This is part 2 of a longer personal narrative about divorce, coming out, and ordering your offspring from an online catalogue. It’s a rough cut and will be subject to many drafts and versions before completion. Do let me know what you think, and if you like the piece, I would appreciate it if you could pass it along to someone else who might benefit or enjoy. Thank you!
When I lived in San Francisco in the nineties, my friend Michelle told me about a lesbian couple who were looking for frozen sperm together. At that time I was married to a man, and I thought Michelle was talking about some people who wanted to breed cocker spaniels. I’d heard about sperm banks and babies, of course, but I’d never really given them much thought except to wonder at the logistics behind the donation process.
I was thirty-one when my marriage cracked open and the mess oozed out. Figuring out that I was gay was a pittance in comparison to my fears around not being able to have a family. After all, it is one thing to figure out that you are a homosexual (HOMOsexual) when you are a teenager struggling with all the concomitant insecurities that go along with discerning your identity. It’s quite another to come out at thirty-one after you have already come of age, published a book, snorted lines of cocaine in your living room with friends, and driven all the way to Crater Lake in a sedan with a carful of topless lesbians right after having sex with your husband while he was still sleeping.
It was still harrowing to figure it all out so late in life, though, but not because I was necessarily nervous about telling my friends and family (although I was). The worst part about figuring it out later in life was feeling like I had no “community” around me. I certainly didn’t know any lesbians that had children. All the gay women I knew were single. I wanted a baby. Wasn’t that the whole point of getting married to a man?
I went to the library and the bookstores and tore through an immense amount of reading material in a short period of time. I remember one book vividly: it was called From Wedded Life to Lesbian Life, and each chapter unveiled a different woman’s experience after leaving her husband. Some of the stories were heartbreaking and others were hilarious, but all had to do with the pain of discrimination.
It is very strange to leave a protected majority, where society sanctions and respects your relationship, to become part of a discreet and insular minority, where you’re a target of open prejudice and hostility.
If you ever want to know what it’s like to be judged before you even open your mouth, just walk down the street holding hands with someone of your same sex. Even in a liberal neighborhood. Go on. I dare you.
When you leave a heterosexual dynamic, you are departing from a safe place and heading out to the land of the unknown and the marginalized, the ostracized and the disenfranchised. And let me tell you a thing or two about a thing or two. No matter how much you argue with your husband, marriage is a solid institution that serves and protects in innumerable ways, both big and small. It is an invisible net that travels underneath you wherever you go, whether you are aware of this or not.
(That being said, once, when a girlfriend kissed me on the street before getting into a cab on 76th and Amsterdam, a guy in gold chains and a backwards baseball cap who was walking by shouted appreciatively, “Hey, do that AGAIN!”)
Leaving a spouse because you are gay is a specific kind of leaving, and carries the pain of moving away from someone that you really do love but cannot really love, with the added heartache of breaking away from an extended family network of care and support, obligation and expectations.
Which is to say that the year I left my husband I spent quite a lot of time sitting in a parked car in the garage gripping the steering wheel and trying not to hyperventilate while the dog snuffled around the tires and peed on the hub caps.
Still, the bay area is a happy place to discover that your future husband will have no penis. There seemed to be a gay/lesbian film festival every fifteen minutes or so, and I started attending a great number of these. Once I drove to Berkeley by myself to watch a documentary about gay families. The interviewer asked a little girl who had two fathers how she felt about “gay rights”.
“Um, I don’t really know what that is,” she said.
I left my house and my friends in San Francisco and moved in with my younger brother, who was also going through a break-up. We rented a one-bedroom apartment on the upper west side. It wasn’t exactly what you would call a fun time. Neither one of us had any money or any sensibility when it came to home furnishings. The previous tenants left nails on the wails where framed paintings had been; my brother hung his work suits on them. He slept in the living room on a pallet of dirty laundry, and I got the bedroom. I slathered the walls with newspaper articles about the latest on the Arab-Israeli conflict — I was writing a YA novel on the subject at that time which really doesn’t get a lot of laughs — and spent the rest of my time trolling PlanetOut, a gay/lesbian website, where I skimmed profiles in search of someone who would understand right away that I was a nice Jewish girl who wanted to connect with an intelligent person and get pregnant and be a family right away, preferably before we had even met.
It was not a very happy time in my life, and I can’t say it’s particularly easy to write about these things. Nobody wants to think back to a time when your life was lonely and scary, before podcasts were invented and you had to hold up your mini tape recorder to the speakers by the computer and hope the phone wouldn’t ring so you could listen to This American Life during your third loop around Central Park.
At one point I was having real panic attacks, so I called a very close friend who runs a health food store in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania.
“Are you suicidal?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “But I do sometimes have a paranoid fantasy about pulling out Dick Cheney’s fingernails and shipping them along with a box of lemons to Laura Bush.
He told me to take St. John’s Wort and a tincture called Kava Kava root, and even though this detail is in no way germane to the story, I’d like to take a moment to suggest that before you decide to go on heavy pharmaceuticals or to swallow leftover Percoset with your Jim Beam as a palliative for psychological malaise, that you take a gander at the kava kava root. That stuff, along with a leisurely eleven-hour jog to Sheepshead Bay, did wonders for my state of mind.
