GREEN AS GRASS
Girls Like Us 2012
...cold sweat holds me and shaking grips me all, greener than grass I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me
I am reading a book that will open me.
Into the margin I scribble: May green as grass GREEN AS GRASS with a skinny‐ pointed retractable pencil.
In the imagination game I play often in my mind, I wonder whether this note will confound the people trying to piece it all together when I’m gone, when my books and papers are archived, when I die. Will May mean anything more to them than the month when grass is most green?
I wonder, and then I turn the page.
I am sitting on the mangled wood floor of my old apartment house in Brooklyn, cornered between the closet and the doorway to the landing. I am not sure why I am here but this is where Memory places me. I am sure that it was Sunday night. And that my heart spilled out of me like a hot molten mess, scathing everything in its path. And that it hurt.
My grandmothers were still alive then. And somewhere between a fear of dying and one of losing my mind, my spirit reached its way far, to Florida, and called her—the one they called May.
Her name was Domenica, contracted back to its American-sounding middle syllable: May.
Her hands were big: tan with wobbly green gems that played freely between the widening of her knuckles. For many decades she lived in the West Indies where her sons had dubbed her Indy May, after the Indy 500, because she drove so fast—through the cane fields, and everywhere. Her hair was bright white and had been since she was young, sculpted into a miraculous helmet that her hairdresser set for her once a week, and that did not move, no matter how fast she drove. When she laughed and she laughed often, her mouth opened wide. And sometimes, she would touch the tip of her pointy tongue to her nose, and cross her blue‐green eyes, and laugh some more, laugh again.
She was Sicilian and Catholic—all her people were. But she actually believed that her God was looking out for her and it kind of seemed like he was. For all the pain she’d been asked to bear, mirth still played around the corners of her eyes and joy danced its way about her mouth. She had birthed a tribe of giant, dark‐haired, dark-eyed children, six of them in all. And for all the tradition she carried inside her, it happened that three of her six were gay.
I often called my grandmother before the sun came up, because I knew she’d be awake, like me. And always when I called her, she would ask me how I was doing and, always, I was cheery. On this night, I knew even as her phone was still ringing that I needed her to know that my heart was ripping itself apart, tearing its skins off one by one: breathlessly, determinedly, destructively. And that it felt like I would die from it. I needed her to know because somewhere in me, I knew my grandmother could pull me through.
At the time I was heartbroken over a man. I’m still not sure what was going on in that particular iteration of my love, but I remember sitting in the middle of the back seat with him at the end of some kind of family vacation. Garrison Keeler was on the radio and they were all North Dakotans of Norwegian descent and thought it was hilarious. For seven years I had wanted to be his female counterpart. I had been fascinated by the gender roles his family played out so seamlessly—roles that just didn’t exist in my family and that seemed both normalizing and exotic. I remember feeling stifled in that middle seat, claustrophic in the din of the radio and the family’s laughter. I remember thinking that if I never heard Garrison Keeler’s fucking voice again, it would be too soon. The insight that it was over came then. But we dragged it out so we could rip each other up good.
Calling my grandmother that night was the beginning of trying to stitch myself back. I cried as soon as she asked me how I was. She did not balk, she did not tell me there were other fish in the sea. She just asked me what was wrong and listened; and asked me how it felt and listened more.
And then she blew my damn mind.
I had heard a million times the true love story of how she’d met my grandfather—a story for other pages. What I hadn’t heard, what I did not know, was that she was twenty‐seven on that fabled New Year’s Eve night. Sicilian, a woman, and twenty‐seven: which pretty much meant that she had been written off as an old maid long before. No longer a cohort to her peers who, at that point, already had multiple children, families, lives. What she had was a Master’s Degree in French literature, hard won from research in Manhattan’s public library. What she had was a strange time working at her uncle’s resort in Florida. What she had was years of exploration and a certain kind of freedom.
That night she filled in her pieces of the myth I’d heard since childhood: that he’d fashioned a ring for her out of the silver foil of his cigarette packet the very first date they went on; that they’d only seen each other seven times before they were married because my grandfather was a soldier, stationed on a base far from their home in the Bronx—a training base in Victoria, Indiana.
That night she told me that her father had driven the newlyweds to the train station on the very night they’d been married. She told me that her first night as a married woman was spent on an overnight train to a town she’d never seen. The weight of this hit me and I started fashioning a question I wasn’t sure how to ask. I knew she had been heartbroken before—a soldier who went to war and did not come back (from death or another, I do not recall). I knew she’d also had a suitor who fetched books for her while she worked in the library, another soldier. I knew she had been on dates, to dances, had been with men. But I did not know what been with meant, and I had to ask her.
