Sir, May I Have a Pack of Marlboros?
Illustrations by Amanda Elanor Tribble
I'm standing in the threshold wearing a tank top and torn boxers, my hands gripping the top of the doorway. I arch my body forward like a bow and arrow when I talk. "I don't even like women," I tell her. "They bug me. Even when I was a kid, I never really liked girls." My body is lean and muscled, the elastic of my boxers stretching like a bridge across my hip bones. "I'm not a lesbian!"
She is some kind of beauty queen. I mean, her mother used to enter her into beauty pageants. My mother never entered me into pageants. I was always too muddy, too skinned up to be put on display.
But Sawnie, she has delicate features and silky dark hair. Her eyes have this way about them. They're quiet, confident. The man I've lived with for the past several years, the man I'm going to marry, calls her "Beautiful Sawnie". Never just Sawnie. He lets me know that, if he could, he'd be with her. But he is short, and she is tall, and to him, that's the end of the equation.
My equation is a little less clear. As I state my disavowal of women to Sawnie, we've just gotten out of bed. Together. We were not sleeping. I watch her dress, and she looks at me in this elegant way, a side-glance of disbelief. "Listen to yourself," she says quietly. She brushes past me in the doorway as she leaves the room.
A few days later, I'm with David. We walk into the bedroom, and there's a broken wine glass on our bed. Under the shards stained with red is a book by Adrienne Rich. The title refracts through the glass: A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far.
Sawnie has been here, in this house, in this room.
When I was a kid, I was a martial artist. Because martial arts was not popular back then, I was the only girl in most classes. I fought against men. More often than not, I won. When I was done sparring, I heard people whisper, "Wow, what a dyke." I was twelve. I didn't know what the word meant. I thought they were calling me a dick.
Before the day I declared my dislike of women, David, Sawnie, and I shared the kind of friendship you have in college. You live together, become a family. You stay up until midnight becomes dawn, talking about all the ways you'll shake up the known world, make it a better place. You philosophize, you dream.
The three of us had that kind of friendship: intense, intellectual, intimate. Sawnie and I also had the quintessential girl-to-girl friendship that blooms in college. We talked about the boys Sawnie dated and about my relationship with David.
Then came the tectonic shift.
It was winter, snowing for the third day in a row. There's a particular beauty to the way snow falls on the front range of the Rockies in Boulder. The reddish-brown rock slabs we call the "Flatirons" catch snow in their crevices, like lace draped on a dark background, the delicacy of winter. David was out of town for holiday break, and at nine a.m., I was lying in bed, swaddled in that sweet, liminal space between dreaming and waking, when Sawnie knocked on my door. My eyes opened halfway. "Yeah," I said, "Come in." She opened the door, stood there, her fingers close to her mouth, fidgeting.
"Wanna go to breakfast?" she said.
I clicked my teeth, shook my head, no. "Too cozy in bed, Sawn." I pulled the blankets tighter.
She remained in the doorway, fingers still fidgeting. "I have to tell you something."
"So tell me now."
She shook her head. "Not in the house. No way. Not in this house."
Not in the house? What the hell did that mean? She said it with exaggerated conviction. It was part of her odd preoccupation—a recent change in her. Still, she had me hooked. What words could possibly have been so impossible to utter in this house, especially on a snowy morning when neither one of us had a reason to step outside?
When we did step outside, I really began to question her. Slanted snow slapped my cheeks. Everything stung. The ice of the week's storm sat in black mounds on the roads and sidewalks, fresh snow dusting it. It was so slick that Sawnie and I had to clutch each other's arms and waddle so we didn't fall.
"Well, this is fun," I told her.
"Oh come on. You're tough. It's nothing." She suggested I keep my mind on the hot coffee and cheese omelets awaiting us at the College Cafe. "It's cozy there, too," she said. She was wearing this long wool coat that made her seem simultaneously more sophisticated—like some highbrow artist from New York—and more scary. It fell around her shoulders like a black cape. In the weeks leading up to this day, she had been critical, distant, sometimes mean, one of the first obstacles in our friendship. I had begun to think of her as utter darkness, something shadowy and nondescript.
