Essays

God Bless Diana Ross

by Sheree L. Greer

So, in 2006, I did the inevitable. I came out to my mother. I was in grad school in Chicago at the time, and I decided to tell her while home for summer break.

So, we’re in St. Pete, where my mother has been living for the past eight years. We’re at Columbia, you know the one at the pier. Excellent black bean cakes, empanadas, and slammin’ mojitos. Accent that with the dark blue water of the bay and a sailing class in the distance and you’ve got yourself a class-A lunch date. Yeah. Date.

Date is something my mother and I do a lot. It sounds creepy sometimes, but we’re just that close. We do dinner and a movie, lunch, brunch, walks on the beach, wine and steak nights. And I’m going to stop now because it’s sounding really, really creepy. But she’s getting older, you know, and dealing with empty nest syndrome, and falls in this weird in-between church crowd. She drinks, curses on occasion, and digs rated R movies, yet reads her Bible, pays her tithe, and says grace over every meal. Some would call that hypocritical. I call it being human. Anyway, she doesn’t have a lot of good friends. Besides all that, we’re just tight like that. Fuck it being creepy. Fuck your stares.

So, we’re at lunch and I’m looking around the restaurant. Because of my impending admission (not to mention being on my third mojito), everything suddenly seems outrageously and stereotypically gay. The table cloths are pink, the silverware glitters like sequins. There’s these crazy guitar licks, blaring horns, stutter-step snare, bass drums, and Diana Ross’s sweet, sweet voice jumping in and out before the beat drops. “I’m… coming… out… I’m coming…”

I want to rub my eyes. You know, to see if what I’m seeing is real. But I know it’s not. I go with the fantasy anyway, because, well, I fucking love Diana Ross.

The two dark-haired women with the sharp, geometric haircuts sitting across from us, who were just friends a few minutes ago, now seem to be on a date; leaning in, breasts on the table, licking their lips, giggling. The waiters pirouette around tables, handing out multi-colored menus, singing the specials while doing a shoulder shimmy. My head bobs uncontrollably to the beat. I’m digging it.

My mom is just staring at her plate, missing the show: the waiters are now a chorus line, legs kicking higher than Las Vegas showgirls. I’m impressed. The women on the date nod and wink at me, building me up. The waiters are smiling, doing jazz-hands. Hell, it all seems perfect. The scene is set. The time is now. I just need to say it.

My mother clears her throat.

My throat clutches.

Everything stops.

The gayness demotes from dancing and singing and smiling to just me. It’s just my stupid gay ass sitting beside my hard, yet surprisingly sensitive mother. I feel like I’m sweating, but I’m not. The restaurant is cold like everywhere indoors in Florida is cold. The silence between my mother and me is cold, too.

So we’re both looking out the window near our table. And now, I really don’t want to talk about it, especially now that all my back-up’s gone. But I know the discussion, this part two of me coming out, has to be done. Yeah, part two.

The first time I came out was stupid. I did it over the phone.

I was in Chi-town and she, of course, was in Florida. I was working with a non-profit agency that ran a bunch of daycares. I had this tiny, hot office – like really, really hot, the kind of hot that kills kids and dogs when idiots leave them in parked cars “for just a minute” on summer days. I had called my mother from the dusty office phone and we talked easy and loose like we always did:

“Hey, baby, how’s work?”

“Fine. It’s hot in here though. Like a sauna.”

“Ooooh. That’s something we ain’t done in awhile. We should find a sauna next time you come here. Just get naked and have a good ole time.”

Fuck creepy. Fuck your stares.

It was all good until she asked me about my weekend plans. See, my girlfriend was coming to visit. So, I would have to lie. I was tired of lying.

I thought it impossible, but the tiny office got even hotter. My heart was pounding in my ears. I adjusted the phone and it made this sucking sound ‘cause sweat was dripping from my temples. It was gross. I was uncomfortable. Where the hell is Diana when you need her?

Here. Goes.

