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.

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

 

 

Be careful of all the feelings

I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but all high school teachers have hit a point in the academic year characterized by an unholy marriage of slack and panic, for which the Germans probably have a word. The seniors are tired, antsy and have no more fucks to give. As one of them said yesterday, “I have allowed the field in which I grow my fucks to lie fallow and become choked with dessicated weeds.” (Honors kid).

They’re doing a lot of staring out of windows these days; a lot of frantic texting and crying in front of their lockers; a lot of skating by on purpose with a 59.5%. (Maddening). They want to grow up but they also don’t want to, and why, WHY are those their only two choices? They are testing and trying and fighting themselves and other people, on the regular.

The good moments are sweeter, this time of year. Last week, a kid I love for his sensitive poetry writing and guitar-playing asked me if he could leave class early, and when I asked him why, he told me that he’d broken up with his girlfriend last week so he could date someone else, but then during 5th period today he panicked because Girl #2 was SO NOT THE RIGHT PERSON, and he NEEDED TO WIN BACK THE LOVE OF GIRL #1, so he went out to the parking lot to put a note on Girl #1’s car but then! He panicked AGAIN because WHAT IF HE WAS ACTUALY WRONG ABOUT GIRL #2? What if he was OVER-THINKING IT? HE HAD TO TAKE THE NOTE OFF THE CAR!

Here was a problem I understood. I sent him out to the parking lot. He came back, panting. “Son?” I asked. “What did we learn from this?”

“Be careful of all the feelings,” he answered.

Today he stopped by to show me a poem by Amy Gerstler. It goes like this:

 

Fuck You Poem #45

Fuck you in slang and conventional English.

Fuck you in lost and neglected lingoes.

Fuck you hungry and sated; faded, pock marked and defaced.

Fuck you with orange rind, fennel and anchovy paste.

Fuck you with rosemary and thyme, and fried green olives on the side.

Fuck you humidly and icily.

Fuck you farsightedly and blindly.

Fuck you nude and draped in stolen finery.

 

Fuck you while cells divide wildly and birds trill.

Thank you for barring me from his bedside while he was ill.

Fuck you puce and chartreuse.

Fuck you postmodern and prehistoric.

Fuck you under the influence of opium, codeine, laudanum and paregoric.

Fuck every real and imagined country you fancied yourself princess of.

Fuck you on feast days and fast days, below and above.

Fuck you sleepless and shaking for nineteen nights running.

 

Fuck you ugly and fuck you stunning.

Fuck you shipwrecked on the barren island of your bed.  

Fuck you marching in lockstep in the ranks of the dead.

Fuck you at low and high tide.

And fuck you astride

                                anyone who has the bad luck to fuck you, in dank hallways,    

         bathrooms, or kitchens.

Fuck you in gasps and whispered benedictions.

And fuck these curses, however heartfelt and true,

that bind me, till I forgive you, to you.

The right tool for every job

So, I guess I own a drill. Also 15 screwdrivers in various lengths and shapes, six pairs of pliers, assorted wrenches, a level, a headlamp, and a small megaphone (in case I ever need to stand on top of some rubble and shout instructions as downtown Tucson flees the zombie apocalypse).

I didn’t own any of this before the weekend, but I moved house three weeks ago and my girlfriend J., who makes things for a living, was aghast at my dearth of tools*. I didn’t even own a hammer. So J. escorted me to Harbor Freight and treated me to a cartful of must-haves, with a little red box (like a makeup case, but  heavier) to put them in. This was my favorite part! The little red box relaxed me, which was good because I avoid all manner of home improvements. I’m afraid of the claw ends of hammers; of tearing my face open on a lube rack; of staggering into the emergency room holding my severed right hand in my left. This conviction re: my own incompetence makes me feel lame and petulant, so I’m working on it except NO FUCKING NAIL GUNS. Glue guns are OK. For Christmas wreaths. And here you see the most insidious aspect of falling out of the upper middle class.

“I don’t know where you got the idea you couldn’t do this,” J. said, clambering nimbly around my pre-OSHA exposed-rafter nightmare of a ceiling. What’s hotter than a woman who can re-route a circuit breaker; what’s sweeter than a woman with faith in your ability to do it too? Who’s more generous than a woman who doesn’t laugh when she sees you don’t know that your bathroom cabinet actually opens because the latch is sort of hidden? Who, when she has to ask if you know which way to screw in the curtain hardware, uses the kindest possible tone?

Anyway, I love my new neighborhood, which is as close as one can get to a city vibe without driving to Phoenix or losing my shit entirely and moving to LA. I’m in an old house that’s been split up into several apartments, and the windows are bigger and better-lit than I’m used to (at this point, the entire neighborhood could draw my naked breasts from memory). My street is a piquant mishmash of Greek Revival, art deco, adobe, grimy student apartments, and a couple of abandoned warehouse-y structures. Two blocks down is a funky bed-and-breakfast that looks welcoming during the day — Hello, vacationing New Yorkers in search of your desert spirit animal! Hint: it’s either a roadrunner or a bobcat —  but at night glows with sinister blue light. Very Disneyland Haunted House. I can walk to Dairy Queen; a gay(ish) bar; the food co-op; and meh-to-excellent vintage resale shops. What else is there? Oh yeah, the view:

*She may never get over the time I called the round screwdriver a “Phyllis head”).

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.

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.