I refused to entertain the idea that I should watch the UK primetime soap Bad Girls when I stumbled across a mention of it in a Tibette thread on a The L Word forum between seasons two and three. “If you think this is a real love story,” the commenter wrote, “you should see Helen and Nikki.” I did, in fact, think Bette and Tina were a real love story, and not at all what my church warned me lesbians were like. However, a little research revealed that both Helen and Nikki were, irrefutably, bad girls. Helen was the governing governor of a women’s prison who ruined her heterosexual engagement because of an inmate named Nikki who was incarcerated for murdering a man (just like my pastor had warned me all lesbians would ultimately do!).
I was not a bad girl. No, I was a good girl. A good Christian girl. So I would stick with Bette and Tina, who, in the very first episode of the The L Word, tried to have a threesome with a man to trick him into helping them produce a baby to start a family. Men, babies, family. What could be more Christian!
And anyway, I tried very hard not to think about jail.
The first time I left my mom in the county detention center, the only person more surprised than her was me. The police had been coming to talk to her or take her down to the station for bad business with checks for as long as I could remember (kindergarten), but my dad would drive behind the police car and take care of it when we got to the precinct and we’d bring her back home and she’d cry all night and that was that. When they got divorced, I became the person who took care of it, though it hadn’t come to jail yet under my watch. One of her family members would simply call me up and inform me I owed them 200 dollars; she’d said I’d bring the money by today. She’d call and ask me to bring 50 dollars to her at Sam’s Club, meet her in the Publix parking lot with a 100 dollars, buy 20 cases of Coca-Cola and drop them off at her work (because her boss had given her the money to buy 20 cases of Coca-Cola for the Coke machine, but she’d spent the money on something else and now she needed the Coca-Colas).
I never really knew the full stories behind the money she constantly needed; she lied about it when she could, yelled about it when she couldn’t, blamed “her illness,” chided me for suggesting that she’d done something wrong by snapping that she hadn’t murdered anyone, that she wasn’t Satan, so why was I acting like she was. When the bottom fell out, she’d just flat out deny she knew what was happening. “Why are you getting kicked out?” I’d ask when she’d called me crying about being evicted, again, for not paying her rent. She’d sob, “I don’t know!”
The time that landed her in jail, I’d gotten the story from her brother when he called me at work and answered my, “Hello?” with, “Talk to your Mama!”
I could not, however, talk to my Mama. She was howling like a wounded animal in the background. “Make them leave me alone, Heather! Make them leave me alone!” She was drunk right then, her brother told me. They’d found empty beer cans in her pocketbook. She wailed and whimpered while he explained that she’d stolen checks from my grandmother, for a checking account that had been closed for years, which was a different kind of crime than just writing bad checks. Someone was going to jail about it, and my grandmother was on oxygen 24 hours a day, dying of lung cancer. That fact maybe made the theft elder abuse. And there was maybe another outstanding warrant in South Carolina.
“Isn’t that right?” my uncle said in what I could tell was her general direction.
She screamed, “MAKE THEM LEAVE ME ALONE!”
I didn’t get her out of jail because I didn’t have the money to get her out of jail, and that’s the only reason. I owned exactly one thing of value, and my little pickup truck wasn’t even enough collateral to cover a bond. She told me to ask my dad, my sister, my grandparents for the money; she told me to sell my mountain bike, my books, my clothes. “I would never leave you in a place like this,” she cried, sitting behind a glass window in an orange jumpsuit, twisting tiny pieces of torn-up paper in her hands. She asked, Who took you to the doctor when you had strep throat when you were a kid? Who called to check on you when there were thunderstorms? Who was worried about you when you were on your mission trips? Who threw you a surprise birthday party when you were a sophomore in high school? Who came to all your basketball games?
It was her, she’d done those things — and I owed her for it, had been owing her for it, would always owe her for it. She’d made the choice, at 19, to have a baby and I was obligated to pay for it for the rest of my life.
“Mom,” I said. “I really don’t have the money. I really don’t.”
