In Paris they warn you before cutting off the water, but out in Normandy you’re just supposed to know. You’re also supposed to be prepared, and it’s this last part that gets me every time. Still, though, I try to make do. A saucepan of chicken broth will do for shaving, and in a pinch I can always find something to pour into the toilet tank: orange juice, milk, a lesser champagne. If I really got hard up, I suppose I could hike through the woods and bathe in the river, though it’s never quite come to that.
Most often, our water is shut off because of some reconstruction project, either in our village or in the next one over. A hole is dug, a pipe is replaced, and within a few hours things are back to normal. The mystery is that it’s so perfectly timed to my schedule. This is to say that the tap dries up at the exact moment I roll out of bed, which is usually between ten and ten-thirty. For me this is early, but for Hugh and most of our neighbors it’s something closer to midday. What they do at 6 A.M. is anyone’s guess. I only know that they’re incredibly self-righteous about it, and talk about the dawn as if it’s a personal reward, bestowed on account of their great virtue.
The last time our water went off, it was early summer. I got up at my regular hour, and saw that Hugh was off somewhere, doing whatever it is he does. This left me alone to solve the coffee problem—a sort of Catch-22, as in order to think straight I needed caffeine, and in order to make that happen I needed to think straight. Once, in a half-sleep, I made it with Perrier, which sounds plausible but really isn’t. On another occasion, I heated up some leftover tea and poured that over the grounds. Had the tea been black rather than green, the coffee might have worked out, but, as it was, the result was vile. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d try more than once, so this time I skipped the teapot and headed straight for a vase of wildflowers sitting by the phone on one of the living-room tables.
Hugh had picked them the previous day, and it broke my heart to think of him marching across a muddy field with a bouquet in his hand. He does these things that are somehow beyond faggy and seem better suited to some hardscrabble pioneer wife: making jam, say, or sewing bedroom curtains out of burlap. Once, I caught him down on the riverbank, beating our dirty clothes against a rock. This was before we got a washing machine, but, still, he could have laundered things in the tub. “Who are you?” I’d said, and, as he turned, I half-expected to see a baby at his breast, not nestled in one of those comfortable supports but hanging, red-faced, by its gums.
When Hugh beats underpants against river rocks or decides that it might be fun to grind his own flour, I think of a couple I once met. This was years ago, in the early nineties. I was living in New York, and had returned to North Carolina for Christmas, my first priority being to get high and stay that way. My brother Paul knew of a guy who possibly had some pot to sell, so a phone call was made, and, in the way that these things happen, we found ourselves in a trailer twenty-odd miles outside of Raleigh.
The dealer was named Little Mike, and he addressed Paul as “Bromine.” He looked like a high-school student, or, closer still, one of those kids who dropped out and then spent all day hanging around the parking lot: tracksuit, rattail, a wisp of thread looped through his freshly pierced ear. After a few words regarding my brother’s car, Little Mike ushered us inside and introduced us to his wife, who was sitting on the sofa watching a Christmas special. The girl’s stockinged feet were resting on the coffee table, and settled between her legs, just south of her lap, sat a flat-faced Persian. Both she and the cat had wide-set eyes, and ginger-colored hair, though hers was partially hidden beneath a woollen cap. The wife remained seated as my brother and I entered the room. I guess you couldn’t blame her for being inhospitable. Here you are, trying to watch a little TV with your cat, and these two guys show up—people you don’t even know.
“Don’t mind Beth,” Little Mike said, and he smacked the underside of the girl’s foot.
He advanced upon the other foot, and I pretended to admire the Christmas tree, which was miniature and artificial, and stood on a barstool beside the front door. “This is nice,” I announced, and Beth shot me a withering look. Liar, it said. You’re just saying that because my stupid husband sells reefer.
She really wanted us out of there, but Little Mike seemed to welcome our company. “Sit down,” he told me. “Have a libation.” He and Paul went to the refrigerator to get us some beers, and the girl called after them to bring her a rum-and-Coke. Then she turned back to the TV and glared at the screen, saying, “This show’s boring. Hand me the nigger.”
