Mamie Stevenson

Saving Yourself


ISSUE 69 | CARBON | OCT 2016

A few weeks into my freshman year at an all-girls Catholic high school in the suburbs of Denver, a new friend asked me if I wanted to come to a rally at the convention center. “There will be food and music,” she began, “and then we will take an oath of chastity!” When I hesitated, she responded with “you’ll get a free ring!” Though skeptical of the situation, I accepted her invitation. I figured that, at the very least, it would enrich my cultural experience and eventually become a distant thought that I could stow away with my memories of taking a Nigerian dance class as a child and spending an afternoon in Amish country at the age of ten.

When my friend, her mother and I arrived on Sunday, the abstinence in the air was tangible—the smell of stifled hormones and hot wieners. I knew it was going to be a long afternoon. Besides the performance by the proverbial Christian “contemporary rock” band—arms outstretched, faces streaked with tears—we were required to sit through overwrought presentations and disturbing sketches about getting STDs. “I got the clap!” a female actress exclaimed. Skinny white men took the stage, wearing the kind of head mic I had only seen before on Britney Spears. One by one, they became so impassioned by the idea of celibacy that their reasonable volume eventually progressed into that familiar roar of fundamentalism, that cry of desperate belief. “I NEED TO KNOW,” they begged, “THAT TODAY YOU WILL VOW TO SAVE YOURSELF UNTIL MARRIAGE.”

Ushers were sent into the audience, responsible for distributing promise cards (signature required) and rings in the shape of a Jesus fish. “These are the rings?” I asked my friend. “I thought we’d have a variety to choose from…” The cheap ballpoint pen made its way down my row and I looked at it with hesitation. I handed back my card unsigned to the edgy blonde usher who had given it to me. “Yeah, no thanks!” I smiled bashfully. And while it would be years until I had sex for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel somehow complicit in the movement to make people think that true love actually waits.

In my case, true love has been frightfully fleeting. It is “true love,” after all, that so often rears its head as a doppelganger—a figment of the real thing, manifesting itself in characters and scenarios that, in retrospect, make me cringe in some way or another. The first relationship I ever had began not long after that particularly sexless Sunday in high school, but it wouldn’t be until college that we would have sex for the first and only time, exchanging each other’s virginities in an experience so painfully humiliating that I can’t help but think about it every time I change my sheets.

Within weeks of that first time, though, I started having sex with my second partner and the person who would come to be my college boyfriend, the son of a Presbyterian minister who encouraged him along the same path of celibacy that I had bashfully rejected years before. Our malt-liquored minds would sit in conversation, discussing the ethics of premarital intercourse while hiding behind virtue and sexual timidity all at once. Eventually we settled on having sex, but in a way that felt particularly Christian. I insisted on keeping my shirt on (out of modesty or something) and, like a true gentleman, he did the same, resulting in a painfully silent tussle between two noticeably hairy sets of legs. The only sound to be heard was that of cotton rubbing against cotton and, afterwards, my sigh of relief that my roommate hadn’t walked in during those seven tender minutes.

In another universe, he and I would be divorced by now, fighting over custody (the kid was an accident) and planning our days around cigarette breaks (we promise to quit by the time Little Socrates is double digits!) Yet having spent our formative years of college in an environment that often resembled a Boy George music video, it gradually became easier to get naked in front of other people. With our clothes went the idea of pious commitment, the relationship that orients itself around the promise of matrimony. Our eyes wandered, our spark smothered by the possibility of possibilities. After three years of dutiful monogamy, we went our separate ways and into strange bedrooms.

As I got older, the idea of marriage served me as an afterthought while sex remained my practice. I explored a variety of individuals who could distract me from the perils of intimacy, including my pot dealer, a guy I met at work, another guy I met at work, a guy who lied about where he worked, and eventually his young gay friend, who would eventually become the first woman I ever had sex with.

By this time, sex had grown devoid of intimacy, but it was a useful experience nonetheless. The act grew to have the emotional weight of a handshake, though those were fewer and farther between than a romp between the sheets in those years just after college. If anything, marriage had become the antithesis of everything I wanted, and I lay naked, its passive protester, adopting an attitude of sexual aloofness that precluded what struck me at the time as being a boring and hetero-specific approach to lifelong commitment.

But now here I am, alone with my Chihuahua, sitting in the studio apartment I share with my girlfriend. And every time somebody I know gets engaged, an occurrence that is growing more and more frequent, I look at Rachael and think, Shit…you’re my partner.

