Which is to say you are the heifer here. Which is to say you are twelve going on thirteen going on terrified that you will end up living a whole, virtuous life in your parents’ basement, sitting between them in church at forty-five in a frill-collared dress with strings like an apron, forever unmilked and unmilkable. At this age, though, you are still unsure of the precise meaning of milk in the parable. The apple was sin, plain and simple. The mustard seed was modest beginnings. But sex still seems an extension of kissing to you, kissing with the lights out perhaps, or kissing for a long time in a car. How will you know when you’ve gone too far, when the milk is spilled, when the virtue is lost? And worse: what if it never happens at all?
Your mother appraises you with new suspicions. She sees how you are green for twelve, sheltered for thirteen, yet tall as a grown woman already, your hips coming in hard and strange as teeth. “This changes everything,” she sighs, making a mixture of salt and soap, filling the sink with water that scalds her hands. You are known for grass stains and mud stains, the blackberry juice on your first pair of pure white Keds. Why is blood so different?
You think she can hear your thoughts as you think them, even this one, words dangling over your head like worm-bitten fruit. You stand barefoot at the threshold, the big bag of Kotex like a toddlerat your hip. You are fidgeting. You are biting your lip. You are afraid your father might walk in, and if he does, you will see his thoughts flash like traffic lights, his silent disappointment and fear.
“From this day until the day you’re married,” your mother says, and she is scrubbing now, furious and determined, “you can never let your guard down again.”
You’ve let down your guard. You’re walking to school, as always, on a Monday, a rare smile gracing your face. But then you see the scrawl, before you can make out the words. Black paint dripping down the face of the gunmetal locker, right above the combination lock where every day, for three years, you’ve placed your fingers just so to open. Inside sit your books, neatly stacked—World History, Algebra, Shakespeare—and the centerpiece you’ve made for Home Economics. Paper flowers out of tissue paper, gathered together with a raffia bow.
But now, those words. Ugly words. Words that confuse you, because what have you done to deserve them? You try to think quickly back to the weekend: whose boyfriend did you kiss? Who held your hand? But it’s a blur of laughter. Of fumbled buttons and heads turned away.
You’re a good girl, everyone knows that. You always do what you’re supposed to do. Honors student. Straight As. But something happens on the weekends: desire gets a hold of you and won’t let go. There’s a song on the radio: She gets too hungry for dinner at eight….” And that’s what it feels like, a hunger that can’t wait. But even that hunger feels appropriate. Sanctioned.
You turn away from the locker, from the words, and go to your Home Ec class empty-handed. The teacher glares at you, asks how you could have forgotten? Now the perfect table is ruined, and all the girls look at you, their gazes hot, like irons. It will be years before you understand the rest of the lyric: She never bothers with people she hates, that’s why the Lady is a tramp.
“Young people who are well adjusted, highly motivated, and future oriented are far less likely to be sexually active than those with a low self-concept and low ideals. The commandments listed on this page are meant to be a guide. Use the checklist below to help you formulate your personal commandments about what you will and will not do as you grow toward sexual maturity.”
—Sex and the Teenager (Ave Maria Press, 1990)
Your all-girls Catholic high school doesn’t offer Sex Education class. There is a dubious unit at the end of Health called “The Female Body” during which Mrs. Boyle reviews the diagram that looks like a cow’s head with two droopy ears, then tests the class on the names of all the things inside them. You get an A- because you confuse the ampulla and the isthmus of the uterine tube. Key words you are waiting for—love, desire, and orgasm, especially that one—are never mentioned once.
In World Cultures, the syllabus allocates eight weeks to study Christianity, three for Judaism, three for Islam, one for Other Religions of the World, and a final week for “Contemporary Moral Issues,” which is a euphemism for “Don’t Have Sex Until You’re Married.” If Ms. Curran’s eyes had been less green, or her taste in clothing less impeccable, you might have pointed out the clear bias toward Catholic theology in this class as well as the obvious favoritism shown religions with only one God.
