My Mistresses

 Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Ester Bloom

For much of my New York life, I had two close friends who had nothing in common with other except me. Tall, blond, broad-shouldered Tara Leigh, built on a Nordic scale, looked like she was on a travel visa from Valhalla, while short, dark-haired Deborah, all breasts and belly, was pure Eastern-European shtetl. Deborah hailed from rural Vermont, where her parents had fled to escape their bourgeois Jewish families; Tara Leigh and her five older siblings were raised going to church three times a week in Tennessee. Both were passionate, Deborah about hedonism, Tara Leigh about self-restraint, and both abounded with confidence in their own belief systems—confidence that I lacked, and envied.

Post-college, in the big city without a mentor or a roadmap, I had never felt more like an unformed lump of clay. I wanted to be a writer, a successful urbanite, a maker-of-money—I wanted to be, and I wasn’t, not yet. Tara Leigh and Deborah were older than I was, more confident, more successful. They were bigger than I was, physically and emotionally, and I basked like a moon in their reflected light.

How I could be so into both of them, when they were so vastly different? Initially I justified the balancing act as being able to hold two contradictory thoughts in my head at once, which felt like a talent; later, I began to wonder what my ability to shape-shift so readily said about me, what I valued and, frankly, who I was.

Deborah and I lived mere blocks from each other in Brooklyn, she in a small, cluttered apartment she owned outright and me in my funny little studio with Mr. Ben, with whom she had been in the same class at Swarthmore. In college, Deborah’s path and mine had barely crossed, so when we met in Brooklyn in the fall for what felt like the first time, we unpacked ourselves for inspection. Quickly we discovered we were both competitive about Scrabble and passionate about the West Wing. The adhesive of our early friendship, though, was not our similarities.

“Want to go get coffee sometime?” she asked. I didn’t drink coffee but was happy to accompany her past Starbucks and down the clean, broad, tree-lined streets of our neighborhood to a cafe where the aficionados bought their lattes. As we ambled, she began telling me about Marsh.

One sultry day on a Brooklyn beach, Deborah recounted, she was trying to stick a nicotine patch to her sweat-dappled shoulder when a friendly, attractive stranger offered help. The stranger, Mary, usually went by the name Marsh to better reflect her complicated relationship with her gender. This suited Deborah perfectly. Though she dated and slept with all kinds of people, she preferred the layered complexity of masculine women and feminine men, and she especially liked how butch women made her feel. The two of them spent the rest of the day flirting against the backdrop of the surf flinging itself helplessly, endlessly, at the sand.

The thing was, Marsh had a girlfriend back in Philadelphia, Deborah said. Worse, the girlfriend’s father was dying half a country away, and the girlfriend had gone to his house to be with him, which is why Marsh had the time and ability to run up to New York for fevered, guilty trysts, and why Deborah could, in dark sunglasses, occasionally bring the dalliance to Philly. They carried on in apartments, in cabs, in parks, in hotels, always in secret, titillated to be doing something shameful where to be caught would mean disaster.

Sex, death, infidelity, gender identity and performance—Deborah’s uninhibited life felt exotic in comparison to mine. I had been with Mr. Ben for four or so years at that point, during which time neither of us had so much as kissed anyone else. I was as fixated on the updates as any 19th-century Londoner waiting for new chapters of Dickens, and like Dickens, Deborah shared the story in installments as we walked to coffee, or ran errands together, or went to see off-off-Broadway shows. While Mr. Ben was busy with law school, I was excited to have a companion, especially one whose comfort in her own skin was, almost, contagious.

In early winter, Deborah told me as we walked that, while she was bidding farewell to Marsh at the train station, she had first left bright red lipstick on Marsh’s collar, marking her as unmistakably as the cigarettes she had gone back to smoking.

“Because smoking fits with the idea of a mistress so well?” I asked.

“Yes!” She cried. She threw her hands up and then tucked them back under her arms to keep them warm. Corpses of leaves crackled under her heels and beneath my sensible flats. “And the sex is amazing. I can’t help it,” she said. “Being a mistress is hot.”