So I started: So, wait, Grandma, your first night as a bride—your wedding night—was spent on a train? Yes. In a berth or in chairs? A private berth. And so, your first night as a married woman, you were on a train? Yes. She didn’t seem to get my meaning. And so I asked her, finally—But you’d been with people before, right? Oh yeah, she told me casually, I’d had lots of dates. So, physically, you knew what you were doing? —A long pause as her silence told me that she got it. I could hear the smile in her voice when she finally answered me. Oh, T.: in that respect, I was green as grass. GREEN AS GRASS.
My older cousin called it to me once like it was a dirty word: Eew, you’re a sexbonder! she’d said, like she’d discovered something gross about me. The term was new but I got her meaning and she was right. It was rare that my body wanted to touch someone and when it did, it wanted to touch them in all the ways: in every way that was possible, and in many that are not. And it wanted to be touched in all the imaginable permutations of touch two bodies can make together, and many that they can’t. And after the first shiver of feeling this feeling with someone, of feeling how much more touching I want to do with them, I am usually smitten—bonded by sex.
Sometimes I chalk this up to being someone who formed inside language—a retreat from the body I lived in that didn’t feel safe in the world. In sex, when I wanted it, two beings moved in a way that escaped articulation. So, in addition to never being the kid who fooled around with folks or fucked for just one night, I also dorkified myself by not even being able to banter or joke about what I’d done. I’d get home to the onslaught of questions from my friends and want badly to dish and be able to get dirty in my descriptions, to share. But I would think back and remember only: Heat and Darkness. Depth. And sensation.
Bewilderment. But all in a way that seemed to exist as a mass unto itself, not one I could cut up with my words.
The night my grandmother told me about the train, she told me that by morning, she woke up and was in love. I’ve thought of this a million times: she was twenty‐seven, she’d probably never had sex, and on her wedding night, her much younger lover guided her body through the spaces that can only happen when two bodies replace one, spaces she may not have known existed. She’d spent a single night with someone that likely widened the idea of sensation she thought possible in her own body—where suddenly the edges of herself were bulleted back, where sensation alone became a vastness...
I have thought of it a million times, and wondered if maybe it runs in my family: if maybe May was a sexbonder too.
I have gayface. It is there in all the pictures from when I’m small—something about the brow, something about my neck. And it is there in most of the faces of the women who are related to me—reaching as far back into the past as our family has photographs for—something in the eyes, some ineffable quality at the edges of the mouth. The chin.
I guess it goes without saying that gayface doesn’t make you gay in the world: I have a family of forebears that makes this plain. But a part of me does wonder if it might be indicative of some kind of core, some kind of shifting sex that may or may not play itself out but that lives inside—as sensibility, persuasion, perhaps as longing.
One time in a small meeting of graduate students, a scholar I both admire and eroticize locked eyes with me and pinned me with her words: You. I know you check the Other box. A kernel that often goes unseen in me, an ember that glows beneath the plates of bone in my breast, caught some air. We laughed together in our eyes and with our mouths and I admitted that it was true and she said she knew because she was an Other box-checker as well.
I think that day she meant it professionally: that there tend to be no suitable categories for people like me, like us. But I like to think she meant something deeper. The descriptions, the boxes, the tropes—they don’t work for me. They never have. This can be lonely‐making.
And Other is the system’s placeholder for those of us in the system that have no place.
It took me more than thirty years to come face to face with my first gay love. There had been brushes before but nothing like the pull I felt that night. I did not need to touch her to know my snake‐heart would coil about hers and make a maze of mingling. It was as if our spirits saluted each other in deep recognition before we ever spoke. And when we did speak—in a strange triangle of quiet that persisted throughout an evening of festivities—ties like vines curled out of our hearts, tangled there, and took root. Ancient warriors re‐tying sacred knots, lifetime after lifetime. By the time she scraped her glinty teeth across my mouth in a kiss that seemed to summon me, my spirit‐heart already knew. And hers did too.
In the early days, she dragged her fingers across my shoulders, touched the space behind my heart, played at the nape of my neck, every single time she passed me in a room. This, I had never had before: someone whose fingers, palms, reached for me even in passing—an attentiveness, a loving, that was like a constant question with its own answers buried deep. My skin had been so trained to keep to itself that I imagine her now, reaching to me that way, yearning for my palms, my fingers’ tips to play about her neck, her shoulders, the back side of her heart. But my body knew how to keep to itself, how to armor, to defend. And I did not touch her half as much as I wanted to.
The first time she came to my house, she left a handsome black toothbrush perched in the ceramic holder affixed to the tiled bathroom wall when she left. This was no accident. And I watched that toothbrush every time I went into the bathroom in the days between her visits while I waited for her to come back. It had a confidence about it, a jaunty surety.
And I felt held by her because of it being there. She was in it with me and unabashed at being so.
Layers of my own veils peeled off quickly, willingly. And it surprised me how much clearer, closer to myself I felt.
