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    AC Benus
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 46. Jody Shotwell "The Gateway"

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The Gateway

 

We’ve read a firsthand account of what the early Gay Rights Movement was like, the Homophile resistance to oppression. Alison Laurie mentions the publications of such organizations, and ONE, Inc. was vital in forging a sense of community for those who might otherwise feel isolated. One Magazine started publishing (as a discrete entity from the Mattachine Society for legal shielding of the mother group) in 1952. By the end of ’53 they began hosting a prize for the best Gay short fiction submitted to ONE. Here is an early first-place winner of such a contest.

 

Ruth let the tattered notebook fall to her lap and stared out of the window, seeing, yet unseeing her two young sons cavorting on the front lawn. A couple of the lines of the poem she had written many years ago repeated themselves in her mind.

 

“A gate sprang open there before her,

A passage-way through Lesbos’ wall . . . “

 

Yes, it had opened once. Long ago, as long ago as this forgotten poem in this forgotten notebook. But it had closed again, and left a part of her on the inside and a part of her on the outside.

“And what does this make me,” she thought, a trifle whimsically. “A split personality or a dual personality?” It didn’t matter superficially. What was left of her on the outside had healed and grown into a working organism. Only at times, like now, having discovered this old book deep in a drawer, did she ache with phantom pains for that of her which had been amputated. She arose from her chair by the window and went to the desk to put the book away. Closing the drawer, she glanced in the mirror and then straightened up and stared at herself. She seemed lit by an inward fire that made her eyes luminous and her skin the color of youth.

“What has come over me!” she murmured aloud. This was the face that had looked back at her from her dressing-table mirror the night she met Lisa, ten long years ago. The face that had never been pretty, and was suddenly beautiful.

 

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

 

She had come upstairs after her walk to the bus-stop, and had caught then, as now, without meaning to, a glimpse of herself in the glass. “How have I changed,” she had thought, “that suddenly a woman wants to love me?” For she had no doubt of it. From the moment her old friend Bev Johnson brought the gracious and smiling young woman into Ruth’s livingroom, and Lisa looked unwaveringly into her eyes, she knew.

It had been a casual evening, on the surface. Bev, unaccountably blind, had kept the conversation going in the new channels down which her life now flowed. Once Bev had been a part of that very painful period in Ruth’s girlhood. Now she had metamorphosed into a quite ordinary person, biased most strongly against the very things she had once defended. She had told Ruth, on the telephone, that Lisa had once been one of “the crowd” long before she, Ruth, had come into it. But, she assured, Lisa was changed now, the same as they, or she would never ask to bring her over.

Now, as Lisa’s eyes sought hers, again and again, through the evening, Ruth knew that Bev was mistaken. There was something indefinable about Lisa. Her features were irregular and unfeminine, but her voice was sweet and soft. Her attire was simple, devoid of frills, but not severe. Her hair was smartly short and she wore just a faint trace of make-up. When Bev ran out of small talk, Lisa took over and related, with charm and humor, her experiences as a teacher of the third grade in her present home-town in Virginia. She spoke with a captivating accent that was the result of her transplantation from the North to the South.

“Then you are only visiting up here?” Ruth asked.

“Yes. Aunt Margaret thought she could endure me for the summer,” Lisa replied. “I had such a nostalgia for the old city.”

When it was late and they had to leave, Ruth walked with them the long block up to the bus. In the darkness of the tree-lined street, Lisa’s hand found Ruth’s and held it tightly. Bev, walking on Lisa’s other side, was blissfully unaware. They parted with plans for a swimming party the following weekend, but Ruth knew she would be seeing Lisa before then.

 

 

Now, turning away from her mirror, she prepared for bed in a fever of anticipation. The light out, she lay unsleeping, trying to realize the happiness she felt. Lisa was going to love her. It was for this she had suffered the pain and frustration of her high-school years. Well, not really. She didn’t believe in fate, really. But it was satisfying to feel now that she could go to Lisa clean and whole, free of a background of promiscuity. She reminded herself, sharply, that she was not guiltless. That it was only because none of “the crowd” had ever made a gesture toward her, that she had remained untouched. She had had her cravings; immature ones, it is true, but her inhibited nature had never allowed her to reveal them. She was forced to wait for the approaches that never came. Thus retrospecting, her new joy was flavored with bitterness as she recalled the conversation with Bev that day in the Sweet Shoppe near school. It had been a different Bev then, a Bev with boy-cropped hair and a tailored shirt. They sat facing each other across the small table, Ruth also with her hair cropped, newly, and wearing the closest thing to a boy’s shirt her mother would allow. She remembered that she smoked her first cigarette that day, and that she was glad to be able to pretend that the smoke bothered her eyes when Bev’s words brought her so close to tears.

