Thursday, May 15, 2008

"... And I See Your True Colors"

I started writing a story for the Picture Fiction Challenge. And I started writing a story about Human Rights for Bloggers Unite. As I looked at the Main Character photo (see end of post) for the PFC a flood of people and memories and feelings just rushed at me.
This story is a compilation of those people and memories and feelings. Suddenly it just felt right.

Maddie had been living in New York City for a few months but today, the morning after the concert, was the first day that she felt at home. She woke up to all the usual noise outside her window; living above a fruit stand in the middle of ChinaTown was nothing if not bustling. It was a beautiful spring morning so she threw open her tiny window and took in all the chaos. She loved to count the number of languages she heard; she wasn’t sure her counts were accurate; some of the sounds might not be language at all.

This morning the brilliant blue sky and the crystal air made everything seem fresh and clear. The odd combined aroma of fruit and bus fumes was delightful. Did she detect an undertone of urine?

Maddie laughed at her new found cleverness and was thrilled to realize that laughter felt natural to her now. She had come so far, so fast. She stretched out in bed and felt satisfied. So much had changed …

On her second day in New York Maddie found an ad on the bulletin board at NYU.

International Market Research
Seeks Administrative Assistant

The ad went on to say that experience wasn’t necessary. Maddie loved that part; a lack of experience was something she had lots of. Her appointment was for 10 AM and Maddie was there at 9. The receptionist on the 9th floor told her to go back to the lobby and cross over to the adjoining building. Someone would meet her at the elevator. All the way back down to the lobby Maddie tried to avoid her refection in the security mirror. Was it distorted? Did she look like that? The butterflies in her stomach were trying to escape through her head and she thought for sure that she’d faint. The doors opened and Maddie was greeted by a tall red headed woman wearing jeans and a Janis Joplin T-shirt. “Christ the elevators take forever!” she smiled and reached out to shake Maddie’s hand. “Come outside with me first, I have to have a cigarette – stupid fucking laws, I can’t smoke in the office”. As they stood on the street outside the office building Maddie tried to size up the woman. She thought she was 40-something. She couldn’t figure out her accent – it didn’t sound like NY yet … “You are Maddie!? Right!?” the woman looked stricken and surprised. “I did that once, just went up to a total stranger and assumed they were someone they weren’t”. “What a trip that was”. “I do a lot of stupid shit in any given day”.

Maddie laughed. She assured the crazy woman that she was absolutely Maddie. Crazy woman flicked her cigarette at a taxi, muttered “fucking lunatics” under her breath and headed back inside. Maddie followed, hoping that she’d be able to work with this woman. She made Maddie feel comfortable and safe.

Maddie followed through a maze of small cubicles. Her guide stopped often to talk and laugh and joke with people. Maddie was amazed at how many people worked on this one floor and how they were all so different. Every shape color and size. One of the men who patted the tall red headed woman on the back as she raced by was wearing eye make-up and had orange hair.

Maddie and crazy woman arrived at the end of the hall and entered a huge sunlit office. Crazy woman threw herself onto a huge round table and pointed to chairs and a sofa. “Settle in and we’ll chat for awhile” she said. She ignored the ringing phone. She waved away the people who approached the door. Maddie chose a straight backed chair and crossed her legs at the ankles. She was hoping to look taller and older. “When will I meet Miss Wilkes” she asked. Crazy woman laughed. “I am Miss Wilkes but just call me Denise”. Maddie was shocked and as usual could not adjust her face in time. Denise laughed even louder and shouted out to someone passing in the hall. “She doesn’t believe I’m the boss!” “Perceptive girl!” they shouted back.

Maddie’s job interview lasted for hours. They talked about New York. They talked about the dress code, or lack of. Denise asked about her home town. Turned out Denise’s ex was from a nearby town. “Yes my ex was black” Denise said as Maddie stammered and shook her head. “Well actually he’s probably still black; he’s just not my problem anymore”. Maddie tried to say that wasn’t what she’d been thinking but it was. The towns they were discussing weren’t integrated. The white people from these towns didn’t live there anymore, they just owned everything.

