The year, 1974. The city, New York
I walked hurriedly across Central Park. Last night I had taken out the detailed map of New York City and had located the ball fields. I lived on the east side of town, on 76th Street and the fields were on the west corner, near 57th Street; an easy walk.
As usual, I was late, some of it purposeful. I had read in their newsletter that NOW sponsored an series of pick up softball games every Sunday afternoon. It was open, the newsletter claimed, to all levels of players, and what I preferred, fastpitch. In Atlanta, I had played on coed league, company and university teams and would enjoy an all woman game, for a change.
As I walked, I carried my well-broken in first baseman’s glove and the “oil ball” that I kept tied in the mitt. Smacking the ball in the glove, I thought about the reception I would receive. I was reasonably prepared to get comments about my glove; I was a catcher. But that was not my worry as I neared the fields.
Lately, I had become more involved in the New York version of NOW. I moved to the big city barely three months ago. There were many aspects of the transition that were unsettling. Living in a great, rent controlled one bedroom a scant ten blocks from work, I walked everywhere. My job, working in my brother’s restaurant, was not especially challenging, but the restaurant was a hot spot and exciting. No, that was all OK. It was my now constant questions about my sexuality that kept me up at night.
The NYC chapter of NOW had many more lesbians that the Atlanta chapter, or so it seemed to me. They were all open and active, pushing their agenda and sexuality at every meeting, or so it seemed to me. Some scared me. Some attracted me. All fascinated me, and I did not know how to handle that.
This softball game seemed a harmless enough way to be busy and to meet more people in a city where you did not even know your next door neighbor.
I arrived at the fields. One big square held four large fields, home plate at each corner with chalk lines delineating each field. Each of these fields had coed teams playing in uniforms and with active fans. I looked past the furthest field to see another set of two, fairly scraggily fields, on the edge of the road. One was obviously the one I sought. It was filled with women – perhaps as many as 50. No uniforms, chalk lines dim, dust flying everywhere, it was bustling with activity.
On the third base side, near the home plate backdrop, were a number of trees. A large number of women congregated under the trees, laughing and talking. Out in the field was what could best be described as an eclectic batch of women. Every ethnic group, every body size and many age groups were represented. There was an intensity that belayed the rag tag appearance. These women were serious!
On the mound was a short, older woman, best described as round. Her form was almost comical. If you just watched her movement and not the ball, you would not believe that she could get the ball over the plate. But, could she pitch! She laid in fireballs, straight and consistent. Few could hit them. And the catcher was scared to death of them! She bent over, not squatting, as far back as the ump would let her, setting her glove out in a defensive position. Opportunity knocks.
I approached someone who had a clipboard, and seemed inappropriately dressed. “Hi! How can I get signed up to play?”
She actually leered at me, “Now, where are you from, sugar?”
I did not feel that I had a southern accent, but it seemed as if all of New York City thought I did, and I was tired of it. I sighed, “Atlanta. Do you want a catcher?”
“You actually want to catch? No one wants to catch!” Then she looked at my glove. “You know, you do have the wrong glove, sweetie, sure you don’t want first base?” She smiled at what she believed my southern stupidity.
“The first base glove gives me more control on fly balls and to throw out anyone trying to steal. I have added some padding, but no one I know throws hard enough to hurt me anyway.” I was later to regret that last part.
“My name is Barbara, welcome to our little game. Let me see what I can do. Sure love listening to you. Love to do that later, too, you know?” She leered again, increasing my paranoia.
The next inning, the woman who had been catching was ecstatic to be replaced. I was introduced to Golda, the pitcher and asked her what she liked to pitch, if she expected any signals, or had a preference on a target. She looked at me as if I was crazy. “What, we got a pro, here? Geez, just play!”
So I played. Got down and dirty, focusing on the game. In spite of my case of nerves at bat, I actually hit the first pitch I got and managed to get a single. The game was over much too soon. I got razzed for my glove, but less as the games wore on and I showed I could catch. As the afternoon wore on, I found that no one ever wanted to catch and I could be assured of playing in every game, which was fine with me. I was young and my knees still held up!