It started with Bev’s entreaty that she drop her masquerade.

“You’re a femme, baby,” she said. “And you don’t know how lucky you are.” And when Ruth tried to speak, she went on.

“Oh, I know what you’re going to say. But I just happened to be born with a figure like a stick. These clothes do something for me.” And she had dug into her wallet and produced a battered photograph.

“Me, a couple of years ago,” she said.

“This is you!” Ruth exclaimed. The girl on the picture wore a ruffed party dress that hung limply over her scant bosom and fell in graceless lines about her bony legs. The curled shoulder-length hair concealed all of the beauty of Bev’s facial structure. She looked like a scarecrow.

“Do you think anybody noticed me then, except to laugh?” she asked, bitterly.

“Are you telling me,” Ruth began, slowly, “that you went this way just because you weren’t attractive?”

“You are the first person I ever told it to, Ruthie. But I’m worried about you. I feel guilty that I ever let you get in with our bunch.”

“And you don’t really go for girls at all? Is that what you mean?” Ruth asked, slightly numbed by Bev’s revelation.

“I despise girls,” Bev replied vehemently. “I despise myself.”

“And me? Do you despise me too?”

“No. I like you, Ruth. You’re getting hurt, and I feel responsible.”

“You’re crazy, Bev. Why do you think I asked you to introduce me to the others?”

“I don’t know why. I can’t figure it. You’re sweet, you’re feminine . . . and you’re far too good for any of them.”

“Thanks,” Ruth said, shortly. “But the fact is, I just haven’t made the grade with any of them. Why, Bev? Why am I so different?” This was when she had nearly broken down and wept.

Bev finished her “coke” and lit a cigarette.

“I’m not sure, Ruth. But I think they are a little afraid of you. Most of them are phonies, like me, you know. Real satisfied with their silly crushes. And you go around with that intense look, like you need badly to really love somebody. It scares them, honey.”

 

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

 

Twisting and turning in bed now, Ruth realized that she never actually was sure whether Bev was being truthful that day, or merely kind. She had been right, of course, about her wanting to really love someone. It had always been that way with her. She had a boundless well of love, drawn from some unknown source. Her parents were, in their way, devoted to her, but cold. She couldn’t remember that they ever addressed her by a pet name, ever spontaneously embraced or kissed her. The aunt who called her “dear,” the uncle who tousled her hair and held her on his lap . . . they were her objects of worship. Later, it was this teacher, or that schoolmate. Gender was unimportant. At least, it was unimportant until she learned, about sex. It was plain to her then that love was between male and female. Accordingly, she diverted, between her thirteenth and fifteenth years, her affections toward sundry boys in the neighborhood and at school. Kissing games were fun, and so was the mild “necking” on her front porch after dark. She wasn’t sure now exactly when she rediscovered her susceptibility to her own sex. Perhaps it was the time, at a party, when she remarked to her date that a certain girl across the room was fascinating to look at.

“That sounds queer, coming from another girl,” the boy had remarked.

“Why?” she asked. “Can’t one girl admire another girl’s looks?”

“I guess so,” the boy admitted. “But most girls are catty about other girls, especially good-looking ones.”

“Well, I think that’s silly,” she replied, heatedly. “I appreciate beauty in anyone.”

And later, thinking about it, she realized that she would like to have come closer to that girl, to touch her . . . . She felt uneasy about such a feeling then, and wondered about herself.

 

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

 

She had always read a great deal. She had a young uncle who was a medical student, and when she could steal unnoticed to his room in her grandmother’s house, she read avidly his copy of Millie and Dr. Fu Manchu along with whatever she could comprehend in his medical books. It was here she found, one day, when she was sixteen, a copy of The Well of Loneliness. She read a few chapters and couldn’t bear to leave it when the time came for her to go home. She wasn’t sure of what it was all about, but a tremendous excitement possessed her as she read, and she took the book with her.

