A friend of mine, who is a mother, says that love stories are like children: they’re always more beautiful and interesting when they’re your own. What you all are about to read is the start of my love story (well, one of them—I have two others, both involving guys, but this is the big one.) I know full well that some of you won’t like it, and will possibly find it weird or "um, interesting" or tragic or disgusting because it is about two young women, or for some other reason altogether. Please remember, however, that it is mine and I find it beautiful and interesting, even pretty funny at times. It is about the first girl I ever dared to flirt with, who eventually became the one I married. (As of this New Year’s Eve, thanks for asking!)
I had been held back in seventh grade because I am dyscalculiate (numeric-dyslexic), and nobody believed me about there being a problem until then. That’s why I had just turned eighteen years old the summer between my junior and senior years. I had worked hard, though, and I was in advanced English and social studies classes, and I thought Barnard College, in New York City, was within reach. So I decided to go on a tour. My mom wasn’t providing me any kind of emotional or financial support for any college outside of Florida, but I had won $5,000 in a radio contest late in my junior year, so I figured I would take care of the tour myself. My aunt went with me “just in case,” but she spent a lot of time shopping. I felt lonely and scared and thrilled and excited and terribly grown-up, all at once.
Here’s where my best friend Maureen comes in. If y’all read my most recent Lipstick Graffiti column, “Being Somebody Else”, well, she’s the one who was inspired to come out very suddenly via Sinead O’Connor video, the one I came out with when we were 17. (We also tend to get into conversations like this: “You’ve got a perfectly cute girlfriend; quit looking at my wife’s rear end.” “And just how do you know she’s cute?” Similar tastes in women can be a drag for friends, but at least we don’t have similar tastes in men as well.) Maureen is lolo; there’s no other way to put it. Every girl has a “trouble friend”, so called because they’re excellent at finding trouble for you to get into, and Maureen was a trouble friend to several of us. I had just broken up with my boyfriend on the grounds that he was clingy and possessive before going to NYC. The guys at my school were jerks, for the most part. I was pretty well sick of boys and men at that point, and I made the inspired mistake of wondering aloud to Maureen how I might go about getting a girlfriend “you know, later on.”
“You’re going to New York. There are lots of gay women in New York, gay women everywhere,” she said. “And nobody here will know what you do there unless you tell them. Go practice your flirting on the women in New York!” I’m sure that I would’ve just laughed in her face had my emotional state been different, but it wasn’t, and it seemed like a perfectly sensible idea to me. For one thing, I wasn’t at all used to making the first move.
So my second day in, I walked around Barnard, not the official tour, and then I walked in Central Park. I had a course catalog with me, a shockingly thick book. Wow, Central Park was beautiful. And then I looked up, and forgot all about the beauty of the park.
Up in a tree, a few footsteps away, was a woman. A beautiful woman. Long black hair, pale skin, lithe little body. I had the impression of a pretty, delicate, angular face, though I wanted a closer look. What I really found interesting was that, first of all, she had gotten up in that tree to read her book, and secondly, she was doing it in a really nice gray pinstripe pantsuit. I didn’t want to interrupt her—it was obvious she’d gone up there for privacy’s sake. But what I did in New York, would stay in New York, and I really did want to get a closer look at this woman, and I simply, oddly, felt strongly like I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t try. I took a deep breath and realized I could climb trees myself. I was pretty good at it, as a matter of fact. I was in a long, loose granny dress, but if she could climb in that suit, my attire shouldn’t have been too much of a problem for me either, right? I decided to go meet my future.
I would learn much later that she watched me climb up there, and that she was curious as to what was under that oversized hippie dress. I sat on a sturdy limb close to hers and casually “read” for a bit. I noticed that she’d accessorized that suit with a diamond nose stud—cute! I also noticed that she was even prettier than I’d originally thought, and a good deal younger, too. Finally, I decided to ask her, “What are you reading?”
“Here, take a look,” she replied brusquely, in a foreign-sounding contralto. She pushed the book towards me. The title was in Cyrillic characters, which is to say, in Russian. She thought that would put me off. It did not. My great-grandfather was Russian, and he’d taught me a tiny bit about the language before he died. I could read Cyrillic. “My Russian’s not that good,” I giggled apologetically, and then I sounded out the letters.
Her demeanor changed at that. “You read Russian?”
