An Essay by Paige M. Ferro
She didn’t taste like cherries as we kissed. I waited, heart in throat, for her to speak. Then, a whispered “yes” from her pink rose mouth and I leaned in to her puckered smile. Lips cool, papery, the tip of her tongue wet. She tasted like stars.
My first kiss, with anyone. We pulled back after just a second and I closed my eyes and tilted my head and threw out my arms and danced away, afraid of it, wanting more, afraid of what it meant.
Inside, we shocked the other girls as our lips met again. Should I have been warned even then that this was not right? That I was not ready, that she was all in, that my friends, when turned to for help, would turn their heads? No. If I had been warned that loving Hera would hurt so very much I would not have reached out my hand and closed it around her cool white one. I would not have known how it felt to hold her thin body and rock her in my arms under twisting lights, the jewels of her dress so carefully stitched on, one by one, fraying the fabric of mine. Her hair even that night was never tamed; at first straightened and teased into thick waves, by the end of the night it sprung back up into curls and frizz.
I was fifteen and I was in love.
She hadn't recognize me when we greeted each other in the cramped mudroom of our mutual friend's house. We were timid girls at the threshold of adulthood. She waved hello with the hand that wasn’t clutching her black duffel bag. Her sleeping bag rested at her feet. I freed myself from snow boots and mittens and stared. I knew her.
We had met before, in elementary school. I had noticed Hera even then. I wanted to be her friend. That was how I explained that sensation of coals lighting in the pit of my stomach, tingling, burning me with such heat I was sure I would explode or fly should she even look at me. That was how my eight-year-old mind and body interpreted my first glimpse of love, of sexual desire, for another young girl. I barely said two words to her the whole time we were together, there in that little borrowed room at the local Catholic college, sixty of us students from across town pulled together by chance. I wanted her to see me, to like me, but what that meant for eight-year-old me was so much simpler than seven years later when our fifteen-year-old selves met again.
Our mutual friend invited a group of us girls over for what would become our New Year’s Eve tradition: frozen pizza crisped in the oven, toasting with sparkling cider, writing letters to our future selves of all the hopes we had for one year later, New Year’s resolutions we wouldn’t keep. Escaping to the bedroom and clustering on the bed, knees brushing, revealing our deepest, darkest secrets. I ended up next to Hera all night.
There is sanctity to sleepovers, particularly the New Year’s sleepover. All best friends in attendance, the whole night before us, the new year waiting on the horizon; we were up for anything. It was a time to do something wild.
She started it as a Dare, a challenge to us to kiss one another on the cheek. She told us this was something she did with her other friends, to greet each other, to say goodbye. This shocked the rest of us; we were eager to try it. Lips pressed to cheeks. Some of us too shy ducked and bowed heads away at the last minute. I leaned right in. It made my stomach flutter to kiss her cheek dusty with foundation and powder.
We parted and sat back, the Dare complete, and returned to the safe ground of other topics, approved topics: boys we liked, how hard classes were, what we were taking next semester, our favorite movies. The conversations turned deeper again, more involved and intimate as the night went on.
We cried together, us girls, over how hard this all was, how hard it was for us to become the young women we’d always dreamed of becoming. I reached out and grabbed Her hand and squeezed it. She smoothed back my hair. I turned my head toward her and found her watching me. I didn’t look away.
We counted aloud the seconds to midnight, and as we hit “zero” we tossed our hand into the air and went shrieking out into the snow: twirling, throwing snowballs, yelling our resolutions to the New Year's night that seemed to breathe promise. And then Hera and I were alone in a corner of the field. The other girls danced around us but my eyes blurred until I could see only her.
I asked if I could kiss her again, not on the cheek this time. She said yes. I leaned in. I didn’t know this was what it meant to be alive. Nine days later, right before her fifteenth birthday, I sent Hera a text asking if she would be my girlfriend.
I fretted over it for days, asking my friends what I should do, none of us sure what the protocol was for this type of interaction. They shrugged and changed the subject. They didn’t want any part of this. I should have seen the disgust in their eyes. Perhaps I did but didn’t recognize it for what it was. Their faces became pinched and strained, and a furrow grew between their eyes. They dipped their heads and turned to the lunches in their laps, sneaking glances out over the heads of the other students. Can they hear what we are saying? Who is listening in? We shouldn’t be talking about this. Please, just stop talking about this.
