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Ashes of Camelot

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This story is a little longer but I’ve decided to keep it in one piece to avoid losing the rhythm. It’s told in the First Person from the viewpoint of Ellen and because it’s set in 1963 I’ve tried to keep the language as real as possible. The inspiration behind this story came from a picture of a ticket to the dinner JFK was supposed to attend the night of the 22nd. The assassination provides the backdrop to this intimate encounter between two women. The novels written by Bannon are also real and while we might find them stereotypical these days, back in the 1960s they were one of the few ways women could find out more about lesbians.

The ancients have faded into history but their tales have been relayed through countless generations, defying for the most part the attempts to destroy them, and over the last few months since President Kennedy was slain I have revisited many of those old tales. Like many I am still trying to make sense of an American version of the old Greek tragedies. There are many fine stories but the one that inspires me the most is the story of the Phoenix, reborn in the ashes of its own destruction. It speaks to my heart though I know it to be a myth. I too am like the Phoenix, rising out of the ashes of Camelot as I wing my way across the Atlantic.

My name is Eleanor Edwina Macarthur but most folks call me Ellen and some I suspect may use other unmentionable names, harlot, fallen woman, and lesbian. The truth is I am all of these things and I hold these names to my breast for it is only in embracing adversity that we truly begin to grow. Kennedy once said, we do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard. I know he did not mean my own situation but I am grabbing at stray sentences and taking them into myself the better to understand my situation.

It is hard to believe this started in the second week of January, 1963. I was the school librarian at Austin High, the home of the Maroons and if all had gone according to the neat plan laid out in my daydreams I would have married George Steele, a geography teacher at the school. He was on my mind the morning she was led into the library by one of the administration staff. Her name was Michelle Gates, she was a stunning beauty, the daughter of an American in the diplomatic corps and a French expatriate. Her mother gifted her with dark brown wavy hair and sculptured good looks, but from her father she inherited a keen intellect. At at the time I thought her a rather snobbish woman with a foreign accent, albeit a well dressed woman in prim skirt suit and as old Betty Young introduced us I had the impression she was looking down on me.

“Eleanor is our librarian,” she smiled, “and despite her youth she has proved quite adept at finding information for our faculty.”

“Charmed,” Michelle removed a white glove and extended her hand, “I have always loved libraries, without knowledge what are we but ignorant beasts?”

The phrase brought a frown to my face. Had she quoted from some yet to be credited source or was this something original? She released my hand and looked at Betty.

“I should look around first?”

“Of course, go right ahead,” she replied, “Eleanor will see you out,” she fixed her eyes on me.

“It would be a pleasure,” I replied.

Her inspection of the library was all too brief and she didn’t seem to be too interested in the books. I made a half hearted attempt at a joke about our ‘eclectic’ selection that rivals the best European libraries.

“It is as I expected for an American high school,” she put a book back on the shelf, “just enough information to whet their appetite but nothing to satiate their hunger.”

“Is there nothing to inspire you?” I twirled a lock of hair around my finger nervously.

She looked at me and for a moment it was like she was looking right through me as she selected a copy of Oliver Twist.

“The Feminine Mystique was one I found most enlightening,” she looked down at Oliver Twist, “the critics decry it for mentioning the unmentionable but Oliver Twist was considered equally scandalous. Imagine the horror of the syphilitic old men in their clubs being likened to parasites,” she turned the book over to read the back cover.

“Writers have always been at the forefront of change, for it is they who imagine a world that does not exist and create an idea for us to bring into being,” she smiled at me.

“What is your favorite book?”

I thought of several and eventually came up with To Kill A Mockingbird, more to make myself sound more intelligent but it caused her to raise her elegantly styled eyebrows.

“Interesting,” she put the book back, “and what did you think of Atticus Finch?”

“He was a good man.”

“Are you a segregationist or a desegregationist?”

It was a loaded question even at this school. My workplace had only recently admitted colored students to the dismay of the segregationists and some of them worked at the school. Most people in my circle of friends skirted around the canlı bahis issue, hoping that by some miracle they might wake up and discover the problem had resolved itself. My father thought it a stupid idea but mom was a little more liberal, although she too had voted for Nixon in the last election.

