7 minute read

Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, continues a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the earlier parts of this series, follow the links at the bottom of this page.

“It is, I’ve realized, entirely possible to hold two realities in one’s mind simultaneously, and to believe them both at a visceral level.”

Lucy Atkins, The Night Visitor

She went by Sis, but her real name was Dani. She had long blond hair, stringy, not flouncy. Her teeth were stained yellow from smoking, and she wore blue jeans, plaid shirts, and work boots. She had a motorcycle too big for her size, a Dodge Ram pickup truck, and a sky-blue Pontiac Firebird, a “Sky Bird.” She worked at Terex, assembling front-end loaders, dump trucks, scrapers, and crawlers. Dad was her line inspector. 

For a woman, Sis was handsome, not pretty. She did not wear make-up, nor did she wear anything feminine. Her face was angular instead of soft, ruddy from exposure to the elements, thin-lipped with smile lines. I had thought she resembled Chuck Norris when I first met her, though younger and slimmer. 

Sis started coming around the house a lot, staying overnight most of the week, either sleeping on the couch or sharing the bedroom with Mom when Dad wasn’t there, and it seemed Dad was absent more often than not during those days. Initially, I thought Sis was Dad’s girlfriend, but it seemed she was closer to Mom, and after several weeks, I noticed building tension between the three of them. 

Back in 1979, I knew there were gay people, but I had mostly associated being gay as two men together or men who dressed as women. Sis was something new for me, my first example of gender fluidity without dressing up in a costume or performing in drag. She was the way she was every day, no apologies, no excuses. At the time, Mom called her a “lizzy” which I later learned was a pejorative term for a lesbian. Even as Mom spoke about Sis in lowered tones when she was not around, she seemed to like Sis a lot. They drank together. They laughed together. They slept together. 

Paula Sophia
Paula Sophia (provided)

One Saturday night, I was watching the Midnight Special on television. Dad was home, and he, Mom, and Sis were drinking in the kitchen, laughing a lot, arguing some. I loved the Midnight Special because it showed rock videos and new bands. I first saw Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell video on the Midnight Special, and I loved the provocative lyrics, his theatricality, and the booming music. It was a fit soundtrack for the emotional upheavals I worked hard to conceal, feeding my rebellious spirit. I wanted to bellow my torment to the world, shout at God and everyone else the way Meat Loaf did. I was hoping he would be appearing that night, a new song, a new performance, anything. 

I did see something new that night, but it was not Meat Loaf. It was my introduction to David Bowie. He had already been a seasoned rock star by the time I first saw him perform, and though I had likely heard his music from time to time, it was not the kind of music I had been exposed to, which had been mostly Old Time Rock, 70’s Hard Rock, Folk, and Country Music. He intrigued me the moment I first saw him: thin and sleek with a pompadour. He was a man but pretty like a runway model, not quite the masculinity I had known. His low voice contrasted his effete appearance, disturbing and intriguing all at once. 

It turned out to be a video performance of his song Boys Keep Swinging in which he appears in drag in three different costumes. In the first appearance, he resembled Liz Taylor with stacked hair, ball earrings, a 1950’s hoop skirt, and high heels. I did not think it was him until he took off the wig and smeared his lipstick all over his face. The second appearance portrayed an auburn-haired beauty queen, broad shouldered, statuesque, and wearing a shimmering pink gown. He looked fierce like Joan Crawford, and he removed the wig and lipstick a second time, offering a defiant sneer to the conventions of heterosexuality. The last costume resembled a regal older woman wearing a lace blouse, a cashmere sweater, and a pencil skirt. He had the aura and pose of an aging Bette Davis, but instead of breaking the illusion, he ended the video with a blown kiss. 

The troubling thing about this video was David Bowie’s effortless grace, whether portraying a man or a woman. Plus, I was transfixed, not noticing Dad and Sis entering the room behind me. 

“What the hell are you watching?” Dad yelled, and I nearly fainted, feeling needle pricks all over my skin like I was trying to leave my body. 

I could not speak. 

Dad went to the television, turned it off, and ordered me to bed. “No son of mine is going to watch a queer parading around like that.” 

Sis guffawed. “David Bowie, what a fag!” Her statement seemed too loud, too performative. 

I hurried upstairs and dove into bed half expecting Dad to follow me with his belt in hand, but he stayed downstairs. I heard him and Sis talking, then Mom’s voice. There was an undertone of debate, some worried mutterings, and I knew they were talking about me. 

After a while, I drifted to sleep, awakening a short time later to see Sis standing near my bed, looking down upon me. In the dark, I thought she was smiling, but the shadows stretched that smile to a sneer, disproportionate to her thin face, hair drooping slightly forward like black ooze spilling from her skull. Then I realized she was naked, hips narrow, breasts small but firm, and a dark patch beneath her navel. She climbed into my bed, beneath the covers, and nudged me to move over. 

I could not believe this was happening. It was too much like a dream, but it was real after all, hardly anything I would have imagined happening to me, not like this, not an adult coming to bed with me. She lay there, rubbed my left thigh, and I felt a stir of excitement, which led to a great sense of unease. I counted to ten, held my breath, and tried to stay inside my body, but I felt elevated, floating, and frightened, afraid to look at Sis, afraid to see her smile, the darkness between her lips, the darkness of her eyes. Then, suddenly, she got out of my bed, stood over me, glaring down at me, her nakedness an accusation. 

“I knew it,” she said. “I knew you were queer. You had a naked woman lying beside you but didn’t know what to do.” 

She left the room, slamming the door, and the darkness closed upon me. 

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Last Updated February 18, 2022, 5:58 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor