The summer before I started high school, when I was fourteen, my mother planned a trip that—unbeknownst to me but not to her—was less a vacation than a pilgrimage. As with similar missions, Mom expected ours would bring about an awakening in me, although not one of the more typical spiritual or religious variety but, rather, the sexual type. Ergo, our destination wasn't Nazareth or Bethlehem or the remote burial site of some obscure Christian martyr, but the grand sepulchre of all sexual inhibitions, the mausoleum of many a Midwestern boy's feigned interest in the NFL, that enormous tomb of all formerly closeted selves: the Great Gay Motherland of West Hollywood, Los Angeles. Mom was taking me to visit a living relic, otherwise known as her only lesbian friend, to see if basking in this friend's lavender light might make me realize what Mom had long since guessed was true: that I was one, too.
I had heard this friend's name mentioned over the years, but it wasn't until we were on the plane that she told me anything more substantial. It was Mom's freshman year at St. Joseph's College back in Brooklyn when she first met her—a sharp, rebellious, alcoholic, soon-to-be-heroin-addict, giant butch built of tough Rockaway Irish stock named, of all things, Rosemary. (That is not exactly how Mom described her, but that is exactly what she was. I know because, well, it takes one to know one, but—more blatantly—that's how she described herself. In fact, soon after we met, Rosemary told me that even being seen with an out butch lesbian in a Catholic school in 1960s Brooklyn was something none of the other girls was willing to do—Mom was her first, and only, college friend.)
As it turns out, my dad had met Rosemary in the Rockaway bar scene years before either of them met my mom, and Rosemary was the matchmaker on that fateful night at McNulty's. (Back then, as was the case years later, when Dad started hanging out with those few gay guy couples at Gregory's, the only qualification you needed for his friendship was the ability to handle your drinks and his jokes.)
By 1994, the year we flew across the country for a visit, Mom and Rosemary had been friends for over two decades. At some point in the last half of those twenty-plus years, Rosemary had sobered up and moved to L.A. . . . though I doubt in that order. She now had a job at "a shop." That seemingly inconsequential, but truly pivotal, tidbit was the last thing Mom said to me as we were de-boarding the plane. She mentioned it in passing, as in, "Dolly, Rosemary has to work today—and she works at a shop—so after we land, we'll go straight there and hang out till she gets off work. Okay?" I barely recall this detail registering with me, until, that is, our airport taxi pulled up in front of said "shop." After that point, I would never, ever forget it.
As Mom fiddled around in her purse to pay the cab driver, I just kept reading and rereading the shop sign, flashing back to Mom referencing "a shop," then rereading it again. I didn't entirely grasp what the words meant, but even so, I was pretty damn sure that whatever happened in the next ten minutes would be more interesting than anything that had happened in my fourteen years leading up to it. I blinked one more time to make sure I had it right. Yup, the sign read: 665: one stop from hell.
I recall the next five seconds like an out-of-body-experience, as if I were hovering over myself on Sunset Boulevard looking down on it all: there I am, looking every bit the 1990s Queens teenage baby butch in my baggy jeans, all-black Raiders Starter jacket, and fresh Nike Air Trainer Huarache high-tops, feet frozen to the sidewalk, eyes like saucers. Then there's Mom, in her fanny pack and travel sweat suit, breaking into a run and jumping into the arms of this huge woman with a tattoo of a hypodermic needle and a metal spoon on her forearm with an X over it. "Rosemary!" Mom confirms.
As they twirl around and around in their bear hug, I finally work up the guts to take a few steps forward and sneak a peek into the shop window—turns out, 665: One Stop from Hell is not a Californian pseudonym for the Department of Motor Vehicles. It is a sex-toy store, specifically the kind of sex-toy store that boasts a full rack of black leather harnesses and a hat stand draped with horse whips. (Despite the advanced education I was getting walking around Manhattan's West Village with my friends some Saturdays, it would be another decade before I'd learn that the term S&M could be used here.)
Rosemary gives me a quick shoulder pat and an "Eh, kid," then takes my luggage, wheels it into the store, parks it underneath a shelf stocked with foot-long black dildos, and turns to ask me if I'm hungry.
Though I can no longer speak, I manage to shake my head, No.
Mom, on the other hand, with a big ol' smile, says, "I could eat!"
Mom was taking me to visit a her only lesbian friend to see if basking in this friend's lavender light might make me realize what Mom had long since guessed was true: that I was one, too.
I see them talking to each other, and then to me, but my brain is too overloaded to make meaning of the sounds; it's as if every last ounce of my cognitive functioning has been dedicated to deciphering the purpose of the many hundred silicone items of every conceivable shape and size looming over me from all directions. So instead of comprehensible language I hear, "Meepy, meep're meep meep meep across the meep meep meep sandwiches. Meep meep right meep, meep sit meep!" And before I understand what is happening, Mom and Rosemary walk out the shop door. Only after they're gone and I'm alone in the pristine silence of the sex-toy store am I able to process Mom's words: "Dolly, we're going to run across the street to get sandwiches. We'll be right back. Just sit there."
I slowly turn to the spot my mother was pointing to ten seconds ago—a high stool behind a glass case, on top of which is the cash register and displayed inside of which are neat rows of things that many years from now I will google to discover are called nipple clamps, ball stretchers, and pinwheels.
I open the case, pull out a pinwheel (it's like a pizza cutter but with pins instead of a blade) and run it up and down my arm. And then, I hear a familiar sound. Ding-a-ling! I look up toward the shop door with two simultaneous thoughts: 1) You really don't expect one of those classic, cutesy doorbells in a shop like this—a little Bridgehampton candle store, sure, but here? and 2) That is definitely NOT Mom and Rosemary.
