Lucy French's Hell

On her sixteenth birthday, Lucy French was hell of confused. All her friends could talk about was boys. All her mother could talk about was why wasn't Lucy dating already. And all Lucy could think about was the back of Megan Gilbride's arms.

Megan sat in front of Lucy in algebra class. And since the warm days of spring were now upon them, Megan wore a sleeveless or crop-sleeved shirt almost every day. Every night, Lucy swore to herself that she would stop looking at the back of Megan's arms before someone else noticed and her whole life was ruined forever. And every day in fifth period, her gaze would be relentlessly, inevitably drawn to the delicate curve of those shoulders, the appealing hint of definition in those triceps, the graceful line of her whole arm when she raised her hand to answer a question about quadratic equations. She was always wrong - the girl was dumb as a box of rocks - and yet never discouraged. Lucy couldn't decide what was more fascinating about Megan - the loveliness of those arms or her blissfully unwavering self-confidence. Both characteristics set her far apart from Lucy.

At sixteen, Lucy French was firmly convinced she was losing her mind. And it wasn't just the Megan thing, although that was bad enough. She didn't even like the girl, who wasn't particularly sweet-tempered, but unbidden thoughts of what Megan's thighs and flat stomach might look like were now randomly popping into her head at the most inopportune times. She'd gotten a D on her last algebra quiz and it was all Megan Gilbride's fault. Even though they'd never actually had a real conversation.

But no, it was the beeping that made her question her sanity. A faint and yet piercing high-pitched beeping noise. She'd heard it all her life, but only occasionally - sometimes years would pass before she heard it again. But it always came back. Usually only three or four beeps, but sometimes it went on for nearly a minute, which was maddening, especially if it woke her up. She'd awaken with a jolt, thinking someone was in the room, but as the beeping faded, she'd realize it was just her and the family cat, Groucho, snoozing away at the foot of her bed. She'd asked her mother about it once when she was eight, assuming everyone must hear random beeping noises from time to time. Her mother promptly dragged her off to the doctor, who sent her to an audiologist, who had in turn recommended a child psychologist, for crying out loud! Lucy learned to keep her mouth shut after that, about the beeping and other things. Certainly about Megan Gilbride's arms.

* * * * * * *

On her twenty-sixth birthday, Lucy French was depressed as hell. Two years out of graduate school, all her hard work and MFA had earned her was a crappy job with the state, at the DMV of all places. Every night, she swore to herself that she would find a better job. Something in the arts, maybe. Something more fulfilling than the soul-sucking misery of the DMV, which was equal parts tedium and chaos. Plus, frankly, it didn't smell that great.

At twenty-six, she hadn't completely given up hope that her life could still turn out okay. Sure, she'd packed on a few extra pounds since college... And she still hadn't found a boyfriend, much to her mother's relentless and noisy chagrin. Maybe she just hadn't met the right guy yet, she told herself. Surely Mr. Right was out there somewhere... although, in her heart of hearts - a place she rarely allowed herself to acknowledge - she knew she didn't want that. She locked that part of her up tight and kept it well hidden, deep in the darkness that was spreading in her soul. Sometimes she felt like she was dying, but her body and her brain kept resolutely on living. She couldn't decide if what she felt was depression or grief.

And every once in a while, she'd still hear that faint, far-off, high-pitched beeping noise. Never for long and never audible to anyone else, as far as she could tell, but irritating and persistent. The kind of sound a crazy person would hear, she sometimes thought. She never mentioned it to anyone - not even Mrs. Teasdale, her Maine coon.

* * * * * * *

On her thirty-sixth birthday, all hell broke loose. She woke up just before dawn to find that a pipe had burst and the northwest corner of her bedroom was now a waterfall. By the time she got the water turned off, the worst of the flood mopped up, and the plumber and the landlord coordinated for an afternoon visit, she was late for work. She couldn't shower with the water off, so she threw on some clothes as quickly as possible. As she struggled with a pair of more than ordinarily recalcitrant pantyhose, she suddenly realized her fifteen year old cat, Captain Spaulding, hadn't moved off the bed since she'd been up. Hadn't moved at all that morning, in fact. Oh, no, Lucy thought, as she called his name, then stretched out a tentative hand to touch the small still body.

She cried for a while, then realized that while she was crying for poor old Captain Spaulding and his death, she was crying more for herself and how lonely it would be to come home from work now with not even a cat to greet her. Or notice she was alive. This wrenched forth a fresh round of sobs.

