Susan Voight Gives Herself A Break
“Tickets out, people. Have your tickets ready.”
The Eastern Regional Amtrak to Orlando was going to be more crowded than I’d anticipated. I pinned my suitcase between my feet and handed the ticket I’d printed at home along with my Maryland driver’s license to the statuesque Amtrak employee. The woman promptly handed my ID back. “Just need to see your ticket, ma’am,” she said, taking what I would call only the most cursory glance at it.
I held my ID out to her again. She looked at me somewhat witheringly and cocked an eyebrow. In a tiny part of my brain I could hear a small voice saying, You can just be like everyone else, you know? Free and easy. Show the woman your ticket, stop holding up the line and get on the train. Simple enough. But I had always found it next to impossible to listen to that voice. I continued to hold my ID out to her even as I heard the mutters of irritation behind me growing louder.
The Amtrak employee mashed her lips together and snatched the card out of my hand. Peering at it, she said, in a voice just a shade or two shy of yelling, “Susan Voight. Look everybody. It says ‘Susan Voight’ on this lady’s driver’s license. And, hello, look, it says ‘Susan Voight’ right here on her train ticket.” She held both documents aloft and wiped her hand across her brow dramatically. “Phew, we can all rest easy now.”
I stared at my shoes. “It’s only the most basic security precaution,” I said quietly as I took my ticket and ID from her. I hurried onto the platform, trying to put some distance between me and the passengers I had aggravated. And who all now knew my name.
On the train, I found my way to my roomette and settled myself comfortably in my private little nook. I hadn’t taken a trip in—could it have been two years? And that was no vacation. Three weeks in Trenton to sit with my sister in her fourth floor walk-up while she fretted over her first baby, my dear niece, Lucy. By the end of it, my legs were in the best shape of my life from trudging up and down those stairs four or five times a day fulfilling Loralei’s every whim with a sisterly endurance I hadn’t known I had in me. I also knew with complete certainty that I never wanted to see Trenton again and that I did not want a child in my life. At least not as a permanent resident. Few things, I’d decided, are better than being an aunt.
Riding the train back to Baltimore that trip, taking in the blight and the ruin, the progress and the beauty, I promised I would treat myself and soon. A vacation. A journey. An adventure, even. Just for me.
But then work kept chugging along once I got back, eating up the hours and the days. Depositions, new clients, endless briefs, trips to court—the usual work life of a lawyer six years out of law school who probably wouldn’t make partner but could still hope. And hope put into practice was work. And more work.
I did take a few days off here and there. I had friends, work friends—colleagues, really—who’d offer their beach houses for long weekends. Bayhead, Rehoboth, Bethany. I’d fill up my catalog case with files and spend a few days applying the law with the gentle or violent sounds of the surf, the squeals and carousing of happy or peevish families all around me—trying and failing to relax.
No one could say I hadn’t put in my time. My niece was almost speaking in full sentences as the firm’s fiscal year ended and April ceded to May. To my great surprise, Grant Bowers, my boss, senior partner, and bestower of all things good and bad, smiled at me, shook my hand and gave me a bonus check that made my heart do a somersault. I knew the outlook on my career had just become sunnier. In our office culture, associates who got big bonus checks could consider themselves to have taken the first step onto the ladder that could culminate in the big “P.”
I had all but given up on making partner. I’d even considered looking for a slower-paced firm. Making partner would fulfill the goal I’d set for myself in law school. And then there was the work. It was hard to imagine a workload heavier than the one I carried now. But I’d better get used to the idea, since that would pile up in tandem with the digits in my bank account.
Vacation. Holiday. A respite. Whatever you wanted to call it, it was now in order. With the advent of my bonus, I felt the tide had flowed back to sea and the waters would be calm for a few moments. And before they came crashing back I wanted to sail away and bask in the sun for a bit. Or at the very least in the fluorescent lights of a fairly decent hotel.
Whenever my colleagues asked me what I did over the weekend—in those few precious hours when I wasn’t working—I usually hedged. I was vague or made things up. Because at night or on the weekends, when I snapped my MacBook shut or put down my pen, I wanted nothing more than to curl up on my bed with too many pillows and a soft warm light and read the next lesbian romance from the towering, teetering pile on my bedside table.
Not that I was embarrassed. I wasn’t closeted at work, but I wasn’t very out either. I mean, I didn’t have a girlfriend, so what was the point. No, I wasn’t embarrassed, but I could also see how it might appear. Single career woman spending her free time reading romance novels. So I kept it to myself. I wasn’t pining but I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t have liked someone in my life. I would. But there just never seemed to be the time to go out and find this elusive someone.