Standing in front of me now is a couple in business suits, and they are very serious and focused, which may be why they don't realize that the person they're asking, "Where can we find the puppy cages?" is fourteen years old and has zero idea why they are asking that question here.
We stare at one another for the longest three seconds of my life. I imagine they're thinking something along the lines of: I know that butch lesbians tend to look younger, what with their little-boy fashion sense, but this one takes the cake. Meanwhile, I'm thinking: Maybe they don't have Petco in California?
Finally, they give up on the mute at the register and decide to go look for the cages on their own—665 isn't exactly Macy's, so they find them without much trouble. The moment they do, the woman drops down onto all fours and crawls inside one, while the guy, still standing, says, "Whattaya think of that, bitch?" She woofs; he says, "We'll take it."
As they walk out the door, he adds, "I can't exactly bring it back to the office, ha-ha, so we'll come by after work, and I'll pay for it then." And thank God for that, because I also don't know where to find the gift wrap.
Naturally, I head over to see this "puppy cage" but on my way get quickly distracted by what appears to be life-size G.I. Joe gear—wait, are those gas masks? One entire wall of the shop is dotted with hanging gas masks. And right away I feel the need to try one on, to see exactly what I would look like as a Cobra Viper.
I take down a mask, pull it over my head, tighten the straps, and walk over to the mirror to get a look at myself. After two, maybe three, steps, I realize I can't breathe. I try to get it off, but it won't budge. I'm pulling and pulling, fidgeting with the straps, twisting the cartridge in front, and nothing. I try to wedge my finger under the seal adhered to my face. Nothing. Now I'm in a full-on panic. I start whipping around the shop, arms flailing, trying to gasp, searching for something I could use to pry or smash it off with, but really I'm just going in circles until I'm in a total tailspin, looking like a postapocalyptic version of the Tasmanian devil trapped in a sex-toy store.
I make it to the mirror and start banging my head into it, hoping that will break the gas mask open—no such luck. Then, with what feels like my very last breath eking out of my nose, at long last, I hear it . . . ding-a-ling!—and my mother and Rosemary burst through the shop door.
They charge toward me, throwing their sandwiches into the air. Everything starts to go into slow motion, as I spend what I imagine are my few remaining seconds of consciousness in this world, struck not by the fear of encroaching death, but by the insanity of the fact that the very last thing I might ever see would be from behind the lens of a gas mask that's suffocating me in front of my mother and her butchy best friend in the sex-toy shop the latter manages for a living, which I was left alone to run, at fourteen, all within the first hour of my first visit to L.A.
I don't mean to spoil the surprise, but I survived. In fact, I didn't even lose consciousness—with a lightning-fast, two-handed twist-and-pull combo move, Rosemary shelled that gas mask from my head as if my skull were a peanut. Somehow, in a remarkably short amount of time, Mom, Rosemary, and I just moved on, chitchatting away as if 665 was our favorite café, as if nothing had ever happened, as if this hadn't been the single strangest sixty minutes of my entire life. But while I leapt seamlessly from meeting the puppy cage couple to the typical teenage talk of school and friends, I was later to learn that Mom and Rosemary were sweating buckets, shocked that they had dodged this particular bullet and managed to steer things back on track.
It would be years before she told me, but it turned out that my mother had ZERO idea that Rosemary worked in an S&M shop until the very second the cab that had brought us there pulled away from outside 665. She had written down the address but not the name of the store and was so focused on paying the taxi driver that she had yet to read the sign until the cab took off. Rosemary had sworn up and down that she'd told Mom the kind of shop she worked in and didn't question it much when Mom said we would come there from the airport, because she had it in her head that I was a lot older than I was.
Regardless, the second I walked off to peer into the shop window, Mom and Rosemary, still hugging, were sharing panicked whispers, trying to figure out what the hell to do. Mom had a split second to make a tough decision: her whole plan was to introduce me to a lesbian friend, to show me that she had one, and thereby impress upon me that it was perfectly okay for me to be one, and she couldn't figure out how to say, "Actually, we're not going into my friend's workplace, even though we are standing right in front of it," without also really confusing me and making the whole start of our trip supremely uncomfortable. More than anything, she deduced, it wasn't worth foiling her entire plan just to avoid fielding a few questions about sex toys. So she decided to go in the complete opposite direction and pretend this was the most normal establishment in the world. She leapt at the chance to grab those sandwiches to powwow with Rosemary on her decision, never imagining that both the puppy cage and gas mask incidents would happen within the mere ten minutes they were gone.
After Rosemary's shift was over, she took us to a kitschy family restaurant called The Stinking Rose, where every item on the menu was garlic-based, even the ice cream. We three sat there sharing a bowl, taking turns lifting the tiniest possible spoonfuls into our mouths and wincing, looking not unlike any of the other adorable families around us (but with one hell of a better backstory).
We drove to Rosemary's apartment in her low-rider Caddy with chrome rims—apparently she had really taken to L.A. culture—and she went extra fast and rolled down all the windows and I asked if I could wear her leather jacket, claiming "I'm getting kinda cold . . ." But I wasn't.
She gave me a wink and draped it over my shoulders, and I stuck my face out the car window into the wind, feeling in awe of Rosemary, her jacket, her car, and her wallet chain. In other words, I felt the very draw to this person that my mother had presumed I would . . . even if it would be another five years before I had any clue as to why.
Reprinted from The Clancys of Queens: A Memoir Copyright © 2016 by Tara Clancy. To be published in paperback by Broadway Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on September 5.