Born This Way

All that was dirty, scuffed, and gray is now virgin white. Fresh glistening snow has softly but relentlessly covered Manhattan, blanketing its streets. Nothing can be seen from my apartment on the Upper East Side as millions upon millions of dancing snowflakes create a magical vision of winter that New York City hasn't seen in years. It's as if a 15-foot, impossibly downy white carpet has been laid down over the city and all through Central Park, making the trees look like waves of snow--only the brave set out to walk in it, the brave, the homeless, or the crazy.

My friend Heather and I are speaking over the phone debating whether or not to go to our best friend from college's wedding three hours away in Springfield, Massachusetts. We agree to give it a try, but I'm not happy. My anger isn't aimed at the hassle of navigating through the snow, but rather it is directed at Ronda who hasn't asked me to be in her wedding party when my other best friends from college, Betty and Louise, were asked. Ronda's two new sisters-in-law and assorted cousins will complete the wedding party. Wasn't there room for me? Sure, I hate wearing dresses, but I feel left out regardless.

The ride turns out to be treacherous despite the active presence of snowplows and sand trucks on the highways. As we slide closer to Springfield, the banks are pushed back, forming fortresses of snow almost 25 feet high, lining the roads in both directions. When we pull into the parking lot at the Sheraton, Heather is curt, telling me to get our key and check us in. Annoyed and frazzled by the challenge of getting here in one piece, she decides to wait in the car. I get out, the snow coming to the very top of my boots. I pull my navy blue coat tightly around me, squinting against the glare of the bright white snow which has been tormenting me for the past few hours. The weather has made us late for Ronda's wedding and as I approach the hotel, I see various members of wedding parties gathering together in the lobby of the hotel. There is a plenitude of men, starched and stiff in rented tuxedos.
Then I see Her.

What do I notice first? I see her face: so beautiful that I can't look away. With her close-cropped, short blonde hair she looks like a screen siren. She appears to be my age. She is in a dark green taffeta bridesmaid's dress with a full V-neck plunge in the back. Before I gawk any longer, Ronda's fiancé, Brad, comes over to greet me. Then he excuses himself and goes over to the woman I have noticed. This day, so fraught and difficult, was now looking up considerably! "She" is in the wedding party. I know immediately we will be best friends by the end of the evening.

Her name? Justine. She lives in Boston. I stare at her back throughout the two-hour Catholic ceremony at a nearby church. Though the service feels more like four hours, time becomes irrelevant. I could stare at her back for another "Peace be with you, and also with you." Unlike the bridesmaids, I look like I am straight out of the pages of Little House on the Prairie in my dorky polyester black-and-white Belle France dress, with its cheap flower pattern and white lace doily hanging like a child's bib in front.

Mr. and Mrs. Brad and Ronda Harrington leave the altar and walk down the aisle as the newly-anointed husband and wife. The bridesmaids follow. I pretend to snap pictures of Betty and Louise on my Disc camera but instead aim my shutter at Justine. Photographs, yes, I have many.

The reception has started. There is a rumor going around, spreading like wildfire. People whisper into each other's ears. Brad's sister, Justine, who is drinking Martinelli sparking apple juice, is "gay, and a recovering alcoholic."

A lesbian? I'm shocked. I know a few gay men but I have never met a lesbian in person, unless you count the time I met the comedian Sandra Bernhard after her concert. While I have sort of dated a few guys--having only passed first base in the most tentative of physical encounters--I am still a virgin at 26. "Yep, haven't found the right one," I say, to all those who ask. This is a question I hear frequently, from family, from friends, and from colleagues at work. I try to keep my reply blithe and easy, then I usually duck away.

The gossip continues: "She lives with an older woman." Justine has become the hot topic of the late afternoon. I listen intently for any more information to be gleaned because I know immediately that I cannot associate myself with her. I will not talk to her. What will everyone think? I will get teased, or blackballed, of this I am certain.

Back at college, where my friends and I went to college, two senior guys were caught having sex on campus in a Volkswagen and were discreetly thrown out. In my freshman hall dorm, we always knocked on "Chrissie the Whissee's" door to let us in after late nights of boozing it up in the freezing cold. Everyone used to say that he was pretty "faggy." I might not have initiated conversations about him using this description, but I certainly participated in them. We limped our hands after graciously thanking him, promising never to forget our keys, only to return the next week when he would once again reliably let us in.

There were also the homosexual dances on campus in the activities hall. The shades would be lowered, but my friends and I snuck flashlights and peeked through the one inch of space left uncovered, just to see if we recognized anyone's dancing shoes. For reasons I didn't examine too deeply, gays fascinated us. But me, even more.

If I did talk to Justine now, would I be discreetly asked to leave the wedding? Would I be discarded by my friends? Like many other wedding guests, I drink. Beer, whiskey sours. A Pink Squirrel. A Dark 'n Stormy. Then I move to wine. White. Red. I pour Diet Coke into my glass of Merlot. Merloke? I am back to beer. I am wasted.

"May I take your picture?" I say to my friends, and again I aim my camera in their direction but then move it just a bit to capture Justine. There she is at the head table, a gem glowing brightly. There she is dancing. I'm impressed by the way she dances: confident, physically sure of herself, laughing and moving beautifully with the music. There's Justine again--now looking embarrassed--with the bride's garter belt being put on her leg by the best man as everyone oohs and ahhs about the possibility they'll make a couple. There's Justine ...

I am tottering and need to use the restroom. There's Justine again. She is talking with her cousins as I head into a stall. I hear her speak for the first time, as I pull my sheer black stockings down midway to my calves. I detect a Boston accent. I'm an instant Justineophile. I wish she would leave, as I am far too nervous to actually use the restroom while she is still in the room. I am taking too long and become obsessed that people are wondering what is happening in stall No. 2. I start to sweat and feel clammy. I leave the stall abruptly, and pass her on my way out. She looks right at me, blankly. This I discover: Justine has eyes the color of the warm azure Caribbean Sea.

Soon the band plays "We Are Family" and everyone--of all levels of ability and inebriation--gets up and grabs each other as the revelers go around the big ballroom in a conga line. I hang onto Heather for dear life. Justine is in front. We're at the rear of the line. I am so out of it, yet somehow I am very much alive and don't want the night to end. But it does. Heather and I make our way to our hotel room, and I slide into my bed. I am awake all night. I stare at the dark ceiling remembering my non-day with Justine. I have never been so attracted to anyone in my life. If Justine is gay, it appears I am gay as well. I am resolved, but no one needs to know that.

I decide right then, that day, that she will be mine. We will have a summer house in Cape Cod with a pool. I'll go off on business trips and I'll come home, walk out onto the deck, and kiss Justine on top of her head. My whole body tingles. But that is as far as my intimate thoughts with Justine go. A kiss on the head? What does love, or sex, with a woman even entail? I am a naïve idiot. I am unable to calm my thoughts or close my eyes. They stay open all night. Justine....