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Julie punched the buttons on the radio, hard double-clicks, propelling the station marker back and forth between the rock and roll of WLLZ and WRIF, between “Detroit’s Wheels” and the “Home of Rock and Roll, Baby.” I watched as she and Catherine, who sat shotgun, talked about boys—well, men really—the men each of them had been with on the choir trip that past summer, the one I had been on too, a trip to Italy and Switzerland, a trip that was for me a drinking initiation, a trip that was for them so clearly a part of their sexual awakening. I listened to the sound, but didn’t really hear the words as their voices modulated with excitement, moved in and out of synch with each other, rising and falling together, up and down with laughter proud, whispers pure, telling each other and themselves the same stories—practically the same story—that they had been telling for months, the one we all like to tell about first love, about unbridled desire, about physical magic and spiritual grace.
It was a perfect fall day, cool and gentle, sun-speckled and safe. We drove down St. Paul, through Grosse Pointe City and into Grosse Pointe Park, tooling along at the 25 mile an hour speed limit, three teenagers in a 1981 light blue Buick Century, a car that in this moment in 1984, looked so square, so solid, so 70s. I sat in the back seat, in the middle, my legs splayed over the hump in the floor, one foot in each wheel well. I languished in their joy, delighted in their sexual energy, would lean forward on occasion, not because I really wanted or needed to hear what they were saying, but because I loved watching the choreography they shared. Windows down, radio blaring, Catherine scootched back and placed her feet up on the dashboard. Julie lit a cigarette, turned her face toward Catherine and made a joke. Catherine’s back arched; she presented her chin and throat to the sky, mouth wide, and released a loud and satisfied laugh. Julie exhaled out the window, smiled and offered Catherine a drag.
It was after choir practice and Julie was driving me home. Likely, there was a dance at school that night, and some sort of pre-or post-party to which I would get invited, some gathering that I would attend either before, or after connecting with friends my own age. Likely, there was some reason outside the confines of the car that caused me to spend time thinking about their conversation, about my relationship to it. Likely, it just hit me as curious for the first time, their giddy energy, their unbridled joy—boys make this possible? And, when they had fallen momentarily silent, I sat up, pushed into the space between them in the front seat, and offered: “I just don’t feel this way about boys.”
They were just seventeen then, but so much older than I who, at only fifteen, was simply glad to be there, to have found with them some sort of status, be it mascot-like or otherwise. And, so I felt good, grateful to be with them as we considered the moment, as we three downshifted into contemplation. I sat back, relieved by the admission, without any understanding of what it was I had said, believing, as a result of the immediate silence, that the statement would be abandoned.
We drove along another block or two. Catherine turned her face toward the window, closed her eyes and let the wind blow through her hair. I spread my arms wide across the back seat. Julie turned down the radio and responded. With a question.
“Well, do you like girls?”
What? I said nothing at first. Do I like girls? I replayed the question in my head. Do I like girls? Do I like girls? Do I like girls? The initial query quickly turned into a string of related questions: Is this possible? Liking girls? Is this allowed? Liking girls? What does this mean? What would it look like? How is it done? Julie’s eyes were focused on the road; I had their interest, their attention, and lucky for me, the backs of their heads. They couldn’t see that I was floored by the possibility, unnerved by the prospect—not the possibility or prospect that I liked girls (this is the moment of revelation; revolution is still to come), but that one could like girls.
I had to say something: “I don’t know. I never thought about that before.”
Indeed, I hadn’t thought about it before; it had never occurred to me at all. But the truth in the question struck a chord that rang so pure that I couldn’t move my mind from creating a second line of inquiry: How can one tell if they like girls? What does it actually mean to like girls? Is there a special way to like girls? How is liking girls different from liking boys? Does Julie, whose mom is a social worker, know something I don’t? And what could that knowing be? Most importantly, I wondered, as we turned off St. Paul, onto Whittier, crossing Kercheval finally pulling up in front of my house, eager to exit the car, relieved that we would, because of the uncertainty of it all, most likely desert this discussion forever: Does this idea—liking girls—does it have a name?
