I open an official college letter with the names of my roommate and two suitemates for my freshman year. The roommate is Joy S——. It is strange to look at this stranger’s name and think that I will see her every day for most of the next year, and right now I know nothing about her.
I send her a nervous introductory email. Her reply has several signs that make me hopeful: she mentions that she was homeschooled, that she is one of five children, that she recently returned from Ukraine. I’m the oldest of four, was also homeschooled, and Ukraine sounds like a likely mission trip destination. I ask, and she immediately responds: Yes! She is a Christian, conservative and evangelical and very serious about her faith. As am I. Although the idea of going to a Christian school was completely unappealing to both of us, we had some anxieties about being immersed in a secular environment for the first time in our lives. We are overwhelmingly relieved that we will be living with someone who won’t think we’re weird for being homeschooled Jesus freaks, and who will help us, if necessary, avoid temptation and stick with our beliefs. We write long letters all summer.
There is a “pimp and ho” party at the “good” frat. I am so glad to have her to go shopping with; she has some semblance of fashion sense and I have kissed a boy before, so we lean on each other a little in these matters. We go to Charlotte Russe one afternoon and pick out tops that seem quite daring to us: cleavage-diving and midriff-baring, with no backs at all.
We are all ready and sort of anxiously excited until the morning of the party. I don’t remember which of us first, hesitantly, confesses some guilty feelings. What if one of the other boys in the Christian fellowship should hear about us going, or see us there? The other one agrees with profound relief; she had been feeling the same, but didn’t want to back out. We abstain from the party, and stay home feeling virtuous together.
We love Ocean’s Eleven so much that we see it twice in two days. On the second day, we’re sitting at our computer screens and chatting about what to do that night. We talk about how much we loved the movie yesterday, and that it’s too bad it would be ridiculous to go see the same movie two days in a row. We are definitely not ridiculous. But when she says, “So, you wanna just drive somewhere?” we both know where we’re going.
We like how well Danny and Rusty can read each other, how they have an entire conversation with barely any talking. We feel like that, a lot. I’m Danny, we both agree, and she’s Rusty. I’m more impulsive and communicative and in danger of letting my emotions get me into trouble; she’s cool and detached and always in control. We’re a well-balanced team.
Although we don’t have as many classes together this semester, we have one class that uses the same room at different times. We pick a desk to always sit at, and start leaving each other notes under it. Silly notes, like my dreaming I was engaged to John Hannah after we watched Sliding Doors. Occasional complaints about the professor or another student. We have so many ways of making each other feel like we’re not alone.
We’ve been missing each other terribly over the summer, so I’m excited to get a package from her. It’s a mix CD, of songs that were important to us in the last year. Songs from movies we went to see, songs we sang along to on road trips, songs that express where we’ve been and how we felt. It is perfect.
We go to a Counting Crows concert; although neither of us had listened to them before college, we now know every word of August and Everything After. It is Halloween and the entire band is in costume: the keyboardist is a pirate, and Adam Duritz is wearing a giant bunny suit. On the way home from the concert I accidentally call her “Ginny,” and we both laugh, as at a perfectly understandable mistake.
New Year’s Eve, 2002
We spend the evening with a group of friends in Nashville: playing cards, listening to music, drinking, talking. Long December plays, and we sit close to each other on the sofa talking quietly. We hadn’t recognized until this moment how hard the last semester has been. Nothing concrete and nothing big, but a lot of tension and sadness, more fights than last year, more feelings of unrest. It is a huge relief to both of us to say goodbye to the old year.
It’s been a long December
But there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
We affirm it hopefully to each other. This year will be better. We are young and bright and learning, we have great friends, we have each other. 2003, a year of happiness and light.
She is reading Nietzsche in one of her classes and we’re talking about it, sitting on the floor of the dorm room. There have been more fights this winter, more sadness, more unnamed strain. I can’t even articulate it but I’ve begun to feel a dread of walking into our room; it’s as if the air there is thicker and the light dimmer.
She is talking about the eternal return of the same, and about pain. She describes a philosophy that, instead of justifying or alleviating or avoiding pain, looks at every experience no matter how laden with suffering, and says, “This is life; give me more.” She says those words with gleaming eyes, as if they are beautiful. To me they are terrible, and I feel the air thicken even more.
I am lying in bed with an incredible weight on my heart. While it’s been a hard few months, tonight this feeling engulfed me out of nowhere. Life feels intolerable. I wonder if I am depressed. My culture takes a disapproving view toward psych meds, but for the first time in my life I can understand why someone would take antidepressants. If a pill could make this feeling go away, I would take it in a heartbeat. But that feels out of the question for so many reasons, so instead I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and wonder if this is how life is going to be from now on, and if so how many months or years I can stand to live it.
Two days later we are having coffee and dessert at our favorite fancy restaurant. She has hinted that she has something she wants to talk about. After chit-chat and hesitating around the edges, she finally lets it drop: “Ginny, I think I’m depressed.”
And it is as if the sky clears and the sun emerges and I see my entire landscape in a clear light. My first thought, although I don’t say it, is, “Oh! That makes sense. I knew one of us was.”
