April 17, 2005

Second Chance

We have an eclectic collection of coffee mugs. Only a few match and the ones that do are never more than pairs. I’ve never felt the need to have all our mugs be the same. Celebration of diversity?

There’s this one mug I’ve had for a number of years. It is of whimsical design. Over the years it has been banged around quite a bit in the dishwasher. The lip of the mug is chipped. The rough edge detracts from the pleasure it used to bring. I don’t like to drink my morning coffee from it any more. That rough lip. Unpleasant. Yet I also don’t want to throw it away. It sits in the kitchen cabinet with the rest of the mugs. I wonder if it realizes it is no longer part of the inner circle.

The mug was a gift from an old neighbor. Old as in past, not old as in aged. Her name was Leslie. When she first became my neighbor, she was around seven years old. I was twenty-four or so. Yes yes, it was quite a while ago. But she didn’t give me the gift when we first met. It came later, after we became friends.

Over the eleven years we were neighbors, we got to know each other quite well. It started with her coming over to play with The Boy on occasion. She is five years older than him but hey, it must have been more appealing than hanging out with her older sister. They were always arguing, those two. Her sister was quite the bitch. So Leslie would come over and hang with me and The Boy and our dogs. We’d play board games, go hiking, swim at the community pool, solve the mysteries of the world.

Her parents were the kind of neighbors I like to have and strive to be. They took care of their property, respected mine, and were always ready to pitch in when help was needed. Once, the indoor cutoff valve for my exterior faucet was leaking. A half-dozen or so little snakes, attracted by the water, had snaked themselves around the pipe and valve. Inside my house! I fucking hate snakes. They definitely don’t belong in my house. The husband captured and removed all of those snakes and didn’t once laugh at my squeamishness. I don’t know if he remembers it, but I do. That man is my forever-snake-hero.

Over the years, we all became friends. The mother and I would chat over the fence like stereotypical suburban housewives. Mainly she’d talk and I’d listen. She seemed rather lonely, the mother. There were a few times I considered inviting her over to hang out with the kids and me, but I never did. Evidently I was too selfish. Or too shy. It was one thing to stand out by the fence and talk and quite another to invite her into our home.

Then came that day not long after Leslie graduated high school.

I remember she often dressed like a hippie. A hippie of the 1960s rather than a hippie of the 1990s. The hippies of the 1990s lacked that authentic hippie panache, in my own humble opinion. Imposters all. Imposters like me, although I was not an imposter of the hippie variety. I had outgrown hippie somewhere along the way and was a different kind of imposter: Leslie’s imposter friend.

That day The Boy and I had just arrived home. I was unloading the last of the groceries from the car. As she crossed the strip of grass separating our driveways, she called out to get my attention. I turned and watched her approach tentatively with her head down, shoulders slumped. She looked up at me and said, “Hi.”

“Well, hi there. How’s it going?” I smiled while wondering what was wrong.

“Uh. Can we talk? I have something to tell you.” She made brief eye contact and looked down again at the driveway. Her hands dug deeper into the pockets of the oversized camouflage jacket she had on. “Uh,” she looked up again. “I… um…. I kissed a girl today. I think I may be gay.”

Let’s pause here for just a moment. There is much background I have omitted. Like how my sexuality had long been neighborhood gossip fodder---I came out with a bang shortly after moving there. Like how her mother wrestled for the longest time before accepting me as a friend, for herself or her daughter, because of my “evil perverted lesbianism”---her words, not mine. But I was a good neighbor. A good person. A good mother. Leslie’s parents were good people too. They wrestled, yet they couldn’t ignore the reality of me for long. So we all grew.

Now back to the topic at hand: their daughter kissing girls.

To say her revelation caught me off guard is an understatement. To say it was my worst nightmare is closer to the truth. I immediately broke out in a cold sweat and stammered something insightful and mature like “oh… really… I… ah… gee...” as I rapidly backpedaled into the house and slammed the door in her face.