Working diligently had given me hope—which now seemed like a real possibility—that I would make partner someday. And reading romance gave me hope that somehow, out of the blue, a beautiful and wonderful woman, would appear before me and. . . well, I wasn’t sure, exactly, what would happen at that point. But it made me smile to think about it.
And reading my romances made me happy. While I was waiting.
I remembered walking up the path to my little two-story rowhouse in Federal Hill after my performance evaluation with Grant. I had been filled with a deep contentment, marred only by that little nagging thing.
Yes, maybe now was the time. To open my eyes to the world.
I had picked up a salmon and avocado roll on my way home. And a little container of tuna sashimi so Edith, my Russian blue, and I could celebrate my new success together. Edith, who my cat sitter called The Grumpiest Cat In The World, was the finest companion I could ask for. No, she wasn’t friendly. And, yes, if irritated—which was often—she would hiss or scratch or even bite (and, no, I wasn’t exempt from such ministrations). But she did everything with such dignity and grace that I could not help but love and respect her as the unique and autonomous creature that she was. And at least once a day, she would give me a sidelong glance, settle herself on my lap with an air of, Oh, I suppose I’ll just sit here, and allow herself to be petted. Sometimes she even purred.
After we had eaten, I felt thoroughly sated with fish and salt and the perfect creamy avocado counterpoint and Edith sat glaring under her favorite chair licking her lips. I pulled my laptop onto the sofa and did something I never do.
I trolled the Internet.
I have always considered my laptop to be a work machine and I didn’t have a personal computer. Unusual, I know, but so much of my time at work was spent staring at the computer screen that I just wanted a break from it the rest of the time. If I needed to look something up or answer a personal email, I generally did it from my smartphone. The favicons on my bookmark bar were as follows:
My Gmail account—for my wordier friends.
The New York Times.
The Washington Post.
And that was pretty much it. I subscribed to a few list servs related to my areas of legal interest but I read no blogs, played no games and had thus far escaped Facebook and, God forbid, Twitter. I was a bit of a Luddite, I admit it.
But that night, I plugged “lesbian romance” into my Google toolbar search box just to see what would happen. After a few clicks and only a moment’s hesitation I found myself registering to become a member of a forum devoted to “the discussion of lesbian fiction” or “lesfic” as I quickly learned was shorthand for my favorite genre. Three hours and two Sapporos later I was still floored to discover that there was a whole world, an active, vibrant community of readers of lesbian romance, discussing their favorite books and writers and, to my surprise, excitedly planning a trip to an upcoming conference.
At first I thought, How exciting that such a thing exists. Too bad I can’t go. Then I thought, Why on earth can’t you? I must have stared at a spot on the floor for no less than five full minutes, thinking but not seeing. Edith even became uncomfortable and drew herself into her most fearsome (mice, insects, dust bunnies, beware!) kitty crouch. I am probably being too generous with myself to call the processes that were going on in my head thinking. It would be more apt to say that my hands had slipped off the wheel of my bumper car, which was now turning wildly this way and that, crashing into anything it could. Another way to put it would be to say that my brain was leapfrogging from one fear to another, systematically covering the gamut of my insecurities.
It wasn’t that I was inexperienced. I’d had girlfriends. Two, to be exact. What I’d missed out on was the typical lesbian experience. I’d been about as nose-to-the-grindstone in college and law school as a person could be. I’d never been on a softball team. I hadn’t been politically active. And none of the things that happened in my favorite lesfic novels ever seemed to happen to me. There had been one time when I’d gotten up the nerve to go to a lesbian bar. But no one had given me a second glance. A few women had smiled in my general direction, but no one looked me lingeringly up and down, the way they did in my novels. Not that I was looking for that kind of reaction. I didn’t really want to be ogled. But even the tiniest of conversations would have been nice.
I shook my head, watched Edith allow herself to relax again, and banished, for the moment at least, every awkward encounter or missed opportunity I’d ever had and clicked the “Purchase Tickets” button on the conference website. Then I booked a room for five nights and reserved a spot on Amtrak in the sleeper car.
Which is how I found myself, now, two months later on a train chugging twenty-two hours southward with equal parts fear and anticipation duking it out inside of me. Orlando in June. It wasn’t ideal, but what the hell. I was going to put at least a portion of my bonus to good use.
Nic Green Comes Up From Under Water
I glanced out at my favorite view in all the world—the Atlantic from the deck of my aunt’s Cape May beach house. Or I should say it was almost my favorite view in all the world.
“It ain’t Noosa,” I said aloud, thinking of the incomparably beautiful crystal-watered Australian beach I’d visited fifteen years earlier and which had ruined forevermore any Atlantic beach I had encountered.
“Hey, Nic, how’s it shakin’?”
“Not bad,” I yelled down to Mike, my seventy-something neighbor who was doing his afternoon constitutional—a turtle-paced jog through the sand along the beach.
