This isn’t happening.
I quickly folded up the letter I was handed minutes ago by my best friend on the number 5 bus on our way to school. Tel Aviv, mid-’80s. I was eight. My hair was pulled tight into two ponytails, uneven bangs hung above my squinting eyes. My cheeks must have been burning. I knew they were, and there was nothing I could do about that or the fact that I was just outed on the bus on the way to school. First thing in the morning, a full day ahead of me, a full childhood ahead. Much more of this shame to come in many other forms.
This is not happening. Not happening.
I shoved the letter in its pink envelope deep into my faded denim backpack and stared at my sneakers. I felt bad because I knew this little girl with big black eyes had the best intentions when she wrote in her fancy handwriting on flowered stationary that she wants me to know she knows, and that it is okay, that she does not think it is a bad thing that my mother is a –only in Hebrew the word is lesbit, pronounced less-beet, and this is the first time I had seen it written. The ugliest word in the dictionary, so ugly it shouldn’t have the right to exist—not in English or Hebrew or any other language. It’s a word that is so dirty it might as well be a swear word; only it’s not, it pretends to be civilized, to be tolerant and progressive, but my eight-year-old self knows better than to fall for that. I never uttered the word and when I heard it I shuddered so deep inside that I thought I might break or throw up or run so far away that when I come back it’ll be long after the word has been banished from society. It’s a word that reeks of shame, of sex, of the backside of life exposed to me much too soon.
At first I didn’t think much of it. I started the first diary of my life at six with the words: “My mother loves a woman and her name is Kaya.” Plain and simple. This was what I could make of my mother catching me on the toilet in our San Francisco Mission Street apartment and seizing the moment to tell me she was a lesbian. To come out to her little daughter.
I had not really understood, my two feet dangling from the toilet seat, the sun slicing my mother’s face in half.
“Who are you lesbian with?” I asked, trying to understand.
“I am not lesbian with anybody.” She tried again. “It means that I love women.”
Okay, I could understand that. I loved women too, or girls, but I could detect in her voice that the love she meant was similar to how I felt about Gabe in my first grade class, or about the boy I wanted to marry in preschool, the one who stuck his tongue out at me but played with me quietly behind the slide.
Earlier that year my parents told me they were getting a divorce. I looked at them, then quickly down at the orange comforter of my little wooden bed.
“Can we call it dissolve instead of divorce?” I asked, begging to soften the fall, to have a net to catch me, though my dissent had begun years before when my mother left with me on a big plane back to her homeland of Israel and spent her nights away from me, and her afternoons behind locked doors with this or that friend who shared her short haircuts and big baggy clothes. There was still laughter then, there was still me in the picture, though I was barely in the frame.
The fact that my mother loved women was nothing to be shy about when I was six. At that age life was life, love was love, and all I craved was stability, so much so that I melted with ease and delight at the announcement that we were moving in with her new girlfriend and her two teenage daughters. There would now be family dinners, maybe, and the comfort of having somebody else absorb my mother’s anxiety.
I am not sure when having a lesbian mother became the biggest shame of my life.
Stitching It Together
“Get the fuck out of here, bitch!” My mother had thrown all of Kaya’s clothes out the balcony, scattering them on the cement path down below. “Get the fuck out, you monster! Out!”
I ran into my long narrow room that was half of what used to be a bigger room, divided by the tenant before us to create an extra bedroom. The window was at the end, opposite the door, and I quickly slid it open, taking in the cool evening air that was so delicate and pure it made me want to cry. I hung my head out and looked down, letting my hair gravitate and I shook my head fiercely, as hard as I could, so that the shouting from the living room turned into a slow motion rumble of syllables and sounds.
