First Date, Lesbian Edition

Content warnings: Nineties nostalgia. Oh, and also, this is the story of the beginning of my first real relationship with a woman. Nothing explicit.

Notes: Some names changed. Also, Christ, I’m old.

College-era Amy, circa 1996

A confession: I don’t know how to date. In part, I blame this lack on being a lesbian who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s — it was a different century. Then, in those pre-Tinder days, lesbians didn’t really date. We would meet someone at a club, dancing, bodies sweaty, pheromones raging, bass pounding in our ears and chests and fingers. We would go home with her, and if the sex was at all reasonable, and she had enough of the right books and CDs on her shelves, we would quietly arrange for enough of our stuff to be brought over that we didn’t really need to return to our own apartments, except to feed the cat, until the lease was up. Or we found out she was secretly a Republican.

Okay, that’s both inaccurate and unfair.

Except that it’s still true on a fundamental level.

And it’s equally true that I don’t know how to date.

When I was in middle school and high school, I gave it a shot. I had this idea of what dating was supposed to be like, probably from 1960s sitcoms I watched on the Nick-at-Nite line-up in the ’80s. I expected food, an activity of some kind, and some time to make out in the car to prove to myself and my peers that I liked boys.

It wasn’t until I was 19 that I came out as gay. I’d told my friends and most of my family that I was attracted to women, and I embraced the flannel shirts, giant t-shirts, baggy jeans, and Timberland boots that comprised the ’90s grunge lesbian uniform, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do aside from standing around and looking vaguely butch.

And then I met S, and I fell in love. She was older than me, and had a couple of children, and we became close. But we didn’t actually date. She lived an hour from where we went to university, and I didn’t have a car, so some weekends, she would drive me to her house, and I would hang out with her and her two small boys until Monday morning, when she’d return me to school. Those weekends were wonderful and frightening and exciting and exceedingly, frustratingly chaste. When S started worrying that her children might be taken away if she was in a Relationship with me, we stayed friends, but without the weekends together and with a bit more distance between us. And so I began to move on.

I was a junior in college, and I lived in the on-campus apartments designed for the discerning upper classman whose financial aid package wouldn’t pay for off-campus living but who still wanted the illusion of privacy. These horrible little brick buildings had a number of suites of four tiny 8X10 bedrooms connected by a common living area and kitchen and one shared bathroom. Two of the women living in my particular apartment — Jill and Kristy — had been friends since freshman year. The third woman lived with her boyfriend and just kept her clothes in her bedroom. The only time we saw her was when they were having a fight and she would come to the apartment to cry and drink cheap wine with us.

I had a lovely, platonic crush on Kristy. Her father was a first-generation Italian immigrant who taught at a small college in Maryland, and she had thick, black shoulder-length hair and olive skin. Her teeth shone white when she smiled, and she smiled a lot. She had a boyfriend back home in Maryland, but since I’d never met him, I could pretend he didn’t exist. When she was feeling stressed or unhappy, she’d bring me her hairbrush, and I would spend as much time as she wanted brushing her hair, massaging her scalp, and — if I were feeling particularly daring — rubbing her back and shoulders. It never occurred to me that she might be interested in me for anything other than that sort of chaste college friendship where it was perfectly safe to cuddle and be affectionate without worrying that any boundaries would be crossed.

We shared a CD changer, and we would mute cartoons on the TV while we played the same five CDs, the ones we could always agree on, over and over: Tori Amos, the Indigo Girls, Janis Joplin, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. We three cuddled on the couch and drank wine and talked about our classes and told stories about our lives. It was just about the happiest time I ever had in college.

And then February came along, and my work-study supervisor Dana — the only adult lesbian I knew — told me that the campus LGBT group was sponsoring a Valentine’s dance. I should go!

I wavered. A dance? The last time I’d gone to a dance was my senior prom, alone. The time before that had been in the eighth grade, with a boy who told me after we got there that it was against his religion to dance.

