One Last Stop and the Magic of Queer History

Someone will remember us
I say
Even in another time

Sappho fragment

She lets Jane’s memories transpose over here, now, like double-exposed film, two different generations of messy, loud, brave and scared and brave again people stomping their feet and waving hands with bitten nails, all the things they share and all the things they don’t, the things she has that people like Jane smashed windows and spat blood for.

[…] August can’t stop thinking how much Jane would love to be here. Jane deserves to be here. She deserves to see it, to feel the bass in her chest and know it’s the result of her work, to have a beer in her hand and a twenty between her teeth. She’d be free, lit up by stage lights, dug up from underground and dancing until she can’t breathe, loving it. Living.

McQuiston 2021, p. 267 – 268

It’s very easy to become detached from a sense of queer history. 98% of my knowledge about queer theory and history is self-taught, following recommendations from supervisors and reading lists and otherwise diving down research rabbit holes. I know there are holes in my knowledge base, and I frequently think how impossibly cool and helpful it would have been to have been able to take a class on this. But even if we’re not talking strictly academically, I think it’s easy to feel like you’re scrambling to “catch up on the homework”, so to speak.

There are gaps in the mainstream understanding of queer history, of queer writing, of queer activism, of queer life. From censorship, of course, and from the tragic loss of an entire generation of people who might have carried that information into the twenty-first century. But also from it being cluttered away in the margins, posed only as something hypothetical and weird and over there and not for you. As many benefits as the Internet has, experiencing queer community entirely online (and through uniquely online Community Discourse, good heavens) can leave you without a tangible, humanised sense of what’s come before, and its significance. A lot is rendered invisible and intangible, falls through the cracks. It can all feel a bit… nebulous. Abstract. Ghostly.

Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop is a novel about history and memory. August, a cynical and practical twenty-three-year-old, moves to New York looking for a fresh start, and quickly develops a crush on Jane, the handsome and charismatic woman August shares a commute with. But Jane doesn’t just look like a cool butch punk-rocker from the ‘70s, she is a cool butch punk-rocker from the ‘70s: somehow unstuck in time, and trapped on the Q trainline for eternity. Jane doesn’t remember how she got stuck here, August doesn’t know how Jane is possible, yet here they both are in a metal tube speeding along electrified rails, their weird little liminal space where the past and the present collide.

When I call a book “queer”, I’m most often using it as a handy shorthand for “has LGBTQIA+ characters”—it’s how I’ve catalogued the recommendations I’ve been putting out throughout June. One Last Stop is certainly queer in that regard, featuring a temporally-displaced romance between lesbian Jane and bisexual August, and a bevy of supporting characters from all over the rainbow spectrum. But it’s also a deeply, deeply queer book in how it engages directly with the history that made romance novels like this possible in the first place. Jane is from another era, which means she’s from another way of being entirely. Jane is a voice from the past, the voice of old-school queer rebellion.

Oh, Jane has tales to tell: of running away from home and hitchhiking across the country (in the 1970s?! August has studied enough true crime to know it’s a miracle she didn’t get serial killed), of working crappy diner jobs by day and fighting cops at protests by night, of navigating the dyke bar scene as an Asian-American, of driving neighbours to hospital when they showed the first symptoms of what would come to be called AIDS, of falling half in love with women and becoming best friends with gay men in every musician/activist sharehouse in every city she moved to. August remarks that Jane is full of fight and fire yet incredibly gentle, fundamentally kind out of a need to survive.

She’s thrown Molotov cocktails, she’s thrown punches, she’s fought ferociously to protect herself and her friends and lovers, and she’s drifted all over the US looking for a place that might feel like home. She’s always ready with a joke and a quick smile, her favourite bagel is chocolate chip with peanut butter, and her establishing character moment is her rescuing August from the spilled coffee that would otherwise have ruined her day. She’s layered, she’s sweet, she’s funny, and she feels gloriously real, because of the delightful and efficient characterisation in the present, but also because of the intricate web of memories from her past. And it’s an unmistakably queer past: queer as in gay and queer as in “fuck you”.

As well as the timeloop being a fun supernatural device for a romance, something about bringing Jane into the present—into a contemporary sapphic romance—feels deeply important. It’s a reminder, in the form of a very fleshed-out and loveable character, of the queer past that forms the brickwork for our queer present. Jane’s memories link the physical landscape across time: she got her nose broken in that nightclub, she used to get dumplings from that place in Chinatown. August can walk through New York and feel the echoes of a community, a rebellion. It’s surreal, but it’s true to life if you know where and how to search. If you listen to the stories of the past.