The Tel-Aviv neighborhood we lived in at the time was a one-year deal for my mother. She had dragged Kaya and her two daughters and me back to Israel to live in the apartment Mom’s parents had bought her because it was close to their home. But it was much too tame for my mom, their wild daughter, who had been to the moon and back, witnessing more of the world than any of her friends and relatives had with all their combined travel outside our small distant country. My mother had seen it all, but most importantly, she had seen herself for the first time; she had found herself in the streets of San Francisco in the early ’80s, in the bars of the Mission, in the women-run fringe theaters, and coming home to my wondering father, all wandery-eyed and flushed, a new rhythm pumping through her veins.
It was time to pull my head back from out of the window, I knew it because I was getting dizzy with all the shaking, and felt like I could easily let myself fall from this fourth floor and it would even look like an accident. I slumped down and noticed that the yelling had turned into sobbing in the big bedroom, and the water was running in the bathroom.
“Naomi!” my mother’s voice startled me and I jumped up, holding still as a statue, hearing the ringing of silence in my ears throbbing, waiting for the next words to hit my face. “Naomi! Can you hear me? Go downstairs and bring Kaya’s clothes up. Quickly!”
The rage I felt could have swept away an entire universe. I remained still as could be, my body molding and freezing into position; I could stay like this for an eternity. Maybe after a few hours I wouldn’t be able to move even if I tried. That seemed like a perfect solution.
The sobbing in the bedroom got louder and louder and turned into wails, each one stronger and longer, like the waves at the sea just before a storm. I shivered in place, collapsing to the floor that felt as soft as a bed of pillows to my stiff body. I fell asleep, worrying all night about the poor clothes outside that were getting cold and damp because I was too selfish to gather them in my small hands and carry them back upstairs.
Maybe this is the space between, the space where this became a regular thing, where I was repeatedly told that my mother was going to be killed by the woman she loved, the woman who told me how much she loved my mother, or when I would stand behind a locked bedroom door not knowing if my mother was screaming from pain or pleasure. Maybe this is what fills the space between my innocent diary entry at six, my acceptance of love in its variations, to wanting to bury myself in the ground at the thought of my mother loving a woman.
When I was twelve I told my mother that I would never be a lesbian. I knew it would hurt her more than anything, but I couldn’t help it, the rage bursting my preteen seams.
And if that wasn’t enough, what I said, in explanation was: “I would never do that to my daughter.”
I had sucked the air out of her, and she stood silent in front of my awkward not-quite-child, not-quite-not-child self and blinked. I liked using words, and sometimes they flew out of my mouth bypassing any other part of me, but this time, I meant it with every cell in my body.
Standing together in the hallway of our crumbling Tel Aviv rental what I was really telling my mother was:
I am embarrassed that you are a lesbian. My life has been one big game of hide and hide, lying through my teeth to friends about the woman who lives with us, worrying that parents don’t want their daughters to spend the night lest they catch this awful lesbian bug, a life of being afraid to hold my best friend’s hand, to hug a girl, to undress in front of my very own mother, to talk about sex, about periods, about loud late night voices in a locked bedroom. About the bruises on her body after the fights, about sitting in a car hearing over and over again how this is it, how this is the last time they will break up, how it is over and this is never going to happen again. About why the word lover for me has always been dirty, ugly, threatening, a word not to be said or written or heard or touched. Lover meant loud and painful sex behind closed doors, lover meant hater, lover meant this mess of a woman who told me she was going to kill my mother, lover was everything that wasn’t love, everything that wasn’t what I felt for all the boys I laid eyes on in school, lover had nothing to do with the butterflies I felt fluttering exhaustibly in hallways as I inhaled the scent of a crush who walked by. Lover was the stubborn brown ring at the edges of the toilet bowl that you leave for last when you finally get around to your only chore growing up: cleaning the bathroom and shower. Lover was nothing I wanted to be or to have, even though sex was crawling out from my skin so fast I grabbed the first boy who told me he thought I was pretty.
I believed I was the only one. The only one with a mother who shared a bed with a woman, slept with a woman, held hands with a woman, fell apart with a woman, raised a family with a woman.
