The reader will discover that my
reputation, wherever I have lived, is
endorsed as that of a true and pure woman.
Alison called all over the city trying to find a restaurant that served blowfish, but there wasn’t one. She settled for Chinese. She would court an MSG attack. And if none came, then she’d been craving red bean sauce anyway. On the way to the restaurant, Alison chose not to wear her seat belt.
Alison had been abandoned by her lover, who was so quick about it she hadn’t even known she was pregnant yet. She couldn’t ever tell him now. She sat pitifully alone, near the kitchen, at a table for four.
YOU’VE REALLY SCREWED UP THIS TIME, her fortune cookie told her. GIVE UP. And, in small print: CHIN’S ORIENTAL PALACE.
The door from the kitchen swung open, so the air around her was hot for a moment, then cold when the door closed. Alison drank her tea and looked at the tea leaves in the bottom of her cup. They were easy to read. He doesn’t love you, they said. She tipped them out onto the napkin and tried to rearrange them. YOU FOOL. She covered the message with the one remaining wonton, left the cookie for the kitchen god, and decided to walk all by herself in the dark, three blocks up Hillside Drive, past two alleyways, to have a drink at the Fox and Goose. No one stopped her.
Alison had forgotten it was Monday night. Sometimes there was music in the Fox and Goose. Sometimes you could sit in a corner by yourself listening to someone with an acoustic guitar singing “Killing Me Softly.” On Monday nights the television was on and the bar was rather crowded. Mostly men. Alison swung one leg over the only empty bar stool and slid forward. The bar was made of wood, very upscale.
“What can I get the pretty lady?” the bartender asked, without taking his eyes off the television screen. He wore glasses, low on his nose. Alison was not a pretty lady and didn’t feel like pretending she was. “I’ve been used and discarded,” she told the bartender. “And I’m pregnant. I’d like a glass of wine.”
“You really shouldn’t drink if you’re pregnant,” the man sitting to Alison’s left said. “Two more downs and they’re already in field goal range again.”
The bartender set the wine in front of Alison. He was shaking his head. “Pregnant women aren’t supposed to drink much,” he warned her.
“How?” the man on her left asked.
“How do you think?” said Alison.
“Face mask,” said the bartender.
“Turn it up.”
Alison heard the amplified thwock of football helmets hitting together. “Good coverage,” the bartender said. “No protection,” said the man on Alison’s right.
Alison turned to look at him. He was dressed in a blue sweater with the sleeves pushed up. He had dark eyes and was drinking a dark beer. “I asked him to wear a condom,” she said quietly. “I even brought one. He couldn’t.”
“I really don’t want to discuss it.” Alison sipped her wine. It had the flat, bitter taste of house white. She realized the bartender hadn’t asked her what she wanted. But then, if he had, house white was what she would have requested. “It just doesn’t seem fair.” She spoke over her glass, unsure that anyone was listening, not really caring if they weren’t. “All I did was fall in love. All I did was believe someone who said he loved me. He was the liar. But nothing happens to him.”
“Unfair is the way things are,” the man on her right told her. Three months ago Alison would have been trying to decide if she were attracted to him. Not that she would necessarily have wanted to do anything about it. It was just a question she’d always asked herself, dealing with men, interested in the answer, interested in those times when the answer changed abruptly, one way or another. But it was no longer an issue. Alison was a dead woman these days. Alison was attracted to no one.
Two men at the end of the bar began to clap suddenly. “He hasn’t missed from thirty-six yards yet this season,” the bartender said.
Alison watched the kickoff and the return. Nothing. No room at all. “Men handle this stuff so much better than women. You don’t know what heartbreak is,” she said confrontationally. No one responded. She backed off anyway. “Well, that’s how it looks.” She drank and watched an advertisement for trucks. A man bought his wife the truck she’d always wanted. Alison was afraid she might cry. “What would you do,” she asked the man on her right, “if you were me?”
“Drink, I guess. Unless I was pregnant.”
“Watch the game,” said the man on her left.
“Focus on your work,” said the bartender.
“Join the Foreign Legion.” The voice came from behind Alison. She swiveled around to locate it. At a table near a shuttered window a very tall woman sat by herself. Her face was shadowed by an Indiana Jones-type hat, but the candle on the table lit up the area below her neck. She was wearing a black t-shirt with a picture on it that Alison couldn’t make out. She spoke again. “Make new friends. See distant places.” She gestured for Alison to join her. “Save two galaxies from the destruction of the alien armada.”