“Doris says to come over later. She’ll be sticking a pan of lasagna in the oven about five o’clock.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” I hollered to his slowly retreating figure.
At least I had a home cooked meal to look forward to. I sighed and turned back to my laptop. I was procrastinating. As I often did when I got to the end stages of a novel. But I was also procrastinating from doing something I probably should have done a long time ago. For a full half-hour the cursor had been hovering over the button that would finalize my plans to attend my first lesfic conference.
“Ah, screw it,” I said and clicked the “Purchase Tickets” button. The anxiety that had been threading itself in tiny clinging tendrils across my chest, threatening to encircle my throat and choke off my very existence now seemed to grow thicker and tighten their grip. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, just turn it off,” I told myself. “It” being my brain which had a tendency to manufacture purple patches of pained prose (and apparently alliterative excesses as well) whenever I was stressed.
Snapping my laptop shut, I stood and stretched. I whipped the ratty lightweight tee shirt I always wore when I was “relaxing” over my head, dropped my shorts to the warped, splintering boards of the deck and jogged in my sport bikini through the sand toward the sea. It was another gorgeous day on Cape May and a few minutes in the surf would do my body and my brain a world of good.
I dove over a wave that was just about to crash onto shore and entered the water cleanly, swimming out past the breakers. I turned and floated and forgot about lesfic and writing and my day job as a paralegal and everything else but the sun touching my kneecaps and shoulders and the delicious rhythmic nudging of the ocean against my body. But then new thoughts began to creep into my brain, sneaking up on me like a creature from the deep. I cracked one eyelid to assure myself that I hadn’t suddenly developed some form of metaphor-linked psychic ability and there were no sharp fins slicing through the water toward me. But not even being chomped by a Great White was going to save me from confronting decisions I had made long ago about my writing career.
“They weren’t decisions, you idiot. It was pure cowardice and nothing but,” I said aloud.
That much was true or mostly true. A decade before when I had published my first novel, it was a different world. The Internet existed, certainly. But people just weren’t digitally connected the way they were now. No blogging, no Facebook, no Twitter. I supposed there were those bulletin boards. Online communities where people traded messages about their interests. There were chat rooms, too. But I had never been into any of that. I used my computer to type up my novels after writing them out in longhand in composition notebooks. In pencil. The ones you needed a sharpener for. Back then I hadn’t even understood that computer files could be organized into folders. I had everything—ideas, false starts, short stories, that horrific attempt at gay male erotica—all in one folder, My Documents. Pathetic. I’d gotten better over the years, but my early ignorance sometimes seemed like it would haunt me forever.
My Zen-like calm now shattered by a brain that just couldn’t seem to shut up, I stretched out my arms and began a lazy backstroke. Being in the water in the ocean made me feel anonymous, like a speck, almost invisible in the vastness that was the universe. It was my favorite feeling in the world. I never tried to examine it too much since questioning such a thing would only lead me to asking myself if I was somehow drawn to annihilation. But I was fairly certain that wasn’t it. When I wasn’t in the water, the closest I could get to that feeling was when I was entirely immersed in writing a novel, when my brain was fully consumed by the world I’d created. I had to admit, my day job suffered when I was in the thick of it and I felt guilty for that. But most important, I’ve always felt that that experience—of stepping into, disappearing into my own manufactured world—had been mine and mine alone. That’s why I’d never done anything to promote my books. No readings or book signings. My fans had no way of contacting me. My publisher was instructed to forward me no reader mail. I’d never had any desire to talk about my characters, my motivations and perhaps, most churlishly, I’d never made any effort to communicate with my readers in any way.
Then a month ago I happened to be at Quail Ridge Books, the great independent Raleigh bookstore, when they were having one of their many in-store events. Emma Donoghue was reading and signing her latest novel. On a whim, I decided to attend. I was impressed by the reading and bought the book but what struck me most was a man who’d essentially poured his heart out to the author during the Q & A period. He’d recounted a series of personal tragedies and concluded by telling her how in the midst of his darkest moment he’d read one of her short stories that had shown him that he could carry on, even at those times when he was certain he couldn’t. I had walked out of the bookstore resolved to connect more with my readers no matter how uncomfortable it made me. I’d been selfish and now I had to make some sort of retribution.
I took two more strokes on my back and turned over neatly in the water, pointing myself toward shore.
You can do this.
You can go to a conference and meet colleagues and readers. And maybe. . .
I wasn’t sure. I kicked and sliced through the water. When a wave caught me unexpectedly, I allowed myself to be borne back to shore thinking I needed to talk to other people more often so I wouldn’t have weird, fractured conversations with myself. My therapist would approve.
Yes, going to the literary conference would be a start.
Yes, it would.
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