feature image by Sam Feder on Unsplash
I met you the first year I could drive, the first year I had time or money to waste, the first time I was truly removed from my mostly straight high-school environment. My ultra-cool Aunt Maggie gave me an unheard-of gift of a thousand dollars as a high school graduation present. Suddenly, I could buy whatever I wanted, usually fast food, sometimes two meals back-to-back, and go anywhere within reason, which was rarely far from town but skirting its edges, long stretches of unfamiliar empty land with high speed limits, blasting k.d. lang’s torch album and Ani DiFranco and Patsy Cline. I was more visibly out than I’d ever been, more unapologetic, a harder veneer over the tenderness to stave off the stares, starting what I’d decided would be a new, more authentic life in a new state. I had just turned 17.
My mom and stepdad had convinced me to move with them and my infant sister from my hometown in southern New Mexico to a giant suburban tract of a grim, gridded SoCal city which labeled all major east-west streets with letters of the alphabet, and all major north-south streets with multiples of five, an enormous game of Battleship where everyone loses. Dry concrete arroyos branched geometrically through the mountain foothills at the southwestern edge of the valley, the same mountains over which LA’s smog would spill. Residents of the city and of its conjoined twin, with their noses upturned, referred to vibrant, multicultural LA as “Down Below,” as though their valley was a sane and good place to live in comparison.
But I was free. I’d made it to California, one step closer to my pipe-dream of attending UC Santa Cruz, which I envisioned as a redwood-dotted haven for lesbians, the arts and psychedelic exploration. Like my aunts who’d settled in the Bay Area in the 80s, I intended to establish residency for in-state tuition purposes, then make my move to my own personal Utopia. The local community college was a baby-step up from a DeVry Institute in that it offered a few classes in theater, film and music. The modest tuition was something I was able to afford from my graduation reserve. Even though I was still living “at home,” I was confident and excited to be working toward something meaningful to me, even if that something was amorphous and not well-planned.
The theater department quickly sponged me up, as it does so many baby queers: it was a place were identity and presentation were malleable. The broader the spectrum, the weirder, the merrier. What mattered was art, and community in support of that art. The faculty were UCLA film and theater grads who commuted over the mountain pass to teach at this tiny campus and who brought with them deliciously countercultural ideas and dirty jokes. For all of us involved in the department, these professors were our cooler older siblings, our heroes, our sanity valves in such a repressed city. I met you in this department. Did you feel this way, too? How did you end up there and how did you convince your parents to let you go? Why did they even want you getting an education if you were mostly expected to become a wife and mother as soon as possible?
Alissa became my mentor; seeing my dedication in her class, she encouraged me to sign up for Directing and to work with her as assistant director and stage manager for the college’s one-act play festival. I worked as a lighting tech for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and for a vaudeville show which featured a troupe of tanned, octogenarian tap-dancing women in sequined hot pants, called The Red Hot Mamas, and a young white guy who teetered on a board balanced on a bowling ball while he juggled two balls, a machete and a floppy dildo, and a wonderful drag queen who performed Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” while wearing little more than strategically-placed dangling rhinestones. Were you there too, or were you busy broadcasting your anti-choice radio show, or at home with your repressive, puritanical parents, or were you on a stilted date with your tiresome fiancé who might have stepped out of the 50s? You were engaged at, what, 18? We were children.
The theater was the one place I felt understood, a place where people, including you, actually complimented my three-piece, gray wool men’s suit from the thrift store, despite my breasts in their white undershirt trying to spill out of the vest’s long armholes. It’s cliché but true: I’d found my tribe.
And you were maybe my favorite part of that beloved tribe, though you were on its fringe. I can’t remember how you auditioned — it must not have been with me — but you ended up as one of the two actors in my scene for Directing, an excerpt from Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls. I thought I was being creative by casting against type, making you the poorer and less successful sister who’d taken one for the team by raising her cutthroat sister’s child. You were good at what you did, good at performing, but it was ridiculous to have you, as glamorous as you were, play the shit-upon sister opposite Jennifer. You were poised where she was crass, your gestures elegant where hers were coarse. You had the huge advantage of years training for pageants — you’d even won a state title — and she was a regular person from a much poorer family than yours.
No audience member would believe for a second that you two were sisters, in terms of either appearance or skill, but you both played nicely with each other and with me. The characters’ lines from the play were written in an escalating pace, as the women’s argument intensified and they began to talk over each other. After our rehearsals, Jennifer would gradually splinter off on her own trajectory, while you’d linger to spend what ended up being hours talking with me on a bench in the dusty campus courtyard which could have just as easily been a middle school. You liked my sense of humor and I liked yours.
