| Arts & Culture
Queer Life How I Learned the Craft of Going on Dates with Girls
I have dated long enough to see a change, and I am still young enough to work at the craft.
One of the girls who lived on my block told me we were going to have a fancy business lunch, because we were businesswomen. She told me we should both wear suits and carry briefcases. She was a lawyer and I was a senator. (This kid. I wish I remembered her name so I could have called her crying after the last election.) I don’t remember contributing anything to this conversation. I would have had no idea what to say. I remember telling boys exactly what game we were playing, which side they were on, where to go and what to do and to wait on my signal. It was never that way with girls. I remember she had these brightly-colored plastic fish filled with water that we used as ice cubes for our businesslike Kool-Aid in translucent tumblers. I wore a cardigan and carried a lunchbox as a briefcase. She kissed me, our mouths both stained red in the long years before lipstick. We chewed on those fish until they busted. We kept a weekly date until her mother saw us doing it one day; thereafter, every time I asked if she could play, she told me her daughter wasn’t home. She must have been at the office.
There was a towheaded girl child who lived next door whose mother was Deaf. They had the first flashing-light doorbell I’d ever seen. My girl used to come over when she was hungry, but I really didn’t figure that out until years later. I thought she was just fascinated by her neighbors’ pantries. Her mother painted our faces for Halloween, her lines perfect and haunting as she sketched a spider-web veil over my eye. It was the first time I knew beauty in the mirror, outlined in black lipstick and made believable through abstraction. That woman turned me into a goth, I am sure of it. Her daughter turned me into something else that summer in the long grass out back. We’d grind, fully clothed, breathing hard in one another’s faces and I’d tell her I loved her. She’d always laugh but she’d never say it back. They moved out in the middle of the night on the first of the month.
There was a girl in junior high whose rather unusual name I have spelled every way I can think of on Facebook to figure out what became of her, but it looks like I’ll never know. She wrote a rap about her name; I’ll never forget it. She taught me how to moisturize on the edges of the playground and told me we were made for each other because we’d sing together and in our heads we could hear the whole orchestra. She was terrified of her mother and she never met mine. There was nowhere in the world that we could be free and alone together, and somehow we knew that without ever naming it. Our school held dances about once a month and did not bother with chaperones, so that’s where I learned to freak. It’s not gay if you’re upright and Dre is playing, and there are boys somewhere nearby, working desperately to get a piece of the action. And you never have to tell your mom.
The first girl I fell in love with was not human at all because I would not let her be. She was a goddess and a demon and an archetype; no wonder we never slept together. I didn’t know anything in those days. We got drunk, we got high, I got lovesick and sick of loving her. I had to separate the sigil of desire I’d made her into from the ordinary woman she became. She was the first one to make me say it. Let’s pretend we’re vampires and say she sired me. That’s the way I’ll always tell it.
The next girl was as disarming and strange as a whirlpool and I had not yet learned to row backward. She was the first one I let touch me naked, the first I touched back without fear. She was the first one I told I’d never want anything else, that I’d never go back to men, that this was the answer to the question of who we would be. Her mother was always with us and somehow did not suspect. Our dates were strained and restrained; stolen moments and pouting sidelong at the straight kids whose parents would admonish but not forbid. She was dangerous and unstable and I knew that, but I could ignore it until she woke me in the middle of the night to show me that she had covered the bedroom we shared in stapled-up sheets of paper so she could write an epic poem about murdering me in screaming-orange highlighter ink. (This is not a date.) Her mother caught us and kicked me out. That is what we used to call a Rite of Passage.
There was a girl who I was always in love with, but I never figured out how to do it right. She sat in my lap and told me she wanted me and still I thought she must have been mistaken. We had good dates but I could never make good on them. We laid in the grass and looked at the stars. Our local radio station debuted Kid A without interruption one evening. She did her makeup perfectly and switched on the fairy lights in her bedroom and made space on her bed for us both. When she reached for my hand, I thought there must be some mistake. When I fell in love with a boy and she would show me her anger, simmering under her every word and flowing through her every movement, I knew we’d made a mistake. When she told me she was leaving for college on the other coast, I knew I had.
There were women who actually knew what they were doing, and thank the gods for them. There was a woman who took me to burlesque shows and bought me drinks and whispered filth in my ear while we watched the beautiful bodies alight with dance. There was a woman who took me to the kinds of places that hired a lighting designer, who filtered golden incandescence through a wall of half-filled tequila bottles. There was a woman who wove her memories of a trip to Rome expertly through a conversation that always felt equal and engaging and fair, though I had never been. I remember watching the way her long earrings brushed against her exposed collarbone and knowing she had planned that so I would watch, just as surely as the skyline in Rome had been built to glorify the sunrise. She taught me what it is to smooth the edges of an experience. She ran my hand over the curves and told me to look see feel no splinters here.
There were women who asked me piercing, insightful questions about myself in a way that never made me feel threatened or belittled, only challenged. There were women who insisted we order dessert and never mentioned calories or working out, or ascribed any kind of moral worth to what we put into our mouths, at dinner or afterward. There were women in whose beds I would awaken wordless with gratitude for what I had learned.
These were the years when I learned what going on dates was supposed to be like. Money makes some parts of it easier or more enjoyable. Moving to a city gives one more options. But the better part of my education was learning that a date is an opportunity to know and be known. To share pleasure publicly and hold hands and appreciate that we are the luckiest creatures on Earth. I grew up and the world grew up at the same time. Other women have had this experience, I’m sure, but not like us millennial queers have. It’s a universal stupidity to believe that everything is new as it newly occurs to us. But our closet got opened from the outside, and we were encouraged to come out. None of the generations of queers who came before us can say the same.
We aren’t all safe, we aren’t all out, and there are still plenty of places where we cannot hold hands without keeping the other ones free to defend ourselves and our dates. Still, by the time I was a real adult, there was no law that could be used against us. I have dated long enough to see a change, and I am still young enough to work at the craft.
I know how to do it now. Despite the way, they say, our generation doesn’t go on dates, only hooks up, and is killing the casual dining chain, and is putting off getting married, and is never having kids, we who have been in school all these years have surely graduated. We just ex pect a date worth going on.
I know how to have a fancy business lunch. I never ran for Senate and I don’t drink Kool-Aid anymore. But I remember how to set expectations, bring the colorful fish, and read the room. I never get kicked out by mothers anymore.
I found the girl who I never got it right with, and I showed her what I have learned over oysters and gin. Kid A won’t cut it for either of us on this side of the timeline, but we also don’t have to hide. I found the archetype girl and grinned at her over bread bowls full of clam chowder and coffee with the siren on the cup, and assured her that she’s not basic, that I forgive us both for growing up, and that I’ve always wanted to be able to do this. So now I do.
I caught up with the women who taught me how to do it for real. I returned the favor, talking not about Rome but about the books I write and making sure never to steamroll them about it, stay coy, stay interesting. I told them that I learned it from them. They said that it was nothing, that it was just conversation, that this is just what people do. They’re half-right.