I’m a liar. The worst lie I ever told was on our first date. We met at a bar. I rode my bike. I arrived flushed and shaky, but I blamed the sweat on the bike ride. Dreamgirl was sitting at the bar, drinking whiskey, wearing periwinkle nail polish. She somehow made a sweater vest look sexy. Before I even sat down or opened my mouth to speak, I wanted her to love me.
So far, I’ve been honest.
On our first date, I learned she is 29, only two years older than I am. I learned that she was once a D1-soccer player but dropped out of college when soccer stopped being fun. I learned she’s a musician and reads Keats. She has a small gap in between her two front teeth that I imagined running my tongue over. She’s a lesbian but has dated men, even lived with one for several years until they broke up and she punched him in the face. I told her I’m bisexual, and she shared with me her “unpopular opinion” about bisexuality, which is that everyone is at least a little gay, so bisexuality isn’t actually real.
I believe bisexuality to be real, as I believe myself to be real. At the time, however, I also believed the girl in front of me to be one of the most beautiful people I’d ever seen in my life. I invited Dreamgirl back to my house. We sat on my porch and drank white wine. I can’t remember how the topic came up, but I learned she is anti-abortion. I was surprised.
I know, I know, she said. I’m a lesbian. I’m used to dating liberal women. It’s okay.
I had an abortion when I was sixteen, I said.
I’ve never had an abortion. This is a terrific lie, and I am a terrific liar. I made up a story so convincing I fooled myself into crying a little. Why did I do this? I don’t know. But, that’s what I did. The night ended with an awkward hug.
The next morning, I woke up to a text message from her, apologizing about what happened to me when I was sixteen. I immediately called my two best friends and explained to them the situation. I had a few options: I could never talk to her again, I could continue getting to know her and keep up the big lie, or I could immediately come clean. Both of my friends questioned my strong feelings towards a person who so obviously held beliefs contrary to my own.
But, they hadn’t met her. They had not seen the self-assured way she carried her long, sporty frame nor heard her laugh, which first filled her lungs and then the room around her. What if she was my person? I didn’t think I could—nor did I want to—maintain the lie for months or even years.
I’ve never had an abortion. I don’t know why I said that. I responded to her text, knowing that she’d now have a written receipt, documented proof of my worst lie to date. I told myself that the lie was, for whatever backwards reason, my brain’s desperate attempt to get her to see the issue from my perspective. Several hours later, she responded by saying she told her group of friends about my lie, and they wanted to meet me—out of curiosity or bewilderment, I don’t know.
We saw each other for the second time the next night. I thought her friends were awesome. I was new to Florida and looking for a group of people to belong to. It became clear to me that Dreamgirl was loved by these people, mostly liberal queers who held values similar to my own. I wanted them to love me the same way I wanted her to love me. Her friends were so affectionate towards her; they bent their bodies in her direction the way sunflowers warp their faces towards the sun.
I was so warmed by her affection for me not only in front of her friends but in public generally. I’d catch her smiling at me from across the table at a restaurant or on my way back from the bathroom at a bar. Once, while holding hands walking down a street crowded with late-night bar attendees, a man asked us if we were lesbians.
Yeah, you got a problem with it? She instinctively put herself between me and the man.
No, y’all are cute, he replied.
Maybe a week after our first date, she invited me to come see her play guitar and sing at a cigar bar on a Saturday night. I went alone because the small group of friends I had made through a queer kickball league were all busy. I wore a charcoal backless dress with long slits running up each leg. I was careful to present myself as feminine but not overly feminine. I showed up late and worried that I smelled like the two cigarettes I inhaled on the drive over.
I heard her singing from the street before I even entered the bar. Dreamgirl’s voice made my nipples hard. When she sang, she sounded equal parts diesel and windchime. She waved at me from the stage as I walked inside the bar’s entrance, then expertly redirected her fingers back to their correct position on the neck of her guitar. She was wearing a knitted, black tank top that showed off her tattooed arms and a thin gold necklace. I replied with only a shy smile. I sat at the only open seat at the end of the bar, almost hidden from her view, then took out my sketchbook and markers from my tote bag. I wanted to look mysterious and interesting. There were strangers all around me, ordering drinks, talking to each other about her sound, her talent, how beautiful she was. I worked on inking a drawing of a woman with hair very similar to Dreamgirl’s: dark and thick and parted in the middle. From her spine, I drew dramatic, arched wings with feathers darker than midnight.