“Of course it is,” I said. “That’s why the word is mistress and not, I don’t know, cheating cow. If the other woman was always called a cheating cow, the position would have a lot fewer applicants.”

She laughed and kept talking. This was our rhythm: I listened and marveled and chided gently, reminding her that what she was doing was wrong, and she looked penitent and thoughtful and then continued with the story.

Historically judgmental of cheating and smoking and other self-destructive behaviors, I sacrificed these moral qualms on the altar of Deborah’s charisma. After all, how could I condemn her for not extricating herself from a screwed up situation when the pull of her soap opera was so strong that I, an observer, was hooked? To judge her I would have to judge myself, too. And talking to Deborah, just talking, was immensely satisfying: good conversation seemed to make her come. “Yes, yes, yes!” she cried when I said something right, laughing her generous laugh, her face shining with pleasure. “Exactly!” Her anger, once kindled, was as fierce as her approval was orgasmic, so I worked to stay on her good side: to figure out what made her happy, to tease her in the right way, to share her outrage about things I had never thought about before. Keeping pace with her could have been exhausting, but like good sex, it wasn’t. It was exhilarating.

Tara Leigh lived in a very different moral universe, one headed by an active, engaged God. That God, she felt, had called her to New York from Nashville, where she had been making her living as an independent singer-songwriter, so she packed her guitar and a draft of the memoir she was working on and drove north. She had only just arrived when I met her at a Manhattan coffee shop—she and I had both come in response to an Internet posting about a writing group.

Her blond hair and sunny smile didn’t bode well for our chances at friendship, but submerging my natural bias against anything that smelled of sororities, I tried to be polite. “Where are you living?” I asked.

“Greenwich!” she said, all Southern accent and newbie excitement.

“Connecticut?” I said.

“No …,” she said, hesitatingly. “Uh, Greenwich Village?”

“That’s the Village,” I told her. “Nobody calls it Greenwich. Greenwich is that terrible place in Connecticut, full of yachts and white people.”

“Oh,” she said, the very picture of dampened enthusiasm.

The writer’s group summoned us, and we turned away from each other. Tara Leigh might have only ever known me as the girl who pissed on her parade while I remembered her as an overgrown naïf, but over subsequent weeks, we discovered that some higher power had cobbled together this sorry excuse of a writer’s group to bring the two of us into orbit, because once we began chattering about words, and religion, and family, we couldn’t stop. So much of what I wanted and was waiting for—creative success, independence—she had made happen, while I embodied so much of what was exotic—East Coast liberal, sarcastic, secular yet Jew-y—to her. Our conversations continued over the weeks as the other would-be authors, realizing that they were unnecessary, dropped away. In our joy at having found each other, we barely noticed they were gone.

My friendships have usually been intense. As a Good Girl and an Obvious Virgin in high school, I channeled my need for romance into relationships with other GGOVs with whom I passed notes and spent hours on the phone and fought about nothing and cried and made up and swore never to fight again. It was wonderful.

As those other GGOVs started dating boys, or rather one specific boy each, they withdrew their devotion and transferred it. I couldn’t compete with the boys, not when our society valued the basest heterosexual activity over anything short of landing on the moon. For a while I was lonely, lacking both a best friend and a boyfriend. Then, my first year of college, I met Mr. Ben. From the beginning, romantic life was weirdly calm, if not, as one friend complained, “boring.” I found that I still craved controlled doses of drama—the withholding, the over-sharing, the ups, the downs—that sweet, calm Mr. Ben was unlikely to be able to supply; no, to get those needs met, I had to go outside the relationship to Tara Leigh and Deborah, who became, effectively, my mistresses.

Their sex lives were, in both cases, central to my relationships with them. Tara Leigh was the first virgin by choice that I had ever met, and she talked frankly about abstaining until she married. “I’m waiting for my husband,” she said, throwing back a shot and grimacing. Vinegar: two ounces of it, straight, before dinner was the crux of her diet at the time.