We were young. We lived in a conservative town. I don’t blame them for their turning away from me, that day or in the month to come when they drove me out of the circle of our friendship. My burgeoning deviant sexuality was too much for them. They didn't want to see it. They didn’t want to talk about it. If I wanted to take this further than it had already gone I was on my own. I should have read that on their faces, but I was focused only on the screen in front of me, her name etched in blinding letters. She lit me up. I knew little else. Well, I knew the fear, too. I felt engulfed in it at the thought that someone would see us. I felt it worse at the thought I might never get to be with her. I ignored it. I hadn’t stopped thinking about her for weeks.
The morning after the kiss I rolled over in my sleeping bag and the air rushed in to fill the space from our pressed-together bodies. I shifted away just a few more feet, aware of the possibility of a parent coming up the stairs at any second. My foot brushed against hers at breakfast as we ate leftover pizza and orange juice and pull-apart cream cheese crescents from the freezer.
We got dressed in the same bedroom, readying our bags for the imminent arrival of our mothers to pick us up and take us home to our regular lives. I wasn’t sure I would ever see her again. We turned our backs to each other as we changed from our pajamas, and I didn’t peek, even though I wanted to.
I was shy and awkward with her as the goodbyes loomed. Thoughts bumped in my head, contradictions, yeses, noes. Should I say something? What should I say? Don’t say anything—let her be the one to make this real, to tell me had it even happened. If it really wasn’t just a dream, then what did it mean, the kiss, the wrapping of my hand in hers as we fell asleep?
Our friends didn’t say anything about the events from the night before, but they cast sidelong glances at the two of us all morning, afraid, perhaps, that we would spontaneously burst into another spout of public lesbianism.
I waited until it was just us in the bathroom. I washed and washed and washed my hands with the fake cloying peach-scented soap, biding my time as the others fluffed, fussed, and finally left. She smiled at me, a slow smile that spread across her face and crinkled her eyes. Our fingers brushed as she handed me the slip of paper. I buried it deep in my purse, hiding the evidence, safekeeping it until I was home and could punch in each digit, carefully, making it real, making Hera real beyond the threshold of the door where I’d left her.
My mother arrived first to pick me up. We hugged goodbye and the hug lingered and my face burned to have my mother witnessing, but she didn’t notice. We drove home and my mother asked how the party was. I replied with what I hoped was just enough enthusiasm but not too much. My stomach felt fluttery still and I thought of Hera all the way home.
Two weeks into the New Year I went home and straight to my room. I pulled out my pay-by-the-minute phone. I stared at it, thumbing through my contacts until I alighted upon her name. I sat there, thinking, and then I pounded out a text and hit send before I could change my mind. I wanted this. I wanted Hera to want it, too. I asked her to be my girlfriend.
She was sitting in her friend’s basement when she got the text. She relayed to me later the unexpected thrill, how she first took it.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Oh my God!”
Her friend asked what, what was it?
“Paige wants me to be her girlfriend,” she replied.
There was hesitation. CAN I THINK ABOUT IT, she texted back.
OF COURSE, I said.
I didn’t really mean that. I was a little devastated that it hadn’t been an immediate yes; it had taken everything in me to gather the courage to ask her in the first place. Didn’t she know how hard that had been? Didn’t she know, too, how right for each other we were?
I didn’t know how long she needed, so I just sat there, waiting, waiting. A hand went deep into my chest and tightened around my heart. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see straight. She was going to say no, I had misjudged this, I had messed up, she never wanted to see me again, what was I thinking, oh fu—.
My phone beeped. YES filled the screen, filled my whole body with warm light. That was more than enough for me.
We dated for three months our freshman year of high school. I didn't tell my family about Hera until years after the fact, when I was in university and finally coming out to people. She told her mom right away. Her mom didn’t take it well; she forbid Hera to ever see me again. It was my worst fear, my worst nightmare. Or, the second-worst: the worse thought was of having to tell my own mother. I saw how it crumpled Hera to see and hear and know that hate in her mother’s heart. I could not handle that feeling for myself. So I hid Hera from my family, from my friends. We resorted to subterfuge. It made the whole romance that much more thrilling, and hard.
