And She Was
At the end of September, she wrote me an email with the subject “Just to clarify.” My legs buckled, but I balanced myself against the desk. Opened her message.
I skimmed through two paragraphs without flinching: the details of her recent cross-country trip, an invitation to meet for coffee in the next few weeks. Nothing to feel nervous about on my end, nothing to make clear. And then, as if on cue, the last line of her letter knocked my knees unsteady:
“Must I be demure and stop at kissing, or can I continue and finish what I started way back when?”
Nabokov claimed that “the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is,” but I actually don’t remember the first time I kissed her. Or perhaps she’s the one who kissed me. In Annie on My Mind – her favorite book – the main character Liza makes the first move:
“It started slowly, so slowly I don’t think either of us even realized what was happening at first… I went over and put my arms around her and kissed her, and it became a different kind of kiss from any between us before.”
I want to go back in time, find out if I was more the Liza or the Annie, the kisser or the one kissed. I want to remember the conversation, the background activity, if I walked across a room or if we sat next to each other in bed, or a movie theater, or a couch. If I’m the one who pushed forward, gutsy and tender. Or if she leaned into me, jumped into my arms, walked across a room – and I let it happen, pressed my lips back into yes, this.
I saw her dorm room about a year before I actually saw her. Her roommate in that first year of college – the one I knew from orientation and who sometimes shared lunch with me between classes – needed a sweater or a scarf, something to keep out the autumn chill. I lingered near the doorway of their room, too unsure of myself to ask if I should come in. The rainbow flag draped over a wall caught my eye. The sight of something so decidedly Not Straight made me feel less nervous, or at least confident enough to come inside.
The only problem, of course, was when my friend from lunch said that rainbow flag wasn’t on her side of the room. She didn’t seem to feel any particular way about the flag – it was more like she wanted a simple demarcation of lines, the division of identity between two people assigned to live together at random. Straight and Not Straight.
And then, as casually as opening a window, Straight Girl told me her roommate’s name. Instantly, this mystery rainbow flag roommate became a girl I wanted to know. We wouldn’t meet, officially, until we ran into each other at an off-campus bookstore.
What I remember: my roommate – someone who was not a random assignment from Student Living, but one of my best friends from high school, the both of us feminist writer honor students who called each other within minutes of opening our acceptance letters on the same afternoon with shrieks of joy – recognized Straight Girl’s roommate from the dining hall and walked over to say hello while I hung back, always a little shy.
The Not-Straight Girl was bookish and beautiful, and she seemed almost as bashful as I was. I remember her black-rimmed glasses and lime-green pullover, the fine dark hair which skimmed past her chin and hung loose by the slight caps of her shoulders.
It turned out that the three of us were living in the same dorm now as sophomores; she’d amiably parted ways with Straight Girl and now lived in a single on the floor above our room. I wondered if we’d see each other in the halls, if I could be normal enough to wave at her in passing. If she would smile at me. If she would wave back.
Later that night, she knocked on our door to see if my roommate and I wanted to hang out – and that’s how I befriended the girl I’d wanted to know for a year. The three of us spent the next three weekends together, called in orders of take-out Chinese and drove to the wrong restaurant, then found our way to the right place and re-ordered all the food. We watched Law and Order: SVU marathons on the tiny combination TV/DVD player in the dark or sometimes under florescent light.
We bonded quickly and became fast friends, all three of us English majors with concentrations in literature or creative writing. She found my copy of Hard Love on the bookshelf and it must have been like her version of spotting the rainbow flag, the moment she knew I was the Marisol type – someone who knew the difference between café au lait and café con leche – or at least that I might be Marisol-adjacent. We were prone to drinking too much coffee on weekends, and sometimes we let our knees and elbows graze under the table.
We talked around the tension. I never said, this is how I identify. My early twenties would most accurately be described as an earnest fumbling to figure out what, exactly, I wanted from my partners – and to that end, I rejected the constriction of labels in favor of experience, certain that anything as definitive as gay or straight could not accurately characterize or contain the breadth of my desires. If pressed, I would try out the term bisexual, always hesitant and wavering, as if someone would demand to see my credentials. The girl I’d wanted to know identified as a lesbian, but she had no prejudice against bisexuality; she never made me feel like I needed to apologize for my lack of gold stars.