To Speak Up
Tel Aviv in the early ’90s was waiting for someone to break the silence, to speak up and wake it up, shake it up. My mother took on this role. It wasn’t her loose sagging bra-less breasts under men’s t-shirts or the rattail she kept, not even her experimental theater that I knew was pushing the issue. I could almost handle that. What made it unbearable was being fourteen and having your mother on national TV talk shows as the first person to come out publicly and lead the way for the rest of the gay community to come out of the woodwork and declare their true sexuality. I would sit in our living room in front of the TV cringing, pushing myself to watch her answer questions I didn’t want to hear the answers to about coming out, later desperately trying to avoid the prying eyes of classmates in the hallways.
I was mortified. I begged, I pleaded, I wrote letters to her about how I was proud of her but also how this was ruining my life. I knew she was brave but I also knew I was not ready for the whole world to know my mother was a lesbian.
The feeling of knowing everybody knows but nobody talking about it. More than an elephant in a room; I had an enormous beast accompany me everywhere I went.
I couldn’t hold hands with my friends or hug them, or tell them I loved them. When signing letters, I would always add something after “love”—to make sure they knew I didn’t mean anything by it, that my love was a simple, innocent one, the kind we all had for each other. My innocent blee machshavot, “without thoughts,” always coming at the end of my notes; letter after letter, note after note, I made sure I did not leave a trace of anything that could make me sound like I also loved women, lusted after women, had unclean thoughts about girls.
With love, (blee machshavot!!!!)
The Space Between
I’m missing a moment, or perhaps a string of them; I’m missing the way the world changed for me, where simplicity turned into something else, something retched that stuck to my body, to my clothes, to my hair. Something that turned me inside out many times a day in an attempt to find a way to be comfortable, to stand still and not worry about where the next blow was going to come from. I’m missing the place where the simple truth of my mother loving women turned into everything love was not, into something I had to bury deep inside the marrow of my bones.
This space between is where I search for motherhood, where I try to understand my mother’s need to drag me from one side of the world to the other, treating me like a suitcase to be filled and stored carefully, then pulled out again when she couldn’t stay away from the thing that was ruining my life but giving her the fuel to live in this world. In the place where shame meets anger I find myself wondering why I was never enough for her, how when we finally had a time of quiet, just the two of us, she would be sad and tell me this wasn’t enough for her. She needed Kaya, she needed her LOVER, she needed to yell, and scream, and love, and be her lesbian self. Though above all that shame and anger came the hurt of not being enough. Not being enough for my mother.
As I grew up and got older, I wanted to stand up for her, I wanted to be by her side and witness the world changing because of her courage to speak up; I wanted to hold her hand as she marched for her people’s rights, and to hug her tight when the mailman delivered a letter filled with death threats from orthodox Jews, maybe to even walk up to one of them, dressed in his dark heavy cloak mid-summer on a Tel-Aviv street, make him look at me with religiously averted eyes, at the top of my lungs to tell his people to stay away from my mother, goddammit, I wanted to be able to show her off like a true celebrity, I simply wanted to be able to be proud. But I was being asked to do the impossible.
Instead, I walked in the cracks between life, moved through tunnels of shame, and held my breath when I needed to pass by anything that was her, anything that was my mother, her flaming sexuality a huge flapping flag she held through the streets of Tel Aviv with pride, with anger, with conviction.
This Too is Shame
“Tainted love . . .”
I am dancing in the car. I am driving my preteen son to school and shaking my upper body like it’s just me, him, and the music; music he has chosen that he knows I like, a secret language we share: he presses play, I smile with excitement, and he sits back in the front seat next to me, gazing out the window, gently tapping his hand on his thigh to the beat while I do the same on the steering wheel between claps. At eleven, he’s elegantly learning to appreciate not just the Beatles but also the layers of rhythms and sounds of the ’80s he articulates so astutely. And he’s quietly proud of understanding lyrics that just fly over his seven-year-old’s brothers head; he’s in on a big secret world of grownup meaning, and I cherish this place where we can sometimes meet while it feels like every day there is another expanding universe growing between us.