It’s not that I don’t love my girlfriend because I do—I adore her. But now that I am at the point in my life where pictures of diamond-studded left hands (and babies!) take up a growing majority of my newsfeed, I have begun to wonder how close, or faraway, my relationship is to the beginning of that conversation.

The reasons that Rachael and I shouldn’t get married are bountiful. For one, I am forbidden from ever wearing shoes in the house and she never remembers to replace the toilet paper roll (something I am convinced she does out of spite). We pick fights with one another on an hourly basis and I strongly believe that she eats too much meat. She has lost several items of my clothing while I have somehow managed to get oil stains on everything of hers I have ever borrowed. Besides that, people constantly ask if we’re sisters and we refuse to have sex for days after that happens. Honestly, it would be way easier for me to marry some dude, pop out a few suckers and get it over with. It’s likely, however, that I’m doomed to spend the rest of my twenties (and then some) with a lanky germophope who takes after a young Winona Ryder.

I often wonder if giving myself license to explore every aspect of my sexual identity has been catastrophic to my understanding of commitment, especially now that I have solidified my attraction to women. Entering into a long-term lesbian relationship has forced me to confront my understanding of “true love” in an unprecedented way. After years of experimenting with the possibilities, I now know I am somebody who ultimately wants marriage, a family. And so what is truer: my newfound queer identity or the most innate aspect of my biology? I have lived most of my adulthood as a straight woman. And I would by lying if I said I never thought about being with a man again, but I also often can’t imagine ever being with a man again after sharing a bathroom with one. My future offers two trajectories of my life that are fundamentally irreconcilable: the one where I’m gay and the one where I’m not, and there is a sense that no matter what I do, something will inevitably be lacking. I am, after all, from a generation of beggars and choosers, overwhelmed by an endless supply of potential partners.

In the last year, I have had one of my best friends get engaged and another get married in the span of six weeks (both women to men). I was a bridesmaid in the wedding, dateless to the ninety-minute Catholic ceremony and the country club reception that followed (Rachael had to stay home with the dog). And it was then, in my hometown with my high school friends and my high school self, that I felt a keen sense of not only what I would miss out on in “sanctified” matrimony, but what I face in abandoning my straight inclinations. I miss out on pheromones, body hair and a constant source of sperm. I miss out on a population of people I wouldn’t mind having sex with. And I miss out on a life that, while conventional, is nevertheless widely accepted and easily accommodated. This all became frighteningly clear when I rode the shuttle from the wedding back to the hotel while sitting, drunk, next to the priest who taught my sophomore year theology class. He asked me what was new and I don’t remember what I told him.

If my girlfriend and I do get married, it will present its fair share of challenges. For one, I will have to endure an endless stream of ridicule from a mother who is still convinced that I am just “going through a phase,” and for another, it will no longer be appropriate for Rachael’s parents to refer to me as “her friend Mamie.” And even after we overcome such hurdles, we’ll be faced with the question: which set of parents pays for a lesbian wedding anyway?

And then there will be the issue of starting a family. Would we adopt? Inseminate? Whatever we do will be outrageously expensive, though Rachael is convinced that as long as we procure a body-temperature sperm sample, we’ll be able to do the whole thing for the cost of a turkey baster. This, like several other practical solutions to the problems presented by our lifestyle, Rachael has picked up from having a comprehensive knowledge of every episode of The L Word.

If we ever did decide to embark upon the matrimonial process, our arguments surrounding the details of the wedding would only be the beginning of a very, very long journey. In fact, when I look towards that path, it smells of bitter tears and steak farts. However, I have managed to find someone who spends nearly all day every day in my presence and still finds me entertaining, someone who has endured my hysterical episodes and lifted my heavy baggage despite her small frame. I have found someone who dutifully washes the stains out of my clothes and delicately removes the earwax from my headphones. She has been endlessly patient with my shortcomings: my paranoid insecurities, my inability to clean the crust from the silverware no matter how hard I try. She remains mostly satisfied with the path that her sexual identity has taken her on while I waffle among the many varieties of love that I might have encountered if it weren’t for her. But there is something to be said for the relationship that hangs in limbo, not rushing to come out on the other side.

When we arrive at that crossroads, the one where we decide if we stay together or separate, I don’t think the decision will be easy either way. The end will likely result in misdirected fantasies and a wayward interpretation of Robert Frost’s image of the road less traveled as a metaphor for bisexuality. Yet I am confident that my regrets will be few to none. And while Rachael and I turn our heads away from one another as the issue of marriage begins to permeate our plans for the future, it is bound to be a very, very long time until we work out the logistics of lifelong monogamy. If only those Jesus lovers could see me now: living in homoerotic sin and waiting, because that’s what true love taught me to do.