Content warning: discussions of homophobia
Janet looked at herself in the mirror. She repeated the words until they came out of her mouth with gentle ease. The reflection moved along with her. A speech practiced in bed. In the shower. While driving. Between college classes. While waiting for her academic advisor. She had worked to shed her inhibitions. The trappings held her to what she considered as limiting and unauthentic.
I am my own person, she repeated to herself. I am… my own… person. Janet took a breath to deflate her ballooning anxiety. No one controls who I am or what I think. She opened her right hand. A dime-sized rainbow flag twinkled at her. A smile crossed her lips as a warm feeling settled into her heart. Pride. Pride in myself. Pride in my decisions. Pride to be me as I see her. Pride to be with anyone. Pride as a lover. Pride forever. She inhaled, filling her lungs with invisible courage. Janet held the feeling, savoring the easy peace before the inevitable storm.
"Janet, we're waiting," her mother called from downstairs. "C'mon down so you can give your little speech." Fingerprints of dinner became imprinted within her nose. Her stomach pulled to the doorway, her head spun, and her heart fluttered.
Yeah, yeah, I’m coming. Janet slid the thin pin through the blouse’s purple collar, attaching the metal backing. Let them come at me, for I am my own woman. She kissed at the mirror to gain one more grain of courage.
Her family's rampant discussions carried up the stairs like putrid smoke. Her Great Uncle Christopher orated on how “the goddam Democrats are ruining the social fabric." Seth discussed how “the Qanon Revolution is only beginning." Her Grandmother Robinson reflected on how things were “better back in the old days when people knew their place.” Janet laughed to herself as she descended the steps. Great Uncle Christopher hated the same people who fought to make sure his disability checks weren't prematurely cut. Her brother found Qanon after some girl with an overfilled sweater and a wedding band offered him some ideas during the fleeting moments out of bed. Her Grandmother Robinson held more contempt for humanity than her savior had ever preached. The rest of the dinner table held various considerations along the spectrum. Janet didn't care. There were a few allies at the table who may come to her defense. Maybe not, she considered. The upcoming conversation would surely create clear, battle lines. She heard her mother tell the table that Janet had some sort of family announcement. Relatives shared their guesses. She stood beyond the hallway corner listening with amusement at their back and forth guesses. “She’s dropping out of school.” “She’s getting a haircut.”
There had been a time before meeting Sharon that Janet would have found herself on the more moderate, social conservative side of any conversation. That position ended when the classmate kissed her deeply during a study break. What should have been a simple review of Western History became life-changing, she reflected.
"You know that lesbians have been around since long ago." Sharon quipped when they came upon a picture of two Greek women holding hands. Janet couldn't confirm the idea in her thoughts. She had deliberately secluded herself from any gay information.
“Uh, yeah, maybe. It’s so weird though, right, to want another woman that way?”
Sharon sat upright on the floor across from Janet. Their books and papers in uneven piles at their crisscrossed feet. Janet savored the peace of her parents and siblings being away.
“Why? What’s so weird about wanting someone who listens and understands your feelings?” She became more animated. “I mean, my dad doesn’t understand half the things my mother talks about. Make-up, no. Cramps, no. Breast tenderness, no. Boss commenting on her blouse, no. By the way, yours is super cute.”
Janet blushed. She shook off the compliment. “Yeah, but there’s something to be said for being held in someone’s strong arms. Feeling what he’s packing, you know, down below. The security of someone who can protect you.” Janet sold her idea with over-the-top bashfulness.
“For sure, those are good things. But would you turn down a nice guy just because he didn’t hit the gym?” Sharon moved closer to the right, keeping her seated position. Janet didn’t want to admit to herself that she was feeling something special happening.
“Well, no. Not really, I guess.” Janet tried to fight her pleasant unease for an honest answer.
“And… wouldn’t you rather have someone who can understand how your body works perfectly over getting your vajey filled for a few minutes once a week?”
"Yeah, maybe," Janet replied in a low breath. She could no longer deny her racing heart. Sharon sat next to her looking deep into her eyes. Silence filled the house and the room, though Janet was sure that Sharon could hear her rapid heartbeat. She licked her lips without thinking.
“I mean,” Sharon took Janet’s hand in hers, “women can want one another. We do socially." She lightly kissed Janet's cheek. Janet's fear became no match for the magic of the moment. She fought to keep her eyes open as the wonderful emotions overwhelmed her. "We are socialized to be affectionate." Another kiss near the first one. Janet let all her guards down. Sharon turned Janet's softly rounded chin. Janet's stomach flipped as if on a roller coaster. They held their first kiss. Slow and simple at first until the moment evolved into a grander event. Sharon broke away, maintaining eye contact.
“We can stop if you want,” her friend whispered.
“No,” Janet shook her head, impatient at the pause and simultaneously loving the understanding. Janet leaned in. The afternoon became theirs on her room floor. Bliss and time slowly crawled over them.
Sharon dressed, standing near the door. “Call me when you recover, sweetie. I have some actual school questions I need help with.”
