The woman who comes through the door has a baby in a front-pack. I’m choosing to believe it starts here, five-foot-seven with honey-brown hair and enough of a Carolina accent for me to clock her as a foreign body. (Body. Blue eyes, yoga muscles. When I grow up, I want to be five-foot-seven.) 2002 will be organic food and overalls, wholesome parent-curated playgroups that read as a precursor to homeschooling. She is a precursor to homeschooling: toddler the same age as my brother, infant for my mother to coo over, built-in best-friendship. Ideological carbon-copying over discussions of Waldorf learning methods. The Belle, let’s call her— more Southern than anything I’d ever laid eyes on. In Michigan, that wasn't saying much.
But I’m not telling this story right.
I had a sex dream about the Belle last night. Surprisingly, it was the first one. To understand both the sex dream and the surprise, you have to understand that the first time I ever said the words “mommy issues,” half-joking, was last January, to my ex-boyfriend, as he helped me pack up scattered belongings in the childhood bedroom where we’d had sex for the first time. To understand my ex-boyfriend, you have to understand that he only laughed a little, and it wasn’t at my expense. To understand why we were even having that conversation, you have to look at my fucked-up dating history and read a list, probably written down in alphabetical order by my ex-boyfriend, of every substitute English teacher and college French professor that I spent at least one semester moon-goggling at like I’d lost my mind. That started when he and I were dating, unfortunately, but ultimately it couldn't be helped. And to understand why it couldn’t be helped, you have to understand about the homeschooling.
The boys are too young and the baby is too young and my mother and the Belle drink one long cup of tea without end, perched on stools in the kitchen. I am upstairs; I am eight years old— and nine years old— and ten years old and more; I am forming a new grudge against Charles Dickens with every page of David Copperfield. I am told this is called being a self-starter. Voices drift up from the kitchen like smoke, but I can never hear what they’re saying. When I descend from my tower, it’s like I drain the room of meaning. I ask a question about the Trojan War and someone answers by handing me carrot sticks, jicama slices, hummus.
I’ve never eaten jicama as an adult, but I still remember exactly how it tastes.
I leave the room dry-mouthed, sweet-mouthed, chalky.
There’s this one day, I’m probably nine, and my mother has taken the boys to some activity or other, and the Belle takes me and the baby to lunch. The café is called something like Harmony Grounds, or Sacred Grounds, or Hallowed Grounds. The baby isn’t really a baby anymore, and I’m struck all of a moment, watching her tear up pita with chubby little fingers, by the fact that she will grow up, really grow up, tall and lean and blue-eyed like her. The realization makes me feel superfluous, like I’m intruding on something.
The boys are too young. The baby is also too young, but she already has some innate something that I will never have. The Belle brings spoonfuls of tabbouleh salad to her mouth in small, measured bites.
No matter what I do, this story comes out like no one has any fathers. I had— and have— a father, but when I look back at my childhood I can’t shake the impression that he sprang out of my head fully-formed like Pallas Athena when I was thirteen or fourteen. As for the other— well, the Belle having a husband wasn’t something I liked to think about. He’s present sometimes in the memories, though, sidling up to the scene in a blue car to pick someone up or drop someone off, too tall, too jocular, the kind of smile that says he means the nasty words and doesn’t mean the nice ones. At any rate, there are fathers in this story even when it doesn’t seem like it. But imagine these scenes like you're in them, like you're me. Imagine that each isolated day slips by, that you sit at your antique wooden desk stacked with books you should be too young to have read and look out the window at the flaming maple trees and watch the boys playing in the yard. That you tiptoe down to the landing and peer out of the stairwell at the two either laughing or reverent heads in the kitchen, your mother’s dark, the Belle’s golden. That the warm air smells like Oolong steam and it feels like you’ve never known anything different.
This seems as good a point as any for the disclaimer that I do, whatever it seems like, know how sexuality works— at least as much as anyone else does, so that is to say, not very much at all. That is to say, I know how it doesn't work. I know that it’s not about your home life or what your parents did or didn’t do.
I’m trying to say that I know I’m not queer because of the homeschooling and the Belle and the goddamn jicama and my father feeling like a figment of my own imagination. But having sailed past twenty I start to wonder if my queerness means realizing that I want every strong woman I ever idolized to push me into bed and keep me there, to give me what I need by taking. I wonder if I am doomed to muddle between the ages forever, to see drifting expanses of years whenever I close my eyes. (Eyes. Blue eyes, yoga muscles. When I grow up, I want to be five-foot-seven.)
Because it doesn’t take me long to figure out that self-starter means no one is looking, I keep my math worksheets handy, but push them to the side in favor of library-worn copies of books about children with vast networks of authority figures to thwart and save and outsmart. I become obsessed with the concept of boarding school. I fall in love over and over— Miss Honey from Matilda, Miss Temple from Jane Eyre, every professor from Harry Potter who isn’t actively trying to murder someone. Mary fucking Poppins. I have no idea where I’m going, but I know that I want to be led there, a soft hand on my shoulder, fingers tightening slightly. This is a liminal space. This is the middle of one thing and the cusp of another.
When my parents’ marriage crumbles, the Belle is one of the first to flee from the scene, and I blame her almost more than I blame my parents. I also want out of this ruined city, but I have nowhere to run— not the way she can run, friendship with my mother over, homeschooling done, nothing warm left in her eyes. (Eyes. Blue eyes, frost eyes. Sometimes I think I imagined the warmth.)
There is no place in my new Monday-Wednesday-Friday/alternate-weekends hellscape for the woman who has been my eight-year surrogate parent, unwitting sexual awakening, and ultimate betrayer. There is only absence. Abandonment makes me cruel and half-feral; it always has. The only adult I do not alienate is my therapist.
Back to the dream. It comes unwelcome after a near-decade of hissing Judas. It comes unwelcome after a near-decade of much more appropriate inappropriate fixations. At first, my dream-self spits vitriol just like my real one, but then her mouth slants soft and her arms flex hard and I am as lost as I ever was at eight, ten, fourteen.
How is it that certain people can lodge themselves so inexorably under our breastbones, in our psyche? It takes me weeks, and months, and years to realize that I know the answer to this question, that I’ve known it ever since I gave her the name that I did. It’s because they are beautiful.
There is a photograph on my computer drive, filed away amongst the debris of a youth that I cannot call misspent but will never be able to regard as quite right. It’s the Belle in a red turtleneck, peering at the camera with a look in her blue eyes that could be either fond or dubious. A lifetime ago and hundreds of miles away, I am on the other side of the camera.
I wonder what she sees.
Lily C. Buday is originally from northern Michigan, where she learned to write semi-obsessively about lakes. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas Program in Creative Writing and Translation, and lives in Fayetteville. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Chautauqua and Joyland. Find her on Twitter @lilycrowbar.