She drove to work eventually, dreadfully late now, weeping and wiping her nose with a crumpled paper napkin from Taco Bell that was under the seat, which was all she could find. By the time she reached the DMV office, red-eyed and cried out, she was almost two hours late.

She'd left her supervisor a voicemail earlier, explaining her plumbing woes, but wasn't looking forward to encountering him. He was notoriously unsympathetic about other people's problems. She hadn't told him about the cat. He wouldn't have understood.

"Bosco's looking for you," a coworker warned her as she made her way to her desk in the back. Candice, the coworker, was a tall, imperturbable Swede. In her early thirties, she was remarkably pretty and engaged to a tax attorney. She and Lucy had worked together for several years, but Lucy didn't quite count her as a friend. Candice tended to run hot and cold - you never knew if you were getting Sweet and Compassionate Candice, or Icy and Scornful Candice. Their fingers had brushed once when Candice had passed her a stack of papers. Lucy had imagined those long, cool fingers easing down her waist, slowly sliding down her belly, over the softness of skin, through the silkiness of hair, and then back and forth, back and forth, long, cool fingers slick with the wetness they'd brought forth.

But she harbored no illusions about Candice, who'd gone through a string of boyfriends before settling on The Lawyer, as she called him. And Candice was way out of her league even if she were gay. But Candice was straight, Candice was beautiful, and Lucy was a wretched, overweight, lonely freak trapped in the closet. Or so she thought of herself.

Somewhere around her thirtieth birthday, she'd finally come clean and openly, honestly acknowledged she was a lesbian. But only to herself. She hadn't told anyone. How could she? How did anyone go about doing that, she wondered? It wasn't as if there were a manual for it. Along with the realization that she was gay came the loss of hope. She'd given up on the possibility of ever having love in her life, because she simply had no clue as to how to proceed as a lesbian. She didn't want to go to a bar, she knew that much - she shuddered to think of it, picturing her chubby, imperfect self, no doubt inappropriately dressed in some godawful polyester DMV work outfit, worried about touching surfaces that had been wiped down with a filthy bar rag, being hit on by husky-voiced, burly women in men's clothes. Or worse, sitting alone at the bar while being completely ignored by everyone there, including a disdainful young dyke bartender with a curled lip and a fauxhawk. Dyke - she'd never even said the word out loud. She always flinched when she heard someone else say it. She didn't even know any other lesbians, not personally, at least. What in the world would she possibly have to say to any of those women? Nothing, that's what. She was too shy to even try. So, wearily resigned and defeated before she had even begun, Lucy French gave up and began the long, slow, painful process of waiting for her life to be over.

She still heard that far-off, tantalizing beeping once in a while, but she'd learned to tune it out. She had decided it didn't mean anything more than the rest of her futile existence.

Before she could even turn her computer on, Bosco was at her desk with a new employee trailing close behind.

"Glad you could finally make it," he said to Lucy sarcastically although she was never ordinarily late and rarely took any time off. She understood his unpleasantness stemmed from his own problems, whatever they were, but that didn't make him any easier to work with.

"Sorry," she said, mumbling something about the plumber.

"Never mind," he said abruptly, brushing off her explanation. He spoke rapidly, probably to stave off any objection she might be thinking of making. "Donna called in sick, so I need you to help out with the new trainee. This is Mavis - she'll be shadowing you today. Mavis, meet Lucy, one of our most experienced people."

He turned and walked away without another word, leaving Lucy open-mouthed, but too polite to protest since poor Mavis was standing right there. She turned to say a proper hello, but her heart fell as she took in the new woman. Mavis was fifty-ish, short and trim, with disorganized hair that looked like a gray-brown bird's nest, a maroon polyester pantsuit that was practically a twin to one Lucy owned, sensible shoes, and an enormous handbag, with papers and personal items bulging out the top and the side pockets. She was gazing around the bustle of the DMV office, which was in full swing on a busy Thursday morning, with a wide-eyed mixture of awe and horror. In Lucy's opinion, she appeared frazzled and ill-equipped for the stressful job that awaited her. Also, oddly familiar although she couldn't place the face... Mavis turned and looked at her with considerable interest, smiling enthusiastically.

"Hi, I'm Lucy," the younger woman said, extending her hand. "Welcome aboard, Mavis."

