Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part The Third: Treading Water in the Well of Loneliness

Summer, 1999: I’m 25 and divorcing a man I haven’t slept with in three years. I think there’s something wrong with me. He agrees. I move into a shoebox apartment on the corner of Park and University in San Diego, directly across from a dyke bar called The Flame! At night its neon sign buzzes on and off: The Flame!…The Flame!…The Flame! It drives me crazy, there in my shoebox. I would like to investigate. What’s going on behind those opaque glass doors?

Across from The Flame! is a men’s bar, and every time their door opens, foam comes floating out on music: “DO YOU BE-LIEVE IN LIFE AFTER LOVE…AFTER LOVE…AFTER LOVE?” They hoot and holler. They’re having a blast. But when The Flame! closes at 3 a.m., I hear:

Woman #1 (boots stomping): “What’s wrong, baby?”

Woman #2 (high heels clicking): “If you have to ask, I’m not going to tell you!”

Woman #1 (sighing): “Aw, baby. She came up and talked to me. I didn’t wanna be rude. And then I came right back to where you were.”

Woman #2 (sniffling; tripping over heels): “Oh, whatever. What-EVER!”

One night, I visit The Flame! but I’ve never had a bar life so I don’t understand that showing up at 9:30 p.m. won’t get me anywhere. I lurk by the jukebox, nursing a Chardonnay and giving off a sketchy bi-curious vibe. That doesn’t work, so I start hitting the LGBT bookstore to chat up the woman working there (if your definition of “chat up” includes the opener, “Hi! So, hi. I like to read. You have a lot of books here. Are any of them, you know, good?”

Her name is Jamie. She wears tiny men’s clothes and walks around the store in bare feet. This slays me. She recommends Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, so I spend $15 I don’t have and run home with it tucked underneath my arm. Jamie goes to Costa Rica to save the rain forest for two months, after which I get a phone call: Would I like to come over and look at her Costa Rica photographs?

Would I like a million dollars? Would I like the sky to fill with rainbows? I’ll be right over! Don’t move!

Jamie answers the door with a cup of beans and rice in her hand, the smell blending evenly with Nag Champa incense. Her tiny apartment is decorated in circa 1999 California Dyke Classic: twin bed covered with an Indian print spread; huge CD collection; cat on a papasan chair; big poster of Ani DiFranco’s Living in Clip cover with a lipstick print on the bottom.

“You should see the birds in Costa Rica,” Jamie says after I turn down a bite of her beans and rice. “They’re so intense. I felt like I was walking with the Goddess every day. It gave me this total creative force.”

She flops down on the bed. Ani’s Up Up Up Up Up Up album is on repeat. From the height of the Pacific to the depths of Everest/from the height of the Pacific to the depths of Everest.

I flop down next to her. It’s a little weird that we’re on her bed, but she doesn’t have a couch. Maybe this is just what lesbians do when they hang out?

We talk about this and that. And every little while, I scooch closer to her. Inch by premeditated inch. After a couple of hours, my arm is touching her arm and she isn’t moving her arm away. And then her lips are in my hair. I feel like I’m falling out of a plane, but I’m still in my head and I think, Maybe this is the ultimate act of self-acceptance: holding and kissing a body just like your own. Or maybe it’s the ultimate act of egotism.

My arousal shocks me because it’s so familiar, yet taken out of context. A liquid doing a solid’s job. Like those photo prints I saw at the mall where an escalator somehow descends on the beach, waves pounding its serrated steps.

Ani sings: god’s work isn’t done by god/it’s done by people. Jamie’s tiny hands are surprisingly strong.

“These are the best pictures of Costa Rica I have ever fucking seen,” I say into her ear at 4 a.m.

Jamie pulls away; sits on her haunches. “I think we went to a very deep place just now,” she says. “I have to be careful with deep places.”

This somehow turns into a conversation about:

1. Jamie’s ex-girlfriend
a. The processing she’s still doing surrounding their relationship
i. Jamie is a Sagittarius but Amy is an Aries, so you know, it was pretty fraught from the beginning
ii. Amy is the redhead who works at Jamba Juice; do I know her?
b. Jamie is totally not ready for anything serious; is that cool?

2. STD’s in lesbians
a. Sex should always be safe
i. Because it’s not just AIDS, it’s things like Hepatitis C
b. Jamie is totally out of gloves, so.

I’m OK with that. Gloves?

We watch the sun come up through Jamie’s crooked miniblinds as Ani sings: She crawls out on a limb/and begins to build her home/and it’s enough just to look around/and know she’s not alone.

 

Next, in Part the Fourth: I move to central California and fall in Big Giant Huge lesbian love for the first time.

Why Be a Teacher?

Lots of reasons! The joy of helping young minds grasp an intricate concept; the accomplishment of awakening nascent readers and writers; the sacred duty of tilling pedagogical soil so that incipient intellects might flower and grow.

