Reflections at 50 on being young, scared, and coming out.
Friends recommended the therapist. Every lesbian or possible lesbian in Olympia, Washington, in 1985 went to the woman I am calling Toni. The first session of therapy is lost to history, but Toni suggested I record our sessions on a portable cassette recorder, and I carted those cassette tapes around for decades. Just after I turned 50, I was finally ready to listen. I opened the lid of the wicker basket.
There were 19 60-minute TDK tapes, each with the date in my handwriting, some with cryptic notes: “pain,” “raining pots and pans dream,” “pros & cons of what I am, anyway,” and “preparing to come out.” I found the first tape and slid it into the borrowed tape deck. My voice at 23: me, but a different me. A much, much younger me.
I had just graduated from college, and I was working as an assistant to the director of an adoption agency, half the week in her Olympia home and half in the Seattle office. For the first autumn since I had come to Olympia, I wasn’t annotating pages for seminar; I was typing dictation, lifting my foot from the pedal to type, pressing it to listen. And I was falling in love with a social worker at the agency, a woman.
Now, I leaned back in my desk chair, looking at the trees out the window of the Seattle apartment my partner, Arline, and I had bought after deciding that, in our older years, we would rather travel than maintain a house. Washington State had recently legalized same-sex marriage; we were planning our wedding for Labor Day weekend. But now Arline was teaching the summer session, and I had the place to myself. I would need solitude over the next few weeks to relive the difficult events of that fall and winter. But in the first recorded moments, I was dizzy with new love.
Karen and I are so romantic, I tell Toni; I drove up to Seattle early one morning to have breakfast with her before work. She lives on the top floor of an old house, half a block from Alki Beach. She is eight-and-a-half years older than me and has the nicer furniture than the pieces my boyfriend and I scrounged in our three years together. A little room up the stairs from her bathroom has a claw-foot tub. Karen has candles; she has rose bath oil. It is not like our bathroom, where tiny roaches scuttle along the baseboard.
Toni is more interested in how I am feeling about the ongoing breakup with Chris. I am feeling guilty.
The thing is that, looking back, I realize I always knew the relationship with him would end. We got together my second year of college. He was taking the long route through school, spending more time performing music and recording songs in the college’s music studio than reading books and writing papers. He never had enough money and sometimes borrowed from me to pay his rent. I knew that after college I would want to travel, write, go to graduate school. I didn’t really imagine him going with me. But I don’t want to talk about my guilt. I want to talk about the cool new place I have found to rent: an old cabin on a farm outside of town. It is $250 a month. An old couple lives in the main house, and they have a vegetable garden and cows. A train goes by every now and then.
Besides, I say, when Toni gently brings me back to Chris, the same night I slept with Karen, he was making out with someone named Libby. Now he says he is falling in love with her. I hope Karen and I don’t run into them in town.
I have moved into my new place. Chris asked if he could come see it. At first I didn’t want him to. I wanted the cabin to be mine and only mine, with no taint of my previous life. But he was all moody, so I let him come on one of the trips with my boxes. It turned out OK.
Toni wants to know about my parents’ relationship with each other. I have steeped myself in feminism the last couple of years, and I have decided that my parents’ relationship is highly problematic. My mother has sacrificed all her dreams to support my father’s career. She is too passive; he always gets his way.
Also, she doesn’t know me, not really. Once, when we were talking about birth control, my mother said, “There are some things a mother doesn’t want to know.”
“So she has limits,” Toni says.
I don’t know if I want to think about my mother’s side.
We try a role-play. It is surprisingly easy to pretend that a pillow is my mother, and I cry. It is surprisingly painful to feel so sad. But if I suppress the sadness, I suppress all my feelings, Toni says. It is like throwing a big blanket over them. If I want to feel happy, I have to feel sad sometimes. Really? I never thought of it that way.
Karen and I have had our first fight. I had agreed to come up to Seattle Wednesday night to see her. But when the time came, I didn’t want to go because I was tired and had a lot to do. When I got to her apartment, I was distant and resentful. After a while, I told her I was feeling distant. She cooled. I needled her, wanting a reaction. She reacted.
