The dogs barked non-stop for at least twenty minutes. We couldn’t see them, but we knew they were standing at the bottom of our long, snaking driveway. We heard their nervous howls and yaps, beckoning someone—Daddy—to seek them out, to find out what was the matter.
“What the hell is their goddamn problem?” Daddy peered through the blinds in the kitchen. He snapped the blinds shut and stumbled onto the front deck.
From the sofa in the living room, I watched Daddy lean over the rail into the night air and squint into the darkness, as if by leaning forward and narrowing his eyes he could make a hole in the wall of trees and see the cause of the ruckus down below. Mama thumbed her Woman’s Day magazine, brushing up on household tips she’d never use in our rustic A-frame in the woods.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
She shrugged, flipped the next glossy page.
Daddy came into the light of the house, flicked his cigarette onto the deck behind him and slammed shut the sliding glass door. “Someone’s down there. I see headlights.”
“Think they’re broken down?” Mama asked, locking eyes with Daddy before looking back at her magazine.
“Oh, hell. I hope not.” Daddy lit another cigarette and started toward the basement.
“Can I come?” I asked, knowing he’d say no.
“I don’t know who’s down there, kid. Just chill-out for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
It was the spring of my fourth grade year, and I dreaded the boredom that awaited me in the long summer months ahead. I looked for excitement everywhere: in the cheesy detective shows I watched at night; in action-packed movies like The Goonies and Swiss Family Robinson. I spent hours playing “spy”, carrying around a briefcase that held a magnifying glass, some old kitchen tongs, and sandwich bags for collecting clues. I knew secrets, lies, and deception existed in the world. I knew because the TV told me so. The idea that something—someone mysterious and unknown—was out there, beyond the dark circle of trees, stirred within me an excitement and filled me with deep longing.
“What if it’s a killer?” I called to Daddy as he shuffled down the stairs.
I heard him laugh. “If I ain’t back in fifteen minutes, assume I’m dead and call the cops.” He slammed the basement door. I hurried to the deck to watch his flashlight dance down the driveway. The dogs stopped barking and I sat and waited for him to come back.
When we heard Daddy shut the basement door another twenty minutes later, Mama and I were sipping homemade chocolate milkshakes and channel surfing. I heard Daddy’s gravelly voice as he choked on laughter, but I also heard someone else. The other person laughed too, but something in that voice sounded uncertain, self-conscious. I thought it must be a young man, someone embarrassed by Daddy’s odd humor and crude jokes. My first impulse was to save the stranger from Daddy. I jumped from the sofa.
“Sit back down,” she said. “I don’t want you around some strange man.” She cracked open the basement door and called my father’s name.
“Hey, babe, bring me the cordless,” he yelled up. “This ol’ boy’s done broke down. He needs to call his ol’ lady.”
Mama sighed and grabbed the phone from its cradle. “Oh, good Lord. He just had to bring him up to the house.”
I waited for Mama to head downstairs and then I went after her, stopping halfway to see the visitor and stay out of sight. The three of them stood in the fluorescent light.
Mama and Daddy faced the staircase, but I only saw the stranger’s back.
Daddy took the phone from Mama, whose eyes widened.
“Oh,” Mama said out loud, though I don’t think she meant to.
“This here’s…what was your name, man? Sorry, I’m bad with that sorta shit.”
Daddy patted the stranger on the back a bit too hard.
“Sam, sir,” said the stranger, shifting weight from foot to foot.
“Shit, man, just call me Max.” Daddy laughed again. “Go ahead and call your ol’ lady, and I’ll run out and look for my jumper cables.”
The stranger took the phone to the porch. Mama pulled Daddy’s arm, leading him across the basement. She craned her neck toward the door to the porch before whispering, “That’s a woman, Max.” She looked kind of upset, though I wasn’t sure why.
“What?” Daddy looked toward the porch, baffled.
She said it again. “That’s a woman. A lesbian, I think. I guess.”
“What-in-the-hell?” Daddy took a wide step back and then leaned toward Mama.
“That’s a dyke?”
“Shh.” Mama clamped her hand over his mouth. “Don’t let her hear you. And quit calling her ‘man’ and slapping her on the back. Good Lord.”
“I can’t believe it,” Daddy said, choking on laughter. “Holy shit. Wait ‘til I tell the guys at work.”
“Shh.” Mama held her face in her hands. “How could you not know that’s a woman? She has breasts, Max.”
“I don’t notice that kind of thing.”
Mama rolled her eyes.
“I never thought there’d be a damn dyke in my house. Ho-ly shit.” He lit another cigarette and grinned at Mama, who didn’t look amused.
While my parents went back and forth, I sneaked down the stairs to get a better look. I had heard of lesbians. I sort of knew what it meant to be a lesbian; a woman who kissed other women. Something about it made me jittery and nervous. I’d seen lesbians around town; mostly softball coaches, EMTs, and farmers. But the stranger looked different. My stomach fluttered, as I inched myself along the wall behind my parents and stepped onto the porch. She whispered into the phone, kept her back to the open door.
She didn’t see me standing there. I studied her movements as she paced on the porch; I noticed the shape of her body, the size of her feet and hands. Mama was right; the stranger was a woman.
She wore her black hair short and combed back, and a single gold hoop dangled from her right ear. She’d tucked her plaid shirt into her tapered leg jeans, and her work boots were laced high. Her skin was dark. I thought she must be Mexican. She looked like a young man but more delicate, certainly striking; her high cheekbones and full pink lips gave her away.