Alison stood up on the little ledge that ran beneath the bar, reached over the counter, and took an olive, sucking the pimiento out first, then eating the rest. She picked up her drink, stepped down, and walked over to the woman’s table. Elvis. That was Elvis’s face on the t-shirt right between the woman’s breasts. ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? the t-shirt asked.
“That sounds good.” Alison sat down across from the woman. She could see her face better now; her skin was pale and a bit rough. Her hair was long, straight, and brown. “I’d rather time travel, though. Back just two months. Maybe three months. Practically walking distance.”
“You could get rid of the baby.”
“Yes,” said Alison. “I could.”
The woman’s glass sat on the table in front of her. She had finished whatever she had been drinking; the maraschino cherry was all that remained. The woman picked it up and ate it, dropping the stem onto the napkin under her glass. “Maybe he’ll come back to you. You trusted him. You must have seen something decent in him.”
Alison’s throat closed so that she couldn’t talk. She picked up her drink, but she couldn’t swallow either. She set it down again, shaking her head. Some of the wine splashed over the lip and onto her hand.
“He’s already married,” the woman said.
Alison nodded, wiping her hand on her pant leg. “God.”
She searched in her pockets for a Kleenex. The woman handed her the napkin from beneath the empty glass. Alison wiped her nose with it and the cherry stem fell out. She did not dare look up. She kept her eyes focused on the napkin in her hand, which she folded into four small squares.
“When I was growing up,” she said, “I lived on a block with lots of boys. Sometimes I’d come home and my knees were all scraped up because I’d fallen or I’d taken a ball in the face or I’d gotten kicked or punched, and I’d be crying and my mother would always say the same thing. ‘You play with the big boys and you’re going to get hurt,’ she’d say. Exasperated.” Alison unfolded the napkin, folded it diagonally instead. Her voice shrank. “I’ve been so stupid.”
“The universe is shaped by the struggle between two great forces,” the woman told her. It was not really responsive. It was not particularly supportive. Alison felt just a little bit angry at this woman who now knew so much about her.
“Good and evil?” Alison asked, slightly nastily. She wouldn’t meet the woman’s eyes. “The Elvis and the anti-Elvis?”
“Male and female. Minute by minute, the balance tips one way or the other. Not just here. In every universe. There are places”—the woman leaned forward—“where men are not allowed to gather and drink. Places where football is absolutely illegal.”
“England?” Alison suggested and then didn’t want to hear the woman’s answer. “I like football,” she added quickly. “I like games with rules. You can be stupid playing football and it can cost you the game, but there are penalties for fouls, too. I like games with rules.”
“You’re playing one now, aren’t you?” the woman said. “You haven’t hurt this man, even though you could. Even though he’s hurt you. He’s not playing by the rules. So why are you?”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with rules,” Alison said. “It only has to do with me, with the kind of person I think I am. Which is not the kind of person he is.” She thought for a moment. “It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see him get hurt,” she added. “Something karmic. Justice.”
“‘We must storm and hold Cape Turk before we talk of social justice.’” The woman folded her arms under her breasts and leaned back in her chair. “Did Sylvia Townsend Warner say that?”
“Not to me.”
Alison heard more clapping at the bar behind her. She looked over her shoulder. The man in the blue sweater slapped his hand on the wooden bar. “Good call. Excellent call. They won’t get another play in before the half.”
“Where I come from, she did.” Alison turned back as the woman spoke. “And she was talking about women. No one gets justice just by deserving it. No one ever has.”
Alison finished off her wine. “No.” She wondered if she should go home now. She knew when she got there that the apartment would be unbearably lonely and that the phone wouldn’t ring and that she would need immediately to be somewhere else. No activity in the world could be more awful than listening to a phone not ring. But she didn’t really want to stay here and have a conversation that was at worst too strange and at best too late. Women usually supported you more when they talked to you. They didn’t usually make you defensive or act as if they had something to teach you, the way this woman did. And anyhow, justice was a little peripheral now, wasn’t it? What good would it really do her? What would it change?
She might have gone back and joined the men at the bar during the half. They were talking quietly among themselves. They were ordering fresh drinks and eating beer nuts. But she didn’t want to risk seeing cheerleaders. She didn’t want to risk the ads with the party dog and all his women, even though she’d read in a magazine that the dog was a bitch. Anywhere she went, there she’d be. Just like she was. Heartbroken.