In the morning, she apologized. But I am angry that she was angry. Unfair!
Toni gets out a tablet and asks me to make a list of things I am willing to give Karen in our relationship. I scratch away, and then she asks me to read them out loud.
1. I will listen to you when you talk.
2. I will try to accept you for who you are.
3. I will share my feelings and thoughts.
4. I will drive 60 miles to see you.
5. I will be stimulating even if I don’t want to be.
Toni chuckles at the last one, but I don’t see what’s funny. She asks me to assign each statement a number, on a scale from one to 100, indicating how much I can give to Karen. How often, for example, can I accept her for who she is? Thirty percent of the time? Eighty percent? Now, she says, assign each statement a number for how much I can give myself.
How often can I accept myself for who I am?
Toni says, “You provoked Karen to anger, but really it was you that was angry.”
I am so mad at my dad, so mad at my dad, so mad at my dad.
Toni asks me to role-play talking to him. Why am I mad? Because when I was in Seattle this weekend, he was mad all the time.
She asks me to role-play being him. I just can’t. I can’t get inside his head.
There is this woman I work with, Maria. She sits in the cubicle next to mine and files and types. On her breaks, she smokes cigarettes and sits in her pickup truck playing country music real loud. She thinks I am a goody two-shoes. I hate that. People have always thought I was a goody two-shoes.
When I was growing up, we moved a lot. I went to two kindergartens, two first grades, a new school for second and third, a new school for fourth through sixth, a new school for seventh, and a new school for eighth. Finally, we settled in one house while I went to high school. Each time we moved, you would think I would be able to reinvent myself. But no. Each time I was the same kid: teacher’s pet.
My parents liked my academic successes. What they have never liked is my taste in boyfriends. They didn’t like my high-school boyfriend, and they didn’t like Chris, or at least they didn’t think he was right for me. And there are lots of things I have never told them about, like smoking pot or taking mushrooms, because they wouldn’t like that.
Nobody really knows me. And if they did, they wouldn’t love me.
Toni asks why I want Maria to be my friend when I don’t even like her.
I am already crying when Toni presses the button to start the tape recording.
After two months together, sometimes I am not in love with Karen. She seemed so strong and autonomous when we met, but sometimes now she is weak and vulnerable. Sometimes she reminds me of myself when I was in school, a pitiful loser that no one liked.
I choke, getting the words out. My boyfriends were always thinner than I was.
Now I am thinner than her, and it makes me feel prettier. What is wrong with me?
I am disgusting. I have nasty, ugly feelings.
But Toni says this is a good thing. I am beginning to love Karen as a whole person. Love is a mixture of love and hate, and the discomfort will pass. I don’t love myself unconditionally; how can I love her that way?
Toni has a lot to say today. When I tell her about the tense weekend with Karen, she tells me that I have a tendency to dump my discomfort on my new partner. I confess to Karen that I am feeling unsure about the relationship, and when she clams up, I turn nurturer and the good feelings flood back. Maybe I don’t need to keep Karen apprised of every anxious twinge.
But I want to know when you should tell a person that you are struggling with the relationship.
“That’s a good question,” Toni says.
I am in love again! Toni was right—the bad feelings passed.
I am still worried though. I am worried because I don’t know if I want to be in a relationship right now. I just graduated from college, and I just broke up with my boyfriend of three years. It would be different if I knew Karen was the one. It would be different if I knew I was a lesbian.
Toni says she has decided there are four categories: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and interesting. And she has a feeling most people fall into interesting.
Sexuality is rarely set in concrete.
But, I say, as long as I was heterosexual, it was pretty concrete.
This was because, she says, I was getting a lot of support for being straight. She says, “When you’re with a man, you may feel ambivalent about the relationship, but out in the world, everyone is putting energy into you as a couple. You can ride on that energy. That doesn’t happen when you’re with a woman.”
I can’t foresee a time when society will support two women as a couple. We are never going to get to a point where everyone understands that two women can be united for life. Toni agrees.
I have been reading a book called Lesbian Nuns. True stories and always the same story: The woman joins a convent, falls in love with a fellow nun, and finally realizes there is a name for her desires.
