Mercedes de Acosta—a very out and about lesbian writer born at the turn of the 20th century, noted for many of her relationships, all adventurous, glamorous and passionate—died in poverty asking for her love Greta Garbo who, rumor has it, denied de Acosta even that. Garbo—the introverted movie star described in such belittling terms as recluse—brainwashed into believing her relationships with de Acosta bad luck, erased all references to the romance from her history, leaving the public to fantasize a romantic and tragic narrative all on their own.
“That sounds pathetic,” Lucretia said placing aside the bowl half empty with popcorn.
Lucretia at one end of the sofa, Layne on the other, spent the evening binging Queen Christina and Anna Karenina starring the sultry-eyed queen of Lala Land then proceeded to explore Garbo’s biography online.
“You mean tragic?”
“No, I mean pathetic.”
“She should’ve simply not been so…out then she could’ve probably coaxed Garbo into something more—permanent.”
“What?” Layne asked.
“Some nuance is warranted in certain situations and that sounds like one of them. In upper class, we mind our own business. There had to be some rampant homophobia back then even in Hollywood. Garbo was their cash cow and they didn’t want her to spoil that, and I bet she definitely didn’t wanna spoil getting all that cash either. It says at the time of her death she was worth—what, $32 million? That’s impressive for a single woman that started out in poverty during that era.”
“Cash cow? Upper class? Really? You mean you keep each other’s secrets?”
“I imagine the relationship played out like most—those long Garbo looks, intense and erotic; the kisses and whispers veiled, hot, and splintered heightening the thirst for something deeper and pleasurable; still with the stain of homophobia shadowing every move and emotion; every act the subject of a million plus ponderings on what if.” Lucretia sighed.
“I—that was…extremely poetic.”
Both became wistful mulling it over for a long hot minute.
“Where are those love stories?” Lucretia murmured.
“It says in Wikipedia that she also had a long-term relationship with her housekeeper. Of course the housekeeper describes it as close—like sisters.”
“Sometimes you have to be—discreet. Has the concept of privacy lost all meaning?” Lucretia asked. “And they probably were like sisters. Just because it’s one thing doesn’t mean it cannot be another. Simplifying a relationship by placing a colloquially favorable heteronormative and familial label on it lessoned the likelihood of antagonism, judgment, and ostracism and the need to delve further as the media are prone to do.”
“I totally disagree on discretion. de Acosta’s sacrifice and determination to live her life in the open gave others the courage to do so and the opportunity for gay rights to evolve and I’m shocked you of all people would not see it that way. Is this where I put on my Jake Brigance voice and say now imagine her black? Really, Lucretia?”
“Me of all people? Is this your version of saying because I’m Black and Bisexual I should have more empathy for her? Especially since I don’t actively broadcast my status? I’m also a member of that social class and the face and head of a worldwide business that employees thousands that count on me to feed and support them—and number one above all others? Be discreet or they’ll turn on you and eat you. If she were Black, she’d more than likely be dead being both Black and Gay during that time,” Lucretia said eyeing her.
Layne winced. “Yes, you’re right. We can’t be ahistorical here. Not that we ever should.” She paused. “I do believe that’s the first time you’ve ever acknowledged being bisexual. You know, you are a lot like her? Garbo?”
Ignoring Layne, “Then again, you have the Black Queen Bae herself.”
“Beyoncé is not queer.”
“No! God, I wish! I’m talking about Audre Lord. James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin navigated that era too and lived. Although they’re just three examples of the many. Where are those romantic biopics? I wanna watch those.”
“You’re rich, you make them. You have that power.”
Lucretia sat up. “I do, don’t I? I wanna make a hot, passionate de Acosta-Garbo romance movie too. All that fun in dysfunctional.”
Layne grimaced. “You’ve obviously never been. There is little fun in dysfunctional, trust me. I know this from experience. Mine specifically.”
Lucretia blew a very slobbery raspberry toward Layne as Layne left the sofa. “I’m gonna do it.”
“So, we’ve gone from pathetic to making gay romantic biopics. Excellent. Just, you know, be discreet about it cause we’re living in a whole new era of fascism. Though some would say that is the most important time not to be discreet about freedoms.” Layne, sporting a small smile, winked at her as she exited the room. “Night.”
The ocean murmured in its sleep moving restless back and forth in blackness. She sat staring at it; the sand cool and silky beneath her; her shoes thrown to the side; her dress bunched up around her thighs. Distant lights and the tinkle of sounds supple and faint at her back. City lights prevented a more thorough celestial viewing of anything beyond. Her arms wrapped around her legs, she watched as the breeze fluttered a paper napkin. It danced ghostly in front of her as if puppeted from something powerful unseen in the inkiness of the night.
Layne recalled that conversation and allowed it to wash over her. Connecting those ever mobile lines in the sand from this to that, she closed her eyes and focused her breath synchronizing with the ocean’s sway. Clearing her mind of everything proved impossible currently as the burden of certain sacrifices resulted in suffering to those that endured so much already.
She didn’t know how to feel about that. It certainly didn’t make her feel happy.
