it remembers better

This post is a response to the following writing prompt given to me by my good friend and writing buddy Hypotaxis:

In Anne Sexton’s poem, “Music Swims Back to Me,” Sexton writes, “And in a strange way/music sees more than me/I mean, it remembers better.” Think of a song, or an object, or a single word, that “recalls a moment” for you. Is the song or the object or the word more than a memory trigger for the recalled moment? Is it also, perhaps, an objective correlative of the moment itself? 


Inside a wooden cabinet full of archaeological layers of CDs I can’t part with because each  represents $18 I didn’t have but spent anyway when I was young and into Melissa Ferrick or rave mixes or – for some un-recallable reason – Irish dance, there sits a jewelry box of things I never wear. In that box is a small ring given to me by a woman I loved, seven months before she left me for the last time.

The ring box is black with small white polka dots and a vague floral pattern underneath; very 1950s. The underside says “C. Howard Daley & Co. JEWELERS Danbury, Conn.”

I googled it just now. It exists only in memory and old newspaper ads.

The ring itself is white gold; a slender band that bends into a square at the top. At the center is a moonstone, flanked on four sides by tiny sapphires.

She gave me the ring on a January morning; a month after we collided at a feminist-bookstore reading. I heard a faint beeping noise far off, telling me to care that she was married, but it was faint and thready like my pulse and after a little while I couldn’t hear it at all.

I wanted any scrap of her I could get. This was a time in my life defined by a compelling need to see what would happen if I didn’t ameliorate desire with any common sense.

I’d been the other woman before, and, like Henry VIII said about murder, “after a few times, it doesn’t seem so difficult.” Being the other woman isn’t hard. There’s a bravado to it; a fuck-you-ness. You find other things to do when she’s busy. You feel the longing. You yearn like a Disney dog and it’s oddly satisfying – longing as a weird source of fulfillment – and then hey, here she is at your apartment. Hey. Hi. I was just making dinner; come in. You shop at the same Trader Joe’s at the same time every Saturday, and when you run into her in the soup and rice aisle, you both go, Well, of all the gin joints.

“It’s just costume jewelry,” she said as we sat in her car, looking out onto a vast expanse of Sonoran desert; its friendly waving Saguaros hiding venomous mini-dinosaurs and herds of feral pigs. Everything here is beautiful and wants to kill you – Western Diamondback rattlesnakes; black widow spiders; the unrelenting melted yolk of the sun. I was born here. She was a New Yorker. Her accent went straight to my clit.

“This ring was always on my mother’s hand,” she said. “Throughout my whole childhood, it was a part of my everyday life. No matter what happens, I want you to have it.”

“No matter what happens,” rarely means anything good. What happened was a blur of fig perfume and long drives; blankets and thunderstorms; a fortune-teller at an Indian restaurant telling us we were “meant to be in this life and all the lives to come;” my blood on her fingers;  the shape of her back as she left to go home, again and again and again. I forgot how easy it was to be the other woman. I forgot all about Henry VIII.

I was thirty-five; too old for crying when I threw away the fancy pink Himalayan salt because the only person who liked it was never coming back. Too old to rhyme “landlocked” with “heartshocked’ in handwritten poetry. I was a character in a story that was over, and I was sure it was the only one I’d ever be able to tell.

This is how I learned that if someone is able to walk away from you, you should let her; that love is irrelevant in the face of circumstance; and that if someone just…can’t do it, the Indian fortune-teller is WRONG. If someone says, “Let’s have a baby together” on Sunday but won’t return your calls on Monday, you need to get back on the old Curve personals horse and ride it into the sunset.

These things are obvious and simple. Just not to me.

Looking at this ring now, I remember all the things she loved. Like thrift stores. She’d pick up things that spoke to her – old glass jars; a hand-embroidered Mexican housedress made of clean yellow linen; an antique candy dish with pink French script. I used to say it was like watching a smart, fey little animal snag items to bring back to its den so it could curl up with them and feel safe. Once she brought me a blue-and-cream striped vintage sweater. For awhile I couldn’t bear the sight of it, but it’s still in my closet. I wear it every so often, with jeans. It only itches a little.

