Saturday, June 30, 2012

Stories of Loving Women

Becky Birtha wrote For Nights Like This One: Stories of Loving Women when I was a toddler. I read it as a fluke, seeing it recommended in an old book on the writing craft. The stories feel like they came from another world. "Lesbianism" -- the clinical-sounding word used in the book -- is a secret, a thing nobody does. The characters discover hidden realms of it.

"Marisa," one of my favorite stories in the book, describes a mysterious, fascinating woman. The narrator can't figure out what it is about this woman, why she doesn't hang out with the other people at work, and why she can't stop thinking about her. She doesn't understand why she's offended by certain comments people make at work. To my modern eye, it is obvious that Marisa is a lesbian, and the narrator might be a budding lesbian. But the big revelation of the story -- that Marisa is a lesbian -- works because this knowledge is so clearly forbidden in the context of the story.

But I don't want to make it sound like this book is dated, as in no longer relevant. In reading it, I felt I was connecting dots, understanding things I had felt but hadn't seen so clearly. In modern times, we like to talk about how enlightened we are, but I wasn't a toddler so very long ago. The fact that these stories could be written in my lifetime says a lot about the discomfort, confusion, and misinformation still flowing through our society.

The characters' struggles about whether they will have children, how they will deal with other people's opinions of them, or how to dress when they go out rang true for me and made me feel relief. We are not really past this, and it's nice to see this get treated without the complication of an author who feels like we ought to be. In "Next Saturday," the main character questions whether her desire to reach out to an obviously alienated young lesbian is motivated by a pure urge to help or by her own lust.

My favorite story, "We Used to Be Best Friends," hit me hard with its description of realizing you love someone you're not supposed to love:

And Francie found herself saying the words it had taken her so long to realize. "I do love you, Kelly. I never knew it before, but I love you." Then, as the impact of her own words was reflected in Kelly's face, she added, "It's only that I never thought I would be... or could be... a lesbian." Abruptly, she burst into tears. She covered her face with her hands, then buried her head in her arms on the table, shaking with sobs.

Through her tears, she heard Kelly's voice. "I know, Francie. I know -- it's scary, it's heavy. But it isn't bad. It isn't wrong. I know it's not -- not what I feel, what you feel. We can have something together that's really beautiful."

I'm so glad that I can casually decide to write a lesbian story, that many people are able to be open and out about their sexuality, and so many other changes. Progress is good. But this passage reminded me that all too often, even now, people despair at love rather than celebrating it because of shame or the hatred of others. Kelly's words in response to her lover are beautiful, and my hope is that one day all of us can feel this way about our loves, embracing their beauty whatever the sexuality of it might be.

Birtha's collection is moving and well worth reading. It has a powerful, poetic voice that soaked into me for several days after I read it. There are old copies floating around on Amazon, and I'd recommend tracking one down.

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