The story of Stephen filled her with a great sadness, but it didn’t help her to understand about herself. She wasn’t like Stephen at all. She wasn’t masculine. She didn’t find boys repulsive. She felt sure she would someday marry and have children. It was just that there was something within her that allowed her to respond to certain people, and it didn’t seem to matter about their sex.

It was because of Stephen and The Well of Loneliness that she was attracted to “the crowd” when she first saw them at Starfield High. She met Bev first, and through her, the others. And it was nothing but heartbreak for her, all the way through. In her odd, misdirected little mind, they were Stephens, every one of them. And she wanted to love them, separately or collectively. She wanted to make up to them for all of the Angelas, all of the Marys who had taken their love and betrayed it. Only, they weren’t Stephens, after all . . . and they didn’t care for her compassion. Her final gesture was the cropping of her hair and the adoption of boyish clothes. If she couldn’t be an Angela or a Mary, then she would be a Stephen. But Bev’s words put a sharp halt to that.

Her lips twisted into a wry smile, thinking of it. What a poor little clown she had been! Because she knew now that haircuts and clothes had nothing to do with it.

 

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

 

“You are so lovely, so lovely!” Lisa whispered. They had paused in the shadows of the Greek pavilion, and Lisa had just kissed her for the first time. Ruth leaned against a column for support, dizzy and weak from overmuch joy. They had been wandering through the park for an hour since the final curtain of the play held in the small open arena. Lisa had called Ruth the morning after they met.

“Would you be willing to deceive Bev a bit and come to a play with me tomorrow night?” she had asked. It was to be Shaw’s Candida, one of Ruth’s favorites, but she would have gone with Lisa to a lecture on the sex-life of the stringbean.

They met at the entrance to the park, met a little awkwardly, full of the realization that they scarcely knew each other. Lisa had not so much as touched her hand through the performance, nor was there any but accidental contact as they strolled through the gathering darkness. Only now, in the Sapphic atmosphere of the pavilion, were they drawn together.

“Do you have to go home now, Lisa,” Ruth asked. “I don’t want to leave you.”

“I’m afraid I must. Aunt Margaret’s a worry wart. She feels responsible for me while I’m up here, you know.”

Suddenly Ruth experienced the sickening realization of Lisa’s temporary stay here. She had almost forgotten that with the end of summer Lisa would have to go back, go nearly five hundred miles away. Tears sprang to her eyes and she fought them back.

“Honey,” Lisa said. “Let’s hail a cab. We’ll take you home first, then I can go on.”

In the back seat they held hands and talked very little. At Ruth’s house, while the driver walked around to open the door of the cab, Lisa kissed her cheek quickly and whispered, “Call you tomorrow.”

It wasn’t often that they could be alone. Bev felt responsible for Lisa’s entertainment, and planned a series of parties and outings which included Ruth. Pleasurable as they might have been under other circumstances, now they were merely a hiatus between the hours when the two of them could steal away together for an afternoon or evening.

“It’s all right, Lisa,” Ruth assured her. “I’m perfectly happy, just doing this.” But she wasn’t. The joy she felt in Lisa’s presence was overshadowed by the necessity of yet another unfulfilled parting. It was a month now since they’d met and this was the fifth time they had managed to get out alone. And each time it had been like this . . . like a high-school date. A few short hours, a movie, or a walk in the park; once a venture into a midcity cocktail lounge where they were promptly approached by a couple of men and left abruptly. And all the while, their need for each other growing and growing . . . .

Lisa never visited at Ruth’s home alone, fearing that her mother would mention it to Bev. It wouldn’t do for Bev to know, to become suspicious.

 

 

So now, walking along and looking in the store windows, Ruth, in spite of her words, became more tense and silent as they approached the intersection where they must take separate busses to their separate destinations.

“Ruth, I feel so . . . so futile,” Lisa said, moving close to her, so that their arms touched from shoulder to hand as they walked. “You aren’t happy, and I just can’t stand it.”

They paused on the corner, waiting for the light to change. Ruth knew that once on the other side of the street, Lisa would leave her. She couldn’t let that happen, not again, not tonight.