She loved for me to brush her hair. It was impossible hair – too thick; too wiry. It resisted my $300 flat iron as she closed her eyes and melted into me like a cat.

“It’s Jewish hair,” she said once. “It’s imbued with suspicious genetic memory. It’s seen much worse than your little iron, and it’s not taking any shit.”

She loved to cook. One night she made a red sauce that smelled so much like everything I’d ever wanted since the day I was born, I had to excuse myself to sniffle in her bathroom for a few minutes. In there, looking at her collection of thrift-store cotton-ball jars, I remembered something Nora Ephron wrote: “Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in the autumn, and I’ll show you a real asshole.”

She loved the life she’d built – her small, wood-floored bungalow with its cabinets full of obscure spices from markets in New York; her group of friends who loved her as half of a longstanding couple. Compared to what she’d been born into, it was a safe and comfortable life.

She loved me too, I think. But in the end, when I came home and all her things were gone, I wasn’t surprised. She left the ring, though, sitting on my dresser in its polka-dot box. She wanted me to have it, no matter what happened.

do you think they know that sunday brunch is the gayest meal of the week?

Internet, I should tell you what happened afterwards! Bullet points are the most merciful choice here because it was a long-ass weekend:

  • Parents, stepmother, grandfather and cousin declared unconditional support
  • Dad sent pointed email (cc’d everyone!) to homo-loathing family member. Email included words such as “cruel,” “exclusionary,” and “apologize”
  • Dad’s repeated viewings of heartwarming GLBT films (beginning with “Go Fish” in 1993 – my fault!) inspire request: put anger aside; high road; French toast and forgiveness; c’mon. Dad’s vision: victory of tolerance over bigotry; dignity over dehumanization; set to triumphant Ani DiFranco musical score, heavy on percussion. Dad said, “teachable moment!”
  • Dad so sweet
  • But am not educational documentary made flesh; sorry. Buy homo-loather Andrew Sullivan book or Advocate magazine, OK? Find high-school production of The Laramie Project!
  • But then self began wavering! Self was suddenly Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” when redheaded daughter takes up with non-Jew! (“On the other hand…”)
  • “THERE *IS* NO OTHER HAND!”
  • Homo-loather pressured from all sides to apologize
  • Have not heard from homo-loather yet
  • Am OK with that: Apology nice; no apology also fine
  • People allowed opinions! Even terrible/wrong opinions!
  • But do not have to subject self to them if can help it, right?
  • Family did brunch thing
  • Invented new veggie casserole for lone self to enjoy with beer while watching Seasons 3 and 4 of “Queer As Folk” to help maintain militant attitude
  • Chuckled warmly at “Queer As Folk,” which was filmed in Toronto and should have been titled “Earnest Canadian Acting With Buttsex”
  • Girlfriend (“beloved life partner” to YOU, homo-loather) canceled visit due to legit family emergency of non-emotionally-wounding variety
  • Two family members emailed “family photo” of the brunch
  • Never has such a well-meaning gesture been so insensitive OR so poorly received
  • Was pretty buzzed by then
  • What else, what else
  • Oh yeah, Dad said aunt by marriage showed up wearing horrible Civil War-era badger neck-fur coat (not fur solely FROM badger neck; complete badger fur worn AROUND aunt’s neck) with badger head on one end fastened to badger tail on other; so badger looks like eating own tail, and aunt said something SO HORRIBLE! SHOCK AND AWE!  that karma was, at least, a little bit served.

UPDATE: Received – and accepted – heartfelt, genuine apology/promise to do better from (former!?) homo-loather. Also received chocolate cake. The mind boggles, pleasantly.

UPDATE 2: No one will repeat what badger neck-fur coat aunt said. By all accounts was not homo-related though. Small blessings, self. Small blessings.

My family threw a bomb, so I threw one back. Here’s the email.