Instead, you spend hours after school inventing credible reasons to visit Ms. Curran in her office.
By the time you read Sex and the Teenager, you are running out of them. You tell Ms. Curran you need help drafting your list of personal moral commandments, but when you show up after school with notebook in hand, she calls your bluff. “Since when do you need help writing anything?” Her mouth is smiling, but her eyes say, Enough with the bullshit already.
You have to think fast. She is leaning across the desk in a plum turtleneck and a camel blazer with elbow patches. Her eyes are the color of olives. Suddenly, you blurt out: “You know back in the Judaism unit when we watched Yentl? Well, Yentl is pretending to be a man, right? And she marries Hadass, a woman. And even though she tells her they don’t have to do anything…you know… marital…if they did—because they’re both actually women—would it count?”
Ms. Curran slides back in her chair. “As what?”
A dent forms between her eyebrows. Finally, she says, “I think a better question would be, As sin?”
You each wait for the other to proffer an answer. Twenty years later, you are still waiting for that silence to break.
You. Yes, you. Was it good? Good the way he pats the bed, welcomes you there. Come to bed…. Good as in Godly. The prayer said in bed. A prayer that accelerates, invokes the almighty: Oh God, oh Jesus, Yes!
Take off your clothes slowly, or quickly, depending on the mood, the lighting, how scared you are, what color panties you’re wearing, what shape your bra is in, and have you recently shaved your legs, your pits, trimmed your bush, sculpted yourself into something smooth—a thing that has no rough patches—oil up the elbows, exfoliate the face, pluck every hair from your chinny chin chin—you are slick, you are warm, you are good.
Come in, you say, no need to knock. Knocked up, they call it, as if someone knocks on the door of your womb—Come in!—or huffs and puffs and blows the house down.
What you really wanted, what made it good, was a mere finger or a tongue slid up the spine, touching that dime-sized spot between your shoulder blades— a spot like a migrated g-spot: so sensitive, exquisite, almost painful—a spot you could never reach on your own. Everything else you could manage, but this…..this inaccessible place, nestled just out of reach…you need another body, you almost beg, please, please, please, while the tongue slides up each knob of vertebrae, until you moan: yes. there. right there. oh God. so good.
—When Harry Met Sally
You were ten when the film debuted. You saw it a decade later. Then, you started having sex, which is also when you started faking it. You, yes you. After all those years of research, from the “S” encyclopedia in fourth grade to D.H. Lawrence in college, you had been longing your way toward it—the coveted title, “sexually active” at last!—only to come up short, disappointed. In your journal you wrote, You’re so passionate. What’s your problem? But then you feared someone might find your journal—that he might—and so you burned those pages over the soap dish. Paranoid much?
You, yes you: late-bloomer, condom-hoarder, pamphlet-reader at Planned Parenthood. You were so prepared you could have been a Boy Scout. Why not a badge? But hadn’t you been promised a rose garden? A champagne cork popping and waterfalls and fireworks, a veritable tsunami of pleasure?
Your biology teacher told you once that the best approximation of an orgasm was a sneeze: that pent-up feeling, persistent tickling, rapid breathing, accelerated heartrate, followed by a satisfying release. But if that was true, why did sex for you feel like cleaning your ears—or more precisely, having them cleaned: the pressure, the probing, a sense of a tunnel with no end and no light. But if you could just get through it, you could have pancakes. You could sit together in your couch-bed, watching re-runs of Mary Tyler Moore.
And you, yes you, were such a good girlfriend. You always said yes. Indoors, outdoors, showers, sofas, the stock room at work, even the freight elevator once. You always smiled, always kissed back. You studied up and tried harder, like there was a brass ring to reach, or an A+ to earn, you with your Protestant work ethic, your dream weaver on the door knob, your sheaves of love poems that captured precisely what you did not feel.
