Mirror Image

by
Leigh Stuart

“See that woman over there? See how she shakes hands like a man? She’s a lezz-bian. Be careful.”  My mother was talking about Effie, the female tennis pro who was about to give me a lesson. Maybe it was the delivery—a slow, low, forceful whisper across the table at the tennis club—or maybe it was Effie’s suntanned well-developed arms, but that admonition frightened me. If I were careful, though, nothing bad would happen. After my lesson, my mother instructed me to wash my hands and I wondered if Effie were contagious. I did what I was told, kept a safe distance from “the gays”, and didn’t catch anything during my formative years.

I was a good girl who did what she was told and didn’t upset anyone, especially her mother. A short time after gagging my way through Robert K’s “passionate” tongue kiss in the high school darkroom, I very secretly realized I would have rather kissed the lips of Susie L., the swimmer with the long blonde hair and the pretty face. Kissing Susie L. instead of Robert K. would have definitely displeased my mother, her bridge friends, and the generations upon generations of ancestors who were watching me from their graves.

I never did drugs, graduated from college and law school with honors, married a lovely man, and had two beautiful children. My family was proud of me and I was proud of making them proud. After twenty years of an unremarkable marriage (aside from our nonexistent sex life, my husband’s hidden cocaine problem, and the nagging fact that I had recurrent dreams of making out with Ellen DeGeneres in a rustic Spanish house in Santa Barbara), my husband suggested I get some interests and stop putting him under a microscope. I decided to sign up for spinning classes.

The exercise studio I chose was home to a colorful assortment of Venice Beach locals, and was definitely outside of my cloistered, private-school soccer-mom element. That’s exactly why I went there. After spinning regularly for a few months and building a toned physique, I felt strong, confident, and brave enough to sit in the front row with the experienced spinners. There was one person in particular who always captured my interest. She had a broad inquisitive forehead, dominant cheekbones, and a statuesque neck reminiscent of European royalty. Brownish blonde hair was gathered in a worn red band at the crown of her head, dreadlocks spilling down to frame her angular face. Her velvet skin contradicted the rough dreads, and her long dark eyelashes emphasized the flecks of amber in her eyes. “Hello,” she’d say, as she passed by, and then took a seat on the opposite side of the room. At the end of the 45-minute workout, I'd be sitting on the ground changing out of my cleats and she’d pass again. My eyes would scan her muscular legs and more often than not when I looked up she’d be smiling back down at me. No one noticed, though.

Many more spinning classes. Months of hellos and goodbyes. Looking for something new. Seeking something different. Legs circling furiously. Not moving an inch.

            This woman’s presence in the room became as invigorating as the exercise. Over time and without specifically acknowledging one another, we shifted to side-by-side bikes. While ostensibly keeping occupied with class-related preparations, I listened to her conversations. Her melodic accent flowed into me; I exercised it out of me. I’d never met anyone German before; I was sure my fascination stemmed from the many hours I’d spent watching the History Channel.

Nothing more.

Nothing at all.

When our friendship did form, it was over exercise. An evening spin, followed by yoga three times a week can really cement a connection. At 42 years of age I was, at last, an athlete. We spoke of plans to train for the Los Angeles marathon or do a mini triathlon. One day she invited me to dinner at one of her favorite restaurants. I was thrilled to be taking our exercise friendship to the next level. That’s when she said it.      

            “I’ve been spinning since my girlfriend Sam and I bought the loft next door to the studio about a year ago. How about you?”

            Sam? Girlfriend?

            I was struck with an unfamiliar feeling akin to an errant dagger to the chest. No. She couldn’t be. A few months ago, I’d seen her at the Venice Art Festival walking arm in arm with a tall dark-haired man, no doubt her handsome boyfriend.

Now what?

Four margaritas later, mine blended no salt, hers on the rocks, I realized that there was nothing to fear. Talking to Verena was like talking into a mirror. I saw myself reflected in the almost unbelievable beauty of her eyes, and for the first time in my life, I wondered who I’d become and how much I’d been missing.

I needed to buy a Jeep. Wrangler. Red. I’d always wanted one but was told and therefore believed it was too dangerous. I drove a Volvo. Safe and sound. I even wore sensible shoes. It was about damn time I finally took some risks.

“Waiter, excuse me, Waiter?” Waiving my arms as if the bus were leaving without me, “I’d like another margarita, this time on the rocks, with salt.”

That felt good.

“Verena?” I swallowed hard. “Would you mind if I touched your hair?”

She swiftly looked up.

“Not many people you know have dreadlocks?”

I promptly looked down.

“Next week I’ll be cutting them all off, bleaching the spikes then leopard spotting them.”

