take all of them down. They’ll look kind of crappy without that top piece. He takes the first one down. Now the apparatus which was holding up the blinds is exposed. The windows, which were beautiful before I ordered the probably unnecessary shades, now look really crappy. In the past, I wouldn’t have cared much about such things, but now I’m living in a nice apartment. Which I own.
            So I tell Guy—apologetically—remembering I am Mrs. Marshall—to put the blinds back up, without the top piece. I’ve a hard time telling people to do things. When I do, I fear I’m being Dad-like, autocratic. But Guy is obliging. Maybe the pain of the world will be healed. The blinds, in this newly devised plan, will be up temporarily. I’ll have them taken down later to glue the doohickies back on. I’m frustrated by how complicated this has become. It’s unfair, I tell myself angrily, knowing this is absurd, reprimanding myself immediately. I tell myself to forgive myself. I don’t. I want Guy to like me. I return to the divan.
            At moments during the thirty years that I called myself a gay man, or allowed others to do so (although I always tried not to hear the word man), I worried about my lack of fervor for home décor. I hadn’t the queer eye. When I was living with S., he always wanted to go shopping. I never wanted to. I worried this meant I was, deep down, straight. Or, perhaps, I thought, more hopefully, I was a lesbian. That would be OK. In the same way that, just a few centuries ago, the world outside a peasant’s village might have been impossible, or very difficult, for her to imagine—my mother’s ancestors, say, in Belarus—it’s difficult for me to imagine what it’s like to inhabit a mental universe in which being a man is OK. Past the living room’s white curtains, people walk by. Their voices drift in. I hear Guy working in the other room.
            Not enough has been written about the tension between straight and gay men. Most women, I tell myself, most cis women, I correct myself—are quite unaware of its extent. The enmity, the paranoia, invariably just beneath the surface. Because they are the ones who beat us up. Or whom we feared would. Words free and trap us. Like our bodies, they’re houses. Perhaps I’ve never slept well because of the sins of my ancestors. The ones who owned the factories. Or maybe because of the fears of my ancestors, the ones who were running from the Cossacks. In stories, things happen, but what matters more, I think, on the divan, which probably isn’t a divan, is what things are called. How they’re coded. When Mom met Dad, it must have been, for her, like entering a fairy tale. He was the scion of uptown German Jews, who might be described as rich intellectuals (in their self-description, “rich” did not occur). Theater, dinner parties with the semi-famous.At times, beneath the mind’s surface, I’ve judged her for being entranced by that world. But: Why shouldn’t she have been?
            How did she see my father?
            Guy calls me back in, tells me he’s been able to use double-sided tape to put the top piece back on. In my role as Mrs. Marshall, I offer demure applause.
            It’s too late now to make it to the CVS.
            I read late. I lived in apartment, writes Gary Lutz. That meant I lived apart. Gary is now Garielle.  Eleven pm, a glass of almond milk. I take my last Trazodone. Sometime in the night, the doohickies come clattering down.

© Ru Marshall 2022

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization