Chana Wilson – “By the Bay” (with audio)
This story is a chapter adapted from Riding Fury Home: A Memoir by Chana Wilson, to be published by Seal Press in the spring 2012
Click below to hear Chana Wilson reading “By the Bay” at our Special Community Event on October 13, 2011:
Kate and I flew into the arms of sisterhood. Before leaving New Jersey, we’d called a women’s switchboard in San Francisco, so we boarded our flight with the name of a married woman who had volunteered to put up new women arrivals to the City of Love. In the Women’s Liberation Movement of 1970, it was as if a huge group of orphans had discovered their lost kin and were gleefully screaming, “Sister! Welcome!”
During the taxi ride to our hostess’s house in Diamond Heights, San Francisco Bay gleamed blue and wide like the new life spread before me. I vibrated with an excitement I couldn’t admit had fear laced through it. After thirteen years of school, there was no set structure to life. Thank God Kate had embarked on this move with me, after we’d both dropped out of college at the end of our freshman year, declaring school irrelevant.
Ann, our benefactress and hostess on that first night, escorted us on the following morning to a three-story Victorian mansion in the ultra-rich neighborhood of Pacific Heights, poised on a hill looking down to the bay. Her friend Frances, in her 40’s, was renting out rooms in a home she shared with her husband Paul and two daughters, nine and eleven. Paul, an architect, had lost his job in a firm two years before and was still unemployed, so they had begun taking in boarders. Frances was totally involved in the Women’s Movement, and was filling the house with Women’s Liberation activists.
* * *
What had been an upscale nuclear family home was now a counter-culture collective household. The group pooled our food money, ten dollars a week each, and we took turns shopping for our produce at the farmers’ market. Refrigerator magnets held two sets of chore wheels: one for household tasks, the other for dinner cooking duty.
At night, the twelve of us ate in the spacious living room, sitting on the floor around a low-slung marble coffee table or perched on the couches and stuffed chairs. Frances was an artist, and her large abstract oil paintings hung throughout the rooms above the oak wainscoting. On the sideboards were Chinese vases and in a corner a life-size wooden Buddha. Welcomed into this family, I felt as if I’d entered some avant-garde new age, where the rich shared their lives with political activists.
On Friday nights, Gay Women’s Liberation met in the house. The first Friday after moving in, from upstairs in the bedroom, I could hear murmurs and laughs from below. I knew I was going down there. Since I’d dropped out of college, I couldn’t imagine being lovers with men again—that seemed way too oppressive. Logic told me that left only two options: celibacy or lesbianism. It all seemed an intellectual concept, because I wasn’t aware of any erotic feelings for women, but I was curious to sit in on the meeting just to check it out. I waited until Kate went down first to the meeting room. I wanted to go separately, worried that people might assume we were lovers or, for that matter, assume I was a lesbian.
Fear made my legs heavy and weak, and I held onto the oak banister as I descended the staircase. I had never been in a room filled with lesbians before. As far as I knew, I had never met a lesbian. I couldn’t remember anyone ever saying anything about lesbians, but there must have been something half-heard and half-forgotten because somehow I’d soaked up the culture’s disgust and repulsion. I thought I was too enlightened and progressive to be affected by such stereotypes, but lurking in the recesses of my mind were noxious images of bulldaggers—rough, swaggering women with slick-backed hair—rousing fear. Hand on the living room doorknob, I shivered.
And then, I was in the room. Sixty-some women were gathered: lively, laughing, all absorbed and facing the speaker in the front of the room. It was easy to unobtrusively slip in and sit on the floor at the back of the room. I looked around. The place was packed. Women were seated on the couches, chairs, and floor, spilling between the living and dining rooms: most were in their twenties, many with long straight hair, wearing bell-bottom jeans or green Army surplus pants. Some were in hippie regalia of tie-dyed t-shirts or colorful Indian embroidered tunics laced with little mirrors; there was a smattering of girls in their late teens and older women in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. An ex-nun in blue jeans and flannel shirt was standing in the front of the room, telling her story of leaving the convent. Her tale was greeted with a wave of friendly laughter, as if the group were saying, “Yes, yes, we hear you, sister!”
I sat among the group, and heaved a sigh of relief and joy. These were just women, wonderful women. Women who seemed so vibrant and self-assured, laughing deep belly laughs. Many looked just like my feminist sisters I’d bonded with in college. Many looked just like me.
* * *
Although my first meeting of Gay Women’s Liberation brought a startling recognition, I remained in my own nunnery. I wasn’t able to feel any sexual arousal for women, so it seemed impossible to really call myself a lesbian, yet I was hoping for some lesbian prince to kiss me into awakening. In the meantime, I took the academic route: signed up for a one-afternoon course given by Breakaway, a grassroots feminist school, titled “The Woman-Identified Woman.”