We walked under amber streetlamps haloed with snow. The sun struggled through haze. It took us about thirty minutes to walk less than a mile, and during that time, something happened. We began to laugh, to tell stories, to finish each other's sentences, like we used to. She said, "Remember that time in the UMC..."
"...when we crashed that Springsteen display?"
She nodded. We'd spent many days pumping our working class fists to Springsteen's lyrics, so, when the Young Republicans put up a display in the student union celebrating Springsteen's Born in the USA as a paean to war, we could barely stand it. And so, late one night, when the UMC was virtually empty, we wrote Bruce lyrics on construction paper and plastered them over the misguided sentiments. When a janitor saw us, we ran like bandits out of the UMC, leapt over a wall, crouched low, and huddled together, our hearts slamming our chests, our bodies close and afraid.
As we walked in the snow that cold morning, we laughed about our prank.
"Was there really a janitor chasing us?" I asked. "Or did we just freak out?"
"I think he was real," she said. We laughed ourselves to tears.
Just before we reached the greasy spoon, she turned to me, and the scowl of worry darkened her face again. "I'm scared," she said.
"Of what?" It was ten below zero, and I was losing my patience.
"I have to tell you something."
"So tell me. It's fine. Just tell me."
"Okay," she said, said it like she was steeling herself against some horrible news. She gritted her teeth and began to speak. Just then, I let go of the crook of her arm to open the door. The ice was slicker than we both imagined, and our feet skated to catch our balance. We laughed, and then Sawnie went down. Hard.
Still laughing, I stretched out my hand to offer her a lift up. She shook her head no, grimaced in pain.
Later that afternoon, I visited her in the hospital where she'd had surgery to put a steel shank on the broken bones in her leg. I brought her flowers, and I sat at the end of her bed, my hand resting on her cast. "Jesus Christ, Sawnie, I can't believe it."
"Yeah, pretty shitty," she said, and shrugged. "So, is David home yet?"
I looked at my watch. "Yeah he should be home by now." I had brought her a stupid wind-up toy, a tiger that balanced on a ball, then flipped and landed upright again. I wound the screw, let the tiger flip, then did it again. "So what were you going to tell me?" I asked. The tiger flipped, landed, flipped, landed. I wound the key tight over and over, waiting.
Eventually, she said, "David's home. You should leave now."
In high school, I was known for three things.
- My goal in life was to fake my way into a mental hospital. I believed I'd be happy there. In the outside world, I felt straitjacketed.
- I was imperturbable. I'd learned this from years of study in martial arts. People would try to make me angry. They'd throw fake punches at me. I'd dodge and never show an emotion.
- I didn't like guys. That was my mantra. "I don't like guys." No one ever questioned me. Until one day, Bobby Rossi asked me out on a date, and I said, "No thanks. I don't like guys," and Bobby said, "Well then what do you like?" I thought of the possibilities. Birds. Mountains. Drawing. Martial arts. Quiet days on the ocean when I ditched school. Carole King. James Taylor. Jimi Hendrix. Other than that, I had no idea what the answer could possibly be.
Before winter break ended, David went out of town again. That afternoon, Sawnie clunked into my bedroom, full cast on her leg, and said, "I want to take you to dinner." Déjà vu. She fingered her mouth nervously, and she said she had something to tell me outside of this house.
The mystery had become a tick digging under my skin. I wanted to flick it off, but its tiny pincers had taken hold. So the three of us—me, Sawnie, and the massive white cast on Sawnie's left leg—clunked up the stairs of the Rio Grande Cafe. We had barely been given menus before Sawnie said, "I just want you to know, I don't want anything from you. I just need you to listen."
Ah Jesus, really, here we go again with the drama. I struggled not to roll my eyes. I ordered a margarita. Sawnie drew in a huge breath, started to speak, and I took a huge gulp of tequila, because whatever she had been waiting weeks to tell me was finally on the tip of her tongue.
"Okay," she said. I leaned in. "You're not in love with David." I forced myself to maintain eye contact, sipped my margarita, puckered from the salt and lime, and she added, "You're in love with me."
