The Second to Last Woman I Loved

When I was nineteen years old, I came out to my parents over the telephone. I was in the desert, far from them, living with a couple I barely knew, working the kind of job that would scandalize anyone who knew me. I had cracked up, quite literally. I had dropped out of my Ivy League college and “run away,” cutting off all contact with everyone I knew and loved and who loved me. I was having an emotional breakdown but I didn’t have the necessary vocabulary to explain myself or to understand why I was making such choices.


The second to last woman I loved, Fiona, finally made the grand gesture I always wanted her to make after I moved on or convinced myself I had moved on, because she would never give me what I needed—commitment, fidelity, affection. We were still friends, but I was seeing someone else, Adriana, who was beautiful and kind though we too would ultimately be incompatible. Adriana lived across the country and was visiting me in the Midwest. We were having a good time. We did not yet know the worst things about each other. As these things seem to go, something about Adriana’s temporary presence in our city made Fiona realize I was almost beyond her grasp.

Our relationship had been largely unspoken. We spent all our time together. Sometimes we were intimate. We knew each other’s families. She was single and developed infatuations and sometimes relationships with other women and still, I was there. We were there. It was enough until it wasn’t. And there was Adriana. She wanted to give me more and I let her even though I didn’t have enough to give her.

During Adriana’s visit, Fiona kept calling. There was an urgency in her voice I had always wanted to hear. She needed me and I was in a complicated place where being needed was very attractive. At one point during her visit, I took Adriana to a bookstore and ran to Fiona’s house because she said she simply had to see me. I don’t even remember what we talked about, but I do remember that when I went to pick up Adriana, I felt guilty, couldn’t look her in the eye.

I had gotten in the habit, you see, of dating women who wouldn’t give me what I wanted, who couldn’t possibly love me enough because I was a gaping wound of need. I couldn’t admit this to myself but there was a pattern of intense emotional masochism, of throwing myself into the most dramatic relationships possible, of needing to be a victim of some kind over, and over, and over. That was something familiar, something I understood.


There had been an incident with some boys, years earlier, and I couldn’t get past it. I call it an incident sometimes because even now, it hurts to admit the truth of what happened. Back then, memories were everywhere, and constant, and I was afraid of everything. I thought running away would leave all that behind. I thought I might be free of what had happened and what it had turned me into.

In my version of running away, I went first to San Francisco, then Arizona, with an older man who was a very kind friend to me when I needed a very kind friend. To this day, I am grateful for the generosity he showed me. I was lucky he wasn’t a serial killer or someone equally terrible because we met online back when people accessed the Internet with 2400-baud modems. He introduced me to interesting people, helped me get settled into a life that was nothing like the well-mannered life I had known. He gave me the space to try and forget who I was and become someone different, someone better, someone freer.

Somehow, months after I disappeared, my parents tracked me down because they are good parents who love their children fiercely. They would never let me go, not really. I was too young and messed up to realize what I was putting them through. For that, I still carry regret.

When we spoke, all my parents wanted to know was why I disappeared. I didn’t know what to tell them. I couldn’t say, “I am completely broken down and losing my mind because something terrible happened to me,” though that was the truth. I thought about their faith and their culture. I told them the one thing that might finally sever the bond between us. It’s not that I didn’t want my parents in my life but I did not know how to be broken and be the daughter they thought they knew. I blurted out, “I’m gay.” This, too, shames me, not my queerness, but how little faith I put in them and how warped my understanding of queerness was.

Saying I was gay wasn’t true. It wasn’t a lie. I was and am attracted to women. I find them rather intriguing. At the time, I didn’t know I could be attracted to both women and men and be part of this world. And, in those early days, I enjoyed dating women and having sex with them but also, I was terrified of men. The truth is always messy. I wanted to do everything in my power to remove the possibility of being with men from my life. I failed at that but I told myself I could be gay and I wouldn’t ever be hurt again. I needed to never be hurt again.

