Now that it’s legal like marijuana, Joslyn wants to get married. But before the big fat, hella gay wedding I haven’t agreed to, Joslyn wants to go to a sex party.
“You’re kidding right?” I ask as she motions me over to the computer.
I pull up a pleather green stool and read over her shoulder from the FB invite. Come at 7 pm & Make damiana infused chocolates. The V of an ornately drawn vagina announces the date: Valentine’s Day—two weeks from tomorrow.
“Oh no, we can’t go to the party,” I tell her, thinking fast. “I have plans for us.”
“What?” she asks.
“You don’t have any plans.”
“It’s V-day themed, WW11. We’ll role-play 1950s American housewives who fell in love while our husbands were off fighting; we’ll have some end-of-the-war-end-of-the-world sex, watch Aimee and Jaguar…”
“I knew you didn’t have plans.”
She sounds disappointed. I take this as a sign that she isn’t attached to the sex party. I spin her stool so she’s facing me and it gives a hostile screech. Nothing in our apartment has been reupholstered or fixed since the ‘70s. Jos likes the avocado green, burnt orange, and shit-brown, but it reminds me of my grandma. She thought Jesus was resurrected circa ’73, and decorating without gold, lacquer, or fake paneled wood was sacrilege!
“Why do you want to go to a sex party?” I ask Jos.
The right side of her head is shaved in that hot femme style. A lock of curly brown hair falls over her eye as she turns to me. She doesn’t brush it back. “I want to feel like we can be in a committed, long-term relationship and still experiment. We’re solid enough to share this.” Her eyebrows ask aren’t we?
Open up the relationship for a one night only sex party? Then plan a wedding, with all its bizarre forms of exhibitionism and power play? Either this is a queer life crisis, or a trap.
“Let’s stay home. I’ll make aphrodisiac chocolates.” I try for sustained eye contact, adding, “I want you all to myself.”
“You’re the one who is into threesomes,” she says.
I don’t remind her that I only wanted a threesome that one time and with my ex. Instead I ask, “what if I lose control?” This is not impossible. Last summer I found high school wrestling outfits at a yard sale. I wore my red strap-on on the outside of the rubber onesie. The wrestling was hot until I got competitive. With four inches and at least twenty pounds on her, I had her pinned and was growling come on Number Nine until she tapped out. I did a victory lap. Jos gave the outfits away.
She closes the computer. “I’ll let you decide.” She says this while her hands sign we’re going. Jos works as an interpreter so I always watch her hands.
When we first dated, I watched her interpret at events at the Conference Center. Top two faves, a fandom gathering and Humanoids 2013, best after party, the Disability Justice Conference, everyone dancing, me smiling when I couldn’t understand what people were signing so my cheeks hurt, and at home we had really hot sex, me telling Jos to B, or U me—each letter the shape of a fist.
She taught me to sign do you want to stay? We’d ask each other this at dive bars out with my coworkers. Three years ago, we visited her I’m-more-of-a-best-friend-mom in Boulder. The house was chic, cozy but not suffocating, and without a trace of Jesus. Seeing Jos all comfortable in the home where she first loved the Indigo Girls, I fell for her hard. She asked if I wanted to spend the weekend. I signed I want to stay.
On our drive home from Boulder, we talked about living together. She asked about my past relationships. I confessed I have a pattern, a problem she later called it. I need a new job and new town every so often, which usually means a new relationship as well. The cycles are elongating though—it used to be every year, but before Jos, I was with Angela for three years, and when we broke up I stayed in Denver.
I joked, “How does a six-year relationship sound?” It turned out this wasn’t a good way to build trust, especially after I explained past breakups in terms of my woodland firefighting experience: decades of fire suppression make for devastating, although profitable, fires. Better to burn hot, fast, and regular. Her response: fire can be prevented.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, six months ago, gays start getting hitched, Jos and I celebrated our three-year anniversary, and she got nervous. When she’d sign do you want to stay, I suspected a deeper meaning. I felt the crisis of forever upon us.