My own history is more ambiguous. I have had crushes on women before, although they were more emotional than sexual. Karen was the first woman to make my knees go weak. But I can’t discount my love and desire for Chris, which were real, and for other men before him. What a luxury to have an uncomplicated identity.
That is why, Toni says, she went to “interesting.”
For New Year’s Eve, I wear a vintage black velvet dress, and Karen puts on a black suit and red tie. We snap photos of ourselves drinking from a bottle of sparkling cider—Karen stopped drinking a year ago—and then head for an AA-sponsored party. The dance is dull.
And now I feel completely detached.
Toni and I talk more about feelings. I say the bad ones are useless; why do we have them? What do we do with them? For instance, at work it is excruciating to see Karen and pretend we aren’t in love. But I can’t say anything. Even if I didn’t care about being out myself, I can’t say anything because Karen doesn’t want to be out.
But Toni takes issue with this. She says, “You always have the choice to say something. There’s a price you pay, but you pay it either way. If you speak, there are consequences. If you don’t speak, you suffer, too.”
No wonder I am feeling detached. She says I am taking a little vacation from the hard work of coming out.
She gives a little speech: “You ever watch salmon swim upstream? You watch them go up and down and up and down. And you think, Oh, God, poor salmon; you just want to reach in and move them to the end or they’ll never make it. But they make it. They do die in the end.” We are laughing now. “But that’s their project.”
I must look like a bruised salmon, going up and down and up and down. She must wonder if I am ever going to spawn.
I have a dream. My father and I are working on my car in front of my parents’ house. Woks and cooking pans fall out of the sky. Huge iron and steel and aluminum pots and pans dropping and crashing and banging to the ground.
Somebody is flying over us in a plane and deliberately dropping the pots and pans. My father and I run into the house. Karen is there. The pots and pans are aimed at me, but they are hitting my family and neighborhood. It is my fault.
Toni points out that it is illegal to have lesbian sex.
I need to tell my parents about Karen. The secrecy is killing me.
I have another dream. The offices at work are bedrooms. I am sleeping with everyone on staff. My boss reprimands me for not getting my work done.
Unlike in my dreams, my waking life is rigidly compartmentalized. Karen and I went to see Adrienne Rich read this week. We held hands, and I felt safe holding hands there. But in the morning, I regretted it. An amorphous fear choked me.
At work, we had a meeting about our policy of placing adoptive kids with gay men and lesbians but not outing them in the case files. If the Chinese and South Korean officials knew, they wouldn’t approve. To survive the meeting, I imagined my lungs encased in ice. I was afraid my love for Karen showed.
Toni asks, “What would show if something showed? A breast would become exposed and a sword grow at your side?” Toni always knows when to make me laugh.
Toni is proud of me. I was feeling anxious all week. I ate lots of chocolate, but I didn’t tell anyone I was feeling anxious; I just felt it. Finally, I figured it out. My cabin. It is not cozy. It is too far from town. What if my car breaks down? I need to find a different place to live. Toni says I am beginning to listen to my feelings instead of trying to shut them down.
I say, “I don’t trust my feelings; I trust my thinking.”
She says I haven’t had much practice trusting my feelings.
Speaking of feelings, my mother asked about Karen over the weekend. I had mentioned that sometimes I stayed with my coworker when I was in Seattle. Mom wanted to know more about her. I tried to sound casual, but my whole body was shaking.
It was as if I thought I might accidentally come out to her in that moment. I had that feeling you get when you are standing on a 14th-floor balcony and you think you might fling yourself off.
A former colleague has asked Karen to apply for a job in Washington, DC. If she gets it, I am going with her.
Washington is about as far away as I can get from the Northwest and still be in my own country. It is a city of white buildings, but I have never been there so I don’t know what else it is. It is an escape.
Toni asks what I am escaping.
My stupid job, where I have to ask for extra work, typing case files at home, to cover my basic expenses. An Olympia that is emptying out of my friends. The web of my family. The fear that I am too scared to leave.
What is funny is that if Karen were a man, I might not go with her. I might not even entertain the thought of going. Because I could never depend on a man to support me.