We met in an actual classroom because the teacher, Bev, was a full-time professor at a community college. She wasn’t supposed to use her room for an outside meeting, but there we were. Bev, in her thirties, was, in my eyes, an older woman. Her dark hair was cut short around her ears, wire-rimmed glasses resting on her pale, angular face. She wore a white man-tailored shirt tucked into brown corduroy pants with a thick leather belt and heavy black work boots. Before she started her talk, Bev sat at her desk, tamping pipe tobacco into a pipe bowl, lit up, puffed deeply, and then stood to begin her talk, pipe in hand. The sweet scent of pipe tobacco filled the room.
The lecture began. “Because what uniquely identifies a woman as a lesbian is sexuality,” Bev explained, “society has defined lesbians solely as women who have sex with women. But this is too narrow,” she continued, waving her pipe as she spoke, “and misses the richness of lesbian experience. Let’s think about what are the aspects of being a lesbian.”
Bev moved to the blackboard and began writing a list in her neat script, each item given its own line. She’d write a line, then turn and repeat it while facing the class, scanning our faces with her brown eyes that seemed to me deeply intelligent. Along with each of Bev’s statements, a gong began ringing in my head.
“A lesbian is,” she intoned: “a woman who loves women.” Yep, that’s me.
“A woman who gets her primary emotional support from other women.” Another yep.
“A woman who shares intellectual ideas with other women.” Check.
“A woman whose life centers around women, whose daily passions are with women.” Check.
She kept going, my head nodding enthusiastically, until she got to the final point:
“A woman who has sex with another woman.” Well, nine out of ten. Close enough.
I left the class joyous. Permission given. I was a lesbian! Phooey on straight society’s narrow definition. Now I felt fortified, surer that my woman-identified love would carry me along until I opened sexually.
During that afternoon, something else shifted in me—the disdain for manly women that I’d absorbed—because although Bev looked the stereotype of the old-style butch, I found her terribly handsome, beautiful in her confidence, compelling in the assured way she lit her pipe. She was so bright, so alive. I could watch her forever, chin resting in my hands.
* * *
A month or so after my first Gay Women’s Liberation meeting, Kate and I both proclaimed ourselves lesbians. She’d also taken Bev’s class, and had a similar epiphany. Neither of us had had any kind of sex with a woman, but that didn’t stop us, now that our 19-year-old bravado was filled with women-identified lingo.
The meetings began breaking into small discussion groups halfway through each session so that women could develop a stronger connection and share more. Kate and I joined a group of eight who were to become an ongoing unit. Both of us were vocal in our opinions. On the topic of coming out, we declared that women should deal very directly with parents and straight friends, something neither of us had yet done. When, after a few weeks, relationships and sexual experiences became the topic, we both had to admit we’d never had any. “What!” several members burst out. Group discussion grew heated: was a woman a lesbian just because she said so, even if she’d never slept with another woman? Did we get to stay? Two women said they felt unsafe. I burned with embarrassment and I longed to slip out of the room. But by meeting’s end, votes for inclusiveness prevailed.
* * *
A couple of days before New Year’s Eve, Kate and I admitted to each other that each of us had been looking for some experienced dyke to initiate us. But we hadn’t a clue how to flirt and come on to another woman, and so had found no one at all.
“Kate, um, don’t you think it’s, you know, oppressive of us, to expect some older lesbian to bring us out?” I asked, glancing at her sideways. I was too ill at ease to look at her directly. And then I did. Right into her startling green eyes, set deep in her pale face. We smiled awkwardly.
“Yeah, it’s really not cool,” she replied.
I gazed at Kate, the friend who now shared almost every minute of every day with me. We were living very cheaply on our savings which hadn’t yet run out, so we still had the luxury of not working. Our days consisted of feminist classes and events, explorations of the city, Gay Women’s Liberation meetings, rehearsals of our newly formed street theater group, communal dinners and life in the house, and through it all, we shared a running commentary, digesting our experiences. A shiver went through me; I’d never been this close to anyone.
I opened my mouth, and what poured out was “I love you.” I’d startled myself, but there was no going back now. Once said, to my astonishment, I did. I felt it—something buzzing in my belly, vibrating up into my throat, breaking my face into a smile. I love her. Of course. How simple: Kate, right there in front of me all the time.
“I love you, too,” Kate smiled weakly. “Sex can’t be that difficult to figure out, can it?”
“Nah. You’re right, how hard could it be?” Suddenly, I was so scared everything numbed up again, like a shovelful of dirt dumped on a campfire.
