It was dawn as I drove north on the freeway. Because it was early Sunday morning, only a car or two accompanied me on this stretch of interstate that was usually packed with traffic. The Bay Area sky was smeared with a wash of gray and white. I was driving home.
Well, not quite home. I didn’t really have one of those anymore.
For fifteen years my home had been with my wife, and two months into our separation I was staying with my sister. During my fifteen year marriage, my wife and I lived in a number of houses in two different states, but for the past four years we’d resided in a sweet little neighborhood swelling with old trees and young professional couples, mostly childless since the people raising children tended to congregate in the mini-mansions of the more far-flung suburbs.
Our neighborhood had its official title: Shasta Hanchett Park, and its unofficial one: The Gay Zip Code. The latter name was coined in the 1970s because of the proximity of a number of gay bars and a gay community center; and of course, where there are gay activities, gay people reside. Eventually, most of the gay bars disappeared, while the gay community center formerly housed in a small, dank building blossomed into the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Community Center and Women’s Bookstore in a large, bright location down the street. In the spirit of further gentrification, the gay baths were now a “men’s water garden” situated next to a bookstore in an unassuming white building surrounded by luscious ferns and a few palm trees. And on a tall pole out front, an American flag flies.
The residential area of The Gay Zip Code neighborhood meant no one batted an eye when we moved in. Two doors down from us lived a single gay guy, and next to him a gay male couple, and down the street the other direction two women with a new baby, and a few blocks over another gay male couple who threw New Years Eve parties that involved mimosas and the playing of Giant Janga—and around the corner from us, a single lesbian who became our friend.
Then my wife’s lover.
Then my enemy.
This how bad it got: I wasn’t sure if my wife was cheating on me, but I knew something was very, very wrong. She had morphed from over-protective to aloof. She spent most of her evenings drinking scotch and watching Xena, Princess Warrior on her laptop with earbuds in. It was clear to me that she perked up considerably when the single lesbian neighbor was around. I asked her if she had a crush on her, and she denied it—while also, with a stone-solid face, telling me one night she thought she wanted to be single. I cried and cried that night, and she held me in bed, frozen. That had become our way, night after night, for over a week.
One day, I was walking my dogs in the neighborhood, and the single lesbian neighbor was walking on the other side of the street. She crossed the street and bee-lined to me. With tears in her eyes, she wrapped her arms taut with ropy muscles around me and said, “I’ve heard you two have been having some problems. I’m so sorry to hear that. I thought you two were the perfect couple.”
Later, when I fit all the pieces together, I discovered that by the time the neighbor hugged me and professed to feel sorry for the perfect couple, she had already started up with my wife. Maybe she really did feel sorry for the perfect couple. After all, she had insider information that the perfect couple was deeply imperfect.
It would have been less painful had she merely lowered her head and charged at me, impaling me with her rhino-inspired spiky, gelled hair.
Interesting that the one who can cause you the most pain—the one you think is an enemy—might actually be your liberator. I began to think of her that way months later, a kind of devil who was an angel in disguise. As someone who helped free me to live a new life of my choosing, to break free from old, unquestioned patterns that weren't allowing me to thrive. But only two months into the excruciating separation, I wasn’t ready to conceive of things with a shred of positive spin. To make lemonade out of these lemons felt akin to making a shit sandwich out of shit.
But as I drove on the freeway away from the ocean at dawn, over the dark mountain pass to merge onto the freeway further northeast toward my sister’s house, I could feel something dawning in me. A certain lightness creeping through my body paralleled the sunrise, the lightening of the sky.
Two months into my wife's and my breakup, I finally had sex with someone else. And not only someone else, but a man. I'd awakened the next morning in his bed, stunningly not hungover. It had been a long time since I’d slept so soundly. Static shocks of energy coursed through my body. All I wanted was to get into my car and drive. With the contact solution and soap rooted out of his medicine cabinet, I did the best to improve my vision, then I slipped out of the house and into my car.
So there I was, post-coital, driving to my sister’s house at dawn, a sensation of new understanding creeping up with the rising of the sun. And suddenly it hit me. After two months of barely being able to breathe through the excruciating pain of loss … after two months of torturing myself with imagining my wife calling me or showing up at my doorstep to beg my forgiveness … after two months of twisting around in a swirling tornado of grief … after fifteen years of a relationship that ended in this … it struck me like a dart in the bullseye of my soul:
My marriage was over.
She’d left our marriage two months ago.
And last night, I left it too.
Fidelity had been the last uncut string. I’d hung on that string attached to the fabric of our love like a dangling kitten whose intractable claw is tangled in a bedspread.
And that fidelity had been two-pronged: Sex. And men. I’d kept both at arm’s length so long that the arm muscles of my psyche bulged.
For the first time since the breakup, I felt a tinge of relief. A smudge of liberation.
I was driving away from the town where I’d had sex with a virtual stranger. I had been reckless. Impulsive. I didn’t have to feel shame or guilt. My body was mine. My mind was mine. My sexual fantasies were mine.
