All The Things I Should’ve Said In My Rural Town

If I were to write a “Missed Connections” ad, it would go like this:

Hey, cutie whose heavy-ass ’67 Dart I helped roll back into a spot at the Subway on Western Ave. I liked your leather jacket, your slicked-back hair, that whole look. The way you kicked a tire and muttered, “Fuck you,” to the hunk of metal with a fuel pump problem. I liked it. And I think I should have said, “I’m doing this thing at a bar all day. Stop by, let’s get a drink. Let’s get a room. Let’s get a jade plant.” But I didn’t.


My friend says, “You know, in Minneapolis, there’s a gay cafe. Like a gay bar, but instead of loud music and drunk people, it’s coffee and laptops.” And I believe him, in this mystical, wish-upon-a-star way that all queer country girls believe the myth of buzz cuts and skinny-dipping with other queer country girls. Things that happen in the movies. (Things that happen in the movies happen in the country sometimes, even though I’ve never seen it, and, believe me, I have looked.)

Coffee and computer

illustrations by Iris Gotlieb


In the city, I saw people who were maybe identifiably queer. I think that’s probably not a cool way to think, but after a lifetime spent in small towns where people look at my appearance not as a lonely queer broadcasting their queerness, but instead as a girl with really, really bad fashion sense (I mean, they’re not completely wrong), it’s a relief to see people with androgynous fashion sense, women with masculine hair, men with eyeliner and lipstick.

Again, I know there’s something completely uncool about my approach here, but that’s also part of growing up in small towns. Those gender expectations are so hard-wired, so unquestionable that even buzzing your head and wearing men’s clothes isn’t enough to get you much more than looks of sympathy and once, insultingly, an offer to go clothes shopping together.

Fuck you, well-meaning coworker.


Okay, here’s another ad:

Jen, I loved you when we were 10. You probably don’t remember sitting in math class, reading the love stories I wrote and passed to you in spiral-bound notebooks, the love stories that were actually love letters to you. I don’t expect you to remember that all of my heroines had red-brown hair, or that they rode horses, or that their love interests were always on the short side for guys with a writer’s heart, a way with words, and that was the key to getting the girl to fall for them. You probably don’t remember how subtlety wasn’t my thing at all.

Notebook

illustrations by Iris Gotlieb


My different-gendered, poly-curious partner and I are leaving Michigan and moving to a city. When people think of Michigan, I think they think of Detroit and its deterioration? revival? looming gentrification? People think a lot of things about Detroit when they think of Michigan. But we live in the Upper Peninsula, which is almost as wild as advertised. Little pockets of population situated between the rock outcroppings and waterfalls and ghost towns.

And between Detroit and the U.P., there’s a whole lot of farmland that’s nothing like either of those places and that’s where I grew up, almost smack-dab in the middle. My hometown had a harvest festival every fall where it would crown the Asparagus Queen. The first girl I ever kissed spent her summers on her uncle’s farm, helping him bale hay. She would come back to school with the insides of her wrists all welted-up like she had been stung by bees. I wanted to kiss each sting but I never asked. Instead, she kissed my mouth behind the school on the last day before summer vacation of our freshman year and never mentioned it again.

Michigan asparagus queen

illustrations by Iris Gotlieb

Anyway, we’re moving. I’m telling people it’s because I want to be part of more active artist and writer communities, want to have other creative people to bounce off. (I don’t tell them what else I’m hoping to bounce off in this new city, what other communities I want to Actively Participate in.)


In predictable fashion, I was obsessed with A League of Their Own when I was a kid. (I also had a summer of watching Aliens and the first two Terminator movies because fucking Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton but let’s talk about badass baseball players.) My uncle taught me how to pitch. I started putting my hair in a ponytail and tucking it up beneath a baseball cap and when old men started to mistake me for a boy, I figured I’d won something really precious.

I don’t know how I feel about that anymore. But it made some other things easier, like getting skinned knees and practicing field-goal kicks in the backyard until the sun went down and, later, claiming a queer identity that would be pretty visible if I lived in a lot of other places instead of this one.


Ad:

Title it, “You Know Who You Are,” and make it say, “I thought we were friends and we were but that’s only part of the truth. Because I have difficulty sometimes telling the difference between wanting to hang out and watch movies or get a beer, and wanting to maybe be naked with someone. I’m never very good at letting people get to know me so when someone does I just get all full-up with fireflies and that dizzy feeling like drinking cheap wine coolers when you’re fourteen (don’t do it, kids) and I don’t know if that’s the feeling of ‘holy shit, FRIEND,’ or, ‘hey, we should definitely make out sometime tonight.’