She clutched the receiver of the phone with both hands. She glared at me through the plexiglass. Her eyes flashed; the light went out in them. Her agony and rage instantly quieted. I knew the voice that was coming before I heard it. Cold, calm. She said, “Don’t you dare leave me in here.”
I hung up the phone. She couldn’t hear me. I said, “I’m sorry.”
I pulled my little pickup truck over at the first park I came to, stumbled out, clutching at my chest. I’d been having panic attacks since before the first time my mom was arrested, and had only recently discovered they weren’t tiny heart attacks I was surviving because Jesus had some big plan in store for me. The campus doctor I saw when I passed out in my college’s bookstore had advised me to go to a wide open space when anxiety grabbed hold of me, and in Hall County, Georgia, the most wide open space was Lake Lanier. There were hundreds of parks right on its shores. I walked from the parking lot to the lake, gasping for air, telling myself that I was breathing, I was alive, I was breathing. It was December; I could see my breath and I knew it was true.
At the edge of the lake, I started getting woozy. “You’re breathing,” I barked at myself, trying to still my shaking hands. “You’re breathing!”
A voice behind me said, “You are breathing, honey. You’re breathing.”
I turned around, which made me dizzier, and a woman I’d never seen before reached out to steady me. She put her hand on my shoulder and I put my hand on hers. She was wearing a grey wool coat and the Golden Retriever with her was wearing a grey flannel coat and I knew I was inconveniencing her greatly, melting down like this by the lake when she was just trying to hike with her dog.
I wanted to tell her I was okay, that she could go, that it was just an anxiety attack and it would go away and even if I passed out I’d snap back to in no time without any lasting damage. But that was too many words. “Multiplication tables,” is what I wheezed instead. “They help me.”
She said, “Eight times four.”
I said, “Thirty-two.”
Nine times three. Twenty-seven. Ten times seven. Seventy. Two times eight. Sixteen. Six times five. Thirty. Four times twelve. Forty-eight.
My breathing slowed with every correct answer (they were all correct answers) and when I answered eleven times eleven she laughed. “You’re very smart to remember elevens.”
I said, “I’m just good at memorizing.”
She asked me what else I memorized and I rattled off some things. The Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, Shakespeare, Bible passages, the poem by the guy this very lake was named after. She seemed interested, and I felt terrible. This couldn’t be fun for her. I started reciting the poem, like penance: “Out of the hills of Habersham, Down the valleys of Hall, I hurry amain to reach the plain, Run the rapid and leap the fall.”
Sidney Lanier wrote it, I told her, my breathing almost completely normal again. It was called “Song of the Chattahoochee.” The Chattahoochee, of course, being the river dammed to make the lake, which supplied the majority of drinking water to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.
“An important poet,” she said.
I said, “He was not a good guy.”
She laughed and said, “You’re a good kid, though. I can tell.”
I was 27, and not a kid. I’d just left my mom in jail. But maybe this stranger was right. Hadn’t I gotten my mom out of every bad situation she’d walked into since my parents’ divorce? Hadn’t I given her all the money I had, and taken out loans when I didn’t have any? Hadn’t I moved in with her when she declared she couldn’t be alone, rented hotel rooms when she told me I couldn’t come home that night because she was having some random man over, allowed her to take over the weekly Bible studies we held in our living room to talk for hours at me and my friends about how hard her life had been? Didn’t I go to church twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays? Didn’t I do everything my preacher said? Hadn’t I tried to fall in love with a man? To choose a husband? Hadn’t I completely cut off the girl who made me question everything I wanted in life? Hadn’t I stopped returning her emails, her phone calls, with no explanation? Hadn’t I repented, fully, and repeatedly, abject and on my knees, for how far I’d let things go with her?
“I always do the right thing,” I said to this woman I didn’t know — hoping, maybe, she would agree with me. That her agreement would somehow absolve me. I should have asked her dog’s name. I should have apologized for taking up so much of her time. I said it again, “I always do the right thing.”
She said, “Maybe that’s the problem.”
