Welcome New Lesbians
When Grace and Patti Ann came in, dressed up for their first lesbian New Year’s Eve party and carrying homemade fudge in a Santa Claus tin, Maurine – the party host – said, “Quick, look up at the ceiling, look up, look up,” before she even said Welcome New Lesbians or Happy New Year. So Grace and Patti Ann looked up. What the hell did they know? They had never been to a lesbian party of any kind or to Maurine’s house before, so they were feeling excited and compliant. They wanted to be excellent lesbian party guests.
There was nothing on the ceiling. It was a regular white ceiling in a 1940s Philadelphia row house, with all the plaster cracks nicely spackled and painted over, faint lines like raised old veins showing through skin. Still Grace and Patti Ann craned their necks, training their eyes on the ceiling.
“Keep looking up, please,” Maurine said, as she hustled them out of their coats.
Grace and Patti Ann smiled, keeping their eyes on the ceiling so they didn’t see the bared teeth of Maurine’s dog Lucifer, which made it a huge shock to the couple when Lucifer lunged and sunk its teeth into Grace’s calf and then Patti Ann’s arm as she pulled the dog off Grace.
“Down, Lucifer,” Maurine said, dumping their coats on the sofa. “Want a treat in the kitchen?”
Lucifer growled and snapped at Grace and Patti Ann. The dog was a mahogany Rottweiler, with fanged teeth and a huge black-spotted tongue on full display. The couple huddled together, still in the doorway, afraid to move.
“Now, Lucifer, that’s enough,” Maurine said. She tugged hard on Lucifer’s collar and dragged the dog into the kitchen.
Grace and Patti Ann heard a cabinet opening, then Maurine saying, “Here you go, beautiful one. Here’s a treat for my big girl.” Then they heard a door close.
When Maurine came back in the room, Lucifer was not with her.
“Usually if people look up at the ceiling the minute they come in, Lucifer calms right down. She can’t stand eye contact with strangers. So that was a bit odd. I guess she really didn’t like you. But now she knows you and she’ll be fine next time,” Maurine said.
“We have to go to the emergency room,” Grace said.
“We got bit,” Patti Ann said. “I’m bleeding. She’s bleeding. We’re bleeding.”
“You just got here. The party’s just getting started,” Maurine said. “Let me see. Maybe a little Band-Aid would do the trick.”
Maurine pulled up Grace’s pantleg to inspect her calf. “Hardly broke the skin,” she said. “Good thing you wore wool.” She unbuttoned the wrist button on Patti Ann’s shirt sleeve and expertly rolled the sleeve up like she was dressing a mannequin in a store window. “This one’s a little deeper because you only wore a thin shirt. But you’re fine. It’s nothing. Wash it up well and you’ll be just fine.”
Grace and Patti Ann looked at each other. Even though they were a brand new couple, they could already send thoughts to each other. Her freaking dog bit us both, let’s get the hell out of here, Grace sent to Patti Ann. She’s acting like it’s no big deal. Maybe we’re making a big deal. Are we making a big deal? Patti Ann sent back.
The doorbell rang and Grace and Patti Ann stepped away so that Maurine could let in more party guests. The doorbell rang again and again and again. A crowd of lesbians poured into Maurine’s house, hugging and kissing each other, waving bottles of wine, and carrying platters of cheese and cookies. One woman brought a whole fondue set. Like a chef on a TV cooking show playing to the crowd, she set it up on the dining room table, melted dark chocolate in the fondue pot, and spread out chunks of pineapple and pound cake, sliced bananas, strawberries, and raspberries. Soon women were dipping and moaning all over the dining room.
Grace and Patti Ann clutched paper towels to their bleeding parts. Every so often, they’d lift up the towel to check their wounds. An hour into the party, they were both still bleeding but only a little bit. They hadn’t really talked to anyone or eaten anything because they needed to keep pressure on their wounds. No one asked them why they had paper towels pressed on their limbs. Everyone smiled quickly at them, then moved toward the bar or table as if Grace and Patti Ann were street people who had snuck into the party uninvited.