“So you want the job?” Maddie was shocked by the question. “The pay sucks and the new owners are asshats but I promise to teach you everything you need to know to get a real job. And the people here, on this floor – in my departments, are the best. You’ll make friends for life here Maddie”.

Maddie wanted the job.

Maddie’s first weeks at the job went by in a blur. A blur of new names and faces. A blur of Denise’s fast talk and inventive cussing. A blur of more change than she had ever thought possible. One of the guys in the production department got her an apartment. It was tiny and very expensive. Everyone laughed when Maddie said it cost more than her parent’s huge home in South Carolina. “Of course it does sweetie” one of the guys told her, “this is New York”. “They’d have to pay me to live in the South. I’m black and I’m gay, I’d last a day”. More laughter. No one noticed how quiet and uncomfortable Maddie was, she was always quiet.

“We’ve got to liven you up” Denise said one evening. They had been working very late and were now slumped on the sofa. “I’m live enough” Maddie laughed. It hadn’t taken her long to get used to Denise. When she called home her sisters told her she talked too fast. “You’re thinking of home again aren’t you?” It amazed Maddie how often Denise knew what she thinking. “Yes and no” Maddie said, “I miss my sisters but I’m glad to be away from that town”. “You can’t think of home without getting angry?” Denise asked. “I’m not angry” Maddie insisted and Denise let it be. That was one of Maddie’s favorite things about Denise. As outrageous as her behavior could be she was thoughtful and kind. “So how are we going to liven me up?” Maddie asked. Denise suggested they mull that over at dinner. They often had dinner together. Denise loved to go to fancy restaurants dressed in jeans and sneakers. She always asked for a center table and then they would discuss the other diners. Tonight they went to ‘Asian Carnival’ – the food was great and the atmosphere “reeked of pretentious asshatery” as Denise loved to say. Maddie still couldn’t totally believe she was part of this. Thick linen napkins had quickly become one of her favorite things. She had spent an entire Sunday on Orchard Street buying ‘napkin fabric’ so that she could redo her thrift store sofa.

“I know we’re supposed to be talking about you but I just want to throw this out there – I want to get a tattoo before I’m 50”. Maddie smiled and pulled up her skirt slightly. Right above her knee was a tiny tat – a perfect ladybug surrounded by a cloud shaped like a flower. “That’s beautiful” Denise seemed genuinely surprised and delighted. “Does it stand for anything special? And why above your knee? It would look great on your ankle or your shoulder.” “I didn’t want anyone to see it, especially my parents”. Denise seemed unsure of what to ask next and Maddie felt bad about that. She knew Denise wanted to know more about her, she loved Denise – she had never known anyone like her. She had never known many white people period. She laughed to herself now and Denise asked why. “I was just remembering the time you told me not to think all white people were like you”. Denise joined in the laughter mumbling about “the crap that comes out of my mouth”. “It’s way later than I thought it was, I guess we’re not doing anything drastic tonight”. As usual Maddie tried to pay for dinner but Denise wouldn’t allow it. “I’ve told you a million times, the new owners are going to pay for this. If I can’t get them to pay your fairly I can at least get them to feed you. And take a cab home”. As she rifled through her bag Denise pulled out a pair of concert tickets. “I almost forgot! Do you want to come to a concert with me?” Maddie took the tickets, saw Cyndi Lauper’s name and immediately said yes. “I love Cyndi! She’s so …” Denise filled in “unusual and wonderful”. “Just like you Maddie”.

The night of the concert was perfect. It was early June in New York City. It was warm and the streets were full of locals and tourists. Maddie was nervous as she climbed the stairs of the subway out onto 49th Street. Just as she had the day of her interview she avoided her reflection. Although the women in the fruit store had told her she looked beautiful; although she had gotten admiring glances on the train; she was now unsure of her choices. She had decided, at the last minute, after a miserable conversation with her Mother to “liven up her look” as Denise would say. She was wearing a short skirt and a tight shirt. She was wearing loud colors. Maddie spotted Denise already on line and ran over to join her. She’d never get used to standing on line for everything. Usually the crowded streets made her anxious but the buzz around the theater was so upbeat that she couldn’t help but feel happy. “You look amazing!” Denise beamed like a proud Mother. “I didn’t think you owned anything in color”. Maddie felt a rush of love and gratitude. Denise was her best friend and the Mom she had always wanted; accepting, supportive, warm, kind, and loving.

