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Queer Rock Love

A Family Memoir

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When Butch Met Clyde: A Love Story

Last week, I was interviewed by a Bay Area reporter who expressed surprise that we were making our queer, gender-nonconforming family in Texas.

I get it.

I agree with Molly Ivins that Texas often functions as the “national laboratory of bad ideas.” And now the Republican voters of this state have inflicted Ted Cruz on the rest of the nation. It’s not hard to understand why people in California might think we’re all just a bunch of Bible-thumping, immigrant-hating homophobes.

Those kind of broad-brush assumptions about Texas are part of what motivated me to write Queer Rock Love. The story of LGBT community in the South is a story of chance alliances and unlikely bedfellows—and what could be more queer than that?

Speaking of unlikely bedfellows, I wanted to tell you about when Butch County met the Clyde band.

Long before I ever held an actual print copy of Queer Rock Love in my hands, I knew I wanted to have a book party in Katy’s home town of Lake Jackson, Texas. There was just one problem: how to find a venue. The main bookstore in Lake Jackson is the Hastings by the mall, and the events manager did not seem to be enthused about a queer memoir from a transgressive press in Californ-I-AY. In fact, he never returned my calls. Which was fine, because my dream was to combine my reading with a rock show featuring Butch County.

Eventually, a friend suggested the Bad “S” Icehouse, a honky tonk nestled among the creeks and bayous and chemical plants that line this part of the South Texas coast. The owner, Shauntae, was a fellow alum from Katy’s high school. She had a band booked for 9 that night, but we just needed to be off the stage by 8:15.

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Unfortunately, not everyone shared Shauntae’s welcoming attitude toward a band called “Butch County” and a book called “Queer Rock Love.” When she submitted the listing to a local Country-music bar rag, the calendar editor called with a question: “I thought you were a honky-tonk?” It was hard to tell if it was the queerness or the literary nature of our event that made him suspicious.

On the day of the show, Shauntae had written “Book Reading – Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir” in neon rainbow letters on the board above the bar. As we milled about, waiting for our friends and audience to show up, I heard several regular patrons grumbling about a “book reading” in the same tone one might reserve for “taxes” or “colonoscopy.”

I was nervous. I made a mental note not to lead with my usual story about watching Katy perform in sexy Viking costume. I decided to stick to Lake Jackson stories—more specifically to stories about Donna Koonce, whom many in the audience had known and loved.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Soon Katy’s friends from high school poured in to the bar, surrounding us in a protective cushion of love. Their enthusiasm inspired Butch County to deliver a raucous, rollicking first set. I even forgot to be nervous because I was too busy dancing and enjoying the band’s onstage antics.

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By the time I got on stage, my only worry was whether the crowd would be able to come down from their rock-n-roll rowdiness to be able to listen to me read. But as soon as I launched into my impersonation of Donna Koonce, I knew they were with me. The crowd really wanted to hear how this high-femme Southern diva had come to unconditional acceptance of her transgender butch daughter. It felt like they were hungry to have the best and most expansive sides of themselves reflected back to them. After the reading, I sold out of every copy of Queer Rock Love that I’d brought. Lots of people who swore they’d never attended a “book reading” in their lives bought a copy.

Some time during Butch County’s second-yet-equally-electric set, the guitarist from Clyde, the “porch stomp” band that was scheduled to go on at 9, showed up. Reportedly, Josh texted the other members of Clyde and told them to get on over to the club ASAP, because Butch County was tearing it up.

Now here’s where I have to admit my own small-mindedness, because several members of Clyde look like they’d fit right in on an episode of Duck Dynasty. Although I love country music and Americana, I did not immediately expect that Clyde and Butch County (a classic rock band) would form a mutual admiration society. However, we were all in the mood to celebrate, and Clyde’s songs—replete with wash tub beats and gospel-tinged soul—were the perfect soundtrack for a Lake Jackson-style love fest. Before long, the members of Butch County were turning to me and saying, “these guys are really good.”