Dear family,

I’d like to explain why I won’t be joining you for any of the lovely weekend events planned for Grandpa’s birthday: It has been gently, kindly explained to me (via text message) that my beloved partner’s presence makes one of you uncomfortable;  therefore, I am not welcome to bring her along.

I would like you, dear family, to imagine being told by someone you adore and admire that the sweetest, best person in your life – the person you have waited and hoped and worked for until the cusp of middle age – is a source of discomfort. Imagine that the smartest, wisest, most full-of-integrity person you have ever known; the one with whom you are finally your best self, is not welcome among the people you have loved since the day you were born.

Imagine being expected to understand this and just sort of be cool with it.

Now imagine being un-invited to the Sunday brunch you bought a new outfit for; all the while excitedly telling your partner: I can’t wait for you to spend some time with my family! You’ve never even met my grandfather; my uncle John or cousin Mike!

Imagine the person you love. Go ahead. Really bring that person to the forefront of your mind. Let him or her wash over you in all his or her inimitable verve. Think about the way he or she forgives your mistakes; encourages your dreams; gives your life form and color and meaning.

Now imagine, if you can, that your family requires you to treat that person like he or she doesn’t matter; doesn’t even exist. You are only welcome if you come alone. You are only welcome if you STAY alone. Like, for the rest of your life.

You are only welcome if you lie.

Never. That’s a thing that will never happen. If you’re surprised by this in the slightest, then you don’t know me at all.

Because that is a denial of my full humanity, dear family, however kindly it is put to me. Every gay and lesbian person knows that this denial will come, and often, but we hope it is delivered by strangers or cable television personalities with bad hair. Better the rock; the brick; the can of spray paint; the loud, ugly scream of “FUCKIN’ DYKE” from a stranger, than the gentlest denial of our humanity from our own families.

I hope you have a beautiful weekend together.  I love you all very much.

But also? I love myself.

 

— Your daughter, granddaughter, niece, and cousin,

Phonaesthetica

 

 

Nicknames Of A Dozen Of My Lovers From 2006-2010: Final Exam Matching Section

My favorite part of any test is the matching section. Remember the matching section, from high school? It usually comes after the multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank, but before the essays. I got bored writing the Macbeth final, so:

Nicknames Of A Dozen of My Lovers From 2006-2010

Please match the following nicknames with their owners:

1. Cluster B

2. Camp 14

3. Unobtainium 

4. The Big-Footed Mindfucker

5. Hathor

6. Temple Recommend

7. The Rosetta Stoner

8. Recyclopath

9. The Process Server

10. Add To Cart

11. 404

12. Eva Braun

***

a. Like the Cake song, she was never ever there.

b. Spoke three languages; needed to smoke pot every morning to stay within commuting distance of her sanity.

c. Recovering Mormon. Have you ever tried to sex someone wearing sacred underwear?

d. Meticulously documented in your old Abnormal Psych textbook from college.

e. Trial attorney with a lot of feelings.

f. Anarcho-environmentalist who wouldn’t let me flush the toilet at her house.

g. description redacted

h. Amazon Warrior. Also Overstock.com.

i. MTF WTF transwoman who loved me but didn’t but did but maybe was into men after all but  maybe not.

j. Married blacksmith

k. “Feet off the couch. That’s MY black shirt. Who was that text from? Where have you been? You tracked snow all over the entryway. We’re going to stop eating meat.”

l. For months, people told me I’d be sorry. I was.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Tinky Winky, If Only For One Night

Like I said, I never meant to fuck a Teletubby. But it was Halloween night in Toronto and I was cold (having dressed, as I usually do, as a generic Slutty Witch). I was at an outdoor bar with a few women from the Pillow Fight League, wishing I’d brought a jacket to go over my lace slip.

Soon enough, a hot little number in a Teletubby costume sent over a Jack and Coke. She was there with three other Teletubbies, but the others kept their giant head masks on.

“I’M TINKY WINKY,” she yelled over the music as we danced.

“COOL,” I yelled back, because I am known for my lady-conversating skills.

