“Hard Girls Break Easy” appeared in Best Lesbian Love Stories: New York City, edited by Simone Thorne, and published by Alyson Books, 2006.
Suitable for all readers.
May I draw your attention to the simple neighborhood of Woodside in the borough of Queens, New York, and to the not very attractive part of it, to boot? It was there, in a modest apartment in one of countless towering high-rises, that there once lived a very beautiful girl named Pearl. She was a grown woman by the time we met in Manhattan but she’d grown up there in Woodside, in that ugly dot on the urban map. Pearl had been the proverbial gem in a five-and-dime store; meaning, on the teeming streets of Queens, in its seventy thousand acres of over developed, mostly concrete land, what was one more dark-haired, brown-eyed Jewish girl among its millions of inhabitants? And what could be said about the state of her shimmering soul?
Nothing. For that, you needed to zoom in much closer. A bed would do. But two girls up close in a bed came later, almost by accident. And two girls in love in a bed came a couple years after that.
I’d always lived in Manhattan, from the moment I’d set foot in New York. For me, Manhattan was New York and the boroughs were nothing but a vast wilderness. Okay, a densely populated vast wilderness with too many cars and a lot of noisy hopelessly congested expressways. But a wilderness nonetheless — of the intellect. Perhaps I thought the boroughs were too reminiscent of where I’d come from, a suburbia that sprawled out to infinity while deftly camouflaging any cultural advantages it might have been harboring. Nowadays, you hear about all sorts of trendy “culture” exploding in New York’s boroughs but this is a relatively recent development in the history of highbrow New York City-style culture. A development brought on by the twin sirens of necessity and greed.
In an earlier less-expensive era, not so long ago it seems, the world itself revolved around Manhattan. The city never felt like the island it was, it felt more like the sun. Day or night, it had its own peculiar heat that everyone flew toward and thrived on. The city was dirtier then–more litter, more pollution, more petty crimes. Still it remained what it had always been, an eternally romantic backdrop for love when you were lucky enough to find it.
When I first met Pearl, the only things we had in common were that we were both brown-eyed brunettes and we were both hoping to be famous. We both sang and played guitars in our own bands. There the similarities ended. She was into punk rock. I was into folk music. I was a musical puritan, of sorts. She was a radical, an innovator. She’d grown up hard in the city, while I hadn’t turned hard until I’d come to New York and had made the less glamorous side of it my home.
One of my contemporaries back then, my rival on the folk music scene, a wisp of a blonde named Millie Duvall, did become famous. Very famous, in fact. And Millie had gone to the same high school as Pearl. In school, Millie, who was totally hetero, had rarely given Pearl anything but the time of day. Still Pearl had been smitten with Millie as only lesbian teenage girls can be smitten with straight girls–in the hard, agonizing, all-consuming way. The crush on Millie was a still-tender history by the time I met Pearl. The two of them were passively civilized to each other on the music scene, and it was because of Millie that my path had crossed Pearl’s at all.
I opened for Millie Duvall one Saturday night at a popular folk club on MacDougal Street. I met Pearl that same night in the club’s pathetic excuse for a dressing room, between sets. She was hanging out with Millie’s crew and she was wearing black jeans, black converse high tops and a black motorcycle jacket. Her brown hair hung in gentle waves to her shoulders, and she kept her hair scooped behind each ear, revealing single gold rings in each pierced lobe. She was tall and thin as a rail and wore no make-up at all; she was naturally beautiful.
I had my own crew in tow in that tiny dressing room, so I can’t honestly say I noticed her before she quietly asked if she could use my lighter. In those days, we both smoked. And as it later turned out, it wasn’t our worst vice. I was too preoccupied with my envy over Millie’s rising fame to make any small talk with Pearl beyond, “sure,” when she asked to borrow the lighter. It was Pearl who started the conversation.
“That was a good set,” she said.
“Really?” I was genuinely surprised by the compliment. Most people hanging out in a dressing room between sets did not usually see the opening acts.
She smiled ironically. “Yeah, really. I enjoyed it. Why? Didn’t you think you were good?”
