Judith Barrington

The Closet

by Judith Barrington

Lorca said “to burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” I recognize this punishment. But did I do it to myself or was it done to me?

In my mid twenties I’d still never heard of anyone living an openly lesbian life and there was plenty to be afraid of. Family and friends threatened rejection without having to say a word, decent people were ready to shun me, and the bad end that perverts always came to in the stories of the time was waiting to grab me. There’s that. And then there’s this: I deceived everyone I knew.  The honorable schoolgirl who had always dropped her pennies into the “uncollected fares” box transformed herself into a liar.

There are times when I can only see the schemer and other times when I am simply a victim; it’s almost impossible to bring them together in a tidy bundle. And there’s a third piece to this puzzle: wasn’t I also the young woman who was willing to listen to burning desire and find a way to keep it alive? My heart refused to be silenced. Put that on the scales too.

* * * * *

The closet as an expression is threadbare these days. Closet soap opera fans, closet pepsi drinkers, closet shoppers—they all conjure up a vague sense of hiding. Yet my closet was about much more than hiding. Sure, I skulked around when lighting up my most incendiary lesbian moments, but the closet is about what goes on inside—inside the human, not the cupboard.

When I try to describe it, I shy away from recollections of desperation and from the rotten smell of my own dishonesty. Instead of looking inward, I find myself summoning up the large, ornate wardrobe next to the bed in my first rented room: curlicues, carved wooden roses, ill-fitting doors with hanging latches. I invoke lesbians and gay men huddled, a long, long time ago, in a dark box with musty overcoats and moth-eaten tweed trousers. Or I remember the game where, as children, my friends and I would fan out through someone’s big, old house and squeeze ourselves into narrow spaces between bookshelves, creep underneath beds and pull the bedspreads down in front of our tightly closed eyes. Waiting was the name of that game. Waiting to be discovered.

But I wasn’t playing a game and couldn’t allow myself to imagine being found out. My terror wasn’t a metaphor; it was alive and inseparable from my infatuation with women—an integral part of the lovely thing, the soft, perfect thing. That was Lorca’s “punishment:” to live with love and fear so thoroughly intertwined that it would take decades to unravel them.

It’s the terror that breeds deceit though at the time it doesn’t feel like lying. I refused to think of either of my two separate lives as untrue; instead, lifting the dusky, opaque veil that hung between them and ducking under it, I slid easily from scene to scene.

It’s the infatuation that pumps the blood and keeps the energy flowing. And never doubt that it takes a whole lot of energy to maintain parallel lives. My old diaries record that I drove 80 miles at night after work to a party where I met a boyfriend who did, or did not, believe in me as a likely girl. On the way back, fairly drunk and skidding around the tight turns on the motorway, I found myself planning where to find a phone box: that other life—the lesbian one that I never thought of in those words—had started tugging at me, demanding contact, endearments, a desperate plea for a night together somewhere. It was the infatuation, too, that taught me high-level organization: a trip through France with a plausible explanation; an overnight stay while a husband was away on business. Not exactly lying I tell myself, since I believed my own lies, which was surely pretty close to not lying.

Edmund White called this dual life “essence versus existence.” Essence was simple: I felt, thought, lusted and loved as the lesbian I was. Existence was the problem: it involved being careful with words—especially pronouns, dressing and acting in a way that disguised the essence, and trying to love people of the wrong gender—wrong, that is, for me. This existence felt like walking around with a sack on my back filled with waterlogged clay so heavy that I couldn’t even lift my head to look anyone in the eye. Gray water dripped from it until my back and legs were sodden; then it congealed and hardened, forming a kind of shell. True to my astrological sign, I became a crab.

Before I started hiding, I had been given only to minor deceptions of the kind a teenager cooks up to go to a rock’n roll concert her parents disapprove of. At twelve, I had lied to the hospital when I’d gone in with a fractured arm, my story about the bicycle accident a fiction designed to protect the boy who had actually caused it—but even then I’d been prone to such pangs of conscience that I’d woken up in the middle of the night and confessed the truth to my mother. As I moved into the secret life, the burden of deception was no less difficult to bear, but I no longer had a mother nor the courage to confess. The effort it took to hide in plain sight marked me for life.