“Mama, I’ve sort of been… lately, I’ve been… you see, I like… I’ve been dating women and I have a girlfriend and I’ve liked women for a long time and I just didn’t know how to tell you and…”

“What?” My mama said, cutting me off.

“I wanted to tell you for a long time,” I said. If you think telling her over the phone was stupid… check out my original plan. I was going to tell her while I was home for Christmas. It’s like, ‘Merry Christmas Ma. Happy Birthday Jesus. Who wants a candy cane? Not me! I’m a lesbian!’

So, we’re silent on the phone and my mama asks, “Is this just something you’re doing; trying out or feeling right now or…”

“No, this is the real thing.” I held my breath. It was most definitely the real thing. And not just ‘cause I was in love. Though, I was really, really in love with a woman who was smart and sweet and talented. And she was beautiful. And not just the regular, ‘damn she’s hot’ kind of beautiful. But ‘sunset’ beautiful, ‘full-moon-over-the-lake’ beautiful. ‘I-want-to-write-haikus-about-her-spirit-and-sing-them-to-her-with-an-acoustic-guitar’ beautiful. She was the real thing. But I was pretty sure I meant the whole shit though: my relationship, my love of women, truly finding myself, the whole shit.

“Yeah, this is the real thing.” I said again.

“I… I don’t want to talk about this right now.” My mother said. And she sounded far away like maybe she was holding the phone away from her face, like maybe she was already hanging up.

It occurred to me that maybe “I don’t want to talk about this” was really an “I don’t know how to talk about this.” See, my mother kinda gave my sisters and me the ‘Non-Sex’ talk. It went like this: Don’t Get Pregnant.

And so it then occurs to me that maybe she’ll never want to talk about it. What the hell am I supposed to do with that?

Anyway, we exchanged a quick, awkward goodbye and that was that. Why the fuck did I tell her over the phone?

Stupidest idea ever.

So let’s go back to my stupid ass in the restaurant.

“So, about this…” My mother starts. “About you thinking you like women.” And she just stops, puts her fork down and looks at me. Like that’s all she has to say.

‘About me thinking I like women’ and she’s just sitting there. I’m waiting for her to finish. But that’s it. She’s sitting there. ‘About me thinking I like women.’

That’s not even a complete sentence. ‘About me thinking’ is a non-sentence and that’s not even the biggest problem.

‘Thinking I like.’ It’s obviously wrapped in air-quotes. Here’s some air-quotes: “Understatement.”

I cream for short girls with big hair, curls and coils exploding like their laughter, smiles wide and sweet like strawberry fields, the weight of full breasts settling in my palm like a sigh, silky woman skin on my silky woman skin. And I prefer the contrast of an unshaved bush against my tongue versus the smoothness of a Brazillian wax – and oh what fun it was to figure that out. “Thinking I Like.” Yeah. Right.

“I don’t ‘think’ I like women, Mama,” I say. “I’m gay.”

Have you ever sighed with your whole body? It’s fucking amazing. So, I’m looking at my mother, waiting for her to say something. Anything. Even a non-sentence. I’m betting on, “I love you… but I wish you weren’t going to hell!” Which wouldn’t be so bad, am I right? Hell, not so good… but at least she still loves me. Right?

So, she says, “It hurt me that I was the last to know.”

Hurt. She was hurt.

It finally makes sense to me. We are so fucking close. Kinda-creepy-go-out-on-dates close. And when faced with the most important realization of my life – I tell her last. I am a stupid asshole because I can hear myself talking in circles to my sisters and friends, everyone – everyone but her.

In 2005, I told my high school friends, a group of girls I call the ‘Holy Rollers’ cause they’re practically married to Jesus. They said they’d pray for me, then asked what my mama had said.

But before I told the Holy Rollers, I told my younger sister and she was all like, “I told you about all that unisex flirting.” And that was sort of when I was doing the whole ‘I love the person not the gender,’ to that she promptly said, “Pit-stop to Gaytown, my friend. So, have you told mama you eat box lunches now?”