“Ok,” the words floated out of her mouth like weightless butterflies.
“You’re so cute. You stay there and enjoy, I can see myself out.” Sharon blew a kiss before shutting the door. Janet lay exhausted on the soft ground with pleasure waves crashing through her. Her eyes remained glossed over and fluttering. She didn’t want to think about moving.
Janet smiled at the moment, gaining additional courage for the conversation ahead. She reflected on all their clandestine calls and texts. She thought about Sharon in her life. Janet wanted their growing love to be public like everyone else.
She rounded the corner and took her usual seat near her father's head of the table chair, across from her mother. The monthly family conversation continued unabated like angry, verbal confetti launched back and forth. Eleven of the fourteen people talked at each other. The three remainders either hunkered down with their meals or watched the interaction as sick entertainment. Janet pulled a skirt steak onto her empty plate. Her eyes darted around the table wondering if anyone became derailed by her colorful, blasphemous statement. She took a spoonful of green beans and added some wild rice. She smiled at her sister who rolled her eyes, sharing the feeling that family time should include less political maneuvering. Janet took her knife and fork to the steak. Her hand reached across the side dishes for a monolithic, steak sauce bottle.
“What in the ever-loving fuck is that?” Toby announced in no uncertain terms. The crowd silenced into an uncomfortable dullness. They followed his gaze to the light reflecting off of Janet’s pin.
“Oh, hell no. Tell me you don’t have one of them queer pins on,” her increasingly upset uncle continued, slapping his hands on the wooden surface. His face twisted in disgusted confusion. Dissent cascaded through overt discussion or under-the-breath comments.
"Nope, not staying to be around this." Her Uncle Toby stood up. "You know, this used to be such a 'safe space.'" He used fingers to air quotes sarcastically.
“Toby, sit down.” Janet’s mother stared at him.
“What, and dignify this with my presence? Next thing, one of your turncoat kids will be wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and expecting me to meet her nigg-”
Her father stood up with a hand close to his steak knife. “Toby, sit down or I will sit you down.” Uncle Toby gulped. He eased back against the padded chair.
Everyone stared at Franklin. “We have a lot of opinions at this table, and as a Christian man, I have been extremely tolerant of the hate spewed across these dinners. If my daughter wants to express her Constitutional right in her own home, a view I don’t personally agree with, then that’s her right. Toby, if you choose not to accept next week’s invitation, that’s fine. But you will not, ever, disrespect my flesh and blood at her own table, or I will take a pound of your flesh and blood.”
“Hey, you can’t talk to him that way, Uncle Franklin.” Second Cousin Billy announced, basking in the false bravado that his kin’s presence allowed.
Her father’s hand touched his knife. “Test me, Billy. Test me right now, I dare you in Jesus’s name.”
Second Cousin Billy sat back in his seat scowling hard at being emasculated, fists tight under the table. Janet watched the scene play out. Her father looked at the faces in various shock around the table.
“If anyone else decides that they have a problem, let’s go outside right now.”
The nervous guests looked away or continued with their meal.
“Then, that’s settled. We don’t have to agree with one another, but we’re family and that’s enough reason to show basic respect. If you continue to come over, consider yourselves on notice.”
Frankin sat down. He patted his hand on Janet's leg for support. Her heart filled with love. She moved back to the meal, unsure of how to offer her remarks.
Aunt Rita cleared her throat. “So, Janet, dear, might I ask about why you decided to wear that particular pin?” She looked at Franklin with concern that the question may have overstepped her ambassadorship. All eyes swung on Janet. The weight of their attention pushed hard on her shoulders.
“I recently met someone. A girl, who has made me happy. And -”
“Who’s the girl, Janet?” Her mother threw out, thinly veiling her contempt.
“Sharon, my study friend from last month.”
"The girl who came over that one day?" Her mother clattered her silverware on a plate of partially eaten dinner. Her head cocked, arms crossed, and a grimace grew on her SummerRose lips.
“Yeah,” Janet swallowed the unexpected derailment. Her body ran cold. In her fantasies, everyone listened to her complete dialogue before commenting. She felt as if she held a grenade with a missing pin.
“Franklin, are you listening to your own daughter? She did a gay act in your home. Are you going to address this or does she get a pass?” Second Cousin Billy retorted.
Her father stared at him. “Janet and I will discuss this later. Let her finish.” His words crawled out between clenched teeth.
Janet fumbled the speech and decided to wing the disclosure, hoping enough of what she needed to say would be presented. "And, anyway, we've been talking a lot, sharing, you know, and I, um… want to be her girlfriend. You know, officially." Janet trembled behind her shaking voice.
Several groans passed around the table. An unspecific person at the table’s far end mumbled, “Rugmuncher.”
Janet’s mother pounded the table, causing the plates and glasses to rattle. Janet jumped in place. “That… will be enough,” her voice at its top volume.
“What’s her name, Sweetie?” Aunt Rita asked with a polite grin, looking at Janet with eyes darting to Franklin.
“Sharon. Her name is Sharon.” Janet replied, her eyes sparkling above a smile she restrained. Her aunt nodded.