Do you want to stay? Grace sent her question to Patti Ann with a raised eyebrow. Patti Ann shrugged, sending her answer Sure, I’ll stay if you’ll stay. They went into the second-floor bathroom together, rinsed off their injured parts, threw away the bloodstained towels, and kissed each other on the mouth before they headed back to the party. They were such a new couple that each kiss was still a sweet surprise. This is how we kiss to say good morning. This is how we kiss to get sex started. This is how we kiss after a dog bites us.
If there was anything Grace and Patti Ann both despised, it was high-maintenance women. This whole shaking-off-two-dog-bites incident was proof that they were NOT high-maintenance women and was an extremely promising sign for their budding romance. They might be old new lesbians – both of them in their fifties when they fell in love with each other at book club and left their husbands – but they were still go-with-the-flow women. They had jobs that demanded flexibility and quick thinking under pressure, Grace as an IT security specialist and Patti Ann as a public defender.
They never saw Lucifer again that night. Their bites healed without stitches or the need for antibiotics, but each was scarred in places on their bodies that were visible to others. During their first year together, Grace and Patti Ann enjoyed pointing out Lucifer’s mark on them when scar stories started up among friends.
“Our first big lesbian party and a dog named Lucifer attacks us at the door,” Grace said.
It always brought a big laugh. Their scar story was better than the playground injuries, bike crash wounds, lacrosse and flag football scars, and the multitudinous surgical scars of their friends and ex-husbands.
“Maybe it was a sign,” Flip, Patti Ann’s ex-husband, said when he heard the story. “Like on a highway ramp. TURN BACK, YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY.”
Flip loved book club. He refused to resign just because Grace had stolen Patti Ann from him. Patti Ann and he had been best friends and lovers since they were freshpeople in college. He guessed you couldn’t say freshman any more.
Flip was also a public defender, in the same office as Patti Ann. He had lots of great stories from work. His favorite was the guy who said, “I don’t want you. I want a real lawyer.” Flip told him, “Hey, I want a real client. Not only did they catch you in the act, then you confess to the crime that you committed on camera. So they have witnesses, your confession, and a clear videotape of you doing the crime. What exactly do you expect me to do with that?” And the guy had the colossal nerve to say, “I want you to get them to drop the charges.” Flip always told people he worked at Mission Impossible headquarters.
So now they were all in the book club together, Grace and Patti Ann, six other women, with Flip the only male. Grace’s ex-husband, Andre, didn’t read books, so she had never invited him to join. The other women were all single. All of them were child-free by choice, except for one woman who had seven children, making up for the rest of them.
The book club operated on feminist consensus, which meant that every decision had to be discussed and agreed on by every book club member. If anyone objected to reading a certain book, they wouldn’t read it. If anyone objected to admitting a certain person to the group, the person was not invited. So if Grace or Patti Ann had raised an objection to Flip remaining a member, the group would have asked him to leave. But Grace and Patti Ann didn’t. Grace thought it was Patti Ann’s business and her decision to make. Flip didn’t bother her. He felt like someone’s brother to her, a sidelines kind of guy who was not important in the scheme of things.
Patti Ann thought Flip would get bored or annoyed with book club and leave on his own. But so far, he hung in there. He brought homemade hummus dip and excellent red wine to meetings. He emailed the book club new reading lists from BUST Magazine and Bitch Media. He finished every book they chose and brought up witty and salient points in the discussions.
Tawnee, a friend of one of the long-term members, asked to join their book club and they agreed to try her out. At Tawnee’s first book club meeting, the book they were discussing was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. They were meeting that month at Grace and Patti Ann’s condo near Center City Philadelphia, a shining new space on the Delaware River with all glass windows and minimalist furniture, nothing on the walls to distract from the river view with its international cargo ships, sailboats, ferry boats, and tourist amphibious bus/boats going by.
Tawnee walked in accompanied by her therapy dog, a Pit Bull named Sonny. “He just passed his Canine Good Citizen Test this morning, so he’s a real Thera-Pit now,” she said. “Certifiable.”
No one had mentioned that Tawnee had a therapy dog that she’d be bringing to book club.