ClydeBand

What followed was a flurry of Clyde liking Butch County’s facebook page and vice versa. We listened to Clyde’s album all the way home to Austin, and “I Saw Jesus on My Tortilla” became Waylon’s new favorite song.

A few weeks later, Clyde asked Butch County to play their annual “life’s a carnival” show at the Carousel Lounge. So if you’re hungry for an antidote to Ted Cruz’s version of Texas values, come on out and let these unlikely buddies rock your world.

Saturday, February 20 @ 7pm

Carousel Lounge
1110 E. 52nd St.
Austin

Clyde photo courtesy of Clyde. Other photos by Darryl Khoury.

Queer Rock Chicago on January 20

I’ll be reading from Queer Rock Love in Chicago next Wednesday. I’m thrilled to be speaking at the iconic feminist bookstore Women and Children First. By most counts, there are only about 12 feminist bookstores left in North America, and I hope to visit and support them all. You should too! Trying to get mainstream bookstores to carry Queer Rock Love has reminded me, once again, that queer and feminist bookstores are vital in helping new voices to be heard.

I’ve always loved Chicago, and I love it even more now that my sister lives there. If you haven’t read her book Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality, I recommend it. You’ll never think of all the mundane gendered interactions of the workplace in quite the same way.

In the spirit of #tbt, here’s a picture of two future feminists in pink polyester pantsuits. You’ll have to come out to the reading on Wednesday at 7:30 to see if we still dress alike.

matchingoutfits

I’ll be in Chicago all week next week for the Creating Change conference. Will you be attending? Transgress Press will have a booth, so come say hello.

I Wanna Grow Up Like Girls in the Nose

When I was a little girl in the 1970s, my mother told me that someday our TV would be a computer and she’d be able to leave messages on the screen.

My dad told me that someday there would be a woman president and maybe it would even be me.

littlefemme

No one ever predicted a lesbian rock band that would continue to electrify audiences when its lead singer was over 65. Back then, it seemed like women in their sixties were old ladies, grandmothers or old maids who drove too slow and carried purses full of Kleenex. If you had told me that old ladies could be sexy, powerful and creative—well, I think that human colonization of Mars would have seemed more likely.

In keeping with a 1970s-era vision of the future, the release of the new Star Wars movie has inspired a cultural conversation about women entertainers and aging. Everyone wants to weigh in about whether Carrie Fisher has aged well. Does she have too many wrinkles? Has she gained too much weight?

If this conversation seems very tiresome to you, then let me tell you a story about the Girls in the Nose reunion show last Tuesday night.

Let’s start with the way that lead-singer Kay Turner stands. Legs spread wide. Feet planted flat on the ground. Back straight. Hands wrapped around the mic until she grabs the stand and pulls it to her crotch on a song like “Sodomy.”

GITN

“Does Kay’s voice remind you of Iggy Pop?” I ask my wife.

“Patti Smith,” Katy answers, supplying the feminist canonical referent. But I resist. It’s true that there’s a lot of rock-n-roll priestess in Kay’s performance, but it’s more carnal than Patty. If I could pick one song for them to cover, it would be The Stooges’ “Dirt,” a song that makes me blush every time I hear it.

“Can I have a little less reverb on my vocals?” Kay asks. Noooooo, I think, because I’m enjoying the stadium-rock quality of it. But I’m glad that Kay and guitarist Gretchen Phillips keep asking the sound person for exactly what they want. I once stood in a crowded nightclub while the singer for Sebadoh quibbled with the sound guy for 45 minutes. It’s rare to even hear a female musician ask apologetically for a little more or less of something in her monitor.

