It is my first Pride, and I’m nervous. I pull my hair back and wear a paisley-patterned sundress, the closest thing to rainbow that I own. I hope it will hide sweat; it is late June, and I’ve learned that summer in New York City feels just as much like hell as it does in my Louisiana hometown. I still don’t understand parades where beads aren’t thrown, but in the midday sun I clap and cheer and tear up watching all these people who feel comfortable in their skin. I am jealous of them.
Four months into my first official lesbian relationship, my girlfriend still consistently reminds me that I’m not “really gay.” I’ve slept with men, recently, and dated a few seriously. I wonder what qualifies her as “really gay” (she’s slept with more guys than I have). I focus on singing “Born This Way” over and over as the floats pass by.
After the parade, we walk hand in hand through the West Village to meet her friends for drinks. Two days ago, the New York State Senate voted to legalize gay marriage, and on Bleecker, the Michael Kors storefront is practically aflame. Identical eye-height plastic cakes stand next to each other, one topped with two grooms, the other with two brides. We take photos through the glass. We kiss.
As a child, I do not play wedding. Marriage seems far-off and strange. I am, however, quite taken with princesses. From ages three to five, I dress as a princess for Halloween. My grandmother makes my dresses, always pink satin, with sashes that my mother ties in perfect bows with square knots at the back. I obsess over Disney movies, particularly The Little Mermaid. When I go to bed at night, I lie down with a flourish, desperate for my hair to fall the way Ariel’s does on the ocean floor at the end of “Part of Your World.” It doesn’t, because I’m not under water; frustrated, I fluff it out and try again.
When I see Star Wars, Princess Leia becomes my everything. I insist that my mother fix my hair in cinnamon roll buns, but she fails and then tries to explain that Carrie Fisher’s hairdo is probably the result of a wig or a professional hair stylist or both. I pout; I want to be a princess. Later, I try it myself, and when I can’t make my hair stay, I collapse in tears, devastated.
My first month in New York, I fall hard for a girl in my graduate program. She is the first girl I’ve ever slept with. I tell her I love her; she tells me she can’t date me because she doesn’t think I’ll ever come out. “I will,” I sob. “I’ll call my mom right now.” I don’t call my mom, the girl starts dating someone else, and I sleep with one of my guy friends to test whether I am actually gay. I’m pretty sure I am. I start drinking. A lot.
A year later I get a haircut that I hope makes me look more like a lesbian, dress in a black lace tank I had never really planned to wear when I bought it, put on lipstick, and treat myself to a cab ride to meet some friends out at Stonewall. I’m determined to meet a girl.
Her green eyes are bright in the bar light. We text all weekend; she is funny and smart. We have dinner four nights in a row; she is older and charming. She leaves notes on my bed when she goes to work in the morning. She takes me to her favorite spots in the city (she’s been here nine years), surprises me with flower deliveries, tells me she’s never met anybody like me. I am smitten.
Soon we start fighting, even badly and in public, but I don’t break up with her. She’s told me I won’t find anybody like her. I am terrified she is right and I am terrified of being gay and maybe if this relationship lasts long enough when I do tell my mother she won’t think it’s a phase.
On a Saturday night my girlfriend calls me a whore and shoves me down on the sidewalk. In the morning it is sunny and I have too much to lose. We go to brunch and drink champagne.
When I come out to my mother, she writes me a letter. “I’m glad you remember us calling you our princess, because you are. You are the child who made me a mother. But the princess finds her prince, not another princess.”
Easter. My girlfriend is in Los Angeles looking for apartments, and I am packing our New York one; we are moving for her new job. We still fight, too much, and I am unsure what I’ll do in California — but I’m trying to prove something, though I know what it is less and less. I know myself less and less. She still doesn’t think I’m really gay. Even though I know better, I believe her now, about that and many other things.
My mother sends me a text: “I’m getting rid of the baby clothes and the Noah’s Ark things since you won’t have any use for them.”
I hold my phone, standing among boxes. I pad the dinner plates with folded t-shirts. I like the name Noah for a boy.
We move west and break up within the year. I am relieved but crumbling. I pack again; I have memories but not much else. I sit on the bed that is no longer mine and call my mother. She’s surprisingly supportive. “I know this feels like the end of everything, but you’ll be okay.” I thank her through my tears, tell her that means more than she knows.
“And, really, it’s a good thing,” she continues. “I know you want a family, and kids, and gay people just don’t really have family values. Now you can find that.”
I think of cake toppers and other tchotchkes just out of reach.
I follow a girl in a beanie and worn out Converse through a city of sprawling lights. I breathe and write and we stay close — her red hair across my pillow, damp with sweat, my body falling into hers like a question mark. We play jazz records and go to concerts and wear fuzzy socks as peaceful and quiet as the future we wish for: a little girl with shoelaces ever tangled, a home with a view and two cats and wine. It is a small life but a happy one. I ask her to marry me because we have a love with nothing to prove.
