Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Abandoned Train Car

by Annabeth Leong

In the town where I lived when I was younger, there's a stretch of abandoned train track that leads to a line of graffiti-covered cars. I used to sneak out of the house to walk on the tracks at night, enjoying the game of spacing my steps to line up with the cross slats, and the train, coming at the end of this walk like a divine surprise, was the most special, most sacred place in town to me.

On this particular night, she came to my house, and we were pretending to everyone that it was a friendly sleepover thing, but both of us knew what we were actually going to do. We were having a snack together late that night, and I offered her my drink apologetically, not sure if she wanted to share a cup with me. "If I'm worried about your saliva," she said, "I need to stop right now." And we laughed because that was the closest we'd come to saying any of this out loud.

After that, I took her on this walk with me, down the train tracks, to the train. We climbed up the ladder on the side of one of the train cars and sat on the top together. The night might have been a little chilly, but I was shaking for a different reason. I remember stars. We had a package of Skittles and a bottle of Coca-Cola, and I think we had talked on the way there but once we got to the top of the train we fell silent because it was obviously time.

We shared the soda, and then we played a game arranging the Skittles on each other's forearms, and then I got bold and ate one of the Skittles off her arm. We were still too afraid to kiss, so she lay on her back on the cold metal roof and I placed Skittles carefully around her belly button. I don't think I had the guts to try to eat those off, though.

Then she turned to me, and we were kissing. I remember her thick, curly hair in my hands, and the taste of the soda and candy in her mouth. It was tentative at first—we had an awkward discussion of whose lips were supposed to be on the outside of the kiss, the man role—but then it was so obviously right that we stopped hesitating.

I had heard so many warnings from adults about boys and how they wanted sex so badly, how they would go half-insane from hormones and I should never trust them and always be sure to guard myself whenever I was alone with a boy. I'd always thought that was bullshit, some sort of racket, that surely no one was actually losing their mind over sex. Despite the experiences I'd had with boys pushing and cajoling me, I felt that this raging hormones thing was a convenient lie.

Then I kissed her, and I went half-insane, and I understood what those people had been trying to describe except that I wasn't a boy. I didn't really know how to think about what I was doing with her. It felt like there wasn't a rational thought left in my body.

I wasn't a virgin in the technical sense. I'd been with a number of boys by then. But recently, I've been thinking that night was my real first time because it was the first time I wasn't performing a role. Until then, I was always acquiescing to various coercions, making deals, feeling charged with being either the sexual gatekeeper or the automatic dispenser of magical sex favors. With her, we were both doing what we truly wanted to do. We were both excited but awkward but sweet but scared. Sex had never felt so mutual to me before.

I went to visit that town just recently, and I made my pilgrimage. It was eighty-five degrees, which shocked me since I'm used to New England now. I surprised a black snake sunning itself beside the tracks and it rushed away through dead leaves, into the overgrown swamp trees that line the space that was once cleared for the railroad. Its motion was so loud that I cringed, and the sky was bright and wide and watchful above me. I didn't know how I'd once had the courage to come to that place at night.

My mother had told me the old train was gone, but she was wrong. It was still there. I wandered along it, wishing I could recall which car we actually climbed. There was fresh graffiti—new tags, badges of pride for kids I'm way too old to recognize. My husband was with me, and I sort of regretted taking him there because I wanted that place for her.

I've been thinking about that moment a lot lately. That started long before this topic came up here at this blog. I try to write about it in my journal, and I wind up circling it instead, leading up to it and giving endless back story, or analyzing all the things that happened afterward. I write her name and I start to cry, and then I ask myself what I'm crying about. Surely something about the moment, not about her—it seems too naive to be crying about her.

But I think I'm crying about all of it. All the things we didn't know, the things I never had the courage to say or do. There were notes scrawled instead of paying attention in class, boyfriends, all sorts of messes. There were the nights she came to my house and made me feel that wild need no matter how much I wanted to resist her, and there's the fact that I no long have any idea why the hell I was trying to resist her. There were the nights she got me drunk in desperation, and always, always there was my lack of courage, my fear of being seen with her in school. Then there was her conversion and the letters she sent me detailing passages from Leviticus. Years later, there was the time she came to visit me but insisted we stand outside, as if crossing the threshold of a doorway would take us back to that same old feeling. And the last time I spoke to her, she kept a table between us, as if, without the object, we would fly together again.

