"Most of them are homely looking, and usually overweight," my mother explained. "That's because when men don't find a woman attractive, she'll sometimes pair up with another woman instead. One ugly woman will easily accept another ugly woman. I guess they figure it's easier than being alone."
My mother was teaching me about lesbianism.
"And in every relationship between two women, there's always a man and a woman," she added.
"I don't understand ..."
She took a quick puff on her cigarette. "There are roles," she clarified. "One woman in the couple is more like the man than the other. She'll dress like a man, do things around the house that a husband would normally do. Like taking out the trash, fixing things, stuff like that. They live together like they're married. But obviously, they're not."
I don't remember what prompted the 12-year-old me to ask my mother about gay women right there in the middle of our suburban kitchen, in a cloud of her menthol tobacco smoke and the dust particles from a million decorative paper towels. I suppose I'd heard something on a sitcom. I know there was at least one episode of "The Facts of Life" in which Blair accused a girl of being a lesbian because she excelled at sports.
When I was growing up, homosexuals weren't exactly a popular topic in our house. They seemed to make my father intensely angry. He reacted to certain kinds of men on television by flinging the word "faggot" like a circular blade from between his front teeth and lower lip.
But long before words like "gay," "lesbian," "faggot" and "dyke" made their way into our household -- before my mother, books or after-school specials helped refine the concept for me -- I had an innate sense of what homosexuality was. It was played out among my dolls.
Malibu Ken and Kissing Barbie were the best of friends. They'd met in college, long before she was a movie star and he, her agent. They agreed to raise children together, from two separate but neighboring addresses, but it was understood that Ken would never marry Barbie. That was impossible, you see, because Malibu Ken was gay.
Of course, my 9-year-old brain didn't yet know that word, "gay," and certainly didn't understand the machinations of gay male sex. But here's what I did know: Ken liked to spend most of his time at the beach engaged in horseplay with bronzed male surfers. Furthermore, I had watched every episode of "Too Close for Comfort" and digested the fact that "Monroe," the third-floor tenant played by Jim J. Bullock, was a different kind of man. Much different from, say, my Budweiser-guzzling, fawn-shooting father who liked to spend weekends biting his fingernails and spitting them at Howard Cosell. I understood, instinctively, that Malibu Ken was like Monroe.
I also knew that Barbie's loyal housekeeper, Olga, secretly had the hots for Barbie. Olga was one of those hollow, blown-plastic fashion dolls who came cheap at Woolworth's, sold in a cellophane bag stapled to a small folded slab of cardboard. Olga had crayon-yellow hair and wore a look of perpetual surprise. I kept her in a polyester double-knit jumpsuit in an orange-and-green psychedelic print. She was hip for a housekeeper. She was from Europe.
I was clear on the fact that Barbie could never return Olga's affections. Barbie was solidly asexual (unlike her eldest daughter, a 1950s hand-me-down Barbie who was most definitely heterosexual and a raging slut). Kissing Barbie had deep, unspoken issues that kept her trapped in near-frigidity.
Yes, even at 9, I understood all these things about Barbie, and about Olga, and Ken, but without the benefit of the appropriate vocabulary nor any concrete knowledge of sex.
As for me, well, I had good reasons for sticking with boys, thank you very much. Mom made it clear that being a woman choosing to be with another woman suggested a personal failure; a tragic "settling" to avoid a lifetime of sleeping single in a double bed, masturbating on sweltering summer nights, and in harsh winters, stroking the wiry hairs springing from one's facial warts in a repetitive self-soothing motion. What woman in her right mind wanted that? Being a fat, frizzy-haired, gap-toothed, socially anxious misfit child and teen had been quite enough. I was determined not to carry this freakdom, this substandardness into adulthood. I planned to blossom in adulthood, to amaze everyone with my transformation. "My, didn't you grow up pretty," they might say. "You slimmed down real nice," "You filled out in all the right places," "You went from an ugly duckling to a swan!"
It was the day after Thanksgiving. I was a young 20-something with an office job and two adjoining rooms in my parents' lopsided 1880s house. A group of us were gathered around the dining room table playing Pictionary: me, my then-boyfriend Rob, my mother, my aunt, my sister, my brother, and a friend of my brother. My dad was sitting in a recliner in the next room, watching TV.
Someone brought up Madonna, and opinions began to flit back and forth across the table -- she was a trendsetter, she was a skank. And purely as a joke (because while I dig Madonna, I don't really diiiig Madonna), I said: "Well I'd do 'er."
That was all. I'd do 'er.
Really, I was just kidding.
I think my mother, aunt and boyfriend all groaned. My sister, then in her teens, went stiff in her chair, palms flattened to the air as though pressing it away from her, and bleated: "I. Did NOT. Just. Hear that."
