Dick Kinkaid, part-time male model and voice-over artist, asked me to marry him on our first date. We were sitting in a booth at the White Horse Tavern somewhere on Broadway in the lower 40s. I'd never been in a tavern before; I was only 17. I'd never even been that far downtown before, but Dick promised he would take me places and open new doors for me. Without a marriage deferment, he was sure to die in a ditch in Khe Sanh, and he'd been hurt too many times in love, he said, though he was only 21, so he gave me two choices. I could either marry him or never see him again. He tapped his fingers, in a big hurry. “Well?” he said. Well, he wasn't going to die on my account. I didn't want to hurt him; I didn't even know him, so I said yes.
His real job was making custom leather holsters in the broiling-hot basement of our tiny two-room duplex on 83rd and York. He worked bare-chested like Picasso in Juan-les-Pins, smoking unfiltered Luckies, hoping it would lower his voice an octave or two. Clandestine members of the Secret Service and other men in black came to our basement to have their weapons fitted for concealment in various places on their bodies, and I served them coffee and cookies like a good little housewife. After Dick told me they were government assassins, I put my foot down and said, “No more cookies!”
His father was an industrial baker who made ice cream cake roll by the trainload and the secret recipe for Colonel Saunder's Fried Chicken. The first time I met the old man at his slate-roofed mansion in an oak-lined suburb of Chicago, he nodded at me and shook Dick's hand politely. I asked Dick in a whisper why they hadn't embraced. “Embraced?” he said. “I've never hugged my father. He's never even shaken my hand before.” The old man told a story of how he'd played the piccolo with John Philip Souza in the First World War, but his last name wasn't Kinkaid like his son's; it was Kunk, as it was for all the other members of the Kunk household.
We were there for Christmas, and Dick's mother, Gwen, flew home from Washington, as she did every weekend after working all week for Margaret Chase Smith, the Senator from Maine, famous for wearing a fresh yellow rose on her dress every day. Gwen typed a hundred words a minute, took shorthand notes of every phone call, and lived like a graduate student in a furnished studio apartment on M Street, chain-smoking low tar cigarettes and drinking pots of instant coffee made with tepid tap water.
That Christmas, she asked me to cook the turkey, since she couldn't boil an egg, she said, but she never told me how to turn the oven on and I was too shy to ask her, so I put it in and hoped for the best. We were playing five-card stud with Dick's four brothers, who drank Johnny Walker Red, neat, no ice, then turned the empties upside down, placing bets on how many drops they could tease out of the bottom. Dick's oldest brother, Joe, had eyes of singed coal, black and burning. Scowling at his cards, sweating fiercely, he loosened his shirt and tie and didn't say a word to anyone. After an hour or so, Gwen asked me to check on the turkey. “We should be smelling it by now,” the old man said. “Let's get this turkey on the road.”
I went into the kitchen and opened the oven door, but the bird was still as cold and white as a bone. Suddenly Joe was standing behind me, the skin at his throat as pale as the bird's. “Here, let me help,” he said, setting the temperature and turning a knob, his hands trembling so slightly that I thought I must be imagining it. When we sat back down at the table to finish the game, Joe lost fourteen dollars to his father, who was holding aces and gloating. Joe smiled like an angel, then picked up a half-empty bottle and broke it over the old man's head. Then they sent Joe back to Chestnut Lodge, and as I recall, we lost our appetites for dinner, abandoning the turkey on the kitchen counter where the cat circled it and chose a leg as we spooned plates of cold canned corn and pickle relish into the garbage compacter.
When Dick and I got back home, he asked me if I'd mind it if he shaved his legs. “I don't get it,” I said. “Why would you want to shave your legs?”
“To see how it feels,” he said.
“Well, I can't stop you,” I said. So he did it, and he liked it. Then he wanted to know how it felt to tie a scarf around his head and walk in high heels, and he wondered if anyone would notice that he wasn't a woman when he went out at night in my pink shirtwaist and some fish net stockings that he bought off Broadway. “How do I look?” he asked. Like a man in a dress, I thought, but I said, “Just stay out of the street lights,” and all I asked of him was to find some shoes of his own, since he was stretching mine out and was hard on the heels.
He liked to take me to a little Japanese theater to see brutal samurai movies with no subtitles, and to the Met, where he studied a portrait of St. Jerome in ecstasy, pierced with arrows. One night, after he fell asleep, I opened the book he was reading, Lillian Hellman's “Pentimento.” He had underlined the following quotation in red: “a child nobody wants got nothing ahead but seeping sand.”
When I fell in love with his best friend from Chicago, he said he'd never leave me, even if I betrayed him. I didn't want to betray him, but I couldn't get used to making love with a man who needed to pretend he was a woman so he could feel like a man, and I turned my face away so I wouldn't have to look at the five o'clock shadow pimpling his Max Factored cheeks.
He kept telling me he was Porgy, and I was his Bess, and when I found out who they were, I said we needed help with this, so we went to see the great Franz Blau. “There is no better cure than love,” the doctor said to me. “An erection is a sacred thing, a terrible thing to waste. Rejection is emasculation. Don't ever turn your husband down. Take care of him. That's my advice to you.” We saw his eminence three times a week for a year, until Gwen's money ran out. And I thought, an erection may be sacred, but I've always been an atheist.
I took care of Dick for 10 years, buttered his toast and washed out his stockings in the tub until I wondered who'd take care of me. By then, he was carrying a pearl-handled Derringer in a summer-white shoulder bag. On my birthday, he gave me a short strand of turquoise beads, but I didn't take it with me when I left him, since it went so well with his cute green silk chemise.
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