Six years later, I’m in a bar in Ann Arbor, sitting sweaty in a corner slugging back two-dollar pitchers of beer. The music is so loud that in order for me to hear what my sorority sister’s saying, she leans in close, positions her mouth just behind my left ear, speaks slowly and carefully to make herself heard. She’s just drunk enough to have a hard time holding steady. Her head bobs slightly, changing the trajectory of her words, from just behind my ear, to just in front. She falters, grabs my arm for support, and tells me that she wants both of us to go back onto the floor for the next song. When this happens, I come to new knowledge. Jason’s serenade, and my friend’s communication attempt, despite the fact that the first was intentional and the second accidental, each had for me the exact opposite intended effect on the body geography between my legs. He had left me savannah-dry, desert-dead; she brought me forth rainforest-wet, jungle-wild.
In my office today sits a well-worn box. It’s shiny and gold-colored, covered with a symmetrical pattern suggestive of embossing, a box of unassuming size about nine inches long, five inches wide, two inches deep. One corner is torn, revealing the cracking grey of cardboard beneath the gold, an indication of its age, of my reliance on its purpose. Originally, this box held stationary purchased so that I could write thank you notes for the gifts I received when I graduated high school. The box then traveled with me to college where I discovered that the random thank you note wasn’t the only impetus I might have to move a pen across a page.
Over time, the contents of the box shifted from the empty sheets of heavy weight unlined ivory stationery embossed with my initials, to the letters I received from friends—some old and some new. I have two letters from my mother, two from an old boyfriend, a handful of post cards from a dear friend I made in graduate school, birthday cards given to me when I turned 21, recent interaction with a friend newly rediscovered, and one sweet note from a young woman I used to babysit, sent when she just twelve, a woman who now lives in Brooklyn, who I am proud to currently call friend.
In addition to these missives is a set of communications that are the reason I continue to hold onto this box and keep safe these letters. Written to me by a college roommate, a sorority sister with whom I am now able to admit I once fell deeply in love, these epistles evidence our relationship, prove to me I wasn’t crazy, that even if it wasn’t exactly the same, she did love me too. Her letters are mirror images of mine, linguistic reflections in reverse. Though I do not and cannot know exactly what I wrote, (she has since thrown away my letters, a question I had for her over three years ago), I know my life and our communication dynamic well enough to recognize in her words that I came to sexual awakening through my own. Not ones that I cribbed, or borrowed, or learned, but the ones that were mine, words that I wrote to her.
Most of the letters are undated and I could probably place them in order if I tried. Yet the historical record they present to me now, their content, is so much less interesting than the frequently repeated tropes indicating how the letter writing was important to her as well. I do not claim that she felt the same about me in terms of my longing, my desperate desire. I doubt she thought much about my penmanship, other than it was sometimes difficult to read, sloppy and unbridled, all chewy with consonant elision, fraught with misspellings. And yet her hand exacerbated my adoration for her crisp diction, her script so measured and neat, written always with fine point pen, slender and deliberate. Her body was on the page for me and I coveted this textual rendering. Most of her text remained light, a series of extremely well-written dapple-direct comments paired with recordings of daily life. She often acknowledged that she was confused by my philosophical musings, the inclination to see whether I could make language truly refer. She resisted my circuitous explanations, preferring the straightforward route, calling me on bullshit and challenging me to make sense, even as she chastised herself because she claimed to not.
As connected with the past as it may be, her prose bears witness to a relationship of depth, one of complex form. In re-reading her letters I can recall the sensation, the compulsion to write her, to enter the space of composition and lust. I remember this time, before email and text, before a family and a career, when I would sit for hours, writing page after page, writing to her yes, but also writing to myself. I wrote steeped in heartache, saturated in sorrow. Sometimes it was because of the relationship we shared, formed and bound by unrequited imperfection. But mostly I wrote because the letters let me live, allowed me to begin to see and understand what I truly desired. The way one might sit down with a tear-jerking movie, a song to help instigate tears, I would approach this writing, pining away for myself as much as for her.
She knew how much the letter writing meant to me, affirming my effort with simple declarations of delight regarding the attention I paid to the generation of words:
“Wow, you sure know how to write a letter!”
“I was just thinking of you today and got home to find your letter in the mailbox.”
“So how’s the summer treating you? Your last letter was intriguing—I read it like a five-and dime novel.”
Sometimes she goes further, as I most usually did, moving beyond plain appreciation, returning the desire to touch me with her prose:
“Here I sit at the train station—been here for 45 min, have another 1 hour 40 min to go. I like people watching, but I don’t want these folks to think I’m staring so what else is there to do besides drink beer at $1.50 a can? Why rummage through your luggage to find a writing tablet, that’s what, and write to a long lost soulmate.”
