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When Queer Girl Friendships Burn Too Brightly

We are girls who have wants so big, they encompass many things — especially ourselves.

Here’s the thing about queer girl friendships that I find inexplicably essential to being alive: There’s a formula to them.

It starts with two girls who have been loved differently or not kindly or just plain wrong. Girls who find out they love girls and want to love them rightly and samely and gently. Girls who, at many points in their lives, have figured out that they were wired wrong, or inside-out, and live their adult lives as mechanics. Girls who get greasy fixing themselves and fixing others. If executed correctly, it continues as such with more and more tools added, or at least tools that become more and more efficient. You begin by taking a pair of nail clippers and attempting to cut out rot from the body. Eventually, you take a cleaver. But only a cleaver for the heart. You need a separate tool for the liver, the eyes. The mind is a mess — you not only need different voltages of fuses, but machinery both delicate and heavy-handed: screws, saws, scalpels, needle-nose pliers.

The tools aren’t just tangible, which is what complicates the whole muck of relationships. You can be a proficient mechanic of the body, as I’m forever learning to be, but you’ve still got to be able to intuit problems and solve them creatively. Which is the entire mess of existence, really — many are skilled in one or the other, but so few know both. You have a leg up if you’ve experienced trauma or life in the margins (and this may be the one area of life you’re advantaged in), but only if you’ve had enough resources to heal a bit. Only if you have a legend on the big map of how the fuck to love people who have been wounded deeply, including yourself.

It starts with two girls who have been loved differently or not kindly or just plain wrong. Click To Tweet

What I mean to say here is that we are girls who have wants so big, they encompass many things, especially ourselves. And when you have two girls who love girls and who have seen the raw edges of life — loss and abuse and trauma, mainly — and who share a deep love of communication, of finding and losing oneself in the sanctity of words, and who are, above all else, survivalist —

I fail, here. My best friend, Francesca, wrote it better than I can:

“We talk about the lack of language that queer people have for the kinds of relationships that populate our lives. Once, last spring when my heart was broken by the woman whose office is next to mine said that one day I would meet someone and that person would mean home. How I accepted that as true, how I attached to that idea. I do imagine loving someone, being real and present and at home in that love. But one person meaning home? I don’t know July. What say you?”

I say, this kind of queer girl friendship burns stars so brightly, everyone knows they never last.

I disliked Francesca the moment I met her. Which is very typical of me — I am the kid in class with arms crossed, saying Prove it. She had a heaviness of grief around her that I didn’t believe in at first. Her face was the color of the sun clouded over, and I was unsure if I wanted to gently wave the clouds away or be the hurricane of sadness that drove her sadness away.

Apart from struggling with Savior Complex, I also felt entirely unnerved by her — her sharp eyebrows framed cutting eyes, almost too-alive on a startlingly pretty face. I say startling here, because I can’t summon a better adjective. You don’t expect someone who can both hold a knife and a baby with equal proficiency to appear delicate. That was my first lesson: the best pretty wasn’t delicate at all.

At UCLA, I walked around her terrified, projecting the air of the studiously aloof, worried that she’d discover my softness.

She had a heaviness of grief around her that I didn’t believe in at first. Click To Tweet

We were both Lambda Literary Fellows in Poetry for a week, and were seated across from one another in the university’s sterile, exam-room-like lecture hall, where Eloise Klein Healy was teaching us about the sacred.

“We need to establish trust here,” Eloise was saying, her hair bright white and sticking up in a beautiful manner. “Because everyone is bringing their current lives with them, and we will be intimate with those lives this week.” Everything we were thinking about would end up in our poetry. She told us about writing her book The Islands Projects: Poems for Sappho. “I had pitched the idea to the Los Angeles Arts Commission and gotten a grant. While in Greece, my mother died. It was no longer a book about Sappho.”

This is how I got to know Francesca, through her poems written in that room. The whole week, we circled each other, sniffing for the profundity of the grief all over our hair, trapped in the creases of our eyelids. Hidden in the black glass of our pupils, daring them to change size for light or pleasure. On our very last night at the residency, we were given unlimited drink tickets at a fancy wine bar. I was unfathomably drunk. My lipstick kept smiling off my face.

She reached for the bright red pencil. “Let me,” she said. And as she leaned over to fill in my sloppy mouth, the room got brighter and the sun came back to her face. When she was done, the lipstick was perfect, and she had proven it, as it were.

A little over a year after Francesca and I met, my partner left me for one of her students. In the dishonesty of hindsight, the affair is obvious — the late nights at school, the sudden earnestness in our conversations about nontraditional intimacy, the (I thought) excessive moral support said student needed during her divorce from her husband. Relationships have a verisimilitude of honesty and transparency, until they suddenly don’t.

Is this why we are so mortified when affairs happen? Because our unmet needs for accountability and communication are suddenly, too-brightly appreciable?

Though I felt blindsided, there must have been a deeply unhappy part of me, for when I read my emails sent to Francesca from Salt Lake City (where I’d moved so my partner could pursue her PhD), I read passages like this:

“I’m heartbroken, & wondering what the fuck I’m doing here. Except living. & why isn’t living enough when living is already so hard in the first place? Isn’t it, being alive, so fucking brave already? Enough? Oh, sweet friend. I could use your words of comfort & wisdom. Could use your poetry & gentle face. I brought home two cases of wine from California, come have a bottle with me, sit in the slough of crickets & the horrible songs they sing.”