Thank you for being patient with me, you-know-who-you-are (you-are-too-many-girls-to-count).”


Sometimes I get a little sick of sensible advice. Like, “Maybe don’t commit to things if you just end up bailing at the last minute every time.” Or, “You should probably try to eat breakfast.” Or, “Just tell her already.” It’s easier not to tell her when you live in a place that makes telling her so hard.

I don’t know which part is the excuse anymore: blaming the place I live or living here at all.


After he cheated, I curled up on my friend’s couch. She was the first person I’d told I was queer. She had mixed feelings about it. I had mixed feelings about her — another straight girl in a long line of them. We got drunk on white Russians she’d made with rice milk and watched a Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie. He was still alive then. She said, “If I was even a little bit gay, I’d go out with you.” When she fell asleep, it was hard not to lean against her. Sitting up straight was uncomfortable, but I did it anyway.


Ad:

Rural Town, maybe I blame you too much. Or I blame a childhood that involved very little talk about queerness and when it did, it talked about it in a way that made it seem like I’d feel fundamentally different if I were queer, and I didn’t feel any way other than how I always felt, so I probably wasn’t queer after all. Mistakes were made, what can I say?

But it’s probably not your fault, little town. I mean, I’m still leaving. I’m definitely still leaving. Because your Pride Fest is a slightly skeevy drag show and a sad parade through downtown and, really, bless your hearts for having one at all. It matters, it really does. Thank you.

But I think maybe I’m ready for more. I’m definitely ready for more. I think maybe missed connections are just my weak excuses for not saying anything, for not saying, “I like you,” or, “I’d push a hundred heavy-ass classic cars uphill both ways just to let a cute girl know how strong I am. Have I mentioned I’m really strong?” Girls like that, right?


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Profile gravatar of amber

I'm a queer poet and book artist relocating from hyper-rural Michigan to Chicago. My work has appeared most recently in Menacing Hedge and Stirring, and I have two chapbooks forthcoming in 2016 - "Lost Birds of the Iron Range" from Porkbelly Press and "Darling Girl" from Dancing Girl Press.

amber has written 2 articles for us.

56 Comments

  1. 0

    “Because I have difficulty sometimes telling the difference between wanting to hang out and watch movies or get a beer, and wanting to maybe be naked with someone… Thank you for being patient with me, you-know-who-you-are (you-are-too-many-girls-to-count).”

    Are you me? Is that a smalltown queer girl thing?

    I’m still stuck in my small town though, making all 10 old men at the open mic uncomfortable with aggressively gay folk songs.

  2. 0

    God, this made me so homesick. A few years ago, my wife and I left rural small-town mid-Michigan for Portland, Oregon, and are now – shockingly – trying to get back home. You painted such a vivid picture of what it was like to grow up queer there and you also reminded me so much of how I felt when we packed up and headed for gayer pastures.

    Of course, we’re now in our thirties with a half-decade of marriage behind us and are now longing for babies and a house with a yard and a rural small-town mid-Michigan existence. I think for us at least, different things mattered more at different life stages.

    Anyway, I really liked this piece, even though it made me super homesick. 🙂

  3. 0

    Wow. This used to be my life, too, and I could have written ad #3. Many missed connections, sure, but also a heartache that turned into something nasty. Because I didn’t know I was queer (and there was no way I could have known, not in this town), I was heartbroken without understanding where all that sadness came from. In a way, it hurts even more when you don’t have a clue.

    I left four years ago and I am never going back. Also, I’m always the one who kisses the other first, probably because I know what I might lose if I didn’t.

    (Thank you so much. <3)

  4. 0

    Ooh Love this. Wish I could’ve known what I know now, growing up queer in a rural area. At least then I could’ve maybe found a way to connect with others like me sooner. And maybe I could’ve even enjoyed some of the natural aspects of growing up in country life with other queer girls. I still love classic country songs Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, any song with fiddles and steel guitar pull my heart strings every time. And something about the wide open fields, canoeing on the river, piling wood for the winter and caring for the animals. Been there, thanks so much for writing this.