“I think it’s a good thing to desegregate public places, although my father disagrees,” I added a moment later.

“I agree,” she turned and looked around, “perhaps one day books by colored writers will fill these shelves as well,” and with that she stepped forward, leaving me to follow on behind. I wanted to know more about France. Did they segregate people according to color? How were they dealing with the communist menace? Instead all I managed was, “did you buy that outfit in Paris?”

“London,” she stepped outside, “although I have seen similar in Paris.”

I was about to farewell her when she turned and nodded.

“Walk with me.”

It was only when we were some distance from the building that she finally exhaled rather noisily and took out a packet of cigarettes.

“That was the most tedious interview I think I have ever endured,” she lit the cigarette and offered me the packet, “I thought I was being interviewed for President of the United States.”

“I’m sorry,” I took a cigarette and accepted the light, “everyone’s a little paranoid about Reds and homosexuals and probably foreigners although Austin is quite liberal.”

“That’s why I chose Austin,” she stopped beside a blue Ford convertible, “at least here I might get some decent conversation that doesn’t revolve around crop prices and steers.”

“We talk about lots of things in Austin,” I felt the color in my cheeks, “art, history and other things besides,” I trailed away as she unbuttoned her jacket to reveal more of the elegant white blouse.

“I can talk about those things too,” she shrugged the jacket off and tossed it onto the passenger seat, “but right now I am distracted,” she ran a hand through her hair.

“I need to find a room for rent.”

I looked past her, trying to think of somewhere suitable for such an elegant looking woman but my mind was a cacophony of conflicting emotions and ideas. She dropped the cigarette on the ground and stepped on it as she opened the door.

“I am staying at the Belvedere in town if you come up with any ideas.”

I opened my mouth to say it and just as the door opened wider I leaped into the unknown.

“You could stay at my house, I have a spare room.”

“Your house?” Michelle turned and looked straight at me and I felt as if she could read every errant thought and desire, “I had not thought to impose.”

“You wouldn’t be imposing on me, I would be honored to have you renting a room.”

Michelle ran her eyes over me and I felt an eerie sensation, similar to when men looked at me but then she smiled.

“I will not say yes but I am interested, where do you live?”

I wrote down my address on her notepad and she nodded as she read it.

“Tonight?”

“Come for dinner,” I smiled.

“Dinner sounds good.”

The only thing that bothered me as she drove away a few minutes later was the feeling that I’d just opened the door to something unknown.

I rented a house on Kerbey Lane, Bryker Woods a few miles west of Downtown Austin and while my salary did pay the rent and bills it left me with little left over for the little luxuries. I did manage to scrape together a meal that I hoped wouldn’t at least make her think I was somehow lacking in culinary skills. Perchance she had probably dined in fine Parisian restaurants and homes or perhaps other similar places back east. If I’d had any records by French artists I would have had them handy as well but in the end I settled for good old Hank Williams and changed into a pretty dress I’d bought at Sears a few months ago. It was a white, sleeveless dress with buttons down the front and a full skirt and cinched in waistline. It wasn’t exactly Parisian chic but I wanted to show Michelle that we knew a thing or two about fashion in Texas.

Michelle arrived promptly at six and I remember staring at her through the window as she strolled to the front porch. She was wearing a white blouse buttoned to just above her cleavage and black loose trousers adorned with a wide belt, a matching jacket was draped around her shoulders and she had a bunch of flowers in her hand.

“You have a nice house,” she handed me the flowers a few moments later.

“Oh,” I stepped aside, “thank you kindly.”

“You are welcome,” she stepped inside and looked around, “it is much nicer than the other houses I looked at this afternoon,” she ambled past me and I caught the delicious aroma of French perfume or was it some exotic Italian scent?

“It isn’t my house,” I closed the door and followed her, “I rent it from the agent.”

“And he doesn’t mind you renting out a room?”

“He suggested I find a boarder if I found things difficult.”