“I have social anxiety and panic attacks,” Tawnee said, “Sonny is my rock.”
Grace and Patti Ann stood side by side, excited to host the book club for the first time at their new condo.
“Welcome to both of you,” Grace said.
“We’re so happy to have you,” Patti Ann said.
Grace held out her hand to shake Tawnee’s hand. With one smooth fast motion, Sonny leapt up and grabbed Grace’s wrist in his mouth. Patti Ann screamed and shoved the dog to get him off Grace, until he let go of her and latched onto Patti Ann’s wrist instead. Tawnee pulled Sonny away.
“Geez, I’m sorry. He’s never done anything like that before. You shouldn’t have tried to shake my hand, I guess. Who does that?” said Tawnee. She put the book down on the floor and backed out the door.
A minute later, she popped back in. “I forgot to say I didn’t understand the book at all,” Tawnee said. “Thank you anyway.” She left again.
A minute later, while Grace and Patti Ann were still examining their wrists, Tawnee stuck her head back in. “And if there are any medical bills, I’ll be happy to pay for them, of course,” Tawnee said. “That’s it, leaving for real this time.” She closed the door and left.
“My God,” Flip said. “Are you all right?”
Grace and Patti Ann sat down, clutching their wrists. The other book club members gathered around them.
“This is getting to be a regular thing with you two. Animals attack you wherever you go,” Flip said.
Sonny’s teeth marks circled the women’s wrists like macabre bloody bracelets.
“Therapy dog my ass,” Grace said.
“Now, Patti Ann, correct me if I’m wrong, but in all the years you and I were together, did a dog attack us even once?” Flip asked.
“We’re getting married, Flip,” said Patti Ann. “You may as well accept that. And if you can’t behave like a civilized human being, I’ll have to ask you to leave book club.”
“It’s a simple question. Did a dog ever attack us once, let alone twice, when we were married?” Flip said.
“I’m not in a courtroom and I don’t have to answer that,” said Patti Ann.
“If you keep this up with Grace and it happens again, you might get mauled to death,” Flip said. “I’m pointing this out because I love you very much.”
“That’s it. You’re out,” said Patti Ann.
The book club was enthralled. They hadn’t seen this much drama since one of them threw guacamole in another member’s face over an extremely heated discussion of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The worst most self-indulgent long-winded excuse for a book I ever saw vs. He’s a genius and his book is an epic masterpiece.
Flip dropped to his knees. “Please, I beg you. Let me stay. I’m so lonely.”
“Take your hummus and go,” said Patti Ann.
A month later, Grace and Patti Ann were married in a small ceremony at Philadelphia City Hall, with their best friends by their side. The judge asked if they had written special vows. They shook their heads quickly no. They both trembled while they repeated the standard vows and slid wedding rings onto each other’s fingers. There was no party. Instead they changed from their pantsuits into jeans and went out with their friends to their favorite neighborhood pub. Like nothing had changed, but everything had changed. They couldn’t stop smiling at each other. My wife, they practiced saying out loud. This is my wife. Every time they said it, they teared up. Their friends cried a little too, even though they had given up on dating and were resigned to a single life. This is so beautiful, their friends thought. These two made it over the obstacle course of middle-aged dating. They pole-vaulted to the other side.
“Thank God I felt the urge to join a book club,” Grace said. “Or I’d never have met you.”
“The best thing I ever did in my whole life was to start that book club,” Patti Ann said. “It scares me to think what if I didn’t? What if I decided book clubs are too much trouble? Someone’s always getting divorced or they fall down on the street after going to a wine tasting and break their leg into twenty tiny pieces. And then they throw off the whole dynamic talking about that, instead of the book.”
Since they had fallen in love, Patti Ann felt like Grace had become an actual physical part of her, with a flow between their hearts and bodies that felt like an intensely pleasurable current. When they were apart for a few days, Patti Ann felt like one of her arms went missing. It was the strangest feeling, one she had never felt when she was married to Flip.
