written by Chaya B. | illustrated and art directed by Plum
We were working like sharks the winter I turned twenty-eight, when my ex-girlfriend got hired as my boss. The meeting where she made her introductions gave me pause. She’d been so harmless and androgynous and compact when we’d dated, but in the years since she’d gone from Gigi to her full name, Gloria Geetanjali, and grown into someone formal, and voluptuous and oblique.
Gigi was the one. She’d turned me onto girls to begin with. I’d picked her up somehow on a trip to Melbourne, where we met at a conference. This was long before I had learned how to pick up girls. There was a dinner, not far from the hostel where I was staying. I had no radar for these things, not then, but I was already turned on, not just by her but by how others were talking — Sid the beautiful Pakistani gay man with the calm white English professor boyfriend and the very confident suggestions on my hair; Marlene the viciously beautiful Mughal pale-skinned woman who ran some sort of lesbian charity and wanted to match-mate everyone — but never permanently — only until she honed in on the next victim, only to prove her theories about who wanted to taste who and how badly — and most important, Gigi née Gloria, a strange name for a Tamil girl, very wild Gloria, who kept fretting that I shouldn’t get an arranged marriage, I just shouldn’t . But I was wild about her instantly too, something convinced me that the way we were sitting, thigh to thigh, meant she would change the air I breathed that night, even though I’d sat that way a million times with a million different people, including attractive ones, and I’d never had much of a one-night stand, just four or five random hook-ups of impulsive near-nakedness that didn’t go anywhere, not even to effective dry humping. I had wanted to be able to walk through the arranged marriage door, and was usually too nervous to start something that I knew my virginity couldn’t last through.
Gigi was different though. She was an expert. The minute we got inside her place we kissed and kissed; soon she was on my hair and breasts with fingers and tongue and didn’t stop until things happened to me, and we laughed because the end of my waist-length hair caught fire on the candle she’d been burning on her bed and without thinking I reacted, putting it out in a jiffy in her sink — then going back to her smooth gleaming body in the bed, and for that and for my quick learning she moaned and marveled: “You are amazing.”
I was only twenty back then. The morning after, Sid said: “See how it worked not to pouf your hair out like that for no reason? Just let it be. Good things happen.” (I didn’t tell him about the fire.) Marlene said: “Yum. The two of you.” But Gigi said: “You know I’ll never settle down, don’t you?”
It took me nearly a year to stop writing her romantic poetry. “Look, the main reason I had to sleep with you,” she wrote me once, “besides that I just wanted to, so bad, was that I needed to stop you from getting an arranged marriage, darling. And look at you now. I saw the photo of that blonde girl you’re dating. Mission accomplished. Mission fini. I saw the two of you kissing on the Institute website.”
The Institute was where I’d been working since age twenty-one, an Institute “devoted to ending violence against women and girls.” In reality, it looked nothing like an Institute. It was a former bookie’s office set above a fancy San Francisco Chinese restaurant. There weren’t any signs on the door or anywhere. Grey, sparse, cluttered, it was inhabited by women working like sharks, quick, deadly and silent, seeking the weak spaces of the perps — then zeroing in efficiently, ravenous for justice, wielding restraining orders, guns, night sticks, self-defense classes, whatever it took to get the women out. To free our fellow creatures from cruel nets. Bite our way through. Intimidate if possible. Outsmart the enemy.
Gigi, Gloria, my Glo. Her mother had MS. Soon after we broke up, Gigi started calling me. On the worst days, we talked on the phone all night, often with extravagant silences — with Gigi still in Melbourne, me in San Francisco — paying by the minute just to hear each other breathe. In between tales of some white boy she was sort of crushing on but not really, she inserted descriptions of how her mom was going blind. Of how guilty her mother made her feel, deliberately. “Oh, listen to those birds singing. Soon I won’t be able to see them. I’ll just have to listen. You’ll have left me by then of course. Gone to America, I s’pose.” Sigh. Gigi got job offers in the US on both coasts, but did nothing but wait. The year stable remission came, her mother regained most of her sight. Her mother started walking the Capital City Trail again, though with a walker, seeing through special lenses, refusing when Gigi offered to come along. Her mother even braved the safe parts of Great Ocean Road. Gigi’s local friends (the ones she hadn’t confided in, about her mother being sick) must have said: “Babe, you’re so into those American surfer girls, you have to go.”