The women in the Tibette forum wouldn’t shut up about Bad Girls, about Helen and Nikki, even though the rules explicitly prohibited talking about other ships! And I would have told them so, if I’d had the courage to sign up for an account and interact with lesbians. Through no fault of my own, I discovered that the man Nikki killed had been trying to rape her girlfriend. He was a cop; she knew there’d be no justice. Helen didn’t chase after Nikki and exploit her position as governing governor. It was Nikki who fell for Helen, and who pushed and pushed even though Helen tried to stay away. Helen was trying to make the system fairer for women. She rescued a baby from a roof (somehow). She made books more accessible. She cracked down on guards abusing their power. When Helen and Nikki kissed for the first time, Helen wasn’t even Nikki’s jailor anymore. That was the dialogue. “I’m not your jailor anymore… which means I can do this.”
This. This. GIFs didn’t exist. I had to imagine it.
I learned so many other things accidentally in that forum. For three seasons, starting in 1999, while Ellen was losing her career in the United States and lawmakers were fast at work essentially banning gay people from the military and explicitly banning gay people from getting married, Helen and Nikki were falling in love in the United Kingdom on what was, apparently, primetime broadcast TV. The L Word was still half a decade away, and coming for premium cable, and very late at night. That message was clear enough. Helen and Nikki were on during dinner, on England’s NBC. They kissed. They had sex. They lived happily ever after.
The last thing Helen said on Bad Girls, after she’d helped Nikki get released, was “Thomas is gorgeous, and he’s everything you’d want in a man — but I want a woman.”
Helen had tried to love men. The best kind of men. But she couldn’t help it. She wanted a woman.
I watched Helen and Nikki’s first kiss on YouTube and, for the very first time in my life, felt my heart thrash around in my chest in a good way. The light was gauzy and the camera angle was familiar — like the soaps I grew up on — and Helen said the thing about not being Nikki’s jailor and Nikki started to protest and Helen gently grasped Nikki’s face and flicked her eyes up at Nikki with a shyness I wasn’t expecting based on the gruff badassery attributed to her in the forums. Helen kissed Nikki, sweetly, and Nikki kissed Helen, hungrily, and the silly soapy music seemed to say what a beautiful, tender, normal thing.
It only took me a week to watch all three of their seasons.
The Tibette forums had been right about the epicness of their love story, and I was starting to wonder how much my church had been wrong. I had to draw the line, however, at fan fiction. The lesbians in the forum said that’s what was next, but I’d already pushed it far enough.
I learned a lot of things about American jail in real life while I was learning about British jail on TV. My mom moved around a lot. She started at our county jail, and bounced around to other county jails. There was no warning. Sometimes I could look at a website to see where she was. Sometimes I had to call and they’d tell me. Every jail was different. At our county jail there was a commissary, and as long as I kept money in her account she could buy snacks and cigarettes. At other county jails she needed someone to bring her long underwear, books, a limited variety of foods.
I fell into a routine. I got paid on Friday. On Saturday I figured out where she was and what she needed. On Sunday, after church, I drove to the jail she was in and dropped off money or food and clothes. Then I drove to my grandparents’ house to collect the letters she’d sent me during the week — sometimes angry, sometimes weepy, sometimes telling me legal advice she’d acquired, always demanding more money — and took them to the park near their house to read them beside Lake Lanier.
