I’m fifteen, and there’s this girl. We’re on a summer Girl Scout expedition, sailing a tall ship around the San Juan Islands. She asks to climb to the top of the crow’s nest every day until the captain gives in, and whenever anyone accuses her of being pushy or bossy, she grins and says: “I’m awesome.” She knows every word to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Modern Major General.”
It occurs to me that the way I feel about her is an awful lot like the way I feel about the upperclassman who directed my freshman theater performance last year: the only difference is that one is a boy and one is a girl. But “lesbian” and “bisexual” are playground insults, alien creatures. They’re a type of person I’ve been told you should love, but only because you should love everyone, not because it’s okay to have a crush on someone whose gender isn’t the opposite of yours.
So instead of trying to hold her hand, I talk to her about books. We befriend three other nerdy girls and the five of us lie on the bowsprit late into every night, furiously guessing what J.K. Rowling might reveal in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That autumn, I read the His Dark Materials series in the school library at lunch, because they’re her favorites. I’ve always imagined Lyra looks just like her.
I’m twenty-six, and there’s this woman. We met on OKCupid, because I’m recently free of a lonely long-term relationship with a man. Possibilities I forced myself to forget years ago are opening up again. I think I might like ethical non-monogamy. I think I might like punk rock music. I know I like this woman I’m with tonight. She’s brilliant and polite, and she picked an Italian restaurant that she says has always felt “date-y” to her. We are both trying very hard, because we’re both bisexual women who have only ever dated men before, and we’re both scared we’ll do this wrong. What if I try to kiss her, and she doesn’t want me to? What if I accidentally become every guy who’s ever made me uncomfortable?
So instead of suggesting we head back to my place, I talk to her about books. She’s interned at NPR with my favorite pop culture critics, and she calls Dave Eggers “Dave” because she went to his workshops when she was a kid. We talk and talk until the little Italian restaurant closes. We do the same thing at two more restaurants before, finally, kissing goodnight on our way into separate subway cars. We’ve talked enough by then to know we both want to.
I’m almost thirty now, and I love three women. One of them writes horror stories so chilling I believe she must be the bravest person in the world. We used to be girlfriends, and we still walk everywhere holding hands even though we aren’t girlfriends anymore. Another is a librarian who’s always the first to tell me when a new adaptation of Peter Pan comes out. When we met, we flirted by putting each other’s names into Hamilton lyrics. The third works for a publishing company. She likes dogs more than most people, but I know she likes me because she tells me about all her favorite fiction podcasts and always wants me to listen to them as soon as they update so we can talk about them together.
But there are no words for any of these relationships, none that feel quite right. Each of them is too much my best friend to only be my “partner,” and too important a life partner to only be my “friend.” Cuddling close to any one of them feels thrilling and safe, but I would still be close to each of them even if they asked me never to physically touch them again. The thing is, I never did learn a script for relationships with women the way I did for relationships with men. And now that I’m learning to love each of these individual women in a way that feels right to them, and to me, I’m starting to think we all might be better off that way.
So instead of trying to figure out what you call the writer, the librarian, and the publisher you want to spend your life with, I talk with them about books. “Book squad!!!” I’ll email them. “Did you know a new collection is coming out with stories by Alyssa Wong and Seanan McGuire?? Did you know you can get ACTUAL BOOK CARTS on Amazon for only $40.00????”
They don’t just tolerate my all caps and excessive punctuation marks—they reply with their own. We add each other’s favorite books to our TBR lists. Two of us have that book cart from Amazon now. All of us know how many tote bags it takes to emerge victorious from Book Con.
I may never know exactly how to ask the women I fall for to come into and stay in my life. But when I’m talking to them about books, that’s okay. They’re already here.