I pour myself a wine from the open bottle in the ice bucket and find a seat on the outdoor lounge. To my left is a play area for the children where they run screeching between a large plastic slide and a sand pit. The adults have congregated in groups under the awning, out of the sun and close to the drinks. I see Vanessa, chatting to someone I don’t recognise on the far side of the courtyard. Her pants, cream-coloured with a bold print of red and green parrots, hang stylishly from her hips. I suspect she paid a lot of money for them. I would never spend that much money on pants. Instead, I would try to find a cheaper alternative, but I would fail because some things do not come in cheaper alternatives, and I would wear less-satisfying pants and be generally less-satisfied while wearing them. This is my life.
The reluctance I feel about spending money on nice things drags deeply in my belly. I blame my father, in the sense that I credit him for making me the person that I am. It is his fault that a nice pair of trousers is all it takes to throw my sense of self into disequilibrium; torn apart by wanting something I don’t know how to feel good about having and jealous of her easy comfort. But I’m being disingenuous. It’s not just the trousers that have unsettled me, it’s also Vanessa herself. My father’s not responsible for the relationship I had with her. He doesn’t even know about it.
‘Relationship’ is misleading. It was really the opposite. A process, instigated by a single night of sex, which saw us grow into complete strangers. At the time, the first thing we had to decide was whether or not to confess to our respective boyfriends. I was for it; she was against. She conceded, generously, that we each had to make our own decision — the decision that was right for us and our relationships — but it was clear she thought I was mad. In the end, however, I too kept my silence. It was easier than having to find the words to explain something I didn’t understand, or offer an apology for an event about which guilt and regret were not clear feelings I had. Instead, I let it slide away from me, as it if had never happened. I broke up with that particular boyfriend anyway, a couple of years later, for unrelated reasons. Vanessa went on to marry hers.
In the years that followed, we remained friends but whenever we were together I fell into a habit dwelling on whatever I felt was wrong or bad or unfair about myself and my life. It was as if I had forgotten how to relate to her unless it was in terms of being pitiable and seeking out pity. Even as I heard myself doing it, and saw the familiar tension in her face, I couldn’t stop. I had nothing else to say; the only other thing worth talking about had become a giant and unbreachable silence between us. She became first bored then irritated by my presence, frustratedly throwing out ever more tired-sounding injunctions about how I should deal with my problems. This tedious period was followed by several years in which we barely spoke at all.
These days we’ve resumed the appearance of friends, but we share no intimacies and have no desire to see each other. If not for a wider circle of acquaintances, we probably would have fallen out of contact entirely.
When we’re thrown together at social events like this one, her presence chaffs me. She has grown into an outwardly confident and gorgeous woman who, for public appearances at least, has arranged around herself all the accoutrements of success — beautiful children, a house in a fashionable suburb, excellent taste in clothes. Beside her I feel small and plain. Provincial against her worldliness.
But it’s provinciality with long-standing antecedents. One of my fondest memories of my father is of the weekly, Saturday morning shopping trips we used to take. The ritual started with a list. Not a grocery list, but three or four miscellaneous things required for various odd jobs around the house: things like light-bulbs, wire, duct-tape, a spanner, some plastic storage containers, WD40, a laundry basket, or a new pair of shears. Most of this we could, and would, purchase at a reject shop, the two-dollar shop, or the tip. My dad had the patient expectation that goods of quality could be found at these locations and the act of demonstrating such thrift gave him a thrill of satisfaction. Afterwards, having bought most, if not all of the items on the list, we would go to a café where we would share a muffin and he would drink a coffee. Then we would go home with our loot and it would be absorbed into the house, finding its intended purpose, or not. Sometimes it was simply forgotten and rediscovered months later when the urgency of whatever project it was needed for had long faded. It was only ever me and my dad who went on this trip, as it was only me and my dad who still lived together. The rest of the family had moved out leaving us to pass the timeless era of my late adolescence in our near-abandoned five-bedroom house.
For all its practicality, his was an art of buying things premised on simplicity and self-awareness; on keeping desires linked closely to needs. Occasionally, I would ask to buy a six-pack of muffins to take home ‘for later’. I cannot remember him ever saying no, though sometimes I think he disapproved.
Vanessa suddenly looks across at me and, catching my eye, glides towards me through small chatting groups. I am careful to look only at her face because I know that any glance below the waist will reveal how precarious I am feeling.
‘And how are you, Paige?’ She sounds like a school-teacher attempting to conceal how weary she finds the job of having to acknowledge each child one after the other. My turn has come, it seems, at the end of a long line of other obligations.
‘Good,’ I reply, taking a sip of my wine, which has become warm in my hand. I put it down on the ground next to the lounge. She takes a seat on the cushion next to me. I have a strong desire to brush my teeth and I lean back slightly in case she can smell my breath. From across the courtyard I see Alex, my toddler, do a wee through her pants and onto the terracotta tiles. My husband, standing nearby, leaps up and grabs a roll of paper towels. He vigorously pats at the tiles and Alex’s legs, while gently chastising her for not telling him she needed to go.
