I wore a white second-hand dress, plastic flowers in my hair and – contrary to regulations – shiny black shoes. My family couldn’t find white ones, anywhere. Not in Kmart or Best & Less, or wherever else we shopped back then.
The other girls bathed in white were doves, wearing gold studs and necklaces, and one girl, my friend, had a tiara. Some wore veils. We were getting married. To whom, you ask? To Christ.
The photographer hid me – and my devil’s feet – behind a black sign that read:
Mary Immaculate Primary
Class of ‘95
Some girls made comments about my shoes. Couldn’t I find the right ones? they asked. I looked at my feet and frowned. I don’t remember the service or any of the proceedings, but I remember how my feet looked to me then. How my friend Natalie shone in her gold tiara and the popular girl blossomed with daisies in her hair.
My black shoes are mere snatches of memory now, but it feels like I missed something crucial if they are all I can remember of what must have been, at the time, a very special occasion.
By the time high school came around, I didn’t have a shred of belief. Not in god, not in the benevolence of the universe. Why should I? I had few friends and lots of pimples, frizzy hair, daggy clothes. I was short, nicknamed Tiny Teddy, and flat-chested. There was also the chronic anxiety, the dizziness, the seizures. The loneliness.
I’d not spoken to a boy, not since primary school, not really, except for the skinny lizard in the house behind ours who told me, apropos of nothing, to suck his dick. I must have said something back as why else would I remember this counting as conversation?
I thought he “liked me” because that’s what we were taught to believe back then.
Skipping forward a few years – let’s say six years, I began to suspect I liked girls, like really liked girls. The realization dawned on me slowly, so slowly in fact that I can’t say with any certainly when it happened. At sixteen? Seventeen? Eighteen?
At that stage, I’d not met any openly gay people or, as far as I was concerned, any gay people. If there did exist, and I wasn’t convinced, where were they? I went to a large girl’s high school and as far as I knew, there were no lesbians. Once, in year 11 or 12, a circle of girls formed around Lucy and another girl tongue-kissing (experimenting, they called it) in the playground. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I heard about it and thought about it, a lot.
I was twenty, I think, when I met T at the Women’s Collective at uni and we became girlfriends for a brief time. By that stage, I was out to a few choice friends. Having wriggled free from religion, I did keep a souvenir: guilt. The stuff that seeps into your body like lead and settles there, poisoning a life. I suspect we say “guilt-ridden,” like we say lice-ridden or rat-ridden, because we are speaking of an invasion, unwanted, insidious, difficult to extinguish. I carried, still carry, the guilt in my stiff neck, the sag of my shoulders, the rumblings of my belly, in the things I say (or don’t say).
The first time I told my mum, openly, directly, that I liked women she pretended she didn’t hear. We were having dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Surry Hills, talking, clinking little glasses of sake.
“You know, I think I like women,” I said.
“Did you hear me, mum?”
“That’s not customary where we come from.”
She (we) were born in Russia where gays and queers are prosecuted for as little as waving flags or holding hands. I told myself I didn’t care what my mum thought.
Memory, like blown glass, is fragile and also malleable. My mum denies this conversation ever took place and now, two years on, she sings a happier tune of whatever makes you happy. My dad still can’t look me in the eye, not when I mention a woman on the scene.
Jeanette’s Winterson’s mum once said to her “Why be happy when you can be normal?” On bad days, I tend to agree. I still have fantasies about marrying a man, living together, having a family. He’d take care of me. Keep me safe. He’d be bigger and stronger. He’d drive (I don’t), he’d fix things (I can’t), he’d manage the finances (I won’t). And then I think, wait, is this really how I want to live? The answer is No. A great big No screamed from the tops of buildings, from open car windows, a deep belly-growl, a resolute No.
You might prefer apples over oranges. You might like the snow, the beach or the bush. Winter or summer. Jeans or skirts or shorts. You might prefer to go nude. I like vaginas and breasts, bottoms and thighs, arms, hands, eyes, mouth, teeth. Women’s. Always women’s. But, still, I’m not quite ready to shelve my Marriage-Husband-Home fantasy.
My intimate relationships are characterised by anxiety as is the rest of my life. I live with vaginismus and anorgasmia and have a magician’s bag full of other sexual anxieties (Pick a card, any card!). I treasure wholeness, boundaries and bodily integrity to a senseless and inconvenient degree. I can barely look at someone putting in eye contacts or earrings, cutting their nails or plucking their eyebrows.
