Untethered: Visiting Other Peoples’ Families and Unhinged Horse Lesbians

“Here, try this dressing.”

She grabbed my hand and smashed a tomato with her homemade caesar dressing into my palm.

“That’s just the way I am.”

Darlene smiles before motoring on, “It’s good, right? Right? Yeah, I know it’s good.”

“It’s alright.”

I’m trying to contain my ire.

I go to the dining room table and sit, hands clasped, very much not trying to give this friend-of-the-widow I’m visiting my exact thoughts on “just the way she is.”

I breathed through it and wondered, once again, how I got here.

I agreed to come because travel isn’t that difficult for me and because, in this big farmhouse in rural New England, I would be able to lock myself in a small upstairs bedroom with a little desk balanced on a slanted wood floor underneath old farmhouse wallpaper, to set up both my laptop and my portable second monitor, and to get work done as usual. And in the evenings, I’d come down to either explore the area, visiting sites of interest that appeal to a gay goth and a gay punk, such as the ruins of a haunted mill, or to help out as the celebration of life of a partner’s dead dad draws near.

Because that’s the thing. What do you do when you don’t really want to be on the “relationship escalator,” but also someone’s dad dies? And this someone is someone you care about, and though you’re both dating more than one person, this is someone to whom you’re able to offer some company during a truly shitty time. What does it look like, then?

Well, at that moment, it looked like sitting in that kitchen, trying to figure out whether I was clocking this woman right. She seemed gay. She was giving off gay vibes with the way she stood in her food service pants, hips forward, thumbs in belt loops, the way she kept saying “you don’t need to ask friends to help, they just will.” That particular thing was what struck me as dykey. It was this sense that friends show up like family, that friendship is something sacred, reliable, giving, the way she wanted to immediately step in and offer her labor, her resources to another woman.

As nice as that was, I could tell everyone was losing their shit internally because Darlene would not, could not, stop talking. Like the restaurant owner she was, she’d shown up with chafing trays of food we’d have to refrigerate out in the spare barn fridges until re-heating them, each with specific directions, for the celebration of life. I listened to the instructions, repeated them back to her while my partner’s mom was like “I know, I know!”

And then, a fly started buzzing around the kitchen. Darlene whipped out her hand. “Who wants to bet I caught it?” I held up my hands and shook my head. She waved her pinched fingers, in what was more or less a fisting-ready position, around in the air. Then, she took it around and showed it to each of us. There was indeed a fly in there. She took it outside, let it go. “I hate to kill ’em.”

“You know how I catch them? It’s like when you’re shooting people. You shoot ahead of where they’re running.”

She could have used literally any other example. Deer? Turkeys? Shooting athletes with a camera — you know, sports photography. Nope. People. Darlene. People.

On the way out, she asked if we had anything to drink. My partner handed her a beer from the fridge. Darlene shoved it into the front of her pants.

“She’ll probably drink it on the way home,” said Partner’s Mom, after the door’s shut and she’s sure Darlene’s driven away. “She’s got a drinking problem. I don’t think she has anybody, really. She and her girlfriend are on the outs.”

“She’s gay?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” the mom remarked, like it’s obvious, “Lots of the horse women are. A lot of people think I’m gay.”

She went on to explain the dynamics of the local horse-riding community, which apparently leans lesbian-heavy, or which has what she perceives as an outsized number of women who come out after their husbands pass.

“I want whatever else she’s on,” my partner sighed.

“Me, too. Do you think it’s speed?” said mom.

“How’d you meet Darlene?” my partner asked.

“Sold her hay.”

I nodded. Adult horse girls really are out here being very gay. While we three sat at the table, decompressing after the stress of the visit, I wondered what Darlene thought of me, some city gay here, with a wardrobe of all black. And what about the implication of having fewer social connections, a smaller safety net? It’s unsettling to think about people talking about how you’re alone in the world.

The next evening, children arrived, nieces and nephews, little ones ranging from four-years-old to 13-at-most. We entertained them with Mario Kart and tried to get the 13-year-old to be kind to his four-year-old younger sibling who giggled and squealed, “I’m winning!” while driving Daisy into a wall and spinning in circles. The seven-year-old and five-year-old patiently waited for the next round with controllers in their laps.

The seven-year-old was curious about me, asked all the super invasive questions. How old am I? Which got an immediate follow-up: don’t I have a baby, then? (I don’t have any, I told her, and she frowned thoughtfully.) She asked why we don’t live together if we’re dating, why we aren’t married, getting a reminder from my partner that this child went to her own parents’ wedding! It’s interesting watching a kid grappling with the realities of her family and the people around her, alongside whatever social conditioning she’s exposed to, how they aren’t matching up and she’s trying to make it make sense. She’s sharp. It was fun to talk to her.

