Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
“We need to talk,” said my mom. I was 14, and this could have meant any number of ominous things. We’d had many “talks” over the years, most of them related to my adolescent misbehavior, which arrived at 12 in particularly worrying form.
We sat together at our breakfast counter, she with a mug of Bengal spice tea, me with a glass of OJ. My mother was, and is, a very pretty woman, with bright blue eyes, skyscraper cheekbones, and an easy laugh. She sipped her tea and took a breath.
“Karen and I aren’t just friends, honey.” Her features tightened, but her eyes met mine, clear and steady. “We’re more than friends.”
“Yeah, I figured that out,” I said.
“Of course!” I gulped. “Jessica and me aren’t just friends, either, you know.”
“I had a feeling about that.” She nodded with a faint smile.
Mine was the most amiable coming out story I knew. If only the experience of my early sex life were so breezy.
In our small Cape Cod junior high school, I didn’t know a single openly gay teenager. As a 13-year-old feminist who didn’t shave her legs, I was the closest thing most people got. Before my best friend, Jessica, and I started kissing each other, most of our classmates assumed we already were. In truth, all of my early sexual encounters were with men: thrilling and frightening interactions, marked by my inability to say no. I had the body of a 20-year-old before I even got my first period, and being mistaken for sexually precocious by my peers became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My early exploits with older boys garnered me a reputation as a slut in middle school. Compared to that harassment, it was easier to let people assume I was gay. Being a slut implied an unwieldy desire, an essential vulnerability to sexual need. Whereas being gay just implied a rejection of men. But kissing girls came with its own complications
Bisexuality made sense to me, in theory, before I ever kissed a girl. And this was pre-Madonna kissing Britney Spears, pre-“Girls Gone Wild” (at least in my house, where we watched only PBS). My conception of girls kissing girls was not defined by a male gaze; I grew up with books like “Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism” on the shelves. My mother was a Buddhist therapist, and I had known before our landmark conversation that she not only identified as bisexual but moreover understood that being one was largely unremarkable. It seemed logical to me that people were bisexual until proven otherwise.
My brother and I lived in a house where sexuality was treated with no aura of shame, no tinge of the illicit. There was never any reference to the proverbial “birds and bees,” but our lexicon did include words like “fallopian tubes” and “ovulation.” We were both born at home, and I was even present for my brother’s birth. If I had been a different sort of 4-year-old, I doubt my parents would have allowed this, but in the pictures, I am far from traumatized by my mother’s cries. I am strutting around the birthing room, a toy stethoscope dangling from my neck, and perched between the midwives, attempting to take my mother’s pulse.
Unfortunately, this wholesome experience of the human body couldn’t prevent me from hating my own. By fifth grade, the attention that my precocious figure attracted from men scared me, but it was better than feeling freakish and fat, which was how I’d come to see the C-cup chest I’d exhibited before any other girl my age. And my pulse whirred to the feeling of breath on my neck, hands on my waist; I liked being wanted. Everything that followed those flirtatious entreaties, however, left me numb and ashamed. After a year of crude gestures and loud whispers in school hallways, exploring my nascent attraction to girls seemed a safer path.
In junior high, instead of Katy Perry’s early ’90s equivalent, I was listening to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” Like Kathleen Hanna’s lyrics — Rebel girl you are the queen of my world … I know I wanna take you home / I wanna try on your clothes — my desire for girls was, at first, more romantic than erotic. My lust was meshed with other kinds of longing, with the devotion of friendship and admiration. Jessica and I had a more intimate relationship than any I’d known, and I’d always had intensely intimate friendships with other girls. Kissing seemed, in some ways, not a far leap from cuddling.
And when Jessica kissed me, on the sunlit bedspread of my childhood room, I felt the same delicate churning in my abdomen that I had when the older brother of a friend pressed his lips against my bare shoulder and squeezed my hip with his broad hand. I wished I was gay, that I could elect to direct my body in that seemingly less perilous direction. But when Jessica wearied of being different from everyone else at our school and started spending more time with the soccer team than with me, I wished I didn’t miss her so much, that I could believe a boyfriend was the solution to my heartache.
Instead, I found a solution in Lila — my first official girlfriend. A couple of years my senior, Lila had ceased attending our local public high school in favor of what appeared to be a liberally defined home schooling. She had short, messy hair; didn’t wear makeup; and introduced me to Otis Redding and Kristin Hersh. Years later, I discovered girls who dressed like boys, and thus discovered my true type, but at the time, she was a revelation. When my little brother starting dating Lila’s little sister, Maya, the four of us would spend afternoons riding ramshackle bicycles down the rural miles between our homes, cooking vegetarian meals, and then making out in our respective bedrooms.
