The Good China

image by Sarah Sarwar

We sat with our hands in our laps until she looked at me and said “I’m going to kiss you now.” From there everything moved at light speed. I’d removed her tie and shirt and now I was staring at her sports bra. I wanted to rip it off but I was unsure of the rules. Was that too aggressive? Would I be perceived like a handsy dude who tried to move too fast?

“Go ahead.”

Having been given the green light, I removed it as swiftly as I could. Now I was confronted with a new terror. My own undeniable passion. It was fiery like rage and it burned deep. I felt my nature rise. I felt “mannish” as the old folks say. I’d never felt anything quite like it and as my eager drunken hands explored the inches of her body, my desire was cellular. And as I reached the center I found my own.

I was 30 years old and I was having my first true sexual awakening. Dirty Dancing and Just One of the Guys didn’t count. Neither did the two dozen men I’d slept with at that point. I was a late bloomer but I’d had a legendary hoe phase. I’d explored all manner of acts and all manner of men. Men were always easy for me because they were simply tasks to complete. Now I was novice, a fresh fish. I’d been with a woman before, but it had been my best friend. We were both straight and Christian and the relationship was fraught with confusion. I knew I liked it but it was college. Wasn’t exploration what we were paying for? Wasn’t it just a grown up version of you show me yours and I’ll show you mine?

This was different. We’d hunted each other for months and we were netted at last. I was out of my element. I wanted to devour her. I wanted to swim in her skin and melt into her mouth. It was intrinsic. I’d never had sex devoid of performance. It was always an act. The dance and the banter had always been my foreplay, the power my climax. Possessing my lover’s bodies was intoxicatingly deceptive. I had no idea that I too could be wholly possessed. I’d been overtaken and I felt the nervous energy of a child left alone with strangers. I had my first partnered orgasm.

At that moment, I felt pure bliss. But the next morning, she retreated into herself and told me she was shook. She said that she still had “body memory” of someone else. I stood at attention. I swallowed my hurt feelings and hung my mammie titties out for her to suckle her guilt away. I told myself that I understood.

She was a masseuse and came by later to give my roommate the birthday massage I’d gifted her. When I tried to kiss her hello she told me she didn’t want to make it a “thing.” I was over the bullshit. She finished the massage, I said goodbye and slammed the door in her face. I’ll be damned if I was going to get played by another asshole.

She came to her senses and she texted me later. She apologized for her predictability and from there we became inseparable. Enter the U-Haul.

We were firmly in the honeymoon phase. We rarely left the bedroom and when we did, we quickly returned. We called in to work and on one occasion we both no showed. It was heavenly, but as the old adage says all good things must come to an end.

Things escalated quickly.

I’d met her through Angie, a mutual friend who’d conspired to get us together, constantly buzzing from my ear to hers. While Angie seemed to enjoy this game, once we became a reality, she wanted nothing to do with either of us. They’d been besties for over 10 years and we’d become quite close, but suddenly we were personae non gratae.

She moved in with me causing conflict with my roommate. There were only two people on the lease, not three, I understood. If we wanted to be together we’d have to move and if that was going to happen, I’d have to shoulder most of the financial burden. In only a matter of weeks, our relationship had drastically changed, we were alone on a precipice. The power dynamic had shifted and that quickly bled into the bedroom.

Suddenly, I was under ration. In order to exercise control, she replaced our chemistry with a litany of excuses. “Well, we can only have sex one way. That’s how you get off.” That was news to me. I was highly sexual and open to any and all persuasion so I had plenty of suggestions for new ways to get me off and I viewed my newness as an asset. I saw myself as a blank canvas. When I made suggestions, she said, “I’ve been doing this since I was 13 and I don’t really feel like being a teacher.” Ouch. That one stung but at that point my ego had learned to take a punch. Water off a duck’s back. Big black girls don’t get the luxury of destined desirability. At that point I’d heard “I’m attracted to you but I don’t know why” more times than I’d like to admit.

