2022 Porch Prize Winner in Nonfiction
It is negative ten outside, unusual for February in Kentucky. I hear the crunch of her footsteps stamp into the snow on my front porch. I open the door. Her cheekbones absorb the light. Her eyes climb me.
Twelve years ago, the Sailor was my first girlfriend and my first love. For over twelve years we’d flirted, fucked and dated, we’d never transitioned from lovers to friends. Tonight she is my sleepover-more-than-friend friend.
Sleeping over was her request at first. “I’m lonely,” she explained over the phone several months ago. “Why don’t you come over? No sex, just spooning.”
I laughed. “That sounds agonizing? Can we really just sleep together? ”
“Why not?” She dared me.
I didn’t admit it, but I wanted to be close too, so I agreed. I convinced myself I could restrain my body, protect my heart. But in the months since our sleepovers began, the strong yearning for more continued to bob between us like buoys. We’d entered into dangerous seas.
When we are together, our bodies swell. We crave each other’s smells and tastes. It has always been this way with us. Why do we still feel each other’s emotions and what does it mean now that we are no longer partnered?
One of my favorite myths is Celtic, the Irish’s mermaid story. In it a selkie is a creature who turns human when she disrobes from her sealskin. A fisherman falls in love with the woman and hides her magic cloak. She begs to return to the sea but he refuses. In the end the woman escapes with their child. The will to be fully ourselves and free, the pull of home, turns out to be the greatest current.
Despite our shared ability to feel the other’s emotions, we are not the same. I am white and femme presenting, often passing as straight. The Sailor is Black and butch. The world treats us differently. Evident when she was arrested for smoking outside a club. She told me the correction officers sneered at her during the intake process, “What cell do we put you in–the male or female?” Then, they demanded she undress.
The same cops would not have arrested me. The cops would not have questioned me. We share this knowledge but we do not talk about it. What does it mean that we feel each other’s emotions but cannot talk about these differences? These are the questions we have yet to unravel in our entire decade of knowing each other.
When I first met the Sailor, I was studying Pan-African Studies at the University, waking up to my white privilege and learning the history of the world from Black scholars and activists. She was proud of me. It was also a reminder of the breach between us: racism, hundreds of years of oppression.
Inside our bed, or as we wandered Louisville, Kentucky’s sidewalks, our ancestors’ pasts were like a vortex. Every day we grew closer, we also ebbed further apart when I didn’t talk about racism and our relationship. This silence anchored our emotional intimacy in place. We never told each other the truth about all the ways the world continued to affirm me while casting her further aside. As if not speaking it out loud would make it less true. We knew it but we didn’t name it.
I didn’t bring up conversations about race with the Sailor because I didn’t want to acknowledge what could never be fully mended. I would do my own work of undoing racism inside of the world and myself. But I could never be other than what I was. White. White like the officers that stripped searched her after being racially profiled, white like the boss that passed her over for a raise, white like the police that were acquitted for murdering Black people over and over again. I was ashamed about how my whiteness was complicit in the traumas of her life. Instead of claiming this, I allowed it to silence me. I didn’t have the language to talk about our interracial relationship when we were younger, I’m not sure I do even now.
After dinner, the live stream of another murder booms from her Facebook feed. She shuts her computer. Her breath shortens. It is the winter after another summer of too many Black boys murdered by the cops. It is winter and there are more Black deaths by white cops who will not be held accountable over and over and over again. Nothing changes.
Her narrow fingers tap against the bamboo tabletop synching with the drip, drip, drip from the kitchen faucet. I rise from my chair. I pause for a moment; I contemplate placing my hands on her shoulder. Instead, I walk to the sink. I turn the valve. The water stops. Her fingers stop.
I remember the day ten years ago, when her twenty-five-year-old cousin was shot in his car. At his vigil, in an apartment parking lot, candles were handed out among the crowd of 20 without ceremony. They cast a dim light. Most were familiar with the routine. But this was my first vigil. I stood behind her on the outer rim of the circle.
“I want you with me,” she had said hours before. In the crowd, she was rigid. My white hand barely a comfort on her Black back. I could not feel her. It was as though she had drifted someplace I would never reach.
In the myth, the sailor character represents masculinity, patriarchy and white supremacy. The mermaid, the wild, nature and what is indigenous. Both are required to give up a part of where they come from to be together, the sailor, land, and the mermaid, water. The story is about colonization and domination. Despite this, the Sailor and I adopted this myth as our own. In the story we told each other, I was the mermaid and she was the sailor. Reinterpreting the myth was our attempt at reimagining power and privilege in our relationship.
