I kissed a woman for the first time when I was 20 years old. I attended a college in Boston where it was very hip to be an activist; we had a term for it: social justice-y. Whoever had the greatest number of safety pins holding their backpack together was king, that kind of place.
It was a Catholic school, and I was studying Theology with vague aspirations of becoming a priest. Of course, women cannot be priests in the Catholic Church, so the vagueness of these aspirations cannot be stressed enough. I didn’t overthink it.
I went on solidarity trips with other social justice-y kids. We’d peacefully protest or try to be of service building houses or serving meals. Looking back at it now, I’m not sure we were the most helpful resource that could have been provided to a developing community—maybe they could have just used a plumber—but our intention was to be of service, and we didn’t try to convert anyone or preach anything.
My sophomore year I spent Spring Break on a solidarity trip to inner-city Kingston, Jamaica with a group of other social justice-y kids. We offered our time at a leper colony, a home for abandoned children, and a school. Probably nothing I did during that time had a lasting effect on the lives of the people I met, but the trip had a lasting effect on me. One of the social justice-y kids I traveled there with became my first girlfriend.
Her name was Helen. She was a long-distance runner. Like my dad, she’d been adopted as a baby. She was close with her family and she’d lost her father to cancer the summer before. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was just my type: family-focused, complicated, maybe a bit sad.
And Helen was just cool. She was from New York, where I’d never been, and she was really into emo at a time when the emotionally rockingest thing one could do was be into emotional rock. She wore giant, hot pink rave pants but didn’t attend raves, and she had the longest, thickest black hair I’d ever seen. We started talking on the flight over and didn’t stop for ten days. We took early morning walks and saved a place for one another at every meal. I loved her.
Our last few days in Kingston were spent at the school. It had been built in a neighborhood that was later annexed by the city dump. As the trash mounted, the landfill spread beyond its initial confines and pushed its way between houses and businesses. Eventually, it pushed its way under the school. The teachers stayed. The students stayed. The landfill and the school became one place.
We read with the students, played soccer, ate goat curry at a local restaurant, and then hopped in a bus that was quite literally being driven by a nun and headed back to the convent where we were staying to begin the three-day silent retreat that would end our trip. Helen and I spent the three days together without uttering a word.
At one point, I laid my head in her lap and she played with my hair. “What an intimate and completely heterosexual new best friendship I have struck up with this young woman,” I thought, trying to decide whether or not new best friends should kiss each other to seal in the friendship.
The next day we returned to campus. It was Holy Thursday—the Catholic holiday that celebrates Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples—and I had plans to catch up with my boyfriends.
I was dating two men at the time. One was a very charismatic dude named Kelly. Kelly was 6 foot 5 and weighed about 140 pounds. He had a shaved head, massive feet, and a booming voice, and he never stopped moving or talking. He was the kind of guy you’d whisper should “cut down on the coke,” but he didn’t do drugs. It was as if his body was a cocaine factory. And then there was Cal.
If Kelly was the physical embodiment of an upper, Cal was terminally chill. Raised by two feminist teachers at an all-boys school in rural New England, Cal knew how to talk to women, mountain bike through rough terrain, and how to relax. He had the biggest hookah on campus. Kids would gather in his room and grab one of the dozen hoses from his pipe while he lit up the strawberry tobacco using a piece of flint. Cal had tangled, shoulder-length hair and a full beard, and he wore a white robe and rope belt to parties. Facially he looked a lot like Elvis and stylistically a lot like Jesus. He looked like Elvis/Jesus, the king of Kings.
I was casually dating both Kelly and Cal when I left for Jamaica. Personality-wise, I was attracted to both of them. Physically, I found it extremely easy to not really have sex before marriage with either of them, probably because I didn’t want to sleep with them. I didn’t realize abstinence was supposed to be difficult. Neither guy thought I was dating him exclusively—or at least we never had that talk—but neither of them explicitly knew about the other.
I was invited to two parties the night Helen and I returned from Jamaica, one thrown by Kelly and one by Cal. The next day was Good Friday—the day Catholics believe Jesus was crucified—and I would be flying to meet my family in Nashville for Easter weekend. With nothing ahead of me but an afternoon flight, I invited Helen to go party-hopping with me. She’d heard a lot about the two men I was dating, and I figured she’d definitely want to meet them.