Between innings, I watched the dynamics of women. I was easily accepted by most. There was a definite clique in the center of the action. The gang seemed to have known each other for ages. As the spoke, they touched and stood close to one another. They talked about others and clubs and dancing. I was fairly sure some of them were gay. I was not sure how I felt about that fact.
Barbara kept leering at me. Finally, at the end of the day, she came up and invited me to a party at her house, in two weeks. I mumbled that I didn’t know if I had to work and would let her know.
(next time, the
following week’s games and, the party. Stay tuned!)
My thoughts kept returning to softball all week. I remembered the women, each different, each interesting. The pitcher, Goldie, made me smile. She was a paradox and the epitome of New York. Goldie worked at Carnegie Hall and had a million jokes about that. The head bookkeeper, she had serious responsibilities and pride in her work. “A mild bookkeeper by day, a unfulfilled lesbian by night” her self-deprecating description of herself.
“And a great pitcher on Sundays” I added. Goldie would never give her age, always had a sarcastic joke and delighted in teasing me. On the sidelines, she delighted in telling me who was with whom and who used to be with whom and all the gossip.
There was a gorgeous blonde who usually played shortstop, Lillianna. The mystery woman, she was tall, lanky and hardly ever talked to anyone but Pat. The two women were constantly together. Mickey played first and was insulted to think of any other position. Despite the late spring heat, Mickey always wore jeans and at least carried her leather jacket. Also blonde, her confidence was mesmerizing.
Claire presented an image of a free spirit, all the trappings of the feminist in the mid-seventies. She dressed in bright, flowing clothes, her small, always smiling face peaking through her huge Afro. Claire was not the best player, but the gave us all a conscience, reminding us of our protest obligations. Maggie and Susan filled in the outfield, but were happy just sitting on the sidelines, chatting with everyone. One tough and one delicate but strong, they seemed like bookends.
The variety of the group was amazing. I could not understand how all of these women could be as Goldie had said, gay. Surely not Lillianna; OK, I could accept Mickey, but Claire? She has to be teasing me. But there was Barbara, and the looks she gave me, the comments she made. Should I go back on Sunday?
I continued to argue with myself until Sunday came. I had gone over all of what I had thought were my real feelings, all of the surface fears. Finally, I gave into what I told myself was the desire to just play softball and found myself walking over to the park. Trying to ignore the fact that I had paid particular attention to what I wore, I settled on bright colors and picked my perm, walking over to Central Park.
At the fields, I was greeted with “Hey sugar” and “You hoo, Georgia Peach”. Waving, I donned my catcher garb and stepped behind the plate. As the day progressed learned more about the individuals. I actually got to know real live people who happened to be lesbians. Susan and Maggie talked openly about their life together. When they looked at each other, I could see the depth of their commitment. Goldie cracked me up. Claire this week was recruiting people to help organize the Gay Pride March, coming up in a two months.
Mickey, tough on the outside, was the first one there when I was hit with someone’s flying bat. Gentle and kind, she took care of me, before brushing off any comments from Goldie. She sat with me and talked about her job, her dreams.
They were all real women. Getting to know them opened my eyes. But, I could not tell them that I was not one of them, I was not “out”, I was, what was I? I avoided thinking about it.
Before I was ready, the sun was setting and Barbara was handing out directions to her apartment in Queens. Her party was the following Saturday at 7:30. The dreaded party! What would I do?
That day arrived, the week of work passing altogether too quickly.
In spite of the enormous cost and aggravation, I had kept my car when I moved to NYC. It gave me a sense of freedom. The drive to Queens was fairly simple as Barbara lived in the first town in Queens. I arrived at her building by 8. One advantage of the outer boroughs was the availability of parking. I found a space, but drove on by. I circled the block. I circled again and again. Stopping at a nearby corner where I could see her building, I sat frozen in my car.