"Hello, Lucy," Mavis responded, shaking hands firmly. "It's great to finally meet you. And I am so sorry for being so late."

Lucy was confused. I'm the one who's late, not you, she thought.

"All right, well, let's sit down, okay?" she replied. "Give me a minute and then I can explain some stuff to you, like timecards and logging in and whatever."

"Actually, Lucy, I'm here to explain things to you," Mavis said.

Lucy paused at her keyboard and glanced at Mavis, who had pulled a chair over a little too closely to her own and was staring earnestly up at her.

"Excuse me?" Lucy said, thinking, wow, HR really picked a winner this time!

Mavis was rooting around in the depths of her enormous handbag.

"I've got it in here somewhere," she murmured, more to herself than to Lucy.

The feeling of familiarity was growing in Lucy.

"Have we met before?" she asked. "I feel like I recognize you from somewhere."

Before she could answer, a piercing, high-pitched beeping began to ring in Lucy's ears. She had never heard it so loud before. It was almost painful this time.

"Damn it," she said, holding a hand to her ear in a vain attempt to block the sound. Would the torment never cease?

"Oops, sorry," Mavis said, continuing to root in her bag. "Let me turn that off."

To Lucy's astonishment, she pulled out a cell phone and hit a button which made the beeping instantly stop.

"You - you heard that, too?" Lucy blurted out in surprise.

"Oh, yeah," Mavis said. "It drives me crazy. I keep asking them to give me a better one, but you know - it's all about the budget."

Lucy stared at her for a moment, then caught herself. She made herself take a deep breath. The explanation was simple. Mavis's phone just happened to sound like the beeps she sometimes heard in her head. It was just a coincidence. She shook her head to clear it. Mavis was still digging in her purse, having set the phone aside.

"Ah, here it is!" she said triumphantly. She pulled a large paperback book out of her bag. It was at least as big as a trade paperback or even a textbook, a good three inches thick. She proudly handed it over to Lucy, who stared at first the book, and then Mavis, in disbelief. There was something vaguely '70ish in the bold design of the cover, not unlike the mass-produced pamphlets they had there at the DMV. The book, though, featured a drawing of a smiling teenage girl and in large, jaunty font, the title:  OFFICIAL LESBIAN TRAINING MANUAL.

There was an awkward moment of silence.

"Is this supposed to be some kind of a joke?" Lucy said flatly. She looked around to see if any of her coworkers were paying attention, but they were all engaged with customers or on the phone. She was already having a really bad day. Would a cruel practical joke make it any worse? Yes, it would. Instead of feeling angry, though, she just felt incredibly tired. Drained of all emotion. And maybe even a little bit relieved? If her coworkers knew, that was one less secret she'd have to keep...

"Oh, dear, you're upset. I was afraid this would happen," Mavis said, both nervous and contrite now. "I feel terrible about this, dear. It's all my fault. It's just, I fell so far behind when they added Canada to my territory and I've been trying to get caught up for years now and somehow your assignment always kind of fell through the cracks and I'm really, really sorry, Lucy..."

Mavis's voice trailed off as her explanation wound down.

"Maybe if I could just show you the training manual," she said entreatingly, gesturing towards the book on Lucy's desk. Without thinking, Lucy opened it, expecting it to be blank, a gag book, but was surprised to see text, diagrams, charts, and pictures on every page as she flipped through it. Chapter headings flew by:
  • What To Do If Your Mother Freaks
  • The Secret Handshake - Myth or Reality?
  • U-Haul vs. Buying Your Own Pickup - A Cost Comparison
  • What the LGBT? A Glossary of Terms, Abbreviations & Acronyms
  • Do I Have To Like The Indigo Girls?
  • Q&A With Your Clitoris
One heading in particular caught her eye: Crushes on Straight Girls & How To Avoid Them. She found herself starting to thumb back to that page, then stopped. She closed the book and set it firmly face down on her desk, struggling to hold on to her composure. She felt like if she opened her mouth, either a wordless shriek or peals of hysterical laughter would come pouring out and she might not be able to stop. She gazed at Mavis speechlessly. Mavis looked back at her with great compassion.

"I know you've had a rough morning already, Lucy. And on your birthday, too, it's such a shame. I'm so sorry about Captain Spaulding. I remember when you brought him home from the shelter - what was it, eight years ago?"

"Nine," Lucy said faintly, staring at Mavis in disbelief. "How on earth could you possibly know about that?"

