An American in Spain

We were one hour from Seville when the program director walked up and down the aisles of the train, handing out index cards to each of us.  

“You will be living with a married couple with a student daughter,” he said to me.  I took the index card and wondered what my Spanish “family” would be like.  These were the people I would be living with during my study abroad program in southern Spain in the spring of my junior year of college.

I had arrived in Spain three days earlier and was trying to keep my anxiety at bay.  I was tired from the journey from New York to Madrid, trying to adjust to the time difference, and overwhelmed by the prospect of living on my own for four months with a family I had never met.  I also didn’t speak Spanish very well, and all of my classes would be taught in Spanish.

On the train ride from Madrid to Seville, I chatted nervously with the group of American students whom I had spent the previous days with sightseeing and acclimating. We were all embarking on the same “immersion” adventure. When we pulled into the station, I lugged my heavy suitcase off the train and waited for a cab.  This was the moment we would each have to make our own way. 

A little backstory: the truth is, I didn’t really want to go to Spain or Europe. I knew my school offered a study abroad program and was considering it, but concluded it would be too overwhelming.  Then I spoke with a friend of my sister’s who had just returned from Spain. He told me all about his experience and said, “Don’t think about it.  Just do it.” Even though I was young, immature, and hyper-resistant to change (and knew all of this about myself), I understood that this was a one-time chance that I would regret not taking if I let my anxiety do the deciding.  

Hence I found myself in a cab bringing me to the apartment building where I would be living.  After getting my bag out of the trunk, the driver started to leave; I somehow indicated that I needed his help getting in.  He obliged and buzzed up to the apartment number on the index card.

My Spanish home

“Quien?” (who is it?) a gruff woman asked into the box.

The cab driver looked at me.  All of the Spanish words I knew disappeared.  I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a blank look.  

“Quien?” the woman asked again, sounding more annoyed this time.

I finally remembered one helpful word — “estudiante” — and said it to the cab driver.

He said something to her.  She said something to him.  He said something else to her, and then he smiled at me and left.

An interminable ten minutes later, a short, sturdy-looking woman came down to the lobby where I was perseverating.  Angelita, my Spanish “mother,” briskly introduced herself, grabbed my bag, and brought me upstairs in the elevator.  

Angelita

The apartment was a small two-bedroom place, with a galley kitchen, a formal living room that looked unused, and a little TV room.  

I met Esperanza, my 15-year-old “sister,” and was shown to my room.  Espe, as she was called, announced, in a manner that could never be confused with subtle, that I was taking over her room.  I wondered where her father was, and where she would be staying.

After getting my bags settled, we sat down for a meal.  Angelita served hot dogs, which completely surprised me. We eat hot dogs for a living in New York, I thought, but I had no idea they even had hot dogs in Spain! (Oh, Grasshopper, so much to discover …) I later found out that she had not been expecting me for another week and did not have much food in the refrigerator when I arrived.  That explained her tone when she answered the buzzer.

As the evening went on, I kept expecting my host father to come home from work.  Eventually I asked Angelita about him, and learned that he had been killed in a car accident the year before.  The family had lived in Pamplona, in northern Spain, and after the accident she and Espe had moved to Seville, Angelita’s hometown.

I slowly pieced together that she had portrayed her family as husband, wife, and daughter to my study abroad program, perhaps in order to ensure that they would place a student with her.  It was clear that she needed the stipend the program paid to host families.  In a conversation we had about a month later, she told me that she wanted to host a student to be able to put food on the table for her daughter, even though it meant that she and Espe would share a bedroom.

The hot dogs and the difficult family circumstances were just two of the eye-opening experiences I had that semester.  At 19, I had always lived in an enveloping cocoon of family and friends where there was always someone to turn to if a problem came up. Now, for the first time in my life, I was truly alone. My host family was cordial, but they were in a lot of pain themselves (I see now, looking back as an adult) and so they understandably tolerated more than embraced having me in their home.

La Giralda, the bell tower of the Seville Cathedral

Over the course of the next four months, I got better at being on my own. Because it was often uncomfortable to be in the apartment, and because I was determined not to cling to American friends from my program, I started to learn how to fill my own days, especially on the weekends. It was a struggle at first.

One Sunday in particular stands out, where I had no plans and felt terribly homesick and lonely. I walked to one of my favorite spots, the Seville Cathedral, sat in the back, and cried. After a while, I felt better, took a deep breath, left the cathedral, and went to see other things in the city. I remember that being a pivotal moment. I acknowledged that I was hurting, realized it wasn’t the end of the world, and kept moving.

In addition to being in a number of situations that forced me to grow up a little, there were many other benefits to my time in Spain. I learned much more about Spanish culture than I would have if I were just a tourist. I went home from school for dinner and a rest every day from 2 – 5 p.m., then returned to school for an evening class and socializing with friends from my program.  Many people joked that the pace of the siesta schedule was an indication of laziness, but I felt that the days and evenings unfolded in a way that allowed for a sweet balance between work and play. 