  5. 0

    Everything you said… All of it, I get it.
    I grew up a stone’s throw from you, in the thumb (Huron County). The crush on your friend, and you think you see little signs but you’re just not sure if you’re reading too far into it… And because it’s so taboo to be not-straight, you just can’t make the move. Eventually I too moved away to Chicago for almost two years. I loved every minute of it, but eventually relocated to Grand Rapids (and now love all I have here).
    I wish you the best of luck, and fulfilling happiness in your move. And thank you, for putting so perfectly what it’s like to be a young adult queer in a tiny Michigan town.
    -ashes

  6. 0

    I’m a queer Yooper as well! It’s nice to know that there are others like me in the frozen tundra.

    When I was younger, I didn’t think that you could be gay in the UP. I hid and I hid until I couldn’t even see that I was itching to be myself. It wasn’t until I went to college (still up north) that I realized that I could be my true self, and even still in my senior year I need to be reminded that not every place is like the UP.

    Thank you so much for this article. It gives me hope that one day I will escape the harsh winters and heteronormativity that is the Upper Peninsula

  7. 0

    i yelled at my dogs when i read this submission and i love it even more on this page! iris’s illustrations, too — the asparagus queen art just won my heart.

    this especially hammered me:

    “Rural Town, maybe I blame you too much.”

    thank you, amber! i can’t wait for your next piece.

  8. 0

    “I thought we were friends and we were but that’s only part of the truth. Because I have difficulty sometimes telling the difference between wanting to hang out and watch movies or get a beer, and wanting to maybe be naked with someone. I’m never very good at letting people get to know me so when someone does I just get all full-up with fireflies and that dizzy feeling like drinking cheap wine coolers when you’re fourteen (don’t do it, kids) and I don’t know if that’s the feeling of ‘holy shit, FRIEND,’ or, ‘hey, we should definitely make out sometime tonight.’”

    Wow. This really spoke to me. So much confusion about intense female friendships in my past. Thanks for this! And I hope Chicago is amazing for you!

  9. 0

    “Rural Town, maybe I blame you too much.”
    I’m not from Michigan, but this slayed me. Until I was an adult, I’d never lived more than a few months at a time in any town with a population larger than 4000 people. My hometown boasts 400. I fled the town I graduated high school in (pop. 2000) the day I turned 18, and have yet to look back. My county unanimously (UNANIMOUSLY) outlawed being gay in the county limits in 2003, making it legal to charge anyone suspected of being gay with a “crime against nature.” I have a lot of contempt for that town, for the towns I drifted through throughout my childhood, and the people in them. Granted, my relationships with the people were not all that great, and continue to be so (who doesn’t love random Facebook messages from people you graduated with or a church deaconess letting you know that you’ll burn in hell for your sexual deviance). But there are also fond memories of knowing every inch of endless acres of woods and fields, trespassing freely from farm to farm and befriending deer and foxes and feral horses. At seven years old, falling asleep clinging to my first crush the night of the day we saw our first dead body (well, that I remember anyway…it was horrifying). Getting scraped off of a horse with barbed wire, shredding my shirt and leaving me with permanent scars that look a lot like Jesus’s in all the illustrations, just to impress my best friend/person I was madly in love with in seventh grade. My favorite road to drive, only a few miles from my parents’ house, a road my ancestors narrowly escaped being forced along in a death march.
    I’ve been told I’m harsh with my town(s) and I am. I struggle to find the compassion that people like you have found. I commend you for it. I think there needs to be more of you, so that the next generation of us aren’t as alone. I am the only out lesbian (well, out female queer—there’s two gay guys, one of whom did not come out until after graduation) to ever graduate from my high school. I still get messages from people I don’t know who attend or attended the school, or neighboring schools, who heard through the grapevine about me and come out to me, the only person they’ve ever said the words out loud to. And they want my advice, and I don’t have any except to leave. And I hate that, because most of them can’t. And I don’t know how to tell them it will be okay, because I have no evidence to back it up.

  10. 0

    Your writing fits so hard. I moved from my small town in SW Michigan to Ann Arbor in 2008 and it was such an amazing move for me. The politics, community, etc. are all much better suited for me and my very very very very “queer-looking” spouse. But, my heart aches for the small town.

  11. 0

    “I blame a childhood that involved very little talk about queerness and when it did, it talked about it in a way that made it seem like I’d feel fundamentally different if I were queer, and I didn’t feel any way other than how I always felt, so I probably wasn’t queer after all”

    I think you just stated so succinctly what it is about a queer identity that I’ve always had trouble embracing. I grew up in a Christian environment where being queer would make you different, and not in a good way. Years of crushing on girls and not *really* liking guys, but asking myself if maybe there could be something there when the right guy comes along? Because the only lesbian I knew (at least everybody said she was a lesbian) was my high school gym teacher, and I was nothing like her. And even the girls with “girl crushes” who said they were “bicurious” ended up calling it a phase and dating men. Being a lesbian, even when I only liked girls, didn’t feel inevitable.