The girl I have a crush on is here tonight, she revealed to the audience towards the end of her set.
She received applause, hoots, and hollers.
I smiled to myself but didn’t look at her. I was sure my cheeks were scarlet. She began another song, and a man, middle-aged and almost certainly Florida-born, approached me.
Are you the girl? he asked.
I laughed, nodding my head slightly. I asked him how he had guessed it.
She keeps looking at you. He raised his eyebrows, and his leathery forehead wrinkled deeper.
We laughed together. He congratulated me like I had done something special. He bought me a beer then walked away.
You are a bad person, Rachel.
This is the text message I received from her after our first breakup. I am a bad person. I believed her to be correct. I’m a liar. I’m selfish. I care far too much about appearances. I’m promiscuous, a bitch. I steal things from Target.
You are a bad person, Rachel.
In the beginning, I texted my two best friends, Meredith and Bianca, daily updates about my relationship with Dreamgirl. Both queer women, they poked fun at me for falling easily into the lightning-speed stereotype of early lesbian relationships. When is the U-Haul scheduled to arrive? my friends joked. I expressed how wonderful it was for me to date another artist. With Dreamgirl, I didn’t need to explain the hours I spent locked to my desk, reading or writing, which was like my relationship with my closest friends, as Meredith is an opera singer and Bianca a visual artist. Dreamgirl valued my passion and interests. We made things together. She sent me voice memos of guitar riffs or piano melodies, and I wrote lyrics to her music. We lost sleep trading songs and stories. We lost sleep touching. When she read my poems, she asked me questions I hadn’t previously considered. With her, I felt understood and supported. I felt creative and sexy and gay.
When I pictured our wedding, she wore a delicate velvet suit. She would rock almost imperceptibly from the balls of her feet to her heels as she waited for me at the end of the aisle. I would wear a long-sleeve gown made of eyelet lace. We would both be crying.
You are a bad person, Rachel.
It’s so easy to romanticize everything. When it was good, it was so good. It was dizzying. Never had I been swallowed whole, consumed by a lover. I had had several serious romantic partners before her, and most, if not all, of those relationships ended amicably. Though I’d been sexual with women, I’d never had a girlfriend before.
The first time I read Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House, which deals heavily with Machado’s navigation of an abusive lesbian relationship, I noticed the dedication, “If you need this book, it is for you,” but it meant little to me at the time. I’d never been in an abusive relationship, and though I was certain of my queer desire, I was still mostly closeted. Now, however, the dedication means everything to me.
In the Dream House was the first book I can recall in which I encountered an abusive relationship between queer women. Because lesbians and other queer femmes work so hard to get any sliver of representation in film and literature, the few depictions that do exist seem to have little-to-no nuance to them. I’m familiar with the red flags that exist within heteronormative relationships, especially those involving emotionally abusive and manipulative men, but rarely have I encountered negative or abusive queer relationships, specifically those between women, explored and exposed on the page, stage, or screen.
Yes, every relationship is unique. I know that no film or television show could have prepared me for my relationship with Dreamgirl. Regardless, to see my experience represented in someone else’s story, even with a litany of variances, I now understand is an intensely validating experience—one that helps me feel sane, understood, and not so alone. My story is wildly different from Machado’s, yet I see myself in her words. She writes, “Sometimes your tongue is removed, sometimes you still it of your own accord. Sometimes you live, sometimes you die. Sometimes you have a name, sometimes you’re named for what—not who—you are. The story always looks a little different depending on who is telling it” (37). I write this story from my own experiences. I write this story now the only way I can: from my hands. These hands, which are unlike any other hands on this planet, speak into the silence surrounding abusive relationships, knowing that my story is not the only one.
Two people took part in this relationship. Do I wonder how she’d tell it? Of course. Would her version be different than mine? Absolutely. Does that make my version any less valid? No.
You are a bad person, Rachel.
A pattern developed within the first few weeks of our relationship. We’d have fun, we’d drink too much, we’d argue, she’d insult me, I’d kick her out of my house or leave hers. In the morning, I’d wake up to a string of essay-long apology texts. I’d forgive her.
We disagreed on almost everything political. She described herself as a “conservative libertarian.” I told myself that dating someone with a worldview wildly different from my own was in fact the most radical, revolutionary thing I could do. But, Dreamgirl could not simply disagree or drop an argument—she was a self-proclaimed lover of debate. She told me she liked me because I had strong beliefs of my own, unlike many of the other women she’d dated.