You kept at it, even when you broke out in rashes (a burn from his beard? an allergy to his aftershave?), even when your roommate said, “This is awkward, but I have to ask you about the bruises…” You came home blue and purple, but nothing hurt. He didn’t hurt you. To this day, you don’t know why you turned colors like that. You closed your eyes and tried, then wished, then prayed, Oh God! Then, you gave up and pictured the best deli sandwich you’d ever had.
You’re in the gynecologist’s office, squirming in pain. You never like being here (who does?), but she needs to get in there and scrape the cervix to see if any precancerous cells have decided to take up residence.
It’s been two years since you’ve had a period. They just silently disappeared without your really noticing it. No hot flashes; no night sweats. Just a gentle cessation.
And a cessation, too, of your sex life: it vanished with nary a goodbye, a “see ya,” or a “take care.” Just crept out on tiptoe, carefully closing the door with a barely perceptible click. You weren’t paying attention. After ten years you look up startled from your oatmeal and realize it’s gone. You thought it just went out for a pack of cigarettes, a jug of milk.
Lately, you’ve been dreaming of getting your period at inopportune times: when lost and confused in a new place, searching for where you’re supposed to be. The blood appears, and you’re unprepared, have nothing to staunch the flow.
The doctor gets out the smallest speculum she can find, the kind made for a child. “I’m sorry this is causing so much pain,” she says as she inserts the blades, makes that first crank to separate them (the harsh click….click that always makes you jump). But even this is too much, and you can’t suppress the ow, ow, ow blurting from between clenched teeth. The nurse holds your hand, pats a shoulder.
The doctor withdraws quickly, tosses the speculum in the sink. When she uses the word “atrophy,” she says it quickly, scribbling in your chart. She prescribes a hormone cream, reschedules for six weeks later. “It’s common,” she says, “for a woman your age,” patting your leg on the way out the door.
The first time you hear the word you think the girls are talking about baking. You remember a small brown bottle you clasped as a child, inhaling so deeply your eyelids drooped, your mouth went slack, the sigh of an older, more experienced woman escaped your lips. Your mother, the baker, seemed indifferent to all of this. She snapped her fingers when she wanted it. She poured a teaspoon of the dark liquid into the batter or dough. Then, she told you to tighten the cap, wipe down the sides, and return it to the right place on the shelf.
But these girls in the college lounge are not talking about baking. They refer several times to a place called Lover’s Package, where you can buy costumes and hand-cuffs and edible underwear, some other gadgets you don’t quite understand. And they know it. They say, “This kind of thing isn’t for everyone,” and smile in a way that makes you wince. One of the girls wants to drive to Seattle to a sex-positive club. She talks at length about being whipped, how good it feels to surrender control. In the corner chair, you eat your Red Vines quietly, try to concentrate on the book in your lap.
“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being vanilla,” another girl says. She casts you a less-than- subtle glance. “But it’s like—come on—kiss, kiss, touch, touch—so much tenderness. What am I supposed to do with that?”
You have a few ideas, but you keep them to yourself. You are grateful for kissing and for touching, but so far the exhilaration seems to come more from your head (This is really happening!) than your skin. You don’t know how to untie the visceral knots, and no one else seems to know either. In a few years, you will meet someone who can lay a hand on your wrist or the crook of your arm and send a ripple of heat through your whole body. When you slide into bed with her, your mind will quiet for the first time, maybe, ever. You won’t have to think so hard about everything now—what is natural or normal, what feels good, least of all how vanilla you are. Her scent will enfold you like a second pair of arms. Your eyelids will droop, your soft mouth slacken. And the sigh that escapes your lips will rise from a place you do not recognize, taking you both by surprise.
It’s surprisingly difficult to change your profile on Match.com, to have it accurately reflect who you are and what you really want. You’ve already put up the photos of you with your dog, of you traveling to interesting places (Switzerland! Palm Springs!), of your dog by herself illuminated in the evening sun, as if her sacred beauty somehow reflects your own. You’ve put down your interests (“cooking, film, reading”—holding back the “eating, television, solitaire”). You’ve characterized your body type as “about average,” though sometimes you’re “athletic and toned” and sometimes you’re “a few extra pounds.” You are never just one thing or another.