I told Mama about this LGBT dance.

“You should go!” she told me. I was surprised she was so excited. “I’ll take you shopping for an outfit.” Ah, there it was. The shopping.

We left the store with a pair of black pin-stripe pants, a plain button-down men’s shirt, and suspenders. I looked at the outfit dubiously. It was such a change from my usual flannel or t-shirts and jeans and boots. Mama even bought me new shoes that would go with the pants better than my Timberlands.

It was the 10th of February, the day of the dance, and I whined about it to Kristy and Jill.

“You should go!” said Jill. “Maybe you’ll meet somebody!” I still held out a bit of secret hope that S and I would get back together (get together for the first time?), and so I just made a little noise of dismissal in the back of my throat.

“Yeah, you should go,” agreed Kristy. “I mean, where else are you going to be able to wear this?” She waved a hand in front of the outfit.

“Good point,” I said. “Should I wear the suspenders, though?”

“Why not?”

I shrugged. “They just feel odd, I guess.” What I didn’t like about them was that they pulled tight over my breasts, calling attention to a part of my body I wasn’t entirely happy with.

“What if it sucks?” I said, still trying to think of a good reason why I shouldn’t go. “I mean, it’s an on-campus, university-sponsored dance for the few gay people who go here. How could it not suck?”

“If it sucks, come home,” said Jill.

“It won’t suck if you go just to have a good time,” said Kristy. “Go and don’t worry about it. Dance, eat the free food and drink the free sodas, and you’ll have fun. And if you don’t, who cares? Just come back home and we’ll listen to the stories, and you won’t have any regrets that you missed out on something.”

She did have a point. “Okay, I’ll go,” I grumbled. I closed the door to my tiny room and changed into my new clothes. I brushed my straight, shoulder-length hair and wondered if I should try to put it up or something. I decided that was going too far, so I just tucked it behind my ears to keep it out of my face.

Kristy looked me up and down when I came out of the room. The suspenders still made me a little uncomfortable, but I wore them. “I look silly, right?”

“No, you look fine,” she smirked. I didn’t believe her, but I left the apartment and headed to the student center anyway.

I remember almost nothing of the dance. Dana was there, I know, and someone I later knew as Steve. And then there she was, out of my past.

“Andrea?” I said. “Hi.”

I looked at the 20-year-old version of a kid I’d known in the 8th grade at a science camp hosted at the university where we had both apparently ended up. I’d seen her once before on campus, at a poetry reading. She was with her mother, and I said hello, and assumed she was just being polite when she handed me her number. I’d put it in my pocket and forgotten all about it.

I had enough going on, trying to be a student and a lesbian. I didn’t need another friend who I felt obligated to do things with. At the Valentine’s dance, she reminded me that I had never called her.

“I thought you were straight!” I said, though as I looked at her, with her perfectly preppy and creased khaki pants and her perfectly pressed red button-down shirt from Abercrombie, I wasn’t sure how I’d ever thought that.

We tried talking for a while, over the music and the chatter from the two dozen or so people who had shown up, and she suggested we get out of there.

“Where do you want to go?” she asked, when we’d said our goodbyes and were walking to her car.

“Somewhere we can get a cup of coffee and talk?” I suggested. This was in the days before there were coffee shops that stayed open past 9pm on Saturday nights. We tried going to a restaurant, but at that point, it was over-21 only, and we were both under age.

“What now?” she asked.

I shrugged. I never went out, except, rarely, with a lesbian friend in my department, and she always managed to talk me into the bars.

“Wanna get some coffee at the Scotchman and drive down to the beach?” she asked.

“Sure, why not.” We stopped by the convenience store and poured ourselves the sludge favored by truck drivers and shift workers. I marveled at the array of flavored “cream” we could pour into our coffees. “Who would put this shit in a perfect good cup of coffee?” I asked. This was before the existence of coffee shops with arrays of flavors in perfectly positioned bottles behind the espresso machines, at least in North Carolina.