The woman was watching her closely. Alison could feel this, though the woman’s face remained shadowed and she couldn’t quite bring herself to look back at her directly. She looked at Elvis instead and the way his eyes wavered through her lens of candlelight and tears. Lonesome tonight? “You really have it bad, don’t you?” the woman said. Her tone was sympathetic. Alison softened again. She decided to tell this perceptive woman everything. How much she’d loved him. How she’d never loved anyone else. How she felt it every time she took a breath, and had for weeks now.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel better,” she said. “No matter what I do.”
“I hear it takes a year to recover from a serious loss. Unless you find someone else.”
A year. Alison could be a mother by then. How would she find someone else, pregnant like she was or with a small child? Could she spend a year hurting like this? Would she have a choice?
“Have you ever heard of Laura D. Fair?” the woman asked.
Alison shook her head. She picked up the empty wineglass and tipped it to see if any drops remained. None did. She set it back down and picked up the napkin, wiping her eyes. She wasn’t crying. She just wasn’t exactly not crying.
“Mrs. Fair killed her lover,” the woman told her. Alison looked at her own fingernails. One of them had a ragged end. She bit it off shorter while she listened. “He was a lawyer. A. P. Crittenden. She shot him on the ferry to Oakland in November of 1870 in front of his whole family because she saw him kiss his wife. He’d promised to leave her and marry Mrs. Fair instead, and then he didn’t, of course. She pleaded a transient insanity known at that time as emotional insanity. She said she was incapable of killing Mr. Crittenden, who had been the only friend she’d had in the world.” Alison examined her nail. She had only succeeded in making it more ragged. She bit it again, too close to the skin this time. It hurt and she put it back in her mouth. “Mrs. Fair said she had no memory of the murder, which many people, not all of them related to the deceased, witnessed. She was the first woman sentenced to hang in California.”
Loud clapping and catcalls at the bar. The third quarter had started with a return all the way to the fifty-yard line. Alison heard it. She did not turn around, but she took her finger out of her mouth and picked up the napkin. She folded it again. Four small squares. “Rules are rules,” Alison said.
“But then she didn’t hang. Certain objections were made on behalf of the defense and sustained, and a new trial was held. This time she was acquitted. By now she was the most famous and the most hated woman in the country.”
Alison unfolded the napkin and tried to smooth out the creases with the side of her palm. “I never heard of her.”
“Laura D. Fair was not some little innocent.” The woman’s hat brim dipped decisively. “Mrs. Fair had been married four times, and each had been a profitable venture. One of her husbands killed himself. She was not pretty, but she was passionate. She was not smart, but she was clever. And she saw, in her celebrity, a new way to make money. She announced a new career as a public speaker. She traveled the country with her lectures. And what was her message? She told women to murder the men who seduced and betrayed them.”
“I never heard of her,” said Alison.
“Mrs. Fair was a compelling speaker. She’d had some acting and elocution experience. Her performance in court showed training. On the stage she was even better. ‘The act will strike a terror to the hearts of sensualists and libertines.’” The woman stabbed dramatically at her own breast with her fist, hitting Elvis right in the eye. Behind her hand, Elvis winked at Alison in the candlelight. “Mrs. Fair said that women throughout the world would glory in the revenge exacted by American womanhood. Overdue. Long overdue. Thousands of women heard her. Men, too, and not all of them entirely unsympathetic. Fanny Hyde and Kate Stoddart were released in Brooklyn. Stoddart never even stood trial. But then there was a backlash. The martyred Marys were hanged in Philadelphia. And then . . .”
The woman’s voice dropped suddenly in volume and gained in intensity. Alison looked up at her quickly. The woman was staring back. Alison looked away.
“And then a group of women hunted down and dispatched Charles S. Smith in an alley near his home. Mr. Smith was a married man and his victim, Edith Wilson, was pregnant, an invalid, and eleven years old. But this time the women wore sheets and could not be identified. Edith Wilson was perhaps the only female in Otsego County, New York, who could not have taken part.” Alison folded her napkin along the diagonal.
“So no one could be tried. It was an inspiring and purging operation. It was copied in many little towns across the country. God knows, the women had access to sheets.”
Alison laughed, but the woman was not expecting it, had not paused to allow for laughter. “And then Annie Oakley shot Frank Butler in a challenge match in Cincinnati.”