‘How are you?’ I ask, looking away from the domestic drama. I’m glad I’m far enough away that I don’t have to get involved in this scene. I can pretend I didn’t see.
‘Fine,’ she says, crossing her legs.
We sit in silence for a moment.
‘How did you know you weren’t a lesbian?’ Vanessa asks suddenly.
I wonder if she is drunk, but she is clear-eyed. Perhaps enough time has passed now that this sort of question is safe. Referring to ‘that time we had sex’ is like referring to ‘that time we got drunk’, or ‘that time we went travelling’, or ‘that time we went to that rock concert’; an event turned sterile and inert with time.
I let out a small puff of air that could be taken as a laugh as I think about how I’m going to answer. At the core of the question is her doubt — her suspicion that I am. She’s couched it in the past tense, but her tone is of a professional journalist; one who feigns complicity with their interviewee in order to gain their trust.
‘I guess it was because every time I fell in love, it was with a man.’
‘Yeah, but,’ she says, swatting away my inconvenient answer, ‘that could be just, like, society’s expectations.’
‘Sure, sure,’ I reply, but immediately regret my hasty agreement. On principle, she’s right, which is as much to say: yes, a culture can distort and deform the realities of those who are part of it. But in my hurry to acknowledge her point I have also implicitly agreed to the characterisation of my past and current relationships with men as conformity and self-deception, at the expense of honouring their sources of love, fascination and joy. There is also a false dichotomy in her question — a presumption of clean boundaries and unmixed identities. It prevents me from explaining that none of my relationships with or feelings about men sit in conflict with anything I feel about women. I am not disturbed that I dream, sometimes, of putting put my mouth to a woman’s vagina, or the pleasure that I get from it. It’s simply a part of who I am; part of an internal landscape of desires that is both physical and intellectual, imaginative and real. The terms of her question, however, require that I be one thing or another, and since I have not been one thing convincingly, then it seems I must be the other. There is no room to respond outside the restrictions of category. I cast around my brain, seeking some other explanation.
‘I also never felt,’ I continue, ‘like I could be part of the scene. I felt like I was going to have to be part of a … a group, and it didn’t feel right to me.’
She nods. ‘Yeah, right.’
What I am trying to convey is my sense of inauthenticity; my instinct that coming out as a lesbian would have made me a fraud in a community of people who were not frauds. But Vanessa is staring at me eagerly, and I realise, too late, that she has taken this second answer as proof that I am unable to be public about parts of myself that I have not fully accepted; in fact, a closeted lesbian. I cannot take this conclusion away from her and I suspect that any attempt to try would only further convince her.
I’ve asked myself these questions before; I’ve entertained the same doubts she now credits herself with. I even wrote a short story once, published in a small, university-based journal, about a lesbian unwittingly set up on a date with a man. The match-maker is the lesbian’s best friend, with whom she’s in love but can’t come out to. Coincidence and contrivance later, the protagonist is molested at a party by another woman who is too drunk to see that she is protesting, not encouraging, the sexual advance. In the end, she is comforted and consoled by a third woman, whose breasts, described in some detail, I based on Vanessa’s breasts, although that was where the resemblance ended.
I gave the story to my father to read with some trepidation, unsure about how he would respond to its subject matter, but also, because it had already been published, buoyed by confidence in its quality. He looked at me strangely after reading it, confused and slightly amused. He withheld judgement on its literary merits, and said only: ‘You’re not a convincing lesbian, Paige’.
I take a breath and wonder why Vanessa places so much store in her ability to practice pseudo-psychology on me. Then I remember the very last phase in the trajectory of our relationship, after we had sex: her sense of ownership over me. This is what is going on right now, I realise. She is satisfying her desire to know me better than I know myself.
For a woman who mostly bristled in my presence there was a period when, during those years before we settled into marriage and parenthood, if I brought a boyfriend to a party, she would immediately feel the need to lay hands on me. She would hug me and invite me to sit or stand next to her. She would run her hand over some part of my body — my arm or my knee — or slip an arm around my waist and say suggestive things that left no one present in any doubt as to the fact that at some point in the past we had fucked. The message seemed to be that she had prior carnal knowledge; I could never fully belong to anyone else. I endured this behaviour mutely, watching it as if it was happening to someone else. I was untroubled by any feelings of being owned by her, and ambivalent about her need to express ownership over me in this way. I never challenged her about it or asked her to stop. Many actual and prospective boyfriends understood, implicitly if not factually, what had happened without me needing to take the trouble of telling them.
‘It really changed our relationship,’ Vanessa said suddenly. Then, to clarify, ‘Having sex, I mean.’
I am aghast at her understatement. Changed? It destroyed it.