I grimaced too, thinking of how enraged Deborah would be to hear about the vinegar—she abhorred diets of any kind but especially ones that seemed like fads. I looked back at my dinner companion. “But, um, what if you don’t have a husband?” I asked.

“I believe that God has picked a husband for me,” she said. “He’ll find me.”

I tried to turn my natural expression of “What the fuck?” into one that conveyed something more like, “Isn’t that interesting!” As a teenager, I had gone temporarily insane with lust. I couldn’t understand any God that would sentence a person to 18+ years of that torment. “But, honey,” I said, unable to hold back the question, “don’t you get horny?”

“All the freaking time!” she laughed. “Especially when I watch football.”

Her future husband existed for her in a real way; she was conscious of, even loyal to, this man she had not met. One night, when we were sitting in the window of one of our favorite cafés animatedly discussing whether the prophet Isaiah really was predicting the birth of Christ, we noticed we had company. A shabby, older fellow stood watching us through the glass, making a repeated motion with his fist near the waistband of his sweatpants.

“Oh gross,” I said, sinking down in my chair.

“What?”

“He’s jerking off. Tara Leigh, honey, don’t look.”

Of course, she looked. “No!” she said, standing up to her full height and then some. She turned to the man, shaking her finger at him. “No, sir! Stop that! You should be ashamed. Go away, sir. Go away now.”

Pulling up his pants, abashed, he slumped off.

“You are amazing,” I told her when she sat back down.

“Only our husbands should think of us that way,” she said virtuously.

I stared at her. Then we both dissolved into giggles.

Deborah did not believe in soul mates, let alone future husbands as designated by God.  She worked in a queer-friendly feminist sex toy store and attended BDSM play parties. When we met up for Sunday brunch, she usually brought a cheerfully lurid story about her adventures the night before, either with Marsh or one of her other partners. Marsh didn’t want to cut things off with Deborah or break up with her girlfriend. But neither could she stop agonizing, and that wore on Deborah, who believed in enjoying her transgressions. Then Marsh’s girlfriend’s dad died and she moved back to Philly to be with Marsh again.

Deborah’s interest in the situation was flagging, she told me as we mounted four flights of stairs in an East Village tenement to see an occasional sex partner of hers perform autobiographical gender-queer burlesque. It was the sort of show that was so far off-Broadway it may as well have been in Detroit, one I would have enjoyed describing to Tara Leigh to see her reaction of horrified wonder. We got to the makeshift theater on the top floor, panting, and then found seats among the sparsely occupied folding chairs. “You know what else,” Deborah whispered to me as we waited for the lights to go up on the makeshift stage in front of us. “This is going to sound terrible.”

“What could be more terrible than the girlfriend’s dad dying?” I asked.

“Marsh gave me a paper of hers that she wrote for grad school. It’s awful. It reads like a sixth-grader wrote it. I couldn’t believe it! And, I swear to god, she was proud of it.”

“Oh man, that is the worst—she’s a bad writer and she has no self-awareness.”

“Yes!” she cried, “Exactly! Could I really be with someone who writes that badly and who doesn’t even know it?”

The unfortunate grad school paper didn’t bring the curtain down on their relationship. Despite her reservations, despite the fact that Marsh’s bereaved girlfriend was now back in the picture, despite everything, they kept sneaking around until someone in Marsh’s tight-knit community got wind of the affair. After a grand finale of screaming, fighting, breaking up, slamming doors, tears, pleas, and threats worthy of network television during May sweeps, the characters in the sordid drama all found themselves single and dazed. I was relieved when Deborah, the least scarred of the three, decided to move on; the situation had begun to make me feel tarnished by association.

Tara Leigh’s first relationship, while I knew her, was more pedestrian: she liked a close guy friend of hers and she didn’t know if he liked her back. More than liked—he was her husband, the one God had picked out for her. She was sure.

“Just tell him you like him,” I told her as we sat on benches in Union Square Park eating tart frozen yogurt, watching squirrels fight over acorns.

“I can’t,” she said. “They have to be the pursuers. I just have to wait and hope that this is what God wants.”

