Toward the end of our senior year of high school, Holly stood at the mirror in the narrow bathroom cursing her hair. A breeze that found its way through the buildings into the window still smelled fresh, like the tops of trees, before summer, when the concrete would heat up and smell like garbage and metal. The spring air was promising, a reminder that senior year was mostly done, that “life” awaited us.
We were late for school. I calculated how the long the trip would take from her apartment on 125th street to our high school on 66th and knew we would never make it on time. “Fuuuuuuck!” She screamed several times, in between guttural shouts, as she tried to get the mini buns in her hair perfect, pulling, twisting and pinning each one. I was wearing an outfit put together after closely examining Holly’s outfits. Long, fitting skirt, chucky shoe, button-down shirt. Senior awards were that day and I would clack up to the stage in those shoes to accept mine for something I can no longer remember. The award did not matter, the outfit mattered. I didn’t have the mini buns in my hair that day, but in later years, I sometimes stood in front of the mirror, tired arms twisting handfuls of hair into little knots around my head.
The person in the mirror today 25 years later, her pouting eyes with deepening lines, messy hair and hoop earrings, was created through many acts of imitation and avoidance. From middle school onward, I saw the potential in the world that I liked, including in myself, and copied it. I saw the potential that scared me and tried to avoid it. In my late teenage years, I was a sponge for ideas and lifestyles I thought would make me the person I wanted to be. I was often in awe of the people around me in a way that made their daily dramas and rituals seem enviable. And I watched the people I feared becoming closely. My recognition was often a sign that I already had something in common with them.
“You’re a calming presence,” Holly said to me she twisted her hair. I beamed at this, but played it cool.
“Thanks. You are beautiful,” I answered earnestly.
I don’t know why she liked me. What she saw in me. We made up poetry on subway rides, going line by line. We read Carolyn Forche to one another. “We have each of us nothing, we will give it to each other.” She lived in Manhattan, uptown. She was white and had a kind of nineties hip hop aesthetic I admired. She was aware of race politics in a way that complimented my dawning consciousness about race and class.
In between junior and senior years, I had attended a college program for high schoolers where I studied gender and homosexuality in American history. I read lesbian literature including the works of Audre Lorde and wrote a paper about Black lesbians in New York City in the 1940s.
Holly’s family was political and intellectual. They seemed to point a way out of my own history. Raised in an all-white part of Staten Island, the borough known for having giant garbage dump and its large Italian and Irish population, I felt like a dullard. I grew up in a house with a backyard and that was a privilege I wanted to disown. I wanted a different history. An apartment in the city, the freedom and sophistication I associated with city kids like Holly.
Holly’s white, professor, socialist parents had a framed picture of Audre Lorde on their kitchen wall. A flyer from her memorial I think, which was in January of 1993. Printed on the flyer were her words: “When I dare to be powerful––to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” The words of other poems adorned their walls, cut out from The New Yorker and framed. This seemed so natural to them, this loving of words, that one would hang them on the wall and so foreign from my families’ habits. My parents were educated and politically aware, but they were not radical. They were not academics and they were not poets and I viewed this as a deficit.
I was attracted to the urgent need to create community in the lesbian narratives I read. That I related to the feelings of exile of which I had read and wrote was not apparent to me. That summer in the early college program, I decided that I was bisexual. Holly went to London that summer and returned with a suitcase of stories that entranced me. She had fallen in love with a man. A man, not a boy. In her sadness at leaving him, she played Bjork’s album, Debut, again and again. When Holly sang the song Aeroplane––I cannot mmm live mmm peacefully without you, for even a moment––I experienced her longing and sadness as if they were my own. But my feelings seemed less poetic, less like art.
Holly understood melancholy and femininity and I tried to be around her as much as possible during our senior year of high school. Shortly after graduation, Holly invited me upstate, with her family, to a house her parents owned with some friends. A large wooden house with no electricity and shutters instead of screens. We spent the days slightly stoned, swimming and jumping from a high rock into the lake. In long evenings, the light slid down the walls as we played games and talked.
One afternoon, I went out on a canoe with Holly’s younger brother. Showing off, he paddled us into an overgrown nook in the lake, where the sun came through the forest in patterns. He was probably 15. His face wide and square like Holly’s with similarly luscious blue eyes. I was 17, with frizzy curls popping out from a headband. We kissed. On every occasion that I kissed a boy in high school, I had the feeling that I had outwitted my fate as an unattractive, unintelligent girl. I felt lucky and each occasion left me embarrassed by my own sexual desire. This was no different with Holly’s brother. Later that evening, while we watched a movie with Holly, her brother and I sat close and out of Holly’s sightline and cuddled a bit. Her brother’s touches seemed ambivalent. He didn’t want me or didn’t know how to.
A week later, sitting outside the Mexican restaurant where I was bussing tables for the summer, I told Holly about the kiss. She opened her mouth wide and unleashed a long, wordless yell. The sound was part of how she processed the incident. And this was why I loved her. She was emotive and eccentric, like she had rituals I didn’t know about. Her thick hoop earrings fluttered on her ears. Holly looked beautiful while yelling, seated across from me at our sidewalk table. This kissing was a kind of betrayal that we could not put into words, but I knew she was angry. Not only that, but I had wanted more and was anguished about the rejection. The age difference between 15 and 17 seemed somehow perverted. I felt fiendish and insecure. I always suspected that the incident marked me as such. We never discussed it again.
We stayed friends during the first year of college. I visited her at Sarah Lawrence a few times, meeting her new friends. The summer after our first year in University, I worked and saved money for a road trip to California. She had an internship in San Francisco, where she was living and she had started dating a woman. I spent a couple of days with her. It was my first time on the west coast. She showed me around and I listened to stories about the girlfriend and the summer’s action. Of course, there was passion and romance and drama and of course it seemed more artful, somehow better performed than my own. After that, I don’t think I saw her again. We simply grew apart.
