She said she didn’t like labels, but Butch just fits. It’s just what I am.
She said she was just a simple girl with two dogs, a truck, and a cock, a simple girl who loved me.
And I laughed because if there was anything she wasn’t, it was simple. She had the most agile, limber mind I had ever known; she had more stories, more textures than anyone. Sometimes the silence was loud between us because I could hear her thinking 17 things at once. Sometimes her eyes moved like a whole flock of birds.
But the first time she drove me through the narrow river valley in her little white turtle truck with the camper shell, the hills rose around us ushering us from coastal fog to inland sun, and it did feel simple. Her hand on my thigh had always been there, and always would be. She said how happy she was, just a girl with a girl in her truck. And my heart said Yes.
She was 67 years old, and I was 59.
I didn’t love her yet, but I wanted to. I felt my love for her coming toward me, taking a long time to arrive, like an ocean liner freighted with cargo enough to last for the rest of my life. I want to love you, I told her one day after we’d been lying and breathing and moving together for hours on a twin mattress as big as a galaxy, and she answered simply, let’s do that.
One of her dogs, the shepherd mix with the floppy ears, the one she called her old man puppy—he was 10, gray at the muzzle, but still romped like a pup, except when his arthritic hips hurt too much and she had to lift him. Anyway, that dog always knew when the sexual tides were rising between us, and whimpered and whined. If we were on her couch, he would butt his big head between us, wanting to be at the center of things, and if we were in her bed, he would whimper outside the door as the energy lifted us, up and up and up.
Like the day I fed her fat Thai spring rolls as she drove us down the coast, dipping the rice-paper logs into the fragrant spicy peanut sauce, then holding them to her voracious, generous mouth as she bit, and chewed, and bit, and chewed, again and again. I loved her hunger.
That day when we got back to her house she f*cked me with her breasts, first one and then the other pressed so hard against my taut, silky underwear it sent us into orbit together, and as I rose my hips higher and higher, taking her with me, the old man puppy’s whining grew so desperate and plaintive we finally had to stop and let ourselves fall back to the ground together, laughing.
Butch is a gender, but also a labyrinth, an entire universe made flesh. Like the Tao, the butch that can be spoken is not the true butch. Butch is something no straight person understands, and many queer people don’t, either. I don’t like butch women, says my bisexual friend. If I’m with a woman, I want to be with a real woman, not a wannabe man.
To me, butches are the hottest people on the planet. They wield the power of the both-and, not the either-or. Female masculinity and butch lesbians turned my head long before I even knew it had a name. Butch is the crowning achievement of gender, combining male strength and female sensitivity.
But butch is out of style these days, though butch has always existed, everywhere, and always will. There will always be tomboys and tombois and bois. Girls who choose boy’s clothes and haircuts as early as they possibly can. Girls who run faster and climb higher than boys. Girls whose breasts, when they grow, come as an unwelcome surprise.
Girls who know, at four years old, that they love other girls, not boys. Girls who fear they are the only girls in the world who feel the way they do, who grow up invisible, without representation anywhere, who have to make themselves up out of nothing, and do.
Butch takes heckles and stares and steel-toed boots in her face because she can’t hide what she is, or won’t hide it—people can tell just by looking at her that she’s a woman who f*cks women, except she’s not a woman, not exactly; she’s a dyke, a bull dyke, a bull dagger. Butch is braver than any man and just as soft as any woman. Butch might have a cock, but not only a cock; also slippery, intricate female parts.
My simple/not simple girlfriend had a cock. She had one all the time, she told me, whether or not she was actually strapping one on.
I had never before loved a woman with a cock. I had loved men with cocks, and women without, and one person who thought she was a woman, but later realized he was a man. But this person, she was not a man. She was butch, tall, with shy proud broad shoulders, a lean, tan belly, and gloriously female breasts.
If she was butch, did that make me femme?
I didn’t feel like a femme. I didn’t feel, even, like a woman, not exactly, though I didn’t feel like a man either. I dressed like a woman. My hair was long and highlighted. I liked necklines that showed cleavage. But inside, I was no gender, or all the genders. That, I discovered, was why I liked butch. Or at least, this butch.
She said she didn’t like the term masculine of center. Why did it have to be called masculine just because she drove a truck, and had worked construction, and wore men’s underwear, white boxers with the slit gaping open against her female flesh? Why did it have to have anything to do with men at all?
I got it. She wore those boxers, they were hers, and she was not a man. Why shouldn’t she get to own the whole f*cking palette?