“How do you tell the difference between what God wants for you and what you want for you?”

“Usually God wants the hard thing that’s good for me and I want the easy thing that’s bad for me. But if I’m ever really in doubt, I consult this.” She reached into her capacious yellow handbag and brought out a leather-bound bible.

“This would be useful for stopping a bullet,” I said before giving it back to her. “Do you ever ask a question and then open to a random page to see what the answer is? I used to do that with my CDs, asking questions and hitting ‘Random,’ but I’d end up with bad advice, like Janis Joplin’s ‘Get it While You Can.’”

She laughed. “Sure,” she said. “Sometimes I pray over questions and open up the book like that, looking for guidance.”

“Would you do it now?” I asked. “Bible roulette?”

“Um,” she said. “All right.” She closed her eyes and put on a serious face. I tried to shut out the background noise—the stop and go of traffic circling the park, the high, ingratiating voices of kids with clipboards asking strangers for help, the dogs barking with agitated joy. After praying for a moment, Tara Leigh opened the book on her lap and pressed her finger down on a verse. “Mathew 6:6,” she said, and read, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” I said, snatching the book from her. “My turn.” I closed my eyes, shuffled pages, and opened to a random spot. “Genesis 33:17. ‘And Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built him a house, and made booths for his cattle. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.’”

“No,” she said, laughing, taking it back and ignoring my evil grin. “You didn’t do it right.” Positioning the book on her lap again, she closed her eyes and prayed, “Dear Lord, please guide Ester to your truth and your light using your words, so that she may do you honor, on behalf of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

She handed me the Bible. I opened it and put a finger down, and we both peered at the text, which came under the header Words to the Jews. John 6:64: “But there are some of you who do not believe.”

Tara Leigh beamed at me, delighted. I rolled my eyes and laughed.

Though earthly men disappointed Tara Leigh, Jesus never did. No one else I knew thought that way, and I found her certainty fascinating, even, especially, in the absence of proof. Deborah would more readily believe in UFOs.

For that, and other reasons, Deborah and Tara Leigh disapproved of each other, and each seemed suspicious of the other’s power over me. That felt appropriate. After all, if your mistresses like your husband and each other, surely you’re doing something wrong. Beyond that, it made me feel even more special to be close to two people who wouldn’t be close to each other. I was the bridge between the straight, monogamous Christian Southerner and the queer, polyamorous, secular Yankee. Tara Leigh was feminine, Deborah high femme. I alone could speak both of their languages, could make both of them laugh. I stood out from among Deborah’s many friends for being straight, monogamous, a moral voice; with Tara Leigh, I held price of place at the other end of the table as a hell-bound agnostic Jew. That my identity depended on which of them I was with was unsettling, but like everyone with a mistress (or two), I compartmentalized, or, better yet, avoided the subject altogether.

More of my friends flocked to the city as the years went by, and, not wanting to be selfish, I shared Deborah with my core group—including my best friend Mickey and her girlfriend Lu, who had just moved from a temporary stint down South and were thrilled to be in gay-friendly civilization again. Everyone welcomed Deborah, as enthralled as I was by her assertive, unapologetic attitude toward life. Then I tried my hand at matchmaking on a grander scale. At my wedding, Deborah reconnected with my friend Sloan, who she had met in college; Sloan’s gender-presentation and identity were reminiscent of Marsh, but she was not crippled by Marsh’s defects of character or writing ability. I started making jokes about their getting together and coaxed them both into coming to my friend Ross’s annual New Year’s Eve party in his cabin in the Adirondacks. “She is so adorable,” Deborah breathed to me in the living room. “She is so hot it’s kind of scary,” Sloan breathed to me the kitchen. “Go ahead!” I told them, laughing. The pheromones and alcohol made a heady cocktail. They spent the night together in the basement.

