(This continues the weekly posting of chapters of my book, The Brides of March)
It Was the Colored Contact Lenses that Brought Us Together
Seattle, November, 1986
“Who are you?” I asked the girl who’d set her motorcycle helmet on the counter where I was working, raking her up and down with my eyes. She was clearly not a customer (or I’d have been all attention, no attitude) and knew me; her china blue eyes eager and friendly, her lopsided smile expectant, innocent of the knowledge that her straight brown hair was stuck “helmet-head” to her skull. I searched the mental rolodex, coming up empty. Where in the world would I have encountered this woman I would later describe as wholesome as a warm slice of wheat bread?
Not that I wasn’t used to strange women coming into the poster and framing store where I worked, thinking they knew me. Sometimes, they would just cruise the card racks, peek over and leave. Other times, they would linger, and when I asked if I could help them, they’d snicker, “Weren’t you naked the last time I saw you?” a by-product of dancing in a red lace g-string in front of four hundred lesbians in a bar.
“I’m Jannine,” she said, “Kelline’s friend.” It came back to me in pieces; my ex-girlfriend at Tugs Belltown, a long, narrow, brick-lined dive, standing with her ostensibly straight best friend, Jannine; me dancing against the brick wall to “Missionary Man” by the Eurythmics, rubbing my ego on the crowd. I had thought it would be fun to scare the straight girl, cozying up to her at the bar, enjoying her blushes. She hadn’t forgotten me.
The excuse for interrupting me at work was a gift for Kelline. I’d known her longer, Jannine wanted my advice. She found excuses to show up a few more times over the next couple weeks as she finished up her Bachelor of Science at the University of Washington, and December found me riding to a mutual friend’s house on the back of her motorcycle.
Never mind that I was dating someone else (who I later learned was already dating someone else), or that Jannine was supposedly straight as a board, or that her best buddy wanted me back, she kept showing up.
Jannine was a nice girl, a junior varsity rower, the manager of a Little Caesar’s pizza restaurant, and a former high school softball player whose mother still picked out her clothes. She was on the fast track from undergrad to grad school to business career to please her parents. She’d been a Coast Guard military brat, moving from school to school across the continental U.S., able to say goodbye without looking back, or hello without meaning it, and not good at putting down roots.
I graduated from the University of Washington that summer with a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies (useless monetarily, but emotionally liberating), helped manage the poster store days, and spent my nights hovering on the fringe of the cool people I’d somehow infiltrated on the platform at Tugs: professional dancers who invited me to perform with them in their erotic shows for women, S/M dykes who invited me to model backless skirts in leather fashion shows, and pretty people who invited me to hang out. Not having grown up and out of the adolescent desire to be cool, I accepted all the invitations and more.
We were twenty-two.
Shortly before Christmas, Jannine drove Kelline and me in her beat up old Jeep Wagoneer to get a Christmas tree. It was while we were piling into the car, getting ready to go, that Kelline leaned over the front seat and said, “I had the weirdest dream last night about you guys. It was years from now, and you two were together, and had a house, and all these kids.”
What could we say to such an outrageous idea?
At the Christmas tree lot, it started drizzling. Jannine was along for the ride, grabbing any tree I showed interest in, holding it up for inspection. She was walking backward, keeping her eyes on me as we made our way down the line of trees, the day rapidly turning to night. There was something in the way she smiled as she held up the third tree she’d wrestled from the pile of evergreens. I stopped looking at the tree, and looked into her eyes instead. The drizzle turned to snow. The lights surrounding the tree lot twinkled. She bit her lip nervously. I told her, “You have the bluest eyes.” We both held our breaths, time stood still, and we were falling.
I only later discovered that she wore colored contacts.
Then run, rabbit, run, by New Year’s Day she was gone, driving the three thousand miles with her brother back to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, for graduate school—the Jeep breaking down in Mississippi along the way—leaving me with no guarantees.