Hanging out at a cafe with friends

I obviously learned a lot about the Spanish language as well, at times by mixing up words. There was the time I told Angelita and Espe that I was pregnant when I was trying to say I was embarrassed.  Turns out you can’t just put a vowel on the end of an English word and Spanish-ize it.  Embarazada is not embarrassed. Another day I told them that my American friend was preparing a dinner of “polla” for her host family. When they keeled over laughing, I discovered an important distinction: “pollo” is chicken. “Polla” is slang for a part of the male anatomy that begins with d.  Vowels are so important.

A highlight of the trip was a visit from my parents and sister.  My dad and I still laugh about some of things that happened, like the time he and I were standing at a bar waiting for drinks and he helped himself to another man’s olives, thinking they were out for the taking like peanuts at an American bar.  That gave me a chance to practice my most deferential vocabulary words. (“My sincerest apologies! My American father did not understand that those were yours!”)

Another day we traveled to the city of Granada and discovered when we arrived that the hotel my father had booked was closed for renovations. My dad kept insisting that someone named Pepe had taken his reservation over the phone, and the cab driver kept telling me “esta cerrado” (it’s closed).  When we pulled up to the hotel, it was a pile of rubble.  On to Plan B.  My mom, whose only Spanish word was “hola,” wandered off while the rest of us were pulling our hair out and somehow got a recommendation for a hotel right down the street.

My mom and sister

I was talking with a friend the other day about my semester in Spain and she asked if it was fun. I told her that there were many fun times and I have lots of fond memories, but when I think back, it was more a time of growth than fun. I left Spain a little more mature, a little more aware of the world around me, and a little more humble, and that was a good thing.

When I got home, I put together a scrapbook. This was the final page.

And Now for Something Completely Different

What would you do if fear weren’t involved?

This was the question my friend posed as we sat in her car last year mulling over what I should do about a particular situation that involved putting myself out there.

When I allowed myself to disconnect from the fear of rejection, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  Although things did not end up working out as I had hoped, I was glad that I had taken a chance.

Many of the most rewarding experiences I recall have involved pursuing things I wanted that first required me to break through a wall of fear. I am always hesitant to leave my comfort zone, but have found that when I have moved past a gnawing fear of failure, I have never regretted it, even when the outcome is different than what I had envisioned.

A recent example of this was when I decided to take up the drums — at age 46. 

Like many kids in the 70s, I played a variety of instruments in grade school: piano (until I got kicked out of lessons in 2nd grade due to insolence), violin (because I was told in 3rd grade that my hands were too small to play the instrument I really wanted to play — the guitar), saxophone (can you say Pink Panther?), clarinet (so squeaky!), and finally, guitar.

I love playing the guitar and still play today.  Some of my fondest memories have involved getting together to play and sing with other people.

I have always been fascinated with the drums, though never asked to play when I was in school. The drums have a different meaning; they are less a collaborative instrument that brings people together (Kumbaya!) and more of a middle finger to convention.  In my mind, there is something viscerally appealing about the rebellion associated with drummers and drum sets.  I have wanted to play drums for as long as I can remember.

But starting to play in middle age, as a woman?  What would people think?  I am a person who takes comfort in belonging to the herd, so the thought of invoking sneers from some in my herd was enough to give me pause.

Aside from the fact that the Stepford wives in my neighborhood might look askance at female drummers, honestly, there are so few to be found in popular culture.  Only five women appear on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, and I only recognize one.

I have to credit my former mate with giving me the push I needed to move from thinking about it to actually doing it.  I mentioned in passing that I had always wanted to play the drums, but said I was too old and it would look weird.  She pointed out the distortion in my worldview and strongly encouraged me to start.

I thought about it and decided to follow her advice. 

I began by taking lessons with a local guy who was a drummer with a number of well-known rock bands back in the day.  He was very good at teaching the basics, and over the year that I worked that with him, I saw that he had an eclectic group of students.

My first teacher

The client whose lesson was often right before mine was probably in kindergarten.  He had a pushy mom and was actually quite good, though I could often hear the teacher redirecting him when his five-year-old attention span was growing thin.  Who could blame the kid for wanting to get back to his T-Rex building set instead of continuing to slog through rudiments?

The guy whose lesson was right after mine was a burly, rough and tumble 40-something who seemed to be dying to fist bump me as we passed each other in the hallway every week.  We usually had a little chuckle when we saw each other, like, “Heh, heh … we’re both old people taking beginner drum lessons!”

Last summer I took lessons with another extremely talented drummer, a guy I had followed on Instagram.  He was very sweet; he was also probably more than 20 years younger than me. Working with him was a lot like driving a Mercedes the second time you’re behind the wheel.

My second teacher

Being a novice at my age has required a little humility.  I have gotten more than one curious look as I have walked in for a lesson with drumsticks in hand or mentioned to someone that I have started playing the drums. 