In private conversations at the dining hall or in my dorm room, I told her about the girls I slept with in high school, the ones with boyfriends who didn’t know and would probably never guess about what we did behind their backs. I told my boyfriends about it, sometimes – if I felt guilty – but they didn’t seem to mind. In those years, sex seemed mostly like an experiment: the shared secret packs of Marlboro Lights and bottles of vodka, two girls sneaking out of the house to smoke and kiss on a freezing cold bench in the middle of the night. Overlapping tongues. Shaky hands. Watching the scene in Quills where the Abbé du Coulmier gives into Madeline’s lust, over and over. It didn’t feel like losing my virginity – the unnerving prospect of giving up something sacred and scary to the guys who fumbled in the dark and too often pressed the question of sex – when I chose to fool around with a girl: a friend who was like me, giving into what felt good.
The pattern of hooking up with women who claimed to be in committed heterosexual relationships continued into college. I slept with a woman whose boyfriend was back in New York. Natalie’s tastes ran toward bands like Talking Heads and architectural tattoos inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. She drove to my school so we could make-out in her car, took me to dinner and bought expensive glasses of sangria – and then we ditched the movie we’d planned to see just so we could go back to her place. By the end of January term, Natalie she told me she couldn’t take lying to her boyfriend anymore. It didn’t feel like a break-up, exactly, but I missed her anyway when it was over.
But there were other consolations. For Christmas, the girl I now knew (and very much liked) gave me magnetic poetry and for my birthday, there was Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. As I opened up to her about the secret girl flings, she told me that she’d known she was a lesbian since high school, but hadn’t slept with anyone yet. Her virginity caught me off-guard; it made me feel like a letch for wanting her. And she wasn’t looking for a casual hookup. She wanted to be in love. She wanted The Real Thing. Up until that point, the option for me to date a girl had never been presented as a possibility, let alone something I’d thought to pursue.
As a compromise between sex and suppression, we made-out on my bed while my roommate kept her back to the sounds, typed on her laptop and pretended not to hear us.
Another year went by. She spent a semester abroad in Ireland and sent long emails with descriptions of her classes at the university, her charming neighborhood. I didn’t have a boyfriend, but I cycled through dates with the same three guys: men who didn’t push for commitment, who were happy to keep a casual distance so that I didn’t have to agonize about their places in my life.
And I also slept with a man who treated my boundaries as if they were porous and relenting. It took years for me to learn that sex was a negotiation, yes, but not one that could ever start from either party saying, this isn’t a good idea.
She came back to the states in the spring, happy to see me. She never once made me feel bad for not writing to her while she was away. Maybe she’d heard something from my roommate, but she didn’t ask what had happened with the guy who didn’t hear me say “no.” She had a better question. There was a free Indigo Girls concert at the end of August – did I want to come up to New England and visit for a week?
The plan: sleep at her mother’s place, where we’d have separate bedrooms – but the two long-haired cats who had the run of the house triggered an allergic reaction; their stray hairs made my eyes burn. We packed our overnight bags, only to learn that we’d be sharing a room at her father’s house.
Bowls of mint chocolate chip ice cream in the living room, TV on mute. In a summer without processed carbs or sugar, I’d lost sixty pounds. The sweetness of this forbidden dessert made me delirious with a heady combination of equal parts guilt and desire. I wanted to lick the bowl clean; I settled for the spoon. We went upstairs.
More tension. Talking into the night, sure. But how could I cross the line between friend and lover, virgin and initiation?
I told her that I’d started to read Eileen Myles that summer, Chelsea Girls and Skies. She showed me her new copy of Cool for You. The part where Eileen falls for Lucy Bean was a kind of mirror for those shared nights in her childhood bed: “I would not have dreamed of touching her, she was more like my religion. But we would be beautiful, I knew that too.”
In the mornings, we walked down to the beach and circled back to her mother’s driveway. We were miles from the nearest city, but drove into town to browse the used bookstores. I bought Zami, Audre Lorde’s biomythography. When Audre’s friend Gennie died, she wrote, “You loved people and you came to depend on their being there. But people died or changed or went away and it hurt too much. The only way to avoid that pain was not to love anyone, and not to let anyone get too close or too important.” I tucked the book into my bag alongside Eileen Myles, as if both women could guide me through the unknown landscape of female friendship and romantic boundaries.