“The amaretto one is delicious!” she argued, grabbing two of the single-serving tubs and pouring them into her sludge.

“No way,” I said. “That’s disgusting.” I dug some plain ones out of the bottom of the tub, and doctored my coffee as best I could.

We found a place to park beside a public beach access on Wrightsville Beach, and we talked. I wondered if I was going to sleep with her. “I could never date her long-term,” I thought to myself. “But this is fun.”

Eventually the sludge in my cup made its way to my bladder, and I waited as long as I could, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything she was saying over the insistent pressure.

“Listen,” I said, interrupting her monologue about her high-school girlfriend. “I really have to pee. I’m just going to go behind that dune over there, okay?”

“No, you can’t do that!” she said, horrified. “Somebody could see you or attack you or something.”

“It’s February,” I said, my hand on the door handle. “It’s raining. It’s, like, two in the morning. Who’s going to be out there?” Honestly, I didn’t want to leave the beach. It was comfortable, and a little exciting, and I really wanted to get laid, even if it was with someone I didn’t plan to see for very long. At least, I thought, I deserve to make out in the car or something. I yanked on the door handle, and she cranked up the car.

“We’ll just go back to the Scotchman,” she said, almost frantic. “I don’t want you to go out there on the beach.” It didn’t make much sense to me, but I was willing to go along. After we’d refilled our coffee cups and used the facilities, she asked if I wanted to go back to the beach, or if I was ready to go home.

“I’m happy to go back to the beach,” I said, a little surprised that was an option. “If you want, I mean.”

Parked back in the public access lot, I got up the courage to rest the back of my hand on her knee. Eventually, somehow, we were holding hands. I rubbed my thumb along her wrist, and we continued to talk nonsense, as we pretended that we weren’t actually touching one another. Finally, I looked into her brown eyes and leaned in and kissed her. By this point, it was nearly dawn.

We broke away from each other as the cold February rain continued to fall. The sky was gray and dreary, and the gray waves crashed and hissed on the gray shoreline. I, though, was grinning. It was the first time I’d kissed someone since the 10th grade. I remembered the promises I made to myself. This relationship wouldn’t last. I’d break up with her before the end of the semester. I’d get out of it what I wanted, and then I’d go back to my real life of longing after women who were unavailable.

“Want breakfast?” she was saying.

“What? Oh, sure.” I wasn’t sure I did, though. I was hungry, but the lack of sleep, and the convenience store coffee were just about to do me in. I was willing to go along to spend a little more time with her before I headed back to my apartment, feeling pretty damned good about myself. The dance hadn’t been a waste of time after all.

We went to a diner, and I ordered the pancakes with blueberry topping and whipped cream, and yet more coffee. And some orange juice. It was a mistake. I took the last bite of pancakes and the last swig of coffee, and I put my hands flat on the table. I took a deep breath, trying to breathe my way through what I knew was coming.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, as calmly as I could. I walked deliberately, like a drunk, to the bathroom, opened the door, and found an empty stall as far from the door as possible. I lost every bit of the breakfast, the coffee, the orange juice. I flushed the toilet and hoped like hell Andrea hadn’t followed me into the bathroom. The last thing I wanted her to think was that I was bulimic. I was washing my hands and face at the sink and surreptitiously trying to rinse my mouth when she came in.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Oh yeah, fine,” I said, smiling a bit shakily. “Just need to get some sleep.”

I kissed her goodbye at my apartment, and we made plans to meet up later that day.

Three days later, I was at her house every night.

Four months later, we exchanged rings, privately, just the two of us in the apartment we shared off campus.

Two years later, we went to graduate school together, and we had two cats.

Five years later, she left me for one of my colleagues, and for a while, I had no idea who I was.

I’m still not certain if I should’ve skipped that dance.

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