I assumed nothing too serious could come of the encounter, since Sloan lived across the country and since, outside the bedroom, they wanted incompatible things: Deborah, who didn’t like to be limited or constrained, had no desire for the kind of monogamous coupledom Sloan craved. Still, they stayed in touch, talking frequently, visiting each other, and fighting. Sloan called me in tears about Deborah, even once while I was at work (I ducked out onto the smoker’s balcony with my cellphone to try to calm her down). Deborah ranted over brunch. They had fallen into a perpetually stormy kind of love, and I assumed the role of a third person in the relationship, sharing in lots of the angst and none of the sex.

Was this, I had to ask myself, what I got off on—not merely having mistresses but the vicarious, voyeuristic thrill of being a participant in my mistresses’ other tempestuous relationships? It seemed like I had just shaken off the icky feelings engendered by the Marsh affair when I was sucked back into another complicated, emotionally-fraught situation, because, in an unfortunate echo of the Marsh affair, Sloan’s mother, on the east coast, grew fatally ill. Love and death drew Sloan across the country. A small voice asked me if it was my sick fascination with Deborah’s love life that kept me from sharing my doubts with Sloan, trying to prevent tragedy from striking again. I’m just being a good friend, I assured myself.

With Tara Leigh, at least, I had purer intentions. Didn’t I? Overlooking the byproducts of her fundamentalist upbringing that I had always disdained in other people—to her, the Bible was literally true and evolution the convenient myth—I listened to Tara Leigh’s stories, almost as excited as she was for the happy ending she felt confident would follow. Even though I didn’t believe in her god, I wanted her earnestness and piety to be rewarded; I wanted Jesus and her husband to exist for her. I gave her encouragement the way, if I had been a man, I would have given her diamonds and furs; and so, without meaning to, I led her on.

Tara Leigh had to tell me something, she said, as we sat at a small table in Curly’s Vegetarian Lunch. “Aren’t you going to order anything first?” I asked.

“This is a no-eating day,” she said.

“Seriously?”

“Yes! It’s okay, I promise—regular fasting is supposed to be good for you.”

“Self-love is supposed to be good for you, too,” I said, but I let the matter drop. “All right. What is it?”

She looked at me with lustrously sad eyes and said that God wanted her to move to South Carolina.

“Oh no!” I said. “Did you play Bible roulette? What did it say?”

“Ester,” she said, “I’m sure. I’m sorry. I’ve been praying about it and it just seems like all the signs are there.”

There were other reasons—financial, practical—that could have been enough on their own. Trying to be an independent artist in New York was difficult enough in good times, and the recession, coupled with high gas prices, had made both touring, and life between tours, more difficult. Mainly, though, the guy she loved lived in South Carolina and if he was to be her husband, she should make herself more available. Over the sound of my own heart breaking, I could barely hear her explain.

Then she said, “There’s something else.”

My hand shook slightly as I reached over my veggie burger for my water glass.

“Your friendship over the years has been so meaningful to me, so special,” she said. “I’ve learned so much from you, and I’ve loved having you in my life. But there’s been something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time that I’ve been holding back, and I just can’t hold it back anymore.”

Oh no, I thought. Please don’t say it.

“Jesus loves you,” she said.

It felt as though she were coming out to me on behalf of the Lord, expressing a deeply held emotion she could no longer keep in the closet. Jesus loved me, he was pursuing me; he didn’t want me to go to hell.

While she went to the bathroom to wipe her eyes and collect herself, I took a Xanax and tried to compose my answer. How could I break it to her that, though I respected her faith, I could never return whatever affection she felt Jesus had for me? That I could never love any god That Way?

“Thank you,” I said, when she came back and sat across from me again, a little pale but composed. “Thank you for feeling like you could tell me that. I really appreciate it, and you know I love you. But … I have my own family, my own culture, my own faith, even, such as it is. I could never turn my back on all of that.”

She nodded, looking mournful.

“Besides,” I said, trying to cheer her up, “my god is totally older than your god. Surely I’m exempt from damnation. I’m, like, grandfathered into heaven.”

She laughed and we managed to move on. But I had run into a limitation of how far I could go to please her. Like a classic mistress, she wanted more commitment from me than I was willing or able to give, and for the first time, I had to say No. I hoped our friendship would be strong enough to survive it.