Well, I didn’t literally slam the door. But figuratively I sure did.

I try to justify my behavior. Even now. I try to justify leaving her standing there in my driveway, her eyes huge and seeking reassurance. I try to tell myself, “Suzanne, maybe you were doing her a favor by ignoring her revelation. By ignoring her confusion. By not giving her admission any acknowledgement at all you were really helping her.”

Yeah right. I know better. Because I’d been her once upon a time. At least someone much like her. With the same questions and confusions and uncertainties. I know how much it may have meant to me to have a trusted adult to talk to---any adult, gay or straight. I know how much courage it took for her to bring it up to me at all. So what did I do for her? Nothing. I did nothing. I shut down.

Thing is, to this day, I don’t know if she is into girls or not. She never brought it up again and neither did I. Shortly thereafter, The Boy and I moved away. We’ve lost touch.

I know why I behaved that way and it shames me to admit it. It was the mid-1990s. The religious right and anti-gay groups preached loudly about The Gay Agenda. How homosexuals recruit young people and lure them over to The Gay Lifestyle. I was so afraid if I discussed anything about her sexuality with this young woman, the world would point their fingers at me shouting “Evil Gay Recruiter! Right here in this suburban community! We were right! If you let your children associate with homosexuals then they too will become gay!”

I have no gay agenda. I am no recruiter. Homosexuality is not like the Army, for Pete’s sake. Being gay is not a decision. It just is. I am just a garden variety suburban lesbian searching for happiness in a fucked-up world. Well, make that a garden variety suburban lesbian who didn’t have the guts to help a friend in need. Just because Leslie kissed a girl didn’t mean she was a lesbian. She wasn’t inviting me to be her Mentor of All Things Lesbian or seeking encouragement to kiss the girl again. She just needed to talk. I wish I had been strong enough to listen.

Life is funny sometimes. The daughter of a close friend recently announced she is dating a woman. I’m getting a second chance. I’m getting a second chance not to turn my back on a young woman’s friendship because she thinks she may like girls. Whether she is gay or not is of no concern to me; I’ll be there for her either way. I don’t give a flying fuck if the world (or anyone in it) thinks my own personal sexuality is a bad influence. I know better.

This time, I’ll not let my fear keep me from listening.



Gina said...

Inner strength is something that some people search a lifetime for and never find.

You have found yours, and that must truly be a wonderful feeling.

We have all let people down in our lives. It is part of being human. But I do understand your feelings of wishing you had reacted differently.

Try not to be so hard on yourself, Suzanne, you are a good person.

That Girl said...

Absolute ditto to what Gina said. Maybe this new young girl will really end up needing a lot of you and your committment to help her will not waver because of what happened before. Maybe it's all part of the plan.

You must see how wonderful you are and know that it comes from mucking it up occaisionally.

elswhere said...

I've had that moment of fear, too, when a kid at my job sort-of came out to me and asked for advice. It's chilling. It surprised me how scary it was. It was like all the internalized homophobia (for lack of a less pop-psych-y phrase) that I thought I didn't have any more jumped out at me all at once. Yay you, for facing it down.

Heather said...

I love your honesty. Somewhere along the line, we've ALL let people down because our fears get in the way. Here's to second chances!

sunfrog said...

Beautiful post! The number of times I have rerun conversations through my mind (or immediately wished for a complete redo) numbers in the thousands!!!

You are a funny, touching, discriptive storyteller and you crack me up (or bring tears, both are good, though!). Keep it comin'!

Wash Lady said...

The world needs more people like you who are comfy in their skin with who they are and who care enough to love wholely and truthfully.
I'm getting caught up with my favorite blogs after being away for a while and I'm glad to know that my mom is not the only one who drives their daughter batshit, or that doing your child's laundry helps you to feel better sometimes. I hope your visit with The Boy is everything you want it to be.