I went to college in Manhattan, achieving my dream of living in a sort of apartment, which was actually a dorm in the East Village. Early on in college, I got involved with activism, but was intimidated by the activists. They were unapologetic about the parts of their identities that were not status quo. I worried that I was status quo. I was afraid to say who I was––queer, white, insecure. There was potential, but it was clouded by doubt. I had no mentors like me, at least, none I could recognize.
Barry Karp was one of my instructors, a white feminist philosopher. She taught us about the intersecting of feminism and race politics. Barry was beautiful in a way I could not comprehend and did not acknowledge. She wore flowy clothing, red lipstick and carried several bags that she lifted and placed on the desk of the classroom. To my 18-year-old eyes, she seemed old and her many colored assortment of bags-––filled with books, papers and probably snacks to endure a day of teaching and meeting with students––made me embarrassed for her. During class, I could not take my eyes off Barry. She was probably the age I am now. I think about her a lot, as I pack my bags for a day of writing, eating and teaching.
In her class, we read theory, learned about overlapping oppressions and differences inherent in the female experience if she is black, brown or white; middle or working class; documented or undocumented. We watched “Daughters of the Dust” and looked at Carrie Mae Weems’ “Kitchen Table Series” depicting a Black woman’s identity through the lens of family. We talked about Cindy Sherman’s many depictions of femininity. As a teacher, Barry was sharp and strict. She taught me how to think and talk about gender, race and class. But to me, her frilly feminine excess, her soft white skin betrayed her, pointed to her weakness. She was eccentric like Holly, but she was not cool, not copiable. I did not consciously look up to Barry because I was afraid of that vulnerability and truth, even though I constantly sought it in others.
I spent my time wandering around the Lower East Side, watching the punks, the hippies, the bohemians––lives I envied, but that eluded me. I often sat in Odessa diner, sipping free refills, writing late at night. On Easter Sunday of that first year in college I didn’t go to dinner with my family in Brooklyn or Staten Island. I put on a pale green vintage dress and walked out into the early spring, down St Marks into Tompkins Square Park. It was the promising time of year again, only a year since I had watched Holly scream at her hair. Street kids poured into the park and spent the days there, lounging on tattered sleeping bags, skin slick with sweat and dirt, talking shit to one another, asking passersby for money. During the years I lived in the Lower East Side, I only spoke with these kids a little, but I envied what I perceived as their freedom.
I crossed over the cobblestones, stood on a bench to reach the top of the fence, and hopped over it into the grassy center of the park. The dress fit awkwardly and the humidity caused the fabric to cling. I sat there for a while, alone in that grassy area, wearing the dress, listening to the sounds of the park. I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me.
This wandering continued the following year when I lived in an apartment east of Tompkins Square Park. Most of my time was spent alone or at school. I made acquaintances, but not friends. The walk to school was longer; I crossed the entire East Village. Each morning, I passed men playing dominoes, gutter punks as they were waking, Odessa’s early morning diners, women sitting on their sidewalk crates and the first of the hordes of yuppies who went on to take over the neighborhood.
Although I had started to say the words “I am bisexual,” back in senior year in highschool, I was still in the closet. I used to hang around outside Meow Mix, the new lesbian bar and Boiler Room, an old gay bar. But I never went in. I could have; I had a fake ID and no one used to check ID’s at the door of a bar. But I didn’t know what I would do there. I didn’t drink and the only kind of hook ups I knew were the ones that occurred randomly in a canoe. Stacy and Sharon were sisters who lived in the apartment adjacent to mine. They were very nice to me. Once Stacy saw me lurking around Boiler Room and asked about it the next day. “I swear you walked into Boiler Room and then left.” It had been a Sunday afternoon and I had peeked in briefly. “Oh, I was looking for a Village Voice,” I replied, flushed.
I thought I might be a dancer. The belly dancing teacher was a white woman, adorned in jewelry with a serene smile who had converted to Sufiism. I still don’t know if one converts to Sufiism. She was staying in Manhattan for a few days over the Sufi bookstore near the Mexican restaurant where I was one a busboy. My infatuation with her lasted long enough to consider moving to India and to make several calls to the bookstore and the retreat center where she told me she lived full time. I was not able to locate her, but I fantasized about her for months. I wanted to imitate her participation in spirituality and I wanted to fuck her, which embarrassed me, made me feel the fiendishness I assumed all others saw in me.
I felt fiendish lurking outside the gay bars, just like I had with Holly’s brother and like I did with Barry Karp. While I wanted Barry’s attention and sought her approval, I could not look directly at her without squirming. I wanted to speak with her authority and intelligence, just as I had wanted something from Holly––her poetic sensibilities, her unscripted reactivity. I also wanted something from the activists––acceptance, community, but I was a solitary bundle of potential, ashamed of all my desires yet bursting with them in all my encounters.
I never saw the Sufi girl and didn’t meet girls at Meow Mix, although for a brief period, I sold cigarettes from a box around my neck at there. My first girlfriend happened right after I’d graduated college. I never officially came out of the closet, but emerged in pieces. Gradually, I accepted the parts of me that are Holly, Barry, the gutter punks, the activists, the total fiend and copycat. And I came to accept that within my own sense of exile was where I would find my style, my power.
When I am surprised or frustrated, I unleash a guttural yell. I still wander and often upon entering a space, feel sure that there is no place in the new space for me. But I try to remember that the potential is limitless. And though I know myself better now than I ever did back then, still, at least once a year, in late spring, I smell the same potential that came into Holly’s window and feel as lonely as I ever have.
Originally published in Paragon Press: Echo, Issue 2, 2018