Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade
Sometimes the allies matter most. Like if you were coming out in the new millennium, you might enjoy listening to singer-songwriters who identified as gay. You might appreciate their honesty, but they wouldn’t surprise you when they took a stand for equal rights, played a pro bono gig on a pink triangle stage. You’d want to believe they were doing it for you and for all the people like you, but the big-word voice in your head kept saying how this wasn’t altruism—not quite. They were doing it for themselves, too.
Sometimes the allies change everything. Like how you listened to Michelle Shocked’s “Anchorage” nearly every day for a decade. How you loved that she described writing to an old friend as walking across “that burning bridge,” a simple correspondence turned suddenly dangerous. She didn’t have to care where you were coming from, but somehow she did. She seemed to know that after coming out, every conversation was a walk across a burning bridge.
Sometimes the allies set the worst fires. Like the night in the San Francisco club when Shocked, once an “honorary lesbian,” lived up to her surprising name at last: “I live in fear,” she said, “that the world will be destroyed if gays are allowed to marry.” The next day, you couldn’t find anything but covers of “Anchorage” online. The next year, on Shocked’s birthday, you married your partner, a real lesbian. The world didn’t end, not then; not even after you played “Anchorage” again.
How I love big ladies — Gabourey Sidibe in Precious; domestic goddess Roseanne; Queen Latifah; Adele; Melissa McCartney; Shelly Winters in The Poseidon Adventure; Andrea Dworkin; America Ferrera; Mo’Nique; The Practice’s Camryn Manheim who held up her Emmy, proclaiming, “This one is for the fat girls!” Amy Sedaris, honorary big lady who wore a fat suit home to freak out her father.
But not everyone stays true to her fat. Margaret Cho dieted for primetime. Ricki Lake and Rosie O’Donnell say they lose the pounds for health reasons. Anna Nicole Smith and Jessica Smith confess to binge eating, then endorse expensive diet plans.
Like other fat ladies, I rationalized that fat, like everything else in this world, must end—either in a coffin, through a liposuction needle, or dying a slow, calorie-counting, dieting death. Or during a fast.
Though not famous, I too once got paid to lose weight at a spa in Key West if I agreed to write about it for American Health. I was young and mesmerized by the pink taxis, the watermelon water, the tiny carrots and radish shavings called lunch. I dreamt of bananas and chocolate malts, then woke up feeling jumpy and caffeinated, even though we weren’t allowed coffee. I was afraid to try the included-with-the-plan colonic. I stayed a week, losing ten pounds. I left with an instruction sheet urging only fruits and vegetables and small pieces of skinless chicken or fish, warning against eating beef or cream, lest my still-fat fasting heart explode.
No one thinks the girl who loves musicals is gay, though they may assume she’ll fall in love with men who’d rather style her hair than play footsie under the table. They may assume she’s just provincial enough not to notice, just careerist enough not to care.
I was all set to become this girl—so busy about my Protestant ethic and my Catholic guilt that I forgot to leave a free square on the calendar. Every song and dance doubled for the college apps, recall.
Miss Melanie was holding try-outs for someone to sing “Anything Goes.” My mother had sheet music, so I could practice at home, belting out “The world has gone mad today! And good’s bad today!” while twirling a feather boa like a ranch hand.
“You’re getting a little shrill,” she said, which only made it worse. Soon, I was shrieking like a kettle, the cat cowering beneath the baby grand.
But Miss Melanie still chose me. Only two other girls had auditioned. One was chubby, confident, and sang off-key. The other was gawky and mellifluous, with a skin condition that branded her legs with raised, red sores.
On opening night, I peeked between the curtains, glimpsed the Final Judgment in a sea of skirts and ties. My voice slid down my throat, then lodged deep inside me like a sword. I could only mime to my mother, my teacher: I take it all back! This isn’t for me! Go find the girl with the welts!
I was always jealous of my sister in her sleek leotards, her striped knee warmers that bunched in the hamper. I could have sworn I’d sat through dozens of her modern jazz recitals as she and other slender girls leapt across the stage, then curled themselves into dramatic stones, motionless for what seemed like minutes at a time.
I was the chubby, asthmatic girl who had a special note from the doctor to get out of gym class. My sister would teach me jazz squares at home, the simplest steps. We’d do the bump to that’s the way uh huh uh huh we like it, and then I’d reach for my inhaler.
In high school, I went to school dances where I tried to move freestyle like Cher who seemed in her own world, unaware anyone was watching her, even though she was on TV. I usually got through a song or two and then wound up on a ventilator in the emergency room.
As an adult, my asthma almost outgrown, I’m always the first one on the dance floor at weddings. When I feel blue, I dance alone in my apartment with the blinds drawn. I arrive at Zumba ten minutes early and volunteer to demonstrate the samba with the teacher.
“I’m making up for lost time,” I tell my sister, trying not to sound self-pitying.
She says she only took dance less than a year. Only one recital. “I hated those other girls,” she says. “So stuck up.”