By the time we got home, her grandfather had transformed the tiniest wild blueberries into a decadent pie.
She knew that I wasn’t really familiar with the band beyond “Closer to Fine,” so she surprised me with a mix CD of Indigo Girls songs. We listened to “Least Complicated” and “Mystery” on repeat. “Moments of Forgiveness” felt like an indictment – I see that you kept your word and made it harder than it had to be.
At the concert, I huddled in her lawn chair under two blankets and her sweatshirt. She teased me for being cold in August, but she kept asking if I was okay. My teeth chattered. Sixty-degrees felt like thirty-below.
We held each other in her bed, but I never made a move. I flew home a few days later and the first thing I did was march up to the bathroom so I could weigh myself on the bathroom scale. Miraculously, despite all of the ice cream and peanut butter-banana sandwiches, I’d lost five pounds. I came back to school at the end of August, light and empty and lost.
She kept her distance senior year. Perhaps she saw me for the coward I was: a queer girl who didn’t want to give up the privileges of passing for straight by dating an out lesbian. Back then, I couldn’t understand why we weren’t as close; I wanted her to sit under those florescent lights, watch TV and eat ice cream, to talk to me about her feelings. But I didn’t press the issue – and when we graduated, our contact became more sporadic. Drives with friends for coffee, a long kiss by the trunk of my car. And she was still waiting for me to give something more.
When she sent the “Just to clarify” email a year later, it turned out to be her bold move, her invitation. I wrote back and accepted.
The first time we had sex was on a weeknight in June – my empty apartment, clean purple sheets, even a few candles to set the mood. She didn’t want to be demure anymore. She didn’t want to be a virgin. I fumbled for the remote, turned off the cooking channel and faced forward to read her calm, expressionless face. I thought I was supposed to be the leader, the one who knew what and how and where, so she followed me into bed.
In the act of unzipping her jeans, I’d become the female Billy Loomis, wolfish and depraved, breaking the underwear rule to the sounds of an acoustic guitar soundtrack in my head. A lover, a killer. But I didn’t bite.
I read once that knives were eroticized in the Scream series; concealed in black robes, sure, but once unsheathed, those knives thrust through the skin and then penetrate the intended organs, only to be lifted out and thrust again, again, the rhythm of the ritual only complete when the blood comes – the little death. Sex with men is sometimes like this. You’re killing me, I’ll say.
The touching should be gentle, I’d decided. Because it was her first time. The women before her: they’d clamped their front teeth onto my neck, raked their nails over my back, burned cigarettes in their arms merely to show off an indifference to pain. This last part scared me. I couldn’t watch the burning tip seared into my teenage love’s forearm, so I just walked back home and didn’t return any of that girl’s phone calls until my head had cleared.
But on this occasion, I didn’t have to straddle any lines of hurt. At twenty-five, she seemed like a kitten retreating from a deep well of water: the kind of creature who didn’t want to inflict damage as her way of marking me, a woman who wouldn’t revel in her own discomfort.
Long strands of my hair needed to be pulled back so they wouldn’t fall into her mouth when we kissed. She laid back onto the pillow; I opened her legs. My lips on her were a choir, the call-and-response of my tongue and her soft noises of pleasure. I knew she didn’t want to be penetrated, but I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. Vibrators were too intense, she said. My limbs tightened, fight or flight. We were not antagonists, but I didn’t know how to win.
She wanted to try with me, so it was my turn to lie back. I’d never had to instruct another person on how to do this, so I suggested she grab the ice cream from the freezer. Lavender. Of course. In my queerest fan-fiction fantasies, I could not write a better flavor. She ate it off of me, tentative. I wanted to be encouraging, but I was also so scared of being too passionate, saying the exact wrong thing for her to replay to herself the next day.
I didn’t hold her when we slept. I thought I was protecting her from getting attached.
I was such an asshole.