One thing, as it is wont to do, led to another. Tinky Winky, her friends, and I bar-hopped around Church and Wellesley — they in their giant Teletubby heads, me in my pointy hat — until it was just Tinky and I standing in the searing cold air in front of a mini high-rise.

“I live up there,” she said, like it’d just occurred to her. “Want to get warm?”

Did I want to get warm? Did I want a million dollars? Did I want the sky to fill with rainbows?

As we walked into her apartment, I panicked: Her Teletubby head looks different. It’s purple. Wasn’t it green before? Did I go home with the wrong Teletubby?

I held my breath as she unmasked. She was the right Teletubby. She was absolutely the right Teletubby for the next three hours. But in that moment, before I knew for sure, I realized it didn’t matter — if she’d been the wrong Teletubby, I’d have rolled with it.

Which was a new thing. Until I was almost 30 and started sleeping with women, I thought of sex as a sacred promise that bonded me to someone else forever. This ruined the sex itself, since I was so focused on forcing the relationship that my body went numb.

After I re-filed sex under “Research and Development,” I relaxed: What did I want? What did I like? What was I willing to try? My sexuality had been obscured by malecentric narrative and desire, so I really didn’t know. Self-objectification: we’re all soaking in it, until we’re not.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want just one woman to love. I did. But I wasn’t going to keep my lace slip on until she arrived. I was going to find something to love about a lot of different women: Her hair; her laugh; the way she could run a mile in under six minutes. And I was going to discover what I wanted in bed — not what I assumed I wanted, but actually enjoyed.

I cooked a lot of eggs during the next nine years. Scrambled, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached — if you liked it, I could make it for you. I’d squeeze you some fresh juice, too, for the road. And I wouldn’t (usually) agonize over whether you called again or not.  I slept with a semi-famous folk singer and got a song written about me, which was fun.

But the best thing I learned from sleeping with lots of women wasn’t about sex, it was about secrets. Women told me things in bed that they wouldn’t have told me anywhere else — stories about their childhoods; their insecurities; their hopes; their ongoing sense of nameless dread. The more they told me, the more I understood how not-alone I was. Things I’d been afraid to share, or even admit, were de-fraught and de-fused, and it created a new kind of intimacy — not “We’re sleeping together, therefore we MUST be bonded,” but something natural and healing: Here we are, in this human thing together.  

And when I fell in love again — whether it worked out or not — sex with that woman was better because of the sex I’d had with women I didn’t love. I knew what I wanted. I knew what was real and what was someone else’s fantasy. I was present and powerful, not acting out a pre-fab script. So when I read things like this, or hear my students slut-shaming, I remember Tinky Winky and her warm, fuzzy hands. And I am so grateful.

wrinkle removal secret cows transgender

…are those not the BEST search terms in the history of Google?

The news in brief:

  • Boy students complained today that my literature assignment for the quarter “has nothing in it for us,” i.e. males. After I stopped laughing, I said, “Welcome to the girls’ world. Try to remember how it feels.”
  • Little do they know, I’m planning a poetry unit for spring. Both boys and girls will dig it. Oh, how I love you, Judy Grahn and Eileen Myles. I love you so much, it makes my eyes cry all by themselves.
  • Also, I love this cartoon by Hyperbole and a Half.
  • Yesterday, in class, I compared Chinese foot-binding to silicone breast implants, but no one agreed. “Ladies PAY for that,” they said. I wanted to go all Judith Butler on them, but then I felt really tired so I just went on to the Cultural Revolution and Mao.
  • Eileen Myles! My girlfriend says I can sleep with you if we ever, you know, end up at the same party. It would totally be cool.
  • There are only 14 full-time Women’s Studies Ph.D. programs in the U.S., so I don’t know how successful my apps will be. But I’m going ahead with them anyway.
  • The zit on the bridge of my nose is so big, it’s distorting my vision.
  • EILEEEEEEN!