Not long after moving in with Deborah, Sloan found out her mother had advanced into the final stages of cancer. More than ever, as she took on the primary responsibility for her mother’s care, Sloan needed lots of support herself, and martyrdom was not Deborah’s métier. I couldn’t help sympathizing with Sloan, especially since I was suffering through the decline and death of my own father. Grieving was hard enough with siblings to help me, and Mr. Ben, whereas Sloan depended on a girlfriend who was still struggling with the unsexy, mundane demands of being in a relationship at all. Worse, as a diversion, Deborah developed a crush on our mutual friend Lu who, far from being available, was still dating and living with my best friend Mickey. This was not a regular old drama thunderstorm; this was a drama tornado, and it had touched down too close to home.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Deborah asked me one winter afternoon. For Sloan’s sake she had given up smoking again and taken up knitting. Her nervous energy had taken the form, first, of scarves, and then several pairs of fingerless gloves, which she distributed: one for herself, one for Sloan, one for Lu.

“Sure,” I said, already tense.

“I really shouldn’t tell you,” she said, needles clicking, her apple cheeks glowing more brightly than usual. “So you know how Lu knows I like her?”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “And Sloan knows too, right?”

“Of course. I think you have to be honest about these things, even if it makes the other person ridiculously jealous.”

“Which Sloan is,” I pointed out.

“Anyway,” continued Deborah, “Lu finally admitted that she likes me too.”

A cold hand gripped my stomach. “Does Mickey know?”

“No! I shouldn’t have told you. I really shouldn’t have told you. Oh my god, forget I said anything.”

Of course, I couldn’t forget. Everyone who stood to be hurt was a friend of mine, and I cared what would happen not out of prurient curiosity but in a desperate, visceral way. For years, I had been feasting on Deborah’s stories; for the first time, I choked. The next night, I called Mickey.

Naively, I hoped that my betrayal wouldn’t change anything, but of course it did. For the first time in years, the spotlight of Deborah’s affection flickered, and when I realized how cold I was without it, I panicked. I sent frantic apologies for disappointing her, texted, called, waited as the silence pounded against my ears. Finally she consented to meet me. One windy March day, a month after Sloan’s mother’s funeral, Deborah and I sat across a picnic table from each other in a Brooklyn park, her fingerless gloves molded around a cup of expensive coffee. I put my own hands in my pockets. We shouldn’t be friends anymore, she told me. “We have different values.”

Cold air hit me upside the head. She was right, of course; we always had, though for years I pretended otherwise. Our break up forced me to go through the humbling business of confronting why I had mistresses at all. Where did the escapist impulse come from? Why did I get my thrills from someone else’s sturm und drang? Having a mistress or two ultimately said less about what was missing in my relationship and more about what was missing in me. With a little more confidence, I would have been able to relax around both women, be who I was without apology, and pay them the compliment of assuming they wanted not a paramour but a friend.

Apprehensive about our footing in the wake of the scene at the restaurant, I decided to act boldly and, before Tara Leigh left, give her something to remember me by. To find it, I had to go to the Sexuality section of the bookstore, which was located in the far back next to Christianity & Religion—in this case, a perfect juxtaposition. “In case you do find your husband,” I wrote on the inside flap before giving her the copy of A Guide to Getting It On. “Try playing Bible roulette with this, too!” She roared with laughter and hugged me tightly, dispelling any lingering discomfort between us.

We have stayed close. On one of her recent visits to the city, Tara Leigh and I met for dinner at Curly’s again (the newest diet was gluten-free, and heavy on beans). The guy she had moved to South Carolina for wasn’t her husband, it turned out, and the next guy she met who seemed really promising had feet of clay. She didn’t know what the next step was for her, but she was still confident in God’s plan. Along those lines, she had excellent news: God wanted her to move back to NYC.

This time, I will be in good shape to receive her.

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2 thoughts on “My Mistresses

  1. great reading, as always. and hooray for wanakena cameo. interesting to think about the role of similar/dissimilar values in friendships…would be interested to talk to you about this more.

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