Both the faces I presented to the world felt like fictions but neither one exactly fit. While I operated in the commonplace, normal world of work and boyfriends, the life in which perversion lurked was the fiction. But when I was with Sophia, I knew that pretending to be normal was by far the greater invention; it was so hard to pull off that furiously heterosexual act. I picked up salesmen on planes or took off clothing for beer-bellied journalists whose names I was never able to remember later, even though one was quite famous. For years after the quick gropes, I noticed his by-line—much more exciting than his novel approach to sex which, as I dimly recall, involved hauling me to the very edge of his bed while he crawled around on the floor, popping up and down in the vicinity of my legs.

Somewhere in there, I got “engaged” to a man I met on a flight to Scotland. There was a small ring and a notice in the paper, which appalled my family since neither they nor I knew anything at all about him. It became clear later when I could actually think again, that I couldn’t picture doing anything with him—not even a week’s holiday, much less a house with the two of us in it. He appeared to have no family and no friends, though I wonder now if this was simply because he might have been already married.  When he took me to Danny LaRue’s gay cabaret, I wore a glamorous wig; maybe he liked cross-dressers and recognized me as one of them in my coarse ash-blond topknot and pale gray chiffon trouser suit that resembled pajamas.

Some of the boyfriends who populated my faux-hetero life were sweet and trusting. Giles, for example, took my emotional absence to be a natural response to my parents’ recent deaths. Others, though, fluttered around me sensing I was a bit of a perv. Like the fiancé who was into transvestites, they were intrigued by something about me—something I had no idea they were picking up on, as indeed I didn’t pick up on it myself. With Bruce, it might have been his own gayness, though he fixated on the lure of mine, without either of us knowing it; with Martin, perhaps he was rising to the sexual challenge I presented: unlike most of them, he studied up on female anatomy. But I was always far away in my other life, even while we trod carefully across the dance floor in one another’s arms.

* * * * *

My parents had clung to the respectable side of our hometown, although I picked up that Brighton had a somewhat vulgar reputation. Music hall jokes and stories of illicit weekends (nudge nudge, wink wink) invariably took place where I lived as a child, but were delicately ignored by Ma and Pa. What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t find out for decades, was that Brighton was the gay capital of England—that there were gay bars, gay pubs, underground networks of closeted working-class guys, flamboyant networks of upper-class, high-church men, and at least one lesbian hangout. Even the villages of Sussex where I rode my horse, were full of lesbians, some of them famous but none of them visible to me.

Actually, that’s not exactly true: they were visible and I must have known there were queers in the world, but I’d learned very early what not to notice and what could never be spoken about. After all, there were lots of dykes at the horse shows I went to—women in breeches who judged our competitions or ran the pony club. What if one of them had let on that she lived with that other woman who showed up in a landrover and brought her a sandwich lunch? Or what if the pony club camp leader had brought a pretty woman along when we all slept in the hay at the red barn? Suppose I had woken up and seen them kissing? What then?

At my girls’ school, many of us had been preoccupied with “amours,” which sometimes became the subject of teasing, but were fundamentally respectable. The object of our desire was called a “pash” and mine was the captain of the first lacrosse team—as tough and muscular a girl as that position demanded. In spite of hating lacrosse, I went out on the coldest, rainiest days to watch my beloved tearing the length of the field, twisting past defenders with the ball tucked securely into her stick, which she cradled in time with her thudding feet and held dangerously close to her face. It was not unusual for good lacrosse players to get their teeth knocked out, but my heroine was immune, so swiftly did she run on her shapely legs, so deftly did she duck and weave through the defense line. For a year, I’d written her initials all over my notebook, sometimes twined into a heart.

But somehow I knew there was a line we could never cross. I have a blurry but insistent memory of someone whispering that two girls had been expelled from school. Although they hadn’t been in my form, I knew immediately who they must be. One was big—a solid presence with widely spaced brown eyes; the other has faded except as part of the inseparable couple—the two who walked hand in hand and sometimes lay in the long grass around the edge of the lacrosse field, hands touching in the jungle of clover, perhaps even holding each other face to face when they thought no one was around.

