Summer of 1990

After my junior year of college, I went to spend the summer with my mother at her home in Climax Springs, a tiny, rural town in southern Missouri that could never live up to its name. I arrived with my cut-off shorts, my rugby t-shirts, my guitar, a stack of stationary and my girlfriend’s address. It was 1990—before email, before the internet, before cell phones and texting. My girlfriend was at a summer program in Vermont and I couldn’t even call her until I’d received her first letter in which she gave me the phone number in her residence hall.

When I say the town was tiny, I mean the population was 91 and the only business within the town limits was a video rental store that also sold pizza. There weren’t many people my age, let alone any out queer folk. It was the land of God and guns and not a place known for open minds.

My mother and step-father were all that I had there and neither knew that I was a lesbian. I planned to keep it to myself until the end of the summer and then tell them right before I went back to school in case they didn’t take the news well. But I had only been there a week when my mother asked some probing questions about my life at college and my friends. “I hear you have lesbian friends,” she said casually as we folded laundry. My sister had visited me at school and met my friends; she must have mentioned them to my mother. I said that I did and tried desperately to steer the conversation to something safer like my mother’s ability to get her whites so white. But she kept at it and eventually asked me, “Are you gay?” and I took too long to answer which was an answer itself and not the one she wanted to hear.

She screamed at me. She threatened me. And eventually, she stopped speaking to me.

I spent my days in silence, writing letters to my girlfriend, playing the guitar, and working. I had a job as a “stock boy” at a grocery store in a nearby town but I didn’t fit in there either. Most of the employees had known each other their whole lives and didn’t know what to make of the quiet college girl who didn’t wear make-up and had a flat top. At night, after my mother went to bed, I would sit under the tool bench in my step-father’s workshop and call my girlfriend collect from the landline in the garage. But my mother caught me and told me I couldn’t call her anymore. After that, the only connection to the world outside of those rural backroads were the letters I wrote and the calls I made from a payphone in the parking lot at the grocery store during my 15-minute breaks.

It sounds bleak because it was and I couldn’t leave because I had little money and only had access to the truck to drive to and from work. It was the loneliest I have ever felt.

But one day, I was working when two women in their mid to late 20s walked into the store. I noticed them right away. I was drawn to their laughter and the way they leaned into each other and I wondered if maybe they were like me. I figured it was just wishful thinking on my part but I watched them as they made their way around the store. At one point, I was in the dairy case stocking milk and I could see them standing in the produce aisle. They glanced around, looked back at each other, smiled, and then started kissing. They kissed in front of God, the broccoli and me and then broke apart laughing before continuing to shop. I made sure I was front and center when it came time to bag their groceries and I walked them out and then watched as their car became a speck in the distance.

I can close my eyes and remember that day clearly — how my hands shook as I bagged their groceries with extra care, the glint of the sun on the hood of their car, the smell of the asphalt in the parking lot, and the way they smiled at me as they got in the car. I remember it all because for that one hour of that one day in that horribly long summer, I could see part of myself reflected in someone else and I felt less alone. I’d never seen people like me on television or in movies, had never seen lesbians outside my college campus except in dark, smoky bars. These young women reminded me that my circumstances were temporary and that I would be going back to school, back to my girlfriend and to my community. They reminded me that my life was bigger than it seemed right then. Those stolen kisses in the produce aisle saved me, making visible the kind of life that might be possible for me someday. They gave me hope.

That is the power of visibility.

The rest of that summer is a blur of awkward silence at home, finding beauty in the dappled sun on the winding country roads to and from work, and love letters to my girlfriend. And when August came, I packed up all my things and said my goodbyes—to that town and to my mother, not knowing if I’d see either of them again.

It’s been nearly 30 years since that day in the grocery store. I survived that summer. I graduated from college and moved to Minneapolis, leaving small town life behind me for good. That girlfriend who was my lifeline broke up with me but remains one of my closest friends. The community I started to build in college is bigger and stronger today. I’ve been with my partner for almost 27 years and we have two kids, one of whom is now in college himself. This is the life I couldn’t imagine all those years ago. I’ve seen queer lives become more visible, diverse and vibrant with every passing day and and every day, I strive to be visible, not just because it makes me feel powerful or pushes the world towards acceptance but because I know someone could be watching, someone who needs to see what’s possible, someone who needs hope.⚡

Edited by Heather

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Vikki Reich is a writer and communications consultant. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and kids, surrounded by a loving queer community.

Vikki has written 25 articles for us.

22 Comments

    • I played so much in college and after graduation but then I had kids and playing kind of fell by the wayside. My daughter plays, however, and she has been bugging me to get back to it, so, I’ve just recently been trying to play again. Do you play? Music is such an incredible outlet.

      • That’s awesome that your daughter is pushing you! And yes, I do a bit of the self taught guitar and bass stuff. I’ve needed that outlet since high school, and it got me through some rough times. What sort of music were you into? Did you write your own stuff?

        • I wrote a lot of folk-style music and played the same. The Indigo Girls were just starting out when I was in college and I played a lot of their stuff as well as Tracy Chapman etc. I did play a lot of original stuff and performed at local events even after college. Music really can get you through some stuff. Hope you keep playing!

          • Vikki have you heard Greymatter? They’re kind of a UK Indigo Girls, sounds like you’d like them ( they have a fb page if you wanna check them out)

          • My dad got me into Joan Baez, but she’s an amazing finger picker and I can’t do a single thing she’s done. I have kept playing though! Mostly trashy queer punk and glamrock though :)

  1. Thanks Vikki!
    Maybe it’s not 1990, but there’s that particular brand of loneliness that you describe, that I’m sure many people can still relate to.
    Or let me rephrase that, most if not all of us can relate to that feeling at some point and your article might be these women in the grocery aisle, kissing, because it means that change and community is, maybe, just a matter of space and time and perspective.
    When I get back home, I’m going to slap a rainbow sticker onto my bike, because seeing a rainbow sticker would always give me hope and make me feel not so alone when I first started coming out.

  2. Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing. I’m of your generation (graduated college in 91) and I remember those days of invisibility well. I remember being shocked to see two men holding hands in the street in the late 80s. College was a very eye-opening and liberating time for a lot of us, I think, where we could start to figure out who we really were and that not everybody thought and acted like our family back home. It took me longer to work it all out and accept that I was not going to be the person my mother wanted me to be, but the experiences I had in college were an important part of that process.

    • College was the same for me. I was from a working class family in Kansas and college showed me how much bigger the world was than what I had known and experience to that point. I had the same struggle with my mom. Cheers to figuring it all out!

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