Also, if you get a job at a school for young offenders — like my last gig — you find notes like this one on your classroom floor (spelling and punctuation as original):

Darrick, you’ve been locked up for awhile…and theres alot I feel like I got to tell you. First, I beat your sisters ass for talking shit about my sister. I did 3 home invasions with Wooda, Snoops, & my brother but shit just got outta controll & guns started going off & my brother shot Trey in the back of the head and he got the death penalty.

I’m also pregnant, but I don’t plan on keepin it. Me and you have been thrue alot but I just dont think we should be together anymore. Youve been gone 4 so long & I no your going to be away 4 longer…you should just move on…and maybe I should just do the same.

We can still be homies tho.

denouement

Hospice volunteering is the most honest work I’ve ever done. Pain and death terrify me, but what made it OK was that by the time I got there with my bag of plastic gloves and Grisham novels,* pain was medicated to the gills and death was a done deal. Hospice doesn’t send a volunteer until the patient is into the last 3-6 months, so the only goal remaining is to help give that person a comfortable, dignified death on his or her own terms. The peach-pit/blood recycling/energy healing wonder treatments are off the table, and the family — who probably hasn’t left the house in days — just needs a bit of relief.

Hospice is midwifing someone out of the world instead of into it. You help someone check things off on her last list and make sure all the lights are turned off before she locks the door. Dying, done right, is a project. It’s work. Dying people look still and quiet because they’re very busy in the eye of the storm, thinking and reviewing as the eternal Footman picks up their coats. This doesn’t mean they’re always wrestling with some profound epiphany, though. People get stuck on the oddest things — their older sisters didn’t ask them to be maid of honor in 1952; the sun is fading their wall art; this is the wrong kind of yogurt! Go back to the store and get the kind with the fruit mixed in!

My first patient, Elaine, was 58 but looked 80. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Elaine’s thing was to take the oxygen plugs out of her nostrils, turn her emaciated body away from the oxygen tank, and take a big drag off an unfiltered Camel. Her other thing was to try and save my soul. She was a Southern Baptist in the South, and she really wanted me to find a nice man. I think I reminded her of her youngest daughter, who lived in Atlanta with a “lady roommate.” They were estranged. At that time, my own mother hadn’t spoken to me in several years, so I knew the daughter had her own side of the story. I tried to get them to talk. No dice. Elaine had a snaggletoothed cat and a DVD of “The Passion of the Christ.” She wanted me to read the Aramaic-to-English subtitles out loud, but I kept putting her off. We watched “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” instead.

My last patient, Sheila, reminded me so much of my mother that I dreaded my shifts. I loved her. She’d sold almost everything she owned to pay for the care facility, so all her possessions fit in one room. The detritus of her life, reduced to a few clothes hanging in a closet. A TV. Some framed photos. But she had a truckload of letters and cards from her children, siblings, former co-workers, friends, her mother. Sheila was crazy about anything sweet, so I’d bring cookies and cake — all the stuff I was baking that my girlfriend wouldn’t eat. Elaine had to be hand-fed carefully, so she wouldn’t aspirate anything and develop pneumonia. While she ate, I held the fork and talked about my long, agonizing breakup and about my mother (who by this time hadn’t spoken to me in five years). One night, after fighting a snowstorm for an hour on my way to her, I started to cry. She put her hand on my head. We stayed like that awhile. “I promise you, your mother loves you,” she said.

Sheila’s brain tumor meant that she saw weird stuff. Eating dinner one night, she said,  “That looks like Cher’s hair.”

“What does?” I asked, looking around.

“That,” she said, pointing to the long white window curtain by the bed, beyond which moved the unceasing traffic of Avenue Road. “Look how big it is. White. Like Cher’s hair; like she had it that one time.”

A few minutes went by. She looked at the plate with its slender lone cheesecake slice and said, “Is that a grasshopper? On the plate, there?”

She sounded so sure, I actually checked. “Nope, just cheesecake. Your perceptions are really cool, though. Like a cracked-out club kid at 4 a.m.”

She closed her eyes. “I have an interesting head…full of…items.” She paused. “I hear people coming down the hall. They have Portuguese accents. That’s a good sign.”

After dinner one December night, I put on some Christmas music. The first track was called El Tutu; full of delicate harp-y arpeggios like a handful of coins tossed in the air.

“What would you wear, dancing to this?” Sheila asked, fingering the sleeve of my wool sweater. She did that a lot. Textures fascinated her more every time I visited; as her sight and hearing went, the feel of things remained. “It should be something silver. Something floaty.”

“Did you like to dance, before you got sick?”

“Ohh, yes,” she said. “I was like a dervish. And I know I’ll dance again.”

 

*Also plastic. But Hospice patients love John Grisham; don’t ask me why.