Jos wanted us to read this book together. Your Brain on Love compares oxytocin to drugs or some shit. I said reading aloud feels like bible study. She complained we don’t do enough things together.
We do the important things. I pretended to load a bong, announcing I need a hit, before going down on her. She giggled.
Now over lunch, she summarizes the book’s intro. “After the period of chemical intensity, i.e. addiction, i.e. falling in love, which can last between six months and two years, we enter a phase of seeing each other as we truly are.”
At the breakfast nook we eat pizza on gluten-free crust. I take off the cheese and toppings and feed Gertrude Stein my crusts. The lesbian dog-child is a perfect mix of lab and pit with a hint of something feral.
I summarize, “Like you’re no longer blinded by love and notice I’m stubborn as hell, bad at washing dishes, my farts smell, I talk too much about my exes, and I don’t take shit serious?”
“Exactly,” she says. “What have you noticed about me?”
Bad idea, I think as the list unspools in my head: you’re hella competitive with your sister but put all the blame on her, you roll your eyes at me while you think you’re being patient, you think I need to get my shit together, get a career, get over my mom, stop being so reactionary… “It sucks that you’re gluten free ‘cause we can’t share pizza.”
She nods, urging me on. I ask, “So this Brain on Love guy thinks we lose our mojo after six months?” I make the limp dick sound effect waa, waa. “Wait, is this book for straight people?”
“Oh, because their hormones are fundamentally different from ours?” she asks.
“Yeah, ours are long-lasting, which is why us homos don’t need to get married. Our biology seals the deal.” I lean closer to her adding, “That and the fact you’re damn sexy.” I’m about to tell her all the things I love about her, but she jumps in.
“You’re obsessed with not being straight, but you don’t know what you want to be.”
“Being a homo is my career choice. It guarantees me success.”
She sets down her slice, asks, “But what do you want to do long term?”
Not knowing if she means for work or as a couple, I ignore the question. “Folks act straight by being assholes. The rest of the time they’re like us, queer as fuck.” I pick off one of her artichoke hearts. “Remember how my mom sent me to Straight Camp to get fixed like a dog in heat. It’s not about rejecting anything, just being who I am.”
“Well I want to be with you however you are, forever.” She launches back into her recent speech about why it’ll be so fun and important to get married.
You want to get married before your sister does. This, I do not say, reminding myself that her narcissist dad taught her and her sister to compete for his love. Instead, I regurgitate stuff I’ve read on blogs. Gay marriage i.e. assimilation is the death of a radical movement for queer liberation! We used to stand against white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, transphobia, prisons, police!
She reminds me that she’s working on getting gender-neutral bathrooms in public schools, not fundraising for the HRC. “But since we can get married now, why not use it as an excuse to celebrate?”
“This future-talk gives me agoraphobia. Or do you find cages comforting?” Her hands lay inert in her lap. I reach out to take one. She pulls it away. I suggest we visit her mom this weekend. I picture the woods behind her mother’s house where I walk Gertrude. A frozen pond lies at the edge of an aspen grove. Gertrude leaps into snow banks. I find a quieter joy listening to the rustle of snow-camouflaged trees.
Jos doesn’t respond. I move closer to her, “Come on,” I say, “I love you now, and now can go on forever.”
Jos grew up with hippie parents who wanted total revolution but settled for self-liberation through meditation. Her mom’s a Waldorf teacher and her father, a regular Kerouac who left her mom when Jos was five to find himself in India. Now he’s a condescending yoga teacher. We joke that our parents are two different species of White. We joke about setting her mom up with my dad, who’d have become a hippie if the ride he caught hitchhiking took him west. Instead he hopped in with a farmer and landed at a tent revival in the next county over. There, Dad met my then-beautiful and passionate (about Jesus) mother. She thinks my very nature is a rebellion against God, whereas Jos’s parents encouraged revolt: first her animal rights activism and then her wanna-be-Lesbian Avenger twenties. In her thirties, Jos decided that rejecting everything—including a damn good reason to throw a party, and a chance to outdo her sister—is a developmental stage we should all grow out of.