Open Letter to a Young Lesbian From a Middle-Aged Dyke

Dear Carissa,

Happy 18th birthday! You came to class with a bouquet of cookie roses from your girlfriend, picked out all the chocolate chips, and left the rest. Tomorrow I will lecture you about crumbs and bugs (last week, I found a cockroach the size of my palm behind a beat-to-hell stack of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth) but today I offer only congratulations. In seven months, you’ll slip the surly bonds of Gila Javelina High School and begin your grown-up lesbian life.

Here are my top dozen tips:

1. Keep being as out as you are now, e.g. out like whoa. Don’t start agonizing over who to come out to, or where or when — even if there’s a scholarship or a job at stake. Fuck ’em. There are other scholarships and jobs, ones that don’t come at the price of your integrity. People’s Exhibit A: Teachers who dither, “My private life is private” when you ask if they’re married. Trust me, they’re full of shit. If they were heterosexual, they’d tell you about their husband or wife as easily as they’d tell you where they went to college. Symptoms of Internalized Homophobia include ulcers, loneliness, and an ongoing sense of nameless dread,  so let my generation be the last to suffer. Leave coming-out anxiety as safely in history as 8-track tape players — everyone but the occasional eBay nutcase has moved on.

2. Know your GLBT history. Butches really did used to get arrested for wearing fewer than three items of women’s clothing, and doctors really did used to give queers electroshock “conversion therapy.” That’s out of fashion now, but be wary of “ex-gay” groups or any other religious organization that tries to court you during your first year of college. At the very least, rent “Stonewall Uprising.”

3. …and “Desert Hearts.” Old, but a magical date movie, as is “Imagine Me and You.” Put one of those in the DVD, make a bowl of free-trade organic popcorn sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt, and prepare for the Getting Your Love On Regional Semifinals. Have a CD mix ready for when you pause the movie; otherwise the sudden make-out silence is too weird. I recommend Ani DiFranco’s Up Up Up Up Up Up (skip the tracks “Come Away From It” and “Angry Anymore”: The former is about heroin — bummer! and the second is too boisterous. It’ll wreck the mood).

4. Curvepersonals.com is fun, but try to meet women in real life. This is why I keep pushing you to apply to Smith and Wellesley — you have the grades, and you don’t know how disheartening it is to try and find a partner anyplace that’s got less than 3 million people. It’s a numbers game, and you will lose in a small town (unless you decide to become a land dyke, in which case, learn to re-wire the electricity in an RV or whatever the fuck those women are always doing out in the middle of Ohio). Lesbians comprise 2% of the population, and of that 2%, at least half are too old/too young/too nuts/in a relationship/ hung up on their exes/chemically dependent/struggling to leave the Mormon Church. All these women seem amazing on Curve, but KNOW THAT ANYONE CAN WRITE A WITTY PERSONAL PROFILE. Eva Braun could have done it, if she’d had the technology. Bottom line: Move to a city, or near a city, and give yourself some geographical options. I hear Madison is great. Iowa City. Austin. I don’t recommend Phoenix. That’s where I met the ex-Mormon. Her cats had middle names.

5. Be careful in bars, especially mixed ones. All-women’s bars are rare, even in big cities, so be aware that it’s a boys’ scene. Even a handful of men in a women’s bar change the dynamic dramatically. Watch your drink at all times; if it leaves your line of sight for even a moment, throw it away and order a new one. If you’re in a strange city and don’t know where the gay bar is, rest assured it’s in either (a) the rough part of town; or (b) in the cute, Disney-fied gay neighborhood all big cities have, the one lesbians can’t afford. Just gay men and their strange little dogs.

6. When you fall in love, remember this: Love is irrelevant if you can’t get your needs met. Does your beloved care about the things that interest you? If you have different interests, does she at least ask about the things you like, and listen when you talk? Does she make you laugh? Is she a considerate lover? Do you trust and enjoy her RIGHT NOW, EXACTLY AS SHE IS, or is this a fixer-upper situation? Beware of falling in love with her “potential.” Lots of people have potential. Eva Braun had potential. Fuck potential. See what’s really there.

