By about October of last year, I couldn’t watch The L Word anymore. I stopped giving a shit what I looked like when I went out. I looked out the window on the train and tried not to notice the women. When I did, I chased it with a shot of guilt-and-tonic.
“Look,” said Mark one day. “I can’t stand seeing you this depressed. I don’t want to keep you in a cage. So why don’t you try dating women without me?”
He put on a smile and showed me a calm, supportive exterior. He was so convincing I allowed myself to believe him. “You’re really OK with this?” I said.
He said he was. So up went a new profile, and up went my message count. Finally I was talking to girls who liked girls – some of them single lesbians, and some who were in the same boat as me – dating a man but wanting to explore a relationship with a woman at the same time. The possibilities were thrilling.
One day, a girl asked me out. Aileen was independent, sweet, and down-to-earth. Her profile read “gay,” but like me, she wasn’t sure how she felt about men. (“ ‘Queer’ wasn’t an option,” she pointed out. It was true – the options for non-straight people were appallingly limited.) And she was beautiful. My heart fluttered when she said she wanted to meet me.
We decided to meet Wednesday evening for dinner and drinks – and since I didn’t know the city very well, she would bring me to all her favorite places in a certain neighborhood on a sort of food tour. (An excellent idea for a date, by the way – sample a few small items at each place and make a night of it.) As Wednesday drew closer, I tried on about 100 different outfits, calculated my after-work plan, and imagined what our first conversation would be like.
Finally Wednesday came. Everything was awkward. Mark and I worked together (did I mention that yet?) and he went home without me. One of our mutual friends noticed and questioned me about it. Just my luck! I made up something about having a doctor appointment after work. Then I ducked out of the office and went downstairs to the gym – to use the locker room to change into my date-clothes, do my hair, and re-apply my makeup. Yes, guys. I was really fucking nervous.
On my way back upstairs to drop off my bag, I ran into a coworker. He did a double-take. “Whoa, Jenny! Where are you off to?” he asked, grinning.
My stomach lurched. Not Zach! Not now! “I’m going to dinner,” I said, aware that I would be late for the train in about 2 minutes. “With friends,” I added. Zach smiled, but looked suspicious. I felt like the whole world knew my secret.
I dropped my bag at my desk, punched the “down” button on the elevator about 50 times before the door finally opened, and ran out of the building to catch the train. The bar we were supposed to meet at was one of those funky underground-type deals you have to enter through the back alley…which is not a great idea for a first date! She was texting me confusing instructions about meeting her at a certain intersection since I wouldn’t know how to get in if it was my first time. Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck by the time I got there.
And then I saw her. My heart dropped into my toes and my breath snagged somewhere in my ribs. She was a goddess in a black leather jacket, and she was taking me to dinner. “Hi,” she said, her voice dropping from the heavens.
“Hi,” I said shyly, and we hugged.
Aileen and I talked about many things that night. We talked about how great the empanadas in Chicago were and how Malibu rum is the shit. About how funny it is when straight people at work don’t pick up on the orientations of the queerest of the queer. About the political implications of the word “queer.” About how annoying it is when your gyno doesn’t understand what lesbian sex means. About catcalling, discrimination, how different the culture is in Colorado where she’s from, about the religions we were raised with and how she’s biding her time coming out to her conservative, Asian-American family.
“My mother once told me that the only thing worse than a dead child is a gay child,” Aileen said. “So I’m not about to tell her the truth.”
I can’t say I blame her.
She didn’t pressure me to tell her anything about my own experience. It was awkward because we hadn’t really talked about my boyfriend or my situation, but she told me she was dating other people as well and wanted to take things slow. So I told her I was very new to the game. That I hadn’t come out to anyone except the 2 people I lived with. And she was OK with that.
It was a magical, beautiful night, and when our date ended, she kissed me on the cheek. I liked that. First dates with guys had always ended with their tongue down my throat. (I won’t lie and say I didn’t want more, but she was a perfect tease, and she understood the art of seduction.)
I was walking on clouds.
When I came home and stumbled into the bedroom, I knew something was wrong. Mark was in bed, curled up in a ball like a wounded puppy. “How was your date?” His voice was hollow.
All the magic evaporated in a hiss. Mark loved me. He had moved out of his parents’ house for me. I was the first and only girl he had wanted a future with. And now here I was, coming home from a date with someone else.
“Oh my God,” I said, crying. “Never mind that. I won’t see her again. I won’t see anyone again.” I threw myself into bed next to him, tried to hug him, but he was distant. I wondered if he hated me. But hadn’t he been the one encouraging me to go out?
It was a horrific situation. I didn’t want to be THAT GIRL. But I was that girl. I was that bisexual who dates you “on the side” while you know her man is 100% more important than you ever will be, and when he says no, his word is law. Yes, I was that girl. I realized it as it was happening to me, but I was fully aware that no matter what I did, I would be hurting someone.
I must have hurt Aileen the next day when I told her I was looking for something different and that we couldn’t see each other anymore. It sucked. Either way, I had to kill something to save something. Note to future self: open relationships don’t work.
I wish I could find Aileen again and tell her how sorry I am for being a confused asshole. She didn’t deserve to be a casualty in my war with myself. And neither did Mark.
After this first and only date I’ve ever had with a woman, I took down my profile. I stopped my conversations with everyone I’d been talking to. I shut down sexually and emotionally and tried to channel my pain into building a bright and happy future for us. For a while, it worked.
“What the fuck is with all the Christmas trees?” asked Rose one day, stepping into my bedroom. There was a Christmas tree in the corner rivaling the size of the one in the living room – which was a damn big 7-footer. In our tiny 2-bedroom apartment, there were no less than 5 trees, 2 of them with wrapped presents flooding the base. It was ridiculous.
“You know they’re awesome,” I shot back. “And don’t be late for our Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow night. I’m making beef stew, mashed potatoes, butternut squash, green beans, and stuffing. And we’re having a wine tasting.”
Rose commented that I was going into nesting mode for some odd reason, but went along with it. If I can’t be gay, I suppose I thought, I’d better at least make one hell of a straight partner.
Mark and I talked about what we would name our first child and the dog we would get. We told each other stories about our future kids. We invited our families to meet each other for the first time and integrated ourselves more fully into them. It was a happy time – so happy I don’t think I want to see another Christmas tree for another 5 years. I’m good with skipping the holidays from now on.
But with all that mirth and merriment, my feelings about men began to shift. I hadn’t noticed a hot guy on the street since before I had started dating Mark. Now the daily hooligans and catcalling that was commonplace in our neighborhood began to upset me to a whole new level. Sex became traumatic: a few times I experienced panic attacks when Mark tried to touch me. Any man that looked at me deserved a kick in the balls. It was strange to me, because I’ve never (to my knowledge) suffered abuse, but the trauma severely affected my ability to demonstrate affection, find satisfaction, and even get to work on a typical morning since it required a walk past the morning drunks and a ride on a crowded train. (More on this later – especially the catcalling epidemic and observations about what it means to 2be female in this world.)
These feelings of trauma have dissipated quite a bit since my relationship with Mark ended and I moved out of that neighborhood. But whenever a guy checks me out, anger boils inside my chest. I have also internalized and applied the feeling of being violated to situations outside of those that are explicitly sexual: for instance, if my parents walk into my room without knocking, or if someone asks me a question that is too personal, I feel the same wrath as if some idiot had just yelled that I have a nice ass. It’s weird. I’m dealing with it. Also, none of my therapists have wanted to talk about it. It makes them uncomfortable.