Rico disappeared. Then Rico’s baby disappeared, before he or anyone else knew she was pregnant. Then Bette herself disappeared. She left Boston and moved back in with her parents in Maryland, to get her head together.
It was December, 1971. Cold, and dark. Bette reminded herself that she always felt blue around Christmas, but still: The empty gloom did not feel like freedom. She was 19 and she felt like her life was over.
Alysa called: “So, that guy … What’s his name?”
“Rico.” It was January, by then.
“So, Rico’s out of the picture.” It was a statement, not a question.
Bette replied: “I don’t even know where he is.” It was more of a question, really.
“You don’t sound good. Let’s go out or something.”
The Crazy Horse was crowded, and smelled like sweaty guys, old beer, and cigarettes, but they had the biggest dance floor in Georgetown. Bette and Alysa proved they were at least 18, and ordered screwdrivers. Bette was hoping some guy would ask her to dance, but Alysa was holding everybody off with her bad vibes. Finally, when a good song came on, they both jumped up and danced alone. Or maybe they were dancing together.
Alright, now they were having fun. Two more screwdrivers, please!
A slow song came on, and the dance floor cleared.
“Want to dance with me?” Alysa wasn’t kidding.
Bette thought about whether there was any reason she shouldn’t, or couldn’t. Alysa would be insulted if she said no. But people would stare. Anyway, what difference did it make?
They got up, went to the middle of the empty dance floor, and put their hands on each other’s shoulders.
The song hadn’t half finished when the bouncer came up and said, “Hey, you can’t dance together. That’s not allowed.”
“Fuck off,” said Alysa.
“That’s it. Get out!” he shouted.
“Who the hell does he think he is?!” fumed Bette, as they got their coats and left. “What he did is unconstitutional!”
Actually, it wasn’t. Not then.
“Come dancing with me and Carla.” It was Valentine’s Day, and Alysa had a new girlfriend she wanted Bette to meet.
“Look, you may not care if we get kicked out by the bouncer, but I don’t see the point…”
“It’s a gay bar. Nothing to worry about. We’ll just go by Marina’s place and go with her.”
“Oh! I didn’t know your sister was…”
“She’s a fag hag.”
Bette put on crushed velvet slacks and a tight top, platform sandals, mascara and bright red lipstick. Maybe she was overdressed, she thought, because Alysa and Carla were wearing corduroy pants and button-down shirts.
Marina and her girlfriend were already dressed when they got there. Heavy make-up, Marilyn Monroe hair, lots of rhinestone jewelry. Now Bette felt underdressed.
“You guys want to smoke something?” asked Marina. “We’re just waiting for our friend to get ready.”
The music coming from the back got louder when a door opened, and they heard footsteps coming down the hall. And there he was.
Wearing sparkling platform shoes, satin knickers, a low-cut lacy blouse, heavy eyeliner. And a feather boa.
He flashed a dazzling smile when he saw Bette, but he did not acknowledge that he knew her. “Let’s go,” he said.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Bette asked.
Plus One was in the warehouse district in southeast D.C. The six of them were walking in a dark, seemingly deserted alley. Then a door opened, light spilled out, and they heard the music.
Once inside, Rico, Marina, and her friend went one way; Bette, Alysa, and Carla went the other.
The bar area was built on a huge stage. Everyone glamorous, sparkling, satiny, swishy. With Hollywood smiles, big hair, even some dark glasses. Drinking martinis. Loud laughter. Dramatic flair and ostentation. Gay guys, and fag hags making over them.
On the other side of the dance floor was the table area. Everyone subdued, quietly talking in groups of two or three, drinking beer or wine. Most in jeans or corduroy slacks, and plaid shirts, with no discernible makeup. The occasional girly-girl. Lesbians.
Not long after they got their drinks, Bette noticed that an older woman at another table was staring at her. A woman she pegged as a middle-aged librarian who spent her free time chopping wood. Then Bette realized that she was staring back. Uh-oh. She looked away but it was too late. The woman got up and came towards their table.
“Would you like to dance?” The woman held out her hand to Bette, in gentlemanly fashion.
Bette thought about whether there was any reason she shouldn’t, or couldn’t. Alysa wouldn’t be insulted if she said yes. Nobody would stare. Anyway, what difference did it make?
“Sure,” said Bette.
Trying to avoid eye contact with the woman was making Bette self-conscious. She was rehearsing how she would politely decline, if the woman asked her to dance again. She kept moving to the music, but it felt mechanical.
“Do you like to dance?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” Bette answered, as she looked around the room, anywhere but at the woman.
A few seconds later, the woman asked again, “Do you like to dance?”
“Yes,” Bette said loudly, nodding her head, thinking that the woman must be partially deaf.
The woman stopped dancing, stood still, and articulated slowly: “Are. You. Gay?”
Bette stopped dancing too. “Oh!” she said. “No.”
They started dancing again, but the woman was obviously furious. Or maybe just insulted. Embarrassed? Bette felt like an A-Number-One Bitch. Or maybe just embarrassed. A fraud?
When the song ended, the woman went back to her own table without saying a word.
“Thank you!” Bette called after her.
“Don’t you like her?” Alysa teased, when Bette sat down.
Bette downed the rest of her wine. “Either you two ask me to dance right now, or you can go fuck yourselves.”
Rico called: “Bette, is that you?”
“Rico?!” It was March, by then.
“So, you still love me.” It was a statement, not a question.
Bette replied: “I don’t even know where you are.” It was more of a question, really.
“Oh, baby, it’s so good to hear your voice. You know, as time goes by I realize just what you mean to me, and now….”
Bette realized it was all just a song and dance. Well, a song – literally.
But it worked, damn it. It took another year for Bette to realize just what he meant to her. And what she meant to him.
Before she could let him go. Walk out of her heart. Walk out of her mind.
Because she could do better than that.
RIP, David Bowie (Jan. 8, 1947 – Jan. 10, 2016)
© Bette Ojala, January 11, 2016