Where I grew up, the cornfields went on for an eternity, but staring out at them wasn’t like how I imagined staring at the sea would be. As a kid, I hid in the tornado cellar thinking neither Mom nor God could find me there. The year I turned fifteen, my mom sent me to Mohaven Conversion Camp against my father’s objections; it’s a waste of good money. He was saving up for a fly-fishing trip out west. But my mom’s father, the Preacher, paid. At Camp, they gave us ample opportunities for heterosexual romance. I considered revenge by teenage pregnancy, but gave that up after the first dance with Patrick Bowerwitz. A blundering bear of a boy, Patrick couldn’t have gotten hard enough to impregnate me unless I was wearing a strap-on and a mask of the darkly handsome Head Counselor boy.
The day after high school graduation, I wrote a note to my dad: Gone fishing. When I’d made it as far as Missoula and was working as a seasonal firefighter, I decided my father was being practical. Conversion was a waste of money. You can’t cure gay.
After my parents divorced, I sent Dad postcards. When we talked on Christmas, he told me Mom wanted to hear from me. In the following silence, I pictured those cornfields. I couldn’t tell him I missed the things that had flushed me out: Mom, the church, the high school guidance counselor, and the silent waves of cornhusks.
Out West, I wanted to commune with animals, but for that you need a college degree. Instead, I got a gig driving the tour bus through Glacier. The second day in the staff’s shared kitchen, I met Jeremy Sturges, a vegetarian who worked at the Lodge’s Bar and Grill. That summer, Jeremy was as close as I got to a girlfriend, the only time I dated a straight guy, though he wasn’t full straight. For example, he knew how to listen. When a good song played on the radio, or I was talking about something real, he pressed his fingers over his mouth like he was gathering up a thought to blow into the air, like a kiss. And he didn’t care about Sex Ed sex. I once confessed that I was curious about it though. But I have to keep my straight virginity. Prove everyone wrong.
Jeremy wanted to be an artist, to which I responded you already are. He made weird dioramas—little scenes of aliens, cave men and women, robots. Once, he built a diorama of Glacier. Tiny Rockies made of glued piles of rock and topped with Styrofoam snow. A river of blue plastic ran through. He had a bucket of children’s plastic animals: grizzlies, wolves, and buffalo. I sat down to watch him make little silver cages. The animals are more comfortable here, he joked safe. We played zookeepers, putting the animals in their cages at night.
One evening, Jeremy brought home a flask of whiskey filled from the bar. Poor fools he’d say, paying four dollars for watered-down Jack. We walked through the woods behind the staff cabins looking for wildlife. The pine trees smelled stronger in the light of the half moon and I could almost make out his face. Our time together would soon be over. The sadness felt warm like fleeting sunlight.
All of a sudden, I was telling him about Straight Camp and not in the usual way of Isn’t that fucked up funny? I described slow dancing with one of the camp counselors. My gaze drifted into a dark thicket of pines and I felt myself trapped in the counselor’s grip. His tongue was a worm burrowing down my throat. I couldn’t even gag; I could hardly breathe. Jeremy noticed my panic. Falling to one knee, he declared himself a knight in shining armor willing to protect my honor. I tore my gaze from the darkness to look at him down on one knee. The laughter shuddered in my chest. It moved through my belly, out my limbs and mouth, and then through him. Crickets awakened the night again. That was Jeremy; he could always make me laugh.
A week before Valentine’s Day, Jos and I walk Gertrude through snow sullied by mud, dog shit, and piss. I’m humming “Closer to Fine” under my breath. This week, I learned to play it on the guitar and practiced all afternoon. I’ll get all nostalgic and play her the Indigo Girls on Valentine’s Day.
I’m on the verge of proposing a spring road trip to Tuscola to see my family. I want her to meet my dad. We’ll go through Glacier even though it’s fucking freezing. “Did I ever tell you the stupid shit tourists in Glacier used to say to me?” I ask Jos suddenly. “My favorites: ‘Do you ever turn the waterfalls off?’ and ‘Are the animals robots?’ One day on the bus this middle-aged white guy asked my friend Jeremy, ‘Where do you put the animals at night?’”