For me, it was love, which might not have stopped me from doing my best to blow it, going back to dating people I should have been smart enough to avoid, and generally exploiting myself before someone else could do it for me, except for my friend, Tiger. It was Tiger, a runaway baby dyke, who made me ready for Jannine. Tiger, who in November took off her leather jacket, folded it neatly on the cement outside the door of the Capitol Hill Alano Club, laid her glasses carefully on top, sat down cross-legged beside them, and in a seventeen year-old moment of darkness and determination, blew her brains out with a hand gun.
Tiger was a permeable girl, boundary-less, and longing to be loved. Despite obvious differences: college grad versus high school drop-out, self-supporting versus public assistance, we had a lot in common. Without recognizing her other assets (her smile, her wit, her good nature, her optimism in the face of heavy odds), she offered her body in order to please. But when she tried to crawl into my bed one late summer night when she’d been kicked out by her latest, I said, “No.” She was incredulous that I wouldn’t accept her offer, her one gift, and in that moment, my paradigm shifted, and I felt a maternal instinct to protect her young soul, and mine.
I hadn’t seen her for a couple of months before she died. She was doing OK, I thought, trying to get her GED, dating girls her own age, instead of adults who knew better, but then her optimism failed her. I couldn’t save her young soul from further harm, but maybe I could save my own.
Jannine, plunging into graduate school in Daytona Beach, was terrified. She had done everything she could to avoid love and dating and romance. She hadn’t had high school boyfriends, or even noticed the softball girls who tried to get her attention. Her team mates on the women’s rowing team at the UW (several of whom had been evicted from another university during a witch hunt for homosexuals) scared her to death with their bravado and sheer brute strength. She did nothing in the dating department, so she wouldn’t have to face whether she could come out or not. Her mother had raised her to believe that being gay meant a life of shame and sorrow. The dating antics among her lesbian friends at college seemed silly and shallow. She is, and was, an all or nothing gal. She wanted to be sure that what we felt was love, which meant all the trappings: in-laws, the picket fence, children, barbeques with the neighbors, and a joint checking account or she didn’t want any part of it.
I don’t know what she saw in me. From that first “Who are you?” she should have run. She could have used a million excuses to let “us” go. But, she didn’t.
I have been a chameleon over time: barefoot hippie nature child, high school theatre geek, bisexual stoner babe, radicalesbianfeminist undergrad, erotic-dancer wanna-be, and finally, stay-at-home mom. Jannine has remained much the same. She started out as a girl who wanted to wear jeans and tennis shoes every day, not giving a hoot about appearances or gender appropriate clothing. She is just the same at forty, though her original narrow worldview has grown wide. At the same age, I have somehow gone full circle. I am the nature child again, the one who used to go barefoot on the barnacled rocks on Vancouver Island, showing the tourists where to dig for clams while my long hair whipped around my shoulders; though today, I would do the same wearing lipstick, and my heels are cracked from decades of less than sensible shoes.
If there is something that made us stick, besides the stars, sheer stubbornness, and a synchronicity we could never have planned, it would be our values. Values seem silly when they are hauled around like so much baggage by pundits and politicians. But, they aren’t. Values are what make us who we are, even ex-erotic dancer wanna-bes and the women who love them. Underneath Jannine’s doesn’t-give-a-hoot exterior is a fierce dedication to family, to stability, to a middle-class lifestyle she aspires to, not because she wants the coolest toys in town, but because she wants to keep money worries to a minimum, and to offer her children the same opportunities her parents gave her. Her long hours aren’t about avoiding family life or keeping up with Bob in the next cubicle; it’s a dedication to doing the job right.
Like Jannine, I worked my way through college: but when we had Duncan, the real hard work began. I was overtaken by a drive to do the best by our kids. Though the best doesn’t mean a spotless home, all the extracurricular classes money can buy, life as a chauffeur, or bedrooms that belong in the pages of magazines; it means sitting down to dinner together every night and homemade Halloween costumes. It means reading aloud, talking about dinosaurs until I am blue in the face, making the library a second home—but not doing the kids’ homework for them. The laundry is often undone. The dishes sometimes sit overnight. But we do our best to get the kids to bed happily and unrushed every night, putting sleep first, so they are ready for another day.