by Julia Watts
Okay, you’re a lesbian. Now what??? That’s the question that newly out Kentucky graduate student Jess Hamlin tries to answer in this heartwarming and hilarious account of her southern days and nights. From making and losing acquaintances, to finding and keeping real friends. Through bars and coffee houses, school and work. Surviving family drama and ex-lover trauma. Dealing with well-intentioned matchmakers and dates from hell. Having crushes and getting crushed. Coping—and sometimes not coping. Falling in lust and, slowly, exquisitely, surrendering to love. In other words, all the stuff that dreams—and real lesbian lives—are made of.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1998.
|Publication Date||January 1, 1998|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
It was fall. I could smell it—the old library-book mustiness of decaying leaves, the snap in the air.
Max and Anna were walking ahead of me, holding hands. Their touching made me nervous, afraid some lunatic might be driven to a homicidal rage at the sight of their affection. As it was, all that happened was that some master of the obvious screamed “Dykes!” out of his car window.
“Thank you for noticing!” Max yelled back, but the car was already gone. She turned back to me. “Get up here, woman. You don’t have to walk ten paces behind us, you know.”
I scurried up beside them, and Max linked her arm in mine with mock gentlemanly flair. We walked like that, the three of us, arm in arm, not looking like dykes so much as little girls on a playground.
Max and I had gone to college together. She had been one year ahead of me in school and light-years ahead of me in other ways. She seemed to have been out of the closet from the time she was out of the womb—a fact that made the faculty and students at our small-town liberal arts college squirm with discomfort. I’ll never forget that day in our French poetry class when tweedy old Professor Oliver suggested that the frequent quarrels between the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud may have stemmed from the fact that they were both deeply in debt.
Max raised her hand. “But, Professor Oliver, don’t you think the reason they fought a lot might have been because they were lovers?”
Professor Oliver stared down at his notes through his half-glasses, his bald spot reddening. “Uh…well…as the New Critics pointed out,” he muttered, “perhaps it is unwise to speculate on the private lives of the poets.”
Max wouldn’t let him off the hook. “Well, I was just curious to know what your opinion was,” she went on, “because my high school literature book said that Oscar Wilde was imprisoned because he was deeply in debt, and we all know that’s a load of crap. So I guess that whenever I see the phrase deeply in debt, I should just mark it out and write in queer.” She smiled innocently. “Do you think that would be appropriate, Professor Oliver?”
Poor old Oliver just said, “So, in keeping with that New Critical tradition, let’s skip the biographical information and look at the poem on page…”
The class sat in stunned silence, except for me. I couldn’t stop laughing.
I didn’t see much of Max outside of class. She was more studious than she let on and spent a lot of time in the library while the rumor mill churned out fictitious romances between her and various female students and faculty members.
As for me, I hung out with what passed for the bohemian crowd. At Hamilton College in tiny Hamilton, Kentucky, being bohemian entailed drinking a lot of beer, having the occasional discussion that revealed your politics to be to the left of Jesse Helms, and making fun of the fraternity/sorority people.
I fulfilled all three bohemian requirements with gusto, and with somewhat less gusto I even maintained a casual heterosexual relationship with one of my compatriots. Since I lacked Max’s boldness and had never felt compelled to wear flannel clothing or play fast-pitch softball, I worked with the assumption that I was simply a somewhat underzealous straight girl. Until one night changed everything.
You see, the person I was closest to at Hamilton wasn’t my pseudoboyfriend or any of my bohemian beer-drinking pals. It was Sarah.
Sarah and I had been roommates since our freshman year. A small-town girl like me, she’d taken the high road in college, staying in nights and studying for A’s while I’d go out drinking and settle for B’s. But when I’d finally stagger in at 2:00 a.m. and she’d still be up poring over her chemistry book, we’d sit on my bunk and talk until we couldn’t stay awake another minute.
Late one night, just before finals the spring term of our senior year, I came back to our dorm room and was surprised to see that Sarah was not there. Right after I crawled into my bunk, I heard her key in the door. She fumbled a little locking the door, then carelessly kicked off the ballet flats she always color-coordinated with her outfits. I couldn’t believe it—she was drunk.
“You asleep, Jess?” she slurred.
“Uh-uh.” I propped up on my elbow and looked at her. Her curly blond hair, which she usually pinned back carefully, was loose and wild around her face, and her lipstick was smeared. She looked messy and beautiful. “Looks like you had a festive evening.”
