by Annabeth Leong
I first encountered her at the tobacco shop and wine bar on the downtown strip. I was technically too young to be in there, but no one questioned me. I smoked Gauloises in an effort to seem sophisticated, but I've always contained too much innocence to hide things like the way she made me feel. She was olive-skinned and tall, strong-jawed and gorgeous. All that faded, though, when the song came.
I was a little girl when Stevie Ray Vaughan first sang that song, so I didn't learn it from him. I learned it from this woman, and the sound of its opening bars is inextricably associated with the thrilling shock of hearing her belt out these words about a female lover. I've heard plenty of women sing songs that way now, taking the words written by a man and not changing them to make them "right," but at the time the audacity seemed incredible. Hearing her declare herself "her little loverboy" opened my eyes to something I'd never been able to describe.
I was obsessed and foolish. The town was small, and I could hear and recognize her voice from a block away. I could walk up and down the downtown strip and listen for it. I could hang out after a show and hope she'd say that I could ride with her to the all-night diner. I could wish for a kiss that never came, wonder if the truth that seemed to live inside her singing voice also lived within her heart. Was this all a ploy, or was there something being confessed here?
"You could be friends with women, but you sleep with them, too." The therapist's voice was faintly accusing, and my mind could fill out the rest just fine on its own. I was a slut who slept with too many men, but I was worse than that because I slept with women, too. Not only that, the fact that I wanted to sleep with women was ruining my friendships, making me untrustworthy.
This wasn't only the therapist's idea. I'll never forget the school trip where the girls protested about having to share a room with me. I remember the girls who wouldn't come over to my house and the places I wasn't invited. And before that, I remember other untrustworthy women—the aunt who was only whispered about, her name never mentioned except in tones of disgust, because she'd left my uncle to be with women; the friend of my mother's who had destroyed their connection by declaring her love.
And later, my constant feeling of being a spy. "What's there to worry about?" someone would say as she whipped off her shirt. "It's just us girls."
All that is shame, not pride. All that is grief, not joy.
They were mixed up together for so long. I remember the first time I woke up with a girl, my heart pounding in fierce celebration of everything we'd discovered the night before. We drove around and did ordinary things, but the world was no longer ordinary. I was in her car! She was breathing next to me! But then she almost hit the car in front of us, and it felt like a divine warning that we'd better not get too cocky.
After she left, I wrote in my diary, "I had real sex last night," and then I ripped out the page, tore it to bits, and burned it because I was afraid of my mother discovering it in the trash. It makes me sad to think of that. I wish I had the record of that morning. I remember the painstaking care I took trying to describe my fear and excitement.
I feel unqualified to take this twist on this topic. Apart from the gay sex, I've lived most of my life as straight. That's the punchline to a joke somewhere, right?
I once made a girl fall in love with me by buying her a bottle of her favorite scent, which was hard to find before the internet. She was on vacation, and I went to store after store looking for it. When she got back, I wrote her a note to go with the bottle, in which I said, "I wanted to tell the cashier, 'I'm buying this for my GIRLFRIEND.'" She melted and told me that was exactly the right thing to say. But a week later, I had freaked out and locked myself away with a boy.
I could be bold, but I was too cowardly for pride. I was sure that all my desires were wrong—not just the ones for women, but all the things I thought about while I got myself off.
If there's anything that does qualify me to write this way, it's this: I understand why pride is necessary. I have torn myself and others up with shame. I have let people use the word "they" around me, both because I was afraid I didn't belong and because I was afraid I did.
"She's shaking." People love to point it out, I think because it's cute to them. But yeah, I'm shaking. I'm on my knees in front of a woman at a BDSM convention.
"I'm shaking because I want this so much," I tell her. I feel like her little loverboy.
What nobody knows is that when I sit back down after it's over, I keep shaking for the next hour. The person next to me tells me, "That was sweet," and all I can do is nod. I go home and lie in bed and shake. For days, I shake whenever I think about it. I'm shaking right now.
I'm still not sure what to call myself. The first time I wrote about this subject at The Grip, someone on Twitter described my writing as queer, and I jumped all over that as if, like Adam, they could name me. That felt like permission, and I desperately needed permission.
To me, having a name does matter. If something is a pride and joy, it's got a name. The things I'm afraid to name are things bound up with shame.
And there is something about wearing a thing in public, which I still struggle to do. It was truly dangerous where I used to live. The girls I slept with back then—when we went out together, we pretended to be friends. Then later, I just pretended to be friends.
There was a woman I loved who was my pride and joy. Whenever people realized we'd showed up somewhere together, I wanted to grin and brag. Being in her car, her house, having plans with her—my heart grew larger from every little thing. But I didn't want to touch her. Not like that. I would tell you if you asked. I would cry and swear to it. It was only after I lost all claim to her that I had to admit what I wished the claim had been.
It is only recently that I have been wearing this out in public, making it clear about myself in various ways, spoken and gestured. I volunteered to run an LGBTQ meetup for an event a participate in. I may not be able to say which of those letters is mine, but I'm damn sure one of them is. I feel sheepish about all this, embarrassed to admit how the once-ordinary world is changing around me, afraid that if I confess to the perfect peace in my heart it might come out the wrong way.
It's not that I don't care about specific people, because I do, but it's also not as simple as being struck down by love. I wanted to walk down the street without hiding and being afraid. Pride and joy, even if I'm shaking again.