At the lesbian retirement commune, the houses are painted soothing coral, ocean blue, sunny yellow, and have mermaids and parrots dangling from the eaves. The women, who all resemble Roger Ebert on a tropical vacation, drive around in golf carts and wave to each other with a zest you don’t see in Chicago, where it’s cold and gray and everyone’s retreated into their coats and responsibilities.
But here, here in this secret Sapphic sisterhood it’s eighty-five degrees and the women give zero fucks. They wear fanny packs and over-sized t-shirts with the outline of a Kardashian-curved bikini body ironically stretched across their substantial, grandmotherly, breasts and thighs. They host pet parades, form and join Melissa Etheridge cover bands and snake patrols, play pickleball and golf, and talk about their bunions and bronchitis and the need for rain—and there are no worries because, sister, this is how it all turned out. You were a teacher, a nurse, a secretary, a caterer, an IT professional, because you were. You paid your bills on time, or you didn’t. You kept some friendships, lost some, watched people die, watched people live, fought for things that didn’t matter more than the things that did, but no one gives a shit now, it’s time for water aerobics.
My mother was not always a lesbian. After being married to my father for more than twenty years, first there was Lori, the suburban cop. I was fourteen. Then there was Pat, the jig-grinder. I was nineteen. And now there’s Janet, who I’ve traveled here to meet. I’m twenty-five years old and I know decisions have been made, that I haven’t been consulted, and that my future relationship with my mother will, like most children of recovering alcoholics, depend on my ability to adapt.
Janet now stands next to a picnic table at Pincher’s Crab Shack. She’s a big woman, tall and large. She wears long denim shorts in a faded wash, cowboy boots, and a Nike t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. She has spiky gray hair, aviator sunglasses, small gold studs pierced all the way up one ear, and two gold chains around her thick neck. She crushes my hand in her massive palm and there’s a dolphin tattoo on her forearm. She drinks Michelob like a cowboy, clutched with thumb and forefinger and plugged into the side of her mouth. She’s a Republican.
The food is served on plastic trays. Janet spears a clam on the end of a long, skinny fork and waves it at me. She leans in, looks me straight in the eye, and says, “I like ‘em ‘cause they look like pussy.” She stretches pussy out in her Kentucky drawl, pussss-eeee. And I’m staring at her mouth and the clam and her mouth and the clam and the clam in her mouth and she sits back and chews, a satisfied smile across her face.
Before I could say anything about the absurdity of my mother’s protracted sexual resurgence—now with a woman who carried a pistol in her boot—and insist that we return to some shade of normalcy in Illinois, bake cookies, buy sweaters on-sale at the Gap, Janet took one look at me and my judgment and said it all herself. It wasn’t absurd; it was simple. Maybe uncomfortable for a daughter, but still, simple: I like ‘em ‘cause they look like pussy. Holy shit, I thought, she’s insane. And so fucking cool.
They moved into a house on Susan B. Anthony Drive. Janet hung an extensive collection of commemorative Elvis plates and dragged in a La-Z-Boy in which to play online poker. My mother purchased and hung expensive paintings of women in various states of undress. They spent the summers driving around the United States in Janet’s massive RV. I don’t know how happy they were, but I expect not wildly so. They weren’t very compatible. By the time they broke up, I was pregnant. By the time Janet was diagnosed with brain cancer, I had a son.
She called me a few days before her death. I had a toddler, an ex-husband, graduate school, and things had fallen apart in ways I’d never expected and wasn’t prepared for. I froze. I knew she was in hospice, but what did I know about death? Only that it was scary and seemed to go on long after everyone wished it would end. And that it seemed strange you could be actively dying with a cellphone, just calling people.
She left a voicemail. It was somewhat garbled, but mostly unremarkable: hello, how are you, I’m good. I’m not sure she knew it was me she’d called, Adrienne—it’s at the top of people’s phone lists. Sometimes people call me on accident. They do that.
I was racked with guilt. Then I was indignant.
This wasn’t my shit. Janet wasn’t my person. She was my mother’s third girlfriend in a line of girlfriends. We hadn’t spent much time together. We had little to talk about. Yet I knew she was a kind woman, with a tiny white dog she’d hook under her big forearm and let lick her lips. And she’d tried to make my mother happy, which is a difficult, almost impossible thing to do.
I asked my mother if I should call Janet back. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” she said. “She was probably just confused. She has brain cancer.” But still I worried, because while my mother had a new girlfriend, Dianne, and could at times be a very cold woman, I didn’t think I was, or at least I didn’t want to be.
Look, it wasn’t my shit. I’d never asked for a series of stepmothers, women who came into my life in intimate ways, but who were mostly strangers. And I hadn’t yet learned the infinite value of simple kindness that I didn’t need to know what to say to a dying person beyond I hear you, I know you, I remember you. But now of course I wish I would’ve picked up the phone and said, you know what, you’re right. If you look long enough, they really do look like pussy.