Remember Fen-phen? In the 1990s, it was the hot new weight-loss drug. All my mother’s friends were raving about it. The “fen” stood for fenfluramine, the “phen” stood for phentermine, and as it turned out, neither drug had been approved for long-term use, let alone as the compound “miracle cure” from which the name arose.
Two women in the Bunco club received prescriptions. “You have to be over a certain size to get it,” my mother consoled herself, though she was jealous, too: the way their pounds just melted away, the body like a glacier, shrinking. “They’re not even exercising or giving up sweets,” she sighed.
But then the new, slim Bonnie had a seizure one day at the office. Her face came down hard on the typewriter keys. The scan revealed a strange black mass hovering like a storm cloud over her brain.
After surgery, Bonnie recovered nicely, but the weight returned just as strong.
“You won’t believe it,” my mother groused. “Her husband bought her a Lexus and a diamond tennis bracelet—just for being alive.”
The next year, the FDA removed Fen-phen from the market after The New England Journal of Medicine reported heart damage in the majority of women on a clinical trial. Likewise, “possible hypertensive crisis and intracranial hemorrhage could result” from prolonged use. To apologize would be to admit fault, of course. Instead, the FDA cautioned that after the body grows tolerant of any anorectic drug, its use should be discontinued rather than increased.
My friend Lulu was the quintessential girl “with such a pretty face.” Since she was eight, she’d been on every diet imaginable. By the time I met her in college, she was a self-proclaimed “fag hag” with flawless skin and purple muumuus. She could apply eyeliner and blush like nobody else and was the first person I knew who “drew on” her lips with a pencil before coloring them in.
On spring break, we drove from Boston to Provincetown to a gay bar to meet up with her roommate who Lulu said was expecting us. I loved to dance at Chaps with her crowd. Other women from our class came, too. It was a place to go wild without worrying about straight guys’ approval.
In the parking lot, Lulu dotted a beauty mark on her cheek. I wore overalls and Keds, ready to sweat. Inside, an impressive array of muscles—no other women I could see. Lulu’s roommate shot her a look. She said, “Can you excuse us please?”
I ordered a screwdriver, chugged it, and crunched on the ice before heading towards the strobe lights. I danced on the periphery of pulsating beauty until I saw Lulu making out with her roommate. Someone, I assumed his boyfriend, in a huff. He poured a beer over her head.
I hesitated, then went to her defense. A small group of men were chanting, “Get out! You don’t belong.”
Lulu’s face was an abstract watercolor. That night we slept in the dunes.
So when is it betrayal, and when a good old-fashioned change of heart?
Anne Heche used to go out with Ellen DeGeneres. They were making plans to marry in Vermont. Then, something happened. Who knows exactly what? It involved a break-up and a spaceship and an alter ego named Celestia. Heche tried to write about it in a memoir called Call Me Crazy, but even her sympathizers were confused.
If Ellen felt betrayed, that makes sense. Her heart was broken. But what right did I have to huff and puff, boycott Six Days Seven Nights? I wasn’t even a lesbian then. Can you be anything before you know you are?
Perhaps we should rewind. Anne Heche’s mother had a difficult life. She lost a husband to AIDS, three children to tragic deaths, and another to lesbianism. Mrs. Heche attests her prayers for Anne’s soul ultimately “cured” her daughter’s homosexuality. Does it hurt anyone if that’s what she needs to believe?
I had a gay professor in graduate school who told us her worst fear was falling in love with a man. “Lesbians won’t forgive you for that,” she said. I called her crazy behind her back. Your real friends would want you to follow your heart, wouldn’t they?
But what about the man I jilted? I left him for a woman. Heche left Ellen for a man. For P.C.’s sake, is only one of us entitled to turn a corner, make a U-turn, find ourselves at home in another life?
Lulu was upset when, years later, I told her I was getting married. She said that I had betrayed her, that I’d sworn to her I’d never become a suburban housewife. When she hung up on me, I thought she might be joking. Or that she’d call back a few hours later to apologize.
Everyone else I contacted was gleeful, which took out the sting of that one call. Even my best friend, a lesbian, told me that I’d be sorry if I didn’t go for the puffy white dress. So I’d almost forgotten about the riff until Lulu’s RSVP regret was stuffed with a three-page diatribe about how married women always abandoned their friends. She underlined the word “insufferable” when she imagined me becoming a Valium-induced mom forcing pictures of my kids upon people who lived life with purposeful flair.
My husband-to-be had never met Lulu, but he calmed me down as I read her letter again. He thought she sounded like a nut job. That same day the mail also brought the latest of my Ms. subscription with an essay highlighting the reasons why heterosexual women should never get married. Though everyone jokes with the groom to enjoy his bachelor party, his last day of freedom, this essay assured Ms. readers that brides were the ones who were going to feel stuck.
I often wondered if Lulu regretted her graceless outburst. On my honeymoon. During marital spats. On long car trips. Going through my statistically predicted, insufferable divorce.
Remember when George Bailey tells Mary Hatch, “I don’t want to get married, ever, to anyone”? He’s furious, and I was frightened of the way he was shaking her, making her cry. “I want to do what I want to do.”
Almost immediately, he relents. Then, they are kissing. Then, they are coming down the steps in dress-up clothes, their friends tossing rice and cheering.
