By Elizabeth Glass
I was ten when I found my dad’s Playboy magazines. I pulled them out from under the bed one at a time and looked at the pictures. I sat in the window box and pulled out the centerfolds, let my fingers go over their breasts and legs, noticed the hair they had that I didn’t yet. The women were perfect—no moles, no fat, no imperfections, which I was full of. When I read the blurbs about these women, they said they had always wanted to be in Playboy. I decided right then I wanted to be a Playboy Bunny one day. I was a chubby kid, so it crossed my mind that none of the women were fat, but I didn’t care. I practiced how to be a Playboy Bunny, which meant stripping in the basement while listening to the 45 rpm record of “The Telephone Man” by Meri Wilson on endless repeat. I moved the Barbie townhouse away from the fireplace and used the brick hearth as a stage to practice my stripping and naked dancing. I wore my ballet recital pink and purple tulle tutus and pastel satin sequined leotards to strip out of. There were poles in the finished basement and I did my own rendition of pole dancing, too. In the magazines were stories of Hugh Heffner and his Bunnies, how they lived with him on his ranch, so I needed to get ready for all the sleepovers I’d have with them. I practiced in forts I made in the basement with sheets and blankets, gathering pillows from around the house to have pretend sleepovers with my friend Mary who lived two doors down. She was fun to do this with, but wasn’t very adventurous. My friend Ellie was, though.
I was at Ellie’s house on a snow day from school. I pulled a Playboy magazine out of the brown paper grocery bag I brought dry clothes in so I didn’t wear snowy clothes in the house while we played. When I was changing, I stopped while I was naked.
“Look.” I pointed at the women, then at Hugh. “We need to be Playboy Bunnies together.”
“What do you mean?” Ellie asked. She looked at the women with curiosity.
“You have to go with me when I go to the ranch. Those women and a man live together. They get naked together.” I kneeled down.
Ellie looked at the magazine again. “What if my mom finds out?”
“She never comes down here.”
Ellie nodded and she slipped out of her striped cotton long-sleeved shirt and corduroys. I tied her hands with her shirt to the gate that marked off the area of the basement we weren’t allowed into, and she tied my hands to it so that both of our hands were above our heads. I was sure Hugh wanted his Bunnies tied up. “We need to touch each other,” I said. Ellie nodded and we touched the other’s chest. “Lick mine, then I’ll do yours.” She bent over and licked my child nipple. Her mom came down the stairs just then carrying laundry. “Keep playing,” she said, “I’m not looking.” Then she looked. The wicker laundry basket fell from her arms. “Oh! No, no, no, no, no,” she said, then went back upstairs. The door at the top of the steps slammed.
We dressed quickly and began playing like we normally would have. She had an erector set, which I didn’t have, so I loved to play with it. We were in the other area of the basement when her mom came back down a few minutes later.
“Elizabeth, you need to go.”
I got my paper bag and pushed the magazine down into it. I didn’t change into my snow clothes or boots, just walked out wearing jeans and a long sleeved shirt and socks. “Your boots and coat,” her mom said. I went back for them, but wouldn’t make eye contact. After that Ellie and I weren’t allowed to play together. We still did outside, but I knew we were hiding that from her mom because we met at St. Leonard’s in her Catholic school’s playground, which was near her house, but couldn’t be seen from it. We swung on the swing set, played on the monkey bars, climbed the pine trees, higher and higher, and never spoke of what happened in the basement.
This has been a theme through my life—a lot of “almosts,” but never a full experience. When my friend Denise and I went to Champs Roller Rink in 1980, three years after the time I spent with Ellie, Denise pushed me while I skated squatted down; she skated with me during the dances, me going forward and her backward. There was a foot between us to show we were both girls and it was “okay” to skate together. People called us names anyway. She was braver than I and said to ignore them. I couldn’t and we stopped skating the slow dances together. When we sat on the sides, she put her hand on my lap, my hand next to hers, touching but not holding it. I was confused. I wanted more than anything to hold her hand, but I wasn’t a lesbian because I liked boys, was “boy crazy,” even. That didn’t stop how I felt about Denise, which was more real than what I had with any of the boys I liked.
One night Denise spent the night with me. We had moved and there was a completely finished basement with carpet and a bedroom, so when friends stayed over, we slept in the basement.
“Have you ever been kissed?” Denise asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I was lying.
“With your tongue. Come here, I’ll show you.” She pulled me to her, but I heard the “Oh! No, no, no, no, no!” of Ellie’s mom and stopped her.
