By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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It’s like being in Miss Wheeler’s class but wanting to play with the kids in Miss King’s class. The thing is, they go to recess at 10:30 with the fifth graders, while your class goes at 11 with the kindergarteners. You face the hedges on your swing, throwing your head back so that the little brats on the playground dangle upside-down into the huge, empty sky, and you pump your legs so that the world shifts and tilts alarmingly: you wish you were with the fifth graders. On top of that, though Miss Wheeler is kind and soft-spoken, she has brown hair that hangs limply down to her shoulders, whereas Miss King has hair like white cotton candy piled high, and a coy smile that speaks of secrets as it creeps slowly across her pink, shellacked lips and into her deep, green eyes lined in black.
The following year, in fifth grade, you get stuck in Miss Moore’s class. Miss Butler, next door, wears orange powder on her cheeks, has feathered bangs, and hums to herself when she glides through the cafeteria with her tray. Miss Moore’s pretty nice, but her hips seem to you inordinately wide. Your sister tells you that ladies are supposed to have big hips, that it’s considered attractive, but you’re not convinced. One Saturday morning, you study drawings of women in a party jokes book that belongs to your parents. Because all these women have large, pointy breasts and large, rounded hips, you decide your sister was right. Years later, you will realize the drawings were sexist caricatures, women rearranged and distorted by male fantasy. You will understand that your teacher did, in truth, have inordinately wide hips; she was pretty nice, though.
In Miss Moore’s class, you have your first boyfriend. You think he’s interesting because he’s a twin; he thinks you’re wonderful because you always call him Mike, never Mark, because you are astute enough to notice the subtle curve in his cheeks that his gaunt-faced brother is missing. You let him carry your trombone and put his arm around your chair during filmstrips, but when he tries to kiss you on the sly, you get disgusted and announce loudly and indignantly that you are not eighteen years old.
At middle school, your science teacher is a man, scary and distant. He hides behind the lab’s huge counters the way your father hides behind the newspaper. He talks to beakers and test tubes instead of to kids, and pretends he’s important for making things bubble and smoke. But your speech teacher, Miss Gilbert, has freckles all over her face and on every part of her body that shows, and you think she smells like pepper. You love how she smells. Her aroma swirls around her like full, pleated skirts, in browns and blacks and warm maroons, rushing swift and soothing into your head, like a sip of your mother’s wine. Sometimes you have to close your eyes: you love how Miss Gilbert smells.
At the end of the year, a girl in speech class — she has brown hair that ripples interminably down her back like a waterfall in perpetual slow motion — writes in your autograph book that you’re cute as a button. Later, washing your hands without soap in the freezing-cold water in the girls’ room, you stare at yourself through the graffiti on the mirror and smile engagingly. You decide to think about getting your bangs feathered. Though you have enough sense to hate the expression, you feel elated that this girl finds you cute as a button. You trust her judgement, because she is beautiful, and because you’d love to bury your hands into her hair so that you could never find them to get them out again. You imagine her hair would feel nicer running through your fingers than sun-warmed sand or bubbles in your bath or the smooth and cool adzuki beans in the white bins at the food co-op.
At eighteen, away at college, you take your first lover. You wonder why he treats you condescendingly when you’re obviously more intelligent than he. You realize he’s an asshole for “reading” pornography on your roommate’s bed while you lie on yours writing poetry. You notice that you don’t have large breasts or rounded hips; instead you have the long, straight awkwardness of a pre-pubescent boy at the peak of a growth spurt. You wear dusky-plum powder on your cheeks, but it makes you feel false and trivial. In bed, you experience an intensity of sensations you never imagined or discovered on your own. You are delighted by the small things: warm, moist breath inside your ear; hands tracing the lines of your face with the lightest touch, a touch the color of summer sky just brushed by clouds. But some of the acts involved in lovemaking — some basic acts quite inherent to sex — you find at best unpalatable. In the interest of being a good lover, you keep trying the unpleasant things. You tell yourself what your parents told you, that some tastes are acquired. You decide you don’t like the expression to make love and start sprinkling your speech with the word fuck.
When you and your lover are separated for the summer, you feel a frustration that is embarrassingly disproportionate to the pleasure you’re doing without. You cross your arms often, just to feel hands against your skin. You play with your hair tirelessly, not because it needs fixing, but in hopes of recalling that tingling in your scalp. Your awakened senses are demanding: they tug at your sleeve like a child, they whisper at and nudge you, they nag at you like a mother, like secret guilt, like work left undone.