Jos laughed. “Oh god, what’d he say?”
“He said, ‘We put them back in their cages, of course.’ But that wasn’t all. He went on, asking, ‘Did you ever hear that Indians used to live here? But they got kicked out. Where did they go?’ Jeremy’s mom was Blackfoot. He could list the National parks and which Indigenous Nation the land belonged to before it was ‘freed of human inhabitants.’ Jeremy ended with, ‘You know where the animals went? They went with the people. These ones here, they’re not even real.’ A kid started crying and everything.”
In the apartment, we crank up the heater until it sounds like a bunch of hippies giving an African drum recital, clink-clank, clink-clank. With our feet propped up on the metal grill and Gertrude curled below, I propose a movie. I offer to make drinks.
“We have to RSVP for that party if we’re going to go.”
“We’re still deciding?” I get up to boil water for hot toddies.
“My sister and Dylan are getting married.”
“When did you find out?” I skip the hot water and pour two glasses of whiskey. Her younger sister does everything first: lose her virginity, finish college, get arrested for civil disobedience, and now, she’s engaged… As a wedding prize, their father will pay for a honeymoon somewhere exotic.
“She called on her lunch break.”
“Let’s toast.” I hand her a glass with a hefty shot and ask, “Think I can be Dylan’s best man?”
“We should get married while we still can.”
I drain my glass and pour another shot.
“What’s wrong with marriage?” She asks. This question pains me, along with Why can’t you be more there for me? I picture there as a place deep in the woods of my self, mossy, yet sunlit, with little mushroom caps and Siberian miners’ lettuce. It’s so still I can hear my breath and the wind in the aspen. Jos’s voice sounds bluesy like Amy Winehouse’s, but kinder. From this place I can do anything she needs: listen without interrupting, be serious, stay…
“Nothing’s wrong with marriage, for straight people,” I repeat.
“You’re afraid of commitment.”
“I love what we have. I want to stay together, it’s just, I have a hard time with the church.” It sounds like a cop-out. Maybe I am afraid of commitment. Maybe I, like too many dudes, am afraid of my field of vision shrinking until the wide-open road narrows into the driveway of a suburban home. Or maybe that’s what I tell myself to guard against the vulnerability of forever. Or maybe I never wanted to be fixed.
She tells me it has nothing to do with Jesus. “We could get married in a bowling alley, a lacrosse field, a gay club, a zoo…”
“Zoos are depressing,” I tell her. “Oh, I know! We can have a sex party wedding!”
She signs you’re impossible with no trace of a smile. “If we go, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. You’ve said it would be hot to watch me fuck someone else.”
“Is this a test? Do you want to see if I get jealous? I will. Is that what you want?”
“I’m not trying to make you jealous. I want us to define our relationship however we want. Marriage doesn’t have to mean the end of exploring.” She pauses and tucks her hair behind her left ear. “I feel like I’m losing you.”
“You’re pushing me away,” I declare unhelpfully. “That party is going to feel like Straight Camp. That’s why I don’t want to go.”
“It’s a fucking queer sex party! What are you talking about?”
“Let me tell you about the sex parties I’ve been to. At night, we would gather in the Camp’s main lodge. A counselor read Bible passages, not only the seven verses proving homosexuality was a sin, but ones relating to the proper conduct of wives. The other counselors would organize our thirty teenage bodies in a circle and chose two or three for healing each night. The chosen girl sat Indian-style, as they called it, with her arms wrapped around herself. The leader sat behind the girl who leaned back into the leader’s arms. The rest of us surrounded them and placed our hands on their backs, shoulders, arms, or legs. We rocked them to and fro. Sometimes the girl kept her arms crossed over her chest as if holding some part of herself together. Sometimes she went limp and her legs came unfurled. If she came undone, we set her to sail upon a baptismal sea. By the time she got up, she was a woman, Christian, straight, and good. The night it was my turn, I tried not to let my arms and legs come uncrossed. They rocked me and a charley horse seized my calf. The pain made me to lunge forward. Unfolding my legs, I rubbed my ankle and tried to stretch my foot. This was met first with resistance and then, as I braced my toes against Alice Montgomery’s thigh, with excitement. The leader called, ‘It’s fighting to get out. Help her.’ The girls, eager to catch sight of, or perhaps capture and destroy the little devil that plagued them too, pressed in upon me. They waited for the evil-creature to be birthed from between my legs. Then I was screaming bloody murder, kicking, punching, scratching, clawing like the devil himself— rabid and fighting to get free. My first girlfriend, Heather Ramsey, came to my aid. She tried to get the other girls away from me. Rachel Murphy accused Heather of working for Satan. Heather called Rachel a carpet-munching dyke who, no matter how much she prayed, only wanted one thing. The stocky counselor dragged Heather out of the Lodge as she screamed, ‘You want pussy Rachel, not Jesus…PUSSY!’”