The payoff is that I get to do something I love.  One of my favorite things to do in my free time is to put on headphones and smash away to songs like “Highway to Hell,”  “Comfort Eagle,” or “Come Together.” There is just something so fun about leaving the realm of the suburbs and acting like a member of AC/DC for a half hour.

In the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Fred Rogers talks about “positive ways to deal with your feelings” and recommends pounding on the low notes of the keyboard as a harmless, healthy way to blow off steam.  I’m not sure those living with and/or near me appreciate the Mr. Rogers approach to anger management.

There is definitely a case of role reversal going on with my son.  In my house, it’s the teenage boy who is shouting from another room, “Can you take it down a peg?” To be fair, it is ridiculously loud, thought I actually think more parents forced to tolerate their teens’ grating behavior on a daily basis should try this. (“Oh really??  You don’t feel like emptying the dishwasher? I just remembered I forgot to practice today!”)

My son isn’t the only person who detests the racket.  My next door neighbor gave me a tight smile one day and said, “Sue!  You’re getting better at the drums!”  I had to give her points on her passive aggressive ploy.  Then again, my drum set is right up against the part of my house that borders her dining room. 

Noise pollution notwithstanding, I always feel better when I have had some time to practice and disconnect from whatever stresses I have going on.  Things are clearer when I come back.  As with any hobby that provides an escape from everyday life, I am a better person afterwards.

A 51-year-old and her drums

And at the risk of sounding like Jack Handey, it’s good for the soul during a life stage when many people feel stuck.  After all, middle-aged men buy red sports cars to feel more alive; lesbians buy navy blue drum sets.

I won’t be appearing on any Rolling Stone lists anytime soon. I can keep a beat but haven’t spent enough time practicing the fundamentals to be particularly skilled. If I were 15, I might try to get some people together to hack away in a garage band. (My age confers certain benefits though, like actually owning a garage.) Who knows. Perhaps that’s still somewhere in my future.

I recently saw a little clip of Anna Wintour advising people to “own who you are, without apology,” and I think this is wise counsel.  I may not be the next John Bonham, but throwing appearances to the wind has allowed me to add a layer of enrichment to my life.

Single Parenting: A Retrospective

Last summer I joined my brother on the Outer Banks in North Carolina for five days of much-needed relaxation.  He had rented a house near the beach, and the lady folk in his family were not available to come down yet, so it was just the two of us.  He worked during the days, and I went to the beach, walked, read, swam, napped, and unclenched my jaws.  At night we grilled dinner and chatted.  We watched old movies.  It was delightful!  So refreshing.

Sunrise on the last day of vacation — the calm before the storm

Funny how a state of mind can evaporate in just moments. As I walked into my house when I got home, I immediately noticed that the side table next to my couch was a foot away from its usual spot.  A blue pillow had somehow found its way from the couch to the chair next to the fireplace.  And a vase was on the table that I never put there.

Before I even closed the door behind me, I knew what had happened.  My 17-year-old son, who was staying with his dad while I was away, had let himself in and thrown a party at my house.

“This #$#@^@^!!”

My blood began to boil.   

As I looked around, I started noticing one slightly-off detail after the next.  The bottom shelf of the fridge, roughly beer can height, was completely empty.  The tortillas, always stored on the bottom left, were upside down, one shelf up, on the opposite side of the fridge.

Upside down tortillas on the second shelf???  Aaaaas if!

A blue pillow on that side chair?  No, sir!  It doesn’t match!

Then I went to do laundry and noticed a fine yellow powder on some of the containers next to the washer and dryer.  Had there been a nuclear holocaust in the laundry room while I was gone?  And where was the fire extinguisher that I always keep in the corner?

At some point that afternoon, I felt as if a spirit was passing through me, and it almost made me shudder.  I had a nauseating sensation that A LOT OF PEOPLE had been in my house.

My first instinct was to call my fine young man at his dad’s house to get to the bottom of this immediately, but he was scheduled to be there for another two days, so I decided to delay contact while I mulled over my response.

I picked him up at his dad’s two days later. We had a very cordial conversation on the way back to my house.  When we walked in, I drained my voice of all emotion and simply said,

“What can you tell me about what happened here while I was gone?”

His jaw dropped and his eyes got wide.  He stammered something about having a friend over, as in one single person.

I said, “Ok.  Well, it is clear to me that there was a party here.  You’re obviously not comfortable telling me about it, and I’m not going to ask you to lie.  So I’m going to lay out the consequences and that’s going to be the end of the conversation.”

I listed the punishments I had decided on.  When I finished, he said, “Is that all?” 

Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. 

“Do you want me to add punishments?” 

“No, no!” 

I went to go about my business, and he said, “Um, do you want to know more about the party?” 

I told him I would be interested in whatever he wanted to share, but again, I was not going to ask him to lie. He wanted to know if he would get in more trouble once I found out additional details, and I said no, that I had already laid out all of the punishments.