My partner and I had broken up during Hannukah, though neither of us is technically Jewish. Sitting at the bright little red dining room table with the brown leather watch I’d bought her — with the extra-thin band so she could type her dissertation comfortably — I was on the cusp of the exaggeratedly tragic. She opened the present with a long sigh of anguish, and explained that she’d fallen in love with one of her students.

Only she didn’t actually say that. She said she’d fallen in love with herself.

Afterwards, I drew myself a scalding bath that went cold fast as Utah’s December leaked in. I sat in it for a very long time, naked and covered in little fleshy peaks, thinking about what our breakup would have sounded like if I’d been underwater the whole time. I imagined it sounding like a phone ringing and ringing and ringing, someone having forgotten to turn on the answering machine.

It was five in the morning in Francesca’s world, which was Michigan then. On good nights, this is when she’d be finally heading for bed.

She said she’d fallen in love with herself. Click To Tweet

“Am I an idiot?” I said into the phone, crumpled on the back stair to my apartment. I was staring at my garden, with rows and rows of brassicas and onions beginning to break through the snow.

“Oh, July,” Francesca said as one word. And then a long pause. “I have points — I booked you a ticket to come here. You leave tomorrow morning.”

Born and raised on a trout farm in Northern Michigan, for Francesca being queer was largely a private, sheltered thing — or something to be shouted in the canyons small urban communities made. Once, while she was visiting New York, she wrote to me about the magical disorientation of being in a place where women were openly gay: Every time I see women holding hands I think oh God: ‘have you too, come here from a far away terrible place? Probably. I love you.’

The penetralia of queer girl friendships is the unspoken; Am I an idiottranslates to My entire life fell apart SOS SOS SOS. The bait and switch: when to take the reins and when to let someone else steer. Francesca could know the profundity of my breakup, my breaking apart, and take control of my well-being when I could not. Because when push comes to shove, all queer folks come from a far away terrible place. The responses from friends who don’t have that experiential insight, though well-intentioned, often falls flat — queer breakups are given the same kinds of commentary and reassurances that all breakups are given, often decontextualized from the history of trauma, coming out, alienation, and general feeling of scarcity (I’ll never find another queer person to love me ever again) — all of which are the town and country of A Far Away Terrible Place.

These are just a few things I think about when I think about home and love and queer girl friendships. I think about queerness as a community made from the tectonic plates of trauma — from a history/lineage of trauma, as well as formed from people who have sometimes been harmed for being queer. By strangers. By their families. I think about femininity specifically, in regards to queerness. Not only because feminine queerness is an intersection that often faces harm from both sides of homophobia and misogyny (even within queer communities and definitely within older waves of feminism), but also because I read something Elizabeth Marston wrote a few years ago in Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme.

Marston wrote that femmes, or queer folks who fall on the feminine/femme spectrum, are unauthorized copies of femininity. That because of their queerness (gender, orientation, presentation, radicalization — everything queer means universally and individually), they cannot occupy mainstream femininity, but rather an unauthorized copy.

How much I love that, cling to it.

I think that Marston’s concept is dually applicable to friendships between two feminine queer girls — an unauthorized copy of what we think of when we think of intimacy between women. Queer female friendships occupy a space that is not platonic, but is not not platonic. Not romantic, but not notromantic. And there we live, in the space informed by the trauma of queerness (as well as our personal developmental traumas and upbringings), where our friendships accelerate and traverse across borders and boundaries.

Our straight friends believed Francesca and I were together, or that we would eventually be together. Because it was unfathomable that two queer girls could decide to decimate the countries whose rules they followed, and make their own.

We were as intimate as I’ve ever been with anyone.

It’s illuminating, starlight. One evening, after I’d bought my nephew a telescope and we sat on his front lawn trying to see something through the city smog, he asked me if I believed stars were our ancestors. I considered this. I asked him what he thought. Resolutely, “Yes.” No pause from him.

I’m not sure if I entirely believe that, but I don’t not believe it. Regardless, I think the remarkable thing about stars is that if they aren’t our directancestors, they at least show their own ancestry. We can trace them. The stars that we see in the sky are unauthorized copies. We see them and the bright scars they leave on the sky, though we see them long after they’ve grown so intimate and fiery that they combust.

So bright-burning, we knew they could never last.

The fact that my relationship with Francesca has, in a sense, ended is beside the point here, except to illuminate our celestial qualities. And it hasn’t ended, really. It’s just that we are both partnered to other people, and our intimacy funnels itself elsewhere. Which is the downfall of being two feminine, queer girls in this world: we are taught to prioritize romantic love above all else. I’m guilty of this. We are all guilty of this.

Last night, Francesca called me at almost 2 in the morning, an old mainstay of our friendship. I didn’t pick up, since in our five years of friendship, I’ve developed my own circadian rhythm that has me sleeping by 10, up by 6:30.

“I’m just calling you. Because I’m reading Annie Dillard, and it’s killing me. I’ve just opened a new bottle of red wine. I wanted to read you this passage . . . ” Her voice so intimately familiar my heart lost a shard when I heard it the next morning. “You’re you, and sleeping. And I’m me, awake.”