Actually, often she chose turquoise from that palette, and so did I. We matched without even trying—her old turquoise tank top from Hawaii, my turquoise nylon wind breaker. Her turquoise short-sleeved cotton shirt, my turquoise toenails. It was a color that worked for both butch and femme, if that was what we were.
She said she liked my painted toenails. She had never liked a girlfriend’s toes before; she’d had girlfriends who wanted her to like their toes, but it didn’t happen. But she liked mine. I felt her liking them the same way she liked my dangling silver earrings and necklaces, liking the way they marked me as some gender other than hers. She teased me that she’d never before been with a woman who wore sundresses on hikes. I was honestly surprised at this. Really? Why not?
We were both women. We were neither of us women. We technically had the same body parts, but she was one thing, and I was another, and we were each of us so many things. When I pulled her into me against her kitchen island, let her press me hard against the gleaming marbled granite countertop, we were as solid as it was, and we were also water, the clicking rushing of outgoing tide, incoming swells, surging and sighing and swirling, soul-filling breath. Between our physical flesh there were hundreds of fingers and tongues of pulsating light.
She said she was glad she had built the island herself because she made it strong.
Mostly she didn’t want my hands between her legs except when she was strapping on. It was easier for her to let me touch her cock than her other parts. But one wondrous night after she had f*cked me with her cock, she slid off the tight black nylon briefs that had held it in place and let me move my fingers against her moist femaleness, and then I was in the garden of Eden, and never ever wanted to leave.
But I did leave, night after night. Her sleep, my sleep, the dogs waking so early, all the fullness already between us—she only rarely invited me to stay in her bed. Instead, she would fill a big jug for me with magic water from her special, expensive water machine, which cured all ills, then walk me up the stairs, her feet bare in all kinds of weather.
Outside my car, she would hold out the jug to me and I would open my arms wide to take it from her, big and heavy as a sleeping child, then open my car door and prop it inside, then close the door and give myself over to her arms again, and then she would say, Text me when you get home? If that’s not too weird, I mean, you don’t have to, and I would say Yes. Of course.
She said she had never lain her head on anyone’s chest before. I was always too…big, she explained, and we both laughed, because she was nearly a foot taller than me, and yet her head fit so perfectly there, just above my breasts. I loved to kiss her forehead, to stroke her wild waves of gray hair. Would you ever want me to brush your hair? I asked her shyly one night, and she hesitated, then said No in a low voice; her mother used to make her sit still for hours, combing it out so hard it hurt. For a long time, she couldn’t even let someone touch her hair, but now she could.
And then my fingers against those waves grew even more tender.
Mornings, she would pull on a pair of old jeans, no underwear, to take the dogs out for their weedy ramble, while I made love to her with just my eyes. One day she texted me two photos of herself wearing nothing but those jeans, a shy hint of pubic hair showing through the open fly, and above it, her muscular belly and those lush, magnificent breasts.
I’ve never sent pictures like this to anyone, she said, but with you, I’m so over the moon…
Over the moon, then—that’s what we were. That’s where we were. We were, briefly, stars.
Stars look small to humans, but they’re huge. They look alive to us, but sometimes the light we see burned out hundreds of years ago, and the darkness just hasn’t caught up yet. We see stars as twinkling little pinpricks, but they’re balls of fire. We name their constellations as if we could tame theml we make wishes on them, but stars are living their own lives. They give us light on their own terms. They aren’t holdable.
I wanted to love that simple/not simple girl with a cock, that woman/not woman, that beautiful butch, more than I had ever wanted anything.
After she broke up with me, I spent months not being sure how to want to live. One day, slumped crying on the knotty wood of my kitchen floor, I told my friend Kat the full extent of my despair. Kat listened calmly and went on sorting my Tupperware, matching the bottoms with tops so we could get rid of the rest.
Kat has purple streaks in her hair, tattoos, and a flirty, flitty sheen to her; she’s deep but not resinous. She said had another friend who often had trouble staying on the planet. She said it as if she was referring to another friend who got frequent yeast infections, just one of those things people live with, nothing to be too concerned about.
Another night Kat and I came in from my hot tub and danced wildly naked in my kitchen to Cher: Can you believe in love after love after love after love? I didn’t know the answer, but I wanted to.
After great pain, as Emily wrote, a formal feeling comes, and then we turn to stone.
But sometimes, when we are very, very lucky, that stone gets ground down to stardust, and one day we find ourselves stars again in another sky.