Now when dogs came bouncing her way on city sidewalks, even if their snouts were sealed shut by straps and muzzles, when Patti Ann was alone she crossed to the opposite side of the street. She couldn’t stop thinking of what she would do if a dog charged at her, pictured herself running into the street and being hit by a bus while trying to save herself from the dog attack.
When she was with Grace, though, Patti Ann lifted her eyes skyward and kept walking past the dogs, holding Grace’s hand. She didn’t want Grace to know that she felt a big slap of fear now, every time she saw a dog. She didn’t want to be the kind of woman who was afraid of dogs. Dogs were like people’s babies. They beamed out love into the universe. Their licks were kisses and adoration. They wanted to please people so much that they would sit down on their rumps even in wet snow when you asked them to. And was there anything more adorable than a puppy?
One Sunday morning, on a sunny spring day after they had been married for a month, Grace and Patti Ann stepped out of their condo, headed for a walk by the river when Flip came by, walking a large black dog. They hadn’t seen him since he was thrown out of book club and Patti Ann had quit her public defender job, going to work at a firm that served non-profit organizations instead.
“What a lovely surprise. Meet Brutus. He’s a Rottweiler Pit Bull mix. I just picked him up from the shelter this morning so I have no idea what will freak him out,” Flip said.
“That’s a sweet old black Lab if I ever saw one,” Grace said.
“You’re not funny, Flip,” Patti Ann said.
“It’s a no-kill shelter. But they were going to kill him anyway because he’s so vicious,” Flip said.
“He’s adorable,” Grace said.
Grace leaned over to pet Brutus or whatever the dog’s name was. He looked more like a Rufus or a Gizmo.
“Don’t do that,” Patti Ann said.
“Why not?” Grace asked.
“You really don’t know what he’s capable of,” said Patti Ann.
“This sweet old black Lab? He looks like a grandpa dog,” said Grace.
“Back away,” said Flip. “I’m warning you.”
“Oh, come on,” said Grace.
“Please,” said Patti Ann. “Don’t tempt fate.”
“Three strikes, you’re out,” said Flip. “That’s how the game is played, right?”
“Lick me,” Grace said to the dog. “Give me a kiss, you old sweetie.” She leaned down, offered her right cheek to the dog. The dog opened its mouth widely.
Patti Ann threw her whole body between Grace and the dog, closing her eyes. She clutched Grace’s shoulders, holding her close, and waited for the pain.
“Can I at least come back to book club?” Flip asked.
Patti Ann opened her eyes and looked down. The dog looked up at her, yawning.
“Start your own damn book club,” Patti Ann said. She let go of Grace.
“I don’t have anyone to talk to,” Flip said. “Please.”
Grace stepped around Patti Ann to pet the dog. “Man’s best friend,” she said. “I bet you can talk to this old boy. I bet you can talk his ear off.”
“Just you wait,” Flip said to Grace. “Patti Ann could turn on you the way she turned on me. With no warning.”
Grace and Patti Ann faced each other. They beamed quick worried thoughts to each other. What should we do?
“Why don’t you love me anymore?” Flip said to Patti Ann. “Just tell me why.”
Grace linked arms with Patti Ann.
“I feel like I’m going to die,” Flip said. “Please help me.”
The dog slowly got up on all fours. His tail began to swish side to side, like a hairy metronome. He bumped his head hard against Flip’s leg. He whined. He stood on his back legs and pawed against Flip’s stomach until Flip looked down into his eyes.
“You’re a good boy,” said Flip. He patted the dog’s head and scratched under his chin. The dog sat down with a plop.
Grace and Patti Ann tiptoed around the corner while Flip’s attention was on the dog. They heard Flip say, “Oh buddy, what are we going to do? My wife has a wife.” The dog barked one deep sympathetic ruff and then the women couldn’t hear them anymore.
At home, Grace and Patti Ann went out on their balcony over the river and held each other.
“I adore you,” Grace said.
“I risked my life for you,” Patti Ann said.
And that was the story they told from that day forward, how when they were a new couple, dogs kept biting them and they didn’t know why. Until one day, Patti Ann’s ex-husband broke the evil spell on them and they all lived happily ever after. None of it made sense but it was a real good story. Especially when accompanied by a show of scars.