As they entered Radio City a woman handed Maddie a purple rubber bracelet. ‘Erase Hate’ was etched on one side. The other side said ‘The Mathew Shepherd Foundation’. “Isn’t Mathew Shepherd the boy who …?” Again Denise finished her thought. “The boy who was murdered because he was gay. The concert is to fund his foundation and to help the HRC. Grab some pamphlets. You’ll be amazed at all they do”. Maddie headed downstairs to check out the HRC tables as Denise got on line for a drink and a T-shirt. Downstairs Maddie signed on for the HRC newsletter. She spoke to a woman from Florida who was there with her son. She wanted him to be able to marry his lover. Maddie took in everything and everyone around her; there were people of all ages, all colors, all sexes. She laughed at the thought of “all sexes” – that was something Denise would say.

Back upstairs it took Maddie a while to find Denise. “Look what I have for you!” Denise called from the center of a group of people. It was a small tiara. A plastic and feathery tiara. All the men standing around Denise were wearing one; Denise had a purple feather boa draped across her shoulders. Maddie didn’t hesitate to set the tiara on top of her head and they all headed to their seats.

The concert was fantastic. Beth Ditto stomped across the stage, her voice as large as she is as Denise screamed “Power to the Fat Girls”. Erasure sang all their old hits. Rosie O played drums for Cyndi and dissed Elisabitch. Maddie couldn’t believe it when Denise yelled out “I love you Rosie” and Ro threw her drumsticks right to Maddie. Cyndi ended the concert by bringing everyone back on stage. She talked about her gay sister not being allowed to adopt a child; she introduced Mathew Shepherd’s Mom; she thanked everyone for being there, for supporting what should be such a simple thing – allowing people to be who and what they are. Free from hate and fear and discrimination.

The audience got very quiet as Cyndi approached center stage. She was bathed in purple light and up close her face was even more beautiful than Maddie had imagined. She started to sing …

And I see your true colors – shining through
Your true colors and …
That’s why I love you
So …
and then she raised her fist in the air and shouted out

And the crowd went wild. Maddie turned to Denise and said “I’m gay”. Denise hugged her and said “I know. I’ve been waiting for you to tell me”. All the years of being confused and ashamed came at Maddie. She burst into tears and Denise hugged her tighter. She mumbled about her parents hating her, the town gossip, the hiding. She told Denise the tattoo was all she had from the love of her life. Her parents had made sure to break them up and she had left town without even saying goodbye. It felt so good to feel the pain. It felt even better to be seen.

Maddie is the young girl who worked for me; her Father threw her out because he discovered she had a girlfriend.

Maddie is my favorite bartender from back in my drinking days. He always made sure I got a cab and he always made sure I “behaved in my misbehavin’ way”. He spent months in critical condition after being beaten by a pack of yahoos while several of NY’s finest looked the other way.

Maddie is my mentor from my first job. He was one of the first victims of AIDS. He died without being able to see his family once more because they refused to be in the same room with his husband.

Maddie is the couple down the road from me. Every day they deal with some level of ‘asshatery’ because there are still people who don’t see a family. They see two men with children they shouldn’t be allowed to adopt. And they think they have the right to question that family. And who can blame them! Doesn’t our government give them that right by refusing to legally acknowledge that family?

I LOVE the serendipity of this post coming on the same day that California recognized the right for gay couples to marry. So little so late but still a victory.

Denise is Matthew Shepherd’s Mom. Grace in the face of unbearable grief.

Denise is the Mom I met at the True Colors concert. Holding hands with her son and his lover and bursting into tears because they couldn’t marry.