One Halloween I painted blue iridescent scales across my cheekbones and wrapped filmy fabric around my legs. She donned her US Navy uniform. For a night, I was a real mermaid, she was a proper sailor. In our story, we never left each other’s sides.
After a few months of dating I asked the Sailor to live with me. On move in day, she dropped a black duffle bag onto the bedroom floor. Afternoon sun flooded the apartment. She gazed down at the contents of her life. She pulled out a brass candleholder. A leather journal. A coffee mug. Underneath these artifacts, folded jeans and shirts shaped into perfect triangle sails. “Is this all you have?” I asked.
“Yes, this is all I need.” Her hard edges were still softening from the Navy and, what I would later understand as, PTSD.
Friday night dates were bought with our newly acquired credit cards. She wore pressed jeans and unfolded her neatly triangular Polos. I wore silk blouses in shades of ocean. We drank wine and scrawled poetry onto napkins with pens we borrowed from bartenders. Then we pressed them into the other’s palm, and slipped them into our pockets, later reading them to each other at the kitchen table in the candlelight. For the first time in a romantic relationship, my body was fully present. I was open to her touch, her gaze, and our future.
Our romance and sex was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Even at twenty-six, I’d already had more sexual partners than I could remember. Gruff men who fucked me as I lay unmoving on dirty sheets. Dinner dates turned into love affairs with people who never really knew me. And when I was seventeen, my boyfriend who’d moved into my apartment and, for three years, spent nights wandering alleyways for smack and sex, and then returned to rape me. The Sailor understood, she had also been pierced by the unwanted hooks of men who didn’t stop at “no.”
In bed with the Sailor, she listened as I quietly outlined these traumas. She gently mapped my body with her fingertips. She placed her hands on my cheeks, looked into my eyes and said, “You are safe with me.”
Our weekends together were reserved for catching up on the “L Word” in bed. Her candle burned inside the brass holder, her mug next to the bed steaming with coffee. Our clothes from the night before floating in a sea of morning light. I paused the laptop when steamy scenes climaxed. I reached for her body; I followed my desire, something I was still learning how to do. I opened my legs. She moved her mouth to my ankles. I had not wanted someone’s tongue and fingers like I wanted her lapping, cresting at my inner thighs, my dark pink nipples firm, my unhooked hips. Awaiting her plunge. I wanted to fill her mouth with me.
“What do you want to do with your life?” I asked after hours of sex — our limbs driftwood — the sheets a tangled net.
“I want to go into Tech, and you want to change the world.” Her eyes glistened as she traced my face and then pulled me closer.
“Hey!” I protested, instantly growing wet again. She kissed me hard.
“I want to be together. Let’s do it all together.”
I gulped. “Okay.”
The tide of our sex pulled us away from our daily problems and back into each other. I made up tales for us at bedtime where all the heroes were queer and free. When she had trouble sleeping, I lured her back onto our ship and told the story of the mermaid and the sailor. The story of us. Our love cast a protective net around us, as long as we omitted certain truths.
In some versions of the mermaid and sailor myth, the sailor gives up land and legs and drowns in the sea. Despite the sailor’s love, lungs do not work underwater. In other versions of the tale, the mermaid gives up the world of water, a great sacrifice but one she deems worth it for partnership.
The Sailor and I had both grown up early in the ways that poverty and being the older children of single mamas require.
Weekly as a youth, I navigated my father’s sporadic drunken phone calls from truck stops along the rocky California shore, or some other place from which he’d send ocean postcards that, no matter how colorful and glossy, to my seven-year-old, ten-year-old, fifteen-year-old eyes simply reminded me he was absent.
The Sailor’s father died when she was young. She tucked a yellow toned photo of him in her leather journal. They looked so alike they could have been twins. But she never knew him. She and I discovered early on how to need little from our mother’s who were tending to children, stress and loneliness
To distract ourselves, The Sailor learned how to knot code together and created computer programs. I wrote fairy tales about life underwater. We experienced pain but we learned how to survive it without talking about it. We remained committed to our escape even as adults.
The kitchen window reflects long languid moonlight across the walls. I feel the freezing Kentucky winter seeping through plaster. I shiver. I press the heat up a few degrees as the Sailor and I move into my bedroom.
As my sleepover friend but more-than-friend, we are familiar with the routine and slip easefully into my gray velvet covers. The mattress takes us like a ship. We have shared a lot of life together. We have voyaged through career changes, cross country moves, and other lovers. I have been married, birthed two kids, and I am now divorced. She finished one master’s degree and is completing another. We felt out of place as twenty-year-olds and out of place as thirty-year-olds. Both of us just wanted to belong. We don’t say it now but we still wonder if we belong together. These questions give me a headache. I’d rather avoid them, like we avoid using words for much of our pain.