The next thing I saw was my dad's face, arms and torso flying toward me across the table, like an evil, angry, mustachioed Superman sans cape. His hands went for my neck, and as he groped for it, one of them pressed my windpipe and produced a weird sensation in my throat, like the bonging of a bell. My boyfriend immediately shot out of his chair and I remember his voice shouting, "Whoa, whoa, WHOA!" He tried to push my dad off of me; my mother and aunt struggled to yank my father back in the opposite direction.
And then Dad said, with stiff jaw and spittle forming at the corners of his mouth: "If you wanna be a fucking faggot, you won't do it under my roof!"
And that was just a joke.
So it was far easier, far safer just to stick with dudes. And it wasn't torture. I never went for grunting cavemen with jock itch, or any loping bad boy with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. But I did like smart boys. Strange boys. Boys who dressed like New Wavers, boys with Apple IIs who probably wound up billionaires, boys who painted or played guitar, or raised all manner of small rodents.
I also pored over the bra section of the Sears catalog, trying to detect the dusky outline of a nipple beneath a layer of white lace. I kissed my friend Danielle on the mouth while role-playing "house" as husband and wife.
In my early 20s, I went to a lesbian nightclub called Hepburn's in Philadelphia with some gay friends. Despite growing up in a house full of self-righteous bigots, I retained a socially liberal core. Like pancakes in a Teflon pan, my parents' lessons had a tendency to smack the surface and slide right off again. So it wasn't that strange to find me in a gay club. I rather enjoyed looking. And to my utter fascination, there were quite a few women there who didn't look like lumberjacks. How could my mother have missed this?
A female ambled over to us. She was what you'd call "butch." She thrust her face close into mine, scowling. "Are you gay?" she demanded.
I immediately felt foolish. The fact is, I didn't know what I was. I dated guys because it was easier, but I felt like I could potentially be ... well, anything. I was flesh and nerves and thoughts and emotions and electrical impulses. And in that moment, all of it was caught off-guard.
"I ... I don't know," I stammered.
She shook her head and cackled.
She looked at my lesbian companion and said: "Certain people just have no business being here, ya know what I mean?"
To my dismay, my lesbian friend nodded.
Ten years, several boyfriends and two fiancés later, I found myself an unattached 30-something woman in New York City. I opened myself up to dating again. And this time, I broadened my dating options to include women.
For a long time I felt like I wasn't "allowed" to have a sexual and/or romantic relationship with anyone but guys unless I was willing to cut off all my hair, start listening to Melissa Etheridge 24/7, wear Birkenstock sandals and take up hiking. I’d also been under the mass spell that all females must prioritize their physical appearance in order to please men and stir envy in their fellow women, or otherwise be considered permanent outcasts.
But I began to recognize attractiveness in men and women I never would’ve considered attractive just a few short years before. I found more to be enchanted by. My mind exploded, as if I’d been living life from inside a tiny buck-fifty single-screen cinema, and was suddenly seeing the world on IMAX. My appreciation for the gorgeous variety and complexity of humanity was expanding.
At the outer reaches of my consciousness, there had long lurked a stubborn belief that enjoying the intimate company of a woman was a cop-out because you were fat, or hopelessly ugly. It was a surrender. My mother equated it to marrying a black man, like her fat sister Phyllis had done.
But if I were the kind of woman who settles, I could've settled for one of two men who wanted to marry me. And I could be getting halfhearted oral sex once every six years -- provided I was willing to cover my entire crotch area with a huge swath of Saran wrap. Or I might still be pacing wildly from room to room in our Upper East Side apartment, at the height of a brain-searing panic attack, trembling and begging the gods to "Make it stop! Please make it stop! Oh dear god please, somebody help me!" and he’d be sitting at the kitchen table with his head bent over a map of an imaginary place, ignoring me completely, putting another tidy pencil mark on a nonexistent crossroads.
I ended those relationships, with good reason. That's right, the fat girl did the calling off. It was the fat girl who willingly gave up a perfectly good, 32-inch-waisted Ivy League graduate with a handsome inheritance. The fat girl walked away from the chiseled, sexually artful would-be runway model (and yes, he was straight). Neither was as self-aware as I was becoming, and in both cases I ultimately didn't feel we were growing together.
Nobody else’s "perfectly good" was going to be good enough for me. Not anymore. I listen to my gut now. Not to the twisted theories my mother used to parrot from god-knows-who. Not to the ads or movies or TV shows that tell me how I should look, dress, behave or spend, or who I should desire, pursue, fuck or fall in love with.
I had an instinct for certain things when I was a child. I understood more than I knew. I mean, my mom probably wouldn’t get this, but we’re all made of the same stuff, I think. Like a giant melted polymer mess in a vat at the doll factory. We don’t become an individual someone until we’re poured into a particular doll mold, and some line worker slips us into a pink chiffon dress or a pair of turquoise swim trunks, and maybe the marketing department gives us a name. But if that little doll-heart begins to glow from the inside, and the polymer begins to soften, and we begin to sense what we’re made of and can forget how we’ve been shaped or duded-up, should we be ashamed by who’s lighting us up?