But Match insists that you are. They insist you are either a “woman seeking men” or a “woman seeking women.” There is no drop-down category for the fuzzy area in between.
Your profile has been up for years as a “woman seeking men between the ages of……” (That number keeps shifting from year to year, inching up higher, as you deliberate how low you can go without seeming imprudent. Though men don’t seem to worry about that. So many of them, no matter their age, seek women “between the ages of 21-35.”) And whenever you do a search, hundreds of men pop up on your screen, smiling out from their little boxes—some shirtless, some with baseball caps, often wearing sunglasses.
So many possibilities, but nothing ever pans out. You can’t seem to let down your guard. You can’t seem to remember what it’s like to be with a man—laughing, joyriding in the dark. All you can remember are the late-night fights, or worse, the endless silences, the too-familiar gaze of disappointment.
All you have to do is change the category to “woman seeking women.” It’s a simple click of the mouse. You know you want to do it, have already been thinking of those times, years ago, when you were with women, the pure sensuality of it: the way their tongues and fingers needed no guidance.
The way you let down all your barriers and sighed with pleasure. But you were so young then, and your body flexible. No atrophy, certainly not.
But will the Match women see you as a dilettante, an imposter? Will they be able to see your search history, your past? All you want is someone to see you for who you are. Unfortunately, there’s no photograph to reveal this bare, no-frills person.
When you do it—when you make the tiny revision—and click the magnifying glass that denotes “search,” the women appear, but not many. Not as many as the men. They smile from their little boxes—women with short hair and long; women with dogs; women waiting for you.
There will be sex. In the beginning, so much sex you are always stumbling out the door, poorly dressed and reeking of cover-up perfume. Sex, but also dishes to wash and waiting for an oil change and taking out the trash. Still sex, more sex, but also student loans and emergency rooms and twice so far, dressing in black and standing together to pay your respects. After a death, the sex is so urgent, eclipsing everything else. You have to touch the one you cannot bear to lose.
But it is not all sex, as the critics and voyeurs seem to assume. It is not all play. How could you have known that naming yourself as a woman who loves women would change the way even strangers appraise you?
Your friend from childhood furrows her brow: “Is it mostly a lot of snuggling, like a pajama party every night?” Not quite. A woman you have just met leans closer and pats your hand: “You must be very resourceful. I can’t imagine how you girls manage it.” Does she mean the sex, or moments like this one, when the silence that follows gapes like a wound you are never quite sure how to suture? Soon, everyone wants their turn to theorize: the ex-fiancé who thinks you’re “impressionable,” the mother who says you have a “hormone problem,” the pastor who writes of your “lost faith,” your “Sapphic weakness.”
Recently, a senior poet approached you after a reading. “What strikes me,” he said, “is the way everything comes down to sex for your people.” You people? Your people? You might have added the “r” to soften the blow.
Every day you put on your jersey like everyone else. You oil your glove and take a few laps around the diamond. At first, no one can tell which team anyone belongs to, but then the speculation begins: how you hold your glove, how you throw the ball, how deep in left field you’re willing to stand.
You want to go back and tell the poet he was wrong. It isn’t sex that divides you, though every epithet you’ve ever heard suggests otherwise: Muff-diver. Vagitarian. Et al. It’s the loneliness you feel after the game, sipping your drink at the bar. You are always waiting for the other cleat to drop.
“I’m not into women,” they’ll say, suddenly, like an after-thought. “Too bad you’re gay. My nephew would love you!” delivered with such zeal. “I’d like to have you over some time, but my husband’s a little conservative.” They’ll smile apologetically. You know this smile. “Would you mind if I didn’t tell him who are you?”
Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of eight collections of poetry and prose, including the recently released Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.
Their collaborative work has previously appeared in Rappahannock Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, River Teeth, Punctuate, Phoebe, and Kenyon Review.