One of your early poetry manuscripts won second place in a book contest. It was a step up from being a finalist, you supposed, but when the press offered you a scholarship to a writer’s conference in lieu of publication, you were insulted. You thought you were too good to sit in another poetry workshop and refused the offer, lying that you were a bridesmaid in a wedding that same week. Always the bridesmaid in poetry, never the glorious bride. One of your college boyfriends was really in love with your roommate and only asked you out after she broke up with him. You mostly talked about her on your dates, both of you complaining. You exaggerated about how messy and inconsiderate she was while he sighed about the time she was so late for a movie, he had to trade in the tickets he bought for the later showing. You justified your pettiness because you liked him first—and you were sure your roommate knew it. Now you wonder if she did know your feelings, if you had ever said your crush’s name aloud. Second place is just the first loser, you thought, when inevitably they got back together.
As a child, you learned first-rate, which meant blue-ribbon-worthy, top-of-the-podium at the Olympics, a gold medal dangling around your neck. Sometimes, in first grade, you said first-rate by accident. I’m in first rate! when the neighbors asked to see your school pictures. Second grade was a different story—your first man-teacher, and he wasn’t impressed—not with your big spelling-bee win or the way you corrected his mistakes. Um, Mr. Whited, captain is actually spelled cap-TAIN, not cap-TEN. He didn’t write names on the board; he had a crab can instead, large as a Folger’s tin, Lump Crabmeat spelled out in script, an orange crab baring its pincers below. If you act up, your name’s going in the crab can, he warned. So you folded your hands, zippered your lips, followed his every instruction. At daily roll, he listed the students yet to be caught misbehaving. When it was just you, he recruited spies. Julie needs to be taken down a peg or two. One day he put your whole table in the crab can for taking too long to clean up. You blew raspberries when your father asked how second grade was going. So far it’s been pretty second-rate.
As a teenager you didn’t know much about baseball, but you did know boys wanted to get to second base—which meant they wanted to touch a girl’s breasts. You guessed that’s because breasts were secondary sex characteristics, but for the most part bases in terms of foreplay didn’t make much sense to you. You’d developed pretty early and, because you were self-conscious, you often wore overalls in high school, hiding your breasts behind a bib. You also were fond of bodysuits that snapped at the crotch so your shirt couldn’t accidentally ride up. You suppose now this was your protection, the way a catcher wears a mask. You would not make it easy for a boy, your Catholic training making you chaste until Tommy asked you to dance to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” which spelled out the bases metaphor so explicitly you blushed. Tommy played football—another sport you didn’t know much about. His hands had calluses from the pigskin when he touched your cheek. When he called you a few days later to do homework in his furnished basement, you wore a regular shirt and jeans. You both fumbled, gloriously. Tommy said, Just like football.
Mrs. DuPen, your biology teacher, was going through a terrible divorce. You noticed she stopped wearing her wedding ring. You watched her neck grow lean, then loose, too thin to fill her turtleneck sweaters. Remember when you told us how we’re supposed to nourish our bodies, even if we think we’re too large? She was feeding her stick bugs after class and asked you to dust—gently!—the exoskeleton of the horseshoe crab. It’s not what you think, Mrs. DuPen said. I’m not deliberately starving myself. The truth is, I’m just not hungry anymore. She sighed, at which point she might have even wobbled. Her Doc Martins resembled clown shoes at the crux of such spindly legs. And there’s no chance you could work it out with Mr. DuPen? you suggested softly, but she shook her head. We met in med school, and I dropped out to support him. He’s cheated on me with nurses before, but for some reason, this one’s special. Zipping her backpack, you thought how she looked small as a child. He’s always had a thing for second bananas, and I should know. Oddly enough, bananas are the only things that taste good to me anymore.
Your boyfriend was obsessed with thrift stores—skinny ties and bowling shirts for himself, puffy skirts and costume jewelry for you. He wanted to be from a different era, nostalgic for old Hollywood. You wanted to be near him so you started listening to the Supremes and Dusty Springfield, even though it was 1981. His mother gave you a bag of old clothes for Goodwill. You rummaged through it first and kept an old-fashioned slip for yourself. Did your boyfriend know it was his mother’s when you wore it to bed like a nightgown? Did you know somewhere deep inside he was gay but kept calling him anyway? Is that why you stopped eating, hoping you’d eventually look more like a boy? Is that why you cut your hair short and shaved it on one side? For him, you’d broken up with a boy who adored you, a boy who gave you an engagement ring, freaking you out. You broke up with a future that would have surely included a ranch house and kids. Looking back, you probably knew that this boyfriend would keep you safe from suburbia. He puffed a clove cigarette as you breathed in his secondhand smoke.