“Your letter came just in time—‘Calgon , take me away’ without the Calgon. Funny how time is frozen when you read a letter. It’s suddenly shocking to discover that a year has passed, especially when I think about how few times I’ve seen you. As I feel a boot at my backside and see reality ahead, opening up before my like an abyss, it sure is nice to know our friendship is constant. Like you said, that’s really odd, I think. Soul mates.”
Soul mates we agreed, in letters and life. A striking statement for an exchange bereft of sexual innuendo, absent of directly carnal sentiment. None of these letters, not hers to me, or mine to hers are explicitly sexual, yet I am now clear that I did use my words to make love to her. I learned the art of syntactical love making in the production of these letters. Before I understood what I was doing, could admit what it was, I came out and onto the page for her over and over again, using intimacy, rather than anatomy, as a way to reinforce relationship.
I know this because we eventually broke-up, went our separate ways, providing finalizing confessions of love for each other through writing that ruptures wide. Her version, I am sure, is no less impassioned than whatever it was I once wrote to her:
“It’s all such a new feeling for me. You’ve taught me in many ways how to feel, how to express…but I sense that this time I’m learning a new feeling on my own—and at the same time I believe I never would have known this feeling had you not first taken me under your wing.
Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you feel it too? We may both have that same knot threatening to lodge in our throats, but they occur independently of each other; I am talking about the feeling of having a piece of your soul torn away, stolen, abandoning the rest of your soul. It seems as though we’ve shrugged off the thoughts of pushing or being pushed off the cliff, and instead opted to walk away from each other and climb down the opposite sides of the mountain. Certainly not a painless proposition.
Though it feels like you’re ripping away from me now, I know it will always remain with me, in the best of my care, because I will never forget you.
Forget me not
I love you.”
It is true. She has not forgotten me, and I have not forgotten her. It isn’t possible. It isn’t possible to forget someone with whom you have exchanged words such as these. It isn’t because we remember the words themselves, remember exactly what was said. It’s because we remember that words were shared, words borne of body, birthed at the dawn of our adult lives. Words charged with love, and blistering honesty.
I, and all the women to whom I have since written, the lovers and friends for whom I consciously compose, have my correspondence with this particular woman to thank, this muse of flesh and verbiage who allowed me to sensually practice with syntax and sexually become in prose. And it cannot go without saying that I also have to thank her for keeping my history as she, not I, ultimately marks my coming out, sets for me an awakening a date to which I often feel unable to commit, ever reticent to decide when the words came, which ones were important, which ones I will use. Fittingly so, she provides evidence in words; a poem from her, a gift for me, lovingly crafted on off white, textured card stock, featuring a hand-painted lavender lambda, written in six different colored pencils, sent to me in the spring of 1993, reflecting back to me my own struggle.
Ironic, one might respond, to hear me claim that the actual poem, the words she wrote, don’t matter now. As peculiar and paradoxical as it might be for me to claim that these words are irrelevant—to be sure, I have argued most assiduously regarding the difficulties I faced when I have been bereft of language—I claim only that these particular words (not words themselves) are immaterial. They are extraneous because knowing these words, knowing what she said to me most precisely, has nothing to do with what I now know. What I know about sex or anything else, isn’t about having the words, exacting vocabulary with fastidious definitions. It isn’t about precisely what was said, how it was relayed. This kind of knowing has to do with using words, with letting them and lettering them, in positioning them for each other and ourselves.
To let her live.
To let her love.
To let her.
To let her letter.
Ames Hawkins, an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, is a transgenre writer and art activist whose most recent publications appear in Interdisciplinary Humanities, Polari, Water~Stone Review, and Resilience: Stories, Poems, Essays, Words for GLBT Teens. Her essay, “Optickal Allusion,” was selected by Robert Atwan as a notable essay of 2011. In 2013, she served as curator and co-editor of the Lambda Literary Foundations 25th Anniversary eBook Collection, 25 for 25: An Anthology of Works by 25 Outstanding Contemporary Authors and Those They Inspired. Ames has been integrally involved with international art activist projects such as The Cradle Project and One Million Bones. Ames also loves to get the written word off the page and onto the stage and has engaged in drag/queer/story performance in Chicago with 2nd Story, Gender Fusions, Northern Lights, and The Chicago Kings.