In the spring of 2016, nearly one million LGBT U.S. adults are in same-sex marriages. I am one of them.
I wait for marriage to feel real.
I change my name.
I want to shout at people who ask how married life is. The same, I want to tell them. It is the same but I am angrier.
I start going back to therapy.
I wonder if I would be happier if I’d married a man. I know the answer but I wonder anyway. I wonder why I even think about these things.
When I post the photos on Facebook, in an album cleverly titled “That Time We Got Married,” I am still waiting.
I insist from the beginning on a small wedding. I don’t want a big wedding both because I don’t want a big wedding and because I don’t want everyone there to see who isn’t there. I don’t want an aisle. I don’t want to be given away. I do think those things are silly, but do I not want them because I truly believe they are outmoded or because I have a father who will not be at my wedding because he chooses not to be? I decide on the former; it is better for my mental health, and planning a wedding turns out to be hard.
I wear two dresses: one for the wedding, one for the reception. Both are from years before, the era of the ex-girlfriend. They are something old. I’ve never worn them; she thought they were both ugly. “Don’t you want me to think you look hot in what you wear?” The girl I’m marrying hasn’t seen either, but I know she’ll like them both.
My mother won’t be there. I wear her pearl necklace anyway, in case she wants to see the photos someday. It is borrowed and also goes with my new sash.
My earrings are new and kind of blue (but really seafoam).
The morning before my wedding, my mother texts for the first time in months: “So, are you the bride or the groom?”
From my father, silence.
On my wedding day, the shutter clicks. And clicks. And clicks. I wait for the day to seem real. It is supposed to be the happiest day of my life. I drink a bottle of champagne before the ceremony. I want it to go quickly, but our officiant, one of my best friends, keeps talking. Are people smiling? Do their feet hurt? We don’t have chairs — it is informal, in a back yard. It is a nice back yard, though. I am sweating. Everyone is staring. I wish I’d worn flats. Am I supposed to be holding Annie’s hand? Will the pictures look like a real wedding? Is this a real wedding? I am ready to sit down and eat and pretend this is just another night. A normal night, a normal party. On normal nights with parties you don’t need your parents.
I am nine. Or 10. Or probably closer to 12 and a little too old to still be playing with Barbies. I crouch behind my bed and pull a pink case from underneath. I turn the purple plastic lock that holds the figures inside. Exposed, they are like sardines: two dolls per stall, lying head to toe. Eight total.
Something I can’t name pulses between my legs.
I remove two Barbies. The redhead is my favorite. I move the blonde’s arm upward; it slips the strap from the redhead’s shoulder and unfastens the back of her sundress, one quick knife slice through the Velcro. The redhead stands bared, her dress around her impossibly narrow waist, and the blonde carefully puts one melded hand into that perfect mess of waves. She pulls the redhead forward and their lips meet. Their breasts clack together. Their heads move as I think heads move when you kiss someone.
My door opens. There is no lock. I gasp, throw the dolls behind a pillow, pretend, as kids do, that there’s nothing to see here, that I’ve been doing nothing wrong. Have I been doing something wrong? My mother’s smile is tight, her green eyes narrow. I know she knows. “Just cleaning up,” I say.
Seven months after my wedding, I finally speak to my mother. I tell myself that I have to call her; there is flooding where my grandparents live, and my phone calls aren’t going through. My grandparents are fine, my mom grateful that I checked in. She says she loves me; I say it back. We do not speak about the lapsed time or the details of our lives.
The next week my therapist says I must have called my mother because I’ve changed. “Ask your wife,” he says. “Ask Annie what she thinks.”
That night I do. She pauses, looks up from her phone, bites the inside of her cheek. “That makes sense. Do you feel different?”
My heart feels full for this woman with her wayfarer glasses, her soft eyes, her freckles. She has not met my parents but she is patient for us both. “I’m less angry,” I offer.
She nods. I know she knows I will say more when I’m ready.
I love my wife. I loved the wedding we chose together. We didn’t want a big wedding or an aisle or chairs. I liked my old dresses and my backyard ceremony and the miniature pies for dessert. The photos are beautiful but there are still two people missing.
I’m stuck writing my novel. It’s about a young, gay girl with something to prove and may or may not be a thinly veiled memoir; but I can’t get deep enough into my teenage brain. I text my mother with a request: to dig through my brother’s closet for my high school notes between my friends and me. “They’re in a big plastic bin, in little manila envelopes.” She’ll get to it on the weekend, she says.
A week later the box arrives. It is addressed to my married name: Jan Edwards Hemming, in my mother’s perfect cursive. Annie and I react as though there’s some strange treasure affixed to the cardboard; I take photos and text them to my friends. And to my mother, I send a thank you. I tell her I know it’s hard for her but it means a lot. She doesn’t reply, but there is still this box, and the box will do for now.