When I told my mother about my failing relationship, it was entirely by accident.
I rang her, as I do every day, ‘to set the world to rights’. But the smile I had been maintaining for years had begun to slip; my face felt as though it might crack with the effort of holding it in place. Before I knew it, words were flying from me with a speed that left me windswept, and I was sobbing with my forehead pressed to the wall.
She couched my admissions with those empty, cushioning phrases we reserve especially for our children: oh, sweetheart and you poor thing. Exhaustion eventually descended in the guise of calm, and I told her something else:
‘If I leave, if this doesn’t work out…I don’t think I’ll go back to dating men.’
‘Oh no, of course not,’ she said, misunderstanding. ‘You’re not the type to jump from one relationship into another.’
I pressed on. ‘No, I mean – I’ll probably want to be with a woman.’
For a moment, the words hung suspended in the breathy static between telephones. And then:
‘I don’t know, sweetie. I just don’t see you ending up with a woman.’ She said this confidently, as though she sat consulting a soggy blueprint of my future in the bottom of her teacup. ‘Women can be just as bad, you know.’
Not knowing her as well, I would probably have missed it: the disapproval that spread like a dull stain across the fabric of her voice. If I wanted to, I could probably have dismissed it as a trick of the light. But I know her better than she thinks I do, and I heard it loud and clear: it was not that she didn’t expect me to end up with a woman – it was that she didn’t want me to.
I remember when I was six, and she discovered I’d been experimenting with a female friend: she told me firmly but kindly that such ‘games’ were reserved for grownups, but there was an uneasy stiffness around her eyes that my childish intuition could not name. I remember when I was eighteen, and I brought a girl home with me: her gaze flicked skittishly back and forth, looking anywhere but at the knot of our fingers, even as she smiled and invited her to stay for tea.
She is exceptionally kind and is well-versed in shooing her opinions away from the light to avoid offense. She supports where others would judge. But she was Catholic once, schooled by nuns as devout as they were unkind, and the iron grip of religion is not easily loosened by time. My attraction to women makes her uncomfortable. It always has.
She has only one gay relative – a niece – who has spent much of her life (to put it bluntly) getting smacked off her tits on a cocktail of drink and drugs. Though this niece is now happily settled and sober with a wonderful woman, I think my mum is convinced that most lesbians are aggressive drunks with a tendency towards public displays of hysteria. The comically exaggerated caricature of a stereotypical lesbian has become the bar by which all gay women are measured. Since I don’t fit the bill, she simply doesn’t believe me.
Now that I am inching closer to being truly honest with her, she drops unsubtle hints into our conversations. She talks about women who ‘go through phases’ of having same-sex partners, because their last relationships were tumultuous and they’ve subsequently ‘sworn off men’. She tells me confidently that these women soon see they’ve made a mistake, and end up back where they started – straight. She admits that she does not think I’ll ever fall in love with a woman. In short, she does not believe a word of what I am trying desperately to tell her:
I am leaving D. because I am gay.
I realise that it’s difficult for her to understand, given that I’ve never really talked to her about it. She’s my mother, my biggest champion, my closest confidante, my best friend. I speak to her every day without fail, and she believes she knows me better than anyone.
So how do I convince her that she doesn’t really know me at all?