At night, you lie awake in the dark, stretched diagonally across your endless mattress. You spread your hand across your belly. It’s flat, smooth. One finger strays inside your navel — a silky piece of cloth in tight little knots. You circle it a few times. It has a nice texture. You think about your lover’s muscled torso. Your hand slides up to your breasts for a perfunctory sweep from one to the other. You ascertain that, though they sink into your chest when you’re on your back, though they seem to disappear altogether, still they are distinguished from your chest and your ribs by their softness, an incomparable softness that wants not just to be stroked, but to be pushed against, to be pressed into, and your hand returns. One finger strays inside a nipple, which is concave, smooth, creamy as fudge that hasn’t set, but then it stiffens, resists, pushes back against your touch. Your hand slides to the other breast, whose nipple buds instantly with contact. Breasts are wonderful, you think. You wonder if your lover minds that yours are small. You wonder what it would be like to have larger breasts, to touch them. Your hand slides back down, past your belly, into hairs — coarse hairs, soft hairs — that part as your fingers tunnel through. One finger strays into wetness, is pulled into wetness as by a current. And you begin to watch yourself from your lover’s viewpoint; you imagine he is with you. A switch is thrown in your mind, and now another woman has replaced you, a woman from his magazines, and he’s kissing her, licking her — she is cream against his tongue — he’s kissing her breasts, her round, full breasts, meeting and parting and rolling against him.
Often, now, you borrow images from his magazines, all the while hating yourself. You are horrified, angry, confused. You hate those magazines and you hate those images that present themselves like an unbidden compulsion, like an uninvited guest you would ask to leave, but you can’t find the right phrase, the right tone. You can’t find a way to chase away those images that are becoming inextricably tied to your sexuality; they’re as inevitable and unnerving as the tunnels you walk through in your dreams, looking for something every night, again and again. Sometimes you cry, wedged in that space between bed and wall, between pleasure and shame, and you rock back and forth between waking and sleeping.
Before the leaves turn colors and fall, you write your boyfriend a Dear John letter. You’ve realized that his contributions to your life were only sensual. Besides, you feel betrayed by him: all summer he’s been sleeping with hundreds of women in your head, in your bed. Further, you’re becoming confused by these scenes in which, as likely as not, he is missing altogether.
You read The Women’s Room and become fascinated with Iso, the lesbian. Her character is so strong — so magnetic — that she seems real to you, but real with that intangible quality someone has when you’ve been introduced, and you see each other around, but you never once get the chance to sit down and talk. Further, you are puzzled by the women who make love as easily with other women as with men. The lesbian seems foreign to you, but the women who switch back and forth seem unreal.
You become acutely aware of your own feminine odor. You’re startled to find yourself turned on by your own smells. You smile when you get your period and admire all the reds in your blood. When men flirt with you, you flirt back relentlessly but dart away before anything happens. This situation repeats itself with increasing predictability. It makes you feel incredibly attractive and incredibly empty.
You realize one day, all of a sudden, maybe while staring out the window to contemplate the gray snow along the curbs and sidewalks — how it rearranges itself like a sleeping cat, but never, never goes away — that you fantasize only about women, that you look only at women, that your psyche, your dreams, your favorite books, all are filled with women. At a party, you pick up a man for a one-night stand and move in with him for two years. He’s a nice man, an attentive lover, but his ideas seem to peter out just as they spark your interest, and, in bed, something is missing. You don’t have an orgasm for an entire year, then you start thinking of women while he makes love to you. This makes sex much more pleasant. Now you’re able to come, but you feel guilty as hell: you are a bad person. After he falls asleep, you cry softly and quietly, a silent siphoning of tears into pillow, drop by drop, or strung all together like streaming beads, a necklace unraveling without a sound into your dampening pillow.
You get your hair cut very short, so that it looks like a crew cut with a few strands trickling into your eyes and down your neck. You stare at yourself in the mirror and wonder if you’ve attained androgyny. You feel like a fourteen-year-old boy in drag. Your boyfriend thinks you look sophisticated — he says you remind him of Audrey Hepburn and starts calling you Tiffany, because he never gets anything straight. You start wearing only one earring, switching it back and forth from your left ear to your right, because you’re not sure which side makes what statement. Sometimes you smile, thinking people might take you — mistake you — for a lesbian. One night when you’re home alone, getting ice for your third drink, you say the word out loud: lesbian. On your fourth drink, you practice walking with a boyish gait.