There’s no need for apologies here. When Kay sings “Menstrual Hut,” she shrugs off the fact that the members of GITN are mostly post-menopausal now. It was always about hanging out with other women anyway. And when Girls in the Nose makes a reference to the women’s health movement in a song like “Breast Exam,” it’s with a sly, sexy wink. Are they really singing about breast cancer screening? Or are they instructing you in how to squeeze and tug a nipple for more nefarious purposes? Does it have to be an either/or? When percussion/keyboard player Joanna Lebow is cavorting with the Les Nez dancers, I forget to care.

Most reunions are about looking back, and there was a warm glow of nostalgia over the evening, but Girls in the Nose’s performance didn’t feel dated. It was as if—to quote another beloved queer Texas band—they were “sent to us in a time capsule from the future.”

When I grow up, I want to be Girls in the Nose.

There’s one more opportunity to see GITN reunite on January 8 at Cheer Up Charlies.

Photo of GITN courtesy of Ann Hudspeth.

Throwback Saturday

Well, I made it a whole three weeks before I reneged on my promise to post bonus content related to Queer Rock Love every Thursday! In my defense, I’ve been busy planning upcoming readings in D.C., Baltimore, Lake Jackson and Houston (see below for details).

I’m particularly excited about the Baltimore event on October 31 at Red Emma’s, because I’ll be with my friend Rachael Shannon, who designed the cover of Queer Rock Love and whose song “Dyke Hag” is the inspiration for the book’s title. The song is a celebration of queer creative community and the non-nuclear-family ties that bind. When I was writing the book, the title was like a string around my finger, reminding me to always keep the big picture of queer community in mind, even as I was writing about marriage and parenting.

Also, the reading’s on Halloween! My friend Monica Roberts has a great post about Halloween as the trans national holiday. We love to dress up in our family (Katy is always looking for a reason to wear facial hair), but now that the kid is getting to be a tween, I can’t go posting recent pictures of him willy-nilly (cough, unless you find me on Instagram). So here’s an oldie but a goodie: a picture with Rachael and fancy party hats from the day Waylon was born.

bdayTurn to the chapter titled “The Sun Shines Out of His Behind” if you’d like to read along.

If you live in the Mid-Atlantic or Texas, I hope to see you at one of my readings soon! Here are the deets:

Washington, D.C. — Thursday, October 29

The Cavity, 4820 13th St. NW

8-10pm

Baltimore, MD — Saturday, October 31 @ 4pm

Red Emma’s, 30 W. North Avenue

Freeport/Lake Jackson, TX — Saturday, November 21 (with BUTCH COUNTY)

Bad “S” Icehouse, 2315 Fm 523 Rd

6pm

Houston, TX — Tuesday, November 24 @ 2:30pm

University of Houston, Rockwell Pavilion in the M.D. Anderson Library

My Lily Dale Wedding Pic

Here’s an image from the day Katy and I married ourselves in Lily Dale, New York. This was before the advent of the selfie, so it’s only me in the frame. I would have included this picture in the book, but, you know, the Schilt propensity to blink at the camera. Read below for an account of our nuptials in “the town that talks to the dead.”

lilydale

Katy and I arrived just after the regular season, which lasts from June to August. The weather had turned wet and windy, and mud puddles clotted the narrow streets. Standing water glistened from bright green Astroturf on the ramshackle porches of aging Victorian cottages. It looked like several generations of American optimism had collided and fallen into benign disrepair.

Holding hands, we followed the path to a pet cemetery in a stand of ancient trees. Under their lush green canopy, Katy told me about the deaths of her dogs, Face and General Lee. She told me about her best friend Jane Ellen, who had promised to visit in dreams after she died. Sitting on a stump in the shade of the forest, Katy told me about her crystal meth days, when she could walk into a library or a metaphysical bookstore and literally hear books calling her name.

Normally, this was the kind of talk that caused me to roll my eyes.

As a teenager, I had been hostage to my mother’s New Age awakening, when she bought a condo in Santa Fe and consulted a psychic to help her find husband number three. Surrounded by tanned white people with positive vibrations, I had resisted with the only weapons I knew—sunscreen and a bad attitude. As soon as I could, I fled to the gothic mists of the Pacific Northwest. I vowed that folk art angels would never adorn my home.