I went on a lot of very weird dates with some very strange women. I tried to stay upbeat about it, but I was born in the late sixties and most lesbians my age had gone through years of torment and angst in the eighties when they were coping with either being completely out as a gay or hiding that they were gay, and these women had their work to do before they could acceptably function in a healthy relationship, IMHO.
I recall one woman who lived a few blocks away from me, a wine seller, who invited me to her huge, modern apartment somewhere around 85th and Broadway. She showed me her wedding album, in which she was clutching a parcel of baby’s breath in a lacy wedding dress, complete with a satin bow and a veil, all which delicately and harmoniously framed her bangs and mullet. Having just met her on a gay website made those wedding pictures seem all the weirder, and if that wasn’t surreal enough, her husband, who apparently lived in the apartment too, walked into the room. There were two other young women there as well, and neither of them seemed to be wearing very many articles of clothing. They held colored drinks with ice and bubbles, and they giggled while clutching the husband’s arm.
“We just keep up the appearance for our parents,” the wine seller said. “Otherwise they’ll take away the apartment.”
We flipped through the wedding album for a while. I tried not to ask too many questions. Then we went out on the back terrace where she told me that when she went down on a woman she focused on the responsibility with a laser-like concentration that would be incomparable to any other experience in my life, past or future. I swallowed. She had a wandering eye.
I really liked going on dates with women. It’s very different than dating men. In the first place, it’s fun. When you have a bad date with a man, you want to get away from him as soon as possible and maybe change your forwarding address. If you have an unsuccessful date with a woman in which through the course of a nice meal you realize there is no chemistry, you can still be pals and go to the movies or crack up or keep it real about your relationship with your mother. At least I thought you could.
“You’re so intense,” a woman from New Zealand told me once, over pork buns in Chinatown. Except the way she said it sounded like she was saying, “Ya so inTEENS.”
Another woman went with me to get a new pair of jeans on our one and only date, and then there was the one who never stopped lying from the moment we met on 96th and Amsterdam until I dropped her off in complete terror at the Port Authority. (She was in the Olympics! She directed Ocean’s Eleven! She had a Boston Terrier just like I did and they had the same exact name! Her ex-girlfriend was a professional tennis player in Amsterdam and had a Delorean.)
There was also the woman who started crying the moment I asked her what happened with her last girlfriend. She ran out of the restaurant and never spoke to me again, which made me sad. I think I had a lot to offer her in the way of friendship, especially since I really didn’t have any friends in New York.
By the time I met an attractive blond-haired woman named Moira (let’s call her…Moira) I was so elated to find someone living in Brooklyn with gainful employment and an ability to speak in compound sentences about something beyond herself, that I overlooked the fact that she was afraid to swallow a pill. Or that she had to cover the alarm clock with a sock at night because she claimed the LED lights were bright enough to illuminate a movie set. Okay, she told restaurant servers that she was sending the tilapia back because she didn’t ask for fish, but I liked that whenever the employees at Pep Boys weren’t polite she would say, “May I have your name, please? I’d like to put in a call to the corporate office.”
Moira was four years older than I was, and after about fifteen minutes together we decided that it was imperative that we have a baby. She was older, so naturally she would go first, which was hard, since if you have read Part I of this post you already know that I had been wanting to have a baby since I was nine.
I figured I’d go along with it, since it would be my turn next and besides, a baby was a baby, no matter the uterus. Moira had the sperm donor all lined up, too. He was a local cafe-worker in the neighborhood. She’d been working with him for a while when her previous girlfriend had an affair and left, and she figured she’d just keep the conversation open and switch out one girlfriend for another, like a new car tire, or a cell phone.
I loved Kai as soon as I met him. First of all, he had a missing front tooth. I realize this would perhaps be off-putting to most, but I found it down-to-earth and appealing (his cap fell out and he was too busy to get to the dentist). He was young and Asian and sexy and smart and funny. His diet consisted mainly of Twizzlers and peanut butter cups, which he kept in his bedroom in a small refrigerator that had a bumper sticker that said I LOVE MY PENIS in bold red letters.
Kai was totally uninterested in having children of his own, which was why he was happy to offer his merchandise with no strings attached.
“I don’t want to have a kid,” he told us. “But I would love to see what I could make.”
He convinced me that he wasn’t going to steal the baby or give me a hard time about signing off paternity when the time came. Moira had already drawn up papers with her attorney, and they were ready to be signed once a real live baby came on to the scene. (In New York a known donor can’t legally sign off on paternity until the child is born, which, as you can imagine, can be pretty nerve wracking for the other mother.)
And so, one drizzly afternoon in November, Moira and I went on a very special field trip to the fertility clinic together to defrost what amazingly, on the very first attempt, eventually became a beautiful dark-eyed child called Frances. I can imagine that a lot of women would not have gone for a known-donor arrangement like this one, but truth be told I’m not a particularly jealous person, and in some ways I wondered if my love for Kai was deeper and more vast than my love for Moira, which I intend to speak about in more painstaking detail in the next installment of this piece…
Readers, my fingerprints have worn off from the typing. I just reread what I wrote and am feeling extremely exposed, insecure, vulnerable, and hostile. Is there anyone out there that has gotten to the last page of this post? Let me know if you are interested in Part 3 or if you would prefer to read about the time the lady at the ice-cream counter told me to drop dead. It’s up to you. The comment box is below. Please feel free to use it.