I was too young to get married. I couldn’t even drink legally at the reception. My father spiked the punch bowl with wine, and my best friend brought me glass after glass until I stopped shaking. Then I stormed around, invincible and flying, in four-inch heels and curled hair. My friends told me to slow down. Talk with people, they said. Enjoy it.
My husband idled with one hand on my back, entertaining family members and smiling. He was sweet and perfect, and I didn’t want him to touch me. I wanted everything to be over, so I hurried, hurried, ignoring his requests for kisses and tender moments.
Smile for the camera, I told myself. Cut the cake. Look happy, so your mother will think you are happy. You have found the man of your dreams, a feat she feared you would never accomplish. This is your moment. You’ve proved her and everyone else wrong. Finally.
My hometown is corn fields and tractors, cruising down unpaved roads, dust flagging in the rearview mirror. My hometown is known statewide for its drug problem. It was also the heart of the “Take Back Vermont” movement, a backlash against the legalization of civil unions.
I was ten at the time the movement began. White signs hung on the peeling paint of barns. Take Back Vermont. I watched them as I rode the school bus home, where I spent most afternoons alone, watching Law and Order: SVU. I loved Olivia Benson, the lead detective in the series. She was on my television screen every day in reruns and new episodes. I couldn’t get enough.
My mom hated Olivia Benson, but I could never figure out why. When I declared criminal justice as my major in college, she chalked it up to Olivia. I was ruining my life for that woman. I wanted to be a cop just like her, my mother claimed. I was going to cut all my hair off. I was never going to find a man to love me.
I didn’t date during high school—I wasn’t sexy or desirable. Then somehow, my sophomore year of college, I finally found a man to love me. My husband and I were close friends and had fun together, but we also had serious issues with sex. “I just don’t like it,” I told him. I cried almost every time he finished. I never orgasmed. After months of this, we decided there was something wrong with me.
One day, weeks since I’d let him touch me, he asked for sex. He was soft, but insistent. I made him take me to a bar and got drunk, then forced myself to let it happen when we got home. It was like all the other times. I lay there, touched his back, then let go. His skin was too hot. He was too sweaty and I just wanted everything to be over already.
After a while, I started imagining I was somewhere else. On a beach in Puerto Rico. Scaling a volcano in Guatemala. Anywhere but here.
When he finished, I rolled over and curled into the comforter. I wanted to shower. I wanted to crawl away from him, but I felt guilty. He was my husband and he loved me.
To avoid having sex, I threw myself into my graduate studies. I worked full-time, too. I rushed through life like I’d rushed through my wedding, but by October of our fourth year of marriage, I was done. Most evenings, I ignored my husband. He was amazing with kids, a graduate student with a promising career, but as proud as I was to be married to him, being with him also felt wrong.
I mentioned divorce near Christmas when I was having confusing feelings for a woman in my graduate class. She had long hair and a body riddled with soft curves. I wanted to go to bed with her at night. I wanted to wake up to her in the morning. My feelings for her wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard I tried.
In May, my husband and I officially separated. Shortly after, I had sex with a woman for the first time.
I wasn’t nervous; I knew exactly what to do. I stripped her of her dress, then kissed her on her shoulder. She smelled like pool water, and lingering perfume. Her hair was wet, and I brushed it away as my mouth moved to her neck. I touched her breasts, her hair. She was so beautiful, I wanted to cry. I couldn’t keep my hands to myself.
“Honey,” she said after we’d settled. “I hate to break it to you, but I think you’re a lesbian.”
For a long time after coming out, I blamed my mother for my marriage and how I suffered. I thought that if she hadn’t been so homophobic, maybe I would’ve realized I was gay sooner. Maybe, if she hadn’t raised me in the most conservative town in Vermont, I could’ve bypassed years of misery. Maybe, I’d be happier now.
Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder. I chose to marry. I spent four years in hell, pretending everything was wonderful. I made my life miserable, and for what? To prove I could be loved? To prove I could do everything my mother said I couldn’t? At what cost?
It still costs me, even with my history and all I’ve learned about life. I post pictures on Facebook and wait for the response. I brag about accomplishments. I buy gifts for women I like—flowers, books, art. I vie for their attention.
I am still clawing for love and desperate for approval.
Chelsea Catherine is a fiction and nonfiction writer. She is a PEN Short Story Prize Nominee, winner of the Raymond Carver Fiction contest in 2016, a Sterling Watson fellow, and an Anne McKee grant recipient. Her short story collection, ISABEL, was a finalist for the 2018 Katherine Anne Porter prize. Her novella, Blindsided, won the Clay Reynolds novella competition and was published in October of 2018.