People always called you a doer, a go-getter, as though these were your name. Opposite of Lot’s wife, you weren’t one for looking back but rather charging forward, full of muster and verve. Plucky, your teachers said, looking, for the most part, pleased. Tenacious, your pastor said, with ever-increasing concern. Your parents called you stubborn, which cut both ways: when she sets her mind to something, for good or ill, it’s practically impossible to change. But sometimes, you were learning, change could be good, like revising a line or learning the second verse to a song. You always felt guilty eating meat, but after four decades decided to say, I’ll have the black bean burger instead. Then you wondered, how many other red flags had there been? You watched rom-coms for years, yet still never believed a fork could appear on your own rose-petaled path to the altar. You’re always so steady! your fiancé mourned, just before his rage set in. How do you go from full-steam ahead for two years to complete 180 at the end? You summoned a slow, deep breath, just as you never did. When you said her name at last, the long hetero-spell was broken.
Just out of college, you worked in a novelty shop where your boss kept a spinning rack of used romance novels. One of the categories, “Second Acts,” referred to the sexy encounters of divorcees, which led to second marriages. Decades before the Bravo Housewives franchise, these book covers featured mature women in strapless ballgowns that revealed their collarbones. Each woman was in the arms of a younger shirtless man. More recently, you read an article about fashion in which a stylist declared: As someone who is themselves hurtling towards 50, I love off-the-shoulder. It’s elegant and it doesn’t age. No one has bad shoulders. You remember pitying the women readers who came in to buy these books. Some had bags full of romances they’d already earmarked and wanted to trade. Your boss always let them exchange the paperbacks because she knew while there, these women would also buy a Pound Puppy or Garbage Pail trading cards for their kids or grandkids. You are now more compassionate, divorced yourself, hurtling towards 60, though hurtling is a cruel verb. It sounds like you are going through the windshield of your Honda to land in a ditch, fracturing both of your good shoulders.
Half your life ago you met a lesbian who became your best friend. At the time, you didn’t know you were a lesbian, and Anna had just discovered that she was. You remember riding the train together to class. You remember sitting in coffee shops, little shamrocks the barista drew in the foam. Once you sat up all night eating caramel corn in a dorm room, your heads propped at opposite ends of the couch. It’s just so amazing! you kept saying, as if her gayness were somehow your accomplishment. It’s like everybody told you that you were a rhinoceros, but you always knew your horn made you a unicorn. Anna laughed. Well, I don’t know if it’s like that exactly. For a long time, I pretty much believed I was the rhino, too. This shook you a little, right to the core of your own presumed rhino-ness. Then, she said—and you’ll never forget: One day a girl kissed me, and it was so different from all the times I had been kissed by boys. There was no struggle on my part, no mental coaxing that had to take place. I finally understood the way I was wired.
The dean of the university where your husband taught left a message on your answering machine at work asking you to give him a call. He used the word urgent, and you thought for a minute maybe your husband had died. You returned the call, but the dean had left for the day. You went home, and your husband was sitting on the couch checking Facebook, a habit which you despised. What happened at work today? you asked. His eyes never left the screen as he said, I don’t have to go in anymore, but they’ll pay me until the end of the semester. You asked what and why as your husband told you he’d just made friends with Harold Bloom and Sharon Olds. Finally, he said he’d sent a suicide email to one of his students, but it wasn’t fair. You spent the next day calling therapists, trying to get him an appointment. You spent the next day trying to convince him he needed help. Why did you believe what your husband said? Why didn’t you call the dean again? Why didn’t you call your best friend? You were afraid to know the truth, to get a second opinion.
Your doctor sings knock-knock-knockin’ on forty’s door, but commends you on your strong heart and low cholesterol. Tell me, she says, is there anything you’re concerned about? And you want to say or shout or whimper, Yes! All the feminists are dying! The second-wavers—they were ride or die, but now they’re dying—so many already gone. You want to tell her how your partner texted Tonight no poetry will serve while you were away in Florida, interviewing for the job you have now. You answered questions and smiled till your teeth hurt, but all the while you were mourning that Adrienne Rich had died. Who could fill her shoes? Who was brave enough to try? Recently, Barbara Hammer died after thirteen years living with ovarian cancer. In 2011, you stood on the stage together, shared the Lambda for Lesbian Memoir. Your first book seemed slight, perhaps even trivial, compared to such an oeuvre. Even then, already sick, she was fearless. The award presenter forgot to call your name at first, which seemed fitting: what contribution had you really made? Your doctor’s advice is to always keep playing. You know you’ll be playing catch-up for the rest of your life.
Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade published The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose with Noctuary Press in 2019. Denise’s latest solo book is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017), and Julie’s latest solo book is Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020). Their collaborative essays appear in such publications as Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Fourth Genre, Nimrod, No Tokens, Prairie Schooner, Quarter After Eight, The St. Ann’s Review, and StoryQuarterly. They both teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.