The letters became the only communication I allowed. I stopped seeing her face-to-face after the first visit. I stopped answering the phone when her boyfriend called and yelled at me to come pick up her stuff. “I’ll give you fucking gas money if that’s the fucking problem,” he said. (It was not the problem.) I had been listening to voicemails, mostly from her friends who were convinced I was the one to blame for her being in jail. (It’d been months. My mom could convince anyone of anything in months.) But I stopped doing that too when I woke up to a message from her singing happy birthday to herself one morning in February. I didn’t even make it to the end of the message. “Happy birthday to me,” she sang, cheerful. Threatening. “Happy birthday to me…”
The thing about fan fiction was that it could be set in the universe of the original story, or it could be in an alternate universe where Helen and Nikki were Helen and Nikki, but with different jobs and different pasts. Helen owned a hotel in the Caribbean and Nikki was a tourist. Helen was a surgeon and Nikki was a nurse. Helen was a celebrated, established London chef and Nikki was a talented, caustic upstart. Or, my personal favorite, Nikki was a famous composer and Helen was a famous actress playing her in an award-winning biopic. (And, of course, the sequel where they were married with an adopted teenage kid.) There were things called “fix it fics” where people wrote little snippets to soothe the pain of their quarrels during episodes and between seasons. And there were “after the end fics” where everything was the same and we learned about their lives after that last on-screen kiss. Also: Smut, which helped me learn about other things.
I read them all, every single fic on every single forum. Late nights, early mornings, on my work computer, on my home computer, printed out and snuggled up with a flannel blanket on a hiking trail.
The morning I finished writing my first fan fiction, I received a letter saying my mom was being transferred to the county work-release program. The court would set up a job and the county would drive her to it and at night she’d return to a low-security facility where she was required to meet with a counselor a couple of times a week. I tucked the letter into my messenger bag with the last chapter of my fic and headed off to work. It was better than I had hoped for her; it was a relief she’d be in jail a little longer.
Every morning, I commuted across Buford Dam, the barrier that caused the Chattahoochee River to become Lake Lanier. On mornings when I heard from or about my mom, I usually stopped at the park at the edge of the dam to catch my breath and pep talk myself into getting through the day — but that morning I didn’t. As I neared the park, I said, “I’m going to do it. Before I cross the dam, I’m going to do it.”
My version of Helen’s dad was a homophobic pastor. She was hiding her gayness from him, lying to Nikki about hiding it. I didn’t know anything about women having sex with each other, really, so I cribbed the physical intimacy off other fics — but I knew everything about the Bible. Helen’s dad was as easy to write as my own name. “What God Has Brought Together,” is what I named it.
I drove onto the dam. “Out of the hills of Habersham, Down the valleys of Hall, I hurry amain to reach the plain, Run the rapid and leap the fall,” I breathed. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror. I gripped the wheel. “I’m gay,” I whispered. I said it out loud with my full voice. “I’m gay.”
My mom walked right past the guard in the lobby and out into the waiting area when I took her clothes to the work-release facility. “I’m going to step out here and see my baby girl,” she said, and the guard just smiled and waved. The only thing everyone agreed on about my mother was that she could charm the socks off anybody.
She didn’t say thank you. She didn’t say I’m sorry. She didn’t seem to remember or care about all the things she’d said to me in voicemails and letters over the last several months. I’d brought her clothes and cookies. I’d kept money in her commissary account. I was her baby girl. She rifled through the Target bag and asked for bras in a different color.
On the way home from work-release, I stopped at the park I’d melted down in that day I’d left my mom in jail. I was fine. I was going to be fine. Over 500 people had read StuntDouble’s fan fiction. One of them even went home on her lunch break to check for new chapters, she said. Someone else said it was their favorite Helen and Nikki story.
Down by the lake I saw the woman who’d helped me that day. She was wearing capri pants and her dog had traded his fleece jacket for an orange life vest. I flagged her down not knowing if she’d remember me, but I’d kept a thank you card and a coupon for one dozen Krispy Kreme donuts in my truck, in case I ever ran into her again.
She did remember me. We talked about the weather.
I bent down to pet her dog when I handed her the card because I felt self-conscious. I always hid my panic attacks, even from the people who loved me most. I heard her sniffle. I looked up, shielded my eyes against the sun that was making a ring around her head. If the card hadn’t made her cry, I would have asked her, sincerely, if she was my guardian angel.
She said, “Thank you for the donuts, honey.”
I said, “You’re welcome.”
I stayed crouched, afraid she would hug me if I stood up. I wanted her to. I didn’t. She shook her head, waved the card at me. “Still always doing the right thing.”
I smiled. I shook my head, too.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “Not always.”