8.10 / October 2013 :: Queer 4

Going Straight

“So,” I told Erin, “there are three things you’ve got going against you: you’re 24; too young, you’re white and you’re straight.”

She wasn’t just hetero but recently out of a difficult eight-year relationship with a guy. One of those unions where they had been together since they were teens and their families in South Dakota, where she’s from, had basically become one. I guess that would be the fourth strike against her ‘cause I really wasn’t lookin’ to be no rebound thing.

See, my heart has been goin’ boom-bap for the female essence since RUN-DMC was on Jamaica Ave. copping their first pair of shell toes. Senior year, the Windsor School, Flushing, New York, I was in the back stairwell kissin’ on my first girl. (We thought we were being slick and didn’t nobody know we was a ‘we’, while anybody who looked at the two of us — as I ran from my classes to walk her to hers and began each school day waiting for her on the front steps — could see this wasn’t just a best friend-type situation.) And it’s just a lesbian postulate: Don’t Mess With No Newbies. They got too much stuff to cogitate before they’re ready: what their people are gon’ think; owning the right to kiss your girl in the street like any straight boy; getting past their nerves so they can sex right. Let them work that mess out with some other young thing like we all did and come to me when you’re done with that. And I most definitely was not up for being no Girls Gone Wild– type experimental plaything for some chick who just needed comp’ny till she found a dude to her liking. I was not the one.

You gotta understand. At that point, it was ’05, I was weeks away from turning 38 and had neither dated nor been party to any kind of body-to-body workout with anyone since the turn of the millennium. On purpose. Heart had been masticated one too many times. Had discovered how much I hate to be right at the wrong times because I always knew; that distance in the dark bed next to a love who had craved me, the daily thinning of our unions when we awoke still next to one another, not touching, cordial. Which just leads to less of the fascinating good that joined us, and once, her admission of there being another, their kiss. Then marriage to that other months after we were over. So like becoming the vegetarian that I am, I decided relationships weren’t something I needed in my diet. I needed my friends. I needed my writing. I needed God. Women, a girl, a lover, a chick, a fuck? Not so much. Which is not to say I didn’t think about lovelies or that my chest didn’t get tight when I saw couples, homo or not, together. Naw, I thought about it. Felt lonely — worse — damaged. But that was cool with me. At least that’s what I told myself.

And though I’m as proud to be black as the next Negro, I ain’t all anti-white and Farrakhan-ish. But I do think the sight of black people in love is as beautiful as sunlight in the mornin’. I’ve been a matched set with more than two Caucasoid female individuals. I loved them all and they returned the lovin’. But even with my barricaded heart, I knew that if I was ever gonna date any woman again she would be a sista or a hermana (for the Panamanian in me) ‘cause sistahood is necessary. The world I inhabit is so very white I need to begin and end my days with the love of another who has lived with the headache and heartache of dealing with Mista Charlie, someone who just knows the innate skin code and the joys of being black and brown. Otherwise, no matter how down my white girl may be, it can just get tiring.

So, here comes this one. All wrong in every way.

Still, Erin was both cute and womanly and we shared a thick smartass vibe. Even one of the straight girl cashiers noticed her at the egghead bookstore where I was full-time and Erin was a temp. Told her, “With those dimples you can get any guy you want.” On the sly, I would check the schedule for the days E was working. When she walked in for her shifts I knew my day — good or bad — was gonna get mo’ better. There was something there. Shit.