Sometimes your lover pulls you gently on top of him, and he is solid and warm beneath you, an island in the sun, and with his hands he envelops you from above, so that he is touching, claiming, soothing every inch of your skin — even places you can barely reach with your loofah in the shower. Every lonely, vulnerable pore he finds, and fills, and shields from the miles and miles of empty space the universe wants to cast around you. His palms, his thighs, his cheeks stroke your entire body, roughly and softly and artfully as a brush on canvas turning colors, turning wet, turning slippery with sweat neither his nor yours, a rich, scented oil that gathers on your flesh, on his flesh — wherever they connect — that gathers pure and gentle as morning dew, water on leaf, skin on skin, beads of moisture on glass that your finger is drawn to trace through. And then you feel whole, sexy, human, his fingers inside you seem real — they connect you with something universal, something ancient, something inside you deeper still. And you’re carried by the humanness you share with your lover on this bed, this river, this lake, until he looks at you too intensely, with too much meaning; you realize that his eyes are looking into your eyes, not at them, that they are seeking in the green and black of your iris and pupil not only eyes, but windows to your soul. You close your eyes — close them tightly — and keep them closed until morning, when you awaken dry and calm, separate and alone.
When you finish school and are offered a job in another city, another state, you go, relieved to be done with your lover. You tell yourself your next will be a woman. Maybe you’re bisexual; maybe you should try sleeping with women just to see. You have a few brief affairs with men, because they approach you and women don’t. You realize that most men annoy you, and those who warm your heart don’t wet your panties, unless you’re stoned or drunk. When you see lesbians, you feel very uncomfortable: they are real lesbians and you are a fraud, a confused heterosexual who plays with women in her dreams, not in her bed. The prospect is laughable, inconceivable, insane. Besides, you wear eyeliner and carry a purse, and you have a cat named Dick. You get stoned and drunk a lot.
You get pregnant. After several weeks of anguished deliberating, you have an abortion. In the recovery room, you look at all the women while you eat your Lorna Doone shortbread cookies, and you wonder about the men these women fuck. You wonder if your aborted fetus was a girl. You wonder, getting up, if you’ll make it to the john before you puke. Evenings, you lie on the floor between speakers, watching your ashtray fill, listening to Kate Bush. Her haunting voice draws you in like a lover’s arms, pulls you into all the pain in all the world, validates the tears you cannot cry.
You see lesbians everywhere: in line at the bank, waiting at the crosswalks, squeezing organically-grown peaches at the natural foods grocery. This town is crawling with lesbians, and you know how to spot them. They’re the ones without makeup, with “don’t fuck with me” set on their faces, fingers without nails, unbound breasts, unshaven legs. They make eye contact with you as you pass, long after you meant to look away; they catch your gaze on them and hold it up to you, confronting you with the look you meant to hide. You turn your face, embarrassed. Or they turn away first, and you’re disappointed, dismayed. But you’re just a straight woman staring at lesbians and they, of course, can tell that you’re straight.
You see lesbians in couples, in groups, ignoring you. Their lips move, forming words you cannot hear and cannot fathom: their world is not your world. They call each other by name, talk, argue, wrestle; they love each other, meet each other for coffee, sleep in each other’s beds, while you sleep alone with a recurring dream. They share ideologies, jokes, a vocabulary — all a mystery to you. You are like a child watching adults, bewildered by the pronounced differences between you, when you know that, fundamentally, you’re alike. It’s just a matter of learning codes, applying formulas, turning the lock to the right numbers, to the right, to the left, to the right again. You have a long way to go.
In the meantime, women keep talking to you about their men. And inside your head, the same tired questions are churning around like worn-out laundry. Are you bisexual? You don’t know anyone who is. You’re convinced bisexuals don’t exist. Are you gay? You feel so alone with the idea — you’re not like those women you see — that you’re sure the answer must be no. And that no disappoints you so much, you’re sure you must be, after all. But people you know think of you as straight, and treat you accordingly. You don’t know what to think.
You decide to give yourself a push in the direction of lesbianism by shoving your makeup in the trash. Along with the brushes and blushes and pencils and creams, you throw out your razor for good measure. You’ll no longer look like a painted caricature of yourself, making a thousand readjustments on your face only to present it to the world with a thousand apologies still. Maybe you’ll look like a lesbian now. Maybe as your pores begin to breathe, your thoughts will take on new life, your sexual self-concept will take deeper root.
You feel great. Without makeup, your face is clean and touchable. You rub your cheeks to gauge their unadulterated smoothness. When you rub your eyes, nothing smears. You never have to check your teeth for stranded lipstick or wipe smudged mascara from under your eyes. You are free, natural, fresh, and unbelievably ugly.