16 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful, beautiful piece, Annabeth. Do you have any thoughts of publishing some version of it? A couple of ideas immediately occurred to me—places I might think about sending it, if this were my piece. If you'd like to hear my thoughts, please e-mail me (jerotic AT gmail DOT com).

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    1. Thank you so much, Jeremy. Posting here might be all the publication I can handle for this at the moment, but I will shoot you an e-mail in case, and really, really appreciate the kind words.

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  2. Exactly what Jeremy says. Beautifully felt, beautifully written. I think I've seen recent calls for personal stories like that, but Jeremy probably has a better handle on markets.

    The top of a train certainly trumps the top of a dam.

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    1. Thanks so much to you as well. Whether the train or the dam is cooler, they both seem deeply symbolic.

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  3. Remember that audacity comment you made, Annabeth? This is it. Braver. And so damn beautiful. :) I echo Jeremy's thoughts, above.

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    1. Ha, thank you. I was inspired by the people you were discussing in your post. :)

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  4. Touching because it's so heartfelt. And the tone is wondrous, as if you still can't believe it happened, though it did. These are the kind of memories that we'll hug ourselves in remembering, when we're too old to act on our desires, yet still find ourselves having them.

    I've been pondering as I walk through the halls of the schools I sub in. At one of them a girl once introduced herself to me in class, "I'm THE school lesbian." I smiled and asked if she had a girlfiend, "Of course!" "There there are at least two of you," Smiles all around.
    But lately I've seen at least 3 or 4 girl couples who hold hands, walk each other to class, and even kiss as they part. I don't mean a quick buss on the cheek either...I mean deep, soul-kissing, tongue-involving kisses, like they'll never see each other again. (The kind the kids are always getting into trouble for, since PDAs of that kind are discouraged.) What I've been wondering is do any of the gay boys feel comfortable enough to do the same? If they do, I've never seen it...in any school. There are boys who wear make-up, dress and speak effeminately, batter their eyelashes and mince through the halls. There are boys about whom you'd never guess, until he gets up in front of class to talk about his favorite TV show and raves about all of the hot, sexy men in the show. The boys in the class nod, saying things quietly, like, "At least he's brave enough to say it," or "Whatever you're into, dude." But do the gay boys self-censure, to avoid becoming targets of someone else's rage?

    My personal belief is that straight men find it easier to accept lesbians beyond the obvious that they want to watch. They are attracted to women, so it's easy for them to figure that EVERYONE must be...even other women. But men? They find the idea of men being sexy repugnant--even going so far as to denigrate themselves as being, "hairy, gross, bad-smelling hulks." (Not in MY opinion!)

    Just wondering, Annabeth, do you agree with what I've been told by others, that you don't fall in love with a man or a woman, you fall in love with the person...their sex doesn't matter?

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    1. Thanks so much for the kind words about the tone, Fiona!

      It wasn't so long ago that I was in high school, but sometimes it feels like a different time entirely. I'm glad things have changed so much.

      As far as your question... That's a really tough one for me, and something I've been struggling with. It's a popular sentiment, and one that I cheerfully parroted for many years ("Don't worry, honey, it's just that I have the capacity to fall in love with twice as many people! But I'm choosing you!"). When I was younger, however, I tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to negotiate polyamory without knowing the word or any of the guiding principles.

      I have seen many articles about bisexuality that say that it's the person, not the gender. But that idea sort of blew up in my face within the last year (see references to crying in post above). I began to perceive real differences in the way I react to various genders, and I began to feel longing for the way I express myself in other pairings than the one I'm in. I tried to comfort myself with the idea that it's the person, not the gender, but that hasn't put the thing to bed. I've been going around and around this question, not even really sure what the question is. I'm not sure anymore what my orientation is, and then sometimes I think that's the wrong way to approach things.

      I read Adrienne Rich's essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" just the other day, and I think I owe some credit to it for what I wrote here because it opened the way to what I said about mutuality. When I was 18 or so, I made a conscious decision to stop rebelling in the various ways that I was rebelling, and that included deciding to live a heterosexual life. (Which made me really confused later when everyone started saying sexuality isn't a choice—until I started to find that I couldn't actually choose to be heterosexual, even though I wanted to). But I think part of why I tried to choose that is that people frequently assumed I was "experimenting" with women as a phase. Because I wasn't willing to come out as lesbian, it turned everything I did into an "experiment," not a real desire. People were just sort of waiting for me to settle into the heterosexuality that they assumed was my destination.