But it also is an activity that makes me nervous, that turns my attention to some distant echo of holidays past, visits with other partners, to other families, where I sat and entertained other kids for a while because it’s a thing I can do when my social battery is a bit drained.

The kind of no-contact breakups after long-term relationships I’ve had have resulted in losing families that were attempting to make me part of their family, friend groups that had welcomed me into their circles. It meant abruptly never speaking to people again, never setting foot in the same houses again, never again sitting on that couch or at that table staring at that piece of artwork. Never petting that dog. It meant wondering how a kid I once knew is doing, now. It also means fewer funerals, fewer hospital visits, less news, fewer updates — good or bad. There aren’t witnesses to a shared history, no one I can say “hey remember when…” to, not unless it’s relatively recent. It’s a major reason that, after this last long-term relationship breakup, where I broke off a queer engagement, where we severed ties and where I realized I’d made friends with her friends who then remained her friends, save a few, I made a pact with myself that I’d reevaluate the way I was approaching things with relationships, all kinds. Because a situation where I’m severed almost completely from found family, again, is something I’m willing to put in the work to avoid.

On the morning of the Celebration of Life, I stood in the kitchen while my partner’s mom waved her arms around, stressed, widowed. My partner had been sent to fetch something from one of the barns. Then, a car pulled up, an hour and a half before the event was set to start. An aunt and an uncle arrived with cookies. Too many cookies. I don’t know if you understand, but this was two long folding tables’ worth of cookies. They just kept coming. It was a Faux Pas’ worth of cookies. I had been trying to arrange the food tables, get them ready for tablecloths. These relatives showed up, looked around, confused that ALL OF THEIR COOKIES did not have a designated place yet. That arrival marked the beginning of what would be a chaotic scramble lasting the rest of the morning, until 1p.m. when the food was served.

Another relative, Josie, showed up. She’d brought a few dishes. My partner and I were setting up extra tables, trying to figure out the geometry of the layout so people could move around the tables as they got food and 1,000 cookies I guess. We were running back and forth, heating stuff up in ovens in the kitchen and the barn, and I repeated Darlene’s directions, which everyone had forgotten despite her repeating them 40 times. After some fussing, Josie told mom she had to get ready. The same went for my partner. I’d already showered ahead of the three kids and four other adults in the house, not wanting to get in the way, so I stayed with Josie, and we started to simply organize the way we’d heat and roll out the food. When the widow and my partner attempted to help briefly before getting swept up by arriving family and hosting duties, Josie and I kept working until the food was served, helping to uncover things as people came through to eat.

I went outside, feet hurting, and sat under the tents for the remainder of the afternoon, watching the 150 or so people attending this celebration come and go, socialize and eat and drink, chatting with cousins and relatives and my partner and the occasional random horse person. A whole slew of specifically alternative people who worked as vet techs came through at one point, relieving me of being the only gothy-looking person at the function. It was good. And when Darlene showed up later in the evening, she grabbed me in a side-arm hug. “I heard about you helping out. I respect you for doing that.” While I did it, I was just like, this is what we do — show up and make things happen and expedite a meal for 150 people and you do it just because a widow deserves to have people around her, because a grieving family deserves time with the people who knew and loved their dad, because showing up in ways that might seem disproportionately too tender for the actual level of intimacy is gay. It’s gay culture.

Stepping off the relationship escalator doesn’t have to mean avoiding depth, avoiding intimacy, avoiding hugging someone while they shed some tears after the eulogies. It doesn’t mean having to isolate from a partner’s community or never stepping up for people you barely know, but it does mean having honest conversations with myself. These conversations are about who I might or might not have in my life longer-term, who I might or might not see again, how I want to show up or where I need to have boundaries and just go sit under a tent and say I’ve done enough work for the day. It’s allowing myself both to live in the moment and go deep while, internally, cultivating a kind of detachment. This exercise involves centering myself as an individual person moving through the world, not a person who can be co-opted or slotted into any kind of prescribed place in a hierarchy or a family or a defined role, while also realizing that doesn’t have to be a lonely way of existing.

In that way, I’ve been thinking a lot about this-is-how-I-am Darlene. I hope she’s been having a good week, and if I find myself back up there, I’ll probably visit her restaurant. All the reviews talk about what a character she is.

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Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.


  1. Wow, I’ve never heard anyone articulate my exact feelings about losing the relationships I had with people in my ex’s orbit, especially the ones I wasn’t particularly close to but with whom I shared a very specific kind of circumstantial closeness. I love this series so much

  2. …because showing up in ways that might seem disproportionately too tender for the actual level of intimacy is gay. It’s gay culture.

    Hmmm I predict that sentence is going to linger with me a long long time. Beautifully written!

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