I smiled at the cat, as if this would somehow fix things, and when Beth pointed to the far end of the coffee table I saw that she was referring to the remote control. Under different circumstances, I might have listed the various differences between black people, who had been forced to work for no money, and black, battery-operated channel changers, which had neither thoughts nor feelings and didn’t mind doing stuff for free. But the deal hadn’t started yet, and, more than anything, I wanted my drugs. Thus the remote was handed over, and I watched as the pot dealer’s wife flicked from one station to the next, looking for something that might satisfy her.
She had just settled upon a situation comedy when Paul and Little Mike returned with the drinks. Beth was unsatisfied with her ice-cube count, and, after suggesting that she could just go fuck herself, our host reached into the waistband of his track pants and pulled out a bag of marijuana. It was the size of a small cushion, eight ounces at least, and as I feasted my eyes upon it Little Mike pushed his wife’s feet off the coffee table, saying, “Bitch, go get me my scales.”
“I’m watching TV—get it your own self.”
“Whore,” he said.
“See the kind of shit I have to live with?” Little Mike sighed and retreated to the rear of the trailer—the bedroom, I guessed—returning a minute later with a scale and some rolling papers. The pot was sticky with lots of buds, and its smell reminded me of a Christmas tree, though not the one perched atop the barstool. After weighing my ounce and counting out my money, Little Mike rolled a joint, which he lit, drew upon, and handed to my brother. It then went to me, and, just as I was passing it back to our host, his wife piped up, saying, “Hey, don’t I count?”
“Now look who wants to play,” her husband said. “Women. They’ll suck the fucking paper off a joint, but when old Papa Bear needs a little b.j. action they’ve always got a sore throat.”
Beth tried to speak and hold in the smoke at the same time: “Hut hup, hasshole.”
“Either of you guys married?” Little Mike asked, and Paul shook his head no. “I got preëngaged one time, but David here hasn’t never come close, his being a faggot and all.”
Little Mike laughed, and then he looked at me. “For real?” he said. “Is Bromine telling me the truth?”
“Oh, he’s all up inside that shit,” Paul said. “Has hisself a cocksucker—I mean a boyfriend—and everything.”
I could have done my own talking, but it was sort of nice listening to my brother, who sounded almost boastful, as if I were a pet that had learned to do math.
“Well, what do you know,” Little Mike said.
His wife stirred to action then, and became almost sociable. “So this boyfriend,” she said. “Let me ask, which one of you is the woman?”
“Well, neither of us,” I told her. “That’s what makes us a homosexual couple. We’re both guys.”
“But no,” she said. “I mean, like, in prison or whatnot. One of you has to be in for murder and the other for child molesting or something like that, right? I mean, one is more like a normal man.”
I wanted to ask if that would be the murderer or the child molester, but instead I just accepted the joint, saying, “Oh, we live in New York,” as if that answered the question.
We stayed in the trailer for another half hour, and during the ride back to Raleigh I thought of what the drug dealer’s wife had said. Her examples were a little skewed, but I knew what she was getting at. People I know, people who live in houses and don’t call their remote control “the nigger,” have often asked the same question, though usually in regard to lesbians, who are always either absent or safely out of earshot. “Which one’s the man?”
It’s astonishing the amount of time that certain straight people devote to gay sex—trying to determine what goes where, and how often. They can’t imagine any system outside their own, and seem obsessed with the idea of roles, both in bed and out of it. Who calls whom a bitch? Who cries harder when the cat dies? Which one spends the most time in the bathroom? I guess they think that it’s that cut and dried, though of course it’s not. Hugh might do the cooking, and actually wear an apron while he’s at it, but he also chops the firewood, repairs the hot-water heater, and could tear off my arm with no more effort than it takes to uproot a dandelion. Does that make him the murderer, or do the homemade curtains reduce him to the level of the child molester?
I considered these things as I looked at the wildflowers he’d collected the day before the water went out. Some were the color I associate with yield signs, and others a sort of muted lavender, their stems as thin as wire. I pictured Hugh stooping, or maybe even kneeling, as he went about picking them, and then I grabbed the entire bunch and tossed it out the window. That done, I carried the vase into the kitchen, and emptied the yellow water into a pan, which I then boiled and used to make coffee. There’d be hell to pay when my man got home, but at least by then I would be awake and able to argue, perhaps convincingly, that I am all the beauty he will ever need.