Let’s Call It by Ashley Brittner
Editor Acacia Blackwell, Editor's Choice, February 16th, 2017
"...not wanting to did not mean I was weird. It meant I was queer."
West Burnside inclines slightly at the record store, curving uphill toward the sunset. On a warm August evening, my friends and I stood electrified on the corner of Burnside and 14th, buzzing like riot grrrl evangelicals. The light up marquee sign said it all. “Sleater-Kinney Final Show August 12, 2005”.
Three younger girls stood off to the side, wiping their tears, craning their necks, praying for a glimpse of the band.
“That was fucking unbelievable,” I said, applying lip gloss and checking my phone. The girl I liked, Lane, was headed to her new life overseas in a few days and had asked me to come home early from my road trip to say goodbye. The road trip I took to get away from her for a bit and figure out what was happening. Nothing had ever been so complicated.
I had left Missoula five days before in my Mom’s Mazda with Camel Lights and a Disc Logic of mix CDs. I-90 a battlefield before me.
The roadies burst out a side door, pushing carts of gear cases that had stickers cracking on the sides. The girls shuffled over, awkward in their late-teens way. I smirk-snarled and lit a cigarette in my fake-confident, early-twenties way.
“It’s their gear!” someone said, giddy.
We all watched as the roadies pushed cart after cart to a van. I reached out and grazed my fingertips along one of the guitar cases as it passed.
A roadie noticed my sneakiness and leaned over, reaching into his t-shirt pocket.
“Here ya go,” he said casually, handing me something.
A tiny plastic guitar pick.
“Holy fuck,” my friend said.
“Who’s is it?!” I wondered aloud, holding it gingerly like it might disappear if I moved an inch.
“What color is it?” one of the girls to the side demanded.
“Grey,” was all I could muster.
“IT’S CARRIE’S!” someone shrieked.
I turned to my friend Claire, who loves Carrie, and smiled. We had had so many falling-outs at that point. If I’m being honest, I had a raging crush on her, but I did not know it at the time. Every burgeoning lesbian has a few friendships that toe the line between women they want to be and women they want to be with.
I thought about giving her the pick. A peace offering. But it would not have changed anything.
She smiled at me.
I pulled out my wallet and zipped the pick inside.
“I’m going to frame that when I get home,” I said.
Hours before, during the ten-minute-mammoth “Let’s Call It Love,” I distinctly remember texting Lane, and fawning over the raw, pure sexuality being expressed on stage.
“A woman is not a girl, I could show you a thing or two,” the song goes.
I wanted to be that brazen.
I was 21 years old, walking around with highlighted blunt bangs and a not-so-true-to-myself swagger. The semester before I’d started taking women’s history classes, reading Feministing, and listening to riot grrrl, a fiery sentimentality in my gut every time any lesbian love stories were told in the songs. I told myself I was happy they’d found their person, but what I really wanted was that feeling with some guy. Some guy that had not come along yet.
In high school when my friends talked about which guys they wanted sleep with, I felt anxiety wrap its fingers around my neck as I searched for a name. Any name. It rang hollow and untruthful no matter which name I said because honestly, I did not want to sleep with any of them.
I hadn’t yet figured out that not wanting to did not mean I was weird. It meant I was queer.
In my high school journal, there is a photo of my best friend cut out and glued to a page. In colored gel pen, procured because I saw the popular girls using them and thought that was what I was supposed to do, I wrote about how gorgeous and funny I thought she was. How much I loved her. How she could be a model.
I don’t think the popular girls were writing things like that with their gel pens about their best friends.
When she told me about losing her virginity to the boy she liked, I cried and yelled at her. I told her it was because I just didn’t like him. She had stopped telling me things about boys she liked because I always reacted disapprovingly. Like no one was good enough for her.
What a friend.
The way I dealt with my suspicions that I was gay was to look for it in the world. I asked my friends about their experiences. I looked up famous lesbian couples. I searched for signs this was normal.
My first crush was a cute, curly-haired girl in some feminism class I was taking, where we talked about music, books, and women we admired who did things we wished we could do. It was essentially a semester-long, consciousness-raising festival.
After I met her, I sat with three of my best friends and uttered the words, “I think I like girls”. I told them about the curly-haired girl. She was bi, had done things that extended beyond the mountain time zone, and made me mix CDs. My friends told me about having crushes on girls, promised me it was normal, and told me they loved me. I cried and made them promise me they wouldn’t tell anyone. It felt like a huge secret that someone could figure out if they looked close enough. Like a lone grey hair. Barely noticeable, unless you looked really hard, but somehow signifying a before and an after.
“Don’t tell anyone,” I pleaded. “I don’t want anyone to know yet.”
A few weeks later, I was talking to one of them on the phone about our upcoming annual trip to Butte, Montana for St. Patrick’s Day. I was bringing my new friend, Holly.
“Annie asked if Holly is a friend or a friend-friend,” she laughed.
