The Charm of Novelty

Creative Nonfiction
Elizabeth Bernays


Photo Credit: Linda, Fortuna future/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

In the small, shabby living room of an old house in downtown Tucson a dozen women sat waiting. We were at a lesbian support group run by Wingspan—a non-profit center for the LGBTQ community. The large facilitator came in, plonked down on a dilapidated armchair, and greeted the group as she passed around a sheet of paper for names and email addresses to be shared. She then asked each woman to speak about herself and what brought her to the group.

It was a motley gathering and each woman had a different concern.

“How’m I going to talk to my husband about being gay?”

“What’ll happen to my children when I tell them I’m a lesbian?”

“It’s so lonely being a lesbian. I got no friends.”

Most extraordinary was the small, swarthy woman with a strong London accent, who ranted and raved about a guy who kept trying to kill her. There were other stories of loss and despair. Several women expressed real hatred of men. After having had a wonderful husband for thirty-seven years and still mourning his death, I found them annoying, but did wonder what experiences had caused such powerful aversion.

Across from me a darkly tanned woman in shorts cried uncontrollably, but she finally managed to explain. “I’s married to a man who knows I’s gay, and I had this lover, but she’s just dumped me.”

This was Linda, whom I noticed in particular as I sat diffidently, amazed at the story. Did he really tolerate a wife who had affairs with women? And what was that rough-sounding accent?

There was no way I could tell the whole story of how close my husband, Reg, and I had been, how perfectly woven together our passions for research, classical music, reading and theater. Our marriage had been one of true soulmates, and we worked together on biological problems in different countries all around the world. Quietly, I simply spoke about misery since the death of an adored partner, and the emergence of an intense physical attraction to women.

I sat in subdued clothes with my hands awkwardly clutched. Later, Linda told me that she thought I was a timid housewife type. When the session ended I took note of the three emails belonging to women who had mentioned the complication of a man in their lives. I thought we might have something in common. Then we scattered and each of us went off alone.

At home, I emailed the three women who had husbands, but it was only Linda who replied. She sent the cursory message: “See ya next time.”

As the same old stories were recounted two weeks later at the next group meeting, I looked across the room to Linda and our eyes met. I felt there was a mutual recognition that this was going to be tedious, but a connection had definitely been established between us. At the end of the session we left together.

Linda said, “Did ya hear that girl whose been going for six years? Fuck, that’s not for me.”

I replied, “If people need it for so long, it can’t be all that useful.”

I looked at Linda. I was strangely attracted to this boyish woman, with unfamiliar mannerisms and speech. “Let’s not go back.”

We were silent for a while, and I desperately wondered how to prolong our walk back to the parking area. I said, “Want to go and get a drink?”

“I guess.”

Not much enthusiasm I thought, and then it turned out Linda didn’t drink wine or beer; didn’t want tea, coffee, fruit juice or soda. I was perplexed, but we went to a small café where we sat at bare wooden tables and drank plain water. I thought, this is weird—I got her in here but what the hell do we talk about? We sat in silence and the minutes got longer. So I began.

“Where are you from?”

“Dallas, and you? I don’t recognize your accent.”

“Oh well, I am Australian really but lived in England for twenty years. Been in the States since 1983—hybrid.”

We looked each other over. We were of similar height but that was where the similarity ended. Linda’s fine tanned skin, very bright dark eyes, and black hair in a buzz cut somehow made her look younger than her 49 years. By contrast, I had wavy hair, fair skin and a distinctly female figure. At 62, I too looked somewhat younger.

Linda gulped down her water. “Whatcha do for work?”

“Retired from teaching. And you?”

Linda looked away and after a long pause replied, “Freelance photojournalist. Where’d ya teach?”

“I was at the University of Arizona.”

“Gees, you a professor or something?”

“Yes.”

“I never met a professor.”

I took a sip of water, wishing it was something alcoholic as I desperately tried to think of something else to say. During the long minutes of silence, her face grew serious, and I felt the evident ache she suffered. Seeing her sadness made me feel my own deep ache, made me feel closer to her. The short hair made her seem vulnerable and I decided that for sure she was very attractive.