“And do you?” Michelle turned bahis siteleri around, “find it difficult?”

“A little,” I held the flowers in front of me like a shield, “a lot actually.”

“Then perhaps I am your knight in shining armor?”

Before I could answer, she held out her hand for the flowers.

“We should put them in water and then we can talk before dinner, if we can come to some agreement before dinner it will make the food taste much nicer.”

I have never been very good at bargaining and it showed in my initial offer, which was actually adequate and not too expensive but she merely frowned as she completed her inspection at the back porch.

“That is too low, I would pay twice as much.”

I flinched and she fixed me with a steady gaze that froze me to the spot.

“My father is in the diplomatic service, he would think me rude if I didn’t offer more. You can pocket the rest if you want, it doesn’t concern me but I need a place to stay and you seem like a pleasant landlady.”

Looking back I suppose if I’d known her sexual orientation I may have thought twice before saying yes but I would still have said yes. I did not think think she was a lesbian because she did not come across in that way, but I did feel a fascination towards this foreign born woman who moved with a fluid grace through the rooms of my modest home and did not turn up her nose at my frugal possessions or the interior. She had a worldliness about her that stirred long suppressed desires for freedom from the shackles of everyday life. The best part of the bargain was when she paid a full month in advance in cash and sealed it with a handshake.

“Thank you for your hospitality, I will be back tomorrow night?”

“I’ll make sure the room is clean for you,” I promised.

“Don’t worry too much about that,” she smiled, “I can also clean.”

The last thought that entered my mind before I fell asleep that night was wishing I’d asked if she was a communist but surely a woman as sophisticated as her couldn’t be a communist?

Michelle arrived the next afternoon not long after I arrived home and after unpacking insisted on cooking dinner and that night I was treated to a sumptuous feast of Cajun chicken and rice. She is a wonderful cook as I’ve discovered but has a distaste for American fast food.

“Fast food is not for me,” she confessed, “I take time to prepare a meal.”

That night I did ask what she thought of the communist threat and her answer surprised me.

“There is no stomach for war in Europe. We have had two wars that devastated the continent and now they have divided it in two with their Iron Curtain. If the politicians want war then perhaps they should put on uniforms and fight it out with other like minded politicians and leave the rest of us out of their disputes. What does it matter? Communism or democracy? They are just political systems with their own failures and successes, there is good and bad in both but one cannot say one is totally wrong and the other right. Both systems feed off the bad in the other but that does not make one system the only legitimate form of government.”

It was a novel idea and it was not the first novel idea she advanced. Over the next few months she broached the subject of equal rights for women, the novel concept of a woman in a position of power and the stupidity of forcing women into marriages just to appear normal. I once joked that she should have been a beatnik but she scorned the idea.

“Don’t get me wrong, it is good to question the old ideas but I found many beatniks had no answers to the old questions, just more questions.”

Nevertheless, she had read many of the books written by the Beat generation. That spring I got to read the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Salinger. The school library would never have allowed On The Road or Howl on their shelves and I was reminded of her comment that day about giving students just enough knowledge to whet their appetites but not enough to satisfy them. These books exposed me to radical new ideas, but my favorite book was The Feminine Mystique. I felt as if Friedan had somehow reached out to me, I too wanted something more than just to be a good housewife for a man. Michelle seemed to be one of those women Friedan called self actualized women, confident of their own abilities and curious about the world around them. She went out with men but unlike me, she didn’t wait for a phone call. She regarded men with a bemused detachment, mere playthings with which to amuse herself before putting them back in the basket and moving on to something more important. Perhaps that should have alerted me but I was young and I just thought she found local men as tedious as I did.

In retrospect I should never have discovered her sexuality if not for my absent mindedness. I came home one hot day with the urge for iced tea. There was mail in the mailbox, some for Michelle and two letters for me. By coincidence, two letters had exactly the same envelope and very similar writing bahis şirketleri on the front and so I opened Michelle’s letter by mistake and at first thought I was the butt of some odd prank. It was a religious tract denouncing homosexuality and it was only when I looked at the name on the envelope that I realized it was for Michelle. The name on the back was H.G. Harding. Henry or Harry? I read the tract again and then I heard Michelle’s car in the driveway and my blood ran cold as I turned towards the front door. She came in a few minutes later to find me leaning against the kitchen bench with the tract and envelope in my hand and at first she didn’t see it because she too was thirsty.