Once he was granted amnesty, the floodgates of information opened.

I would have jumped at the chance to throw a bash at my mom’s empty house when I was 17, so there is some hypocrisy involved with acting aghast, but the scale of this shindig was astounding.  He had started by using social media to invite 124 of his closest friends the morning I left for North Carolina, and it went from there. 

I know I didn’t hear every detail about the party, and frankly, I didn’t want to.  I did enjoy learning about the extensive clean up/cover up efforts, which were comical, in part because my son was so outmatched by my CSI techniques. But his honesty and willingness to be open about what happened were refreshing, and I felt proud of him for that.   

I was also grateful that he was not with me when I walked in. We were able to have a much more productive conversation two days later where I was able to quietly point out some of the things that could have gone wrong. 

In this case, because we did have a good resolution, I felt good about my parenting, an all-too uncommon occurence.  But most of the time I spend parenting solo, I am making decisions in real time, without the benefit of a second opinion or a break to consider the best approach.

Here is my experience with single parenting, in a nutshell:

You do it alone, and then you beat yourself up for not doing it well enough.

Without a partner to serve as a sounding board, I find I am regularly asking myself if I am making the right call.  Am I being too lenient?  Too harsh?  Am I just choosing the path of least resistance because I am tired or distracted?

I understand that having a spouse in the home is no guarantee of quality co-parenting.  I am able to consult my ex-husband on big decisions, and I often talk with friends about how to handle situations, but being the only adult on duty for the majority of the day-to-day issues can be draining.

The other thing that has been a struggle is guilt, which comes naturally to a divorced parent who was raised in an intact family.

I’ve tried to counterbalance that guilt by continuing some of the traditions of my family. When my siblings and I turned 10, my parents took each of us away for the weekend by ourselves for what they called a “10 Trip.” They took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in turn, when my son turned 10 many years later, I took him to Cleveland to watch the Yankees play the Indians and to visit some of the restaurants that he and I had seen on the Food Network.

I also had a rock inscribed that I gave him while we were in Cleveland.  I wanted him to know that even when we were not together, he was in my thoughts. 

As my son approaches the day when he will be moving out into the world, I’ve been looking back and thinking about what has gone well and what could’ve gone better. I’ve come to the conclusion that flogging myself for parental shortcomings hasn’t served any real purpose, and the best thing I can do is simply continue to show up for him regardless of the circumstances.

In the meantime, there have been lots of things for both of us to celebrate, whether that be a great trip, an epic party, an honest conversation, or learning how to hold it together when someone has moved your tortillas.

10 Trip Baseball Game

The Road to Veganville

I would love to say that I became a vegan out of some noble concern for the environment or the world’s animal population, but that wouldn’t be true.  I became a vegan as the result of watching a movie.

Last December I saw The Game Changers, a film that makes a compelling case for transitioning to a whole foods, plant-based diet.  The health benefits seemed clear, and more importantly, it seemed that eating this way might allow me to finally lose the extra weight I had been carrying. Along with a handful of friends, I decided to give it a shot.

Why not?  I had tried just about every other diet available on the open market.

A not-so-brief recap of a few of my failed diets:

Weight Watchers:  Nearly every red-blooded American woman has tried this diet; it was tough for me because the strategy is to limit what you eat (huh?) through their “points” program, a calorie-counting approach that was a “fail” for me. I often reached my allotted quota of 23 points by lunchtime, and the rest of the day was a free-fall of consumption. In other words, one tire went flat, so I let the air out of the remaining three.

The Dukan Diet: This gem was made famous by Kate Middleton, who allegedly lost lots of weight she couldn’t afford to lose needed to lose before her royal wedding.  I read about her success and headed straight over to Barnes & Noble™ to get the book, thinking, well, if that schlump Kate Middleton can do it, I certainly can. (Anything she can do, I can do better…) Then I stocked up on expensive meats and vegetables — the only two food groups on this diet — which you’re allowed to eat in unlimited quantities. Binge away!

On Day 1, as I sat in front of a plate of steak and eggs, my third meal of the day at 10:30 a.m., I was disgusted. 

“I’m out!” I emphatically declared to no one as I sat at the dining room table in my empty house. 

I went over to the garbage can, fished out my receipt, smoothed it out (I had arrogantly crumpled it the night before, certain that I would be using the book for more than three hours), and drove back to the bookstore to return the book. 

“Reason for return?” the clerk asked politely. 

“Oh, I won’t be needing this.”

The Ideal Protein Diet: This was my shortest diet foray, in that I quit before I even started. I dubbed it The Astronaut Diet because for a mere $600, you are given an attractive tote bag filled with silver pouches containing meals with names like “Lemony Soy Puffs” and “Nacho Cheese Dorados.”

Before you begin, you have to meet with a medical professional/shill for the company who is legally obligated to share your potential health risks. She began by asking if I’d ever had any “trouble” with my gallbladder. Apparently, the diet might cause a gallbladder attack.