They say I was born old, so I’d rarely felt unsure of myself. I’ve always loved to learn and I take great pleasure in perfecting new skills. I was dedicated to perfecting my boudoir game, so I went online and started doing my research. I studied techniques. Through my studies I identified various kinks and was excited to explore them. “Nah. No way. You’re too aggressive,” she responded. I bought sheer and lace and pink. I was bigger and stronger than her so I went on various diets. I experimented with new exercise regimens. I made myself softer. My passion fizzled into pleas — “Please?!”

She was very affectionate and she always told me I was beautiful. I felt like I was being gaslighted. I’m a natural problem solver. I was showing my work, but I still couldn’t get an answer. Occasionally, with the assistance of alcohol I was blessed with some action. But by this point I was so sex starved that I had the eagerness of an adolescent boy. “Quick! Before she changes her mind,” I thought. “Slow Down,” she said. I was Bounce, she was Waltz and we were grossly out of step.

I’d take sexy photos and send them while she worked. When that didn’t work I’d post them online. I was parched. “Chill. Let me come to you. You never let me come to you.” So, I waited. I stacked myself on the shelf and sat collecting dust like the good china. I was a caged bird.

Weeks became months. Months became years. Dust became dirt and I lost my voice. We were entering our seventh year as partners and I was more of a sad sole proprietor. I wondered if she was cheating. I wondered if it was me. Was I too fat? Was I too needy? One day she got blackout drunk and solved the mystery for me.

“Babe, shhh, you’re gonna get us kicked out of the cab,” I pleaded. “Relax.”

“What?! Whatever, man. Whatever. Put me out. You could put me out right here,” she drunkenly shouted. “I wouldn’t have a problem. I got no problems. I could find someone like that. Someone would pick me, like that. I don’t know about you. Hmph. I don’t know.”

She shrugged priggishly and looked at me like she’d stepped in something. All my worst fears had become reality. For the first time, I’d given myself over completely. I’d packaged myself in whatever she found momentarily fashionable and was still marked “Return to Sender”. Not only was she not attracted to me, she didn’t think anyone else could be either. That night I wrote her the following email detailing her infractions.

I want you to remember…

That tonight you drank another woman’s beer off the bar.

You told me to fuck off.

You told me that you would get out of the cab and you’d have whoever you wanted and I’d be left alone.

You begged Diana to let you out of the car so you could show me how easy it would be.

You told me that I wasn’t you, so I wouldn’t know.

You told me just say the word and that would be it and you would love it.

You screamed at the cab driver.

You punched the cab.

You threw a plastic bag out the window on the highway.

You called me an asshole in the bar.

You made me cry.

I want you to remember because you’re a grown fucking woman and I don’t appreciate being embarrassed and humiliated in front of everyone. I don’t appreciate having a good time ruined. They say the truth comes out when you’re drunk. I want you to remember because if you think that you’re so much better than me, because I’m bigger than you you’re no better than anyone else I’ve ever known, and you don’t deserve me.

I deserve better than this shit. I love you, but fuck you for saying that. Fuck you.

I began to build a wall with the bricks she’d thrown. Still, I cried as she tearfully apologized and assured me that she didn’t feel that way. I wanted to believe her, but I’d had a big mouth. I knew I could no longer live this way, but I’d invested so much and I wasn’t a quitter.

In a last ditch effort I tried a bit of alchemy. We took a trip to New Orleans for my birthday and as a gift to myself, I got Beyoncé tickets. The air in New Orleans is thick and heady. The streets vibrate and pulse. It’s gritty, grimy and raw. It is the essence of sex. Beyoncé rivals sandalwood and oysters. Her hips are dangerous and smug. Surely, NOLA + Bey + Crown Royal = Birthday Booty. No banana. No cigar. No partition needed.

We closed out the trip by visiting my hometown. I hadn’t been home in nearly a decade. I’d avoided it because as much as I love and adore my family, each visit plucked a pound of flesh. I was already feeling like a raggedy patchwork quilt and I wasn’t sure I could spare any more holes. I knew that my family would love her, everyone did, she had charisma in spades. Most of my kinfolk were still referring to her as my “friend” so I knew this relationship would be a marker; it would serve as a frame of reference for lesbian love and I wanted that frame to be gilded. My mom insisted we take her bed and loudly announced herself when entering the room. It was endearing and entirely unnecessary. She had no idea she was standing in the desert tiptoeing around a mirage.