To be honest, I’d thought I’d been very good and I thought the audience had thought so, too, which had only served to heighten my envy of Millie Duvall–a singer I considered average at best, and a songwriter I considered mediocre. Yet she was the one with the record deal and I was the one warming up her audience. “I’m happy with it,” I said. “It felt pretty good on my end.”
“Well, it was good.” Pearl lit her cigarette and handed the lighter back to me. A gesture so ordinary as to be unnoticeable and yet within a few short weeks it would become a gesture infused with intimacy as we lit our cigarettes in bed after making love; a gesture that would underlie the growing familiarity between us. She never managed to hold onto a lighter for very long or to have so much as a book of matches on her person for any length of time, least of all in a bed other than her own.
“Do you perform here a lot?” Pearl went on, standing closer to me. Not that it meant anything; the tiny dressing room was crowded.
“I play all up and down this block and in the clubs over on Bleecker and W. Third Street.”
“All of Millie’s haunts, huh?”
“I guess you could say that, but I’d be playing them whether or not Millie Duvall existed.”
Apparently, bitterness uncoils its tongue independent of the speaker. I certainly hadn’t intended to sound so petulant, least of all to someone who was obviously in the Millie Duvall camp.
Pearl smiled broadly over that comment. “She is a bit of a musical dilettante, isn’t she? But she’s a hardworking one.”
That threw me. It made me wonder what my own crew might be saying about me when I was out of earshot. “That’s kind of a strange remark,” I said.
“But it’s an honest one. Millie and I go way back. We both studied music at the High School of Performing Arts. I know what she does and doesn’t know about music.”
“So you’re a musician, too, then?”
“Do you play out much?” Talk about dilettante, I thought; in that motorcycle jacket, she could only be some kind of rock & roller.
“Yeah. I have an all-girl band called the Nasty Fucks.”
It was finally my turn to smile. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I’m serious.”
“Do the clubs actually give you billing out front with a name like that?”
“Once in a while–the ones farther downtown that are only open after midnight do. And they don’t book any fucking folk singers, I can tell you that much. Hey, you know, you’re even prettier when you smile?”
It was a comment that caught me off guard–it implied that I was pretty regardless, just prettier when I smiled–and it flattered my considerable ego.
I soon learned that Pearl wasn’t like most of the punk rockers that haunted the clubs around the Bowery. She was open to all kinds of music. And she could read and write music, even though all she ever played on her electric guitar were chords. It was all I ever played, too, only my guitar was acoustic. So we had that other thing in common. In spite of our brown hair, our brown eyes, our slender frames and pretty faces; we responded to rhythm, to the savage muse. It pulsed in our blood. A devotion to fancy melodies was for a fussier type of musician, like Millie Duvall, who got radio airplay. We thrived instead on a straight-ahead rhythm accompanied by words. I favored stories that tore at the heart; Pearl favored staccato outbursts of rage, still it all came down to rhythm and words.
There was a rhythm to the subway trains back then, a rhythm to the traffic in the noisy late-night streets. Our bodies fell into the rhythm from that first moment we left the folk club together on MacDougal Street, missing Millie’s act and choosing to go someplace noisier for a beer instead. “I thought Millie was a friend of yours,” I fished curiously. “Why didn’t you want to stay and listen to her set?”
“Well, for one thing, I’ve heard her a million times before and, frankly, ‘friend’ is putting a sanitized label on what she is to me.”
We fell into the rhythm of confessions almost immediately and it set the tempo for the rest of our tumultuous affair. “What does that mean?” I asked.
Pearl focused momentarily on her mug of beer, then said rather poetically, “Millie taught me the meaning of words like ‘beloved’ and ‘cherish’ and ‘anguish’ and ‘ache.’ Words that get into your veins and cut you to ribbons, especially when the cherished beloved does nothing but ignore you and send your world spiraling into constant heartbreak. Have you ever loved a girl in that way? A straight girl who didn’t have a clue? I had her on a pedestal for four long years that felt like a lifetime. I worshipped her from afar and watched her leave school, every day, in the car of some older guy who wasn’t in school anymore and who wasn’t any good for her, in my smitten opinion. Not that my opinion would have meant shit to Millie Duvall.”