We saw In Good Company and we were. Towards the end of the film, I found myself sinking down in my seat and tilting my head till it nestled on her shoulder. My brain was blasting, “What am I doing?!” like a 3:16 AM car alarm that dropkicks me from my dreams. Still, I didn’t stop myself with no kinda quickness. She put her soft palm on my face holding it there. After the movie there was a giggly charge fizzing through the February damp as we went to get cigarettes at Duane Reade and walked around in the chill of the upper west side, not far from her Columbia University student housing. Started to feel familiar, more than a Saturday night movie with a friend. Without either one of us naming it, what we had here was a date. We ended up at a diner on Broadway and 72nd. Over fries and salads, she let fly with inquiries into the reasons behind my dating embargo. I deflected each one like Wonder Woman with her golden bracelets. And, finally, I shut it down with the prereqs for me to date again: “1) the woman I would be with would have to have all her issues in check. 2) I’d have to feel and be completely whole on my own. Not feel like I need her and, 3) most importantly, and most impossibly, only I could end it. ‘Cause I have never broken up with anyone and I’m tired of hearing the ‘You’re really great but I just can’t right now’ speech. So I’m done.” She said, “You need to break up with the next girlfriend you go out with,” then leaned back into the Naugahyde looking shot down. Outside though, puffing on post-meal smokes, she said something all casual that caught me up.

     From: Erin <Erin1@yahoo.com>
     To: Gail <writegail@earthlink.net>
     Subject: Re: movie night
     Date: Feb 7, 2005 6:22 PM

I guess what was sticking in my head was your reaction when we were smoking and I told you that my friend thinks you and I would make a good couple. I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. She could be right, you know. I don’t know how I would describe your reaction, but there was something about it that stuck with me. Anyway, talk to you later.

I got this two days after our ‘date’ and was drenched in terror and tingle all at once. Feigning calm poorly, I left a couple messages on her voicemail at work to call me ASAP. When I finally reached her that night I told her I was coming over. Now. “Just don’t say anything stupid. Just don’t say anything stupid.” I coached myself as I changed clothes four times before speeding out of Queens on the Van Wyck like it was the damn autobahn. We sat at Cannon’s Pub, an Irish bar near Columbia where she was a social work grad student and I had gotten my MFA three years prior. Facing each other in our booth just as we had a few days before, both of us knew what needed to be said. But she was gonna make me to say it. Like a ten-year old youngin’ who doesn’t wanna admit that maybe girls aren’t so icky, I squirmed in my seat before I got the words out: “I. Like. You. I like you a lot. I don’t want to but…there! I’m attracted to you, okay?!”
“I know. Me too. I don’t know what to do.”

I told her about her strikes: young, white, straight

“Those are all things I can’t do anything about.”

True. I was kind of speechless.

We left and just drove. The two of us took our tension onto the West Side Highway, down past Christopher Street pier, where I have spent many a Pride Parade, trying to find the place in ourselves where it would be safe to go ahead and do the damn thing. In between our admissions of helpless, mesmerizing attraction, the risks we would be taking, I’d tell Erin how badly I just wanted to kiss her. She kept giving me her quivery permission, saying, “That would be okay.” I never realized how many stoplights there are on the West Side Highway till that night, sitting next to Erin, the car idling, permission granted. My fear was tight. I waited for the green and just kept driving.

But here’s what she said that got me: “After Kevin (the ex-boyfriend) I told myself that there were certain things I wanted in the next person I was with. They had to be kind and open and want to be with me. There’s other stuff. Whatever package that person came in didn’t matter.” Wanna bet that when she left her small town in South Dakota for the big city that package didn’t look nothing like me? Ya damn straight.

Having processed it all to the endth, I drove Ms. E home. We stood outside her building on 120th St. in the cold wondering who would, if someone would, make the move. I hugged her goodnight. She asked me to think about staying over after work the next day. Nervous, I already knew I’d be there. So, maybe it was I, gripping my list of her three flaws, postulate and relationship moratorium, who was doing the experimenting.

The first night was sweetly charged. Even though we were in bed in our undies, buoyant in our mutual sprung-ness, I refused to launch the first kiss. If she wanted this she needed to prove it. In my jangly anxiety, I was almost praying that she’d be too scared. But in the midst of our showers of laughter and chatter, all amped on the bumper cars of adrenals and pheromonic activity, her lips were on mine like they belonged there. The ease in her kiss caught me all off guard. After that night we did what you do: communiqués — long, silly, sexy emails — everyday, on the phone till what should have been a night’s sleep became a nap before the alarm went off. I slept over a couple times a week. Both of us nervous, we took sex bit by bit, getting comfortable with the idea and then with each other.