7. Be good to your girlfriend. Invest heavily; talk and play together all you can. Laugh. Find common goals and go after them together. Your relationship should be your own small universe (not like Heavenly Creatures, though!) with its own culture and customs; language and topography. Put her first. Give her your best. And if you grow apart, take what you’ve learned and apply it again. And again. Until the timing and location and personalities finally line up, and you run off to wherever they’re letting us get married in the year 2035.

8. Women don’t catch HIV from each other; if they did, we’d all be deader than smelts. I think there might have been one case — one partner was menstruating and they didn’t wash the toy they were using — but even that may be apocryphal. However, there’s still herpes, HPV, chlamydia, and other non-fatal creepy crawlies. If you can’t stand latex gloves, at least douse your hands with hand sanitizer before sex. Note the places it stings — broken cuticles, etc. — and avoid vaginal contact with those areas. Another way to avoid sitting in a large vat of penicillin for the rest of your life is to lose your embarrassment and ASK: “Do you have any sexually-transmitted infections that you know of?” “Which STI’s have you been tested for, and how long ago?” ASK. The one time I didn’t ask was the one time I should have. Also, if you decide to snort any drug through a rolled-up bill, don’t share the bill. You can get Hepatitis C that way. If you do use someone else’s bill, turn it around and use the end that wasn’t up their nose. And please, see your gynecologist once a year.

9. In every lesbian community, no matter how small, there’s always at least one whackjob who cheats and lies and scatters the area with Bad Juju Spores. Figure out who that whackjob is and stay away from her.

10. Don’t be the whackjob. Behave yourself. You do not want to have to skulk through the aisles of Whole Foods, hoping not to run into someone you’ve treated badly, so be gallant in love and generous in friendship. Feed and water the women in your life with potlucks and picnics and Solstice Caroling parties. This will bear fruit no matter what: If you stay in one place for awhile, you’ll build a lovely family of friends. If you move around, you’ll never really be alone — even if you land in a big city and don’t know anyone. Your assorted beloveds will call, e-mail, Skype, Facebook, send passenger pigeons.

11. Don’t date women with girlfriends or boyfriends or wives or husbands. It’s masochistic. Please see #6 (“Potential”).

12. Be courageous. If something feels wrong, react accordingly. Don’t second guess yourself. Same thing if something feels right (UNLESS it involves the nutjob from #9.) If someone makes you feel small, or infringes on your space, speak up. “No” is a complete sentence. So is “Yes.”

And it’s still not too late to apply to Smith. The undergrad deadline is Jan. 15.

Love,

Ms. P

factory-installed

Today a few students, after reading the inner monologue of several sociopathic Edgar Allan Poe narrators, wanted to discuss the problem of evil. Although they didn’t call it that. They wanted to know why people do “f****d-up s***”.

“People are born good, right?” asked Backwards-Hat Nick. “So how can they turn out bad?”

I said people are like cars: Some are better-made than others. Some are lemons. If something goes wrong at the factory (genes) and the car is bought by someone who doesn’t take good care of it (environment) and drives on dangerous roads (culture) disaster is more likely to occur.

For some reason, they extrapolated sociopathy into homosexuality:

Backwards-Hat Nick: “I don’t believe people are born gay.”

Me: “Well, as someone who believes she was…” (meaningful eyebrow raise).

Him: “Well, you would think so.”

I let it go — he’s a kid, and he’s from a country that hates gays more than the U.S. does — but after class it started to gnaw at me. Yes, Backwards-Hat Nick — I would think so, because I’m the one living in my body, mind, and spirit. 

Straights love to tell us how we got this way. After all, they’re the ones who can see us objectively, right? How could we ourselves know the origin of our sexuality, laboring, as we do, under the illusion that we are who we’ve always been? Either we’re not facing up to our childhood trauma or we just haven’t met the right man or or or. Gay is caused by controllable factors, ones that can be explained if not remedied. Because if they aren’t controllable and explicable, gay could happen to anyone. And there’s nowhere to put the blame.

It’s more complex that this, anyway. Some women’s sexuality is more fluid than others; plus I’m starting to believe in political lesbianism more than I used to.  Nothing I could explain today, though,

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part the Fourth

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.

** heh.