“Well, not really. But my grandfather taught me the Cyrillic alphabet.”
“Many Americans can’t even recognize Cyrillic.”
“What’s it about?”
“Lesbian life in the Soviet Union.” It was actually about no such thing. I forget what it was really about, but she was trying to feel me out, no pun intended.
“That sounds really interesting,” I replied. She smiled what I've come to recognize as her "thinking" smile.
She noticed my book. “What are you reading?”
“Course catalog, for Barnard College.”
“Are you going to Barnard?”
“I hope to. I’m going on the tour tomorrow.”
“I am too! What do you want to major in?” And we kept talking from there, for quite a while. I learned that she had just turned 17 and was also about to start her senior year of high school. But I remembered that I had to meet my aunt eventually.
“You can’t walk by yourself,” she said decisively. Never mind that she’d done so herself. “Let me go to your hotel with you.”
“All right…” I gathered up my things and worked hard to suppress a rebel yell of glee. While I was starting down, I saw something flying to the side of me with my peripheral vision. It was L’Ailee, doing a series of flips from the limb to the ground. Okay…
“Come on!” she exclaimed.
“Sorry, I can’t do that.” I really couldn’t, either. I’d been hit with a car just months before; my knees wouldn’t have taken that. When I got down, I asked her, “What the hell was that?”
“Gymnastics,” she said with a shrug. She started walking in that brisk New Yorker way I thought I’d never get used to. She looked really good from behind.
My aunt and I spent a few more days in NYC. We did the Barnard tour. L’Ailee decided that I needed a tour guide around the city, so even though she’d only come there three years before from a small town in Siberia and lived in Brooklyn, she helped me out. She at least knew more than my aunt and I did. I mentioned wanting some of the latest clothes from New York to wear to school. She was eager to help me there and get me out of those loose dresses. (Again, no pun intended. That other interpretation would come much later.)
On the last night, she took me to a small, gay-friendly (not specifically gay) club where her friend was a bartender. She herself was a recovering alcoholic, but he looked out for her like a big brother, served us both soda, and let us just have a good time. I wanted to dance. “Who leads?” I asked. She volunteered to do it, but it didn’t work out all that well. “I guess nobody leads and we just dance,” she said. We tried that. It worked extremely well. R.E.M.’s “Drive” came on. All week long, I’d been wanting to kiss her so badly, but didn’t quite know how. During that song, it just came together. The two of us, together, at the same time, went for the kiss. And then we went for a couple more.
“You are,” she said slowly, “a very good kisser. I have wanted to kiss that mouth for days. But I am not ready for this.” As I said, L’Ailee was a recovering alcoholic. (Incidentally, she no longer identifies herself as any kind of alcoholic. Her problem seemed to be a situational thing based on teenage hormones and self-doubts, a scary new place, and parents who didn't teach her better coping mechanisms.) She’d just gotten out of rehab a couple of weeks before meeting me, but I wouldn’t know that until later.
“You’re not what?” I was indignant! But somehow, she convinced me that she *could* use a pen pal and that she’d be happy to provide me with some long-distance math tutoring to help me get into Barnard, in exchange for some help with English literature. She said she hoped I would get in. And then she kissed me good night and asked me to call her when I got back home to Orlando.
I felt tied up in knots. I wrote the following postcard to Maureen:
“Mission accomplished. She is en fuego hot! I have pictures; you’ll see. Also, she’s Russian—sexy voice! But I don’t know if we’re g.f.’s or not. We kissed, though, & it was so good. I can’t believe this. I’d say I missed you, but you see I was too busy to. Love ya, though.”
That was in the summer of 1992. Throughout that week, I felt as natural and innocent as a bonobo in the wild as I “practiced” my lesbian flirtation skillz with L’Ailee, but I started feeling guilty on the plane ride home and praying to God to forgive me in my bedroom. I called her anyway, though—friends can be concerned about friends, right? I told myself we’d only be friends, friends who might attend college together. The idea of cutting her off completely and never communicating with her again crushed my spirit so badly, I never contemplated that for very long. I did not get into Barnard, and L’Ailee did, and we started separate adult lives in separate cities—but that’s a whole ‘nother story. The important part is, we became more able to cope with the strong feelings we sparked in each other at such young ages and vulnerable states fairly quickly, and I know for certain what we are to each other now. :-)