During a Christmas in July party held at a drag bar, August takes a moment among the loud, zany euphoria of it all to think that Jane should be there, that Jane would love this. That this—a diverse bunch of queer folks drunk off their asses and having a good time, laughing at their friend doing a candy-themed striptease that would be ridiculous and maybe abhorrent anywhere else, but is perfect then and there—is what Jane and her people were fighting for.

It’s a tragedy that she can’t come up and can’t enjoy it. This personal tragedy, of course, echoes deep. Jane can’t be there because she’s stuck on the subway via time magic. But so many other people aren’t here to enjoy this because of a myriad other, more scary and realistic reasons.

There’s something so deeply sad about realising that, if time-fracture weirdness hadn’t occurred and she hadn’t met August, Jane might have simply vanished into the annals of history. Trying to piece together Jane’s memories and past throws light on how many people fall through the administrative cracks, don’t turn up in textbooks or newspapers, are systematically erased because they didn’t do “normal” and “acceptable”… but who lived all the same, rich, vivid, full lives full of love and friendship and passion. It throws it into sharp relief how easy it is for histories to disappear, for whole lives and loves and movements to be forgotten if they’re not preserved—if no one’s around to listen.

One Last Stop is a love story, but it also feels, profoundly, like a love letter. History is steeped into the setting, the sensory details, the stories all the characters tell. It feels like a lot of research went into not just constructing Jane’s backstory, but constructing the setting and making sure the reader can feel the beating heart of all its past. This version of Brooklyn feels alive and colourful, multiple versions of it existing simultaneously: August’s New York and Jane’s New York and the New York that’s existed for countless other queer souls overlapping like the layers of grease on the walls of Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes.

The dedication even reads “For queer communities, past and present”, and McQuiston ends the acknowledgements encouraging the reader to head out and support their local community spaces. As the story shows—when Pancake Billy’s is threatened with shutdown due to a rent spike—history is embedded in places as much as people, and we need to protect them lest they get washed away in favour of gentrified, squeaky-clean visions of modernity.

“The Q is a time, a place, and a person”, August muses as she begins to fall in love with Jane on the trainline. I was originally planning for this post to be a clever little lesson about what’s meant by “queer time”, using One Last Stop and it’s wibbly-wobbly time-defying train cars as the jumping off point. But as I finished the book, I found myself so… moved, so struck, by the way that the history of queer activism and queer identity, and queer love and queer friendship, is woven through the story.

Some of Jane’s stories make your heart ache. Some of them make your heart happy. Transporting Jane, who is the same age as our modern protagonist, through time to 2021, recontextualises what often runs the risk of falling into myth and obscurity. Jane was born in the 1950s, ostensibly part of the Boomer generation that it can be easy to write off as backwards and conservative. It’s an empowering reminder that rebellious spirit has been alive in every generation, and a sobering reminder that the rich, powerful old fogeys that tend to characterise the Boomers now are the ones who were able to live this long—there would be plenty more people their age with very different political views and alignments if they had survived, but this was not always the case.

Enormous, terribly enormous, numbers of queer people were lost to violence, to disease, to systemic rejection. They did not get to grow old, to see the advancements that would be made because of their own hard work. Jane’s magical presence in the present, again, throws this into sharp relief. She lost so many people, and could have been lost herself through any number of terrible fates.  

Embodying this queer and rowdy past through Jane is a clever way to bring it life: it reminds you that this history is not so far away, is not so depersonalised; and it reminds you that the queer present was always fragile and contested. It provides a sort of power fantasy, too: what if we could bring one of those old-school, grassroots, punch-a-cop activists to the modern day? What would they think of the progress? Would they recognise what they saw? Would they be proud? (I’m sure some old-school activists would be horrified—particularly those with maybe more exclusionary politics—but that’s a can of worms, and this is a romance novel)

Technically in Australia time, this post will go up on the first of July, but what the hell—here’s one last sendoff to Pride Month. Pride Month, which is June because June 28th marks the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, events that were emblematic of a historical tipping point in the movement for queer liberation. We owe it to those fighters, and we owe it to ourselves, to reflect back and know where we’ve come from. I’m here typing this because, distantly, someone much braver than I will ever be stood up to an oppressive power structure and demanded freedom and recognition. Maybe threw a Molotov or two. One Last Stop is my final book recommendation for June: it’s sweet, vividly written, funny as hell, poignant in places, it does the impossible and makes the New York subway system romantic, and it’s a fantastic ode to queer history. August and Jane meeting and falling in love means the past and the present are standing next to one another, united by a sense of space and place and by the magic of memory. And, most importantly, love.

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2 Comments

Filed under Alex Reads, Fun with Isms

2 responses to “One Last Stop and the Magic of Queer History

  1. Pingback: Divine Inspiration: June ’21 Roundup | The Afictionado

  2. I cannot wait to read this book as soon as it becomes available to me (only 7 weeks left according to my hold placed a month ago :P).

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