But, she did not debate. She antagonized, yelled, and insulted anyone who did not see things the same way she did. I started to notice the tiny shifts in her voice that came when she was gearing up for an argument. Her debate voice was that of an impatient child, a sound so different from the vulnerable, penetrating one inside her songs. Increasingly, I felt steamrolled and bullied by her. Where I once held strong convictions, I found myself questioning even my most foundational beliefs.
When we were by ourselves, however, she’d fold. Once, while sharing a particularly sweet evening, she told me that if we were to have kids, she’d want me to raise them to think like me. Later that night, sprawled on her couch, steaks and martinis sloshing in our stomachs, she told me she was in love with me. Though returning the sentiment made me uneasy, I said it back.
You are a bad person, Rachel.
The demoralization of my personhood did not phase me. No, it’s not that she called me a bad person; rather, this text message was the first time she ever called me by my first name. I do not go by Rachel anymore simply because I like my middle name, Mara, better. She knew me only as Mara. But, my family, my oldest friends, the people on earth who know me best and love me hardest, still call me Rachel. She knew this. She called me by my birthname like it was an insult.
Rachel, the first sound I ever heard. Rachel is the bad person.
You are a bad person, Rachel.
What does a good person look like? What is her name? What is the sound that makes her into herself? I didn’t respond to this text. She had a way of exhausting me into silence. I got so sick of fighting. I got so sick of defending my entire existence to a woman who claimed to love me.
After the first break up, she begged me to get back together with her, to the point that I had to block her number. I kept in touch with her best friend, though, because I was genuinely concerned about her mental health. A few months later, I saw an oddly familiar girl at a bar who I soon recognized as the woman Dreamgirl had dated before me. I knew the two of them were friends still, so I approached her.
How much shit has she been talking about me? I asked after introducing myself and exchanging a few pleasantries. I tried to laugh casually.
She doesn’t, really. She thinks highly of you, actually.
Dreamgirl was doing better, I learned, so I unblocked her number. I reached out, telling her that enough time had passed and I thought a friendship between the two of us was possible. I was wrong, as we were back to sharing a bed almost immediately.
Our relationship picked up exactly where we had left off. Now, however, I would not agree to the label of girlfriend. Additionally, I started to hide the extent of our relationship from the people closest to me. No more text updates to Meredith and Bianca. And because she was always getting in arguments with my Florida friends, we decided to stop hanging out with them completely and would only go out in public when it was just the two of us or with her friends.
Unfortunately, I love her, I explained our rekindled flame to skeptical friends who knew about our troubled past.
Unfortunately, I love you, I remember saying to her face, laughing.
I was lonely. She was charming and beautiful and had the capacity for so much tenderness. Once, while putting my groceries away and talking with her on the phone, I must have mentioned under my breath that I had forgotten to buy half-and-half. That night, I heard knocking at the front door and opened it to find a carton of Land O’Lakes half-and-half, my favorite, on the welcome mat. I watched her Volvo hatchback round the corner at the end of my block. There were so many of these moments: random flowers and playlists and little love notes.
She loved me in a deeply unhealthy way that was hard to escape.
After our first break up, I went with my roommate and closest friend in Florida to a small gathering at our friend Laura’s house. I did not invite Dreamgirl to the gathering, but we picked her up on our way home because she and I were accustomed to sleeping in the same bed. Laura had just shared with us that she was interested in exploring nonmonogamy within her marriage, which my friend and I discussed as Dreamgirl got in the car. Nonmonogamy was a topic we all had strong opinions on. However, where there could have been an open conversation and exchange of thought and experiences, a screaming match erupted. At this point, I knew Dreamgirl was incapable of normal discussion. I was used to it; my friend, on the other hand, was not. I witnessed my girlfriend and one of my closest friends scream at each other, watching from the backseat like a nervous child. But, I was not a child. I should have told Dreamgirl to stop. Instead, I let her bully someone I loved in the same way in which I let her bully me. I could almost predict the words she was going to say before they left her mouth. I was simultaneously exhausted and unphased.
You are a bad person, Rachel.