You seemed to want to soak up my presence, as I did yours. I’d bring you saran-wrapped sandwiches, on delicious spongy whole-wheat bread, sliced diagonally and stuffed with sprouts and soggy with tomato juice along the cut edge from that overpriced natural-food store. I always went the extra mile for you and did so gladly because I loved being around you. You never returned these more concrete gestures, which should’ve been the first sign that things were not reciprocal between us, but I was oblivious and idealistic. I genuinely believed I had found love. I was ready for you in those days of endless bottles of Alta Dena raspberry kefir, sharp in the back of the throat with too much sugar but so soothing as it thickly went down.
Do you remember the time we went to that grocery store where they built a geometric igloo-throne for Santa out of cases of Coke, the seasonal kind with the polar bears on them? A Santa actor who looked about 12 under the cheap fake beard sat on the throne of red-and-white cardboard blocks and posed for free Polaroids with any shopper who wanted one. It’s the only picture I have of you.
To the left, you’re coyly perched on Santa’s leg, wearing a belted peach sweater over a yellow long-sleeved shirt and a tea-length skirt, saddle shoes on your feet, like you were homeschooled but remembered watching a few minutes of Twin Peaks months before raiding a thrift store for modest clothing. The warm colors look beautiful with your complexion, a velvety olive inherited from your Lebanese mom, self-illuminating even under retail fluorescents. You have a dimple on your cheek and you’re giving the camera a knowing closed-mouth smile, one you must have had ample opportunity to practice at church, your ankles primly together beneath cuffed socks.
I’m on the other side, wearing that gray wool suit which was my daily uniform, pale and bloated, grinning, exhilarated just to be in the frame with you. My arm is slung around Santa’s shoulders as though I’m drunk and about to pitch forward, my knees apart, sloppy and desperate. I knew even less than I do now about how to smile credibly in photos, and I’m showing too much of my teeth, but I’m genuinely delighted to be doing something so silly, so meet-cute — to be making a memory with you. I idolized you; in spite of your terrible politics and sheltered upbringing, you were hopelessly cool. You were Kathleen from Fall on Your Knees made real and Californian, and I had a chance to save you.
Do you remember that big end-of-semester party? The one on the east side of town near the parched leafless foothills, at that random middle-aged white guy’s house, the guy who had a car once owned by Tim Burton? I remember it, nearly 20 years later. It was the last time I would ever see you, because my parents had decided to move back to New Mexico and I wasn’t old enough to live on my own yet.
I believed in magic then. I believed that, if you and I were to kiss, you would come to me at last. You would realize the import of all those things you said, those painful juicy things, all those times when, over after-hours lunches of naan, lamb curry and tandoori chicken in a booth at that one Indian restaurant I used to take you to, you told me you wished you were a lesbian. When you told me you wished you were my girlfriend instead of his fiancée.
Do you know how that ignited me, how deeply I wished I had the courage to call you on it and let you work out your closeted issues on me, the selfish courage to ruin all your plans and get you disowned from your ultra-conservative Christian parents? You must have known, and in hindsight I pity you, and I also hate you for breaking my heart and acting the part of one of those straight girls who have some interest but can’t be bothered to see us as people with feelings and hearts, who can’t bring their honest emotions out into the light of day just yet. We’re an exotic Girl Scout badge for your sash, a rare-edition Barbie in Ken’s clothes for you to buy and shove to the back of your glass doll shelf, suffocating and encased in cheap plastic. Part of me feels you knew exactly what you were doing when you said those things.
I was a teenager and I believed in magic and movies. I insisted you dance with me at the party. You did, seemingly ashamed to be seen in this way with me in front of so many people. I don’t remember the song, but it was not romantic and everything was all wrong. I was ashamed at the clumsy, tawdry setting, which should have been perfect as a film set: an expertly curated song crooning a facsimile of our feelings for one another in the background, our moment simultaneously public and private, us embracing and swaying ever closer under a gentle cage of light, heroine and heroine at last, beginning their journey together. This did not happen, could not happen, and I was confused: hadn’t you all but invited me in? Hadn’t you asked for this boldness?
Your shoulders were stiff, your eyes darting about in self-consciousness, your chin low. It was time for me to leave, to leave forever, and I kissed you in front of everyone even though you didn’t want to, then turned and walked out of your life forever. There was no magic spell, no frog turned back into a prince or princess, no way to make you love me or even to make you admit having had fraudulent or fleeting interest. I fucked up, I forced you, and I’m sorry about that. But you fucked up, too.
I don’t lie awake at night thinking of you, but I do wonder what happened to you, you jewel of bright promise in a backward valley, and wish I could apologize and have it mean something to you. Maybe it’s too little, too late, but this is all I have for you.