But today he is asking me to stop. Today, he is looking all around, out the car window, and asking me to please stop.
I look at him, squinting my eyes in disbelief, and he shrugs back at me slowly, “Please?”
There’s a part of me that wants him to be the little boy who looks at me with adoration no matter what I wear, what I say or how loud I say it in public. But there’s another part of me that smiles, glad to have been able to dish him a boring, cliché version of embarrassment, the kind that goes away when you realize your parent was really the coolest parent and that they introduced you to music your friends had to discover alone and turn down so their parents wouldn’t shut it off for the lyrics or the sounds or the volume. If this is shame—your mother bopping in the car and singing at the top of her lungs—then I did good.
But I have to wonder, now that I am the same age my mother was when she divorced my father—and I have to wonder because I am the same age she was and filing for divorce as well—will my son walk around with his own version of shame for his parents’ unsuccessful marriage, for not being able to keep us together no matter how much he pleaded, for having to move back and forth between the two houses, between two neighborhoods, two sets of contradicting rules?
Will I find myself standing in my own apartment, as he stands before me in his preteen angst and declares that he will never divorce in his life because he would never do that to his son?
And if he does, will it hurt me as much as I thought it hurt my mother, or will I be able to take a deep breath, expand my heart another few inches, and listen to what he is really saying, listen to the hurt, the pain, the devastation, and know that the one thing I did differently is choose love, a real love, regardless of gender and sexual preference; I chose to slay the monster I thought was love and replace it with something my son could blissfully sleep soundly to at night, and rely on waking up to in the morning. Will I be able to stand strong before him knowing that I turned in my own nightmare of a life in exchange for something that he could one day be proud of instead of holding inside as shame?
When you’re a kid, everything about your particular existence is embarrassing: the way your nose curves, the little belly that nobody can see but you think is a bulging monster at your center that makes you fat; your tiny apartment without any matching forks or plates, your smelly feet, frizzy hair, early breasts, the clothes you wear or don’t wear, how your parents’ fighting is a constant drone in the background of your preteen phone conversations, the fuss your parents make when you hurt yourself while you’re just trying to hold back your tears. Your parents doing anything in public that makes them visible. I knew I wasn’t alone in my shame and that my friends had their own reasons for wanting to bury themselves deep in the ground, their own dark secrets, some of which I knew and pretended not to know, some of which I may never find out about.
But mine was prancing around in daylight. My secret turned on me and told itself to anyone who listened.
My carefully kept secret, which I had been working so hard to keep from the world by lying through my teeth and pretending along with everybody else, was at once unleashed into the public for all to see.
No longer was I the only one imagining what went on in the bedroom between my mother and her lover; no longer was I able to pretend that Kaya was just a friend sleeping in the living room. I had all of Israel watching my mother speak about the importance of coming out and accepting her and others like her. On TV shows, in theaters, in the newspapers. I had all of Israel with me peeking into my mother’s bedroom, making sense of her short hair and manly style. If a mother dancing in the car on the way to school is embarrassing for an eleven-year-old boy, what does a young teenage girl feel when her mother announces her sexuality on national TV ?
And the other thing is this: Nobody shamed me.
I took care of that all by myself for all those years. My story is not one of being bullied for my mother being a lesbian, nor is it of the world making me feel less of anything because of my mother’s sexuality. On the contrary: my mother became a hero of sorts in bohemian Tel Aviv, she would discard the death threats because she knew she was doing something important by supporting young people whose parents kicked them out of the house for being gay. She became their hero, leading workshops and support groups, representing everything that was courage, emancipation, and truth.
But it’s what they all didn’t know that hurt me, it’s what her version of lesbianism was that shamed me, the underbelly of her public persona that filled my veins with the resentment I still carry with me to this day.
My Way Out
When I was twenty the local Tel Aviv newspaper approached my mother and asked her if she would write a piece about coming out for Gay Pride Day. To my surprise, when she told me, my immediate response was to ask her to see if they wanted me to write a piece as well. About coming out of my mother’s closet.