"Well, dear, I do know a lot about you. I've been watching over you since you were a baby, as a matter of fact. I should have come to see you a long time ago, Lucy, on your sixteenth birthday, but what with Canada and all, I got kind of distracted..."

This is it, Lucy thought, as Mavis babbled on. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly and gripped the edge of her desk with both hands. She had finally and completely lost her mind. There was no point in fighting it. She'd always known it would come to this. Well, she thought prosaically, maybe they'll have a nice library at the institution. Maybe a lawn where she could go for a walk after dinner with a white-jacketed attendant at her side. A lake, even...

"Lucy?" Mavis was peering at her with concern. "Are you all right, dear?"

Lucy felt her self-control slipping away.

"All RIGHT?" she said. Her voice got loud and high and cracked on the last syllable, causing some of her coworkers to glance over at the two of them. With an effort, she lowered her tone, but her anger spilled forth.

"You think I'm supposed to be ALL RIGHT?" she continued in a fierce whisper, leaning in close to the other woman. "You want to know the truth, lady? I'm 36 years old and I've never had a relationship. I've never been on a date. I've never been LAID, for Chrissake! And now you show up, with this crazy book - "

"Okay, okay, okay," Mavis said placatingly. "Here, I know it's not much, but try these."

Lucy looked unbelievingly at the eyeglasses Mavis was holding out to her.

"Go on," the older woman encouraged her. "Just give them a try."

The part of Lucy's brain that was a constant objective observer noted that she had been meaning to get new glasses anyhow. And these were much more attractive and fashionable than the dowdy on-sale specs she currently sported...

"Oh, what the hell," Lucy said and put on the glasses, thinking it was unlikely the prescription would be right.

But she was wrong. Her vision was crisp and clear - both near and far leapt into sharp focus as she slowly scanned the room. She looked at herself in the small mirror on her desk. Her old glasses were frumpy - these made her look thirty-six, not fifty, and a chic thirty-six at that. And something else was different, too. It was as if a fine mist had cleared from her sight. She turned to look at Mavis.

"Oh my God, Mavis!" Lucy said. "You're gay!"

"Well, duh," Mavis said, but with a delighted grin.

"No, no, I mean I can see it somehow - I can see that you're gay! And I can hardly ever figure that out..."

Lucy's voice trailed off as she took in the implication of her words. She snatched the glasses off her face and held them up to the light.

"Mavis," she said wonderingly, "are these - ???"

"Yep," Mavis replied proudly. "Top of the line gaydar glasses, just for you. I wanted to give you something a little extra, since I'm so late and everything."

Lucy had redonned the glasses and was carefully peering at the dozens of other people in the office, one by one.

"Holy crap," she said to Mavis in an awed undertone. "Craig in Titles & Registration is gay!"

"I know," Mavis said.

"And that woman taking her driver's license test... and that other woman taking the motorcycle exam..."

"I know."

"Plus the copy machine guy is totally bi!"

"I know."

A sudden thought struck her. She swiveled her gaze over towards Candice. Nuts - straight as an arrow. Bosco chose that moment to walk past.

"Everything all right, ladies?" he said in his smarmiest fashion. "I'd've thought you'd be up at your window by now, Lucy. Chop chop - customers waiting!"

Lucy was still focused on Candice, but Mavis spoke up.

"Oh, Mr. Boscorelli, I meant to ask you - how is Kevin these days?"

Bosco made a small choking noise as Lucy reluctantly withdrew her gaze from Candice, who was arguing with the copy machine guy.

"Kev - You know Kevin?" Bosco sputtered.

Lucy finally looked over at him. With her new glasses, she saw what she had missed before. Completely missed. Bosco's eyes met hers. A moment of mutual, unspoken truth passed between them. He made that choking noise in his throat again, his face beet red, then suddenly turned and made for his office.

"Wow," Lucy said to Mavis. "Bosco, too? I had no idea."

"Yes, Bosco, too. Unfortunately, his life has not been an easy one, Lucy. I know you'll be kind to him. But I think I can say he won't be giving you any more problems."

The two women exchanged grins. Lucy felt almost giddy, like anything might be possible, like her world was finally opening up...

"So now what?" she asked her newfound mentor, eager for the next revelation.

Mavis looked at the clock. "Early lunch?"