It would be like someone with a fear of snakes being afraid of rubber snakes, spaghetti, earthworms, plaited hair, the hiss of a kettle, long grass and overgrown paths where the reptiles might linger.
For me, sex is tricky because it’s all about letting go of boundaries, bodily and emotional. A fortnight ago, I went out drinking with Dita.* We drank and laughed, told stories and wrote ditties, ordered oysters, those pearly aphrodisiacs.
It was Sunday night in Redfern and all the bars were closing.
“Do you have something to drink at your place?” Dita asked.
“I might have some wine? I definitely have vodka.”
We linked hands and walked the five blocks to my house. I was well and truly pickled by this point, having drunk something like three glasses of wine, two ciders and four cocktails.
And when we got back to my place, we cracked open a bottle of sparkling rosé. “It’s not bad,” we said as we filled our glasses with more and more. The music played softly in my room – I think it was Jack Garratt – and the lights were dimmed, as they often are when we, scared creatures, take someone home for the first time.
As wasted as I was, I still thought about all the things you’re not supposed to think about during sex. My mind refused to quieten. Our clothes were scattered all over the floor, her face buried between my legs and yet…When was the last time I washed my sheets? I should have had a shower. What if I smell bad? I do smell bad. My feet are gross. Why did I eat pasta? I’m bloated as a melon. I don’t know what I’m doing. I wonder if Dita regrets coming home. She’s gorgeous. She’s been down there a long time. My body is slow and sad. What should I do?
“You’ve been down there for a long time. I feel bad for you.”
“Why? I’m a lesbian!”
I wish I could give my full attention to Dita, to us, in that moment, however, little or much it meant to us then, or would mean to us in a week or two, or a month. But of course I couldn’t. When you live with anxiety, you have an extra body to contend with in the bedroom. I haven’t seen Dita since though we’ve kept in touch via text. Here’s a thread from a recent conversation:
Me: I also think women can’t undo a lifetime of socialisation and be wild in bed (without lots of practice!)
Me, again: Okay I guess I’m really only talking about myself here…
Dita: Yes, it’s true that socialisation of women is shit. Luckily we get to critically engage
and choose something different!
Of course, but it can be a really hard thing to do. To shed your guilt, your upbringing, everything you, not so long ago, believed in.
I wonder what the class of ’94 would think of me now, if they knew. Knew what, exactly? That I like girls, occasionally go home with them. That I don’t have a scrap of faith in anything, not even if humanity’s capacity to endure.
Imagine if ant colonies thought that they were the centre of the universe. They foraged, slept, fought and mated, the whole time thinking that those feet, those boots coming towards them were God’s will. When the queen ant died and was not replaced that that too was God’s hand.
Most of my classmates went on to enrol in a Catholic high school in Schofields. If I went with them – and I wanted to – I wonder what would have happened to me. Maybe like an old girlfriend of mine, M, I would have been bullied and teased, ostracised, spending lonely lunches crying in the toilets, teachers turning a blind eye, all because I liked other girls.
I no longer think of my first communion with shame; I rarely think of it all. My black shoes were, if I believed in such things, a premonition of things to come, of dancing with the devil and too close to the fire.
And if you ask me, hell sounds like a hoot it’s filled with others like me, the deviants, misfits and outsiders, the ones waving rainbow flags, the ones that respect difference because they are different themselves.
My feet feel better these days. July, at my yoga studio, is the month of the “toe sit.” If this sounds unimpressive, that’s because it is. You lean on your knees and tuck your toes under, stretching the backs of your toes. Then you do the reverse and lean back to rest on the tops of your feet. It’s excruciatingly painful and you do six sets of one minute each. My feet feel out of shape thanks to clogs, heels and other inflexible shoes. Christian the instructor likes to tell us that the toe sit will change our lives:
“It’s like having a new pair of legs,” he preaches.
“The quickest way to feel a difference in yoga,” he says.
“It’s like you’re flying.”
If I ever decide to marry, I won’t don a white dress. I couldn’t. It would be blood red or purple or rainforest green, something outlandish. And I wouldn’t wear white shoes, not if you paid me. Maybe I’d go barefoot and loop arms with the devil.
*Not her real name.