“I could use a root beer,” she opened the fridge and then looked over her shoulder at me.

“Are you feeling sick? You look pale.”

“I,” I swallowed, “I think this is for you, I’m so sorry.”

I handed the tract to her and ran to my bedroom and threw myself on the bed, not knowing what to do or think but a minute later her shadow darkened the door and I rolled onto my back. She had an odd look on her face as if she was actually worried because she bit her lip and looked away for a moment before speaking.

“Henry was my husband, we were married for six weeks but he had the marriage annulled when he discovered my secret.”

“Are you?” I sat up slowly and smoothed out my skirt nervously.

“I am,” she put her back to the wall, “I didn’t want you to know.”

“Why not?”

“Because I was afraid of the effect it might have on you, and if people find out then it could affect my job at the school,” she paused, “he should never have sent this but Henry is a stupid little man with little principle beyond satisfying his need to humiliate others.”

I said nothing, my throat felt constricted and she put her hand to her throat.

“I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry,” she whispered.

Michelle walked out of the room leaving me staring at the ceiling. I sat bolt upright as her footsteps receded. I had never seen her so scared. This was a woman who in my opinion was afraid of nothing, not even when we were confronted by a well endowed woman, who took offense because Michelle embraced a black man she knew who’d just gotten engaged. She faced that shrill harpy down with a razor sharp retort that made me blink. She almost seemed to welcome the hatred of the segregationists with gleeful anticipation. One of her favorite tactics was to share a table at a diner with blacks and the reactions could be both entertaining and worrisome. Segregation might be on the way out in Texas but there were plenty of folks who longed for the old days.

Thus to see her so frightened actually scared me and I saw myself in her eyes in that moment, I was the timid one who tried to avoid confrontation and controversial subjects. I’d stayed silent when colleagues and friends vented their racist spleen for all and sundry, hoping I wouldn’t have to offer up my opinion. It was in the spirit of that very recent past that I jumped to my feet and ran into the hallway, catching her at the bathroom door.

“No, wait, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please stop.”

Michelle turned around with her hand on the doorknob and I bit my lip and did my best to pour on the Southern charm.

“I’m the one who should apologize. I didn’t know that about you, I never met anyone like you but there’s no need to be afraid, I won’t tell anyone ever. Cross my heart,” I touched my breast.

Her expression softened noticeably and she wiped her eyes and acting on instinct I embraced her but she felt as stiff as a board and I retreated just as quickly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to,” I trailed away.

“You did nothing wrong,” she sounded distant, “I should have told you sooner.”

“It’s never too late,” I reassured her, “you can tell me more, if that’s all right?”

“Perhaps I should,” she turned the doorknob, “but first I must,” she opened the door.

“Of course,” I glanced over my shoulder, “I’ll be in the kitchen.”

Over the course of the next few hours my eyes were opened to a new underground world and it was one that until then had been very much a shadowy world. I had been raised on tales of the Lavender Scare and my father used to say the best thing Ike ever did was sign the Executive Order barring government agencies from hiring homosexuals. It was one of those inanely silly laws that inevitably created the very situation it was supposed to eradicate. It drove them deep underground where they were easy prey for communist agents and indeed some had defected to the Soviet Union where homosexuality was legal if not exactly promoted.

The thing that impressed me the most that night was her frankness. I have always valued honesty highly, even if that honesty exposes uncomfortable truths. She made no excuses for her condition and did not ask for pity or even prayer. I suspect it was the shock of being dragged out of the closet that caused her to speak so openly and I sat there listening to every word, only interrupting when I had questions of my own.

One of my questions related to wanting to know how she had become a lesbian. Had she been hurt by men or seduced by a woman? Her reply set me back a little I must admit.

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