Two years ago, I was engaged to my boyfriend of six years in the Midwest, preparing for a life as a baby-making machine and a homemaker. But for some weird reason, it never sat right with me. I wanted to travel. When I dreamt of going to faraway places, I was always by myself. Snapshots passed through my head, singular. I didn't want children. I didn't want to be in the Midwest. I didn't want any of it. I wanted to travel, to volunteer, to be free.
I took the opportunity to do so in October 2010 and joined the AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), moving every two months across the United States to help communities in need. As I took the time apart from my fiancé, I began to see those snapshots take form. I was on top of a mountain, holding a chainsaw and removing invasive species from the Rocky Mountains. I was teaching children about Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, important figures they might not have otherwise learned about. I was helping to rebuild a home devastated by Katrina, six incredibly long years after, and I was doing it on my own.
I broke up with my fiancé six months into my service term. I knew that I needed to stop being with someone I was faking it with, though I didn't know that, walking into my third round project in Denver, I would fall for a woman who would open my eyes to everything.
My heart stopped as I entered the room where I first saw her. The light shining in from the old building's window cast a glow on the most beautiful person I had ever laid eyes on. She had big, voluminous curls and even bigger eyes, whose depth made my stomach drop like I was on a roller coaster. I had never felt like this about anybody before, much less a woman.
We went about the next two months flirting in a friendly manner. To her, I was a straight girl who had just broken up with her fiancé and was kind of a mess to get drunk with; to me, she was a stable rock, and her laugh made me feel like I was sitting in front of a fireplace with hot cocoa. The two months passed and I moved to my final service term several states away, but we still kept in touch. My heart skipped beats with every text, email or Google Chat window. I got insanely jealous when I saw her Facebook status on her birthday with another girl's name tagged, delighting on the lunch they had together, and that's when I knew something was up: why in the world would I be jealous of this girl when I was so totally, definitely, indubitably straight?
A couple months later, I moved to Denver. My apartment wasn't ready and I needed a place to crash, and who would offer up their futon but the girl with sunshine in her hair? One week into staying with her, I was ready to admit I had feelings that I wasn't able to ignore any longer.
Once I got settled into my new place with my roommates, we had a housewarming party complete with wine and gin bottles opening around noon. By 10:00 pm, she had begun to ask my advice on a girl she was texting. Apparently the girl wanted to grab a drink.
"No way," I said. "You and I should get a drink instead."
That drink turned into two-stepping at the local gay cowboy bar. Walking in those doors with her, I never felt more confident in my entire life. After the bar closed she held my hand walking home, and then let me know that her place was "definitely closer" than mine was, and I should probably just spend the night. We got to the front door, fumbling with the lock while talking to the neighbors, but before she could say goodbye I pulled her inside and kissed her as hard as I had imagined all those months before.
She pulled away slightly. "Are you sure?"
"I've been waiting to kiss you since the day I met you," I said. And we couldn't rush to the bathroom fast enough.
For me to double over and vomit. She came in and held my hair, then kissed my forehead gently before she put me to bed.
I woke up the next morning and there she was, sunlight making her luminous the same way it had the first day I saw her. The only difference was this time it was on her half-naked body in bed instead of seated at her desk.
After a few months of dating, I realized it was going to be damn near impossible to keep this from my family. I told a few close friends, who were thrilled – I'm still so blessed to this day to have such supportive friends who don't care about who I love, but how they make me feel – but I knew my mother would be a different story.
I took my girlfriend's dog out on a Sunday morning as she drove off to work and called my mom back in Wisconsin. Hilariously, she said she'd just put Black Swan on pause. In hindsight, I probably should have told her to shut the film off indefinitely lest things get worse, but I was too wrapped up in unwinding the speech I had prepared: I told her I was dating someone really great, who worked at the church and was also into volunteering, and that I was sure she'd love her. The phone crackled as my mother fumbled with it on the other end, then went dead. She called me back a few hours later and started to scream.
How could I do this to her?! How long did I know I was a lesbian? How dare I tell everyone in the world but her? She told me I wasn't welcome home for Thanksgiving, and I hung up the phone sobbing.
I was able to go home for Christmas on the one condition that I didn't "ruin the holiday by talking about her." I spent six days silent, with my extended family handing gifts to one another, feeling unwelcome and dejected by the person who said she'd always be on my side no matter what. By March, we were at a standoff – any time I mentioned the woman that had completely stolen my heart and turned me into an open, honest, loving person, I was met with the sound of a dead phone line. Finally, I wrote my mother a letter, telling her that if she couldn't accept me for who I was, she needed to let me go. The next day, there was a plane ticket in my name to go home and talk things out.
I spent the few days I had at home coming out over and over to various family members. I told my siblings again, and my grandparents for the first time, and I watched my mom's plan to make me feel intimidated fall apart in front of her. Sitting in the middle of a high-end seafood restaurant on a Thursday evening, she cried and asked me if I would ever date a man again. I told her probably not.
It's been nine months since the earth-shattering realization that my life wouldn't be spent straight and narrow. My mother has since met my girlfriend and come to terms with her, and she is now understanding of the fact that I am a lesbian columnist for a local LGBTQ newspaper and writer for an international website. On Thanksgiving, she told me on the phone that I need to remember all of this will take time – time as in, her lifetime – to understand. That she's come to the understanding that although it's always going to be different for her, because this isn't what she saw for me, now she sees that just because it's different doesn't mean it's wrong. I'm pretty sure we'll always butt heads when it comes to the women I love, but at least now we ultimately agree on the fact that love is love.
Now I get to look at the snapshots I never imagined seeing, ones of me, with a person I love, traveling and being free. Standing in a central Californian vineyard, stemmed wine glasses with garnet liquid in hand. On a riverboat in San Antonio, surrounded by friends who love and support us. In the middle of a field in rural Missouri, shooting her grandfather's guns at targets, the sunlight shining in her hair like the first day I met her.