When I realized I was in love with Jess, she was thirty-two and I was the ripe old age of forty-one.
In school, much like me, she liked boys just like her girlfriends did. But around age sixteen, she realized she liked girls more. And for sixteen years she hid it, fear of disappointment ensuring her silence. She carried the weight of her secret close. But secrets make you vulnerable.
It was the 90s and most girls grew up with a built-in knowledge they ought to like boys. And boys grew up believing they should like girls. None of us questioned this natural progression and for the most part, well-meaning parents perpetuated this idea of what was normal and good, never dreaming they might be boxing their child in to something that just didn’t fit. For those who had the misfortune of developing feelings toward the same sex, a life of silent anguish began. These feelings were deemed unnatural to most and had to be suppressed. For those who chose to act on them, a secret life ‘in the closet’ became their norm.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s in the white-picket village of Greenleigh, I don’t think I even knew anyone who was gay and it never entered my mind that perhaps I was. As we giggled and flirted our way through high school, gossiping in the cafeteria over Friday fish and chips and cans of Coke, sometimes suspicions arose about those who looked ‘gay’ or acted ‘gay’ or dressed ‘gay’. And naturally this led to whispers and assumptions. I don’t remember any malice, just curiosity, a lack of understanding and a keen awareness these individuals stood apart. But it was these whispers and lack of understanding that forced them to stand apart. For the tormented soul experiencing these taboo feelings and too afraid to confide in someone, it was a confusing, lonely existence.
And so, for years, Jess juggled clandestine relationships with women she loved, and public relationships with men who became her cover. Morning always came, stark fingers of sunlight finding cracks around her bedroom curtains, finding cracks in her carefree façade. She held Jorge, her cairn terrier tight, her face buried in his soft fur, the relentless daylight laying bare her truth as Jorge’s rough tongue soothed away her silent tears.
The juggling act of her double life grew precarious and she felt as though she might drop it all, the mornings of truth becoming harder to bear.
And then Jess went away for a weekend ball tournament. She partied with her teammates, sharing honest, good times with honest, good friends. In the middle of the laughter and camaraderie, her gaze fell upon one of her teammates. Though she had known this fellow player for years, she did not truly know her. The woman stood amongst the revelers, but Jess had a sense she stood alone. The profound sadness on the woman’s face spoke to Jess and she found herself crossing the hotel room, wending her way between her friends, the air scented with dust from the ball diamond and the tang of beer.
Ice clinked in half-full glasses, music blared and raucous laughter erupted. But the party noises faded as Jess leaned against the wall beside the woman, “Are you okay, Maisie?”
I wasn’t okay and I didn’t know how the fun-loving Jess could possibly know. I continued to stare at my teammates as I tipped my cooler up to my lips and took a long swallow. The sweet vodka mix burned its way through my chest, lighthearted laughter seeming to mock. I felt hollow inside and the tears I held back hurt my throat.
I turned to Jess and for reasons I didn’t understand, I answered, ‘No…I’m not okay.’
She stared into my eyes and I saw compassion and understanding – a deep pool of awareness. She held out her hand. For a few minutes, I stared at those outstretched fingers. Then slowly, I set my cooler down and laid my hand in hers.