“Excuse me,” said Alison. “I didn’t quite hear you.” But she really had and the woman continued anyway, without pausing or repeating.
“She said it was an accident, but she was too good a shot. They hanged her for it. And then Grover Cleveland was killed by twelve sheeted women on the White House lawn. At teatime,” the woman said.
“Wait a minute.” Alison stopped her. “Grover Cleveland served out two terms. Nonconsecutively. I’m sure.”
The woman leaned into the candlelight, resting her chin on a bridge she made of her hands. “You’re right, of course,” she said. “That’s what happened here. But in another universe where the feminine force was just a little stronger in 1872, Grover Cleveland died in office. With a scone in his mouth and a child in New York.”
“All right,” said Alison accommodatingly. Accommodation was one of Alison’s strengths. “But what difference does that make to us?”
“I could take you there.” The woman pushed her hat back so that Alison could have seen her eyes if she wanted to. “The universe right next door. Practically walking distance.”
The candle flame was casting shadows which reached and withdrew and reached at Alison over the table. In the unsteady light, the woman’s face flickered like a silent film star’s. Then she pulled back in her chair and sank into the darkness beyond the candle. The ball was on the ten-yard line and the bar was quiet. “I knew you were going to say that,” Alison said finally. “How did I know you were going to say that? Who would say that?”
“Some lunatic?” the woman suggested.
“Don’t you want to hear about it anyway? About my universe?” The woman smiled at her. An unperturbed smile. Nice even teeth. And a kind of confidence that was rare among the women Alison knew. Alison had noticed it immediately without realizing she was noticing. The way the woman sat back in her chair and didn’t pick at herself. Didn’t play with her hair. Didn’t look at her hands. The way she lectured Alison.
“All right,” Alison said. She put the napkin down and fit her hands together, forcing herself to sit as still. “But first tell me about Laura Fair. My Laura Fair.”
“Up until 1872 the two histories are identical,” the woman said. “Mrs. Fair married four times and shot her lover and was convicted and the conviction was overturned. She just never lectured. She planned to. She was scheduled to speak at Platt’s Hotel in San Francisco on November 11, 1872, but a mob of some two thousand men gathered outside the hotel and another two thousand surrounded the apartment building she lived in. She asked for police protection, but it was refused and she was too frightened to leave her home. Even staying where she was proved dangerous. A few men tried to force their way inside. She spent a terrifying night and never attempted to lecture again. She died in poverty and obscurity.
“Fanny Hyde and Kate Stoddart were released anyway. I can’t find out what happened to the Marys. Edith Wilson was condemned by respectable people everywhere and cast out of her family.”
“The eleven-year-old child?” Alison said.
“In your universe,” the woman reminded her. “Not in mine. You don’t know much of your own history, do you? Name a great American woman.”
The men at the bar were in an uproar. Alison turned to look. “Interception,” the man in the blue sweater shouted to her exultantly. “Did you see it?”
“Name a great American woman,” Alison called back to him.
“Goddamn interception with goal to go,” he said. “Eleanor Roosevelt?”
“Marilyn Monroe,” said a man at the end of the bar.
“The senator from California?” the woman asked. “Now that’s a good choice.”
Alison laughed again. “Funny,” she said, turning back to the woman. “Very good.”
“We have football, too,” the woman told her. “Invented in 1873. Outlawed in 1950. No one ever got paid to play it.”
“And you have Elvis.”
“No, we don’t. Not like yours. Of course not. I got this here.”
“Interception,” the man in the blue sweater said. He was standing beside Alison, shaking his head with the wonder of it. “Let me buy you ladies a drink.” Alison opened her mouth and he waved his hand. “Something nonalcoholic for you,” he said. “Please. I really want to.”
“Ginger ale, then,” she agreed. “No ice.”
“Nothing for me,” said the woman. They watched the man walk back to the bar, and then, when he was far enough away not to hear, she leaned forward toward Alison. “You like men, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Alison. “I always have. Are they different where you come from? Have they learned to be honest and careful with women, since you kill them when they’re not?” Alison’s voice was sharper than she intended, so she softened the effect with a sadder question. “Is it better there?”
“Better for whom?” The woman did not take her eyes off Alison. “Where I come from the men and women hardly speak to each other. First of all, they don’t speak the same language. They don’t here, either, but you don’t recognize that as clearly. Where I come from there’s men’s English and there’s women’s English.”
