I decide to travel back in time and space to my farm in eastern Iowa, to warn my eighteen-year-old self that she’s a lesbian.
I figure this information will save her quite a bit of pain and difficulty in her life, which has become my life, and I’m interested in a more unsullied path to where I am right now. So I go. It’s 1995, and my self — a senior in high school — is sitting at the round kitchen table working on her calculus homework. I stand in the doorway for a moment, watching her. She looks serious, her brow furrowed. Beside her, a glass of milk and a small bowl of raw cookie dough (she wasn’t very health-conscious then). She’s still wearing her shorts and bright red t-shirt from track practice, and her wisps of dark hair have escaped from her ponytail. She’s chewing the end of her pencil.
“Hey, Sarah,” I say from the doorway.
She starts, and nearly falls out of her chair. It’s midnight; she thought she was alone in the kitchen. She doesn’t recognize me. Why would she? I’ve got gray hair and wrinkles at the corners of my eyes; I’m thinner than she is, since I’ve lost all the muscle tone I developed in West High School’s weight room.
“Who are you?”
She doesn’t sound afraid. My current self would sound terrified if a stranger showed up unannounced at night in my kitchen. I’ve become afraid of everything, but this Sarah is brave. Afterall, nothing has befallen her yet. Her worst problems are that she’s still got an hour of homework before she can go to bed, and that her lower back aches from the track meet. I think about telling her, Just wait until you find out how much your back hurts when you’re 39, but I have more important things to say.
“I came to talk to you.”
She glances anxiously at the calculus.
“Don’t take that so seriously,” I say. “You’re going to become an English teacher.”
She laughs. “No. I’m majoring in math.”
Oh, this phase. When I thought I would become an engineer, just because everyone (and my grades) had told me I was good at math. I didn’t even know, really, what an engineer did.
“Fine. Look, Sarah. You’re gay.”
“What?” She flushes, frowning at me. “Who are you?”
“Just hear me out. You’re gay — you know, a lesbian? Like Kayla on the newspaper staff? Like Tig on your basketball team? You like girls. When you’re 28, you’re going to realize this, but you’ll already be married to a man, and –”
“– to Jake?” She looks so hopeful I want to hit her over the head with her calculus textbook. Jake? She’s going to break up with that high school boyfriend only weeks into her first year of college.
“No, not Jake. But it doesn’t matter. Look. You’re a lesbian, and you’re going to realize this — or, I mean, I — and I’m you — didn’t realize it until I was already married to a man, and I wish I’d known earlier. I’m 39 now, and I’m marrying a woman next month, and –”
Ah. It’s 1995. Ellen Degeneres didn’t come out until 1997, and the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage was the Netherlands, in 2001. In eastern Iowa, my eighteen-year-old self has only ever heard whispered rumors about lesbians, and the whispers are never kind. Kayla on the newspaper staff, Tig on the basketball team — they were outcasts, destined never to be popular; they were odd. Queer.
“In 2016, gay marriage is legal everywhere in the United States.”
Her eyes widen. “You’re crazy.” She glances to her left, at the magnet that holds the knives above the sink. The magnet that only works periodically, so the knives have fallen and nicked the white countertop.
Carefully, she rises and begins edging toward the foot of the stairs. She glances up to where her parents — my parents — are upstairs, sleeping.
“I’ll go. I just want you to open your eyes. And don’t date the guy you meet at camp next summer — he’s unbalanced. And maybe you should reconsider your college choice? Go to Smith or Bryn Mawr, instead?”
She’s clinging to the doorframe by the stairs, one hand on the blue glass cookie jar, which is filled with Oreos. I don’t remember my mom ever filling it with Oreos, but there it is. “I –” She swallows, touching her throat. Emotion always gets stuck, a lump, in my throat. “I don’t understand.” Then: “I’m not like Kayla or Tig.”
“But you are.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know.” She doesn’t. She’s never read any book or seen any movie with a lesbian character. She’s never had a lesbian friend. She’s never walked in a neighborhood where men hold hands or women kiss each other openly. She’s been taught in church that marriage is between a man and a woman, and no one has ever mentioned homosexuality. She’s never thought about it. But in twenty-one years and one month, she’s going to walk down an aisle and marry a woman. Legally. It will be legal in Colorado, where she will get married, but it will also be legal in Iowa, in Mississippi, in New York, in California. In countries all across the world. And she will marry a woman in the presence of her supportive family and that woman’s supportive family, and all their supportive friends. After, they will wrap their arms around their daughter, who is adopted from Ethiopia, and everyone will clap and cheer.
“I don’t understand,” she says again. She begins to cry. Nothing has happened to her yet. She is unmarked by loss or grief, by disappointment or anger. Sometimes, she is hard on herself when she doesn’t get a top grade in her physics class or when she misses too many free throws in a basketball game, but she doesn’t know the pain that is ahead of her. I don’t want to tell her. I don’t want her to know about her parents’ divorce, about her own divorce from the good man she will marry when she still doesn’t know she is gay, about the sudden illness and death of the first woman she will love.
And suddenly, I want her to be this innocent a little longer.
I want her to finish her calculus and go to bed, and dream of hiking Long’s Peak, which she plans to attempt again this summer with her dad. When she wakes up, I want her to drive to school and kiss her boyfriend and rush to her AP English class, which she loves most, though she has never considered majoring in that subject.
“Sarah,” I tell her, my voice gentle. “Tomorrow, you’ll think you dreamed this.” And without looking at her again, I walk to the front door and pull it open. I step out onto the deck my dad built, and I walk down the stairs and out along the sidewalk to the long gravel driveway. Here, beyond the cover of the two great maple trees, the night sky is vast. The crickets have already begun to make their music. Above me, the Milky Way scatters its protective blanket.
I close my eyes, and when I open them again, I stand on my front porch beneath the stars in Colorado, and I understand: if I’d traveled an easier route to this moment, I wouldn’t get to stand in this moment at all. I get to marry Meredith in a month because my 18-year-old self became this exact 39-year-old with silvering hair and scars. And every evening, when Meredith and Mitike and I hold hands in blessing at our dinner table — the same round wooden table where I did my homework all those years ago — I am amazed at all I never imagined. And that’s the point: I am all that I have become and am becoming. And it all happens exactly when it should.