Rather than putting me off, Katy’s mysticism made me want to get closer. Her drug-induced visions of talking books had a dark, malevolent edge that was missing from the usual New Age blather. The darkness allowed me to relax my constant vigilance and adopt a guardedly curious posture toward things that I habitually disavowed.

Ready to read more? Order Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir.

Did love ever lead you to suspend judgments? To try something new? Whether it be blueberries or Buddhism, share your story in the comments.

Sequined Cork

Welcome to my weekly post featuring photos that didn’t make it into Queer Rock Love, but probably should have.

This week’s image complements Chapter 28, “No Shortage.”

sequincork

One afternoon, Waylon was engaged in an art project of his own devising, which involved gluing a bunch of sequins to a cork. As he was working at the kitchen table, I heard him singing a little song that went “God is inside of every thing, God is inside of everything, God is inside of everything!” The melody sounded a lot like the Ramones, but the lyrics gave me pause.

“Who taught you that song? Did you learn that in Sunday school?” I asked. I realized I had no clear idea what he learned when he attended the children’s activities at Trinity.

“No one taught it to me. I taught it to myself.”

“Oh, okay. That’s good.” I picked up a few stray sequins and put them back in his pile.

“Mom,” he said, still gluing.

“Yes?”

“God is inside of this table.”

Ready to read more about a gay, trans, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South? Order the book or come to Naked Girls Reading Austin this Saturday to hear an excerpt read by a real, live naked girl.

Friendship as a Way of Life at the Dog & Duck Pub

Last night was the final Sunday night at the Dog and Duck Pub on 17th and Lavaca.

IMG_4625My sweetie Katy and her best friend Nancy have been spending Sunday nights at the Dog and Duck Pub for twenty-one years.

That’s longer than my parents were married.

That’s longer than The Beatles were a band.

If Katy and Nancy’s Sunday night ritual was a person, it would be old enough to join them at the Dog and Duck for a drink.

Nancy and Katy actually met for the first time at the Dog and Duck. It was 1991, and Katy still had long, permed tresses a la Jon Bon Jovi. By chance, she happened to make the acquaintance of a group of gay girls from College Station. Katy was intrigued by these college-educated queers with their hairy armpits and Doc Martens and dark beer. She made plans to meet her new friends at the pub, and they showed up with Nancy in tow.

Flash forward a year. At the tail-end of a long and booze-soaked Pride weekend, Katy and Nancy were feeling the Sunday blues. They decided to meet for one last drink at the Dog and Duck, and the tradition stuck. Pretty soon, other people started to drop by every week too. The Dog and Duck was like Katy and Nancy’s living room. No need to call ahead or make a plan—if it was Sunday night, you could pretty much count on the fact that they would be there.

Sometimes people would come to the Dog and Duck regularly, and then life would pull them away. They might resurface years later and start attending the Sunday night sessions again without skipping a beat. I came along in 2001, which makes me somewhat of a newbie. Even after thirteen years, I still occasionally meet old-timers who are new to me.

The Sunday night tradition has outlived jobs, pets, apartments and more. Katy and Nancy both swear that more than one romance ended because of a girlfriend who didn’t respect Dog and Duck time. I’ll admit that when our son was a baby, I didn’t always relish the idea of Katy spending the difficult bedtime hours at a bar. But I’ve also felt pretty damn lucky to have a spouse who really nurtures her friendships. It takes a lot of pressure off when you know that you’re not your partner’s only means of emotional support.

Sunday night conversations at the Dog and Duck can range from raunchy to tearful. Last summer, when my family of origin was in crisis, the battered picnic tables in the courtyard were my refuge—a place where I could narrate the whole, complicated story without interruption and then ask for insights from my friends.