Well then, since time is of the essence...

I removed the dreads from their tether and down they tumbled, down below her shoulders. They weren’t as hard as they looked. In fact, they were soft and kept in neat, symmetrical sections. I investigated from where they grew and inhaled the faintest scent of Jil Sander. She responded to my touch, leaning her head into my hand wherever it traveled, offering herself fully to my sensual absorption. She then took hold of my hand, brought it up to her pink lips and kissed it. I stopped breathing as a bolt of lightning traveled down to my toes, awakening something somewhere in between that had gone to sleep in high school.

We started hanging out, reveling in our differences: I, a conservative, middle-aged wife and mother with two children planning a puppy party for my daughter’s twelfth birthday; and she a wild German lesbian running a successful production company and taking a class in concrete flooring.

We also discussed our similarities—we were both women with traditional values who were close to our families, who looked for the best in people, and who wanted to be understood. We wrote volumes upon volumes of email welcoming each other into the deepest parts of ourselves. We went to the Getty Museum, took long walks on the Venice Boardwalk and, mostly, talked. We talked for hours while the light changed in her loft, the shadows grew, and the earth continued to revolve on its axis. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, just spending time with Verena.

I told myself that an immoral person, as opposed to me, is a person who has sordid secrets and doesn’t tell the truth. My life was an open book. Some called me malignantly honest; I considered that a compliment. I informed my husband about my growing physical attraction to Verena and told him every single time I went to her house before, or after, spin. He even said to me, “All I want is for you to be happy. Whatever happens is gonna happen. I just hope I don’t end up homeless.”  Well, of course he’d never end up homeless. He was my husband, for goodness sake.

Did I mention her new hairdo? She actually did cut off her dreads, leaving short, bleached blonde spikes that exposed a thin line of dark roots, just at the hairline. Somehow that contrast, along with subtle black and brown leopard spots, magnified the almost impossible golden-greenness of her eyes. With shorter than short hair, delicate feminine features, defined bone structure, and a strong, fit body, she suddenly defied description. Verena was both, all, everything—a handsome man and a gorgeous woman neatly contained in one package. This ambiguity was entirely foreign to me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

There was certainly nothing immoral about looking.

I’d spent my entire life not upsetting anyone and I wasn’t about to start now. Instead of keeping our intriguing acquaintanceship separate from the fabric of my life, I gradually brought her into my family. Over time and a few poker nights, Verena became friendly with Mark and the kids. I took her to a “girls’” dinner with my 80-year old mother, who called to tell me how lovely my new friend was, “She has such a pretty face, wouldn’t a little hairclip on the side do wonders for her look?” I pictured one of those pink plastic clips that I wore when I was a teenager, this time adorning the center of a brown leopard spot.

Our special friendship progressed effortlessly. She even broke up with Sam, citing irreconcilable differences. But that had nothing to do with me. Really. One weekend I attended a meditation retreat. I had asked her to join me, but she couldn’t. Halfway into the first day she surprised me by showing up, although I wasn’t really surprised at all. I’d been in a garden meditating on love and she appeared right beside me. Since I’d been working in a higher plane of consciousness and had expanded my boundaries well beyond my physical body, I knew that earthly limitations should no longer restrict our soulful connection. After all, I’d been studying meditation off and on for almost two weeks and recognized those sorts of things.

So.

We got naked in the hotel room and didn’t come up for air until well after dinnertime.

Being with her was the most natural, beautiful experience I had ever known. I’ll say that again another way because it bears repeating. Being with a woman named Verena was the most natural, beautiful experience I had ever known. I couldn’t tell where my body ended and her body began. We cried tears of connection and held one another. I held on for dear life, finally grasping what I’d been missing for over two decades.

From that day onward, the air I breathed smelled of sweet heavenly jasmine (although it could have been Jil Sander) and my heart and mind were certain of the following truths: 1) I was at long last entitled to feel this good, and 2) Somehow, some way, I would figure out how to be this free and not upset anyone. The details of that figuring were irrelevant at the time though, because I was ravenous for her. I ate well, filling myself with gratitude, excitement, relief, and a hearty helping of denial that I might be, ahem, gay. Whenever I wasn’t with my family I was with Verena, pushing away the unspeakable details of our connection and pulling her soft body into my arms. My transparency with my husband ceased.

Life moved forward and I clung so tightly to the heterosexual-good-girl version of myself that my hands went numb. All the while I was falling in love. With a woman. The doctor said the numbness and tingling came from a stiff neck and I should try to be less stressed. Less stressed?