Maybe I was unphased, numb to her hostility, because we’d already had this fight. The last romantic partnership I had had before I met her was an open relationship with a straight man that ended mutually because I wanted kids and he didn’t. I shared this with her and invited her to ask me any questions she might have. We were in my bed, almost certainly after a night of drinking. I told her that I had never really been sold on monogamy and that it had never really worked out for me, but I was looking for a romantically monogamous partnership.
I want to be married, I want a family, but I can’t see myself having sex with one person for the rest of my life, I tried to explain.
You’re a slut, she said.
Listen, I love the term slut. It’s one of my favorite words. A slut to me is someone who loves themselves. She’s right, I am a slut. So, I laughed, agreeing with her.
You’d fuck anything. Even a dog, she said.
I told her that was too far, that she’d hurt my feelings. I told her I wanted her to leave. She wouldn’t. She refused to leave my bed or my house. I remember so vividly lying awake, for an entire night, next to a girl who claimed to love me even though she thought I’d probably fuck a dog.
In the aftermath of this argument, she informed me that I had an avoidant attachment style. This means that when things got difficult, I ran away. I shouldn’t do that. I should get help. She would even pay for extra therapy sessions. This was my fault. She also noticed that I exhibited narcissistic tendencies. She talked to her friends about this, and they agreed.
Part of me, maybe most of me, believed her. I wondered if these things were true. Was it me? Was I the one who made things so difficult? I recently learned from a friend that abusers often psychoanalyze their partners and use their observations and alleged understandings of psychology as a weapon against their partner’s behaviors.
You’d fuck anything. Even a dog.
If someone tells you you’re so slutty you might even fuck a dog, it is completely rational to ask them to leave your bed. I know that now. But, at the time, I didn’t see it that way. I did not know I was in an abusive relationship until I was no longer in the abusive relationship. Either I did not notice the signs, or I chose to ignore them. When the people around me who cared about me tried to help, I did not listen and instead isolated myself from them.
I do not claim innocence. I was more than compliant; in fact, I participated. I said some awful things, I lied, I manipulated, I was hurt and hurt in return. But, as a friend recently pointed out to me, not all gay people are good people.
I don’t like the person I was when we were together. I was filled with simultaneous rage and fear and lust and obsession. I was paranoid. I was exhausted. When I wasn’t defending my relationship with Dreamgirl to my friends, I was defending my beliefs and worldview to her. I was constantly fighting to validate my own existence and lived experiences to someone who claimed to love me. My Dreamgirl.
Ever since I was a child, one of my favorite questions to consider during a sleepless night is whether I am good. Most of the time, the answer is no. Yet, Machado asserts that queer people “deserve to have our wrongdoings represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoings as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity. That is to say, queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright people. They deserve those things because they are human beings and that is enough” (47). Sure, I’ve met my fair share of virtuous individuals, but I’m not sure I know anyone who is wholly good. The distance between heaven and hell, which I use as a metaphor here because I don’t believe in either, seems less binary and more like a spectrum. Instead of good or bad, I’d rather see people as people. Myself as myself. Admittedly, that’s not always easy.
What does it mean to be a good person? Did I let her treat me like shit because her parents treated her like shit? Maybe. Does that mean I pitied her? Maybe. If she had been a man, would I have let her scream at me like that? No.
You are a bad person, Rachel.
It bothered her that I no longer let her call me her girlfriend. That was a privilege that she had not yet earned back. One night, we were lying in her bed, letting the smell of sex lift from our sticky bodies into the traffic of the ceiling fan. My friend Max called me. I’ve known Max for almost 10 years. He calls me Rachel. There are a handful of people who, when they call me, I always pick up. Max is one of those people, which I explained to Dreamgirl as I answered the phone.
Hi, Max, what’s up?
It’s my birthday, and you forgot to call me. He sounded drunk and sad.
Holy shit, Max, I’m so sorry! You know I fucking suck with birthdays.
It’s okay. I was just waiting for you to call but figured you forgot. I heard the ding of the subway doors closing. Good, I thought, he must be on his way home.
How was your day? I miss you!
He proceeded to tell me about his day, and I mostly listened, mouthing apologies to Dreamgirl, who looked annoyed. I put the conversation on speaker phone so she could hear his sad voice and maybe understand why I needed to chat with him for a minute or two. I told him I was with my ex-girlfriend and that we were seeing each other again. I invited her to wish him a happy birthday.
Can you convince Mara to be my girlfriend again? she said instead.