It would have been easy for the ritual to fall by the wayside when Nancy started traveling for work. These days, she’s out of the country almost as often as she’s home, and it takes more intention to keep track of the schedule, but Sunday nights at the Dog and Duck have remained the default.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault said that homosexuality wasn’t subversive as a way of having sex, it was subversive as a way of life. As queer people, one of our strengths is that we hold on to our subcultures and friendships. We don’t put away childish things, we weave them into the fabric of lives that don’t follow straight lines. But it’s not easy to maintain long-term relationships that aren’t legitimized by blood or matrimony or profit. (There’s a reason why we say gay couples who have been together for ten years are the equivalent of straight couples who have been together for twenty-five.) That’s especially true for adult friendships, because our culture lacks ritualized times and places that preserve and strengthen those bonds.

Last night, I raised a glass to Nancy and Katy, thanking them for making a time and a place for friendship in their own lives, and in the lives of so many others. Now the ground is shifting, but the roots are still strong. May we nurture them, and may they bloom wherever they are planted.

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Read about the closing of the Dog and Duck Pub.

Do you have a favorite memory of Sunday nights at the Dog & Duck? Help create a virtual archive by sharing in the comments!

If you like this post, please support my homosexual agenda by sharing on social media. Thanks!

“Should Waylon Have Two Mommies?”

Six-thirty comes early when you go to bed at two.

Last night, my wife’s heavy metal band played to a packed house of head-banging lezzies. Of course we had to go out for triumphant post-show pancakes. Now it’s my turn to take our son to school, and I’m feeling decidedly less celebratory.

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Photo Credit: John Leach

On the clock radio, an NPR announcer is explaining, for the umpteen billionth time, about credit default swaps. I think I understand: as a mother, I’m always struggling to balance love, work, creativity, and the mundane obligations of domestic life. I know the temptation of a little creative accounting. Right now, I’m trying to leverage the possibility that I might know the location of my son’s shoes for ten more minutes of sleep.

blue_hair_selfieI roll out of bed, start the coffee, and search the living room for my hat. Blue hair seemed like a great idea when I was plotting to be the belle of the freak fest, but this morning I have to walk the gauntlet of parents between the car and the door of my son’s kindergarten class. Four hours of sleep have not prepared me to make small talk with PTA peeps.

After the drop off, I call the dentist’s office and reschedule my son’s appointment. I tell them Waylon has the flu, which is a lie; I don’t want to pay the $25 cancellation fee. I feel a tiny tickle of remorse for not prioritizing dental hygiene, but I have to get some writing done today. If I don’t, maternal martyrdom will inevitably lead to greater crimes and grander regrets.

Earnest Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Once Papa reached the magic number, he was free to drink, fuck, visit Gertrude Stein, whatever. I was immediately drawn to this measure of creative productivity. It’s a humane yardstick for when to say “enough” and move on. Once Mama hits 500 words, I’m free to do all the other shit I have to do.

At 468 words, I stop to put the dishes in the dishwasher. As I’m bending down to pour detergent in the little trough, my gaze hovers for a moment at the baseboard, where layers of congealed dust are threatening to become fur. I don’t allow myself to intervene, even though I recently read a study that found a positive correlation between an orderly home and childhood literacy. The authors asked mothers to rank their homes on the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale”–an instrument that I had previously imagined to exist only in the sadistic arsenal of my superego.

Intellectually, I consider this study ludicrous, its biases completely transparent. However, now that the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale” has been confirmed to exist outside my mind, its Victorian standard keeps coming back to haunt me. “What about the child?” it whispers as I walk past the mountain of unfolded laundry. Waylon’s blue eyes seem to plead from every dust bunny.

I don’t want to succumb to a full-blown domestic project, so I escape upstairs to check on my wife, Katy. She’s still in bed, totally spent from last night’s show. The blinds are drawn, and the floor is littered with cough drop wrappers. I sit on the side of the bed and try to stroke her brow, but she recoils. It’s as if rock-n-roll has flayed her skin and exposed raw nerves. Attempts at conversation elicit pained grimaces and a few faint moans. Then she pulls the covers over her head and goes back to sleep.