You lean over the sink, steadying yourself against the cold, white porcelain, nose to nose with the mirror. You’ve never seen anyone more plain or featureless. You marvel that the mirror can detect anything to reflect. Your nose is the only relief on the plane of your face; it sticks out pointedly, pointlessly, absurd as a beak, false as a carrot in a blob of snow. You have no eyes, only round, flat circles that blink at you as if dazed, as if dulled by all you lack. Your cheeks are but voids, spaces defined only by their boundaries — a nose, temples, a jawline — colorless flags demarking perimeters for a blank. You spend hours marveling at this version of yourself you’d met only briefly on repeated occasions, at showers and face-washings. Now this is who you are; you must find your definition in this blank; you must present this nothing to others, who will never remember you, never pick you out of a crowd.
At work, a woman named Laura tortures you daily, making you laugh until you’re weak and breathless. She stands straight-backed with the poise of a dancer, while you are contorted with laughter, out of control. She is beautiful like a model, with an easy elegance that at first you found intimidating. Now, the camaraderie between you is comfortable and warm, an obvious mutual pleasure. Still, unnamed barriers keep a distance between you. She seems averse to any degree of self-disclosure, and you are reticent by nature. You suspect growing closer will take time.
One day, Laura is visibly upset, showing an uncharacteristic vulnerability. You invite her home for wine and talk. You’re relieved when she accepts simply, as if this were the natural next step in your friendship.
In your kitchen, Laura’s tears choke out her words. You wait quietly, offering tissues she takes but doesn’t use. You watch, fascinated, as the tears pour, drenching her face with melting blues and mauves and grays and blacks, until she looks like those grade school watercolors that are always too wet, so that the paper begins to ripple and bloat, and the paints, once separate and beautiful, begin to bleed and streak and mesh together. When her sobbing is stilled and her crying is spent, she dries her face, cursing and laughing at the colors smeared on her Kleenex. She tells you she wishes she, too, were pretty enough to go without makeup. She says it so sincerely, you have to smile.
Calmed, Laura relates her story, her current pain. And in the story, though not at its center, is someone she calls “my lover,” which she then shortens to “she,” and finally names as Mary. “She’s really wonderful,” Laura adds as an aside, “you’ll have to meet her.” She continues un-self-consciously, as if every woman might have a lover named Mary, as likely as a cat named Fluffy or a dog named Fido. You compose your face and try to follow what she’s saying because, after all, the point of this talk is Laura’s sadness. But inside your stomach, nonetheless, a celebration is in progress, and all you can think is, “She’s a dyke, she’s a dyke, she’s a dyke,” and, “If she can be one, so can I.” Miraculously, you manage to sit still and tune in to most of what she says.
Leaving, Laura hugs you and thanks you for listening, and invites you to have dinner Friday night with her and Mary. You accept, outwardly pleased, inwardly elated. As an afterthought, when she’s already out the door, she turns back to say that she had somehow known you’d be able to handle her being gay. You tell her that, oh, you have no problem with lesbianism.
Coming up soon in a philosophy class on ethics is the subject of homosexuality, and I have been looking for something special to fulfill part of my reading requirements. I had frankly despaired of finding anything that touched me.
When I curled up with the January issue of The Sun, I wasn’t prepared for “What It’s Like.”
That was the most powerful, sensitive, and intuitive piece I have ever read about lesbianism. Not only did it open floodgates of recognition, leaving me feeling not quite so confused and alone, but Dana Branscum’s treatment of it was a masterpiece of progression and discovery.
I applaud you for having the courage to print it.
I was very impressed by “What It’s Like.” Rarely does one find the literary ambiguities of such writing, in the wake of Anais Nin or Henry Miller, coming off so well. It is an exploration of consciousness that startles the reader with personal comparisons; at the same time it is a story with development and climax. And I thought the ending — endings being most difficult — witty and provocative. And, then, because one cannot tell if the author and the persona are the same, how much is supposed to be fact, how much true, the erotic admissions to and stimulations of the reader are dreamily enhanced.
As a hetero male, married, four children, with homo friends from way back, I know what it is to ask myself why and how I am not homosexual or bisexual, how I would feel if, don’t I really want to ever, why am I afraid, etc. It’s something I have never been able to discuss well with hetero friends, if only because no one ever knows what anyone else really does except the person he or she does it with. It’s always been easier for me to talk to gay friends about why and how people are sexually oriented. But as with religious belief, the subject can be fully discussable only if one doesn’t take it too seriously. What I like especially about “What It’s Like” is the easy way it slips from seriousness to play.
I loved Dana Branscum’s “What It’s Like” [Issue 146]. It was lyrical and captivating and honest and ambivalent, and dealt with things I’ve been thinking and feeling over the years. The editor Gordon Lish says there are three criteria in judging writing (and I’m paraphrasing): Do you wish you’d written it? (Yes.) Does it change the way you see the world? (Not so much, only strengthens my commitment to honesty.) Did you want it to keep going? (Yes. Yes.)