I am so mad at my dad, so mad at my dad, so mad at my dad.
As I listened to the tapes—day after day, nearly falling asleep when tape-hiss or my sniffling masked long stretches of conversation, waking again to a poignant or painfully arrogant comment—I read along in my handwritten journals. After therapy, I often drove to Capitol Lake and wrote on a yellow legal pad. Usually, gray clouds scudded across the sky, and the lake reflected back murkier gray. The streaked capitol dome squatted above the tree line. One time, a crow hopped on the hood of the car and looked at me. What did I have to give? I had nothing.
I thought about myself, ripping the pages from the yellow legal pad, folding them, and tucking them into my journal. Like messages in a bottle to a future Allison, decades in the future. I am here, I wanted to tell myself; I will be here, listening.
I announce that I have picked a date to tell my parents: March 23. Every day, when I am driving in my car, I rehearse telling them. I tell them on the way to work, and I tell them on the way home. I have told them so many times that sometimes I forget why it is such a big deal to tell them.
What am I going to say? I am going to tell them I am involved with Karen. That I don’t know what it means about my sexual preference. That I hope they can accept her the same way they accepted Chris. That I need to share it with them because it is part of my life. Karen and I have been seeing each other for five months now. Our relationship is not a one-weekend thing. We might move to Washington, DC, together. I am ready to tell them.
Today is our last meeting before I tell my parents. I am nervous. I am not nervous. What I know is that once I tell them, I will be setting in motion a long period of tension between us. And it is kind of weird knowing that. But I am uncomfortable now. There is a price you pay either way.
I told them. I really told them.
I started with my 17-year-old brother. We walked in the ravine, and I told him I was in love with a woman named Karen. “Cool,” he said. “Whatever makes you happy.” I showed him the picture of me in the black velvet dress and Karen in the black suit and red tie. “You might not want to show that one to Mom and Dad,” he said. He offered to be there when I told them.
A week later, I told my parents. I was crying even before entering the house. I could have said I didn’t know if I was a lesbian, but I decided on “I might be a lesbian.” Because I wanted them to have to face the possibility. I was crying the whole time. My mom came to me and put her arm around me and said, “The worst is over.”
And when I was sniffling instead of sobbing, she said she didn’t believe it. My dad said I had had a crush on a male friend of theirs when I was 5 years old. I tried to say that being a lesbian didn’t mean you were all one way or the other, that you could be attracted to men too.
And then I sat, waiting. I didn’t slap at the gnats of fear and anxiety. I let them swarm and bite.
Strangely, it was my brother who couldn’t stand the suspense. He said to my mother, “You’re taking this pretty casually, aren’t you?” And she said, “What do you want us to do? Jump up and down and scream and yell?”
Then we got into it. My mother said that I was living in an insular world where being with a woman was the in thing to do and I would have to test my relationship against the big world. I said, “I wish heterosexuals had to test their relationships against the big world.” And then I was crying again, and I heard my mother say to my brother, “Don’t look at me like that.” And she went to her room.
But later, before I left, she came out of her room, and both my parents said, “You’re always welcome here,” and “We really want to meet Karen sometime.”
And that sounds not so bad, but I kept being angry at them, and I slept from six that night until the next morning, and when I woke up, I started to wonder if maybe I did it wrong. Maybe I did the coming out all wrong. I want it to be over.
Six months ago something fell out of the sky on me, and my life hasn’t been the same since.
Toni says, “Coming out is a process. And I’m sad that it is. It’s awful.”
The day after I come out to my parents, Karen is offered the job in Washington, DC. I phone home, and my mom answers, and I tell her I am moving. She is distraught: “We’re losing our daughter.”
I call Toni. She says, “Write them a letter. Write down what you want to say to them.”
Writing will get me through this. It always does.
I have given notice to my parents, to my landlord, and to my boss. “Is it still a good decision?” Toni asks. Yes. I am scared, but it is a good time for me to go. My friends are graduating and leaving. There is not much for me here. I want to do something different, and that is a good enough reason.
I wrote my parents the letter. But I won’t send it. I understand better now why some people never tell their parents. It rips open old wounds, years of wounds that weep and weep and won’t crust over and heal. Because coming out is not just about claiming a relationship or an orientation, it is claiming self.