Gulp!  

I wasn’t even sure where my gallbladder was located. When I asked if I would I have to go to the hospital for this type of attack, she did her best Kramer impersonation.

“Oh, you’d want to get that checked out.”

She went on to say that fainting was also possible. I immediately had a vision of dropping like a sack of wheat in front of my class of high schoolers (“Sorry, kids! I was just trying to take off 10 pounds in 7 days!”), but I still left with the packets. I had a planned start date; however, after staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. worrying about the sack of wheat thing, I decided not to even try this diet. 

Not today, Satan!

Vegan:  I made an attempt at being vegan seven years ago after seeing the film Forks over Knives.  This came to a screeching halt on Day 3 when I started feeling weak and just generally awful, with a wanging headache.

I decided to give it a go again this past year the day after Christmas.  This time, I was more prepared, having done a fair amount of reading and planning before I started. Lo and behold, four months later, I’m still going strong-ish.  I heard the label “imperfectly vegan” recently, and that’s how I would describe myself.  I definitely don’t have it all figured out, but I can honestly say that I love eating this way.

One of the main reasons it appeals to me is that it’s very straightforward.  It’s actually similar to how I get myself dressed myself for work.

I pick a pair of pants in the morning.  I have the same pants in multiple colors, arranged in order by shades, light to dark.

EXHIBIT A

Chinos, light to dark.  Flip flops and sneakers not worn to work.

Then I select one of the hanging shirts or one of the polo shirts in the drawers.

Finally, I choose a pair of man shoes, and voilà!  I’m ready for work.

EXHIBIT B

Hanging shirts and man shoes.  Hiking boots not worn to work.

If you concluded that a closet arranged this way implies a certain rigidity in its owner, you would be correct.  The need for this level of organization is explained somewhere in the DSM-5, but here’s the thing — over the years, I’ve struggled to figure out wtf to wear to work, and I’ve also struggled to figure out wtf to cook.  Give me a plan, a roadmap, and I can follow that.

There’s a simplicity to eating vegan that really works for me.  You take the core foods and just put them together.  There are grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Those things can be combined in a wide variety of ways.  Mix and match.  Take the stuff from the jars and combine them.

 EXHIBIT C

Jar labels courtesy of the artist formerly known as Sandy Rizzo.

Now, I don’t actually just throw a bunch of grains and nuts together.  There are thousands of gourmet recipes you can follow, and I have actually been much more interested in cooking than ever before. I even bought a shiny new pot for cooking soups.  I never thought I would utter the words “I’ve been enjoying cooking,” but it’s kind of true.

Oh, and also, I feel great.  Better than I ever remember feeling, in fact.  There just might be something to this push to eliminate processed stuff and avoid anything that once had a face, a mom or dad, or swam or walked or crawled.

As for weight loss, without ever being hungry or counting anything, I lost weight slowly but surely over the first couple of months. Being home-bound for the last five weeks has definitely put a kink in the progress. There is a surprising amount of junk food that officially passes as vegan, and I have consciously used it to smooth over the rough edges on a number of occasions. (I’m looking at you, Oreos and Coors Light.) I will also admit to a handful of cheese relapses on rainy days.

Pandemic-induced comfort eating and drinking aside, my plan when I started all of this was not to be perfect, but to allow myself the occasional pizza, which truly makes my life better, to eat whatever is served when I’m at someone else’s house (because I’m polite like that), and to be flexible when the need arises.

I don’t think there is a diet program that is The Answer.  I do know that while I was busy bouncing from one diet to the next over the last 20 years, I packed on an inordinate amount of weight.  Being vegan is not a weight-loss program, per se, but so far it has been successful for me in that I feel really good, I have dropped some weight, and it’s easy for me to follow.

Plus, now I get to hang out with other vegan lesbians and declare, “I don’t eat animals!”

 

The New Land

Probably the closest I’ve ever come to being a victim of a mob assault was when I casually mentioned to a roomful of lesbians that I didn’t really like dogs. 

“Did you just say you don’t like dogs?” one of the women asked with thinly-veiled contempt.

“Not really,” I glibly replied.

Everyone stopped talking. Silence fell over the room.

It was a scene straight out of one of those EF Hutton commercials from the 70s.  But, like, not in a good way.

My friend Deb had come to the party with me and was just meeting this group of people, and she correctly sensed the hostility brewing.  She protectively positioned herself between me and everyone else. 

“She doesn’t like dogs, but she doesn’t hurt them or anything!”

I tried to backtrack, but it was of no use.  They were clearly disgusted with me. Soon after that gathering, I started seeing those women less and less. 

Coincidence?  I think not.

This was early on in my career as a lesbian, and I had a lot to learn.

Fortunately, I had good company for the ride. As I was beginning to explore the culture of this new world, I connected with a subsect of the lesbian population — a group of women who had also previously been married to men. 