For affect, I shout PUSSY like Heather did, but Jos barely laughs. I don’t describe how the next day, the other girls’ injuries were visible: cuts, bruises, and a toenail-sized chunk taken from Corinna Melon’s thigh. I spent the morning with the Preacher. The bruises made it hard to sit on the wooden bench.
Jos says, “The party could be healing.”
I laugh at that word. “Fine,” I tell her. If relationships demand compromise, I’d rather go to the party than throw a wedding.
“Really? You’ll go?”
“Just don’t blame me if I get there and start preaching.”
On Valentine’s Day I get home from class. I practice “Closer to Fine” in the bedroom and check the FB event page for outfit ideas. My ex Angela has RSVPed. I know how this will go: I’ll tell Jos to fuck Angela while I watch, but later Angela and I will go someplace hidden. Although hooking up with Angela is within the rules, the jealousy will curl Jos’s agile, communicative hands into tightly closed fists. I won’t be able to uncurl her fingers to slip my bigger hand in. We’ll speak less of marriage and more of couples counseling, which I’ll avoid without refusing, and then of co-parenting Gertrude… To avoid this, when Jos gets home from work I tell her that I can’t go, I have cramps.
“We can stay in,” she says, “if we plan our wedding.”
“Do you want to get married to prove something to your sister or because of us?”
Her lips press hard together. She cups one hand around the other to prevent them from signing things she’ll regret. “That’s what you think? That I’m doing this to compete with my sister? That I don’t want to be with you for the rest of my life? That I don’t need to believe you will stay?”
“I think if we keep investing in our relationship now it will last.”
She turns away from me.
I tell her, “While you were dating that blue-haired girl from orchestra camp, I was forced to watch videos of weddings, which were only tolerable if I sat beside Heather and we made fun of them.”
“It’s different now. We can make it our own.”
“I never told you how things ended with Heather. At the camp’s final dance, I hoped to spend the night holding hands with her under the table. Instead, one of the verifiably straight counselors spotted me and insisted on teaching me to slow dance. Locked into his monotonous sway, he managed to get his acne-riddled face in front of mine. Then by some force of God or the devil, his tongue pushed past my gritted teeth. His mouth tasted like lemon peels and food rotting deep in his belly. I went slack, but he thought I was swooning and took it as encouragement. His clammy hands dug under my shirt. Heather watched. Her eyes filled with tears. She didn’t believe me when I told her I hadn’t wanted it. ‘Do you know I got in trouble for you? She asked, ‘Do you know what my dad would do to me if I got kicked out?’ She never spoke to me again. Later I heard that she was sent to juvie for being ungovernable.” I feel myself running out of air. “I can still taste that counselor’s death breath.” I can feel his tongue in my mouth. I want Jos’s steady brown eyes and fluttering hands to calm me.
She says, “You had a fucked-up experience with a straight dude. That sucks, really.” Her raised eyebrows ask, haven’t we all? “But I don’t know why that guy gets to ruin how we define commitment and love.”
“But his breath was so gross,” I tell her, moving so I’m right in front of her. My breath comes in panting gasps. She must notice my pasty face. I’m being serious. She rolls her eyes. “He was like,” and I show her how he pushed his tongue past her barred teeth. She pulls away and slaps me.