What was I doing? My mother would have a fit! Sure, I had crushes on some women. I had been crazy about Janine, but she had needed my care. I wasn’t really jealous of her husband. Or was I? It did not mean I was a lezzie, as my mother referred to them. Back in Atlanta, Mark had taken my to the local gay bar, saying it was to see the show. After the show, all of the gorgeous women had whipped off their wigs to reveal that they were men. My shock was magnified when Mark took both of my hands and explained that he thought I really belonged here, not with him. But he would be happy to bring me any time. We stopped dating.
What did it all mean? Why was I here? I should just go home. I couldn’t just go home. Somehow, someway, I knew I wanted to not just go to this party, I wanted to be a part of this group. I had to admit that in the two dirty movies I had seen the lesbian scenes were the parts that I made me breathless. Magically, I knew that if I took this step, if I crossed this line, I would not turn back. I would not go back.
I went in.
In spite of the fact that it was now well after 8:30, only Pat, Lillianna and one other woman were in Barbara’s apartment. I had painstakingly dressed as if I would have for any other party I had been to: light green polyester pants, flowered print polyester blouse, knee highs and low heels. When I walked in I the first thing I noticed was that everyone else had on jeans and a tee shirt. I felt out of place, overdressed and as if I did not fit in. And then there was Barbara, fawning and hugging.
I settled into a tall chair whose ottoman was pushed up against the wall next to it to allow more room. Gradually, the room filled with women I knew and many I did not know.
Pat and Lillianna sat apart from everyone, as they did at the games. Such a contrast together: Pat had short dark hair, Italian complexion and dark, brooding eyes. Lillianna was light in coloring, and lively. But it was clear that she felt everyone was watching her. Once, she caught my eye, watching her and glowered at me. I was later to learn that this was her first lesbian encounter and that her family was making life a living hell for her. Later, she and I would be friends. Tonight we seemed rivals.
A group of women came in the door, bringing goodies and all laughing. One helped Barbara with the bags, looked my way and nudged Barbara. With a look of aggravation, Barbara said my name and dragged her into the kitchen. The new woman emerged, with a drink in her hand, without Barbara.
Settling in the ottoman next to me, she smiled a shy smile and said, “Hi, I’m Gay”
“I thought everyone here was.” I replied, seriously.
That brought out a warm laugh that lit up her face. “No, no, Gay is my name!”
We laughed together. We talked and talked. I forgot my overdressed, polyester outfit and had fun. Gay told me of her life as a social worker, filled with stories and anecdotes. I talked about working for my brother, moving and playing softball. Her dark, curly hair, surrounded a round, kind face that lit up when she smiled. Not a small woman, Gay was soft, round and definitely a woman. She had a great laugh and was intelligent.
As the evening progressed, I found myself looking in her eyes, being drawn to her face. Aware that I wanted to reach out and touch her face, I made myself look away, noticing the crowd. A lull in our conversation, a quiet moment, I saw a look in her eyes that told me she was looking into me, truly into my soul. I reached out, touched her cheek.
Barbara came quickly over. “Hey you two, lets get a game of Twister going!”
Chaos ensued. I never knew Twister could make everyone laugh so much and that it could be so sexual! Laughing, I feel back into the chair. I watched Gay, playing and stretching. She looked over at me, smiled and fell down! The whole pile collapsed, with shouts of her name.
She came back over to me, laughing, and we hugged. It felt right, warm. We fit together one piece to the other. It was over all too fast. Holding hands, we chatted with Claire and Stephanie about the march. Later, Barbara put on some music and some began to dance in what, in normal times, was the dining room.
We returned to the chair and ottoman. Talking came easily for us. I found myself looking in her eyes again. Conversation stopped. My breathing quickened. Her mouth opened slightly. I was pulled towards her. I leaned towards her, closed my eyes and kissed her.
As long as I live, I will never forget that kiss. She was soft, gentle and sweet tasting. Urgent, wanting, I found her softness easily took the place of the roughness I had become accustomed to with men. I fell into the kiss, her sweetness. My hands touched her hair, her neck. Her tongue gently caressed my lips, opening my mouth and drawing me into her. She took my breath away.
This is what I had wanted, this is what I had waited for. Never had I felt this passion from a kiss.
I asked her to come home with me. She did.