Were they simply soldiers in another war?
She despised that analogy and usually lambasted those that made the comparison.
Had she been naive?
“Sand, like snow, is best viewed from behind a window and not touched.” Lucretia sat down beside her while Jason hovered in the background.
“You are a walking contradiction.”
“We’re human—we’re all walking contradictions.”
“I don’t know how to feel about what we’re doing. There’s not one word to encompass all the emotions. I feel numb and like I’m watching someone else’s life play out in front of me. It doesn’t feel real most of the time. It’s…cheap, but…unavoidable? I feel…shame. I’m sure there’s some German word for it. There usually is.”
“Shame is a good thing. Shame keeps us human. It keeps us connected.”
Layne lay back on the sand to look at what little of the stars she could see. Lucretia followed.
“Do you wanna quit?” Lucretia asked.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Do you want a confession?”
“Sure?” Layne added hesitantly not really certain she could process anything more tonight.
Lucretia turned on her side towards Layne folding her hands underneath her head. “I felt shame, but also…excitement. And the adrenaline was…intense.”
Layne turned towards her mirroring her pose. “Me too. I thought it was just me. Made me even more ashamed.”
“And, oh my god”—Lucretia whispered taking a quick glance over her shoulder to Jason—“I couldn’t stop thinking about that kiss. Talk about feeling guilty. It was so confusing.”
“I pinballed between every emotion and some I’d never even experienced. It was weird.” Layne paused. “Are you going to—you know?” she glanced at Jason who was looking up the beach.
“No. That will keep. For now. The slow burn will have to do. We got work to do. Speaking of—you know he’ll follow you out here,” she smiled through the last. “Brody Blake has a crush on you,” she singsonged.
Layne felt the blush heat her face. “I will direct it back at you.”
Lucretia grinned wide. “I’m excited to see where all this goes.”
“You are a bizarre creature. Completely incongruous,” Layne chuckled then sobered. “So, what did you do for her? The girl with the pierced vulva?”
“Wow, that’s witty and feministically empowering—and could be her biography title. I set her up with the LGBTQA+ foundation of her dreams. She’s an activist at heart. That’s what she wanted. She was eager to help and make that sacrifice. But first, I have to get my lawyer to get her released from Secret Service custody.” Both stood. “You gonna meet us at the plane?”
“Yes, I’ll be there.” Layne noticed Brody walking towards them. She looked down and away smiling bashfully. “It appears you were, once again, right.”
“Oh, how I never tire of hearing that.” Lucretia, smiling wide, stood looking back at Brody. “Remember it’s okay to live and enjoy life amongst all this fascist chaos.” Lucretia winked at her then left stopping briefly to chat with Brody; Jason, following, a short distance away.
As Brody walked towards Layne, everything seemed surreal—including him. The ocean wheezed and moaned at her side revealing naught but cryptic messages. The sand beneath her curled toes softened a world painted cynical with uncertainty and anguish, while outlining him in an ethereal glow that sent her heart skidding unnaturally. Typical that even in this surrounding, with only her, he was lionized almost divinely while she lingered in obscurity—almost as if the universe whispered her vulnerabilities and laid them bare in some subtle confirmation.
A coldness crept up within overcoming her. And with that, as he continued to approach, she retreated a step into that black night towards the ocean as a gust of wind shook a shudder from her.
Brody hesitated and stopped advancing upon seeing her recede. Turning slightly, he placed his hands in his pockets and looked at the sky. “Have you ever heard of the Chinese legend Zhinu and Niulang? In the Japanese version, it’s Orihime and Hikoboshi. There are many versions throughout Asian cultures—there’s a western variation too, but the Eastern ones are my favorites. Princess Vega, an immortal goddess, falls in love with a mere mortal farm boy—Vega. Mama and Papa, not at all happy about it, placed them both in the sky separated by the celestial river known as the Milky Way. On the seventh night of the seventh moon, they’re reunited either by a bridge of magpies or a difficult journey, and there are festivals—I’ve been to both the Tanabata and the Qixi. They are—incredible.”
Brody stared at the sky above them in the general direction of that which he spoke while she watched him carefully. “When it rains on festival day, it is said those are the tears of Orihime because they cannot meet for another year since the journey is deemed too treacherous.” He turned towards her: “Will it be a year before we meet again?”
“No.” She looked upwards hiding her smile that lingered behind the restraint, and mostly to avoid those eyes. When she glanced back at him, he stood next to her. “Stealthy, aren’t you?” She asked not expecting an answer.
He lingered there. Close—so close, she could feel heat radiate from his body. The wind pushed her towards him. He stood steady and silent, staring at her, his head tilted; contentment oozing from him with so much ease, she wanted to curl into it and live; at least for the moment. He dragged his eyes from hers to her lips and wavered leaning in before shutting them while taking a small step back. He smiled: “I’ll find you.” With that, he turned and left.
She freed the breath held hostage and watched him go.
The end of Book One. Layne, Lucretia, Brody, Jason, and Broderick will return in Book Two.
© 2020 Alex Shea/Pamela Gay Mullins