That evening in our attic room, Kate put on her yellow flannel pajamas. They matched her fine blond hair, cut bluntly at chin length. I put on my red flannel nightgown. It was cold in the uninsulated attic. Kate clambered into her twin bed, sat with her knees up as she leaned back against the wall, and pulled the blankets up.
“How about some music?” I asked. Kate nodded. I put Laura Nyro on the record player and sat down in the rocking chair next to her bed. I couldn’t stop shivering, I hoped just from the cold.
“Want to dance?” I blurted. Kate nodded slightly, pushed back the covers and swung her legs out of bed. Laura Nyro was singing, plaintive and slow, “Emily and her love to be, carved in a heart on a berry tree…”
Kate stood next to the bed, hesitating. I’d gotten out of the rocker and was facing her, but my legs were shaky, leaden, so I just reached out my hands toward her. She took one step forward, reached her hands toward mine. I felt dizzy, faint. Fear had me holding my breath. Another step and our hands met, and then our arms wrapped around each other as we leaned our bodies one against the other. We began swaying, then moving slowly in a trance-like two-step.
We slowed until we were rooted, pressed together. She was short like me, and we fit right together. I kissed her neck and she leaned her head back, sighing. I worked my mouth up her neck, leaving wet marks against her skin. A great heat rose in me. Trembling, I halted, overwhelmed by the intensity that was stirring. And then she moved her face forward and we were kissing, stiffly at first, then softly, then more fiercely.
God, how I wanted her.
In the shower the next morning, I found myself grinning one of those goofy grins, remembering the double delight: first time making love with a woman, first orgasm of my life.
I couldn’t wait to go downstairs and proclaim my new status: no longer the lesbian virgin. Kate was still asleep, so after my shower, I went to the kitchen. Donna was standing at the toaster, plopping two slices of toast onto a plate. I must have still been beaming, because Donna stopped buttering her toast, holding the knife in the air. She stared a moment, then smiled, “Well, good morning, I guess!”
“It sure is!” I paused, not from shyness, but to add drama to my announcement. Donna, at 39, was one of the two “older women” in the house, and a puzzlement to me. I understood very little of the pain of her early life as a closeted lesbian in Texas in the fifties, how as a practicing Christian and a teacher there was even more pressure to hide and pretend not to be queer. Now, she was an activist within the homophile movement working for civil rights. I often argued with her about her approach. “Donna, why waste your energy? Working within the system is useless—the whole thing has to come down and we have to start over. Revolution, not revisionism.” She would smile indulgently at me, the teenage whippersnapper.
Now, Donna simply looked at me expectantly.
“Kate and I became lovers last night!”
Donna’s smile deepened so that her eyes crinkled at the corners. “Well congratulations! I’ll bet you two are sweet together. Wonderful!”
* * *
Kate and I kept up our round of activities, bound by a togetherness that now included making love every day and sleeping in the same bed. A fervor had been unleashed that made me voraciously hungry, and after our lovemaking I’d often descend from the attic and rummage in the kitchen for a late-night snack.
One weekend in February, Kate and I went away to a rented cabin in the Sierra Mountains. Bringing enough groceries to hunker down, we arrived after dark to a cottage surrounded by pine trees. In the morning, we woke to the muffled quiet of snowfall damping the forest sounds. The cabin was set back from the road, and we could make love with the curtains open, the steadily falling snow a bright white against the dark trunks of the pines. We stayed in bed for hours, just getting up for snacks, reading to each other from a new novel, Patience and Sarah. In the story, two women in the 1800s find a way to love each other in spite of all the daunting societal restraints, and create a life together on their own farmstead in New York State. We felt sweet delight at this imagined romance of two real women from history. As I listened to Kate read, it was almost as if we were those women, alone in a cabin in the woods, finding their way to an astonishing passion. We’d read a few chapters, make love again.
In the afternoon, we pulled on boots and ran out into the snow and chased each other around the trees. Later on, back in the cabin, we stripped off our snow-encrusted layers, got back in bed, and read some more. At one point, while Kate was reading to me, I reached over to her and caressed her cheek. “Wait, rest a minute,” I said. It had struck me how loved I was, how I loved her back. It was scary, and wondrous. It made me breathless, and I needed to lie there quietly and look at her, try to take it in. Suddenly, I could feel in that moment how I’d closed down my heart to not need my mother, to bear losing my father. How I’d been encased in nineteen years of loneliness.
“You love me, don’t you?” I half-asked, half-stated. She put the book away on the nightstand, pulled me to her. I could feel her warm breath against my ear, almost tickling me as she whispered, “I love you so much, sometimes I think I’ll burst.” Then we both laughed, but I knew she meant it. Something was bursting in me, too.
© 2011 Chana Wilson