Eventually Linda leaned over to me. “I dropped outta school in eighth grade, but you gone ta college!”

“Yes, I went to University in Australia, and also in England.”

“God.”

I laughed and went on, “I studied insects and got a PhD in entomology.”

“Well! I thought you never been anywhere the way you sat there all prim and proper.”

She smiled at me and it was a smile that lit up her tanned face so her eyes seemed brighter than ever. This sassy boyish woman was unlike anyone I had ever met.

“What else?” I said.

I took in the Texan accent as Linda proceeded. “I dropped out, like I said, and didn’t want to work a regular job, and guess what, I was stoned outta my mind for years and years.”

Everything we each said made it plain that no two women could have backgrounds that were so different. I had had what my mother called a “proper” upbringing in Australia, and then, after a period of going a bit wild and drinking in every pub in London, became a scientist and then a university professor. But I was attracted to a new side of life. Linda seemed doubtful about a weirdo from a world she couldn’t even imagine. Later she told me that she did think to herself, At least she don’t seem uppity.

We left the café and wandered to our parked cars. I found her so physically attractive and fascinating that I turned to her and suddenly said, “I love you.”

“Oh no you don’t,” she replied with surprise and impatience, upon which we parted with awkward goodbyes.

I was quite excited by the very idea of a possible relationship with someone so different from everything and everybody I had ever really known. It satisfied another part of me—delight at bucking convention. I was careful, though, not to reveal how much I was physically attracted to her in case it was not reciprocated. It was such a new feeling to be attracted to a woman after a relationship with a man I had loved for so long. Reg had been a lover and best friend. We shared everything. Our tastes were so similar and our communications often required no words, even as he lay dying in our desert home. It was after eighteen months of loss and desperation, that I discovered Wingspan, and a support group that concerned friends had been pressing me to find.

Linda and I emailed each another, and a week or so later she agreed to visit me at my ranch house in the Tucson foothills. We ambled around in the pristine Sonoran Desert landscape looking at cottontail rabbits, lizards, and quail. Look at that tarny bunny, and that big o’fat lizard, he’s a football! Linda was always fearful of snakes and when she saw a stick: Wot’s that thang? Whoa, looks like a snake. In spite of the possible dangers she seemed to enjoy our walk and my sharing occasional bits of natural history. Until, I’m wore out, and we went in.

Inside, Linda gazed around at the large old ranch house with huge beams, red cement floors, and picture windows looking out to desert views of saguaros and prickly pear with the Santa Catalina Mountains beyond. She took in the oil paintings and watercolors on the walls and was fascinated by a picture of African village life created in bas-relief on beaten aluminum.

“What’s that?”

“Reg and I bought that when we were working in Nigeria. The artist is Asiru Olatunde, and he worked with just a hammer and nails. We got it for just a few dollars back then, but it is worth thousands now.”

“Cool.”

She looked around the Arizona room with its metal stove, old TV, and glass sliding doors leading out to a big patio and the desert beyond. Finally, she looked at all the shelves of books.

“You read all these?”

“Mostly.”

Then she saw my old Bible among the poetry books.

“Your religious or something?”

“Not at all, but I had a religious phase when I was a teenager, and I never throw out a book.”

“Yeah, well I knew I as an atheist when I got to about ten and just stopped going to the church with my parents.”

“What did they say to that?”

“They never said nothin’ against what I did.”

After a short silence she smiled. “Well, we got something in common, eh?”

Conversation stalled and Linda took to organizing the books on one of the shelves so that the titles all went one way. “Gotta have them straight.”

“I only need to know where things are,” I replied.

At last we both relaxed a bit and Linda went on in her Texas dialect and drawl. “I guess I like reading. I got a list of 100 top books from the New York Times, bought them second hand at Bookman’s. I’s reading them one by one.”

Clearly, this attractive unschooled woman was not just smart and funny. She read books.