I turned rigid the next morning in my adherence to the conversational topics I’d cover – work, my commute, what time I need to leave. Did we drink coffee? Did I even offer to make breakfast? My lack of affection felt to me like a boundary, the difference between a one-time experiment and a fling. There was no friendship or tenderness in my words, only the distance I’ve forced between us and her confusion.
I hugged her at the door. She thanked me. She thanked me. As if I’d done right by her in any way. And then she left.
For the next two years, no more than fifty words were said between us.
When I saw her again, at an afternoon housewarming party, she brought her girlfriend and I felt a little thrill to see her happy, partnered, well-loved. But we didn’t talk much beyond a few pleasant exchanges, my unforced offer to catch up sometime. I didn’t call or make plans. I didn’t expect her to, either.
It took the right song to bring us together.
We arrived separately to a spring wedding between our mutual friends and locked eyes during the bride’s walk down the aisle. She greeted my mother warmly and with a kind of cherished familiarity, as so many of my friends are prone to do. She wore a purple dress, the sort that looks like a watercolor painting. We caught each other’s smiles from across the crowded dining room. She leaned in close when I took pictures at the table, her head resting near my shoulder as the angled camera flashed a few feet above us.
So much changed for me in the years between our not-speaking and reconciliation. I’d started to identify myself as bisexual among family and friends. After years of odd hook-ups, I’d asked a one-night stand to leave my apartment after she told me that she didn’t want to touch me during sex because “I don’t mess with girls who also like boys.” I tattooed a feminist fist with a rainbow heart on my left hip, eager for the irrefutable evidence of queerness etched onto my skin. I’d finally realized that I didn’t want any more confusion or ambivalence in my sexual identity. I wanted to be the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to embrace the truth behind her labels.
Still, at this wedding, it felt hard to deny the lingering feelings of discomfort with how I thought others might see me. I drank from the open bar freely, as if alcohol could possibly dim the awkwardness of being the lone unmarried woman in the room, the only person in attendance who would bring her mother as a plus-one.
The guy who’d slept with me years earlier in the groom’s university dorms was among the attendees of the wedding. The one who didn’t hear that sleeping together wasn’t a good idea. He shuffled around the dance floor – visibly ill-at-ease in a suit, his face bloated and pasty – but he never once looked me in the eye. His avoidance humiliated me, as if I was the one who should be sorry for the night he’d said come on. I thought about the moment when I came out of the bathroom to find him lying in the bed after he’d promised to sleep on the floor, his insistence that his roommate would not hear us even though I wanted to stop after the roommate came in. I’d never intended to sleep with this man, yet somehow I knew he wasn’t going to stop asking for sex until I offered the ambivalent affirmation that he wanted me to give.
There are always so many stories going on at the same time. I was living out the celebration of my friends’ marriage, and the uneasy memory of the night with a guy who’d coerced his way into having sex with me, and the delicate truce with a girl who looked especially lovely in her purple dress.
The story I remember most vividly is this: my friends kept pushing me to dance, but I didn’t feel like being a spectacle, the woman spinning on the dance floor without a partner to twirl or hold. I wanted to disappear into the open bar, the whiskey and white tablecloths and dim lighting. But then, a song came on, the one everyone in the room knew by heart.
It was the song we’d listened to on road trips and in restaurants, on mix CDs and movie soundtracks. And there she was. Holding her hands out in an open invitation.
She found me at the back of the room and said, “Dance with me.”
When two women dance together to a slow song, people tend to stare. And this night seemed to be no exception. The bride smiled. The pasty guy finally looked over at me, wide-eyed.
I would grow to love this memory in which she was not a virgin and I was not an asshole. We were just two beautiful women dancing together, the kisser and the kissed, and the memory doesn't become stronger or stranger the more I love it – it's just that in this moment, we're not bashful anymore.
I looked down at her, small and beautiful, her eyes shining. The rest of the room might as well have disappeared. I sang along to the music, soft and low, as if I could confide in her all the regret and love that stood between us. I put my arms around her waist and I held onto that feeling.
Allison McCarthy is a writer with a focus on personal essays, intersectional feminism and social justice. Her work has been featured in print and online publications as well as in several anthologies. A graduate of Goucher College and the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University, she currently lives in Maryland. She tweets at @allison_writes and her website is http://allisonmccarthy.net