Just before I left my marriage, I had started going to weekly meetings at Whitman Walker, a non-profit organization that provides support for the LGBTQ community.  They had a peer group called Women Coming Out of Marriage, which went by the acronym Coomers (the W is silent, apparently).  I always thought they should have called it the “Whoops!  I Married a Man!” group (acronym WIMM), but I didn’t get a vote.

Anyway, the women I met through this group became the nucleus of my gay social life.  We were a collection of people who had professions, and kids, and mortgages.  Many of the women were in the process of ending marriages to men we categorized as “nice guy husbands,” guys who were heartbroken about losing their mates.  Many had kids who were struggling.  It was helpful to have people to talk with who were in the same boat. 

With my homeys Jane and Pam at one of our early parties

We also had a ton of fun together.  We went to concerts and gay bars.  We threw parties that offered an opportunity to let loose.  There is an episode of Malcolm in the Middle where the mom goes to a book club meeting, has too much wine, goes wilding in the neighborhood with other drunk soccer moms, and ends up hiding from the police in a dumpster.  Our gatherings didn’t quite reach that level, but some were pretty close.  It was great to hang out with women who had bucked convention to be true to their own nature, however late they came to it. 

Beginning to date in the lesbian world was a whole other matter.  I found it both thrilling and baffling from the start. 

The devotion to dogs was just one of the conventions I either didn’t know about or wasn’t prepared for.  I had never heard that many lesbian relationships become so intense so quickly that there is a running joke about how one party always shows up in a U-Haul on the second date in order to move her stuff in. This is a joke, but the struggle is real. The dynamics of two women together just yields a different level of intensity. I remember a conversation with a girlfriend that went something like this:

GF: Your eye just twitched. Were you having a feeling?

Me: What?

GF: What did that eye twitch mean?

Me: I’m not sure. That my eye needed a blink?

I also had no idea that many lesbians remain close friends with their girlfriends long after breaking up and expect to socialize with them.  I mean, I’m all for being cordial, but does it make me a huge jerk if I don’t feel like having candlelight dinners with my new girlfriend and her overly-accepting ex? 

Perhaps the biggest surprise was learning that when you skip adolescence, it waits for you.  If you missed the dating part of adolescence, as I largely did, you can look forward to acting like a teenager at 36, complete with poor decision making, giddy chats where you resemble a character in a Judy Blume novel, and trying on different “looks” as you search for your signature style.  Fortunately, I had learned my lesson about bad hairstyles after sporting a permed mullet in the late 80s, so I was ahead of the game there. 

I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Big.  He’s dressed in adult clothes and reports to an adult job, but he’s a kid on the inside. The irony was not lost on me that some days I went to work and scolded students for acting like teenagers, then went home and acted like one myself.

I should acknowledge that I didn’t skip the dating phase entirely in high school.  I did have one boyfriend, but only for five days.  He broke up with me as we walked out of social studies.  Said he just wanted to be friends.  Body blow! 

I still think of him every time I hear the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream.”  It was our song.  (I’m not sure he knew that.) But enough about him.

Without discussing the particulars of any of my relationships with women, which I feel is the only respectful thing to do, I will say that it was clear to me right away that I had made the right decision to switch teams. Throughout this adventure, I have spent time with some wonderful people and I am grateful for the dating experiences I have had.

I have learned a lot about myself over the last 15 years.  I’ve been surprised at how insecure and anxious I have felt in my relationships with women.  I’ve also felt calmer and more whole in many respects since switching over, and that comes from knowing that I am in the right place, and knowing that all the turmoil involved in making that change was the correct thing to do — for me — in the long run.  There has been great joy in finally feeling comfortable in my own skin.

I’m on the sidelines these days.  My college friends used to say the drama with my girlfriends sounded like high school.  As I grew slightly more evolved in my dating behavior, they would say I had moved up. (“You’re in junior college now!”)  I would say these days I’m in grad school, living off campus.  Working on my dissertation, maybe. 

Tattoos and Watering Holes

Every gay person has their own coming out story. Mine unfolded over four years.

It began with a tumultuous stretch of time. Within a span of about two months, I learned I was probably not going to be able to have children.  Soon after, I developed a major crush on a woman I met through work.

Coming from a family where things were generally calm and predictable, I am a person who chafes at the unexpected. Two major life curveballs happening simultaneously left me feeling like one of those air dancer wind socks you see outside a used car dealership.

The crush happened when I had been happily married for five years. I was deeply rattled and became quiet and withdrawn for about a month as I tried to understand what was going on. I went on long walks. I had trouble sleeping. I questioned myself. How could this be?  Was I gay this whole time and just denying it?  (Answer: yes.) 

The woman I liked was in a committed relationship of her own and was not interested in me. That didn’t change the fact that a seismic shift was taking place.

The topic came up with my husband as part of a discussion about tattoos. The object of my affection had three, and I announced out of the blue one evening as we entertained friends that I would be getting a tattoo. After our guests left, we talked about my sudden urge to get a tattoo and my withdrawn behavior, and I blurted out that I had become interested in a woman and was thinking of leaving him to “pursue a lesbian lifestyle.”