“Would you like tea?” I offered.

“Nah, just water.”

“What about some dinner?”

“I gotta go home.”

She was sitting on the old leather sofa as I stood in front of her. We looked at one another for several minutes. I saw that round smiling face with dimpled cheeks and badly wanted to kiss her. Perhaps Linda saw that because she quickly left with scarcely a goodbye.

A couple of weeks later we agreed to meet at a Wingspan social. Linda mixed with dozens of others, chatting and laughing, making me feel my awkwardness, but I eventually struck up a conversation with a woman of about my own age who was interested in conservation. We discussed places to visit for bird-watching, and the woman recommended a new book about birding in Arizona. I took out my ever-present notebook to write down the title and author.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Linda was there kissing me on the mouth.

“She’s mine,” Linda shouted.

I laughed with surprise and pleasure. “Look, she’s told me about a great book on birding.”

Linda exclaimed, “I was over there talking and thought you was getting her phone number and Brenda said, Watch out that lady is taking your new friend, so I come over to get you. Well, nothing but a stupid book—let’s see.”

She looked at the notebook and then at me. We gazed at one another for a time that seemed endless but was probably no more than a few seconds before Linda broke the silence with a loud laugh. She was excited now, too.

Later, Linda said Brenda told her that scientists in lab coats were the most exciting for sex. “Not that I care what Brenda thinks, but it is pretty funny—do you wear a lab coat?”

That evening, as I sat looking out at the desert scene I had come to love, I thought about the social. I had met a very diverse group and what a new experience it was to meet a lot of lesbians. In the normal course of events in my life there was no way that Linda and I would ever have met. If we had somehow been brought into contact, neither of us would have recognized the other as someone to know or befriend.

Next time we met it was on a date. Linda picked me up in her old Toyota truck on a warm, summer Saturday evening, and we drove to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It is a place and time for great sunsets, stars, night-blooming cereus and evening primroses, bats and raccoons coming out from their daytime sleep. That evening we were tense and awkward, each aware of the other’s attraction. We were also exhilarated by a storm over the valley, with dramatic clouds and intermittent thunder and lightning. It presaged an exciting chemistry between us, but I wondered if Linda might be hesitant about being involved with a professor type. We made occasional awkward comments as we walked along the paths.

I wondered, Will I ever get to know this curious Texan?

I know now that Linda wondered, What the hell am I doing with a fucking professor?

On the way home Linda drove into a lonely picnic area surrounded by Palo Verde trees and cactus where we kissed seriously for the first time. I wanted to linger, but before I could say anything Linda started the engine and drove back to my place. She left immediately, almost without a goodbye.

It wasn’t long before she came to visit again when I proposed cooking dinner. By this time I knew that Linda had a very limited diet—nothing fancy or spicy or unusual. I served steak, potatoes, and beans, which met with her approval.

Linda was at ease and affectionate while making fun of me or others. On the other hand, I needed wine to relax and make talking easier. I felt, though, that we were gradually learning to understand each other. We each had a bath and we kissed, then Linda suddenly left me to sleep in the spare room. I was mystified.

The following week Linda offered to cook the meat on the barbecue. I could see her in baggy plaid shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers out on the patio through the sliding glass doors. No bra, shapely brown legs, confident walk, happily wielding tongs by my old Kettle barbecue grill. I watched her with pleasure and desire as I drank my wine.

“When did you leave Australia?” she asked as we ate.

“When I was 22, I left Sydney by ship with my friend Lucy. We disembarked in Gibraltar and hitchhiked all around Europe.”

“Then what?”

“Well, we had a bit of a wild time, then I taught high school, and eventually I did a PhD at the University of London. After that I was a British Government Scientist and worked in places like India and Nigeria and Mali.”

Linda kept sipping her water, then, finally putting down her glass said, “Well, I don’t know whatcha want with a dropout who did nothing.”

“You were a photojournalist, so that’s something.”

“I guess. I did sell stuff to the Dallas Fort Worth Times Herald and the AP; mostly I worked with the Fire Department.”