“Say something in men’s English.”
“‘I love you.’ Shall I translate?”
“No,” said Alison. “I know the translation for that one.” The heaviness closed over her heart again. Not that it had ever gone away. Nothing made Alison feel better, but many things made her feel worse. The bartender brought her ginger ale. With ice. Alison was angry, suddenly, that she couldn’t even get a drink with no ice. She looked for the man in the blue sweater, raised the glass at him, and rattled it. Of course he was too far away to hear even if he was listening, and there was no reason to believe he was.
“Two-minute warning,” he called back. “I’ll be with you in two minutes.”
Men were always promising to be with you soon. Men could never be with you now. Alison had only cared about this once, and she never would again. “Football has the longest two minutes in the world,” she told the woman. “So don’t hold your breath. What else is different where you come from?” She sipped at her ginger ale. She’d been grinding her teeth recently—stress, the dentist said—and so the cold liquid made her mouth hurt.
“Everything is different. Didn’t you ask for no ice? Don’t drink that,” the woman said. She called to the bartender. “She didn’t want ice. You gave her ice.”
“Sorry.” The bartender brought another bottle and another glass. “Nobody told me no ice.”
“Thank you,” Alison said. He took the other glass away. Alison thought he was annoyed. The woman didn’t seem to notice.
“Imagine your world without a hundred years of adulterers,” she said. “The level of technology is considerably depressed. Lots of books never written because the authors didn’t live. Lots of men who didn’t get to be president. Lots of passing. Although it’s illegal. Men dressing as women. Women dressing as men. And the dress is more sexually differentiated. Codpieces are fashionable again. But you don’t have to believe me,” the woman said. “Come and see for yourself. I can take you there in a minute. What would it cost you to just come and see? What do you have here that you’d be losing?”
The woman gave her time to think. Alison sat and drank her ginger ale and repeated to herself the things her lover had said the last time she had seen him. She remembered them all, some of them surprisingly careless, some of them surprisingly cruel, all of them surprising. She repeated them again, one by one, like a rosary. The man who had left was not the man she had loved. The man she had loved would never have said such things to her. The man she had loved did not exist. She had made him up. Or he had. “Why would you want me to go?” Alison asked.
“The universe is shaped by the struggle between two great forces. Sometimes a small thing can tip the balance. One more woman. Who knows?” The woman tilted her hat back with her hand. “Save a galaxy. Make new friends. Or stay here where your heart is. Broken.”
“Can I come back if I don’t like it?”
“Yes. Do you like it here?”
She drank her ginger ale and then set the glass down, still half full. She glanced at the man in the blue sweater, then past him to the bartender. She let herself feel just for a moment what it might be like to know that she could finish this drink and then go home to the one person in the world who loved her.
Never in this world. “I’m going out for a minute. Two minutes,” she called to the bartender. One minute to get back. “Don’t take my drink.”
She stood and the other woman stood too, even taller than Alison had thought. “I’ll follow you. Which way?” Alison asked.
“It’s not hard,” the woman said. “In fact, I’ll follow you. Go to the back. Find the door that says WOMEN and go on through it. I’m just going to pay for my drink and then I’ll be right along.”
VIXENS was what the door actually said, across the way from the one marked GANDERS. Alison paused and then pushed through. She felt more than a little silly, standing in the small bathroom that apparently fronted two universes. One toilet, one sink, one mirror. Two universes. She went into the stall and closed the door. Before she had finished she heard the outer door open and shut again. “I’ll be right out,” she said. The toilet paper was small and unusually rough. The toilet wouldn’t flush. It embarrassed her. She tried three times before giving up.
The bathroom was larger than it had been, less clean, and a row of urinals lined one wall. The woman stood at the sink, looking into the mirror, which was smaller. “Are you ready?” she asked and removed her breasts from behind Elvis, tossing them into a wire wastebasket. She turned. “Ready or not.”
“No,” said Alison, seeing the face under the hat clearly for the first time. “Please, no.” She began to cry again, looking up at his face, looking down at his chest. ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT?
“You lied to me,” she said dully.
“I never lied,” he answered. “Think back. You just translated wrong. Because you’re that kind of woman. We don’t have women like you here now. And anyway, what does it matter whose side you play on? All that matters is that no one wins. Aren’t I right? Aren’t I?” He tipped his hat to her.