In so many ways it would be easiest to say I came out then—to disavow my other loves or try to find some trend of sexual dysfunction that laced through them. But even here, I check the Other box. I am fascinated by coming‐out stories, fascinated with a kind of knowing that arises from the inside or from the invisible bridge desire builds from one set of skins to another. But I don’t have that kind of story. My father is a gay man and I shared my time between the household he made with his lover Max, and my mother’s singledom— again, story for other pages. My first gay love coincided with my first modern text-romance and my coming out story consists of nothing more than a giddy me madly sexting at the Christmas dinner table. My father looked at me from where he sat, smiled slyly and asked: So, who is she?
My stomach dropped and I looked up pale‐faced, stopped in my tracks: he had never seen me so clear. I toyed with keeping the secret to myself a little longer but was too curious about how he’d known. All he said was that men were morons and he couldn’t see me putting up with them. Then he told me that when I was twelve he figured I’d end up with a handsome black butch some day.
His own mess leaking out all over me made me squirm, and leave the table.
I find myself now in a strange place. I am in my mid‐thirties and feel gay as the day is long. I am no longer with my first gay love. I wouldn’t say it fell apart. It did something more like tie itself too tight so that she and I both suffocated and couldn’t hide in each other anymore. I have willed this to be different but it is my lot to hold. So I find myself single and out for the very first time. Single and Out and Grown. It’s a strange mix. And I am finding it’s effortful to keep up.
There is a moment in a book by Eileen Myles where she says she never minded having sex with men, but that it was their perspective she didn’t like.
Recently I walked with a friend down a quiet street in Brooklyn. A black livery cab was parked in the middle of the road and people scurried about it. A man rushed out of the house juggling too many bags. The driver paced nervously between his door and the trunk of the car while a very pregnant woman kept her body moving as she anticipated waves from the deep. What left me dumbfounded and staring abjectly from the sidewalk, was a second woman who directed everything. She ordered the man to put the bags in the car and get in, she told the driver to stop pacing and get ready to drive, and she kept her hands always near the pregnant lady, always touching.
They all got in, doors closed, and then an army of feeling marched its way across the pregnant lady’s face. It seemed to pummel her. I’ve never seen anything like it. She swung open the car door and leaned her elbows on the seat she had been sitting on: bent over, her enormous belly hanging down towards the ground. She moaned—quietly, restrained. So fast, the second woman leapt out of the car and moved her body around the pregnant lady’s, draping herself about her so that she was in the exact same position but on top, lying her torso full on the back of the other. Holding her this way, the second lady began to moan: a huge, full‐lunged, guttural cry. It split the night in two—tore right down that street in Brooklyn.
And as soon as the moan split the quiet night, the pregnant lady let her lungs fill too, groaned out pain unabashedly now, joined in voice and in vibration by the woman who moaned with her. Inside the car, the man‐friend looked like he might shit himself: frightened, estranged. It irked me. My friend and I watched the two women and we were spellbound. I think I cried. And then they all got in the car and drove away.
But something had changed. In me, my own desire felt clear: I wanted no man in my scene. And in my scene the women are lovers.
8. The Reckoner
My sex is a reckoner.
There are rivulets and pathways of my own sex that I have never been down. When I think back on the times I’ve loved, I am haunted by the feeling that I was only following one, maybe two, of these flows. Each time a lover peeled away a veil from my skin, from my self, I felt seen, opened. But I notice that the veils each lover pulls tend to be pulled from the same pile—as if once they find the place that they can see, they forget that there might be other depths, other darknesses, to explore.
My lot this lifetime around is to have a vastness of piles, myriad veils. And I am on a stumbling search for the loves, for the lover, who can dance among them, unveiling now from this pile, now from that—tripping over a new one and laughing with delight. Not disappointment.
And while I search, stumbling, I am practicing my own, halting jig that I will do as I learn to dance searching out the piles of an other, never allowing the pleasure of seeing to let me think that I have seen all there is.
When I was little, I watched my father rail against the television, the newspaper, others—who suggested that being gay was a choice. As if, he would yell, I would choose to live a difficult life! As if I would choose to live my days in secrecy or in shame! He would exhaust himself in this, make himself hoarse screaming at the walls of our apartment, or at me. And sometimes he would cry. And I have listened, with rapt attention, as lovers and friends recount the story of knowing their truth inside and of having that truth somehow match up well enough to what being gay means in the world so that they fit.
But the lines do not hold. And each day, I live a choice that my father yelled was impossible, that my friends have felt as fiction. Each time I get glances from straight men and feel the familiarity of a life acculturated female, I shiver at how seductive recognition can be.
And so I stalk my city searching out the ones like me, searching through spaces I might find what I need—choosing to search, choosing to see. In this I am as green as grass. Greener than grass I am and dead or almost I seem to me. A youngblood learning, bewildered, choosing. Always.
There is an energy healer I know who tells me that on the inside I am doing cartwheels. If sexuality is a wheel, then I spin on it.
And still, I am spinning.