My eyes went droopy. I was suddenly emotionally exhausted, and I think I muttered something to the effect of, Oh, yes, this is very interesting; please do tell me your theory, because I do want to hear everything you have to say, and I have a very open mind, and I'm a progressive, forward thinking liberal who has crawled my way out of a regressive, backward thinking, redneck family, and so I want you to know that if you're a lesbian, I fully support you. And I can't wait to get home to David.
She then methodically replayed all the times when I had "proven" this love to her. That time in the bar when the guys wouldn't leave us alone and I wanted them to think we were lovers, so—as defense against their advances—I leaned forward to kiss her. I stopped just short, when the guys began to holler with disgust. That time in our home, when David was not there, and we were laughing, and we brushed shoulders, and our lips got a little too close. That time, those several times, when David was trying to talk to me, but I could not stop looking at her.
Halfway through her litany, a waiter passed, and I waived him down. "Sir, could I get a pack of cigarettes?"
"What kind?" he asked.
I envisioned the tough guy on the horse. I needed him now. "Marlboro," I said.
Up until this exact moment in my life, I did not smoke.
A few seconds later, the server was back. I opened the package, lit a cigarette, inhaled, and looked back at Sawnie with my completely open mind.
I was eighteen years old. Melissa was twenty-two. We shared an apartment together. I had helped her through a relationship with a guy who had physically abused her. I was teaching her the self-defense aspects of martial arts. It was the 1970s. There were no safe houses for women in the state of Colorado. Melissa and I didn't have the money for an apartment with bedrooms. So we shoved two beds into a studio, made them look like an L-shaped sectional, and called it home. Then one night, I was taking a chicken casserole out of the oven when I turned and ran smack dab into Melissa. I bobbled the casserole dish; she helped me steady it onto the counter, but we got tangled up, my hands on her shoulders, her hands on my hips. We stood there, face to face. A few seconds passed. Then Melissa said, "Sometimes I think I could kiss you," and I said, "Would you like some chicken casserole?"
They say sucking cigarettes is sexual sublimation. I sublimated a whole pack of Marlboros as Sawnie talked. My throat felt like it had been scrubbed with steel wool. She talked. I smoked. I drank. I rested my chin on my twisted up arms. I wanted to fall asleep. I was beyond exhausted. Two hours later, when she was finally done talking, my energy returned. "Okay. Ready? Let's go!" I said.
We walked down the stairs together, Sawnie leaning on one crutch and the banister. "So, what do you want to do?" she asked.
Dinner was over. It seemed obvious. "I wanna go home."
"David'll be home tomorrow," she said, another obvious thing.
"Yeah. So, I'll pick him up."
"That's what you want?"
I shrugged. "Yes."
When we reached her car—one of those trashed out, boat-like Buicks that parents handed down to their kids in the 80s—I had to help her and her cast into the driver's seat. I took her crutches, leaned them against the back door, and she rested her hand on my shoulder for stability.
She rested her hand on my shoulder.
I was a martial artist precisely for this reason. The body needs defending. What touches the body makes an immediate impact on the soul. The body is fragile, the thing that holds the heart, the mind, the spirit. The body is the object of us, the thing that cannot be abstracted, the thing that cannot lie, the thing that finally broke down and made me give in to whatever I'd been fighting for years.
She rested her hand on my shoulder.
I was a kid again. I felt my body sweating, training, sparring, winning, and I heard the whispers, she's a dyke, a dyke, a dyke, and I didn't want to be that, whatever it was. I wanted to fight against it, the thing that diminished my power and took away the fact that I had won, over and over, fair and square. I had won, and it did not matter, because I was a dyke. I felt the social straitjacket of high school, Then what do you like, and my utter silence that followed, and I watched my heart become something I could not fathom, could not see, name, hold, could not love.
She rested her hand on my shoulder.
There was the possibility of love. There was the possibility that I did not have to fight, that I could be me, whatever the fuck that was, because it had been lost beneath two decades of—what? Not lies. Not deception. Not denial, because I would've had to have been able to name the thing in order to deny it. I didn't even have a word for the mechanism that had kept me from naming the unnameable thing that was smothering me.
