The scarlet letter of my teenage motherhood seared into my skin like a brand, reminding me to feel dirty and afraid even when I’d woken up content, my breasts swelling with sustenance.
“At least she isn’t a lesbian,” my mother’s best friend, Lynn, had reassured her amid the horror of my fertility, and she’d drawn out the lezzz so it sounded sharp and strange. Lezzzbian.
I ran my shower water scorching hot and scrubbed myself with coarse salt until my skin turned pink.
With my student loan money, I’d bought an old Dodge Colt and rented a one-bedroom apartment with a muddy little backyard on a cul-de-sac in Petaluma, a suburb maybe forty-five minutes north of San Francisco.
I bought ten pounds of Peet’s coffee, too, and twenty-seven blue packets of rolling tobacco so I wouldn’t run out of either until spring semester. I brewed my coffee dark, sipped it until my hands shook, then smoked cigarette after cigarette to make the nervous feeling go away. The tips of my middle and index fingers yellowed from the nicotine. My heart beat fast.
Was the apartment haunted? I burned sage in every room.
I paged through my hardback copy of Jambalaya by Luisa Teish and followed her instructions to cleanse the apartment by placing a teaspoon of salt in each corner, moving clockwise from the front door.
I mopped with Van Van floor wash and sprinkled bay rum on the bristles of a broom and beat the walls.
Moving counterclockwise, I picked up the salt and flushed it all down the toilet.
I lit a blue peace candle and put it behind the front door, taped an image of Saint Michel above the doorframe.
I picked flowers from the bushes at the edge of the muddy yard, placed each one in an empty peanut butter jar and set a jar in each room.
I set a bowl of water next to the mattress on the floor to keep our dreams clear and I sprinkled lavender under our pillows, but I wasn’t sure if all that cleansing could help me and the baby now.
Shame is the haunting that’s hardest to scrub away.
Most nights in that apartment after Maia fell asleep, I stayed up doing economics equations and writing feminist theory papers and stories about straight people without children.
Most nights I secretly waited for Jamie, too, but most nights Jamie didn’t show up.
She’d been my girlfriend on and off before the baby.
What was she now?
At my cigarette-burned dining room table, I fell asleep on my almost-finished papers, notes scrawled in the margins. Three a.m. or four a.m. I’d wake with a start from a dream about being assaulted by bird people and I’d stumble to the mattress where Maia already slept in her blue onesie.
Most nights Jamie never showed up. But occasionally—very occasionally—Jamie knocked on my bedroom window, said “hey” through the gap I left open.
Patti Smith sang from the headphones slung around her thin neck.
“Come to the front door,” I whispered through the screen.
But when I opened the front door she looked me up and down and complained, “You’re losing weight.”
She was one to talk.
She lived in San Francisco.
That city I’d once thought of as my own seemed faraway and fancy now.
Jamie told me about the bars people without children went to down there in San Francisco. She told me about The Lexington, and the EndUp, and Wild Side West. “We play pool,” she said. “We have writing groups.”
I rolled myself a cigarette, pushed the blue envelope of tobacco across the table toward Jamie, and I imagined the whole world I might live in if I didn’t live in my world.
That other world had writing groups. That other world played pool.
Jamie told me about the tattoos people without children got in San Francisco—anchors and butterflies. She showed me a heart with a sword through it on her bicep and I ran my finger along the blade. In San Francisco, a windfall meant roses on your shoulders, meant nautical stars on your elbows. In San Francisco, no one ever had late daycare bills to settle up.
Jamie said they had poetry readings at Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Café and she read me a poem she said was about Gilgamesh—half god, half human—but it was also about all the runaways in a walled city, and the strangeness of that crumbling landscape, and about the way her lover had found the small bones of her shoulders where her wings had broken off.
I tried to ignore the parts of the poem about Jamie’s lover.
Maybe she was referring to me?
I didn’t think she was referring to me.
I thought maybe she’d brought the poem to tell me something else, something cryptic, but I pushed that thought out of my mind as I pulled soft thrift store blankets from my linen closet, made a bed for Jamie and me on my carpeted living room floor.
I read her a story I’d written and never shown anyone—a story about the way holding the soft and fleshy body of my baby against my chest made me feel married to amazement, but also I guess a story about the way I felt excluded from her walled city where the writers were all runaways and the cafes all red.
Jamie said it was weird to use the word “married” the way I had. She said I should change it to “attached.” But “attached” wasn’t quite the right word, either, was it? “Bound up?” I tried. “How about bound up?”
I was bound up with amazement even if I was losing weight.
Jamie shrugged. She took off her clothes, set the switchblade from her pocket on the windowsill near our bed of blankets, and stretched out.
When I kissed her thigh, she laughed. When I caught her clit between my tongue and my teeth, she shivered: “That’s my favorite.”
Outside my apartment, it had started to rain.
Jamie. My girlfriend before the baby.
My hand inside her now felt familiar.
But what was she?