It is Easter weekend, and she has just gotten back from tea with her dad, which she planned in order to ask for help getting to see a therapist. As soon as they return I can see that he feels good about the conversation and she does not. We sit down with her mom, who reiterates all the things her dad was evidently saying: that everybody goes through rough patches sometimes, that a better diet and more exercise will help a lot, that they’re confident she’s strong and smart and able to handle her emotions. Behind their words we can hear all the things they’re not saying: good Christian children don’t suffer from real mental illness. Her parents raised her right so there’s no way she could actually be depressed. Her parents followed the Bible so there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with her that faith and good living won’t cure.
They leave, pleased that they’ve solved this problem for their daughter. She curls up on the bed and sobs. It is the first time I’ve ever seen her cry.
It is Thanksgiving break after the longest and hardest seven months of my life. We cannot do this alone any more. I feel as if I’ve been holding her afloat with one arm and paddling desperately with the other. So we sit down with her parents, and she begins talking, and when she falters under their dismissive words, I talk. And talk, and talk. Until finally they hear us, and agree to investigate a therapist. And that night we sit together exhausted and silent, hoping that this is the beginning of getting better.
For the first time, we’re moving into a two-person instead of a four-person dorm, so it will be just the two of us. She’s been in therapy since December and found meds that work well for her, and life has been slowly getting easier and happier. We’re both looking forward to having a space that is just ours for senior year. It will be a peaceful and homey room, and we will build many happy memories to finish out our college time, to bookend with our idyllic freshman year.
I’m looking forward to an evening of catching up with just the two of us, but our friend Daphne comes over and Joy is eager to let her stay. I love Daphne, though I don’t have the special bond they do, so I don’t mind hugely. But somewhere in the back of my mind a quiet alarm rings: my perfect, happy senior year does not feel quite as inevitable as I’d thought a few hours ago.
I don’t remember when she came out to me, because I didn’t want to hear it. It was sometime in the fall. I remember her saying that she thought a big part of the reason she’d been depressed was that she was coming to terms with her feelings for Daphne, and that her therapist had suggested it might be bigger than being in love with one woman: she might actually just be gay. I heard it as her telling me about a conversation with her therapist, not a truth about herself.
This was not the story I wanted to be in. The next chapter of the story I wanted to be in went like this: we had a delightful senior year together, both fell in love with wonderful godly men, got married a year or so after graduating, went to grad school and became professors and writers, and always lived near each other and our children would play together and we would talk to them someday about how hard the middle two years of our college experience were, how we stuck together through incredible pain and came out stronger, by the grace of God and the power of love. Joy being a lesbian did not fit with any of my visions, of either our past or future. So I didn’t hear it.
There is a fat envelope on my desk with my name in blue pen and the little flourish she always adds to the ‘y’ at the end of both her name and mine. It holds seven handwritten pages, more words than she and I have exchanged all semester. Earlier this week I reneged on our plans to attend homecoming together, with a few other friends including Daphne, now openly her girlfriend. It was an agonizing choice for me. In the letter she tells me how much it hurt her too. How deep and life-sustaining and right the love between her and Daphne feels. How she doesn’t know, any more than I do, how to reconcile this love with what our Bibles and church leaders have told us, but that she feels God’s love in Daphne’s arms and she can’t walk away from it.
I sit on my bed and read the letter twice through. I don’t know how to answer her. She knows everything I would say. We were both taught that our hearts could deceive us, and that feeling deep love doesn’t excuse immoral actions, and that right and wrong come from the immutable words of the Bible, not from what feels right or good. (It is 1 Corinthians 5:11 I have used to justify not going to homecoming with her: a verse that demands I not associate with people who call themselves believers but are sexually immoral.) It feels cruel to me. It feels wrong. But feelings aren’t supposed to matter. So, in the name of doing what was right no matter how it feels, I broke her heart.
Our former campus minister, the one we talked to when Joy first told me she was depressed, comes back for a visit and a bunch of us go out to lunch with him. Joy, by now, is essentially living at Daphne’s apartment, and I haven’t seen her outside of class in weeks. I don’t even know if she knows he’s in town, but she doesn’t come along, of course. At one point he turns to me and asks, “Where’s your other half?” and my insides turn to sludge. I answer lightly that she’s with other friends, and quickly ask him another question to distract him.
We had always assumed we’d celebrate graduation together, and ask our families to do a joint dinner outing. That doesn’t happen. My parents know she’s gay — they’ve spent a lot more time “in the world” than her family has, and my dad picked it up very quickly when she and Daphne visited us — and while their kindness to her doesn’t change, they are uncomfortable being a party to deception.
I am arguing with my boyfriend. He is everything I’m supposed to want in a future husband: a strong Christian man, who leads Bible studies and dreams of missions. His voicemail tells anyone who calls, “Jesus loves you, and you can know him personally.” He takes issue with my attitude toward my college best friend.
Sin is sin, he tells me. Are you saying that sin isn’t sin? No, I protest, but I think maybe love and God’s plan is bigger than we think it is. I don’t know how it could be that it’s okay for her to be dating women right now, but I do know this: she is a vibrant and loving and happy woman now, and before she came out she was brittle and defensive and anxious. I cannot look at her and say that she is on a wrong or destructive path. We are supposed to care about truth, and this is the truth: she is closer to love and goodness and God as a lesbian than she was before.