CaptureI’m frustrated and self-conscious. When Waylon was born, Katy’s hometown paper ran a front-page story titled “SHOULD WAYLON HAVE TWO MOMMIES?” Although I am generally not in favor of public referendums on my family, on a day like today, when I’m cancelling pediatric dental appointments and Katy is in a musically-induced coma, my mind tends to compose its own headline: “SHOULD SLOVENLY ARTISTIC TYPES HAVE BABIES?”

I have to remind myself that performance consumes energy in violent, catastrophic bursts rather than moderate daily units. Around here, the impact is brief, albeit extreme. In a couple of days, Katy will be taking Waylon to school and loading the dishes while I’m holed up in my room, trying to churn out 500 words.

Since grocery shopping is usually Katy’s chore, tonight’s dinner will be take-out. I grab some tacos on the way home from work. As we unpack the food from greasy paper bags, we discuss the big news from kindergarten: Waylon got his conduct card changed from green to yellow for kissing Tina in the reading loft. In Waylon’s recounting of the story, it’s Joseph who was really at fault, for “telling everybody.”

“Who else have you kissed?” Katy asks.

“Oh…just Joe, and Charlie…and Frank.” A few minutes later, I get a text from Frank’s mom: “Rumor has it that Waylon got in trouble for kissing Tina. LOL.” I contemplate telling her that Tina’s not the only one, but decide to wait until after she babysits for me next weekend.

We eat dessert in the back yard; Waylon takes a bite of ice cream, swallows, runs to the playscape, climbs the latter, jumps to the trapeze, swings around 180°, and then comes back to the picnic table for another bite. His path is cluttered with plastic toys and garden tools. All the junk Katy shoveled out of the car in order to transport equipment to the rock show last night is jumbled in a trash bag on the doorstep. The bag might sit there a week or even a month before its contents are missed and sorted.

Surveying our disorderly domain, I force myself to focus on the bright side of that study about childhood reading and household order: at least one of the questions on the Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale asked about a regular bedtime routine. In my optimistic moments, I choose to interpret routine as ritual. I can’t promise Waylon cleanliness, but I can promise him ritual.

7:30 is story time. Waylon snuggles against me in the bed, and we take turns reading to each other. After that, Katy leads the bedtime song, a customized version of “The Farmer in the Dell.” In this version, the wife takes a wife and all kinds of strange pairings ensue: a block with a Lego, a horse with a worm, and (in a nod to E.B. White) a pig with a spider.

The song has to end the same way every night, or else Waylon won’t go to sleep. The spider takes the cheese. And then there’s a Freddie Merucury-style chant:

“Hi-ho the derry-o, the spider takes the cheese and makes a holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, hole.”

Holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, whole.marfasheetsThis post was originally posted under the title “The Chaos, Hubbub and Order Scale.”

P.S. A lot of people have asked for a link to the original “Should Waylon Have Two Mommies” article.

Butch County photo by John Leach of johnleachphoto.com. Used with permission.

Put a Ring on It

Katy claims that it happened like this:

We were in my car, heading north.  She was behind the wheel. “If we were straight,” she said, turning to the passenger side, “I’d take you to Atlantic City and marry you right now.”

And then, purportedly, I said, “For all this talk of marriage, I don’t see a ring on my finger.”

There are two problems with this scenario.  First, I am not a coquette.  It is not my custom to speak like a latter day lesbian Scarlet O’Hara. Second, I am not a believer. I’m the divorced child of divorced parents.  I don’t venerate marriage as a natural state, a keystone of civilization, or even a particularly convenient model of intimate relationship.

Still, “I don’t see a ring on my finger” are the words that, according to the only other extant witness, I am supposed to have uttered on September 10, 2000.