Something Toni said in January is making sense to me now. She said, “Whether or not you’re a lesbian is irrelevant, but whether you can still belong to your family and be in conflict is a mighty big question. And it just so happens that the ground you’re doing this on is relationships.”
I need to fling myself across the empty spaces of this country so that I have room to claim myself. How am I different from the ones who loved and raised me? Will they still love me if I change? Can I love myself?
I have been saying good-bye. Good-bye, nachos at the Asterisk. Good-bye, pizza at Joe Mama’s. When I drive down the street, I say good-bye to things I don’t even care about. Good-bye, Denny’s.
Chris gave me a going away party. Karen came, and Chris’s new girlfriend came, and even though he kept telling me he wished I would stay, he said he was happy for me.
Only one person at work, Karen’s office mate, suspected there was more to the story than that I was tagging along to the East Coast. That is one thing about being two women: most people don’t suspect.
Last week I talked to my mother on the phone. She thinks my crying means I am not comfortable with myself. She doesn’t think much of the lesbians she has known. There is nothing I can do to convince her to think differently. If she knew that a lesbian wasn’t a particular kind of person, she would understand that I could be a lesbian and still be me. But the only way for her to learn those things is not by me saying them but just by the way that I am. And that will take years.
Still, my mother took me shopping this weekend to buy an interview suit. And my dad filled my car with gas.
When I started therapy, I thought good people didn’t have bad emotions. And if you were good enough, you wouldn’t have to feel jealousy, possessiveness, or fear. And because I felt those things, and I wanted to be a good person, I had to repress them. Now when I feel emotions that I don’t like, at least I can say to myself that it is okay, even though all of me is saying it is not okay. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t then.
I ask Toni, “Will you move to Washington, DC with me?”
She says, “No.”
Toni tells me about when she moved away from home. Several years after moving, she realized how much she needed family and how much she needed them to know how she felt about them. Maybe it had something to do with age.
At around 26 or so, everybody she knew was working on saying “I love you” to their parents.
I am not 26 yet.
She says, “I think it might also have something to do with truly wanting them to know that I love them. Not just to think it but believe it.”
I don’t have anything to say about this.
My good-bye gift to Toni is a song I wrote. I get out my guitar and play it: “Working through the winter, I keep a secret in my pocket.”
Her gift to me is a tanka bean she has been carrying around for a few months.
It has two smooth, shiny parts that fit together. She wants me to throw one part in the Pacific and make a wish, and then, when I get to the East Coast, throw the other part in the Atlantic and make a wish there.
Good-bye, my chair. Good-bye, Toni’s chair. Good-bye, blue pillow. Goodbye, Kleenex. Good-bye.
“Be good to yourself, Allison.”
I track down Toni online. I send a message: “Were you a therapist in Olympia in the mid-1980s?”
Certainly what has prompted me to listen to the tapes for the first time is my upcoming wedding and my recent 50th birthday. I am old enough and settled enough to see my young self with compassion and not to cringe at every blurted declaration. I do cringe some, but mostly I feel affection for the young woman I was then—raw, confused, buffeted by feelings. What has changed, mostly, is my ability to live with ambivalence and ambiguity. I can call myself lesbian now, knowing that my sexual orientation is more “interesting” than fixed. I have had much practice paying attention to my feelings. And I have learned that conflict with those we love is inevitable, not evidence of failure.
I was well past my twenties when I realized how much I needed my parents.
Now, my father has bought the wine for the wedding, and he and my mother are going to give me away. Every time Mom and I get together to talk about our clothes or our shoes or the seating arrangements, we tear up. We feel so tender toward each other, we have to look away.
Toni e-mails back: “Yes.”
I thank her for what she did for me.
She says she remembers. “You were young, scared, and coming out.” She says, “You’re welcome.”
Allison Green is the author of a novel, Half-Moon Scar, (St. Martin’s Press) and a memoir titled The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, now available from Ooligan Press. Reprinted from The Gettysburg Review (Spring 2015), a quarterly literary journal published by Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.