I was 24 when I fell in love for the first time. It was dead winter. It snowed a lot that winter, which was very unusual for North Carolina, even in the mountains. The snow covered the doorstep and crept up to the windowsill. I had to help my boyfriend dig his car out of the driveway twice. He was struggling to find work, I was working shady jobs for cash under the table, and we were living with some queerpunk friends to save on rent.
I felt like I was going crazy. I was not in love with my boyfriend, and that worried me. Everyone thought we should get married but the thought of it filled me with dread. I had never been in love with anyone else either, and that worried me too, because what kind of person can’t fall in love? Was I too damaged to love people? Did everybody feel this way?
I only felt happy when Ash came over to get snowed in with us. I lived just to see her show up on my back doorstep with a six-pack or a half-empty bottle of whiskey in one hand.
We would sit at the kitchen table and drink and talk. Ash was one of those rare people who seemed to know everything but was super laid back about it, absolutely brilliant but not trying to impress me. We talked about everything. She was an atheist, and I thought that was just so badass. It was one thing to say you didn’t believe in God, but call yourself an atheist– damn.
If the power went out, we would light tea candles and play Trivial Pursuit, playing to lose because we were both raised in religious families, laughing at all the pop culture references we didn’t get. We would keep drinking after everyone went to bed, and then we’d peel the labels off our empty beer bottles and set them on fire with the tea candles, dropping ash all over the tablecloth, still talking, until she drove home or went to sleep on our couch, depending on the roads.
One of the queerpunks observed us together and told me sternly, “She’s a lesbian. You’re straight. Stop leading her on like this,” and I had no idea what she was talking about. I wasn’t flirting with Ash. I was paying attention to her in a way that made her feel nice, and she was paying attention to me in a way that made me feel nice, and that totally wasn’t flirting. Flirting was something you were supposed to do with boys, it was very calculated, and I was sure I didn’t know how to do it.
One evening, I had been trapped in the house for days, the roads were bad, and it was about to snow again. Ash was there. I kept pacing, collecting dishes and putting them in the sink and not washing them and then sitting at the table and then getting up to collect more dishes.
Ash sat at the kitchen table, watching me. She said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
By the time we got out to the main road, snow was coming down so hard it shrouded the streetlights and we couldn’t see half a block down the street. There were no cars. I tilted my head back and let the snow brush against my face, breathing the cold air, awash in silence.
I pulled out my cigarettes and offered one to Ash, who pulled out her lighter and motioned to light my cigarette. I cupped my hands around the flame to keep it from going out, and then I looked up at her face bathed in warm yellow light and realized that she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I wanted to follow her everywhere. I wanted to know everything about her.
Oh my God, I thought, I’m–
I’m acting weird because I’m in love!
I was so, so relieved to be acting crazy for a normal reason.
Wait, I thought, I know I’ve felt this way before. I’ve felt this way about a lot of people.
Holy shit– I love women.
The next few thoughts brought me back down to earth:
I have a boyfriend.
I will have to tell my boyfriend that I slept next to him for four years and never loved him the entire time.
This is a fucking disaster.
I didn’t tell anyone at first. I started avoiding Ash. I spent the next few months taking long walks by myself, chain smoking, watching the world come into bloom, nourishing my secret.
Why was I only just now aware of liking girls? What about all those boys I told everyone I liked?
I had to go back and read my old diaries to find the answer. I used to pick out a boy in my class at random on the first day of school and tell everyone I liked him, thinking all girls did that. I used to write love poetry about female classmates. I even called it love poetry. I just didn’t think that made me gay.
Everyone else did. From middle school on, there were always rumors circulating that I was a lesbian. The rumors followed me across two school changes, and any girl who got close to me became the subject of gossip too, but the rumors seemed to stick to me.
I didn’t think it was true. People would come up in the hallway at school and ask me, and I still didn’t even give it a thought. Lesbians were Those People, and I was just me.
After high school, I got hit on by women in bars and hired to be a line cook at a lesbian-owned restaurant and STILL thought I was straight.
I could see many times, over a span of many years, when I almost started to have the conversation with myself, but I wouldn’t even let myself think the words: “Could I be– one of those people? No. That can’t be right. People who are– one of those– say they always knew. I would already know if I were– that.” I even prayed for God to make me straight and still didn’t think the words: “God, please don’t let me be– that. Please make me, you know, good. Thank you, amen.” I must have known that once I thought the words to myself there would be no going back.
It’s weird how you can hide things from yourself in plain sight like that. I’m still trying to understand why I did it. The religious upbringing probably didn’t help, but mostly I think it’s because I was forced to take on a lot of adult responsibility at home at an age when most kids are making friends and trying to figure themselves out. I didn’t have a sense of myself as individual who could want things and get them, or do things that would disappoint people; it just wasn’t an option.
Things were a little different in the 1990s, too. Most people were still agnostic about the idea of a “gay teen.” I remember reading an advice column in Teen Magazine where someone had written in to say “I have a crush on a girl, what do I do?” and the answer was, “You’re too young to be a lesbian, it’s just hormones.” I thought, oh good! and kept repeating that line to myself until I realized I wasn’t “too young” and “full of hormones” anymore.
I went all the way back to the beginning, to my diary from third grade. One page had some stuff in it about my best friend and a lot of crossing-out, and when I went to the window and held the crossed-out parts up to the light, I could just barely read the words, “I love her.” On the next page I wrote: “My sister wanted to read this and I said she could but I had to get rid of some things first.”
Finally I did have to tell my boyfriend. It was harder than I expected it to be.
I said, “We need to talk.”
“Yeah? Is this about the credit card?”
“No, it’s about Ash. You might not like me very much once I tell you this, but I have to tell you anyway because I need to be honest.”
I took a deep breath. “I love her.”
Nothing. Not even a flicker of emotion. Was it that easy?
“You’re not upset with me?”
“Of course not. Ash is great. I love her too.”
“Oh. No, I don’t mean like that.” Another deep breath. “I’m in love with Ash.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Well, you always said you thought you might be bisexual.”
“And I trust you to do the right thing.”
I thought about the way Ash and I behaved together, like two people who were just waiting to get drunk enough to have an excuse.
I said, “Why?”
“Because I can offer you something she can’t,” he said. It took me a second to figure out what the something was. It was something very specific. It was in fact the thing that made me not attracted to his body.
“No,” I said. This was all wrong. He wasn’t hearing me. I felt like he was doing it on purpose. “No, I think I’m a lesbian.”
That got his attention. “Does this mean you’re not attracted to me anymore?”
Anymore! I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry.
“I think I can honestly say,” I said, “that I feel exactly the same way about you now as I have since the beginning.”
“Oh!” he said. “Well, good. There’s no problem, then.”
It took another three months to convince him that we needed to break up. The last I heard, he was still telling everyone he was my only exception.
That was an awful year. I had to start my whole life over at 25. The whole time I kept thinking, I must be crazy, this can’t be real, I haven’t even slept with a woman yet, am I really sure, what if this is all a terrible mistake?
I think it finally hit home about two years later, when I moved in with Ash.
We were arguing over what color to paint the bedroom wall, and it was a really bitter argument, we had to leave the store and go home and calm down and talk about it, and I thought, “Oh my god, this is real. I’m really one of those people. It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting on the bed with another woman, processing my feelings about fucking paint chips.”
“And I’m HAPPY about it. There’s nobody else I’d rather fight over paint chips with.”
Yesterday was our fourth wedding anniversary.