In high school, I spent weekends with my best friend Janet. We cuddled and slept like spoons. I would rather do anything with Janet, even homework, than go on a date with my boyfriend, who would drive me to a spot by the canal in his mom’s checkered cab and eat me out, which I discovered was pretty great.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania during the Reagan years, a time not known for sexual experimentation. I slept with a different guy every month. When a month ended, I got busy, otherwise I’d ruin my record. I would tell Janet the details, which always felt more intimate than the act itself. Janet was waiting for true love. I had been, too, but then decided — screw it.
On the last New Year’s Eve before graduation, I went out drinking and dancing with my best friends, the girls I loved most in the world. In the cab to one of our friends’ houses, where we were all spending the night, Janet leaned in to me and whispered, “What would you do if I kissed you?”
I thought, “Does she think I’m a lesbo?” But I said nothing. I couldn’t think of what to say.
“I think you’d let me,” she said.
That night, I had sex with my friend’s brother.
Six months later, on the day before we left college, Janet and I went to the Palladium to drink martinis and feel mature and then, when no one was looking, I said, “What would you do if I kissed you?”
I felt a spark inside, both for what might come and for how brilliant it was to repeat word for word what she’d said to me a few months before. This time she stayed silent, and it was my turn to say, “I think you’d let me.”
Janet kept 10 feet between us the rest of the night no matter how hard I tried to get close. The next morning, in the middle of a crowded parade commemorating the college’s 250thanniversary, Janet said, “I don’t want you to think I was ignoring what you said last night.”
The spark inside me lit up like Las Vegas. I said, “You wanted to kiss me. You did!”
Janet didn’t say a word, but the way she looked past me and smiled sort of crooked told me everything I needed to know. Her face got all red, and I knew.
Janet was about to move away. After the parade, I went back to her apartment to help her pack the last of her boxes. She walked me to her door to say goodbye. I looked into her eyes. She looked away. Her hair was shaggy, like mine. And her lips were big, like mine. We both wore wire-rimmed glasses and I could see why people asked if we were sisters.
Many years later I’d recognize this phenomenon and name it Lesbian Narcissism. I’d spot a girl. I’d think: “She’s cute. I like her hair cut … I have that hair cut.” Straight people are attracted to people who look like them, too, but with lesbians it’s more obvious because we start looking exactly alike.
But at the time, I only felt giddy and excited to be so close to her. I almost laughed, but instead I leaned in and just before our lips touched, Janet ducked her head and curled up into my chest. I hugged her and said, “I’m sorry.”
I marched into the daylight. I had a proud feeling that I could not quite articulate, but as I walked past a house where I had taken an American history of the 60’s class, I actually said out loud: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last.”
After college I moved to New York City to organize the Reproductive Freedom Ride, a cross-country bicycle tour for women’s rights. I’d created the project myself, inspired by the Freedom Rides of the ‘60s. It was at one of the fundraisers that I met Jillian. She had short salt-and-pepper hair, like nothing I’d ever seen on someone so young. She wore all black and fire engine red lipstick. She had shiny green eyes and a dimple when she smiled.
Someone told me Jillian was a lesbian. I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen a lesbian like Jillian. Jillian was model beautiful.
I went home that night thinking about the one lesbian I knew in college, Lois, who managed to work her sexual orientation into all conversations. My friends and I called her Lois the Lesbian. She sat across from me in my women’s studies seminar and proclaimed the truth about all lesbians because she was an expert. She said, “First you experience pre-lesbian tension or PLT. You feel a little stirring and take a keen interest in the life of a lesbian.” At the time I thought: That’s crazy. I didn’t feel any stirring, not for Lois, and I was interested. But I was also interested in Chinese history, and that didn’t make me Chinese.
“There’s denial before acceptance,” Lois said. “But being true to yourself is your path to freedom.”
Six months later, 10 bikers and I set out across the country. Jillian was one of those bikers. Two weeks into the trip, we rode 65 miles to Youngstown, Ohio, right into a press conference where Jillian spoke on behalf of the Freedom Riders. She stood in her bike shorts and helmet and explained the state of reproductive rights in America. I watched her hands, tiny but strong. The tan line on her muscular thighs where her bike shorts rode up a little. Her face. She was so pretty.
I understood, finally, why I never had a crush on Sean Cassidy like all of my friends did. I got why I never wrote boys’ names all over my seventh-grade notebooks.
We rode from the press conference to the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house, where we would stay the night because one of the Freedom Riders was once their president. The sisters set up a picnic on the sorority house lawn and we formed a circle, 40 of them, 11 of us. They had big hair. One woman in our group was shaved bald.
It was my turn to lead the discussion. I said, “Let’s go around the circle, say your name and a little bit about how you feel about your vagina.” Three women got up and left.
I wanted everyone to say “vagina” — to stop pretending we didn’t have body parts. I made a career of it that summer. I needed to do it, too.
One woman said, “What does this have to do with reproductive freedom?”
“Everything!” I said. “How are we supposed to get decent healthcare if we can’t even say the words that describe our bodies?”
Another woman said she’d never really thought about her vagina and felt weird talking about it.
“I know, I know,” I said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
We went around the circle. The conversation moved from the vagina to how being true to ourselves was the path to freedom. Finally, I realized: This is what Lois the Lesbian was talking about.
Later that night, we walked to a campus bar and cheered for Jillian, who had appeared on the 11 o’clock news as part of the press conference. I was playing pool, lining up my shot, when Jillian came over. “You were great today,” she said.
I smiled. She smiled. “Thanks, you too,” was all I could say. My pool cue was shaking.
I was exhausted, but we stayed until they flicked the lights. Jillian and I headed back to the sorority house and found a room with one empty bed next to a girl named Kim, who was already snoring. We took off our clothes, down to our underwear.
I was so nervous I knocked over a vase of roses and stale, stinky water spilled over half the bed. So Jillian and I shared the one dry pillow. I was on my back, her left arm pressed against my right. I smelled Jillian’s perfume, a mix of honey and vanilla and grass. I was still. Stiff. I stared at the ceiling.
Finally I thought of what to say. “Jillian, do you think anyone can hear us?”
“No,” she said. “We’re not talking.”
Then we kissed.