      Which brings me to your point about straight men and lesbians. For most of my life, I felt that sort of "acceptance," but in my experience it's often been about the man's sexual fantasy, not a real acknowledgement of me and who I am attracted to/have feelings for. There was a fantastic episode of the TV show Happy Endings that dealt with this. A bisexual character, Jane, is having dinner with an ex of hers. When her husband, Brad, finds out that the ex is a woman, he's thrilled and demands to join the dinner. "This is going to be a great night!" he crows. When Jane informs him that no threesome is on the horizon, he downgrades to a "good night." When the dinner starts, he says, "Tell me all about your sexy past," and Jane throws back, "Sure. Remember the first night we said we loved each other?" Brad has forgotten that this was a real relationship, not entertainment for him, and I love her for calling him on it.

      My husband, to his credit, takes the feelings and reality outside of him seriously, but that has its own pitfalls.

      So as you can see by my essay in reply to you... this has been a thorny thing I've spent a ton of time thinking about lately. Incidentally, my erotica is what pushed me to this place. My writing seems to be a bit ahead of me, and it reveals issues I'd rather deny in my life.

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    2. Wow! You do have a lot going on in your life! I don't think it's a "choice" as much as a compulsion. My gay cousin dated girls a lot when he was in high school, but by his senior year he suspected that didn't do it for him, and he came out to himself then moved out to California to reinvent himself. One of the frat boys I had a couple of hook-ups with in college, I was told by the guy who introduced us, that he died of AIDS a few years after he graduated, having come out as gay by then. He sure didn't act gay when he was with me! But then how does "gay" act?

      I suppose if the norm was to be homosexual, I could fake it enough to get by. I wouldn't be as excited about the whole thing, or as engaged. But by closing my eyes I could just concentrate on the bodily sensations and probably fake it well enough. What is so sad is that so many people feel the need to do just that: fake it, because being true to themselves is so wrong in so many ways, be it to their families, their religions, etc. Or they risk censure of some sort...or rejection.

      I hope you find peace with yourself soon. Sometimes it's easier to stuff your own feelings under the carpet, especially to avoid hurting someone you care about. Other times the inner pressure becomes too unbearable for that. Whatever happens, you know your writing skill won't desert you. You have a way with words that doesn't depend on anything other than your "you-ness". It was a joy to read your memoir vignette. And thanks for sharing so openly. I feel honored by such an honest response.

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    3. Thank you -- I'm glad my, um, response essay wasn't overwhelming.

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  5. Wow, wow, wow, Annabeth. I've been working on a coming of age piece, and now I may not. Just kidding, of course, but what an honest and heartfelt post that read as smoothly as can be. Thank you for that.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading! I was inspired by Garce's piece last week and comment that he'd like to hear everybody's first time story here someday, so maybe I should just pass the baton to you for your coming of age story...

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  6. Oh, Annabeth, this is so achingly beautiful. I especially felt the ending - your lover's conversion, the table between you... the memories that can't be shared.

    My first woman lover married an Orthodox Jew and became much more conservative. We are still close friends, but I at least sense a barrier - that night we never talk about.

    I agree with Jeremy et al., this is eminently publishable. But perhaps it is too personal and painful to expose to the entire world.

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    1. Thank you, Lisabet. And I feel for you about your friend. It's always so hard for me when changing beliefs pull me apart from someone.

      It's been lovely to discuss this with people, so I'm really glad I posted it (I was pretty tempted to keep it to myself after I wrote it). I don't think I can stop writing along these lines now that I've opened the floodgates, though. I'm just so grateful to you and everyone else at the Grip for giving me such a great environment within which I could write about this.

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  7. Annabeth, everyone else here has said everything about your piece that I'm tempted to say. And I can understand about the ex who became a conservative Christian. (One of my ex-girlfriends did that, and kept trying to "rescue" me from "homosexuality" until I limited our conversations.) This is a hard post to follow!

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    1. Thank you! The conservative Christian thing can really get me going in a bitter way.

      I liked your post about bridges. :)

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