G couldn’t cure her mother by staying. She irritated the fierce resilient crone by hovering too much. My Gigi rationalized: “I’ll make more money over there, then send it home,” but then her mother surprised her and turned out to be thriftier than Gigi ever dreamed. “Three million saved for retirement, that’s what I’ve got. I’m going to buy a boat while I’m alive,” she decided.
So, Gigi took this job here in San Francisco, as my boss, without even telling me, not knowing for sure, even, that I was still at the Institute, and came in just as we were searching the ocean and the skies and the mountains and the land for bleeding girls, for the men who’d wounded them. For peace. There was no abiding justice, without peace — something me and Gigi both believed, but thought we’d never have.
There were meetings at the Institute. There were love triangles and not-love triangles — triangles for power alone, where women competed just for the pleasure of being looked at carefully. Especially among any new young girl and two older women, vying for the younger one’s attention, time, favor, but above all — the power of provoking her anxiety. I always hated watching it. The way young women would storm in, flushed and idealistic, unselfconscious but aware of their beauty and high energy, excited, unknowing, eager to plunge in — and then the faltering. Older women circling, knowing, excited too but far too seasoned to thoughtlessly show their hands — also ashamed, to have such vivid emotions still, still at fifty and sixty and even seventy (especially seventy, when emotion was mainly what they had, and not so much physical touching). The older ones watching for the young one’s moment of confusion, self-doubt, plain tiredness — who can live on Ramen forever? — the older ones moved in like tired sharks, for the moment forgetting old wounds, closing their eyes and inhaling the smell of it, her fear and youth and inexperience, taking her in. Trying to convince her, each in their turn, that she needed someone to guide and settle her — that she couldn’t be a free thing on her own, pulsating and laughing around them, evasive and elusive, ultimately, because of how she scarcely thought of them, because of how she could move forward innocent of all the ways they had once failed or been brought down, because she was still kind of innocent of all the ways it’s possible to fail — ‘kind of’ because she knew, but wasn’t discouraged.
I watched Gigi watching conflicts and seductions. That was her main strength — her watchfulness, a quietude, the way she’d watched my face, caressed my hair, amused by everything I said. Elusive, in the end, but not so now. Because I saw her watching me.
“Are you okay?” was the first thing she said, when, late after everyone else had gone, Gigi and I had ended up in bed.
“Don’t know,” I said.
There was a case or two that got to me. You can tell when it happens; a day or two when every conversation feels too bare, and it’s all rules and plans and goals, and not feelings, because feelings would be too dangerous.
Like the box-cutter woman, whose face didn’t make me flinch until I saw the photo where she smiled. Or maybe I had nightmares because I’d never actually met her. Only seen photographs on a lawyer’s desk — a razor blade in thin lines on her face, eyes nearly swollen shut, lips bruised in a parody of a passionate kiss, welts on her neck, a broken nose. Her mouth mutilated at the corners, so that her smile would never be fully right again. I was frightened by the hot and cold rage that I felt. The day I’d saw her I wrote a note to the Mayor’s commission, excoriating them for not doing enough, the Mayor too busy with his glamour life, his glamour wife a talking cable TV head. Gigi had scolded me furious in her office, pushing me up against the wall, unbuttoning my shirt, sticking her tongue into my mouth, but first saying: “Stop ticking everyone off. Get a massage or something, will you? Be different.”
In Gigi’s bed, days later, I cried.
She waited, patient.
“I can’t be any different,” I explained.
