By Charlotte O’Brien
My lover meets me after work with a kind of vibrating tension I recognize as two parts anxiety one part defensiveness. She isn’t late, but I am trying not to be angry that I haven’t heard from her until several minutes before her arrival. She and I work in a university town within a five-block radius of each other and she tends to summon me when it suits her. The nature of our relationship is such that we are seizing whatever moments we can together. And, despite the fact that we see each other as often as possible we are always saying goodbye to each other on street corners, in parked cars, in university bars. Although I understand her summoning as something as simple as desire, often I feel unhinged by it. Both of us are half-waiting for the other to withdraw completely.
We walk towards the bar at the far end of campus because this is a place where we can be ourselves together. I am in love with her. I have been since the beginning, when she walked past me on the street five years after I’d kissed her one night in a different city at a grad school party in a university dorm room. She is also in love with me, but our home lives are such that it’s difficult to simply name the thing we want and then act on it. We have made deals, compromises, and promises neither of us are certain we can keep. Both of us are afraid. We each have a lot to lose. But, it seems even strangers can tell that we’re in love. Whenever we’re together in places where we can be ourselves, people we’ve never met before are compelled to approach and tell us that we’re cute together.
When I stand next to her I lose myself in her nearness. We once visited the university library together, and I have a photograph of her crouched on the floor pulling poetry books from the shelves. What the photo doesn’t show is the way she handed those books to me as if all the answers were hidden inside them. Or, how, when it was time to leave, my body was numb with desire and my legs were shaking. When we aren’t together, I can feel her thinking. We email each other constantly, sometimes several times in one day, often having already answered the question which hasn’t yet been asked. Our conversation is endless, circular, timeless, we exist across channels in our own private bandwidth. Our dynamic is such that one of us is constantly adding. The French have a word for it: Jouissance meaning simply pleasure, or ecstasy, but Helene Cixcous used this term to describe further, the mystical, sexual, and intellectual enrapture which can surface between two women. This is the best way I can describe the between us of us, and, this term perhaps perfectly explains why I have never felt anything as intense with any man I’ve dated.
Now, we are both tense and we make small talk about the baby shower she’s just attended.
“It’s weird,” she says. “I don’t know how to do that stuff.” And then tells me that the mother to be, who is now in a hetero relationship came out during the shower to her colleagues as being queer.
“Oh,” I say, thinking that I’m adding, “I just saw something about that.” I tell her about the short video I watched just hours earlier, about a drag-queen-story-time for kids, incepted to socialize queerness within the dominant paradigm of heteronormative life. In the video, Michelle Tea, who recently coined the term, husband-wife to describe her partner, had been talking about the pressure to wade into hetero land once you become pregnant and have a baby.
I was twenty-two when I gave birth to my first child. I’d always just assumed that my feelings of otherness were to do with my age and the shock of a transitioning from coming home every morning at three am wasted, to getting up every morning at three am because my baby was crying. Suddenly, it occurs to me perhaps why, even after all that time, I feel I will never belong to the minivan-driving, yoga-gear-toting, boxed-juice-and-carrot-sticks sect of women who, by all appearances, seem to outwardly exemplify motherhood.
In nature, some animals are born through parthenogenesis, which is to say, they are born from unfertilized eggs. Sharks, honey bees, and Komodo dragons are all known to have produced offspring in this way. New Mexico Whiptail lizards reproduce solely through parthenogenesis. If two females are placed in a cage together their ovulation cycles synchronize opposite to one another and one will take on masculine characteristics during the ovulation of the other. They’ve even been observed having sex in the same way males and females mate. In some ways, this is how I think of us—as two females who are giving birth to ourselves.
My lover’s face is still clouded. We cancel each other out this way. We are almost exact mirrors of each other. If she is quiet and insular then I become so too. If I am light and fun-loving then she becomes so too. We were born under the same sign. We have the same advanced degree from the same university. We both work in the field of grant writing and health care, but have come up in the world supporting ourselves in the service industry. We both love hazelnuts, the exact same flavor of gelato, and share an irrational distaste for Tater Tots. We both love trees, need water, believe in magic, write poetry, feel displaced and disassociated by the things which happened to us in our childhood.
My face must be clouded too because when we get to the bar she asks, “Why are you closed from me right now?”
I cannot answer her because I’m afraid to come clean. When I’m with her I see a new more authentic iteration of myself and this requires me to shuck almost all my old self. I’ve begun to understand too, that this is what I need to do. Only, I have a husband and a young child, and I am afraid to lose the stability of my family, and I’m afraid to lose my child. One of my closest friends lost her child to an Ohio judge who ruled against her because she was gay. Living so close to a queer city such as San Francisco keeps me sheltered, but I also know that such things do happen. I’m closed, because of all the things I cannot say. All the things I hold in my body, and all the things I keep trying to name without opening my mouth.