Her first boyfriend, Roger, was demanding about sex. A real asshole I just reminded her of. Her hands shake. She wants safety, security, not Roger, not her dad, now, not even me. “I deserved that.” I feel myself getting small. A dark spot on the green shag carpet absorbs my attention. I hear the seven verses like the seven deadly sins. Verses tattooed on my tongue, lower lip, the inside of my eyelids, and down both ear canals into my brain. Ironically, the Lord’s Prayer helps.
“I’m sorry.” I have to say it again in our bedroom, where she’s shoving clothes into a bag. The shock at what we both have done blanches her face.
“You don’t have to be a straight dude to be an asshole. Is that what you’re trying to prove?”
“I’m sorry. I love you.”
She moves around the apartment, speaking without looking at me. “You want to be a guidance counselor who works with queer youth, but you don’t want to be as visibly out as you can?” In the kitchen she takes her thermos from a shelf. “I need to know you’re going to stay, that you’re going to be there for me.” She walks back to the bedroom. Gertrude and I follow.
“I can be there for you without us getting married. I promise.”
“Can you? Go ahead then.” She turns and meets my gaze.
“On my knees?” I ask.
“Don’t propose, make the vow. Ask me to stay. Say that you will.”
Her eyes plead that I never become like Roger or leave her like her dad did. She waits, hands motionless. It’s quiet as inside of a blizzard.
I thought now was plenty. If I could speak, I’d tell her how my now wants to get hitched to her future. My numb and useless tongue!
She crams handfuls of underwear into her bag. The guitar lies at the foot of the bed. I forgot to sing.
“Call me when you can commit.” She slings her bag over her shoulder and walks out the door.
I’m becoming a guidance counselor to help teenagers like me. Those, who are forced to become someone other than who they are, who might devour themselves. Or maybe they’ll escape. No one will be able to put them away at night. No one will be able to put them away. But how can I help them if I can’t help myself?
I think if Jos and I had gone to that sex party, things would’ve been fine. It’d be like camp with Heather; hands finding each other’s in the soapy dishwater, and later, reeking of vanilla lotion to cover up the pussy smell. At the party, Jos and I would sign do you think she’s hot? We’d laugh at ourselves for wanting every extreme. I’d realize that I’m over Angela. Jos and I’d live the unconventionally married life in a city not yet ruined by the pot market, or, better yet, we’d move to the country.
Instead, I sit on the brown plaid couch with Gertrude, who’s allowed up now Jos is gone. She’s been gone for two months. Tomorrow is her sister’s engagement party. On the news, they announce Donald Trump as the ROP’s nominee. I turn off the TV and pick up my guitar. I set down my guitar and pick up the phone. It’s now or never.
I picture Jeremy rounding up the plastic bear and elk, the howling wolves and nearly extinct buffalo. We put them in mossy, enclosed pens. Turn off the waterfalls. Everything, an eerie hush. It’s not a calm quiet like there; it’s the quiet before the roar of hymns, before I learned to fight, chase girls, and wear an armor of sarcasm. It’s the sound inside my cage. It makes me dangerous. It reminds me that although I learned to move on, I never learned to stay. Jos and I were each other’s creature comforts; we were supposed to be family, and this green shag carpet, a home.
Out the window, cherry trees explode in pink and white and pink. On the pavement, their fallen blossoms brown. I should take a walk and call her. It’s now or never. I press the contact saved Jos 4eva on my phone. I hear her say my name but can’t speak. My left hand signs do you want to stay? But all she hears is silence, or maybe the damn heater with its interminable clink-clank, pounding like something inside it is fighting to get free.
Berkley Carnine is a queer organizer, educator, writer, and musician of mixed European descent. After receiving her MFA from Arizona State University, she moved up to Flagstaff, Arizona where she teaches activist themed courses at Northern Arizona University, organizes around indigenous solidarity, and fosters queer creative community. She is completing her first novel. Her short stories have appeared in Educe Literary Press, Cahodaloodaling, and Crab Fat Magazine. Her non-fiction and essays have appeared in Left Turn, Counter Punch, and Waging Nonviolence.