I have loved this movie all my life. I have despised it just as long. In grad school, I wrote a paper called “Staying Home: George Bailey and the Atrophy of Desire.” I was hard on George. I suggested, using my fancy, academic words, that he never gets to do what he wants to do because he doesn’t have the balls to break with tradition, to go his own way.
First, I didn’t want to get married, and then I did, and then I didn’t want anyone to know that I did because maybe no one would ever ask me, and then someone asked me, and I said yes, but I didn’t mean it. I didn’t marry him, and then I couldn’t marry her, and then I was as angry as George Bailey shaking Mary Hatch in her mother’s parlor, except I pretended I wasn’t.
A friend asked me to be her bridesmaid, to read a poem at her wedding. I said, “Sure.” I said, “I’m really happy for you.” Then, I got so drunk I couldn’t see beyond my sorrow. Then, I ruined everything.
My ex and I, when we were still married, pitied our friends and their petty divorces. We invoked words like commitment, hard work, and compromise, as though marriage was an earnest mayoral campaign and we the naïve politicians. Yet we were titillated by details—who cheated and with whom; which one drained the joint bank account; and if anyone was abusive.
“My mother would die if we ever divorced,” he once said out of the blue. Or maybe not out of the blue at all, but rather after feeling stuck for many years.
“My parents, too,” I said. Then I added that a cousin—the only divorced member on my side of the family—was accepted and even congratulated for her strength. “It took a lot of guts,” I said, knowing I didn’t have them yet.
Both of us had parents who were practicing Catholics, but they’d put up with our hippie Church of Christ minister’s invitation to everyone present, regardless of their particular faiths, to partake in communion, chunks of whole wheat bread.
When my ex and I met new mates of divorced friends, we were hard on them. She’s too young for him or he’s going to take her for everything she has.
And then one day my husband was gone. I was in a lawyer’s office.
You know you killed him, my soon-to-be-ex wrote to me in a nasty email the day of my father’s funeral, the trick subject line of which was Sorry for your loss.
When my father met my mother, he thought she was lost: no religion, never voted, unattached in more ways than one. When they married three years later, she wore a gold cross and took minutes for the Young Republicans. She knew Jesus was her savior and that Barry Goldwater had been robbed.
For a while, I wanted to be an acolyte, which made my parents proud. I got confirmed and learned my catechism well.
“The light of God is shining brighter in you every day,” said Pastor Gary in the hall.
“I’m actually thinking of converting to Catholicism.”
He looked concerned. “But Luther was a Catholic. That’s not converting; it’s reverting!”
Pastor Gary wanted to impress me with his wordplay, but he failed. “On second thought, maybe I’ll just give up and call myself agnostic.”
After my first time in the voting booth, my father said, “Just tell me you didn’t vote for Gore.”
After my first date, my mother said, “Just tell me you didn’t let him score.”
I shook my head and watched my father’s jaw release. “Unfortunately, I think Nader is going to have a pretty tough time of it.”
I shook my head and watched my mother’s fists unclench. “He wasn’t what I was looking for.”
In the end, I quit church, became a registered Democrat, married a woman. “You know, you can be gay and Christian these days?” a well-meaning friend explained.
“You can,” I said, then surprised myself, “but sometimes I need an either/or.”
Sometimes the enemies matter most. Rush Limbaugh and his coinage of “feminazi.” Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” and John Foster’s “the rape thing.” Rick Santorum declaring, “I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts.” Phyllis Schlafly saying, “Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women.”
I once thought we needed ridiculousness to keep us fighting. The outrage followed by each statement. The punch in the gut to liberal thinkers.
But what about Obama’s drones? The NSA running wild? Bill Clinton bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan?
Or Woody Allen’s famous joke, “I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” It was funny until he married Soon Yi Previn. Funny until Dylan Farrow’s allegations of abuse.
I know about Apple’s Chinese sweatshops, yet I type on a MacBook I bought on Amazon, a company for which Pennsylvania sweatshop “pickers” work ten-hour shifts in stifling heat.
What about the enemies that live inside us? The devil on my shoulder who jumps to the mall’s parking garage pavement to open my air-conditioned car? Miami can be as cold as Anchorage.
I used to be poor, but now I am rich. I left poverty’s church, but the commandments are chiseled on my spleen.
I used to have virtue, but now I just stew. Even the crackpots can’t get me to act.
I used to believe in slow cooking crock pots. Now I fear it’s all a crock.
Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade have published collaborative essays in Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Connotation Press, Green Mountains Review, Nimrod, No Tokens, Passages North, poemmemoirstory, Quarter After Eight, The St. Ann’s Review, and StoryQuarterly. Duhamel and Wade teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.
Denise Duhamel is the author, most recently, of Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other books include Ka-Ching!(Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005), Mille et un Sentiments (Firewheel, 2005) and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001.) Her work has been anthologized widely and appeared in literary magazines such as American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, and New Ohio Review. She was the guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2013.
Julie Marie Wade is the author, most recently, of When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014) and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2014), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir. Her other books include Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), and the forthcoming collections, Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016). She has received an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.