But I keep this thought to myself. It has come from that part of me which I think of as my true self and I do not trust her enough to utter it. I am afraid to have a real conversation about this; afraid to break the pretence that there is any relationship left between us at all.
‘How did you know,’ I shoot back at her instead, ‘that you weren’t a lesbian?’
She shrugs. ‘Same reasons, I guess.’
It annoys me that she offers no fresh insight into her own journey to heterosexuality. She is hiding behind what I have already said, and hypocritically so, given that I suspect she found it unconvincing. I had hoped, with my question, to balance the terms of our conversation, since the act on which she has based her assumptions was one in which she equally participated. But her response leaves me feeling blocked and unenlightened, as if I am the only one of us required to give an account of themselves.
It is quite possible, however, that she does not trust me enough to show any portion of her true self either. I was cold the morning after we had sex: confused, withdrawn and terrified, and desperately trying to conceal it all with false nonchalance. I found my nose-ring among the carpet fibres next to the bed. It had come out during the frenzy of whatever it was I had been doing between her legs the night before. I picked it up between forefinger and thumb and said something about how disgusting it was; encrusted with vaginal juices and flecked with hair and dust. I said it brutally — without even a hint of goodwill or humour. I lost her in that moment. I felt the offense sink deep into her. I had been talking about my nose-ring, that had been in her vagina, ergo I was talking about her vagina. I had told the first woman I’d ever had sex with that I thought the most intimate part of her was disgusting.
I regretted those words immediately but I never apologised for them. On a technicality, I had not actually insulted her, but this just made it all the harder in the weeks that followed to find the right opportunity to tell her I understood the implications of what I’d said and to seek her forgiveness. She also never held me accountable for it, probably because after that moment she had no interest in having sex with me ever again. She barely had an interest in talking to me.
But what has this got to do with pants? I look at them now, and she catches me.
‘They’re beautiful pants,’ I say, relieved to unburden myself of this. ‘Where did you get them?’
She answers with the name of a shop I have not heard of. ‘Aren’t they great?’
‘I don’t think I know how to dress myself,’ I say.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I look at other women, and they come in all shapes and sizes, and they look good — they look amazing — not because they’re skinny or fit or even beautiful, but because they know how to dress. They know what suits them.’
‘And you don’t?’ she asks.
‘No.’ I shrug. ‘Nothing quite looks right.’
‘Perhaps I can take you shopping? You just need to find your style.’
I’m wary of her offer. Nothing good has ever come from allowing other people to dress me. It happened a lot when I was a teenager. My awkward and lacklustre approach to femininity was generally interpreted as an admission of failure stemming, presumably, from a lack of proper education about how to become a woman. Girls behaved as if they were doing me a favour by adorning me with make-up and accessories — paint that rendered me unrecognisable to myself and clothes in which every movement and gesture I made felt unreal. Perhaps, after they had dressed me, I made sense to them. It was just that I no longer made sense to myself. I also wonder if it will be another way of retaining her sense of ownership over me, and if every time I wear the clothes she will take credit for them: the dress she found; the trousers she picked; the person she created.
But we’re not teenagers anymore, and I know an olive branch when I see one.
‘I’d like that,’ I say.
I still have hope, it seems, that if we can forge some new relationship, based on truthful and current versions of ourselves, it will make up for the collapse of the friendship we once had. ‘Where would we go?’ I ask, assuming we will cruise the charity shops looking for bargains. It does not occur to me that there is any other way to shop.
‘We could meet in the city,’ she says. ‘Go to the mall, and then grab lunch.’
‘Yeah, sure,’ I reply, but I’m immediately paralysed with fear. There are no charity shops in the mall. I will potentially have to part with lots of money if I’m going to see this through, and my reluctance is so powerful it pulses under my skin. I consider suggesting we go op-shopping instead, but this would defeat the point of the trip, since it’s my personal mode of consumerism that has created the problem she is offering to fix. I wonder how I got into this situation; my comment about not knowing how to dress was intended as an observation, not a plea for help.
Then it occurs to me, for the first time, that perhaps I had not been seeking her pity in those years when it seemed like that was all I was doing. Perhaps that litany of complaint, so tiresome to both of us, was a way of coming to terms with the extent to which discomfort would be an essential condition of my life. My failure to fit into easy categories, I realise, creates a kind of unrelieved friction; a tension with life that I am entitled to dislike as fervently as I am committed to remaining true to those aspects of my hopelessly incompatible self that cause it. Her mistake, then and now, is to see only a problem that needs solving.
A week later, she cancels our plans at short notice. I am neither surprised nor disappointed. I am relieved.
Lesley Boland is a Canberra-based public servant, writer, and editor. Her unpublished novel was selected for the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY manuscript development program in 2014, and her short story ‘To Have and to Hold’ was commended in the Ethel Webb Bundell Literary awards in 2018.