If this post-’60s Rockwellian teenage vision makes my hometown sound like some kind of East Coast Berkeley, it is a misconception. Our town was a liberal one, relative to other small towns, but we were the exception, not the rule. I was tired of feeling like an outsider in my school, and tired of school altogether, which I’d already decided was not the quickest way to become a writer — my plan since childhood. I officially dropped out after freshman year, and replaced it with my own reading list, and Lila.
But if I’d thought that removing myself from the mainstream would solve my sexual conflicts, I was wrong. Lila had conflicts, too. Under the covers of her bed, I grew to know a certain shadow that would fall over her face — a look that often preceded tears. Neither of us ever fully articulated those doubts, but I knew that something in our sex scared her. I thought I recognized the tinge of shame. Perhaps the teenage girl secure in her sexuality is a chimera altogether, but being queer in a homophobic society tends to present special challenges, regardless of your background. The fear I felt kissing Lila in public caught me off guard. There was a part of me that wondered if I wasn’t really just straight. Did I have a choice? Was being straight the easier choice, in the long run? How much had my mother’s experience influenced me? When not dry humping each other’s legs to Tori Amos, Lila and I were often crying, without really knowing why.
But despite the drama that infused our relationship, there’s no way I can dismiss it as experimentation. What part of love is ever not an experiment, however high the stakes? And I was in love. Being with girls was a safer place to explore my feelings, partly because they also seemed to have a lot of them, but it was also sexually exciting. There were so many prescriptions for how to love men, and how to screw them. Or rather, be screwed by them. The sexual passivity that I had been surreptitiously socialized in did not apply to sex with women. In my childhood bedroom, I had lifted Jessica’s T-shirt, moved my mouth down her chest, squeezed her hips with both hands. Lila and I might have had a maudlin relationship a lot, but we also spent most of our time together in bed. The excitement that had always been cut short by actual sexual contact with men went on for hours with her. Looking back, our love seems almost chaste — no toys, no talk, incidents of head I could count on one hand — but it was my first introduction to a desire that my body was able to consummate. I didn’t orgasm with a lover until the girlfriend after her, but it was with Lila that I first experienced my body (and hers) as a pleasurable place to inhabit.
It was also a lot easier to convince my dad to let my girlfriend sleep over on school nights.
My father is a sea captain, and so would often return after a three-month voyage to find me considerably changed. After one such return, he pulled into his driveway (my parents had split years before) and turned up the radio. “I Kissed a Girl” — Jill Sobule’s folky precurser to Katy Perry’s club hit — filled the minivan: I kissed a girl, her lips were sweet/she was just like kissing me.
“So,” drawled my dad, with an awkward smile. “I hear you’ve been doing some of that lately.”
“Daaaaad!” I rolled my eyes, and unclasped my seat belt.
I was mortified, having no clue how lucky I was. A far cry from disturbed by my broad view of potential romantic partners, my father seemed to find it somewhat charming. Though he never knew the sexual harassment I suffered as a result of my earliest sexual experiences, it’s easy to see how much safer Lila must have appeared than the sketchy older boys I had a penchant for. Also, I think he probably associated me with my mother, whose bisexuality he also found unthreatening. Understandably, I think he’d have rather seen both of us with women.
To that end, I’ve been asked more than once if I think it’s hereditary. I don’t. I try not to be offended by the suggestion. On the Kinsey scale, my mother and I probably both hover near a 3. Of course, it’s not for me to exclude a genetic component with any certainty; I’m a writer, not a scientist, though I strongly suspect that it has a lot more to do with nurture than nature.
Since those days, I’ve been in love and lust with close to an equal number of men and women (not excluding a few who identified as somewhere between the two poles). At 31, I spend very little time entertaining definitions of my own sexuality. Thank god. I do not miss those early days of wishing I could be one thing or another, of wondering if I had an obligation to push myself in either direction. There was an important moment, a few years later, when I came to the startling understanding that I fell in love with people, that individuals’ personalities, pheromones and even fashion sense were more compelling to me than their gender. This is a cliché, of course. But I came to it on my own, and in the vacuum of my own experience, it was a true revelation.
Arriving at such a revelation, at such an age, and greeting it with the happy satisfaction that I did, requires a freedom that I had the privilege of taking for granted as a young person, though I know better now. Most of us circle back around to the models we were given in our formative years — not in terms of who we love, but how we love. It sounds stupid, but I am good at falling in love. That is, I do so with abandon, free of any reluctance born from shame. I feel entitled to love whomever I do, and as an adult, I have always fallen in love fully and frequently. Perhaps this is an innate human quality; I suspect so. But it is also a delicate, malleable impulse. We love as we have been loved, and as love has been shown to us. And I was loved with great abandon, and earnestly encouraged to love whomever my heart called for. And I know whom to thank for that.
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, "Whip Smart." Follow her on Twitter at @melissafebos.More Melissa Febos.
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