I knew the way her breath caught in her jaw just before she came and I knew that meant to be ready to ease my hand out but keep the pressure on her clit.
What else did I know?
I rested my head on her sharp ribcage as her breath recovered.
In the glow from the streetlights through the window, I watched her breasts rise and fall, but when she noticed me watching, she blushed and covered her nipples with her palms and pulled on a tight bra.
“The lesbians in San Francisco,” she whispered, “have cocks.”
A smile crept across her face. “I brought you one.” And from her canvas backpack, Jamie produced a perfect purple silicone phallus. “Do you want me to fuck you?”
Of course I wanted her to fuck me.
I liked the way Jamie pushed back her shoulders as she worked the cock into its leather harness, the way she straightened her spine as she buckled it around her waist. I felt mesmerized as her whole body seemed to morph into something stronger and taller as she stood up with a cock instead of just a cunt.
I knelt in front of her because I wanted her to feel taller still and I took her cock into my mouth and her ass in my hands, and I liked the way the sounds that came from her throat sounded deeper now.
In college, we read essays about sex and power, but sex and power were for straight people. In college, all the lesbians in all the essays were equals.
“Get on your back,” Jamie said.
The two of us had never been equals.
In the glare of morning, a ringing phone woke me. I reached for Jamie, but only found the mess of blankets. I opened my eyes, looked up at the living room ceiling. No sound from the bedroom where Maia slept. I wrapped a soft sheet around my body, got up to answer the phone.
“Good morning, Darling,” my Gammie Evelyn breathed.
I sat down at my cigarette-burned table, reached for the tobacco. “Good morning, Gammie,” I said. And that’s when I saw the note on the table, written in orange ballpoint
Good Morning Beautiful Ariel,
You came to me at low tide and I was not accustomed to your pace as you wrapped me in seaweed. Your light was something I could cover if I tried but I was afraid I would put you out. You were damp and fiery and I stood like a statue on the shoreline watching fish swim around my ankles.
All this to say that last night was lovely.
But I also came up here to tell you something. I don’t know why I couldn’t bring myself to tell you in spoken words, but we’re both writers, right? Words on paper are more intimate. You’ll still wrap seaweed around my waist, won’t you?
I’ve actually met someone in San Francisco. I wanted you to know. This person, she scares me—she makes me feel ashamed and afraid sometimes—but I’m drawn to her intensity.
Call me if you can get a babysitter and come down to San Francisco and maybe meet my girlfriend.
Talk soon and love forever,
“Do you have a beau?” My Gammie Evelyn was asking into the phone and I felt worried because I didn’t know how long she’d been asking and how long I’d been silent. I lit my cigarette. My hand smelled like Jamie. “No, Gammie. I don’t have a beau.”
The morning rain pelted the window.
“That’s all right,” my Gammie assured me. I could hear her take a drink and I guessed it was Champagne and orange juice at this hour. She usually waited until five o’clock for vodka. She said, “Don’t worry. You’ll meet a nice beau some day.”
And I said, “Thanks, Gammie. Can I call you later?”
As I put the coffee on, I reread Jamie’s note.
It’s not like we were even girlfriends, were we?
I wanted to write a note of my own.
Who cares about your fucking tide and your slimy-ass seaweed and San Francisco and your pool games and your writing groups and your “someone” and her intensity and your cock?
I mean, seriously? Who fucking cares?
And let’s be clear: My light was never something you could cover if you tried or put out. Not ever.
Best of luck with everything that scares you, and have fun in your walled city. I think I won’t pay a babysitter for it.
Maia toddled out from our bedroom in her blue onesie.
“Morning, Baby,” I said, my voice smokier than I thought was cool.
The sun angled through the rainclouds and the sun said, Look, it’s springtime.
“We should go outside,” I said, and I grabbed a little shovel and the packets of seeds I’d been saving.
In our muddy yard, we planted carrots, broccoli, giant peas, Italian basil, and Greek oregano. I cut my hand with the gardening shovel, but I didn’t care. We talked to the seeds, encouraging them to grow strong, grow bound up with amazement, grow fat.
“Grow,” I said.
“Go,” Maia said, and she painted herself with mud and laughed.
I bled, and laughed too.
Our seedlings sprouted at magic-speed and I said, “Good job, keep growing.”
Our sprouts shot up and wrapped themselves around us, rooting us to the earth and Maia said, “Go.”
Sometimes, like now, when no one was around but us and time moved however it felt like moving and wrapped its saplings around our legs, I wasn’t afraid of anything.
A red-winged blackbird alighted on our wood fence.
I sang up to her from the mud, “What says you, red-winged blackbird?”
“Says you,” Maia echoed.
The bird tilted her head to the side like she was surprised at being addressed, and she sang back down to us, “Grow strong, grow bound up with amazement, grow fat!”
I scattered a few seeds in her direction, said, “You’re welcome to these, but pretty please don’t eat our vegetables unless you have to.”
And the red-winged blackbird whistled at that and flew down to peck at the seeds and she said, “Isn’t it good not to feel afraid?