It felt like there was a volcano underneath my sternum.
“How does Annie know about that?” I asked.
She paused. Said one of our other friends told Annie. Not to worry about it.
A few days later, she called to tell me she’d told Annie. She was sorry. She was worried about me and told Annie because Annie would understand.
On St. Patrick’s Day, a day I reserved for debauchery and confidence, I cried, yelled at my friend for telling anyone I thought I was gay, and kissed a dozen men I’d never met.
There. No one can tell.
I met Lane that summer. She was the woman my good friend was no longer involved with. I was not aware of the messy, bramble-like tangles of seeing friends’ ex-fuck-buddies, because I was brand new to this game. I did not have Alice Pieszecki’s chart to navigate these waters.
Lane was short, red-headed, educated, and sharp-tongued. Angular opinions came out of her mouth, gayness seeped from her pores, a self-assured smirk on her lips at all times.
The first night I tried to flirt, I saw her at my favorite dive bar downtown. When I saw her coming, I positioned myself in the corner of the booth with one hand on the bench seat, every terrified and exhilarated wall up around me.
“Can I bum a smoke?” she asked, sliding in across from me.
My fingers tingled as I handed her a cigarette and reached over to light it for her. I heard somewhere that lighting one’s smoke for them was the most flirtatious you could get. Maybe in Cosmo or Reality Bites.
I spent the rest of that torturous summer following Lane around like a puppy. Blasting Tegan and Sara in her car and asking her on precisely one date. We went to dinner and watched a movie on her couch where my hands sat immobilized in my lap even when her feet curled up against my leg. I couldn’t do it.
I left her with a hug.
You see, I was always incredibly tense about my sexuality. I grew up in a household that did not talk about S-E-X. The one time my mother uttered the word to me was in a short conversation about the size of tampons I would be needing. She said I’d need a smaller size because I hadn’t had sex yet. Images of being stretched to the limits of super plus easy glides haunt me still. I grew up being teased for being fat, bullied the bullies, had few friends. I was sure no one would want me, so I made myself unavailable so it seemed like my choice. No one chooses to be rejected over and over again.
I was afraid of being rejected, but more afraid of not being rejected. I didn’t even know if being with a girl was what I wanted. I knew I was curious. Being around Lane felt like the best way to figure it out. I was attracted to her, but it could have just as easily been that I was attracted her audacity, her deliberate gayness, as I was to her as a person.
It was then I realized how gross it had all been.
I was sucking energy from women who knew exactly who they were in an effort to find myself. I could not continue to glean gayness from hanging out with friends who’d had gay experiences. I could not find out how I’d feel about kissing a woman by listening to songs about women kissing women.
I felt like the guy who brags about the time his buddy made the game-winning touchdown. It was not my story, not my glory, not my stakes. I was safe, totally scot free, and a total goddamn loser without a yarn to weave.
I-90 stretches from Montana to the Space Needle. My brother moved to Seattle the year he graduated high school, following his girlfriend. She treated him like shit and cheated on him, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that even so, their relationship would be regarded with more legitimacy in my family than any ones I’d have with women. I was stopping for a couple days before I made my way to Portland for the concert. I told him I needed to have a talk with him about something.
Before then, I don’t recall a single conversation with my brother regarding homosexuality. With the exception of smear the queer at the park when we were younger. I didn’t think that counted.
We bought beers and fired up his hookah and sat on the floor.
“I think I might like girls,” I said.
He paused. Smiled at me.
“Ash,” he said. “I love you no matter what. You’re my big sister. And I love you. It doesn’t matter to me.”
A few days later I found myself at Lane’s going away party and I couldn’t relax. She was leaving. She was going back to Europe to a life without this bumbling, stumbling, nearly-lez. I couldn’t self-actualize on the trip I was supposed to find myself on because I left early to say goodbye.
I stunted my journey to send her off on hers.
We stood in the parking lot of the radio station two days later. Ready to go.
There is another line in “Let’s Call It Love”.
“I’ve wasted all my fucking time”.
I left her with a hug.
Almost ten years later, on East Burnside street, a girl walked into the party I was at. We talked about our adventures in the mountain time zone and smirked in our actually-interested, early 30s way. I grabbed my cigarettes. As I walked past her on my way to the porch, I said, “I’m going outside to smoke, if anyone wants to come.”
I leaned against the railing as I heard her step outside.
“Want a cigarette?” I offered.
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Header image courtesy of Lindsey Price. To view her Artist Feature, go here.
Ashley Brittner is a local writer, painter, and cackler. She organizes and hosts Get Nervous, a reading and performance series about anxiety and depression. Her work centers on those themes as well as feminism, gender, being queer, and worrying about feminism, gender, and being queer. Her work has been featured in Bitch Magazine, OutWords, The Authenticity Experiment, and on various independent radio stations. Everything she does has been influenced by Stevie, Corin, and Pat. Give her a shout (or a whisper), here.