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Essays/Nonfiction

“You’re Breaking My Heart”

My grandma was queer, a lesbian born in 1923 to a Lutheran midwestern minister. She died a year after George W. Bush took office, after the towers fell.  She never came out.

 

*

 

I am queer, a lesbian, or something, born in 1977 to a young, midwestern mom on welfare and no father.  In 2002, I wore orange, my grandma’s favorite color, and brushed her hair as morphine quieted the cancer.  The years leading up to this, I tried to come out.  But I didn’t. 

 

*

 

In 1997, the year Ellen was fired for coming out, a beautiful woman flirted with me in a Hollywood club.  I was in a car leaving with my friends and she ran up. You want to come home with me? Dear god, I wanted to, but I was scared. My friends laughed. So I shook my head, no, and she whispered, You’re breaking my heart. 

 

*

 

I always thought Aunt Lorrie was just Aunt Lorrie, my grandma’s best friend—Aunt Lorrie who lived next to her in the suburbs and when my grandma moved to Florida, Aunt Lorrie followed, bought a house around the corner.  Aunt Lorrie who in the time of Madmen—the 1950s and 1960s—had her own children, her own husband.  

 

*

 

My mom told me they were partners for four decades, told me she would walk in on them when she was a kid. The year I was born, they both divorced their husbands. Before my grandma died, I asked her about it while we ate nachos at Applebee’s.  She spit out her Manhattan, defiant. Pissed.  How dare you. I made light of it, but really, how dare I.  I don’t think one person came out in my working-class high school in the 1990s.

 

*

 

All the times I tried to come out. My late teens, after I saved $3000 and flew to Los Angeles with two suitcases. I scoured newspapers, tried to find coffee shops where I could meet women but instead slipped into another relationship with a man I imagined was a woman. The year before my grandma died, I called a lesbian hookup line and was charged $100.  My late 20s, after my first divorce, I moved to Portland and pledged to be true to myself. But I wasn’t.

    

*

 

I said I’m bisexual, but meant I’m a lesbian.  I loved stories of older women who eventually came out. I’d listen at their poetry readings.  I’d think maybe they could see me.  I fell in love with my mentor, who was thirty years older, but I never told her.  I fell in love with three other women.  I never told them.  I’ve loved one man. I told him.  

 

*

 

My friend says, I think you were just trying to survive, and maybe she’s right.  I had enough battles to fight—eating disorder; the man who dragged me downstairs by my hair and hit my face (as my cousin said, Men just sometimes do this. I’ve slapped my wife); waiting tables at several restaurants and barely making the bills; bipolar diagnosis; suicide attempt; wheeled out of the ICU because I didn’t have insurance; bipolar misdiagnosis; re-diagnosis as PTSD; stalker; protective orders; court dates; depression; another suicide attempt; 105 pounds; irregular heartbeat.

 

*

 

I now find other queer women online—what would my grandma have done? What would I have done in my early 20s, in my teens?  I was afraid of being judged, but there are many stories like mine. I sip margaritas with a woman my age, early 40s, who after marriages and kids, came out five years ago and half her family, including her sister, disowned her. I date a woman who grew up not far from me in the Midwest.  She came out two years ago. As we eat gluten-free pizza in a park, she tells me her parents find it morally reprehensible.  An eighteen-year-old student writes about how she was terrified, is still terrified, to come out, and I think, You too? 

 

*

 

You will end up with a man, a friend says. Another advises I have sex with some women and then go back to men. Someone quips, No way! You’re straight. Many say, It’s just a phase or Of course, you’ve been so hurt by men. 

 

*

 

It is twenty years after my grandma died.  I am angry. Or tired.  Or both. Angry about the hetero movies.  Hetero books.  Hetero narratives.  Tired of others’ assumptions. If one more romantic comedy.  If one more person says, You look like a leading lady. While I wait for a date at a coffee shop, a man tries to flirt with me. I love your outfit.  Won’t stop talking. Not everyone can pull that off. He stares when my date joins me in line, tries to figure her outOn another date, the male bartender gives us a round of drinks. A lovely man asks if I will go on a date with him once we’re vaccinated, and I say something I should’ve been saying for years, There is one problem— you have a penis.

 

*

 

I can’t stop watching queer shows and movies and reading queer books. We have them now.  I watch a mainstream movie about two women in love. What would I have done in my teens, early 20s?  What would my grandma have done?  How would this have changed our trajectories? 

 

*

 

After my grandma died, I exchanged letters with Aunt Lorrie until she passed away, a year later.  In her last letter, she sent me everything she had of my grandma’s—rings, necklace, earrings.  She told me I have both of their names. She told me she could not bear to go to her funeral. And in her final sentence, she wrote—We had something special: love.

 

*

 

I wish I could tell that beautiful woman who stood at my car window, I’ve been breaking my own heart. I’d tell her, It’s taken me a few decades, but I’m figuring it out—how to love myself. 

Chrys Tobey is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including "New Ohio Review," "Ploughshares," "Rattle" and "The Cincinnati Review." Her first book of poetry, "A Woman is a Woman is a Woman is a Woman," was published in 2017 from Steel Toe Books. 

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