“I went up to Richmond with Mike and some friends of his. I figure I’ve got a four-point-oh, I’m already accepted into med school. What the hell? I might as well get drunk, see what I’ve been missing the past four years.” She unzipped her dress and let it fall to the floor. Wearing just her slip, she tried to climb into the bunk above mine, but fell on her ass, laughing. “Scoot over, Jess,” she said finally, “I’m getting in with you.”
She slid into the narrow bed beside me, and we fit together like puzzle pieces, my arms wrapping around her, her legs wrapping around me. We started kissing and didn’t stop all night long.
When I woke up, my life was transformed. It was like the dreary little house where I had always lived had been blown from gray Kansas to the Technicolor land of Oz.
When Sarah woke up she asked for a glass of water and an aspirin and for us to never speak about what had gone on the night before.
“But…didn’t you like it?” I asked, my hands shaking as I tried to unscrew the childproof lid from the aspirin bottle.
“That’s not the point.”
I was trying not to cry. Two minutes earlier I had been happier than I could ever remember being. “So what is the point then?”
“The point is that Mike got accepted into law school at Emory. We’re going to get an apartment together in Atlanta. I guess you could say we’re sort of engaged to be engaged.”
“Oh. I see.” Acid tears searing my eyes, I padded down the hall to fetch Sarah’s glass of water.
* * *
I came to Louisville in part because I knew if I followed Sarah to Atlanta she’d think I was a crazed lesbian stalker and in part because I graduated summa cum lazy from Hamilton, and Louisville State was the only grad school I applied to that offered me a paid teaching assistantship.
After I had set up my futon and bookshelves in the efficiency apartment I found near campus, I was overwhelmed by that disorienting loneliness that comes with moving to a new place. I remembered that Max had moved to Louisville after her graduation, and I found myself looking up her number in the phone book.
Since that initial phone call, I became Max and her girlfriend Anna’s designated third wheel. They took me out for art films and Chinese food. They had me over when they had just happened to make so much spaghetti they couldn’t possibly eat it all themselves. I was like the old bachelor who gets invited to dinner by the married couple because they worry about his loneliness and poor eating habits.
And so now here we were, arm in arm in arm, browsing through the Saint Mark’s Art Fair in the section of town known as Old Louisville. If not for the art fair browsers in their jeans and slogan-bearing T-shirts, you could walk through Old Louisville and believe that you were not living in the twentieth century. The houses were masterpieces of the Victorian era, turreted and towered gingerbreaded mansions with all the dignity and grandeur of a dowager empress decked out in her best lace and jewelry. One house, my favorite, was painted cake-frosting pink with creamy white gingerbread trim. It looked like a candy house, ready to be nibbled like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel.
Dozens of tents were set up throughout the neighborhood, displaying tie-dyed clothes, raku pottery, Japanese silk paintings, African statuary, abstract watercolors, and handmade jewelry. Though it would be a month before I got my first paycheck, I couldn’t resist splurging on a small statue of the Venus of Willendorf and a pair of hammered silver earrings.
Max and Anna and I didn’t talk much as we toured the fair. We were too busy trying to take in all the sights and smells and sounds and still not bump into strangers. Max did get stopped once by a pair of short-haired women, with whom she chitchatted awkwardly, ending the conversation with an obviously false promise to give them a call sometime.
“Who were they?” Anna asked, when we moved on. Max mumbled something that sounded like “ex-girlfriend.”
“Really? Which one?” I asked, eager for gossip.
Max suddenly feigned a great deal of interest in a hideous oil painting. “Um, both of them,” she muttered. “Different times, of course.”
“Jesus, woman, how many ex-girlfriends do you have in this town?”
Anna studied her nails testily. “I often wonder the same thing.”
Max pecked Anna on the cheek. “Oh, don’t sulk, hon. Come on, I’ll buy you some corn.”
“Some corn?” I said. “Now there’s a conciliatory gesture. Maybe you wouldn’t have so many ex-girlfriends if you could think of something better to ply them with than corn.”
“You’ve never had this corn,” Anna said, forgetting her jealousy and gesturing across the street where a black man in a dashiki stood over a huge oil barrel grill. He grilled the corn, husk and all, then peeled it and dipped it in hot, melted butter. The sweet, smoky smell lured us, and soon we were standing in line in front of the grill. “Three, please,” Max said when it was our turn, and the man handed us each a steaming, sunshine-yellow ear.
The sweet kernels exploded in my mouth, and the warm butter ran down my chin. I stood with my friends and ate in silence, amazed that something so simple could be so good.