I stood in the moonlight and watched the woman fold the slip of paper into a wallet connected to her belt loop with a silver chain. She turned to enter the basement but paused when she saw me there in the doorway.
“Oh, hello,” she said, smiling. Her voice silky but deep. She stepped back, shoved one of her small hands into her pocket.
“Hi,” I said.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Joanna. Joey, I mean.”
She smiled again, nodded, and stepped around me into the basement where Mama and Daddy stood whispering at the foot of the stairs. I followed the stranger inside and stood next to her, gawking.
Mama cleared her throat and gave me that get-over-here look.
I sat on the bottom step, unable to take my eyes off the woman standing in my basement.
Daddy was noticeably nervous, now. “So did you find that number and get a hold of your, uh, whoever it was you wanted to call?”
Mama nudged Daddy in the ribs and he shrugged. I could tell he wanted to laugh again, his head dizzy with dirty jokes he’d heard at lunchtime tables filled with construction workers. He looked like he might explode.
“Yes, sir. She just lives down the road. Not too far.” She handed the phone to Mama, shoved her other hand into her pocket, and rocked back on her heels. “She’s gonna head this way.” Something in the stranger’s face said she knew Mama had seen what Daddy’d hadn’t. She looked embarrassed.
“Oh,” Mama said. “Who did you say it was?”
“Joanie. She’s a friend of mine.”
Daddy chuckled; Mama nodded. We knew Joanie. She was Mama’s twentysomething second cousin. She lived with her grandmother—Mama’s aunt—down the road. I’d heard gossip about Joanie’s “lifestyle”, but didn’t understand what they were talking about. I only knew Joanie seemed different than other women in my family; she didn’t care about looking pretty or snagging a man. She wore her hair in a mullet and liked to tie bandannas around her jeans. Joanie terrified and intrigued me. Whenever we visited my mama’s aunt, I would sneak into Joanie’s bedroom and examine artifacts from her life—her old yearbooks, photographs pinned to the wall, posters of tough-looking rock star women.
Though I was only ten, and I had little understanding of what it meant to be gay, somehow I understood that this woman in my basement and Joanie were together. Joanie must be a lesbian too.
Mama handed me the phone. “Take this upstairs.” Her tone meant for me to stay up there.
I heard Daddy say again that he was going to look for his jumper cables. “I’ll be right back,” he said. Now Mama was alone with the stranger. I wanted to stay downstairs with them. What would they talk about in Daddy’s absence? What would my mama say to a lesbian?
I ran to my bedroom and dialed my cousin Ashley.
“Hello?” Ashley answered, smacking gum into the receiver.
“Guess who’s in my house?” I said, breathless, shaky.
“A lesbian,” I whispered through clenched teeth.
“A lesbian,” I said, a bit louder.
“Really? Hold on. I’m gonna ask my dad if I can come over.”
“She’s not gonna be here much longer. Her car broke down on the way to see Joanie.”
“Figures,” Ashley said.
“So Joanie’s one too?”
“How can you tell somebody’s a lesbian?”
“From how they dress. Their hair. The way they talk. They act like boys.”
Ashley and I were both tomboys. Back then I would’ve done anything to pass as a boy. I often wore my ponytail tucked into my Michael Jordan cap, hoping to fool people around town. Once one of Mama’s friends bumped into me at Wal-Mart and had to do a double take before she recognized me. “Oh, I didn’t know it was you,” she’d said and laughed. “I thought you were a boy.” I beamed for the rest of the afternoon.
“But we look like boys sometimes,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” Ashley said. “You’re not a lesbian.”
“Oh.” I hung up the phone and thought about the stranger in my basement. I didn’t want her to leave. My mind became an endless loop of questions I knew I’d never get to ask. What’s it like to kiss a girl? How come you don’t like boys? Where can I get one of those chains for my wallet?
I knew Mama and Daddy would be mad if I returned to the basement, but I had to see the woman again before she left. When I tiptoed downstairs, I saw only Mama there. She folded laundry by the dryer and hummed a hymn. “They’ve gone back down the driveway to wait for Joanie.” Mama stacked the laundry into a basket. “Poor Aunt Jo.”
“What do you mean?”
Mama dropped some clothes into the washing machine. “I just mean that I’m sorry Aunt Jo has to deal with Joanie and that situation.” She sighed.
I stood in the doorway and leaned into the darkness. I squinted my eyes into slits, tried to see past the trees to that spot on the road where Daddy stood—holding in laughter—while the stranger pretended not to notice. I wished I could see her one last time, tell her I didn’t think there was anything funny about her life, tell her she was beautiful. I knew I would never see her again. I began to cry.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Mama asked.
“I hope you never have to deal with anything so horrible, Mama. I hope I never have to.” I didn’t know what I was saying or why I said it. Something stirred in my stomach, and even in Mama’s arms, I could hardly catch my breath.
She smoothed my hair, wiped my eyes, and took my face in her hands. “Don’t worry, honey, I won’t have to deal with that. I’ve got you. You’re my best girl.” She said it again. “You’re my best girl.”
My breath became heavy and thick. I stepped into the dark, the cool night air a blanket, pushing cold electricity into my body, making the hair on my arms prickly. I tried again to see through the trees, to see the stranger, the woman. Instead, I heard car engines and saw Daddy’s flashlight bouncing up the driveway. Through the trees, I thought I saw headlights moving slowly down the road, but I wasn’t sure.