Helen arrived at my place with an oversized bottle of Yellow Tail wine—one of those seemingly promotional ones you’d see sitting dusty and untouched on a liquor store shelf. I played rugby in college and could hold my booze, but our decision to split the bottle down the middle was still rather bold. I probably had six glasses of wine. Then we left for the parties.
Kelly and his brother—a senior!—were throwing a Jell-O shot-fueled rager. We stopped there first and stayed for an hour, monitoring keg stands and drunkenly chatting with Kelly’s brother’s exotic 21-year-old friends. When we left I gave Kelly a goodbye kiss.
Across campus, Cal was having pals to his dorm room to watch The Matrix and smoke green apple-flavored shisha. We watched part of the film before bailing due to general lethargy—red wine does not improve upon allegorical storytelling. Cal asked me to stay the night, but I shooed him aside with a goodbye kiss. “Enjoy the rest of the movie,” I said. “We’re leaving. I need Helen to walk me home.” I lived just down the hall.
I remember how slowly I punched in the key code on my dorm-room door—I took my time in willing none of my seven roommates to be home. And they weren’t. We had the place to ourselves. Helen walked me into the central living area and over toward the couch. She leaned against its back, perched on the edge. She said something like “It’s strange to be back,” but I heard, “I would like for you to touch my hair now.”
Looking at her in that moment, a Rolodex flew open in my mind. I shuffled past each night I’d left Cal’s dorm room to hurry back to my own. I saw myself run from a party in full hula skirt and coconut bra to avoid going home with Kelly. It was like a director’s commentary played over my entire life. I reached for Helen and touched her hair. I put my palm against the left side of her face and leaned in and kissed her. This was my first real sexual experience. It was a kiss. It was Holy Thursday. I was 20.
Helen and I were interrupted about 30 seconds later by the arrival of my roommate. I sprang away from our kiss with such fervor that I pushed Helen backwards over the couch and then moved to the other side of the room to, you know, make it seem like we were just regular gal pals who hang out while one person is upside down on a couch with her feet in the air and the other is 20 feet away yelling, “Well, anyway!” Helen left not long after.
When I woke the next morning I felt equal parts panicked and elated. Panicked because I really didn’t want to go to hell—where I’d been taught all gay people end up—and elated because I was an adult woman who’d just figured out how her body worked. What’s more, I felt a greater capacity for romantic love than I had ever imagined. I wanted to call Helen immediately and propose. (Same-sex marriage was illegal nationwide at the time, so exactly what I would propose wasn’t certain.) I just knew I felt desperate to see her again. Oh, and I also felt itchy. On my face.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I had contracted facial ringworm in Jamaica—probably at the school on the landfill. Ringworm is a fungus that creates a perfect circle of raised red bumps to form on the skin. I had it on my cheek, and even though I felt bumps with my hand, nothing could have prepared me for my glance in the mirror that morning.
Let’s say you want to really fuck with a very Catholic kid. First, make sure she’s seen The Exorcist and is casually aware of demonic-possession characteristics, like pea soup vomit and the sprouting of red bumps that spell words. Then, the morning after she has kissed a woman for the first time—an act that is definitely forbidden by the Catholic Church —have her wake up with a bunch of screaming red bumps on her face. Have them form a circle even, or the letter “O,” probably for “ovaries.” And make sure she sees this “O” on Good Friday, the morning of Jesus’ death, so she can feel like she’s killed Him all over again! It was a real The Scarlet Lesbian-type situation.
I arrived in Nashville with one hand on my cheek, but I couldn’t cover the “O” for long —my mom noticed it the moment I hugged my dad. My parents found a local doctor and I had a prescription for fungus cream within a few hours. By Holy Saturday the itching had subsided. By Easter, the normal color in my cheek began to rise again.
Ringworm, however, is very contagious, especially before it’s treated. I had kissed three different people the night before it appeared. So while I wanted to call Helen and say, “Hi, Helen. You are perfect and amazing and the reason for my existence. And I love your hair,” I ended up asking, “How itchy would you say your face is?” And then I made identical calls to Kelly and Cal, all the while hoping none of them would get it. That could have made for some awkward conversation in the dining hall.
As it was, no one caught ringworm. I did tell Helen those sweet things, and she became my first girlfriend. We dated for three years. And the guys? Well, I only dated them for another year and a half. So I figured myself right out, obviously.