“Lisa . . . darling. I just thought of something. Come home with me. It’s late. Mother and Dad will be in bed. You’ve got to come. I’ll die if you leave me now." She slid her hand up Lisa’s arm, gripped her elbow for a moment, then released her and stood, breathless, awaiting the other girl’s reply.

Lisa looked for a long time into Ruth’s eyes before she said, "Yes. Let’s go.”

 

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

 

End of summer came threateningly on. Ruth, because she had not completed a year at her job did not rate a vacation, but she and Lisa contrived one blissful weekend by the sea. There had to be lies and deception, of course. Ruth told her parents that Lisa’s aunt invited her down, and Lisa let her aunt believe that Ruth’s parents were accompanying them. They kept their fingers crossed that there would be no checking.

Only on the last day did either of them mention Lisa’s imminent departure for home.

“What am I going to do without you, darling?” Lisa murmured.

“Are you going to do without me?” Ruth asked.

“How easy it would be,” she said, “if I were a man. I would marry you and take you with me, and . . . . “

Ruth came and sank to her knees on the floor.

“Take me with you. You must take me with you!” Lisa wound her fingers through Ruth’s hair.

“Sweetheart, you’re talking wild. We can’t do anything like that. What reason could we give? You’re only nineteen, remember? Your folks would never let you go.”

“I’ll run away. I don’t care what they say. I can get a job down there. I don’t need them.”

“You don’t understand, darling. It would be awkward for me too. I’m twenty-two, but Mother and Dad still treat me like a child. And they . . . expect things of me. It meant a lot to them to see me graduate from college and become a teacher. They sort of think I’m . . . well, perfect . . . . “

Ruth arose and sat down beside Lisa without touching her. “l see,” she said, dully.

They met only once more before Lisa left. Ruth didn’t go to the train because she well knew she would break down. But she went to the farewell dinner at Bev’s house, and at a silent signal from Lisa, she followed her upstairs. In the bathroom, with the door locked, they clung to each other for a moment and wept. Lisa kissed her tenderly, then bid her wash her face and compose herself.

“We’ll write, darling, every day, won’t we?” she said.

“Yes, we’ll write,” Ruth replied. Lisa went down first, and Ruth turned to the mirror to repair her lipstick. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she saw that Lisa’s aunt and uncle had arrived to drive her to the station. Lisa stood in the center of the room, surrounded by their friends. She did not look up at Ruth.

The group moved toward the door, and no one noticed that she was not among them. Watching them accompany Lisa down the path, Ruth knew that the gateway to Lesbos had closed, and that she was forever on the outside.

Jody Shotwell,[i]

1954

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] “The Gateway” Jody Shotwell One Magazine December 1954 issue, ps. 5-10 (One’s winner of the year contest for best short story)

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Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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AC Benus

Posted (edited)

.

The One Magazine covers for the December 1954 issue.

I can't express how delighted I am by the camp "deviousness" of putting Santa in high heels! You go, girl!

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Front cover

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Back cover

The original artwork is credited to Tony Reyes

Edited by AC Benus
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I found a couple other of her stories published in The Ladder during the mid 1960’s. Both are equally as well written and just as poignant. I couldn’t find anything to tell whether she lived a happy life. After reading her stories I really want that for her.   

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AC Benus

Posted (edited)

9 minutes ago, 84Mags said:

I found a couple other of her stories published in The Ladder during the mid 1960’s. Both are equally as well written and just as poignant. I couldn’t find anything to tell whether she lived a happy life. After reading her stories I really want that for her.   

She was listed as assistant editor of The Ladder, which began circulation later than One Magazine. That fact strikes me as interesting, as Del Martin and Phillis Lyon established the Daughters of Bilitis on a shoe-string...making me think "Jody Shotwell" was either one of them, or a very close friend. Also interesting is how the same illustrator -- signing with a cypher of what looks like an E and W turned on their side -- did artwork for both publications.   

Edited by AC Benus
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This is definitely prizewinning prose. It hits close to home, telling a story many know, yet which remains too often untold. 

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2 hours ago, Parker Owens said:

This is definitely prizewinning prose. It hits close to home, telling a story many know, yet which remains too often untold. 

Thanks, Parker. The Bev character is interesting, as is the fact the narrator presents as Bi, although clearly the young woman she met and writes about is the love of her life. 

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