Beside her in bed, I am cautious. Despite this, every time she touches me, I remember how twelve years ago, we tasted every part of each other until our bodies crescendoed. She slides her fingers past my hips and into my palm. Our hands form a tightly closed shell.
My head nestles in the nook of her shoulder and neck; she braids her left socked foot under my right sockless one like a rope. I want her hand to move below the stretched elastic of my black mesh underwear. I want to feel our nakedness, our abandon again.
I remember the nights back in our apartment. At bedtime, sometimes she would turn away from me without explanation. “Not now,” she’d mumble, collapsing into herself. I would lay my hand tenderly on her back wanting to comfort her, but also yearning to be closer. Those nights I struggled to feel like she wanted me as much as I wanted her. Now, I wish I could have needed less from her during what I’d later learn were her lowest points. I wish I had named the currents that pulled us apart. I wish I had talked to her about my fears of hurting her because of my whiteness. My fear about abandonment. I wish I had asked her what she needed most and even more, that I knew.
Afro-futuristic versions of the mermaid myth understand mermaids as ancestors, enslaved Africans who jumped or were thrown overboard during the Atlantic slave trade. In a Greek version of the myth, mermaids are ghosts. Christopher Columbus is one of the few sailors who recorded sightings of mermaids in his ship’s log. A haunting premonition of the genocide to come.
After one year of living together, the Sailor suddenly moved to New York and in with a South Asian woman she’d met at a queer conference. Over email she explained she wanted to be with a woman of color. A few months later she returned to Kentucky and asked to move back in with me. “I love you,” she said.
“I love you too.” I took her heaving body into mine. Our salty tears fell into each other’s mouths. This marked a new ebb and flow of breakups and makeups — never quite wanting to let go, but also never fully reckoning with the reasons for the first or second or fifth departure. Those were issues for adults and we were young. It was easier to avoid conversation.
After what felt like our final break up, I left Louisville and moved to Tennessee. I left because everything reminded me of her — the green hills of Kentucky, our sun flooded apartment. Even the napkin poems which surfaced at the least opportune moments, like a message in a bottle destined to reach my shore.
As a child, I learned how to live in a fantasy world as a survival mechanism. I was obsessed with mermaids. I played with my Mermaid Barbie with flame orange hair, a tailfin silky and translucent in my baths at night. I dressed her in lake grass in the summer. Every time I swam, I imagined myself with fins flipping away from everything that scared me.
We both live in Kentucky again and soon we will turn forty. It feels like time to choose our future. It feels like forty is an age when we should be more certain about who we are and what we are to each other. She circles my thumb with her index finger; I interlace my fingers firmly into hers.
In my gray bed, I drift closer to her spine’s curve. I want to ask her to touch me.
“I like having you here,” I say.
“I like being here.”
What I don’t say is a tsunami of everything unsaid.
I time travel to a future when she has a girlfriend or when I am in love with someone else. I miss her already.
“What will happen to us?” I ask.
“When we turn forty?”
“No, between us. What are we, what is this?” I push.
She doesn’t respond quickly. We’ve shared twelve years of loving each other in and out of relationships, if it hasn’t worked out, surely it never will — and yet we continue to circle.
Before, she would have said, “I love you, Jardana” Instead, she responds, “We don’t want the same things, Jardana.”
We are adults that are no longer willing to let go of our differences. My polyamory, her monogamy. My kids, her need for space. Then there is what neither of us can change. My whiteness, her Blackness.
We became queer together. Learned to trust our passion together, opened our hearts to each other. We discovered pleasure against the pull and press of each other’s fingers and tongues. Even now it is easy to recall the feeling of how she moved softly inside of me and then hard as though we’d plug in all the holes we’d been yearning to fill our whole lives. Together we did and we didn’t.
“I want to marry you,” she’d say after years of not seeing each other. She’d hold her breath.
I would respond, “I want to marry you, too.” She’d exhale.
Now her words chart a different course. “We don’t want the same things.”
There is nothing I wanted more than to love her. But, sometimes we are still learning how to love ourselves and don’t yet know how to love another.
My fingertips trace the raised nautical star tattoo on her right hand. I’ve been touching her here for over twelve years. Inside, I feel the swell. The story of us. Shift. The Sailor pulls up the anchor. I hold on a little longer.