Being with Gigi, I could see in her a mirror of how well we both were aging. Brown didn’t crack. Two wrinkles a piece — my two in between my brows (faint) and on the right forehead, consistent with my unpredictability, my unevenness. Gigi’s wrinkles in deep “laugh lines” around her eyes, a mark of being Australian and imbibing all that sun. Our asses were about where they had been eight years ago. Our breasts slightly smaller. With her leg wrapped around my hip I could see that her thigh muscles were better, that she had gone hiking in Melbourne, at Twelve Apostles or some other tour-beautiful helicopter destination every weekend since being in high school. She had freckles. Her eyes had lighter glints of brown than mine. My skin was darker — “more Dravidian,” she liked to tease.
But there was tension all throughout my body, all the time. Whereas Gigi was alert but mostly relaxed, like she could be doing any job, running an advertising agency or yoga studio, managing a grocery store, whatever, it was work.
Different with me. I searched for relief, but couldn’t imagine where it could come from. One of the old women at work — still young enough to wear expensive silks, her skin still with some sheen, her eyes still sharp enough to see and be attracted by the cruelty in my heart — she took me out for a martini once or twice, hopeful. But I couldn’t take my mind away from how vulnerable her hands and wrists made her look — how both the skin and bones seemed breakable, how anyone could force themselves into her life and smash her up.
“Sorry,” I’d said, moving away so our fingers didn’t touch.
There was a guy or two, relentlessly poised over me, convinced he could make me forget fucking girls. Gigi didn’t hear about them as I continued seeing her on and off, not answering when she talked about us living together. One guy was even Indian, Mahesh, “lord of it all” and with the slicked-back hair to match — but he made the memories even worse. He was an ER doc at UCSF, only vaguely interested in ever talking shop but when he’d found out what I had been doing with the Institute he tried to tell stories about roughed-up prostitutes, women with stab wounds, pregnant women with empty bellies, empty eyes.
For a short while, Mahesh seemed like he’d master me. Tall, smart enough to handle me roughly, he’d surprise me with some ice-cold remark, a smile that I realized was cruel only long afterwards. But he was proud of those stories, sincere in his way. Like Gigi, his job was only work to him — but he believed in it. Lacking in modesty he told me, serious, about the hundreds of people he saved in his short life. “It doesn’t matter that I can’t remember them,” he said. “The thing is, I was there.”
I didn’t care about the whole dumb doctor bit. Of course, I did, because if I married him, I would be “set”, as he often pointed out — more often than one might think, within a three-week hot, frenzied affair, given how little time was left for anything but bed. Dating a doctor made me feel guilty, for thinking of him as boring, even though his work was valuable. “You wouldn’t give me a second look if I didn’t eat you out,” he grumbled. “Not even then,” I said, realizing it was his gleaming hair I loved — the long black swag of it, all greaser pompadour, the thick reassuring mass I held when he went down and pleasured me, each time convincing me that he loved my taste. But he was thirty-eight to my twenty-eight, and told me he wanted to marry, thinking I’d quit the Institute, never suspecting what I was doing with Gigi.
Not that I would have guessed it myself. How, at age fifty, I would look up from a desk in a slightly-sunny room, some title on my wall with a small plaque, and realize that I’d built the Institute. How women whose names I couldn’t remember — just like Mahesh barely remembered the identities of bodies he had saved — would press my hand or my shoulder, would read my books, would want to even sleep with me — even long after I’d committed to Gigi, after we’d gone back to Australia to live for years and I had helped her care for her mother, including at the end.
Hah. I wouldn’t have guessed it, none of it. I didn’t know how sweet the years added and subtracted would be — all those many years, the way I’d give them to my Gloria Geetanjali, my Gigi, unthinkingly, living each day as if I had the power to leave any second but knowing at the end of each one — sweaty from work, sex, building heavy things, or eventually, from hot flashes — that I wasn’t going anywhere.
But there were hard times we got through, before I realized I would stay.
About the artists:
Chaya B. lives in the US with her family, and had the inspiration for this piece in daydreaming about communities she’s been part of, including those fighting for social change. And also was inspired by the question of how anyone knows when it’s time to settle down, versus continue to explore.
Plum is an illustration collective based in Brooklyn, NY.