One of my favorite things for other people to do on social media is Throwback Thursday. I’m sure you’ve all heard of it by now, but just in case we have readers who are otherwise hermits, the idea is that one posts an old photograph of oneself, with or without an accompanying anecdote. I’ve rarely felt moved to join in, but what I love about it is the sense of history, of evolution, of continuity, that it gives to people I’ve maybe only known for a few years. Where and when I grew up, most people still knew each other their whole lives, or they met for the first time in their 30s only to realize they were fourth cousins whose mothers grew up down the road from each other, or else they came “from away” and while they might be treasured, they were not known.
In exiling myself from that place, not once but twice, I have sometimes felt like I’ve chosen a life of always being from away, a life without history. The people I love love me back, but for most of them, I might’s’well’ve sprung from Athena’s forehead full-formed at 17, or 20, or 30, or 35, or whenever it is that they met me. I rarely look back on my own life, except in the most intimate of company. I’m interested in their (and your) stories of the past, though – I want these people I’ve chosen to be as solid, as historical, as the people I was born to.
In the past year or two, I’ve done a lot of work on my own understanding of my past, and with that comes a deeper willingness to share it with other people – even strangers. I’m still not ready to pick out a new old picture every Thursday, but it came to me the other day that music is both less and more personal, that while I’ve never stopped liking a song, my musical obsessions definitely have eras, and that maybe I could do a musical throwback Thursday once every couple months or so. At first, I didn’t know where I wanted to put such an endeavor. Facebook was too ephemeral, and my livejournal was too personal – I needed a little bit of distance, a little bit of an idea of an audience I don’t know all that well, to be able to tell these stories. Then I realized that it was just about time to give Jaybird a weekend off from writing Weekend!, and, well, here I am. Not sure if I’ll do another one of these or not, let me know if you like it and maybe I will. (AND PLEASE ALSO POST YOUR WEEKEND COMMENTS AS USUAL BECAUSE THEY ARE ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS, OKAY? OKAY. Thank you.)
Hit play, why don’t you?
When I went to college, I’d already figured out I was bisexual. I’d already been chased out of the house by my father when I came out to him by accident but also furiously on purpose, in the middle of an argument we’d been having about whether “they” deserved whatever right it was that he was claiming “their” morals proved “they” didn’t. I’d already walked off that heartbreak, waiting for him to unlock the house doors yet again, and I’d already talked to my mom about how she loved other gay people, and she loved me no matter what, but she still thought it was disgusting, what gay people actually did together. I’d already been warned that if I shaved my head, I would never find a job because everyone would think I was a lesbian. I’d already spent hours alone in my room, looking back at the years before and noticing all the things I’d forced myself to not notice myself noticing even before puberty set in. I’d already talked to my siblings about it, or rather I hadn’t quite managed to – but they’d seen the fight I had with my father, and all three of them let me know in one way or another that they knew what it had been about, and that we were fine. And I’d already sworn to myself, a hundred times over, that when I got out of my small hometown, and started living in Montreal, my bisexuality would just be part of who I was, something that lived on the outside of my skin, no matter whom I happened to be dating at the time.
And then I got to Montreal, and I was living in a cluster of three other dorms with hundreds of other people who were mostly as young and as uncertain as I was, and I discovered that it was not as easy to be out as I had thought it would be. I met an older woman, a grad student, who took me under her wing a bit, and introduced me to the GLB community on campus. But that community was decidedly more G than L or B, back in the late 90’s, and I was confronted with a general consensus (not shared by my mentor, fortunately) that us B girls were only there on sufferance because they expected most of us to either go back to being straight, or ‘fess up about being Ls all along … and that *real* bisexuals were not anyone the lesbians there would want to date, or even hang out with. I found queer activism on my own – this being the height of the AIDS crisis in North America, the activists weren’t exactly hard to find – and I did feel at home there. But that was also mostly a community of gay men, and as a bonus, people kept dying on me before I could really get to know them. (Sorry if that sounds flip. I get flip when I’m trying not to remember despair, and heartbreak, and flinging ourselves at a society that really didn’t seem to care.)
I flirted with women at concerts and festivals. I even went home with a couple – but I bolted, back to the safety of my dorm hallway, before anything could happen between us. I’m not sure, even now, what I was afraid of. I suspect that I was afraid my father’s accusations were true. That I was deluded in thinking I was bisexual, that I wasn’t really able to love anybody, let alone a woman. I was afraid that if I tried, I would prove him right. It’s also true that I was kind of afraid of women back then, or at least I thought I was. I thought of myself as “one of the guys” far more often than I thought of myself as a woman or a girl, and I was about a year away from starting to consciously question my gender identity. So many of the things that seemed natural to the young women around me were utterly baffling inside my own head; so many of the ways they expected me to behave were so foreign to me that I very often felt like I was only passing as a girl. I didn’t like not knowing what was going on. I didn’t like having to muddle through.
But in the midst of all the confusion, my first year of college, there was also a lot of joy. I had that one lesbian mentor, and while we were never even quite friends – we never socialized outside of the volunteer contexts where we knew each other – she was always kind. And she told me stories about her life, about her partner, about the prejudices she faced and the things she wanted for her life. Which were not the things I wanted – she was not a feral being, as I was then – but it helped me to understand so much about the world. She was only 26 or so, but to me she was a wisewoman. And then I found the HQ section of the library, and devoured everything I could find on the topic of sexuality.1 I went to gay clubs and danced with boys who flirted with me until they realized I wasn’t their type, and then we laughed together and kept dancing. I found friends on the internet who were as alienated and as loving as I was, and we formed tight bonds. And in the midst of all this, there was A Girl.