Denise is also the Mom I met while volunteering at New York Hospital. Her son had been beaten by drunken teens. They had kicked him and stomped on him while shrieking “Fag”. I was her advocate during a horrendous trip through the absurd workings of the Rudy Giuliani era of the NYPD.

I hope you’ll take a moment to visit The HRC.

We all deserve the right to show our true colors.

These are the PFC photos. I love my Maddie.


Jay said...

Wow! That was really powerful Diane. Great story too! Lots and lots to think about in that one.

bobbie said...

Dianne, you have outdone yourself with this one. You had me in tears. You have combined your two goals for the story so beautifully. I have known a great many gay and lesbian people in my time and have been aware of a little of the anguish they face because of the attitudes and lack of understanding of others, but I am aware that it goes far beyond what I have seen. Thank God, none of those I have known have suffered physical abuse. I hope that your story touches the hearts of some of your readers who may not understand - until now.

the walking man said...

Sigh, I was working on a chap book entitled Matthew Sheppard when the last accident occurred 14 months ago. I guess I should finish it eh?

Even more than the compilation piece the post script touched me nearer and deeper. Yep Dianne if it flunks the Bob Marley, test it most likely does not belong in the thoughts of humans.


ETK said...

Dianne, I have to tell you that normally when I find posts that are that long and dense, I read a sentence or two and move on. :) Really. (I blame it on all the chickens - aka ADD).

But, I was so sucked in to your story. That was awesome! Great job!

Dianne said...

jay - thanks so much! I always know when I've touched you a bit, you don't make any wise-cracks. I love that about you.

bobbie - wow - thank you for such kind praise, it means so much to me.

mark - you should most definitely finish anything and everything you've written - or start new. you are an amazing writer and shouldn't deprive the rest of us of your voice. :)
I think the post-script is more powerful too but I think it's power comes from having read the story first. And then to see that pic of "my Maddie". I was hoping to create a sequence of empathy.

etk - I often do the same thing LOL sometimes on the stuff I've written LOL!!
I'm glad you were pulled in to my little story - that means so much to me.

emily said...

I am sitting at my desk wiping tears. That was powerful, beautiful, thought provoking, action provoking and so well written.

Thank you. And just... WOW

tt said...

What do I say? I'm wiping the tears off my face and trying to type. All the way through this story I was thinking..Denise is Dianne....and I wish I was Maddie.
I'm just so full of emotions right now that i just can't sort them all out. That will be my all time favorite story. Forever. Because I know it's true on so many levels.
And yes, perfect timing. You have a knack for that, sweets. ;)
Like I've said before, I'm keeping you forever!

Ivanhoe said...

What a great story! Wow - I read it in one breath, but did not see the ending coming.
I've seen Matt's story on Lifetime a couple of years ago.
And I think that California made the right decision :o)

Knight said...

Dammit Dianne! You are going to make me cry on a Friday morning at work.
While reading the story it made me think of a whole lot of characters in my life as well.
At first I was thinking, I want to work for Denise. Then I realized no, I want to BE Denise.
You really pulled one incredible story out of those pictures. I'm impressed with how you made it so personal. The part that got me close to tears was your personal connections and descriptions of who the characters represent. You always impress me. I'm so glad I found your blog and am able to know you if only through your stories.

Knight said...

And now I AM crying. Sheesh!

Lisa said...

You are also Denise. I'm not sure you know it, but you are a mentor to people who have never met you. I can see that when I read the comments people leave you and I'm sure you are a mentor to many people in your offline life as well.

You are a free spirit with a heart full of love and acceptance. I'm glad you allow yourself to share this and teach your readers what a heart should hold.

Dianne said...

emily - and just WOW to you. thank you for such kind and generous words.

tt - I am glad to be kept forever. You, my sweet friend, are a keeper as well.

ivanhoe - I have been bursting into tears each day they replay the reaction to CA's decision. People who have been together for years and years finally being able to marry and have the same rights I do.

knight - awwww - I bet there is so much 'Denise' in you :) and I'm glad we found each other in this huge blog world too! I hope we get to meet one day. I have become so fond of you - as I said the other day, you're on my adopted list. you amaze me with your heart and insight - I thought you were so much older than you are.

lisa - your comment to me just described you :)
which makes it mean even more to me. I was thinking about you when I wrote the part about butterflies in Maddie's stomach trying to escape through her head. You are the epitome of graceful strength to me.

