I’m the only dyke you’ll ever meet who lived in San Diego, moved to Bakersfield, and then came out.
You have to know a little about Bakersfield for the weirdness of this to shine forth in the bizarre bas-relief it deserves. Bakersfield is an ozone-polluted, soul-stripped abomination that lies between Fresno and Los Angeles in the San Joaquin Valley. Its main attractions are dessicated farmland and right-wing politics, both reeking of oil. Bako is consistently ranked as one of the least-educated metropolitan areas in the U.S., and boasts the highest redneck-to-misspelled-tattoo ratio in the Western Hemisphere.* At that time, it was booming — people couldn’t wait to buy a house there! Such a nice family town! With the lowest sales tax in California!
It wasn’t my type of place. But there was a newspaper job, and by 2002, those were thin on the ground. So I packed up my cat and 87 boxes of books, and moved.
The culture shock set in immediately, when I realized that I stood out for being 26 and unmarried. People nodded in relief when I said I was divorced; at least that made heterosexual sense. They assured me I’d meet a nice man in Bakersfield.
Instead, I met G.
G. was turning 40. This seemed like an advanced age, and I wondered if she was lonely. She looked like a soccer mom — nice sensible outfits; low-maintenance hair — except for her sharp, dark eyes full of hurt and ferocity. G. was an observer; a doer who didn’t say much unless she had to. But I was fascinated with her, so fascinated that I stayed far away. She’d ask if I was coming to Happy Hour after work. Not this time, I’d say. Things to do. Got to hit the gym. Then I’d watch her out of the corner of my eye all day. She was a large, dense planet with powerful gravitational pull, but I didn’t have a spacesuit.
One morning, I came into work and found an elegant little package of goat cheese on my desk. Enjoy, the note said scratchily. I went to a farmer’s market over the weekend. I’d have called you, but I don’t have your number. Here is mine: xxx-xxxx. — G
I loitered at her desk much longer than it took to thank her. Then I did what I do when I’m nervous — fixate on a small visual stimuli until it becomes the only thing in the room and I have to verbally deconstruct it.
“You have such big hands,” I said. “I mean, not freakishly big; not like you couldn’t find gloves if you needed to — you’ll never need to, in Bakersfield — but bigger than a person would expect. Because you’re not that big. Or tall. I have tiny hands. See?”
I held up my right hand. She held up her left and pressed it to mine. We compared them silently. In that moment, the newsroom buzzing obliviously around us, my life changed. I lost my fear and shame as quickly and easily as shedding an ugly coat in the dressing room at Macy’s — it was never really mine to begin with.
Later that week, G invited me out for tapas at the one decent restaurant in town. She ordered mussels. I looked at her teasing them apart and blushed to the roots of my hair, thankful for the dim lighting.
She told me about her life before Bakersfield — the all-women’s rock band she’d played guitar in; her love of motorcycles; her friends in in L.A. and Santa Barbara (all of whom seemed to be named “Kat” or “Kris.”)
Awkwardly, I asked if she “had someone.” She shook her head and answered the question I was really asking — casually, but without taking her eyes from my face: “Oh, I’m a big dyke.”
A handful of stars skipped along my spine. Something solid moved into the space that fear and shame had vacated, and bones cracked and resettled into a skeleton that was finally mine. All my false starts and bad decisions; all my nagging questions — “Why am I such a fuck-up?” Why can’t I manage to make a life for myself?” — put a soft blanket around themselves and lay down.
Somewhere deep inside, without knowing the details, I knew that this was next:
We sit on her couch, talking about music in the glow of an orange lamp shaped like a jack-o’-lantern. G. tells me about a lesbian bar called The Wild Rose in Seattle, where she and another butch held lit cigarettes to each other’s arms to see who’d pull away first. She shows me the scar. I’m buzzed on two inches of wine, and I’m telling her about last year; about figuring out that I like women but most of the lesbians I’ve met are crazypants nuts. She says it’s the same wherever you go. I finish my last sip of wine, shift myself onto her lap, go limp and hang my head back.
“I’m the Pieta!” I say, and feel her laughter rock me back and forth. I lift my head back up and re-focus my eyes; inhale her; taste her.
“Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” she asks an hour later. I know why she’s asking. I’m hardly sure I’ve never done this before, either. It feels like I’ve been doing it all my life; like all the years I wasn’t doing it were a dream.
With G. as my hostess, I dove into ** lesbian culture full-force. Within weeks, I discovered Curve magazine; MichFest; “Desert Hearts,” gluten intolerance, menstrual sponges, and the labrys — except I kept pronouncing it “lay-bris.”
“I want to buy a lay-bris necklace,” I told her on one of the Saturdays we never got out of bed. “Maybe they’d have one at that feminist bookstore in Santa Barbara. Have you heard of this thing called the lay-bris? It’s a double-sided axe, representing the waxing and waning moon, and also woman’s capacity to create and to destr– why are you laughing?”
“I was a dyke in the 80’s,” she said. “It’s sort of like you just asked, ‘Have you heard of this thing called the ‘fork’? Also, it’s pronounced lab-riss.”
On our labrys shopping trip, I picked out the biggest one I could find — so big, it hung with the axe pointing down instead of up. The bookstore didn’t have chains, so I wore it out of the store on a rainbow lanyard. Every few minutes, a lesbian passerby would catch our glowy, dilated eyes and toss us a smile. That day I learned the “dyke nod” — a quick uplift of chin that means, ” I see you and I know you see me and here we are.”
G. also bought me a dictionary that day — an enormous, unabridged Webster’s from the early 1950s, because I saw it and made a squeaky noise of longing. I looked at its thumb-wedged pages and marveled that all those words together weren’t enough to describe how brilliant she was and how fine, and how I had never loved anybody in the world even half so much.
*I made that up. Still, the city of Bakersfield is a sobering lesson in why, if you’re going to get a Chinese-character tattoo, you should first consult the Asian-languages department at the closest university. The difference between an armband that reads “Courage” and one that reads “Reckless Moron” is, all too often, no more than the flick of a nib.