The newspaper jumped on this and sent out a photographer to take pictures of mother and daughter in their Tel Aviv apartment on the fourth floor, against the red walls of my teenage room that I had since left. We posed for a good amount of time, doing as the photographer instructed us; I went along self-consciously, not sure what the photographer was going for by asking my mother and me to look at each other, then at her, then making my mother stand with her arm outstretched on the wall as if striking a pose. I cannot explain the origin of this propelling force that made me ask to be a part of this, but clearly I was ready to take the first step of ownership over my secret. To begin to tell my story of living in my own closet for all those years.
I wrote the piece in one sitting, the words flying out as if they had been rearranging themselves for years in my head in preparation for this day. It was a short piece that shared the difficulties of living with a lesbian mother, the years of hiding, and an apology to my mother for not always being proud of the courageous thing she did.
People loved it. The editor called me and asked me to write for their newspaper regularly. Friends and acquaintances stopped me in stores and on the street to tell me how much they appreciated my honesty and openness.
And I wish this was the happy ending, and maybe in a way it is. It was an ending to my silence. It was a truce between the younger self and the emerging adult who knew how my mother was deserving of my support for her choices and willingness to take a big risk in order to live truthfully. And perhaps this is the biggest lesson she has taught me, only I would do this more quietly, and for different reasons, many years later.
But what wasn’t resolved, and maybe never will be, is the distortion of love she presented me with, the intertwining of passion and pain, of emancipation and a new form of self-inflicting bondage that was the essence of her life for most of my childhood.
Cut a Line
She’s 65 now. More beautiful than ever.
She’s been alone for almost two decades turning herself in for a life of repentance. She walks on this earth to make my life better. She begs for forgiveness through complete and utter devotion to her only daughter, day in and day out. Forgiveness not for the shame she caused me by parading her sexuality all over the newspapers and TV, not for leaving her bras to rot in the back of a drawer or for never learning how to cook or braid my hair, not for never wearing a dress or a skirt but instead doing her best to look like a man when I was trying to turn into a young woman, not for making life hard for me by having a mother who was different from the rest, who never wore make-up, and wasn’t ashamed to hold hands with a woman on the street. Not for all that has she turned her life in for my sake. She knows that the anger that lined the words I spoke to hurt her when I was twelve and told her I would never be a lesbian held a deeper message that she wasn’t able to hear at the time. And now, hearing this message loud and clear, the only thing my mother could think of doing is trading in her love of women for motherhood once I turned eighteen, and she’s still trying to make up for the time lost so many years later.
I love her and hate for this more than she’ll ever know.
Instead of this repentance, I want my mother to rekindle the fire that burned inside her when she was younger than I am now, I want her to feel that sense of urgency that made her leave me in the sidelines, that made her push through life in a search for breath, because now I too know what it’s like to be asleep, I know what it’s like to live a lie, I now know that when you don’t unleash the beast inside you, it comes back to tear you at the neck instead of running free. I want my mother to find the place where she traded in her love of woman for what she thought it meant to love regardless of the pain and abuse. Because it’s my mother who needs to stand with pride for coming out of her own closet when everyone else was still hiding. I want for her to set aside her own shame about translating love into the nightmare that became my childhood; I want her to cut a line down the center of our life and hold to the light her courage to be free, allowing the shameful expression of her freedom to fall to the sides, limp and lifeless. Maybe then shame can finally break its ties with anger. For us both.
If pride is the opposite of shame, I continue to grow a delicate bed of flowers in the space between them, and do my best to remember to water it with care.
Naomi Goldner writes fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and prose. Her work has been published and performed in various publications and literary events such as Poetica Magazine, Amerarcana: The Bird and Beckett Review, Bang Out, Litquake, and Listen to Your Mother. Her short stories have also received honorary mention and been finalists with Glimmer Train. She is currently working on “Necessities and Desires,” a collection of short stories, as well as a Variations on Life, a novel spanning four generations and two countries.