* * * * * * *

With two and a half margaritas in her, Lucy was feeling pretty fine by the time they got back to the office. During their extended lunch at a favorite nearby Mexican restaurant, they had had time to go over the entire manual, including the appendix. ("Labels Schmabels - How About Just Being Yourself?") Mavis had apologized again for being so incredibly late and Lucy had accepted her apology. It turned out Mavis was nearing the end of her lengthy career. In fact, Lucy was her very last (and long overdue) assignment.

"I tell you, Lucy, it's been a long road. I've kept meaning to get to you - came close many a time - but something always got in the way. I've delivered The Manual to thousands of young lesbians out there and on time, too. Then they dumped that darn Canada on me and screwed up my whole schedule..." Indistinct mumbling issued from below the bird's nest as Mavis sucked up the last of her strawberry margarita. "...production standards... Yukon... call me a hoser... Molson..."

Lucy signaled for the check and got a large coffee to go for Mavis as well.

Candice ran over as soon as they came in the door. Lucy surreptitiously checked her out again, but nope - still straight. She allowed herself a small sigh of regret.

"Oh, thank God you're back," Candice said. She appeared uncharacteristically agitated. "Bosco left right after you two did - he was all upset about something - and the stupid copier's still jamming even though the guy said he fixed it, and the district supervisor's on the phone looking for Bosco, and the courier is here needing a signature for some package."

She paused for breath while Lucy coolly took charge.

"No problem. Mavis, you work on the copier. Candice, tell the district supervisor that Bosco stepped out for a minute and take a message. I'll handle the courier."

The usual courier was a beefy young guy in his twenties, but someone different was holding the clipboard which awaited Lucy's signature. A woman, slim and fit, somewhere in her forties, Lucy thought. And, thanks to her new glasses, she knew without a doubt this woman was a lesbian.

She wasn't sure of the protocol - should she say something? - but fortunately the business routine of signing for the incoming delivery and handing off the outgoing stuff gave her something to do.

"Will this make it to district headquarters by tomorrow?" she inquired.

"Oh, yeah, it'll be there in the morning - aboot 9:00, I'd say."

"Uh... did you just say 'aboot'?" Lucy asked with a smile. The other woman smiled back, her teeth white and even in a tanned face. She was attractive, Lucy thought, in an athletic, outdoorsy kind of way - it wasn't everyone who could make brown shorts and a matching uniform shirt look good. Her short dark hair had a few strands of gray woven in, but Lucy thought that looked good on her, too. Really good, as a matter of fact. And no rings on her fingers...

"Yeah, the accent gives me away every time even though I left Moose Jaw years ago."

They laughed together as Mavis appeared in the distance behind the courier. Her hands stained with toner, her bird's nest of a hairdo listing to starboard, she was frantically waving at Lucy, mouthing something which looked suspiciously like "NO CANADIANS!"

Lucy decided to ignore her and turned back to the charming courier, who said, "I'm Helen, by the way - Helen Montague."

They shook hands. Lucy felt inordinately brave and bold and she knew it wasn't just the tequila. She held on to Helen's warm hand for an extra moment. Helen didn't seem to mind.

"I'm Lucy," she said, drinking in the other woman's lively brown eyes and feeling the spark of a connection. The spark she'd always dreamed of feeling. "Lucy French."

* * * * * * *

On her forty-sixth birthday, Lucy French celebrated with her partner of ten years, Helen Montague. Ten years and going strong, she thought with a smile as she savored a bite of the succulent peach upside-down cake her beloved Hel had made her. The marmalade-colored kitten they had rescued from the pound as a birthday gift (tentatively christened Rufus T. Firefly) was asleep in her lap.

At forty-six, Lucy was happy. Sublimely, emphatically, finally happy. Every night, she thanked her lucky stars for the love she had found.

And if she still occasionally heard a faint high-pitched beeping noise, it was just the smoke detector in need of a new battery. Mavis was retired now and someone else had her delivery route. Lucy's blog, "The Unofficial Lesbian Training Manual", was where she put her two cents in, in the form of lesbian news, discussions and info, as well as kitty pictures and safe driving tips.

There was just one thing left she had to do. One last piece of baggage from the past that she was finally ready to put to rest. With a sigh, she reached for the large, heavy book on the table in front of her and slowly opened its dusty cover.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" asked Helen.

"Yes," Lucy said firmly. "It's time."

She frowned slightly and adjusted her glasses to read the title page.

Fundamentals of Algebra.

Lucy French picked up her pencil and began.

copyright Amy Briant 2010 all rights reserved


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