This was our second date. I had recently relocated from Austin, Texas, to rural Pennsylvania. As a newly minted English Ph.D., I was eager to take advantage of a visiting professorship at a small liberal arts college just west of the Allegheny River.  Nevermind that my new home was two hours from the nearest airport.  Or that the local lesbians lived like Jamesian maiden aunts. Or that the weather forecast called for snow from October to May. All the better, I told myself, I’ll hole up by the fire and write.

But I wasn’t writing.  I was thinking of Katy. And I invited her to visit my rural abode.

A week-long second date is a risky proposition. Since I had left Austin, we’d thrown caution to the wind, confessing our dearest hopes and desires over lengthy long-distance telephone calls.  By the time Katy arrived at the airport, we were already building a future on the flimsy foundation of flirtatious conversation.  But we hadn’t even kissed yet.  If our physical chemistry didn’t match our conversational chemistry, we would have to suffer a long and awkward seven days.

After our first kiss (in the baggage claim area), we did considerably less talking.

Five days later, we came up for air. Our time together was almost over, and I wanted to find something special to mark the end of our epic date.

A colleague told me about Lily Dale, New York, a Victorian-era village populated by psychics. I knew that my new love had an affinity for the supernatural, and I thought it would make an amusing day trip.

Lilydale1910
A spiritualist camp meeting in Lily Dale, NY, 1910.

Founded in 1879, Lily Dale quaintly bills itself as the largest spiritualist community in the world—as if municipalities worldwide are vying to be the capitol of a nineteenth century fad. In Lily Dale’s heyday, spirits knocked on tables and powerful mediums oozed ectoplasmic goo. These days, so-called “physical manifestations” are frowned upon.  But Lily Dale is still home to 90 registered mediums, who commune with the dead in private consultations and regularly scheduled public meetings.

It’s a strange place for a romantic getaway.  Most pilgrims are grieving.  They come in search of answers about the death of a child or lover.  They want to know where the treasure is hidden or whether their dearly beloved is resting peacefully on the other side.

foresttemple
It looked like several generations of American optimism had collided and fallen into disrepair.

Katy and I arrived just after the regular season, which lasts from June to August.  The weather had turned wet and windy, and mud puddles clotted the narrow streets. Standing water glistened from bright green Astroturf on the ramshackle porches of aging Victorian cottages.  It looked like several generations of American optimism had collided and fallen into benign disrepair.

Holding hands, Katy and I followed the path to a pet cemetery in a stand of ancient trees.  Under their lush green canopy, Katy told me about the deaths of her dogs, Face and General Lee.  She told me about her best friend Jane Ellen, who had promised to visit in dreams after she died. Sitting on a stump in the shade of the forest, Katy told me about her crystal meth days, when she could walk into a library or a metaphysical bookstore and literally hear books calling her name.

Normally, this was the kind of talk that caused me to roll my eyes.

As a teenager, I had been hostage to my mother’s New Age awakening, when she bought a condo in Santa Fe and consulted a psychic to help her find husband number three.  Surrounded by tanned white people with positive vibrations, I had resisted with the only weapons I knew—sunscreen and a bad attitude. As soon as I could, I fled to the gothic mists of the Pacific Northwest. I vowed that folk art angels would never adorn my home.

Rather than putting me off, Katy’s mysticism made me want to get closer.  Her drug-induced visions of talking books had a dark, malevolent edge that was missing from the usual New Age blather.  The darkness allowed me to relax my constant vigilance and adopt a guardedly curious posture toward things that I habitually disavowed.

It helped that she had all the trappings of a Romantic hero: Long, dark hair, a prominent brow, and a death sentence.  When she quit drugs a decade earlier, Katy had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C.  The future looked like cirrhosis or cancer. Then, a few years later, a new generation of antiviral drugs brought hope for people with Hepatitis C.  Katy had weathered their punishing regimen—only to find that her particular strain of the virus did not respond.  Now she spoke matter-of-factly about her early expiration date.