Yes, that’s actually how I worded it.

(As a side note, out of respect for the privacy of others and to the extent that it is possible to discuss a situation involving two people and only write about one, I am trying to share only my own experience.)

Suffice it to say that the evening and the weeks that followed were very difficult. 

I fluctuated between fearing I would need to leave the marriage and not wanting anything to change. I did not want to be gay.  I wanted to be a mom.  My husband was my best friend, and I had no interest in entering the gay singles scene. 

Ultimately, I decided to stay. I told him, and sincerely meant it, that I was attracted to women, but that didn’t mean I had to act on it. This attraction to women was part of me, but didn’t have to be all of me. I figured I could explore gay culture within the confines of my marriage. I would be a lesbian without being a lesbian!

My tattoo

I have to hand it to myself — I really went full bore. I got my tattoo. (And thought I was so edgy and alternative … even though it was Curious George swinging from a trapeze.) I started wearing thumb rings and Dr. Martens. I read feminist manifestos like The Feminine Mystique and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. I started listening almost exclusively to female musicians like Ani DiFranco.

My husband and I moved from one region of the country to another and adopted a son.  Then I hurt my back, and my female physical therapist was very attractive. The same feelings I had had a few years earlier resurfaced.

Like my first crush, the second woman was not available or interested in me.  But then I met someone who was, and that’s when the dam broke.

I had clung to the idea that I could be gay, or gay-ish, and stay in a straight marriage in a healthy and honest way. Now I was forced to accept the difficult truth that this was just not realistic.  The crushes kept cropping up, like a beach ball that refuses to submerge in water, regardless of where we lived or what the circumstances were.  The thought of burying my head in the sand at age 36 and continuing to push this down just started to feel too depressing.  

I also felt that if I stayed I would likely develop some kind of serious side issue, possibly with alcohol, and probably end up cheating at some point anyway. It felt like the healthier thing to do was to leave with the integrity of the relationship intact. I decided to end the marriage.

Then came the time to tell people.  I had already talked with my siblings about it and they were both wonderful. I was extremely nervous about telling my parents, though.  No one has ever mistaken them for hippies. Their household was not an “anything goes” kind of place.

I spoke with my mom first, and told her that my husband and I were separating and putting the adoption of a second child that we had been planning on hold.  (My son was two at the time.) 

She asked what had happened. I told her it was kind of a heavy story and I was planning to share it in phases. She said, “Well, I’m here to listen if you want to talk.”

It felt like one of those moments where you fall and hurt yourself as a kid and the only person who can comfort you is your mom.

I immediately spilled the tale of falling for a woman. She listened quietly to the whole story and then said, “Wow.  That is heavy.  But I know I can speak for your father when I say we would never turn our backs on you.  We love you so much and you’re very special and we’re just sad for all three of you.”

Wow.

I’m still stunned when I think about it. I called my mom on a random Wednesday afternoon and told her I was leaving my husband because I was gay and she didn’t bat an eye — she just let me know how loved I was and made me feel like everything was going to be ok.

My dad was equally as supportive in his own way but it came out differently.  He called me the following day.

“Um, Suz, yeah, um, obviously, I talked with your mother and uh, obviously, we love you and support you, and uh, this must be very … uh … uh … difficult.”

I agreed and thanked him and then his worries tumbled out.  He asked if I could lose my teaching job over this. 

“What if someone sees you with a woman in the afternoon at a movie or at a watering hole?”

Watering hole? 

Hmm.  I didn’t realize anyone used that expression anymore.

I told my dad that I knew he and my mom would worry and this was part of why I had not talked with them earlier.

“Oh.  Well, that shouldn’t be your primary concern.  Maybe your tertiary concern …”

Tertiary? 

I guess that means 3rd?

Perplexing vocabulary aside, my dad may have led with a question about watering holes, but I fully understood that his angst was based on concern for my well-being and the well-being of my son. I never once felt that he was rejecting me in any way.

Given the fact that my parents were raised in a different era, in a religion that does not accept homosexuality, their response was remarkable. Their support started then and has continued every step of the way over the past 15 years, and it has allowed me to be at least mildly grounded as I have navigated some very choppy waters.

My alleged doppelganger

Like my parents, to a person, my friends were immediately supportive and understanding.  One friend told me she was surprised, but not shocked. My college roommate said her father recognized that I was gay the day he dropped her off freshman year; another friend told me I reminded her father of Jo from Facts of Life. (I’m not sure what he was talking about.  I didn’t part my hair in the middle.) Basically, people already knew on some level, and it didn’t change how they saw me.

The hardest part of this was knowing I would be hurting someone I truly loved. That never goes away. Nor does the guilt of forcing a child to handle two very complicated issues, divorce and having a gay parent. I guess I’ve just tried to do the best I can with both situations, and that’s all I can do.