It wasn’t until a lot later that I discovered she was a pro when it came to any photographic work involving quick decisions. Linda was friends with the local fire chief in Dallas and began by taking photographs of fires and first responders. She said she enjoyed the adrenaline rush and always got to the scene fast. I knew she was quick so it made sense that she would be the one with the best shots. Not until a year had passed did she show me the papers nominating her for a Pulitzer.

Linda turned to questions that I had no quick answer for: What do you do for fun? What do you watch on TV? But she didn’t really seem to need answers. She spread out on the sofa, seemingly relaxed.

I said, “Would you like a massage?”

“No.”

“Well then, here I come,” and I leaned over to kiss her.

“No, you don’t,” she said, jumping up.

Later, she would say, “You pounced on me that night.”

On other occasions she left quite suddenly and without explanation. It was not until much later that Linda confessed she had sometimes left because she was nervous about me and nervous about anything physical. Alone, I was left wondering. What made this woman tick? What kind of relationship did she have with her husband, John? Is she interested in me really?

One summer day she suggested that I come to a bowling alley where she and John would be bowling and I would meet him. It turned out that the date, August 13th, was their wedding anniversary so it felt terribly awkward. Still, nothing was going to stop me from going to see her bowl. Only later did I find out they had not been intimate for years.

I watched them; they were both good bowlers. They had their own balls and they often made strikes. My eyes were mostly on Linda, so alive and so limber, joking with all and sundry. Her tall husband with scruffy hair and beard was quietly friendly. How was it possible that John accepted me, knowing that Linda and I were already close? In any case he apparently became aware of electricity in the air.

“Lin, do you and Liz want to take off?”

That’s all it took. The two of us went to my house and we sat in the Arizona room, watching Gambel’s quail marching around outside.

“Does John really not mind your having an affair?”

“Oh, he got used to it when I went with Kim. John and me’s friends, and we got Trooper. He’s a yellow lab and the best dog we ever had.”

“Did you always have dogs? I’m more of a cat person, but we couldn’t really have a dog with Reg and me working long days.”

“We got Wookie too. You would love him. He’s a Yorkie and such a character. When it’s raining, he can open the doggie door and pee through it without going outside and getting wet. He’s got a million tricks.”

I thought back to my teenage years when we had Australian terriers that are very like Yorkies, but Linda had moved on from dogs. Another time.

We ate dinner on the patio just outside the open sliding glass doors where a breeze from the swamp cooler bathed us in cool, damp air. It was the usual—steak, potato, and beans, while Linda drank water and I had my favorite red wine. Bats flew by and stole sugar water from the hummingbird feeder, javelina trotted past the patio, and a coyote howled in the distance.

Later, I was in bed when she came into the bedroom and announced, “I am going to make love to you tonight.”

I found this amusing. I lay there warm and excited from alcohol and pondered this strange relationship as she showered. There had been a time, perhaps twenty-five years earlier, when I began to fall for tall, handsome Sandy, an imposing woman who reminded me of Miss McCallum, the math teacher I had a crush on in high school. It was Miss McCallum who taught me I was actually good at math and not the hopeless student I believed myself to be. Well, nothing was going to interfere with my relationship with Reg. He was everything, so I stopped seeing Sandy, who anyway had her own partner. The short lesbian flash faded completely.

I was still musing on the past when a warm damp Linda jumped in beside me and we kissed. Slowly then, we explored one another’s bodies. And so began the affair and the most unlikely partnership, with each of us unsure if it would lead anywhere in the long term.

Linda joked, “Anniversary of our first night gonna be the same date as me and John’s wedding anniversary!”

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Elizabeth grew up in Australia, became a British Government Scientist in London, and then a Professor of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley. From there she was appointed Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona where she also obtained an MFA in Creative Writing. She has published forty nonfiction stories in literary magazines and last year, her memoir, Six Legs Walking, won the 2020 Arizona/New Mexico Book Award for memoir. Email: eabernays[at]gmail.com

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