We went together to her school’s Winter Formal dance. We got ready at her friend’s houses. She was perfection in a midnight blue gown her mother had sewn for her. Tiny capped sleeves and delicate beading around the square satin neckline. She wore her hair, so dark brown it looked black, loose around her heart-shaped face, the not-quite curls falling to her shoulders. A light silver necklace around her neck, black ballet flats peeking out from under the hem. She was barely taller than me when we stood side by side. Her hair tickled my cheek as we leaned in for a photo.
All us young girls danced together in large circles, then just the two of us closed our own circle, swaying. We kissed in the hallway and didn’t care who saw us. My wrist tingled and itched from the corsage she had bought me; pink rose and baby’s breath strapped tightly to a polyester silver, glittered band. It didn’t quite match my short teal-and-black dress, but I had never cherished something more. A manifestation of our love. Something tangible, real. I hadn’t thought to buy her a corsage. Hera lied to her mother about who the corsage was for so she could get me this one. No one except my father had ever bought me a corsage. I kept the rose in its clear plastic box for weeks, trying to preserve it forever. I was devastated when, instead of drying, it molded, trapped in a little greenhouse in my window.
We saw each other again only a handful of times more. We tried to meet up once more, at her friend’s house again, but her mother found out and took her away right as they were pulling up the drive. I sat anxiously in the foyer of her friend’s house, waiting for her, the chocolate melting in my hands. Dark chocolate was her favorite.
Her friend came up the stairs with the phone, handing it to me. It was Hera on the other line. Her voice clogged with tears. I tried my best to comfort her, saying over and over that it was okay, I understood. I didn’t, not really. Her mom had found her phone, she sobbed, had gone through her messages. She knew that we were trying to meet and now she was threatening to not let Hera out of the house ever again. It’s okay, I said, I understand, don’t worry, I love you. I tried to reassure her even as I struggled not to cry in front of her curious friends and the parents I barely knew, all of them gathered in the hall with me.
My own mother had long since driven away, so I spent the night with Hera’s friends, unable to bring myself to call my mother and have to explain why she needed to come back. I secretly hoped that perhaps somehow I would still see Hera, that she would convince her mother to let her come over after all. Instead, her friends and I ate the melting chocolate with Bugles and M&M’s and we watched Titanic in the basement and when I cried I cried over Hera, not Jack.
Little half-moons in my palm, white, then red as the blood rushed to fill the indents of my nails. How I hated her mother, this woman not strong enough to meet me. How I hated myself, not strong enough to meet this woman and stand next to Hera and hold her hand and be there with her. It was more than I could handle to try to figure out how to make us work when all around me the signs things crumbled. Hera’s mother hated me. My friends turned away from me. I would not tell my mother, lest she abandon me too. I wasn’t ready for it. I was selfish and I made that decision alone. I wasn’t ready to try to be a lesbian in a town that didn’t understand, in a family of Catholics quickly abounding their faith but not fast enough for me to trust in them. I wasn’t ready to sneak around and not see Hera and then cry over her all night. I wasn’t ready for her. This wouldn’t happen, I thought bitterly, my back against the edge of my bed, cradling my hot phone, my only connection to her, if I were dating a man. I thumbed her number.
I told her it was too hard, I wasn’t ready. She said she understood. She didn’t cry, I don’t think, at least not then. Her family was waiting for her in the dining room. Mine was waiting downstairs, oblivious. I washed my face and went down and no one asked what was wrong. Her mother was happy to be rid of the girl who had ruined her only daughter.
I wouldn’t see Hera again for almost a year. We met up for the annual New Year’s Eve sleepover. She had a boyfriend by then, and so did I. I still wanted Hera more. I still loved Hera. I never stopped loving Hera.
I was the only woman she dated in high school, but after graduation she escaped to the east coast into an all-girl’s college and changed her clothes to plaids and pastels and stopped shaving her legs and met beautiful women who loved and adored her and whom she loved and adored back. She found her best, true self, and I found myself flip-flopping back and forth between sexualities, between identities. Six years later we met up again in our hometown, her coming all the way from Boston to visit Montana. We got ice cream and walked up and down the streets we’d not been brave enough to walk together as teenagers. I almost asked to kiss her again, there, but I didn’t. We were pulling away and saying goodbye when she whispered to me that she wished I had ruined her more when we were young, and perhaps have saved her from some of the more terrible relationships she’d had with men.
I wished I had ruined her more, too, I said. Even though I was now married to a man.