There was some amount of tutorial: the importance of short nails; tribadism and the brand new sensation of what my thigh appropriately wedged between her legs could do (she had no idea and would have never thought of it); the intricacies of butch/femme roles (though I ain’t neither one or into the scene). But she just fell in with my crew, and was never silly about being with a woman. This thing we had wasn’t anthropological for her. PDA was an issue, not because she was ashamed but because human beings can be knuckleheaded in the face of girl love, more so when the females in question are not of the same hue. The two of us holding hands in that liberal bastion of her Morningside Heights hood, nearly caused this gawker to bust his fratboy hindquarters. She felt the kind of attention we attracted on the regular detracted from the special of us. And, ya know, I had my own hang-ups: no public affection in black hoods. With a white miss especially, it just seemed like we’d be cosigning for an asswhuppin’.

Showing her my side of the hemisphere was fun and I eased her into the hang spots of my citified Isle of Lesbos: the chill pool players joint, Ginger’s in Park Slope, Brooklyn (a.k.a. Dyke Slope) then the overcrowded Henrietta’s, a small West Village club frequented by young thangs. All light appetizers working up to sexy sweatbox Cattyshack in the Slope, Brooklyn Pride then the high holy days of June: the Dyke March, an organism of 1000 undulating deviant lovergirls throbbing down midtown streets, a no-permit event I helped to co-found back in my randy activist days; and the more traditional Gay Pride Parade with its effervescent floats and shiny oily go-go boys and gay church groups and vendors hawking rainbow anything and ads in the gay glossies for national airlines that might actually kick us all off the plane if we kissed on board a flight. Best Pride in a long ass time.

Maybe two months in, she was the first to say ‘I love you’. It took me a couple more weeks to get those words out — I stopped mid-sexing — but I knew we had a good thing. After being bumped around a lot, I needed this. She was my safe place. Truth: eventually, the sex was bangin’. Another truth: though we weren’t packing up the U-Haul but had talked about moving in together someday, even moving to Minneapolis, closer to her family and I helped her schlep and set up house when she left Morningside Heights for Prospect Heights, though she gave me my own set of keys to each place, in Manhattan then in Brooklyn, though we were as great as we were, I knew she was never going to be The One. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the straight thing; I need a sista. She wasn’t clueless or insensitive about race like some I had dated before. She wasn’t with me because she had something to prove or wanted me to be her instructor on the ways of colored folk, like another girlfriend I had. Though not some sort of naïf, her head wasn’t full of gestated absolutes about what should be expected of people as a result of their surfaces. That blanket acceptance made a mark in me and was part of what kept me hooked. Evidenced by my initial hesitance to be with her, she was less judgmental than I am, for sure. But I missed the essential unspokens that come with being with someone else living in colored skin. Still our relationship was both lusty and comfortable in the best sense of the word.

My friends, all of my tribe, knowing that straight girls of the world ain’t nuthin’ but trouble, were worried I would get hurt dating someone who could just be playing. But I told them she was real. I rarely thought, “My girl is not gay.” And despite the fact that she had only had relationships with men, Erin never claimed any label. She was just mine and I was hers, though for very different reasons, we were both shocked-as-shit to find ourselves with a girlfriend. Her friends, all boy-loving gals, just wanted to know about the sex. (She told them about the thigh magic and they were dumbfounded.) Mainly they wanted to hear if she had become a cunning linguist yet. Didn’t take long for their squeamish curiosities to become annoying and she had to put the girltalk about our lovin’ on pause.