“I cleared space and then I didn’t hear from you,” I tell her, but the point is moot, because she’s sitting right in front of me, looking for all the world like a boy with her blue tee-shirt making her bright blue eyes look even bluer. What I mean, is that in the forty-five minutes I didn’t hear from her, I was afraid she’d abandoned me. And this is an ancient anxiety in me, which I know she understands. Only in new motherhood have I been so acutely aware of my heart. She and I both have a history of sleeping casually with people we don’t care about because the instant gratification of it takes you out of yourself in a way that makes you feel both alive and hidden in the same moment. We both have a past. Neither of us know exactly how to be graceful while we are acting without grace.
I watch her try assess the fairness of my complaint, which, under different circumstances, might not be a complaint of any kind.
“I’m trying,” she says eventually, and I know she means it.
Then, she begins to talk again about the baby shower where she sat for two hours and listened to all the stories about being pregnant and giving birth. I realize then that I’d missed the actual thing she was trying to tell me earlier. My lover is adopted. I have read her adoption papers. When my lover was born, her birthmother was nineteen and weighed just over one hundred pounds. She weighed only five. I’ve seen a five-pound baby. Five pounds is just large enough to be healthy but small enough that the infant’s head could fit in the palm of an adult hand.
My friend, who lost her child to an Ohio judge, weighs just over one hundred pounds. She told me once that when she was pregnant, if she lay down, you could see the outline of the baby curled fetaly inside her. I was barely an adult when I became pregnant with my first child. Even if I’d elected to give my child up for adoption, I’d have lain awake at night telling her all the things she might need to know, and all the things I wouldn’t be able to say later. A fetus can hear its mother’s voice by twenty-six weeks’ gestation. What it hears before this are the sounds of the body: the beating heart, the growling stomach, air rushing in and out of the lungs. This is how I imagine my lover in utero, curled into the shape of a Fibonacci spiral, listening and listening to the sound of her birthmother’s voice and the whoosh-whoosh of her heart.
My lover doesn’t know her origin story. What she knows is that she has hair the color of fire the same as her birthmother’s and her maternal grandmother’s. I’ve seen pictures of her in her Midwestern high school where she couldn’t be out. In them, she’s wearing a letterman sweater with a mane of long red curls cascading around her shoulders. Now, she keeps her hair short and hidden beneath a variety of hats, because this is how she’s reclaimed herself.
She takes a sip of her vodka tonic and says, “It was weird how my coworker suddenly needed to come out to all those people. It was as if not saying who she was had become unbearable.”
I look at her and say, “I don’t relate to that at all.”
She smiles because she knows I understand this acutely. Here, in the between us, is the problem of otherness. Hers—constructed in such a strident way, you have to get right up close to be able to see all the softness inside her. Mine is the part where not being able to live out my life authentically has become achingly unbearable.
“I don’t want to go to this event tonight,” she tells me. “I’m worried that there won’t be any alcohol.” I give her a look.
“I’m not in denial about who I am,” she says, and I understand. She is trying to drink herself back to the watery darkness where she can recall the sounds of her mother. Soon, we will get up from this table and go home to our spouses and do the thing you do with your spouse on a Friday night, which you’d once established when it still felt good and right—
before you met someone who could see right inside you and know who you are.
After you become a mother, there are all kinds of things you aren’t supposed to name, like pain or anger, and you surrender the right to be seen as an individual. Invariably this is because truth is hard. If, for example, I’d given my first born up for adoption, I might not have been trying all these years to force myself into a heteronormative life. Only, how can I say that, if I love all eighteen years of my firstborn with all of eighteen years of my body which birthed her? If, for example, my lover’s adoptive mother could’ve said, I’m not up to this, I don’t know how to do it, my lover might not be sitting across from me, her face a mask of pain, wondering how to save herself from her past. And what of the birthmother? What, I wonder, at the tender age of nineteen, if speaking the truth, might she have said?
As happens with stories which exist in the margins, I expect that eventually the story between us will come out. Our story isn’t unique. Our story is just another story of Queer, inside a world which doesn’t know what to do with truth, or how to accommodate otherness. This is why we create our own origin stories and our own private worlds. It’s why, when I look at her, I can see myself infinitely reflected and understand that loving her is also a form of self-love. And why, a bunch of drag queens are touring libraries where they read stories to groups of small children to show them something beyond what they’d otherwise know—an otherness uniquely and authentically incepted all of its own.
Charlotte O’Brien is a San Francisco Bay Area writer with essays and interviews most recently published in The Rumpus https://bit.ly/2cYGMeD, and Mutha Magzine https://bit.ly/1ObZidm. Her poetry has appeared online and in journals such as Apercus Quarterly, Cider Press Review, The Lake Rises by Stockport Flats, LA Melange, and Beyond the Valley of the Contemporary Poets Anthology. She graduated from Pacific University’s MFA program in 2013 with a concentration in poetry and nonfiction, and is currently working on a memoir about living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. Charlotte is fascinated by the dichotomy of internal and external identity and displacement. She lives in Oakland with my five-year-old, my eighteen-year-old and a scruffy dog named Murphey.