    “I’m never very good at letting people get to know me”

    I feel like for me, those two quotes are related – I may not feel different, but I knew that people in my hometown wouldn’t think so, so it’s a part of me that I don’t share with a lot of people. And it’s a huge part, which is why it’s hard to get to know me. If that makes sense? Even now, living in a big city, all the impressions of a small-town childhood definitely shape who I am. Thank you so much for writing this!

  12. 0

    “Or I blame a childhood that involved very little talk about queerness and when it did, it talked about it in a way that made it seem like I’d feel fundamentally different if I were queer, and I didn’t feel any way other than how I always felt, so I probably wasn’t queer after all.”

    Thank you for this perfect explanation. At the end of my teenage years I felt so much confusion about my (newly discovered) identity because I hadn’t “always felt this way” like so many other queer narratives and I thought that invalidated my feelings. It took a long time for me to recognize why growing up in a small conservative town made me blind to the possibility that I was something other than what people expected me to be, and told me I was. Having next to no one around me representing queerness, not even in the media at that time, made it impossible to see any other way to be.

    You said it perfectly. Thank you.

    Also, all hail the Asparagus Queen.

  13. 0

    This hit me where it hurts, so much so that I couldn’t read it all at once. Very evocative of that sweet, sharp pain of being young and a little in love with everyone and not understanding why, that yearning, that incredible ache, and (at least for me) the certainty that you must never, ever do something about it.

    Here’s to moving on and growing up and finding the people we can fully be ourselves with, the souls we can entwine with our own without holding anything back, to, hopefully, never feeling that ache again <3

  14. 0

    Oof. This just cut me to my core. I relate so much! I needed to get away from my rural hometown like I needed to breathe and I couldn’t really put a finger on why until I got out. I hope you find what you are looking for when you move!

    But I still have that warm, soft spot for the town that cradled me. I love your Asparagus Festival! We had a Grape Festival and I still can’t appreciate store-bought grapes. They are nothing like the sweet pop of farmstand grapes cut right from the vine. I have a backyard in the medium-size city that is now my home and I never want to go back to a more rural area. I like being close to my neighbors and being part of a community. But sometimes I long for the quiet, the peaceful solitude that comes from laying out in the grass or staring out over a field and hearing nothing but the thrum of insects all around you. Thanks for bringing that back to me, both the loneliness and the warm comfort of the country.

  15. 0

    I love it when I read a piece that feels like we’re just talking. Everything you just wrote I have felt some sort of piece of it. Can we just start a “I grew up in a rural town queer group” I have left my little rural Wisconsin town but it has shaped who I am and has made life just a little bit more difficult. I always wonder what I would be like if I lived in a big, accepting city. Who would I be then? I love this piece so much because it shakes me down to my core. The person I try to shake, and the one I know I can be. ALL. OF. THIS. means so much to me. Thank you for writing this. Ugh, I could go on and on about how much I love this. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

  16. 0

    This hit me so hard, too. I’m from the Detroit part of the mitten, and when I decided to come out east for college, I had no idea how hard it would be or how conflicted I would feel every day. I thought (maybe naively) that if I could just come to this ridiculously queer-friendly little piece of Massachusetts that all of my internalized identity issues would miraculously fix themselves. I still have no idea if it was right, but god I love home so much, and this just made me miss it even more. I don’t get stared at for being gay here, but I also don’t have the supportive community I longed for at home and then realized (once I’d left) was right where I’d always been all along. Thank you for this.

  17. 0

    Thank you for writing this, I enjoyed the imagery. I may be moving myself soon for a new job but instead of going to a city I may be going to a midwest town. It will be my first time living out of CT where I know there are large gay communities and feel most people I meet are open and accepting that Im gay that people can be different and live together, that people should try to be kind to one another. Im terrified but hearing your hope makes me muster the idea that there could be new and beautiful oppurtinities for me as well.

  18. 0

    I grew up in the farm part of Michigan, and left vowing never to return 5 years ago. Then I was in the UP this summer for work and feel in love.

    Maybe I’ll never go back for forever, but it is nice to have something to look back on that is good and beautiful. Mitten feels!

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