For her, used to chiseling away at the male emotional layers to get to his truth, the pace was different, faster. It was that “womyn” energy, female connectedness, emotional availability and all that yadda. “Where we’re at four months,” she said as we sat smoking on her bed one night, “is where I would be with a guy after a year.” That made me sad for her, actually, for heterosexual women, in general. Even though I had my own issues and made her carve through me a bit, I couldn’t fathom expecting — no that’s not it; I couldn’t fathom accepting the dig as a condition of loving the gender you are attracted to as a female who loves men. I know all guys aren’t like that but still it seemed a ferocious imbalance.

By September, she got the seven-month itch. Wanted to see other people. Wanted to see dudes. That energy that cuts through the chisel time also made things too intense for her. Between social work school and my crew, her life had become filled with double x chromos and she missed the opposing species. I have never been good at spreading myself around but would’ve been more open to a non-monogamous situation at the beginning. Now, I was in love. But when Erin said she wanted to see other people, there was no compromise; you can’t sort of see other people. Like Gladys and her Pips, neither one of us wanted to be the first to say goodbye. So we laid out the rules of engagement: no permission necessary to date whom we wanted and always, always, always play safe. I had neither the desire nor intention to avail myself of this new sovereignty. “I don’t think I‘m the right one for you,” she said after our negotiations. I already knew this but said nothing. In bed that night she asked me to give her back the keys to her apartment. Two weeks later — two therapy-filled, tear-sopped, insomnia-blurred, even with newly prescribed, Ambien weeks — not adjusting to our new adjustment, I took the advice E gave me that first night at the diner: I broke up with the next girlfriend I was with. It was my first time being the one to call it quits. Yeah, popped my cherry on that one. After all the times I’d heard the speech, it didn’t feel any better to be the one giving it. In our post-breakup review, we agreed that we had created the healthiest relationship either of us had been in. Thinking back to our West Side car ride, she asked me if I, after all the trepidation, regretted dating a straight girl. With my heart already beginning to miss her, I told her no.

When it was over, I did the processing with my friend/shoulder, Sydney. Actually, I should say our friend ‘cause Sydney met Erin and me at the same time. While mutual friendships tend to be part of the breakup wreckage, Syd refused to lose either of us. Loving both of us, she did the next to impossible: remained friends with each injured party, hearing about our bruised hearts from both sides.

     From: Sydney <SK999@yahoo.com>
     To: Gail <writegail@earthlink.net>
     Subject: Re: stuff in my head about my heart
     Date: Dec 2, 2005 11:36 AM

Okay, can I be a bit blunt? I think I can help you figure out why you’re better off without Erin. I mean, I think of her as a friend and love her. I know that she cherishes the time you spent together. But, and this is a big but, she’s come to realize that as much as she loved you and that was true and authentic she is straight. What that means to you is it never would have worked out. I think that speaks highly to both of your characters that you were able to split before something ugly happened. Erin figured out that she really wasn’t coming out. It was just you she loved. Sucks for her as being lesbian is so much better, don’t you think? And straight girls never can do the long haul…It’s like me, I fell in love with my husband and played straight for a good long time but it just couldn’t last forever ‘cause fundamentally I’m gay.

Weeks later, I was sitting with Syd in the Tea Lounge in Dyke Slope, Brooklyn, spelunking some more Erin-ache. My wise friend gave me a gift, telling me “You will likely be the only woman she will ever have a relationship with. And that’s very special. That’s hot.”