I knew she was serious and yet I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. It was so bitter and pathetic and melodramatic all in one. “Wow,” I said, never dreaming that it would soon rather aptly describe how I would fall for Pearl. “You’re right; I guess ‘friend’ doesn’t come close. I’m kind of amazed that you’re even friendly after a history like that.”
She laughed then, too. “Oh, she’s all right. I fell in love with a figment of my imagination. It had nothing to do with Millie, with who she really was, you know? I see it now.” Then she added, “Did you ever fall in love with a straight girl?”
“Of course. But then I was always too enamored with myself to get that carried away with someone who wasn’t into me.”
“Well, aren’t you a smart cookie.”
And I did think I was smart. I thought I knew everything, especially how to stay one step ahead of the ball and chain of love. I could fall into bed with any girl but my heart kept a safe distance. Until Pearl, I was more interested in the spectacle of lust. Romance was okay for an evening as long as it led to sex. Otherwise, I kept it “just friends” and I concentrated on my career.
Not that I fell in love with Pearl right away, but when I fell, I fell hard. And unexpectedly. I’d had a dream one night that Pearl and I were in bed, making love with all our clothes on, and in the dream I felt like I’d known her forever, that she’d been important to me in a previous life and I was only now connecting her to the Pearl I knew in this life. The dream was fraught with meaning, a meaning that regrettably did not carry over into the waking world. All that lingered was a feeling of deep loss and it haunted me.
“Who were we?” I blurted one night while we were lying on my bed. We weren’t making love yet. We were mostly still dressed, smoking cigarettes and each nursing a bottle of beer in the dark. The LCD of the stereo monitor was the only light in the room.
“What do you mean?” she said, cocking her head to one side and studying me intently.
At that moment, I fell into her brown eyes. I couldn’t help myself. They seemed luminous in that electronic glow. In some inexplicable way, that look she had on her face, triggered the memory of my dream in spades. “Do you think we could have known each other in another life?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I suppose so.”
“Isn’t it weird that we would meet up again, then, in this one?”
“Maybe we agreed to meet again,” she offered thoughtfully.
I was surprised she was taking me seriously, let alone taking it to the next level. I’d had no idea she was at all metaphysical. Like so many other downtown musicians, Pearl had veered from the beer and smokes and the occasional recreational drug use, onto the heroin route. I didn’t think she had a problem with it (after all, she wasn’t an addict, was she?), still I thought that even dabbling in hard narcotics automatically made her less spiritual. So her response surprised me.
“You never know,” she continued, her gaze not flinching from mine in that soothing glow of the stereo receiver. “Who’s to say that in some other life, we weren’t talking together just like this, about knowing each other in a past life and then we agreed to meet again in this one. Shall we go ahead and agree to meet in the next one, as well?”
The sex between us that night felt more like making love than any sex had ever felt to me before. I felt connected to her from some other realm and I’d never made love to anyone that I’d ever paused long enough to feel connected to. After that night, I was hooked. I was the addict. I became obsessed with Pearl.
Not long afterwards, her band went on a tour of Europe and she was gone for nearly a year. In her absence, I wrote a slew of thick, saccharine-y love songs that no one on the folk music circuit could stand to hear me sing, and I started drinking heavily. The hard stuff, like bourbon, straight-up, a fifth of it every other night, and no other woman who came into my field of vision interested me in the slightest. I missed Pearl. I ached for her. I agonized over my searing desire to make love to her again. To be intimate with her. I cherished her. She was my beloved.
I knew then what it was like to have words seep into your veins and cut you to ribbons from the inside.
I was drying out from the booze when Pearl came back from Europe. In a surprising move, she moved back in with her newly-widowed mom in Woodside. Pearl called unexpectedly in the middle of the night. “I’m home,” she said, her voice sounding worn out. “You want to come visit?”
Did I? The following day, I couldn’t get out to Queens fast enough. It took me nearly two hours and three different trains to get there from the Lower East Side.