Raven said...

Brava! Brava! I think this is my favorite post ever. The story is so beautifully written even without it's postlog. But the postlog is so rich and eloquent.... Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Honored to know you, my friend. This is just exquisite. I can't think of anything good enough to say about it.

I'm getting nowhere with this month's PFC and you have written a masterpiece. Brava. And thank you. Well done. One last thought. You left someone off the list. This is so powerful in part because Denise in particular reflects all the love, wit, wisdom, compassion and generosity of spirit that is you.

Akelamalu said...

What a fabulous story and such a powerful post. You are such a talented writer Dianne, I feel priviledged to read what you write. x

Dianne said...

raven - it was all those faces, all those memories. they wrote it for me. and in the background was news coverage of the CA victory. thank you raven for always being such a good friend.

akelamalu - thank you! I think you're a talented writer as well. Your "55s" are always stunning.

Jo said...

Just beautiful, Dianne...I catch myself holding my breath as I read. I saw you as Denise from the get-go :) I love the way you wrote this's like a seamless quilt, something earnest & warm against the ugliness in the world.

Well...and I love the non-story pieces you wrote at the end just as much, if not more---so painful, and hopeful.

Once again, I'm so glad you're in the world...and so grateful I get to know you :)

Lisa said...

No one may ever get to be that person they think they should be, but some people help you bring out your best parts.

I hope you save this one for your short stories book you'll publish one day.

Tammy said...

What an amazing story! I'm without words. It was truly brilliant!

Chuck said...

Wow - hey, you're good! Nice work. Glad you stopped by 'cause I need to put you on my Reader :)

Happy day to ya and enjoy the rain...dzn't rain here much.


Jill said...

OK! Now my story for PFC now seems very lame!
I really like the story, the message is awsome!

Dianne said...

jo - "something earnest & warm against the ugliness in the world."
that is a wonderful thing to say. thanks. just more sunlight.

lisa - thanks!! I do hope there's a book in me somewhere, it keeps peeking out now and then ;)

tammy - thank you so much!

chuck - I'm glad I stopped by too. and happy day to you as well :)

jill - I bet your PFC rocks. I'm coming by to check it out.

Jeff B said...

What a beatifully written story! When the lines between fact and fiction become one, it makes for a truely great read.

Richard said...

I told you that you were a delicate flower; now you've proven it.

Thanks for letting us all share your insight and compassion.

This stuff needs to be in print you know. What are you doing about it?

Don't make me nag you, it's unseemly for a man to be caught nagging.

Are you researching local mags and pubs that take subsmissions. If I can get published, you hafta know you should be published many times over.

This is one tremendous example of writing what you know, from the heart in powerful fashion.

I am greener than green from envy girl. Yet very happy as well to know someone with this kind of talent.


Dianne said...

jeff b - "when the lines between fact and fiction become one..." - thank you!! what a wonderful compliment. And thanks for coming by.

richard - I have looked into places that take submissions. I made a list and I bookmarked sites, and I signed up at "working writer's guide" (I think that's what it's called) and then I stop. The creepy willy nilly of my stilly takes hold and I think - WTF!? Nah - I can't do that.
Then I take another step.
And you never nag. You are such a supportive friend Richard and I truly appreciate it. Please do give me a kick in the butt now and then.
and Happy First Day at the job! - you will kick ass!

Minnesotablue said...

Wow! What a powerful story. You are one great and caring human being.

CG said...

All your other readers have said what I wanted to say..I'm touched, impressed, overwhelmed, in awe, in tears!

Dianne said...

I feel the same way about you minnesotablue!

cg - I was worried about you! I'm going to go check your blog again now. Thanks cg - your words always mean the world to me.