One evening we went to a blues club and I enjoyed a tad too many double vodka cranberries, light on the ice. I was so used to being isolated and scared and nervous that when I heard the music, I started reeling and feeling and knowing such deep down, low down blues that the good girl inside of me moved over and made way for standing up, undulating and helicoptering my napkin above my head—and even producing high pitched “woos” when a part of the song especially moved me. Shocked by my out-of-character effusion, Verena became furious, and insisted we leave. She said I wasn’t who she thought I was.

That made two of us.

Verena referred me to a psychic. I didn’t ask why. This woman was a friend of a friend visiting California for a very short time and had recently given Verena a “shocking, yet accurate” reading. I was thrilled to share her experience. Of course I made an appointment and put up $150 for the hour. One can’t put a price tag on happiness, as they say.

She asked for my name and birthday and went into a trance, ultimately envisioning Verena holding a jagged piece of broken mirror and slicing me all the way down my center. The next image she saw was me lying on a dirt floor with a gaping, bloody wide open gash. I told her Verena would never do that and asked if perhaps it were a metaphor for something good. She explained, “Your higher selves are inextricably entwined and you have spent many lifetimes together in this ‘Earth School.’ Yet, in the current cycle, your lower selves might be incompatible. Your souls are definitely mates, though.”

Our souls were definitely mates. $150 well spent.

I straightened my curly hair, wore my two-carat diamond wedding ring and smiled pretty for the pictures. I attended piano recitals, soccer games, dinner parties, PTA meetings, and black-tie functions as a happily married mother of two. But when I dared think about the predicament I was in, I envisioned myself as a fraying rubber band stretched much farther than my capacity. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't continue to deny that I was living two lives and I found myself on the verge of one big snap. Horrifying thoughts haunted both my sleeping and waking hours. The existence of one life negated the legitimacy of the other and I was rapidly losing my grip on both of them. That meant only one thing: a shitstorm was looming on the horizon.

One day without any specific warning (it could have been as simple as my little boy asking me to make spaghetti for dinner), the torrent came. The sky broke open and inundated me with fear. Obsession. Urgency. Need. Doubt. Shame. More Shame. Tears. More Tears. Self-loathing. Physical pain. Mental pain. Hair loss. Shingles. Isolation. Hopelessness. I ended up hiding in a ball under my desk rocking back and forth, and settling on a perception of myself as a filthy lesbian adulterer who should burn in the fiery pits of hell. It didn’t matter than I was Jewish and wasn’t supposed to believe in those pits. It didn’t matter that I told my husband (almost) everything and he said that I should explore my feelings. It didn’t even matter that no one was mad at me, yet. None of it mattered because I was a married woman in love with a woman. I was bound to upset everyone around me, and consequently, I didn’t deserve to live.

Some might have said I was suicidally depressed. Or at the very least, unhinged.

There was one redeeming thought that kept me barely tethered to life. Although I’d lost my identity, I’d found my Soul Mate. Someday when everything was worked out and my husband had a girlfriend of his own and our kids were grown, Verena and I would live in a bougainvillea-covered cottage overlooking the Mediterranean. (We wouldn’t keep any sharp objects in the house.) The grandkids would visit us frequently and our lives would be full of love and laughter and family.

Then.  

Verena told me she was thinking about taking a solo road trip in order to wrap her mind around our “non-relationship” because what we had wasn’t real. News to me. What we had was the one true thing in my life. I was sure her need to get away grew out of my need to loathe myself. I would have wanted to get away from me too, given the mess I’d become.

She was gone for a few weeks, incommunicado. My cells ached for her. I had blonde chunk highlights dyed into my dark brown hair. I got an ear cartilage piercing at Tattoo Asylum in Venice. I even leased a red Jeep Wrangler, yet still couldn’t settle into my own skin without her in my zip code.

When she finally returned to Los Angeles, glass shard in the hand I longed to hold, she informed me she’d ended up connecting with the red rocks in Utah and had found her place in nature.

I was thrilled for us. “That’s great, Verena. When can we go see them together?” 

But wait. There was more “really exciting” news. “I’ve bought a house there.”

“Where?”

“In Utah.”

“What??”

“I’m going to move there.”

“Where?”

“To Utah. With Sam.”

“What?”

“I’m going to move to Utah with Sam. You can come visit us, if you want.”

“Us?”

They packed their cars and left the next week.

Yes they did. Just like that.

 

Then there I was; whoever that was. Sliced wide open and left for dead. While Verena was in Utah holding Sam’s hand looking at the red rocks, I was in the wake of the storm holding a mirror looking at a stranger. The woman I saw was tired and scared, yet remarkably athletic for her age. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her and wanted to know more.

That’s where the story really begins.