She was The Girl, really, for me, that year, and the fact that I swore up and down to myself that she was straight and I didn’t like her that way and she was out of my league anyway, and changed the subject inside my head whenever her The Girl-ness came up, made no difference in the end. Whenever she walked into a room, my heart sat up and tilted its head to the side like an eager puppy – and that’s only the tip of the cliché iceberg as far as my feelings were concerned.
She played guitar – of course she played guitar – and she was the first one to sing the Indigo Girls to me, the first one to sing anything to me at all. We both loved Leonard Cohen, and we talked a lot about his lyrics, and she played me one of his albums, because she had an LP player in her dorm room, and we sat on her bed and told each other stories about our childhoods. We sat on her bed and smiled at each other. Sometimes we held hands.
I remember her hair like I’d run my fingers through it a hundred times. I remember watching her eyelashes when she was looking down at something. I remember the depths of her eyes, even though I’ve forgotten their exact shade. I remember her fingers on the guitar strings while she sang, and the heel of her hand resting on the body of the guitar while we talked. I remember the long skirts we both wore. I remember sitting on the quad together. I remember sitting on the dorm hallway floor together. I remember looking up at her, one day, as she stood at the top of the stairs, and making a joke, and being so happy to see her laugh. And I remember one night when we were crowded into someone else’s single, watching MST3K, when she sat on my back and massaged my shoulders for hours, and I was deeply, infinitely happy. I remember thinking to myself that it was lovely to have the intimacy of that, that it was better that she was straight, because for once someone just wanted to touch me and wasn’t even interested in having sex. But I also remember being hyperaware of the weight of her pelvic bone, and its proximity to the base of my spine, and the way those two facts sent delight humming through every cell in my body.
We had other friends, of course, and among those many overlapping friendships we each had, we shared one circle in particular – her and me and my favorite next-door dorm neighbor and a pint-sized aikido black belt and a history major who was always, unfailingly, kind .. and another person or two I can’t remember anymore – and we’d all spend time together exploring the city’s restaurants. It seemed like we’d always be friends. It seemed like there was plenty of time to figure things out.
But then summer happened, and my fears kicked in, and there were all sorts of complicated stories about boys that don’t really matter to this story, but did make it harder to keep track of who I was and what I wanted. When we came back the next year, it was so much harder. I still saw her – we kept having lunch with our circle of friends for the first few months of sophomore year – but neither of us was the loud one at the table, and I was too bent on insisting to myself that we weren’t THAT kind of friends to allow myself to seek her out alone – and by the time my November depression came around, I hadn’t seen her in weeks. She became a person I was happy to run into every few months, instead of a person I saw almost every day.
And all that year and the next, even as I was breaking up with my high school boyfriend, even as I tried to figure out gender and academia and love and danger enough to keep myself sane, even as I was meeting Jaybird in person for the first time and falling madly in love with him, even as I stopped thinking about her much with the conscious part of my mind …. I missed her. I missed her so much, and I yearned for what we could have had. And over and over again, I found myself singing Ani’s song about missed opportunities, even though it seemed silly to feel this way about a girl who would never have felt that way back. She was still The Girl, and it still felt like she should have been mine.
(Hit play again, now, though you probably want to skip to 3:06 for the actual song. The alchemy of covers, y’all. It’s something else.)
As Jaybird and I fell more and more deeply in love, and got more and more entangled in dramas whose roots were buried very very deeply in my head, I completely lost touch with The Girl. I still heard about her sometimes, because my next-door dorm neighbor had remained a close friend, and he saw her all the time. He yearned for The Girl as much as I did. I mostly asked questions, when we talked about her; I kept my own feelings on the inside. And as I rode the bus home after our visits, I would listen to this song, on repeat, without making myself admit why.
When my life came to a breaking point the following year, and I made the best stupid decision I ever would make, and decided to move to Colorado to marry Jaybird, I hadn’t seen The Girl in at least six months. I had lunch with almost all my best friends before I left, one at a time, or in pairs, but never more at once than that. I shocked them all – later someone told me it was like I just disappeared junior year, that they felt like I’d been normal one minute and non-existent the next. But I did manage to say most of my goodbyes. I asked my favorite neighbor to get in touch with The Girl and set up a lunch for the three of us, and he did.
The minute I saw her, it was the fall of freshman year all over again. I could barely even speak at first; she was The Girl, and she was standing in front of me, and I forgot to forget what that meant. We hugged, and laughed, and beamed at each other… and then she proudly introduced me to her girlfriend. Who was marvelous – of course she was marvelous – and the three of us giggled and crowed and sparkled and flirted our way through a dinner that left our other friend a bit out of place, I think, but still happy to be with us. And then after dinner, the two of them invited me to come along somewhere, but I needed to go home and do things. Needed not so much because of practicalities, but because my flight instinct was just as strong as it had been two years before.
I had another reason to go home, though, an infinitely better one. The minute Jaybird picked up the phone, I blurted out, “I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE WAS GAY!!!!!!!!!!!!” “What a waste,” he said. “Well,” I said. “Maybe if I’d realized, you and I would never have met. So I guess things worked out for the best.” “Hmm,” he said, and then we talked of other things.
As for this weekend, Jaybird and I will spend the next couple days getting ready for me to go to Paris, and then Saturday I’ll be getting on a plane.
What’s on your docket this weekend? And what was on your docket 20 years ago? I am deeply interested in both of those things.
- It gave me a special kind of satisfaction, a few years ago, to return to that library for professional reasons, and see some of the books that had been shiny and new when I first read them, aged and worn from a hundred readings now, and still there on the shelf and waiting to help some other girl figure out her soul. [↩]