My parents were not thrilled to hear that their only daughter was gay. My mother made a comment about how she knew because I once told her I wanted to get married in denim. I failed to see the connection. I expected my parents to turn their backs on me but they did nothing of the sort. I should have never doubted them. They asked me to come home and I couldn’t go to them, not yet. I couldn’t let them know how broken I was. Still, we were talking again. A few months later, I would go home, and they would welcome me. For some time, things wouldn’t be right between us but they wouldn’t be wrong. And much later, things would be right, and they would see me for who I am, and welcome the women I loved into their home, and love me for who I am. I would realize that had always been the case.

The first woman I slept with was big and beautiful. I still remember how she smelled. Her skin was so soft. She was kind when I was starving for kindness. It was just a one-night stand at a party. Several CDs played during our tryst. It was an experience. My tongue tingles when I think of her name. The next woman I slept with I called my girlfriend, even though we barely knew each other. We met on the Internet, and I packed up my stuff, and I flew to Minnesota to be with her in the dead of winter. I had a suitcase, no winter clothing, and it was so cold the locks on her car froze. I did not know such a thing was possible. She lived in a dark, cramped basement apartment where I couldn’t stand all the way up because I was too tall. We were ridiculous and young. We lasted two weeks.

For the next several years I dated a string of women who were terrible in new and different ways. There was the woman who grabbed my arm so hard she left a bruise. There was the woman who enjoyed the outdoors, camping, and womyn’s music festivals, all of which I found horrifying. There was the woman who cheated on me and left the evidence of the transgression in my car. The bathroom at an Olive Garden was involved, which only added insult to injury. There was the woman who told me she could see being with me in the future but didn’t know how to be with me every day between that now and a hypothetical future.

I was also terrible in new and different ways. I was equally if not more culpable in these relationships. I was far too insecure and needy, constantly needing affirmation that I was loved, that I was good enough to be loved. I was emotionally manipulative in trying to get that affirmation. I had terrible judgment with women because I labored under the delusion that women couldn’t hurt me, not like a man could. If a woman demonstrated any interest in me, I reciprocated her feelings, a gut reflex. I fell into the dangerous trap of being in love with the idea of being in love. I wanted to be wanted and needed. Time and again, I ended up with women who wouldn’t or couldn’t give me a fraction of what I desired. I ended up with women to whom I couldn’t or wouldn’t give a fraction of what they desired.

I performed my queerness so I could believe this half-truth I had told everyone, that I had told myself. I marched. I was here and queer. In the way of young queers of my day, I wore an excessive number of pride rings and pins and such. I slathered my car in stickers. I was passionately militant about any number of issues without fully understanding why.

To make matters worse, I was still attracted to men, often intensely. In bed with my girlfriends, I sometimes pretended I was with someone else, someone with a body harder in certain places, leaner in others. I told myself it was enough. I told myself everyone has fantasies. I hated myself for wanting men when men had hurt me so badly. I told myself I was gay. I told myself this was all I could have so I couldn’t get hurt. I told myself I was stone. For quite some time, I touched but wouldn’t allow myself to be touched. I was stone and untouchable. I seethed. I was swollen with desire, with a desperate need to be touched, to feel a woman’s skin against my skin, to find release through pleasure. I withheld even that from myself. I punished myself. I was stone. I could not bleed. I told myself lots of things.


At the end of Adriana’s visit, I returned home after taking her to the airport, leaving her with the promise we would see each other again soon. It was a promise I kept before I broke another promise and then broke her heart. Fiona had written me beautiful letters telling me everything I always wanted to hear from her. I sat on my couch, reading her words over and over, shaking, because, finally, I had everything I wanted from her in the palm of my hand, and because even then, I knew I was going to push her away. All I needed to do was pick up the phone and dial a number. All I needed to do was say, “Yes.”


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.


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Roxane Gay is the author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist, both out in 2014.

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