“So, I assume you and Sharon are planning to move to the liberal fortress, California, and, what, join a commune or stop shaving your body hair or something?” Toby quipped, looking at his plate of uneaten food.
"Um, no, I don't think so. We both want to continue with college." Janet let her words tumble out of a spin cycle.
“Oh, so this’s one of them college experimentation things. A phase that all you millennials are doing. Great." Billy looked at the ceiling. He lowered his gaze at her like a rifle. "So, let me guess, next month you're going to be sitting in that seat wearing a tuxedo, expecting us to call you Jim or something. Maybe the following month, you'll be in a diaper and tell us that you're actually a six-month-old."
Franklin pointed a finger at Billy. “That’s enough.” His words weaponized.
“C’mon, Franklin. Everyone, including you and Patricia, isn’t thinking the same thing? Look at me. Today, I identify as a potato.” Billy patronized while waving his hands in the air.
“See this is the bullcrap, my generation has been talking about for years.” The family members turned to face Great Uncle Christopher who took a bite of his buttered bread. He continued through the mouthful. “We took God out of school and everyone thinks they can do what they want, with whomever they want, whenever and wherever they want, including in a Christian father’s home.” He swallowed and began buttering more of the roll. He shook his head in disappointment. “It’s time we bring the fear of God back to people before the whole nation becomes queer.” He sneered directly at Janet. She sunk back against the chair. “Queer, that’s what you people want to be called right?” His gaze locked onto Franklin. “It’s not an insult to call a queer, a queer, is it? I mean, it is their word now.”He waved the soiled knife over his dinner.
“Watch your step carefully, old man.” Her father stared back, his face getting increasingly red.
“Don’t tell me what to do, boy.” He pointed a butter knife down the long table at her parents. “You know, there used to be a time when our youth would respect their elders.” Great Uncle Christopher hurried a drink of water with a free hand. “I don’t even blame this, queer." He squared his shoulders at her father. "You know, what? Franklin, Patricia. I blame you both. Her parents." The room's noise evaporated. Janet's parents stared at the elder. The patriarch let the knife go and edged his plate away into the table’s middle. "I blame your generation. Yeah, I said it. My generation was out there making the world, giving the world to you." He held out both calloused hands, palms facing the ceiling "A toy in one hand," he looked down at his left hand, "a slap with the other," he looked at the other. "You choose. It was a perfect balance of life. Now it's a toy in both hands and no discipline, no church, and no sanity in this world. Maybe it is really my fault."
The table hung on his monologue. “Maybe we should have used both fists,” his wrinkled fingers rolled tight. “Maybe we were too easy on you. My parents knew how to discipline their children and we didn’t have any of them queers back then. They knew better than to get out of line otherwise they would get put back into line." He slammed his fists on the table. Each person jumped in their chairs, except for Franklin.
“Are… you… threatening… my… daughter?” Franklin’s leaned over the table, his shaking right hand fully wrapped around the steak knife’s wood handle.
"Maybe… if somebody had… you wouldn't have this problem?" He shot back, his fingers engulfed around his butter knife. Janet wished she never wore the pin, now that a boisterous family dinner had become a Mexican standoff.
Aunt Rita rose with authority. Her voice offered a shaky calm that understood real danger. "We need to walk this back, gentlemen. This isn't what family is supposed to do." She turned to the head of the table. "Franklin, please. No one's threatening Janet." She swung her attention to Great Uncle Christopher. "Are they?" Both men remained unchanged. Franklin eased down into his chair. Great Uncle Christopher dropped his instrument on the plate. Her father's knuckles remained white over the handle. "Franklin," her voice soft like cotton falling on glass, "please." Franklin relaxed his grip. The knife rested on the wood surface. Each person offered a collective sigh.
“See what lesbia -”
“Billy, shut your mouth,” Aunt Rita screamed.
“Sorry,” the young man looked at his pants.
“Now,” Aunt Rita brushed her dress, “we are going to finish our dinner and if that means no one talks, then we will eat in silence." She stared at Toby, Billy, Great Uncle Christopher, and Franklin one person at a time. "If anyone has a problem with that, I will be happy to correct you outside, myself. Does everyone understand?”
Each person replied, “Yes.”
“Janet, is there anything else you would like to say?”Her face registered flustered understanding.
The young woman shook her head ‘no.’ Her hair floated back and forth.
“Ok, fine. Would someone kindly pass the potatoes?” She took her seat. Janet’s sister passed the half-scooped bowl of mashed potatoes.
The dinner continued with surface-level conversation about the weather and other simple small talk about people's work and traffic. When the last family member left, Janet ran to her father for a hug. Her eyes stung with tears. He looked down at her face.
“I can’t say that I understand and I won’t say that I approve, but I am willing to listen to you and try to understand. Your happiness means the world to me and your mother. If you’re willing to be patient with us, we will try to meet you somewhere good.”
"Thank you, Daddy, that's all that I would ask." She buried her head against his button-up shirt, her tears leaving their temporary marks.