* * * * *

My old school friend, Sue Bannister, and I met for lunch one Sunday at her parents’ golf club. For thirteen years from kindergarten through the sixth form we had been irrevocably connected by the simple fact of our consecutive names on the class register. Now we were both in our twenties and Sue had become an operating-room nurse at Westminster Hospital. Vitality emanated from the top of her carefully bleached head down to her burgundy Italian shoes.

My best friend—except when Carol or Ann or some other interloper had temporarily usurped me—Sue had been the only one who refrained from comment when, at ten, I got my hair cropped by a barber who used electric clippers and left stubble, just the way I wanted, above the collar of my school blouse. At twelve and thirteen, when I was still a tomboy and growing sulky, we stayed friends and, as Sue started blond-rinsing her hair and charming the Brighton College boys who hung around the school gates, I became a good listener to her boyfriend dramas. When I went off to Spain and she to nursing school, both of us acquired new circles of friends and met only occasionally for lunch or a drink. Our connection had belonged primarily inside the school walls that would forever provide the floor plan for our dreams.

Tucking into mounds of rare roast beef, we gossiped about school friends. Sue as usual, knew everything about everyone since she corresponded on her personalized notepaper with many in our class. In that familiar dining room where the two of us as kids so often ate Sunday lunch with her parents, for a second I felt young again, the future full of possibilities.

Sue helped herself to more roast potatoes and asked me if I remembered her friend Bobbie. I thought for a moment: hadn’t she been at the holiday cottage that time I’d gone with Sue to meet a group of her friends in Cornwall?

Sue leaned forward, glanced around, and whispered: “She’s dead. Committed suicide last week.” I looked at Sue: it had always been hard to read her emotions.

“She got involved with a woman. You know—involved…”

A frown furrowed her forehead. What was I supposed to say?

I continued pushing overcooked beans around my plate thinking about that word involved, until Sue reached across the table and grasped my wrist.

“It’s awful, Jude. She overdosed last Thursday!”

A noisy crowd of men surged into the dining room, guffawing. I glanced up at Sue, then looked away, my fork frozen in a fierce grip. The only thing I could remember about Bobbie, and I suppose it had been in Cornwall, was how she had closed both her hands into loose fists in front of her chest, the knuckles not quite touching, and jerked them down in quiet triumph, hissing “Yes!” as if her whole life was packed into that sibilance.

There above the harbor, the evening had passed in a haze of red wine and scrabble games until the jovial midnight discussion about where Sue and I, the last to arrive, were going to sleep. Someone had rummaged through a closet and hauled out a collapsible camp bed made of canvas strung onto a folding wooden frame into which the two of us—strapping girls that we were—barely fit.

The following morning, sunlight was angling through the small kitchen window when I woke with a vague dread of having done something wrong: perhaps I’d rolled into Sue and our breasts had touched. But she looked unperturbed, already sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee amid the chatter.

“How’d you two sleep?” someone asked, popping bread into the toaster.

“This settles it once and for all.” Sue’s laugh had been nothing but good-natured. “I’m never going to marry Jude!”

* * * * *

All through the closet years, I considered my lovers to be straight women. Mostly they had, or used to have, husbands, and I never doubted that if I loosened the grip of my charm, if I relaxed out of my relentless pursuit, they would revert. I didn’t consciously think of myself as a lesbian either, and never talked with any of them about what exactly we were doing together. Our bodies were acting out a drama that our minds refused to witness as if somewhere in the desert a jagged crack had opened up in the earth’s surface, my body on one side, my mind stranded across the chasm, looking determinedly the other way.

Jane, was, like Sophia, twenty years older than me and had a daughter only a few months my junior. She had raised her alone, holding down two jobs in order to pay for private schools. The father was some kind of brass band musician in the army, but he’d disappeared when the pregnancy showed up. Not only did mother and daughter live together, they worked in the same office—a Brighton insurance agency where I was sent as a temp during my winter break from tour guiding in Spain. Tanned and blonde and long-legged, I was ogled by all the men who sat in their fusty cubicles but it was Jane who took me home for meatloaf and spaghetti, tales of my life at the Spanish castle, and, when her daughter acquired a boyfriend, evenings à deux by the fire with foot rubs and slow ballads on the record player. Jane was a Tom Jones fan. She liked his thighs, she told me, trying to boost her rapidly fading credentials as a brassy heterosexual. At night she was head receptionist at a seafront hotel where Richard Burton and Liz Taylor sometimes checked in: he, too, got plenty of play as the man of her dreams.