“Show me on your hand,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “Okay, but then you’ll have to practice.” She showed me what it was on her hand. “Practice now.” I kissed my hand. “You need to practice standing up.”
“I’ll practice over here,” I said. I French kissed the wood paneling on the walls. Denise tried to pull me close again. I felt the warmth of her chest, of our breasts pushing against each others, but all I could think of was the shame after Ellie’s mom found us, so I pulled away.
“For us to be best friends,” she said a few hours later, “we have to run outside to the creek and back.” I knew I’d be in trouble if I did that. We weren’t allowed to go outside late at night, especially with mom and dad not knowing, but we went to the sliding glass door and eased it open. We ran to the creek and back. “I dare you to do it naked,” she said.
“Only if you will.” We stripped. We looked at each other. I wanted to cover myself, but Denise was a year older than I and stood confidently in front of me. We ran to the creek wearing nothing. My heart pounded, the fall coolness felt wonderful on my body, and my bare feet enjoyed the dewy grass. When we got back inside she suggested we go to bed. “We have to brush our teeth,” I said, not understanding at all.
When we crawled into bed we weren’t wearing tops—she had dared me not to—but we wore our pajama bottoms. Both of us had breasts well beyond our ages of thirteen and fourteen. She touched mine and I touched hers. She leaned in to kiss me, but I made sure it was a peck. I was nervous all night because we slept topless. I woke her as the sun came up and made her put her shirt on. We fell back to sleep and I got the first good sleep of the night. It was me this time who said I couldn’t play with her anymore. She called me often asking me to go skating, to spend the night. I didn’t want my mom to find out, for anyone to find out. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a lesbian. Billie Jean King hadn’t even come out yet, and I liked boys. I was confused and couldn’t talk to anyone because I was scared of what people would think of me.
Now, at forty-five, I’m an outspoken advocate for Fairness and Marriage Equality for the LGBT population. I’ve had arguments about it. I post about it on facebook. I’ve not cared as an adult if someone thinks I’m a lesbian. But I’ve still never acted on it. I have trouble saying I’m a “B” in the letters “LGBT” because I have had all of these “almosts,” and never followed through, so I feel it’s not my “B” to claim. I’m still afraid of what people would think, but I’m more afraid I would hurt someone, that I would begin a relationship and then not be able to follow it through to its conclusion. That Ellie’s mother’s words, and the similar words of others, would make me pull back. My friend Anne and I held hands every time we went to the bar Uncle Pleasants in college and into our twenties so that guys wouldn’t come onto us. By holding Anne’s hand, rubbing her leg, it lead a particularly persistent guy who was interested in me to leave us alone. Anne and I held hands and touched legs every time we went there, and did it during the entire show. Another friend, Jane, and I went to see the Indigo Girls in Dayton. She leaned back on my lap, held my arms around her, my legs encircled her. I thought it would continue after the concert. I was excited to finally, in my mid-twenties, have my first true same-sex experience, but she let it be pretty quickly known that it was a concert-only snuggle.
Anne and I had a dance around our attraction. We never actually spoke of it until one night on the way to a friend’s wedding to which she was my “date,” she told me that she loved me, that she was in love with me. There it was: the invitation to have a relationship, one with someone I didn’t have to worry about hurting her because it would be her first same-sex relationship, too. We would have been exploring together. But timing wasn’t on our side. I had started dating a man who I had known since I was ten, who had always been crazy about me but I wouldn’t give a chance. I knew with him I had the “real deal,” and I did. We were together a long time until he died five years ago. I haven’t dated since then. Part of it is my focus on writing, but some is no matter how outspoken I am on Fairness and Marriage Equality, I don’t know how to say, “Hi, I’m Elizabeth. I don’t know what I’m doing with this, and I don’t know where it would go, but I’d like to kiss you,” to a woman. I told my friend Nickole a couple years ago I think I want to kiss women. She laughed and said, “I highly recommend it.” I need to take that advice. I’ll never un-hear Ellie’s mom’s response, but I can’t let the fear of such utterances guide my romantic life. I can’t keep silently pining for women the way I did for Ellie while I watched her classroom window in St. Leonard’s from up high in the pine trees when I knew we weren’t supposed to play together anymore.
Elizabeth Glass is a PhD student in Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville. She has received an Emerging Artist Award in Nonfiction from the Kentucky Arts Council and a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Redivider, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” series, and Appalachian Heritage. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.