Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Reptilian Brain

If my biology professor is to be believed, my reptilian brain decided Melissa would be a treat the first time I noticed her. Thinking back to what might have been that deciding moment, I wonder if it was the first time she raised her hand to respond to a question, the first time she spoke to me during the break halfway through our night-school bio class, or the first time she offered me a ride home. At some impossibly early moment, anyway, my flame was lit, and the ancient, lizard part of my brain glowed with anticipation.

Certainly I became conscious of desiring her only slightly later. The first time she drove me home after class we talked about her strict and reactionary religious upbringing. She lighted on my mind’s shoulder like a phoenix, a beauty who has been through rebirth by fire--the terror of a car crash that took part of her brain.

And I came out to her. She apologized for the negative results of the vote on gay marriage--which I thought was so graceful. And she made it plain that she was interested in--what? My lesbianism? That’s what I remember. And in my experience, an interest is not just wanting to hear about it to satisfy some intellectual curiosity. An interest usually means an interest in trying it out. From the moment I first imagined her, this firebird, wanting me, I have seen the world through the slippery silk of desire.

The peak episode has to have been--and this sounds so tame--going to a lousy Italian restaurant after class to eat salad together one night when her husband Rob was out of town. They sat us by a fern at a table that had a candle burning and no one nearby to hear us. She never drinks, “because it gets me in trouble,” but she had red wine, leaving me to conjecture about what kind of trouble she was looking for. We talked about mind and memory. She looked openly into my eyes and I looked openly back into hers. No fear, no embarrassment, no awkwardness interfered. Her eyes are bigger, deeper, and more plainly honest than any I have ever gazed into. Was she waiting for me to make some move? I didn’t, but the candlelight ran a silky finger up the back of her neck like moonlight on a river. That night I dreamed about kissing the back of her neck.

On one of our short rides from the university to my street, she began a sentence this way, “Rob and I have had our difficulties…” and did she say “in bed”? Or did I read it in? But the sentence went off-track, it seemed to me. She started defending him, his sensitivity. “He’s really great, you’d like him.”

I would expunge him.

The funniest moment was one evening at half-time when we were walking the halls as usual, and I had been complaining about my aching feet. Melissa said, “ My back hurts all the time. I’ve seriously been thinking about getting a breast reduction. They’re so big (I swear she said that), it’s just a constant strain on my back.” And there I was, having trapped myself into a) acting like this was just girl talk and that I was not tormented by the hots for her. And b) paradoxically, pretending that I had ever noticed how big her breasts were--when in fact I had not. The voice in my head was saying: “Wow, how big are they? No, don’t look!” And this had me trying not to laugh. So now the voice in my head was saying: “Don’t look! Don’t laugh!” And there’s me, trying to keep a “straight” face. Don’t laugh!

Early on I asked her if she’d want to study with me. Later, several times, I asked if she’d go with me to gather extra class credit like wild thyme at the botanical garden, but I was refused each time. So we connected for 20 minutes a week--taking a walk during the break and she’d drive me home after class. E-mails were answered briefly after days of delay. And that was all.

As the end of this semester neared, and it was clear we wouldn’t see each other in class again, or at least not for many months, she drove me home, turned off the car, and turned in her seat to face me. I smelled her sweat—a fatigued sweat, not a sexual musk-- “Suzanne,” she began, “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, and I’d really like to. . .” I felt a surge of heat at the practiced sound of this little speech. It was the same practiced tone I have used when telling others I lusted for them. It was the same black leather seats, it seemed to me for just that instant, in which others had declared their love. “…I’d like to continue. I know we haven’t spent much time--that’s been my fault--I’ve been overwhelmed.” By that time I had a grip on myself again. “You have been overwhelmed,” I agreed, smelling her fatigue, remembering the job she worked, the two science classes she was taking (not just biology), and of course the husband to whom she hurried home every week after dropping me off.

The low point surely came during break time the last night of class when I overheard Melissa say to some friends, “I use to hang out with a lot of guys--mostly guys. But then I realized they just wanted to sleep with me.” Having thought of little else for weeks by then, I looked away, tried not to blush, as if a blush could be withheld on command, like a breath. Why would she hang around with a lesbian, if it was just going to be the same thing all over again?

Who in their right mind would not want to sleep with her? She’s gorgeous!

Then, when she gave me that last ride home, she told me about visiting some single women friends in LA the weekend before. Describing the risks her friends took just to date men in the city, she concluded in tears, “I just realize how grateful I am to have such a safe life with Rob. I feel so safe.” Were they tears of gratitude? Or were they a veiled apology for not, after all, being willing to dare a romance with me?

For me, from interest to desire was the tiniest leap of a charge across a synapse. When I try to imagine what she felt about me, I fear I have just imagined for her moments of desire. For a woman who has worked so hard to bring her life in line with convention, the leap may be much farther, maybe unimaginable.

All I can do after all, all I have done for months, is imagine the first taste of her lips.

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