But male thighs notwithstanding, we ended up in bed—the double bed in which, astonishingly, she still slept with her daughter. Thus, life started to revolve around the comings and goings of the young one with the new boyfriend—a young woman who thoroughly deserved to be jealous of me, moving in on her mother every time she went out the door, but who managed, mostly, to keep it in check.

Jane had never been out of England, so I took her to Spain. For a while, the freedom to be alone without explaining ourselves was exhilarating, but then, at our hotel by the beach, a flirty German man flashed a gold tooth in her direction.  Unlike her model daughter, I was consumed with jealousy while she and this man sat together drinking wine, presumably because she couldn’t risk appearing too attached to me. The intruder probably thought I’d escaped from somewhere as I prowled around the perimeter by the azaleas in ceramic pots, glaring at them.

Like Sophia, Jane thought our affair just a phase and always encouraged me to go on dates with men. I wonder now about jealousy, about possessiveness, about whether she wanted to slug my latest boyfriend on the chin, as she was quite capable of doing with her solid arm muscles and efficient hands. In any case, she and I motored through Europe, sharing feather beds and paellas, and later, even while I was married, we got together surreptitiously.

There’s no denying that there was a kind of crippling caution to this life, but if I’m honest I have to admit that there was also a thrill attached to secret sex. Moving in for an illicit kiss made my blood gallop through my body as rapidly as driving the hairpin-bend road over Cabo Creus. Even after I had well and truly finished with secrecy, the allure of a forbidden flirtation or the challenge of an impossible conquest remained a turn-on. Without it, I could learn to be happy rather than hysterical, I could even come to know what joy felt like, but for a while all I experienced was a kind of emptiness where the thrill had once taken up so much room.

* * * * *

Through those years while I was going back and forth to the job in Spain, Franco was still in power and lesbians weren’t talked about. Gay men, on the other hand, were sometimes spat about, which is how I found out that one of them had ended up dead on the road to the military camp, the story hissed between clenched teeth by young men I knew to be good-hearted. By then, already having been in love with more than one woman, I couldn’t control my blushing, as if the unspeakable transgression were my own.

I felt the tug of female attraction there by the Mediterranean, especially with my boss’s wife, who took me boating and rubbed suntan oil very slowly onto my back. But nothing happened except when Jane came to visit—nothing, that is, except the ongoing, tedious flirtation with those nice young men: rituals that interested me very little, although they did provide a storehouse of camouflage. All those dates, rides to the bay and its nightclubs, all those cuddles on beaches under the stars with Spaniards, provided me with an excellent public persona: young woman sowing her wild oats, soon to settle down as she damn well oughta.

I met Helen at a different job in a London office. She was one of the ones with a husband and I tried to get along with him, but he was lumpy and oddly suspicious of me. Well, perhaps not oddly, since I slept with his wife whenever he was away and even when he hadn’t gone away, we sometimes contrived an afternoon off at my place.

Once, we took ten days’ leave and I drove Helen to Benidorm, which even back then was a fairly gruesome cheap resort full of pseudo-Spanish shows, already accustomed to pairs of English women having a good time together at its flamenco bars. In our case, we simply failed to pick up a pair of wandering Pedros or Pepes, as most women did after a few drinks.

I don’t know how Helen felt there—perhaps less uptight than me since she had the husband she could drop into any conversation—but I know my own pit of fear never dispersed, not even after a table load of rum and cokes and not even behind our locked door. It wasn’t the common kind of fear: not like worrying I’d smash up the car, lose the keys or my passport or my money. Not even like those deepest fears of illness, death, or abandonment. There, in the confines of our cheap, whitewashed hotel room, the terror continued to wind itself tightly around the ecstasy.

Judith Barrington’s Lifesaving: A Memoir was the winner of the 2001 Lambda Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. She is also the author of the best-selling Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art and four collections of poetry. She has been a faculty member of the University of Alaska, Anchorage’s low-residency MFA Program and teaches workshops around the U.S. as well as in Britain and Spain. She lives in Portland, OR with her partner of 37 years.

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