Like a superhero, I’d broken through a brick and mortar barrier that had taken years to construct. It was 6 a.m. on a Sunday, and no one knew where I was. I wasn’t the focus of the attention of anyone specific. I didn’t belong to anyone. Not an individual, not a category. I was in the most liminal of liminal spaces:
A lesbian, but one who has sex with a man.
A woman who loves sex with men but who has lived as a lesbian for years.
Married, but not. A lesbian, but not. A straight woman, but not.
I had spent a night doing whatever I wanted to do, feeling whatever I wanted to feel. I didn’t have to call anyone. I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone. Not even to myself.
This sensation of the in-between and totally unfettered vibrated through my body as I gripped the steering wheel. I was driving, driving, driving. I pushed my foot onto the accelerator: 65. 70. 75. 80.
I had been living at my sister’s for a few weeks. Her house is a mini mansion on a cul-de-sac in a community rife with sports parks, country clubs, California Distinguished Schools, breast-enhancement surgeries, several big-screen TVs and laptops per house, Wii, Nintendos galore, backyard swimming pools fashioned with authentic-looking “natural” rocky boundaries, cell phones for everyone past infanthood, and air-conditioned supermarkets whose vast array of sparkling produce could feed ten Somalian villages for a year. Like most of her friends, she was housewife and mom to her three children while her husband worked at a technology-related job, raking in bucks big enough to support this lifestyle. It was not how I lived. I was a writer, an artist, an academic, a lesbian, an iconoclast. I lived in a funky neighborhood. I hadn’t thought of it at the time, but I often formed my sense of self in comparison to how others had it wrong. My low-level buzz of judgment about the world my sister lived in probably permeated our relationship for a long time, but we never specifically talked about it. We had the kind of sisterly bonds and tensions that are the hallmark of many sibling relationships.
When my marriage first came crashing down, she invited me to come stay with her and her family for a while. I thanked her but declined. Soon, though, the idea began to appeal to me. I intuited that being around children might do me some good. I was too concerned about the well-being of my young nieces and nephew to mope around fingering a knife or a noose. I felt that being around my sister—someone who’d known me all but the first six years of my life—would be comforting. Besides, I knew she’d like having me around to offer a bit of a buffer in the chaos that is child-rearing. And I was truly grateful for her offer, which would give me not just a house but a home.
When I first moved in, I noticed something about myself. I had held deep in my very being for years a resistance to her vision of life. But suddenly, I was living in her guest room. I had been mown to the ground and didn’t have the vigor it takes to perpetually judge. I just took in her life without internal or external comment. It struck me that the way she chose to live was none of my damn business. And soon, I began to reap pleasures from her world that reached into my injured life and contributed to my healing. It was so very pleasurable to sprawl on the soft wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room, wrestling with my nieces, while my nephew was absorbed in a cartoon that flashed dynamic color and sound into the room. It was pleasurable to open her refrigerator and stare at the abundance, even if I was on the Devastation Diet (meaning I was dropping weight like Oprah on a fast because the knot in my stomach rarely loosened enough for me to swallow much of substance). I loved watching my nieces in a gymnastics meet, their strong little bodies flinging around fearlessly. I loved kissing my nephew goodnight as he sat up with his nightlight on, reading. There was something appealing about the nonchalantly masculine air of my brother-in-law in a white shirt and tie, fresh-faced from a shower, reading the paper distractedly before leaving for work.
My sister encouraged me to enjoy looking good again. She had a lot of great clothes. My judgments about her vast walk-in closet evaporated, along with my general disregard for my appearance.
For years I’d been wearing mostly black, no makeup, and very little jewelry. I’d shunned adornment of the body. It had been years since I’d worn a dress or a skirt. Even though I’ve always looked feminine (or “femme” as a lesbian), ever since I came out as a lesbian, wearing a dress made me feel like I was a drag queen. That feeling had disappeared. It was summer. I bought skirts and sundresses. I bought shorts and flowery blouses in soft fabrics. I bought earrings that bounced against the skin of my neck as I walked. I bought lavender and green and blue eyeshadow, light black mascara, peachy lipgloss. Memories of clothes shopping as a teenager seeped up from my memory, a visceral pentimento of high school: the smell of a leather purse embossed with tiny pink and blue flowers, the feel of tight high-waisted jeans, my favorite lavender blouse that I wore to a dance in the cafeteria, the soft peach-colored tank top I wore with cut-offs over and over one summer.
Memories of summer always involved swimming. I had been a synchronized swimmer for six years, starting in sixth grade. I always loved the water, fashioned myself a kind of mermaid. Swimming in the ocean, lakes, pools; soaking in Jacuzzis and hot springs: I liked it all. But my separation from the world of water had paralleled my dwindling libido during my marriage. My ex wasn’t fond of the water; she was afraid of the ocean, and she didn’t like public Jacuzzis where someone might scrutinize her body…and maybe mine.
So now, I bought a bikini. I hadn’t worn a two-piece bathing suit in almost thirty years. The first time I wore it—bandeau top, splashes of green and blue—I sat next to my sister at the country club on a lounge chair, watching the kids scream with joy as they plunged into the pool.
Their abandon to joy, the freedom in their bodies: It all resonated with me so deeply that at that moment, I realized that I had been assigning the role of Liberator to the wrong person. I was now the Liberator of me.