She rested her hand on my shoulder. She saw my body soften, maybe for the first time ever. She said, "My parents have a cabin in the mountains. We can go there if you like."
My voice was shaking. I said, "Drive."
I called David the next day, told him I was spending the weekend with Sawnie.
"Beautiful Sawnie?" he said.
"Yes, beautiful Sawnie."
I came back a few days later with bits of Sawnie's cast embedded in my face, my hands, my legs, my body. I came back with the thing that was healing her bones embedded in my skin. I hoped those specks might sink into my bones, do some kind of healing of my own, something deeper than I could fathom. I came back, and I said, David, I'm sorry. I didn't know. I did not even know there was an option.
Because there wasn't.
Among the many books Sawnie gave me to read that weekend was one called Compulsory Heterosexuality, by Adrienne Rich. It explained why the word dyke scared me. It peeled back layers of culture, violence, and oppression, and revealed a whole new color wheel of possibilities, of truths, of ways to live my life with integrity. I'd spent my college days studying Greek, Latin, physics—anything that might prove a recovering redneck like me belonged in a university. Sawnie spent her college career learning about the various forms of oppression in our culture—one of the oppressions that we, right then, were both coming face-to-face with for the first time.
When we were up at the cabin, she also showed me a story she had written. We both hoped to become writers someday. It was a vaguely fictionalized version of our lives over the past few months. In it, the main character's mother asked her why she had chosen to be with women. The main character's reply? "The only choice I'm making is whether or not to live an honest life."
There is a question of choice going around these days, the hot topic that allows others to define my life. Let me simplify it: Who I love is not a matter of politics or biology. It's a matter of the human heart. I do not have any more choice over who I love than you do. As Andrew Solomon has said, "We don't allow freedom of religion because Jews can't help being Jewish; we grant it because we believe in the value of self-determination."
The relationship I shared with Sawnie never really ironed itself out. But we had both crossed a threshold together, an unbreakable bond, even across time, distance, and silence. We moved on from one another, dated other women.
It's thirty-five years later as I write this. I've been with the love of my life for almost thirty years. And because love is a fluid thing that blooms in different ways at different times in different people, Sawnie has been with the love of her life for decades, too: a good man I know and care for.
Sometime last month, Sawnie and I talked comfortably for the first time in decades. We didn't pump our fists to Springsteen, but the bond we once had was still there. Because, yes, we had, in our own ways, shaken up the known world. Or at least, we'd shaken up our "known" world. We had made a difference. We had made the choice to live honestly.
Thirty years later, I finally understand that woman standing in the doorway in the "wife-beater" tank top, arching her body like a weapon and declaring to Sawnie, "I don't even like women. I'm not a lesbian." I understand, because I'm still her, with that kernel of self-hatred lodged in my bones, the anger that rises, the frustration that still, sometimes, blocks me from who I am. Because, in some way, we are all that woman. We live in a world that, like me three decades ago, hates women and does not even know why.
We are, I am, also no longer that woman. Because one night, Sawnie had the guts to say what she felt, and because I finally had the courage to step out of the ring and into a fight worth fighting, one that would, eventually, give me peace.
A wild patience had truly taken me that far. As Adrienne Rich wrote in the book of poems refracted through broken glass on my bed so long ago,
I can never romanticize language again
never deny its power for disguise for mystification
but the same could be said for music
or any form created
painted ceilings beaten worm-worn Pietas
reorganizing victimization frescoes translating
violence into patterns so powerful and pure
we continually fail to ask are they true for us.
What is true for me:
I wake in the mornings, and I see Lisa sleeping next to me, and I know I am home. This is not a privilege granted to me with ease. This is a hard won right that has come to me over time, something I know more than I know even my own collective history, my own roots, which in the past, had become—even to me—a lie.
Don't ask me to lie anymore. This is what I know. This is where I come from. This is where I belong.
Lisa and I walk our dogs in the saffron light of dawn. We plant tulips in autumn and watch them bloom in spring. The cycle repeats, and it is never repetitive. This love renews. This love stays. This love is not yours to name.
There is nothing I know more than this.