By this point my body had began attacking itself. I’d been diagnosed with Lupus and Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS). Both of these chronic assholes manifested themselves with water retention and bloat. I was drowning in the middle of that desert. I was portly, pale and lethargic. My skin was taut like casing. My own fingertips pitted my skin and I had to sleep sitting up so I wouldn’t suffocate. I could no longer stand to look at myself and I could no longer beg to be seen.

I’d planned to sit her down at the perfect time, in the perfect place and relieve her of her obligation. Instead it happened after a night of drinking, with our eyes barely open and it went something like this:

“You were tore up last night,” I muttered.

“What now? What’d I do?” She sighed.

“You were just loud and obnoxious and you owe folks an apology,” I said.

Sigh. “Whatever, man. Can I be me?”

This was usually the part of the conversation where I’d start to detail all the embarrassing things she didn’t remember and she’d tell me not to tell her. She’d float blissfully on a pillow of ignorance and I got to tread the behavior, the consequence and the memory.

“I can’t do this anymore!” I shouted. “I’m tired of this. Aren’t you tired of this? I’m not happy. You’re not happy. I just want to be. I wanna be me.”

She hopped in the shower. Crying in the shower is soothing. It’s almost meta. Your tears embrace you; they warm your skin. We tiptoed around each other for a couple of days then immediately slid back into familiar patterns. After all, Christmas was coming up, we had three months left on our lease and we loved each other.

A few weeks later, I was admitted into the hospital. On a particularly trying day, she decided to restart the conversation. She said she didn’t want me to think she was ignoring me and she realized that she too needed her freedom. It was our anniversary; she was always an ace when it came to timing. It was my turn to cry. I lied there in my hospital gown, vulnerable and afraid. I wondered where I’d gone and if I’d ever return. I knew that major change was afoot and my instincts told me to cling to her for dear life. But whose life?

It’s been six months since we separated and we still talk almost daily. It’s difficult to gain clarity because talking feels as natural as breathing and she’s the only person who truly knows how debilitating my illness can be. I have an elaborate poker face. I am both angry and grateful. Thus far, she has been the great love of my life. I followed the campfire rule and left her much better than I found her. But, I’ve somehow managed to become more timid and insecure. I am a dented can. I avoid mirrors and people and I constantly question my desirability. I lurk in shadows and hide in plain sight. I am desperately seeking myself. How do I sexually identify when I can’t locate my sex. I am turning over stones and I am digging deeper and as I dirty my hands, my mind fills with questions.

“Is this really how I look now? Am I still attractive?”

“How can I be a proper lesbian when I’ve failed so utterly?”

“Am I attracted to men? Should I sleep with them instead?”

“Could I love this body? Could anyone else?”

“When will I feel like myself again? Did I ever? Will I ever?”

I investigate the answers and brace my quickening heart. I try to take these things in stride and I try to practice patience. I tell myself that I am loved, that I am important. When alone with my illness, I occasionally flirt with suicide but it’s only a wink and a smile. My soul seeks recompense and I have only time as offering. I look toward the sun and I hope I don’t fly too close. I stare in the mirror and ask if it’s ok to love myself anyway… “Go ahead,” I say.

Dondrie Burnham, Queen of the clapback, breaker of brunch dates and first of her name is a queer, black essayist and Ravenclaw living in Brooklyn. She is passionate about social justice, Harry Potter and a well executed side-eye.

dondress has written 1 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. I know that terrified feeling that no one will find you attractive. Even though I am in the happiest relationship of my life, I feel it every day. I am too loud, too fat, too afraid to ever be truly wanted.

    But you and I must remember, no matter how difficult that may be sometimes, that we are beautiful and worthy of love. Even if this one woman left you feeling cracked or broken, you are stronger than her and you will emerge even brighter than before.

  2. “Could I love this body? Could anyone else?”

    “When will I feel like myself again? Did I ever? Will I ever?”

    These questions are so relatable it felt like someone was squeezing my heart when I read them.