Ehh. I don’t know. From what I’ve heard, it didn’t go well the last time you two were together. Plus, if I have to convince her, that’s probably not a good thing, he replied.
That pissed her off. She grabbed the phone out of my hand and hung up on him. She told me that she was offended that I didn’t stick up for her. She told me I should leave. I agreed, but as soon as I put my clothes on and collected my things, she started begging me to stay.
I’m leaving. You just asked me to leave, I said as I stumbled out of her bedroom.
She met me at the front door, blocking my exit.
No, you always do this. You always do this. You always run away. She repeated these sentiments over and over like a child in tantrum.
You wanted me to leave, I said, let me leave.
Now we were both yelling, riling up her two massive, wildly misbehaving dogs. I reached for the door handle, finding it difficult to move past her and even more difficult to get around her dogs.
Let me leave.
Let me leave.
Let me leave.
I don’t remember how many times I repeated myself.
Almost a year later, I still hear the dogs’ echo behind my eardrums and the weight of their sharp paws on my back and chest as I struggled to get out of her house. Normally, she would get them to calm down, but this time she made no effort.
When I finally forced my way out of the door and onto the front porch, Dreamgirl grabbed my arm so hard I had a bruise the next day. She ran after me, letting the dogs loose as she did so. When I unlocked my car, she managed to slip into the passenger seat and close the door, ignoring her dogs, which had disappeared into the neighborhood’s dark streets. She shouted at me, but I have no memory of the words that came out of her mouth, only the sound of dogs bellowing. This is the only reason she finally left my car, to go fetch her dogs. I couldn’t pull out into the street immediately, out of fear that I’d hit one of them. Instead, I locked myself in and called Max back.
What the fuck was that? he said as he picked up.
She’s pissed at me, I said as she reappeared next to the driver’s-side window, blaming me for letting her dogs out into the street.
Is that her screaming at you? Holy shit, dude, are you safe?
I heard genuine concern, almost panic, in Max’s now-sober voice.
Finally, she slumped up the front-porch steps with both dogs wrangled into her hands by their collars. As I backed into the street, she ran after me, screaming incomprehensibly. As I drove away from her for the last time, I talked to Max all the way to my house and afterwards for several hours more.
You might think it was the bruise on my arm the next day that helped me realize how bad things had gotten. But, it wasn’t. It was Max, a person who knows me and loves me, who allowed me to view my relationship with Dreamgirl from a new angle, one which permitted me the perspective of an outsider. From this vantage point, I finally could see inside the relationship, and I began to reckon with the abuse.
I’m reminded of Machado’s words, “You can be hurt by people who look just like you. Not only can it happen, it probably will, because the world is full of hurt people who hurt people” (232). I put this story on the page to find you if you need it. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible, and that means admitting my own mistakes. My relationship with Dreamgirl started with the worst lie I’ve ever told. From our very first encounter, I ignored the woman in front of me and created a new one in my head who shared her face, her gapped teeth, her dark hair parted in the middle, even the naked mermaid tattooed on her arm. I thought I could change her. I did not listen to my friends who told me I could not. I did not listen to my friends, and then I lost some of them. She, too, wanted me to be someone that I could not and never will be. I was lonely. She was beautiful. She was mean and so was I. I forgave and forgave and forgave. I wonder how often this happens.
Last night, I went rollerblading on a bayside path, under a sky soaked in periwinkle and littered with diving pelicans. As I watched the moon rise over downtown Tampa, I was reminded of a time, sometime last fall, when Dreamgirl and I took this same route on rollerblades, together under a supermoon. She wanted to go fast and teach me tricks. I wanted to go slow. I wanted to marvel at the colossal moon that got bigger and bigger as the sky deepened into darkness. She made fun of my bewilderment at this thing that lived every night in the sky. As I skated on the same path one year later, a line of poetry by Ntozake Shange turned and turned inside my mind:
I’ve taken to fog
the moon still surprisin me.
I spent much of my time with Dreamgirl in a fog. I’m tempted to say I wasn’t myself, but the truth is, I’ve never been anything but me. In the year that’s passed, I’ve become closer to the mirror. I’m less of a stranger to myself. If I’ve learned anything from my Dreamgirl, it’s this:
It is impossible to fall in love with someone who does not exist.
Look at the moon. See how she hangs there, alone at first then met by the light of far-off suns. I’m dazzled by her. She dazzles herself.