Then, I told my older sister, who ironically has been calling me gay since I was like eight years old. She just said all nonchalantly, “Duh, you tell mama yet?”

Shit. I didn’t know the ‘coming out’ protocol. Is there a ‘coming out’ protocol? Do any of you know of any ‘coming out’ hierarchy or totem pole? Is there some ‘order of operations’ that I missed? Anyone remember FOIL?

Anyway, I face my mother and my voice cracks. “I was scared. I didn’t want to hurt you. And I knew it would.”

She hesitates then shakes her head. I wonder if she’s thinking of the Non-Sex talk like I am. On the one hand, being gay won’t get me pregnant, so I’m kicking ass on that, but… yeah.

“Since our phone conversation…” My mother starts, but doesn’t finish. It’s like me coming out has made it impossible for her to speak in complete sentences.

“You know, I always thought you were going to be gay,” she says.

Don’t you hate that? You come out and all of sudden everyone “always” knew.

Anyway, she shrugs like it was all too obvious. “You know,” she says, “with you playing camping and soldier and running around with your shirt off. And I ain’t even going to speak on those leather pants you wanted to wear everyday. In second grade.”

My mother continues, “I used to look at you sometimes and joke, ‘that’s gon’ be my gay child.’”

Maybe that’s why she didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t want to be right. But I’m sorta glad she is. It’s like she got me before I got myself. Like she really, really knows me, which is kinda cool.

“Well, shoot, what are we talking about here?” I say, taking a chance at humor, “You coulda told me then and saved me some time.” I smile and my mother smiles, too.

Then, we’re both quiet. But it’s not like before. It’s just her and me; a mother and daughter sitting in each other’s space, finally getting to the shit.

Our waiter comes up to the table. “Mother and daughter lunch, huh?” the waiter says. I swear he has on eyeliner. He does a little shimmy, for real, a shoulder shimmy. “That’s so nice.” He smiles. He asks if everything is okay.

My mother looks over at me then back to the waiter. “Everything is fine.”

Whether it’s the rum, the relief, or just the tenderness and understanding my mother and I just shared, on this, date of sorts, I don’t know. But I hear music, real or imagined – who the hell cares. Piano, bass and electric guitar, bongos, drums. Diana’s voice rises up and out. A new song, a song about unconditional love that knows no bounds. Voices loud and strong, a chorus, a choir. “Ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from you…”

Me and my mama? We jam it out, like always have, like we always will.

ShereeA Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, Sheree L. Greer has been published in Hair Trigger, The Windy City Times, Reservoir, Fictionary, and the Windy City Queer Anthology: Dispatches from the Third Coast. She has performed her work across selected venues in Milwaukee, New York, Miami, Chicago, and Tampa, where she hosts Oral Fixation, the only LGBTQ Open Mic series in Tampa Bay. Greer received a Union League of Chicago Civic Arts Foundation Award, earned her MFA at Columbia College Chicago, and currently teaches writing and literature at St. Petersburg College. As an Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund grantee and VONA alum, she published a short story collection, Once and Future Lovers. A novel excerpt “Prom Story in Three Parts,” received a special mention in Publishers Weekly and appears in Best Lesbian Romance 2012. Her debut novel, Let the Lover Be, published by Bold Strokes Books is available here.

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2 replies »

  1. Sheree, besides being very engaging, your story makes me reflect on my own relationship with my late Mom, which is kind of the opposite of yours. Strangely, since her passing earlier in the year, I have found myself thinking about her in new ways that seems to deepen my understanding of her and my love for her. Sadly, the nature of our relationship did not allow us to tackle some of the thorny issues that often made the relationship quite difficult. I can tell how much you and your Mom treasure each other, and that’s the way it should be.

  2. Reblogged this on Lisa Lanser Rose and commented:

    “I didn’t know the ‘coming out’ protocol. Is there a ‘coming out’ protocol? Do any of you know of any ‘coming out’ hierarchy or totem pole? Is there some ‘order of operations’ that I missed? Anyone remember FOIL?”