When I came up from out of the subway, it seemed incongruous to me, that my cherished beloved was back there in ugly Woodside, in that non-descript apartment with her grieving mother, in that room where she’d grown up. Standing in it, I felt awed, like I was in some sacred place. But all it was was a room; four cheap walls and a ceiling that had sheltered an overly sensitive Jewish girl from her tortuous crush on Millie Duvall. Oh, she of the wispy blonde hair and strictly hetero lifestyle.
Then I came to learn that the little bedroom in Woodside was a haven against Pearl’s heroin habit. She’d been hospitalized in Europe to try to kick it. For now, her veins were clean and she was taking it one day at a time, like everybody else I knew.
It was a temperament that matched mine perfectly. “You want to sit down?” she said, indicating her single bed where, on some metaphysical plane, her girlhood nights of anguish still lingered. I was certain of it.
“Okay,” I said. I perched on the edge of it tentatively. She had become larger than life to me. It was hard to sit so close to her and not feel overwhelmed by my own needs.
“I love you, Pearl,” I blurted.
“I love you, too,” she said. But it came easily to her, the words sounded too matter-of-fact, like barely a thought had gone into the saying of them.
I held it against her, the ease with which she could say, “I love you.” And even though we spent some quality quiet-time together, doing healthy things and being healthy girls out in the bright sunshine–or as bright as it gets in Manhattan–I wanted to hear the kind of “I love you” words that were cutting her to ribbons inside.
The sex was good. Sober-sex is always a rush after having chemically induced dead-sex for a time, but it was clear that Pearl was in complete control of whatever passion she was harboring for me. It was not the all-consuming love, as mine was; it wasn’t the same love, the love I eventually insisted it had to be if we were ever going to share it.
In hindsight, there were too many things we each needed to learn about life to not have ended our big romance. Pearl is a healthy woman now. So healthy, in fact, that she owns her own health food store up in Woodstock and has been with the same equally healthy woman for sixteen years. How do I know this? Because I’m still playing folk music on the folk circuit. I never made enough money to retire, as Millie Duvall did so many years ago. I play all the small clubs up and down the eastern seaboard, and all along the Hudson River. I was in a pathetic excuse for a dressing room upstate one night, still the opening act, when Pearl dropped in from out of nowhere to say hello. Still no make-up and still as naturally beautiful as ever. I was surprised she had sought me out, of her own volition, no less; surprised that the sight of me tuning up my guitar made her smile.
“Hey there, stranger,” she said.
“Pearl! Gosh, you look good.” I was quietly astounded by her sudden shining presence in my cranky, grown-up world.
Later, after my set, we spent a few more minutes chatting before she had to head back home. And I noticed that her eyes crinkled pleasingly when she smiled. It was age creeping up on her and it suited her. I said, “You look happy, you know that?”
“I am happy,” she said. “And how about you? Happy, too?”
Overwhelmed by a surprising flare-up of an ancient aching need, I croaked out, “Happy enough.” And it wasn’t a lie, per se. I was happy enough–for someone who finds herself suddenly buried alive in regret. That woman had once been in my bed, that gem in a five-and-dime store, Pearl; the most beautiful woman in the world. She’d readily said she loved me and I hadn’t believed that love could be real if it didn’t hurt.
I followed her out to her car. “I’m sorry,” I said pathetically.
“Sorry for what?”
“For not letting love be enough, I guess.”
She seemed to understand what I was referring to and it made my heart ache even more. I had been so clumsy about loving her, so self-involved. I’d have given anything at that moment to take it all back and re-write it, start over. “It’s okay,” she said. “If it makes you feel any better, I loved you a whole lot more after you were gone, when I couldn’t do anything about it. Weird, huh?”
What could I say? It did make me feel less like a loser. To be loved at all, even in hindsight, is a precious thing. I was grateful for it.
I watched her drive away until her taillights disappeared over a hill in the darkness. And I made a mental note to learn from this feeling, really learn from it, so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake when I crossed her path in the next life, the next time her love came back around.
c – 2006, Marilyn Jaye Lewis