The Mary Oliver poem below is a little bit cliche, especially in the gay coming out community, but it really resonates with me.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Kleinfeld and Me

Because my childhood ambition was to play in the NFL, the furthest thing from my mind when I was young was what kind of wedding dress I might like to wear someday.  While other girls were keeping up with fashion trends like over-sized pocket combs, velour shirts, and culottes, I was sure that my most stylish outfit was Toughskins jeans, a ratty T-shirt from a garage sale, and my New York Yankees wristbands.  While they were passively playing with Barbies, I was playing Kill the Carrier with a pack of boys and slinging playmates to the ground by their necks. While they were squealing over David Cassidy and Leif Garrett, I was lighting up every time the impossibly cool Kristy McNichol appeared on the television screen. 

So the day I found myself standing on a pedestal in the middle of a brightly-lit dressing room at the Kleinfeld bridal salon in Brooklyn, I felt like Scout Finch in a pair of overalls.

I was 26 and getting ready to marry my boyfriend, and I didn’t know a cap sleeve from a spaghetti strap or an empire waist from a chapel veil. What I did know was that I was now a lamb being brought to slaughter.

It would be 10 years before I would find my voice and realize that I had ignored dozens of obvious clues that I was gay.  But for now, in the spring of 1995, I was relieved to finally get in step with my female peers.  Though I always had friends and was never quite an outsider, I had always been keenly aware and mildly ashamed of the fact that I was not like other girls. 

Somehow, when I was in my 20s, I had lucked out and found a great guy who enjoyed watching sports and drinking beer with me, and now I was going to have a full-blown wedding like all of my friends.

“You should go to Kleinfeld!” people had told me.

“What’s Kleinfeld?” I asked.  

 “It’s where everybody goes.  It’s the best place to get a wedding dress!” 

Actually, it’s not just where “everybody goes” – it is such a quintessential model of high-end bridal fashion that the cable channel TLC later decided to film a show there called Say Yes to the Dress.  When you are a member of the Future Lesbians Club, it’s the best place to go if you are looking to feel as out of place as possible. 

Garage sale T-shirt

This over-the-top establishment, with its high ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and white carpets, is full of pushy, intense New York women with really long nails who can’t wait to tell you what you should be wearing.  Many of the brides-to-be at Kleinfeld have been dreaming of coming to this salon for years; the only issue that has been holding them up was having to find a mate first. 

 “What are you lookin’ for, doll?” Regina, our bridal consultant, asked me.

 “Well, I … I don’t like anything up around my neck, so I guess just nothing that’s like a turtleneck?”

Regina looked at my entourage, my mom, my sister, and our neighbor, and said, “Is she kidding?”  Apparently, she hadn’t worked with too many brides nicknamed Sporty Spice.  She seemed genuinely surprised that I did not already have an air-tight vision of what kind of dress I wanted.

In my rolled up Toughskins jeans

Then she started to consult with my people to figure out what I might like.

A few minutes later, as I was led through a room lined with dozens of bejeweled gowns, it brought back memories of how I used to have heated debates with my mother every time I had to wear a (stupid) dress, and how I acted like a prisoner trudging along on a chain gang when I inevitably lost the argument and had to wear that dress to Sunday mass or a family holiday gathering.  Now I was voluntarily walking through the vaults of a place that was the height of femininity.

After feeling mortified for an hour as I was helped in and out of each dress I tried on (I never grew accustomed to Regina rearranging any body part she thought was out of place), I selected a silk shantung gown that had a long train and weighed approximately 700 pounds. Scarlett O’Hara would have been proud.

When I went back for the final fitting several weeks later, the seamstress cinched up the corset they had made for me.  It was modeled after an instrument of torture from the 1800s, with lots of rods and clasps.  I could barely breathe.  

I was 125 pounds and didn’t need a garment that restricted my organs.  What I should have said was, “Absolutely not.  Sew a couple of tube socks in the chest and we’re done!”

But I didn’t say anything, and consequently, I spent my entire wedding day feeling as if I were in an iron lung.  Bonus: it was over 100 degrees out.

After the Kleinfeld makeover

I did manage to march down the aisle in a rather masculine fashion, keeping my steps wide in an effort to handle my high heels, pointing my flowers at friends and saying things like, “What’s up?” and “Hey!”

Turns out that what Betty White said in the Gingey sketch on Saturday Night Live was accurate: “You can put that lesbian in any kind of dress you want, and you know what you’re going to end up with?  A lesbian!”

So although the marriage got off to a good start, everything changed five years later when I fell head over heels in love with a woman.  The interest was not mutual and nothing came of it beyond a few Ani DiFranco concerts and long dinners.  But it started me down the path of examining my choices, and eventually I came to the conclusion that wanting to fit in was not going to keep me going for the next 40 years. 

I realized that I would need to risk losing the approval of my parents and my friends and leave the safety of a loving relationship with a very good man to forge my own path and become fully myself.