    This whole essay is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself with us. <3

  3. Sometimes, when someone walks out the door,
    and sometimes when they’re even just blundering about in the dark,
    and sometimes even in anger,
    they knock over the cabinet,
    that holds all of the dishware,
    the breakable things.
    And you’re left with bloody knees on a floor covered with shards and broken plates and mugs and goblets, that were once beautifully painted and carefully handled.
    Yes, it’s true,what a waste of time, of hurt and hurt and effort.
    But I’ll tell you two things:
    You can only start putting things back together once that door has closed and shut forever, because no one can and will do this for you.
    And: There is glue.
    It takes skill and patience and so.much.time, but there’s glue.
    Something new and better might come from this, this idle past time of puzzling pieces back together and allowing for time to harden broken things back into solids.
    The Japanese call it Wabi-Sabi, the art of imperfection.
    Sometimes, they cast the new lines of their broken bowls in gold.

  4. For me, the trick to surviving the aftermath of leaving someone who was a terrible plan was to spend time with folk who knew how to see the magic in me. Friends who could remind me of what I used to know and love about myself. It was like walking around with an empty moving box, putting in all the bits and pieces gathered from interpersonal interactions that felt like me.

    Every day wasn’t necessarily moving towards feeling better, but more often than not, I had days where I gradually moved back into my own skin, one box at a time.

    And I wrote down reminders,

    “you couldn’t breathe with her” “she doesn’t like how you sit, or stand or move, aka basic existing” “she hates all your friends”

    …. and more reminders

    “this friend is grateful for your patience and empathy when they have a low point” “this friend says they admire your fearless advocacy” “this friend says you have a nack for making people feel safe”.

    I can’t always see the magic in me, but now the only people I invest my time in are the other people who do see the magic. It can be a slow process to collect those people, but they are so worth it. So am I. So are you.

  5. Thank you for sharing your words, Dondrie. This was beautiful & painful & I almost missed an appointment because I was so caught up in reading it.

    I came out later, as well, and my first relationship with a woman felt almost impossible, like it was too good. Among other things, it was the first time that sex felt overwhelming in its rightness. Breaking up with her and losing that connection was terrifying — I was afraid I would never recapture that magic, that electricity. But I hope I can; I hope you can, too. I hope you find someone who you light up with & who holds your heart kindly. ?

  6. I feel for you so much, reading this. I’ve spent so much of my adult life feeling too anxious to be loved, especially after the ends of certain bad relationships.

    I hope you can see your own light in time, and trust in the people who help you hold onto it.

  7. I needed this article. I thought I was the only one whose post coming out experience with a woman wasn’t all rainbows and puppy dogs. I wish more women would talk about their shitty first times so others aren’t left thinking “What’s wrong with me!”

  8. What a beautiful and soulful essay. Thank you for being vulnerable with us.

    Body image based on my size, a general feeling if being too much, and an ex that treated me much the same way you describe meant that my heart was in essay with yours. But I am almost 10 years out from this relationship. You are strong enough to get through this, and the first time you remember what happiness felt like, you will be on a path to fulfillment that you cannot imagine right now. I hope that for you, but you do not need my hope, you are already on the road.

    People always say you will find someone else, but I’ve been single (minus a few toxic nameless things) since I was the good china. I don’t need to find someone else anymore, my life is full and if I find someone to share that with then great, but I am not going to hold my breath. I can be happy and single. I hope you find a way to feel that too.

    Anyway. Thank you again.

  9. “I followed the campfire rule and left her much better than I found her.” Love this. And very much relate to both that feeling and the feeling that I still somehow ended up less open and less trusting–doesn’t seem a fair trade. But I think we’re both going to be just fine. Thanks for sharing.

  10. This is a beautiful essay, thank you for sharing something so personal.

    As someone who has stayed in failing relationships for far too long, I could really relate to this: ‘We tiptoed around each other for a couple of days then immediately slid back into familiar patterns. After all, Christmas was coming up, we had three months left on our lease and we loved each other.’ It’s like your mind performs a sort of doublethink, an unhealthy compartmentalisation allowing you to continue with something that you know is harmful.

  11. “When will I feel like myself again? Did I ever? Will I ever?”

    I know this feeling. Thank you for a beautiful, heart-rending essay. Like one of the commenters said above, I too couldn’t forget about your essay even 24 hours after I first read it.

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