“When I’m 65, I’ll start drinking again,” she said. “We can go on one of those Delbert McClinton blues cruises and booze it up until my liver gives out.”

I nodded my head. I had no idea who Delbert McClinton was. In her company, I felt unmarked by loss and experience. Being with her was like visiting another planet. It was like fucking an alien.

tuffy
Katy told me about her dear, departed dogs, Face and General.

I told her about my recently deceased cat, for whom I had built a small (secular) shrine.  I told her about my exes, which were the closest things I had to ghosts.

Despite all the stereotypes of lesbian merging, I had no intention of actually changing my mind about New Age spirituality.  However, because I was drunk on infatuation, and because I wanted to continue having exciting alien sex, I didn’t voice my usual opinions on mediums (quacks), the afterlife (unlikely), or monogamous marriage (extremely unlikely).

We kissed in the dappled light under the trees. An old man in overalls wandered past the headstones of long-dead pets.  I was wearing a blue vintage dress and spiky hair.  Katy was wearing combat boots and a black bowling shirt with the name “Dick” emblazoned on the pocket. I wondered, when the old man looked at us, did he see a man and a woman?  Or two dykes defiling the woods?

We emerged from the forest and into the circle of Victorian houses where mediums entertain spiritual seekers.  My ambivalence was like a powerful alternating current, propelling us up the stairs of each house and then repelling us back down into the street.  Each time we found a medium at home, Katy looked at me, trying to sense whether this was the one.  Each time, I shook my head no.

In truth, I did not want to get a reading because I was afraid that Katy would see my disbelief.  I did not want to pretend to believe, but I didn’t want her to think I was incapable of believing, either.  It was confusing. The air was full of other people’s hope and grief and yearning.  They mixed with my own swirling feelings and manifested as a lump in the back of my throat.

I do not know if Katy sensed my ambivalence.  Having grown up in a culture of ruthless affirmation, I had learned to hide mixed feelings.  But, as a dissenter, I had also learned to trust my instincts.  And now my instincts were guiding me to the Crystal Cove Gift Shop.

In the car, when the subject of weddings had arisen, Katy had predicted that a place like Lily Dale would surely have a crystal shop with rings. Now that we had passed up all of the potential mediums, she suggested that we seek it out.

Inside the Crystal Cove, I felt like the planchette on a Ouija board. I glided to the jewelry case.  Scanning the rows of quartz and hematite, my eyes lit on a silver diamante figure eight, an ersatz antique infinity symbol.

“Can I try that one?” I asked the heavily bejeweled white woman behind the counter.  I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I thought, I want it.

While the saleswoman was busy below the counter, I glanced at Katy to see if I was overstepping the bounds.  She looked happy and excited.  She told me that the ring was perfect for me.

I wanted something of hers to keep. (Later, before she went back to Texas, I would steal her shirt and keep it under my pillow, where I could press it to my face at night and breathe her in.)

If the ring fits, that will be a sign.

It fit.

I kept looking at Katy. Are we really doing this? She was selecting a ring for herself, a chunky Celtic design that looked at home on her big hand.

We paid for each other’s souvenirs. Back outside, we sat on a wrought-iron bench bedecked with cherubs. We hadn’t spoken about what, exactly, we were up to.  Now two small, white cardboard jewelry boxes were sitting between us.  Katy looked nervous.  I closed my eyes and searched for words and ritual that would consecrate the moment without overwhelming it.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you,” she replied. Tears streamed down both of our faces. I was crying because I was vulnerable and because it was okay. The lump in my throat was fading away. I felt for the rings and removed hers from the box.

“With this ring, I thee wed,” I said, quickly.  I slipped the ring on her finger and smiled.

“With this ring, I thee wed,” she echoed. She slipped the ring on my finger.

I do not believe in mediums, but I do believe in the future.

 

Photo credits: Tuffy by Ross Griff; Forest Temple by MHBaker.

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