She was right. Took me about nine months and whole lot of head shrinkery and tears before I was ready to be friends with E. I’ve tended to fail in that portion of the queerchick field test, the becoming family with women I’ve loved thing. Once you’re gone, you’re gone and I will crawl into a ball to protect myself from pain. So we started talking again. I missed my friend. Truth: though I was deep enough to get that she just fit with men (no matter how unnatural that may be) there was a bit of macha in me that rumbled with the idea that I wasn’t enough. I knew I’d get over it. But then, as it was June, she asked me if she could come to Gay Pride with my crew. Nah, I couldn’t have that. Two reasons: 1) Pride, for all its commercialism and dense Velveeta cheesiness, is a celebratory fuck off to a society that’s just not feelin’ us. Through her openness and my access Erin was able to enter privileged outsider status. I respected the openness but felt that she was not on the outside anymore nor just any homofriendly breedergirl to me. So, while we were making space for friendship and I was trying not to guard my heart like I’ve done in the past, it would be too hard to see her screaming for gay love. Being friends is all cool and e’rythang but the high holy days are for me and mine. She was not part of the tribe. 2) Just before she asked if it was cool to come to Pride with the peoples she emailed me. In the spirit of building our new friendship on honesty, she thought I should know that though, she probably wasn’t going to be in another relationship with a woman, she was still open to the sex. So Syd was sorta kinda right but it didn’t feel as good now. After extricating myself from this person I loved to honor what she needed I considered her admission a roundhouse in the teeth. Erin blew away my powdery understanding that was stretching for a new kind of relationship with someone I had shared a bed and my self. Felt my innards engorged with pissed-osity and more than a little bit of a need to be right. Thus, unless I had suddenly joined the ranks of the masochists, Ms. E chilling with my lesbanian kinfolk and me on the biggest gay day of the year was just out. In difficult email exchanges and phone calls, she again felt like I was judging her for things over which she had no control.

So we hit a bunch of bumps and the transitioning from being each other’s girl to just being “girls” was a prickly bit of navigation for me. To be honest, maybe in the name of some kind political gender purity, I was punishing her a little, for being who she was. We didn’t talk much for most of the summer and I reverted to my cocoonish ways to shelter my tender middle. Around September, both of us Evited to Syd’s birthday happening, we started communicating again. I wasn’t really feeling the idea of breaking out the cocoon for this fiesta — too many couples, too hard— but both Syd and Erin wanted me there. Finally, I decided to go but lost all my good sense, flipping out on E because almost a year post-split, she had the ovaries to be all well-adjusted, enjoying herself even though we were at the same party but weren’t together. After that we took another break and I went back in and growed up a bit.

Eventually, January ’07, almost two years after Ms. E and I nervously professed attractions, I found my beautiful sunlight, my black Domnicana hermana. I was right; it was exactly what I needed. She is amazing and we melded skin-to-skin, joy-to-joy, by all that was said and not. I found home. Around the same time blond and blue Erin from South Dakota fell in love with this tall, bark black, rasta-looking dude. The four of us hung out together at bbqs and gatherings at Syd’s spot, like evolved adult folks. Mi amor and I, deep in each others corazons, cohesive in thought, envisioned a someday Panamanian-Dominican wedding con familia of birth and history, and futures where we leave NYC for Oakland, to raise bilingual freedom fighters while being incendiary revolution scribers, swooning in our feisty ebullience. And then she broke up with me, eight months in. No one’s fault. Crazy unfathomable love just at different places and unable to get where we each wanted to be, together. As we were coming apart and I cursed the burn of that unfixable reality, Sydney was again one of my shoulders. But Erin was another. Her dude turned out to be all kinds of foul, some Jerry Springer Show-type mess and they, too, ended. So now there’s just us, again. She tells me about the men she’s feeling, and the ladies, too, though she still isn’t waving the bi flag. I warn her about falling for anyone, with a dick or assembly required, who ain’t got their shit in check and it’s cool, me and Erin. I just want her to be happy. And when I’m ready to step out again I’ll be checking in with her about some lovely one that moves me and that’ll be a’ight, too. Guess I did okay with that field test.

Gail M. Dottin = MFA from Columbia University + Fulbright scholar + N.Y. writer who doesn’t live in Brooklyn. Her writing will appear in anthologies—Dismantle and Wise Latinas. She’s nearing completion on Where There is Pride in Belonging, a memoir woven around her grandfather’s work laboring on constructing the Panamá Canal.
8.10 / October 2013 :: Queer 4