My first love was a girl. Do I call it love? Admiration, certainly. Respect, yes. An aching desire to know anything I could about her—emphatically so. But at the time, love was the stuff of songs and storybooks and I did not yet know the magic.
I had recently moved to this new town, and as an eighth grader climbed onto the school bus the same morning a bunch of third graders had learned what the word ‘lesbian’ meant.
“You’re a lesbian-YOU’RE a lesbian-you’re a LESBIAN!” They taunted every girl who passed the “second group” of seats. (The seats aren’t actually grouped, but if you’ve ever rode a bus filled with kindergarten thru senior high, you know what I mean…)
And on this day with the tormentors, every girl found herself pressed further back into the bus than she would normally sit, testing the territories of the Highschoolers just to get away from the brats that won’t shut up.
YOU’RE A LESBIAN! You’re a LESBIAN!
The busdriver had long ago learned to shut out such nonsense, the way a matriarch does not notice a child’s screams for the sake of attention.
LESBIAN-lesbian-LESBIAN! As the bus approached half full, an occasional SHuuut UP! Joined in the chorus. I did my best to stare out the window and ignore the idiocy. Of course it will stop when we reached the sanctuary of campus, and one could only hope it did not begin again on the afternoon trip.
As the call-and-response approached a crescendo, a new worry crept in that someone would act to forcibly silence the offenders. No one wanted anyone hurt. No one wanted trouble. They’re just stupid kids. They’re not worth it.
Until three rows ahead of me someone did act. A slight framed girl with short cropped hair in an oversized men’s shirt (dark brown, there were small holes in it) shot her hand into the air. She held herself aloft over the back of the seat in front of her, furiously waved her hand, and shouted with all her breath “IIIII’M A LESBIAAAAAAN!”
The courage, the subversion, the devil-may-care, was she, wasn’t she, wasn’t the point. I did not yet know the word ‘subversion’ to describe what she just did, but I loved every multifaceted morsel of what I’d just witnessed.
Over the next four years, our paths would cross regularly in our tiny district where all grades rode the same busses. A year ahead, she would rarely speak directly to me but when she spoke at all my brain would stop. Silence. Silence was freely given that I may absorb every word.
We had belonged to the art club through which we attended a workshop one weekend in the next town. All morning I was struggling with the concept of “speed drawing”, where the model would hold a difficult pose for only ten seconds or less; I had to let my hand sketch a quick “impression”. I did not like this method, preferring to study my subject. I prefer detail, subtext, and depth.
At break, I perched myself on a stone partition wall in the near-empty cafeteria space and thumbed through my sketches in frustration. All I saw were scribbles and lines and most of it was a hot mess. Looking up, I see sitting on the floor in front of me, not too far, but not close, was my subject. She hugged her legs and put her forehead to her knees in a pose of weary relaxation. Her short hair was messed and tossed, her oversized, thrift-store pants flared out from her knees.
On my 8 ½ x 11 inch sketching pad, I centered her shape on the page. My lines were deliberate and firm, my pencil danced over the paper as my eyes darted to study her. I was quick with this drawing too. In a moment, the moment may be gone.
I was finishing up. Shading in her shoes, erasing already erased lines. Creating shadow on an already darkened sketch so she became a puddle of graphite in a field of silence.
Did I see her shoes first, standing beside me? I forget because my mind flooded with both embarrassment and excitement that she would be interested in anything I was doing.
“Whachya drawing?” Her voice seemed much softer than usual. Without accusation, without mockery. Genuine interest and an openness to whatever my answer may be.
“You.” I showed her. I do not recall any shiver of nerves. They must have been there, my adult mind imagines. But I have always been the trusting sort; I trusted the openness in her voice. I believe she knew anyway.
“I’m honored! Oh, I really like your composition.” She said as the artist she would become.
Clear as yesterday, I know the warmth that filled my chest as she moved off to other things.