Later, on the phone, I tell her about the argument. It is the first time I’ve expressed these thoughts to her; almost the first time I’ve expressed them to myself. We delicately edge around the issue of my boyfriend’s judgemental harshness, but both of us can feel our friendship starting to breathe again.
I’ve driven up to visit her in her little apartment in Pittsburgh, where she’s working on her PhD. We walk through Squirrel Hill, visiting several of her favorite shops. There is a hookah store and on a whim I buy a tiny blue one, with some coals and tobacco to go with it. We spend hours at the record store, and I buy two records even though I don’t own a player. They can live with her, I say, until I get one.
Later we sit on the floor of her apartment, smoking the hookah and listening to the records while her cat chases the smoke. There is a beautiful blue-and-white painting of a nude woman on her wall, painted by the lover Joy recently broke up with but still loves and is close with. They broke up because the girlfriend is polyamorous and Joy, as she discovered after trying, isn’t. I’ve never heard of polyamory before, but we discuss the philosophy of it and I think it’s an interesting and cool approach to love.
We talk about God. She still believes in God and Jesus’s love, but hasn’t found a church she fits in. I’ve recently lost all connection to my beliefs and am not sure what to call myself, other than not a Christian. She is one of the only people who can understand what this means to me; who can hear my account of my beliefs without being invested in either side. She knows me well enough that she can hear everything I’m saying and not saying, and reflect me back to myself.
I am making sugar cookies, dividing the dough into six equal parts, mixing a different color into each part. When each piece is dyed, I roll them out, layer them into two logs: red, orange, and yellow; green blue, and purple. They are rainbow cookies for Joy, who has come back to Atlanta to come out to her parents.
It goes about as badly as we’d expected, but we are ready: Daphne and I and a few other close friends. We sit around on my floor and we eat rainbow cookies and we pass around a bottle of champagne because I don’t have enough glasses. We laugh and hug and listen to music. We try to make our support and love a living wall, high enough and strong enough to block out her parents’ rejection. It is not enough — nothing could be — but at least there is laughter and love.
After my dad hangs up the phone, I sit on the floor and cry for a while, then I call Joy. I tell her I’ve finally called my parents to tell them I’m engaged; that my dad was the only one home; that he was disappointed and disturbed, and told me so at length. My fiancé is an atheist, and our relationship is polyamorous, and my dad had a lot to say on both topics. She listens as I pour out my frustration and heartbreak that they can’t just be happy for what makes me happy, can’t see that I’m thriving and free, won’t even ask about the reasons I feel my choices are right for me. She doesn’t need me to tell her how it feels, but she listens anyway.
Later, regrets start coming in from my Christian friends. I am making a mockery of marriage, and coming to my wedding would be too much like expressing support. I am not surprised; I could have written their reasons myself.
Although I apologized long ago for the ways I hurt Joy when she first came out, I tell her again how sorry I am. She knows, and I am already forgiven.
It is Joy’s wedding day and I’m as busy as I’ve ever been in my life — busier even than on my own wedding day, eight months earlier. I am buzzing from one person to another, making sure everything’s in place and perfect. I am running interference to make sure she and her spouse-to-be don’t catch a glimpse of each other. I am going through my little folder with the service order again and again, to make sure everything is in place and nothing’s missing. She was always the tidy and organized one, and I was the one with piles of papers and books teetering uncertainly on the floor of our dorm room. But today, for her, I’m going to be organized and make sure everything is perfect.
Four months ago I sent away for a ULC ordination so I could perform their wedding ceremony. About a week ago, on the phone from our different states, we talked about what she would like me to say. “I want something about family,” she said. So I say that while family has had many different sizes and shapes through the history of humanity, the heart of family is people who are bound together by love and by the commitment to help each other through life. I thank her partner for being family to her, for being someone I can count on to always take care of her.
Joy told me repeatedly to check my mail once I got to my apartment, so I’m not surprised to see a letter from her in the box. I walk slowly upstairs with it and sit down on the camp cot I’m using as a bed. There’s little else in the apartment but my computer desk and my cat. It’s my first night here and I’m hoping I can cope with being alone.
I left my husband two weeks earlier, after he hit me in an explosion of rage. Joy was my first call. She lives far away but she’s been there for me every day, calling and texting, and making sure I have a piece of friendly mail waiting for my at my new apartment — the first place I will ever live alone.
I open the envelope. She still writes our names with that little flourish at the base of the ‘y’. She’s enclosed a little “best wishes” tag left over from her wedding, and written “Happy happy new home!” on the back. She’s also enclosed a page of memories from our first few years together. I lie back in bed and read it and smile, and when I’m done, I tape it to the wall over the bed, and hang the “best wishes” tag on a hook near the door — my first decoration.
Lovers have come and gone over the years; parents have rejected and broken our hearts. But we are family, and we will never be alone.
Ginny Brown is a writer and sexuality educator living in Philadelphia.