~ My Most Painful Memory ~
by JS Stephens
Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: All characters original, no intent of them resembling any one living, dead, undead, or imaginary.

Copyright 2004 by JS Stephens. All Rights Reserved.

It seemed unreal, the horrifying, at the time it was happening.

Maybe I should start again by introducing myself. My name is Donna Lake and I have taught American literature at the local community college for a few years now. I am happy in what I do, and started dating Art Shepherd three years ago, and we got engaged about six months ago. Art is the manager of the bookstore on campus, happy to work the shorter hours on campus rather than trying for a bigger position in the chain. We're not lazy, just content. I know it seems like I'm wandering, but I promise to get back to the most painful memory, but I must lay the groundwork first. Despite teaching literature, I'm no great shakes at writing literature, I just know how to interpret it.

I guess my story should have started three years ago when I walked into the bookstore to look for the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Art had just transferred to Jackson County Community College and saw me prowling through the magazine rack. "May I help you?" he asked. I told him that I was looking for the latest issue of Rolling Stone, had it been placed on the rack yet? Art smiled his slow, gentle smile and answered, "I believe it is still being unpacked. Should I reserve a copy for you? If you tell me your name, I'll set one aside for you."

"I'm Donna Lake and I'm about to be late to my Early American Literature class. How about if I come back in a few hours, Art?"

"Fine, just ask for me at the front counter. Good luck in class, Donna."

I laughed, figuring he'd made the common mistake of thinking I was a student, since I have a bit of a baby face. "Thanks, Art, maybe this time the students won't fall asleep while I lecture." I left as he blushed at his assumption gone wrong.

Well, folks, that was the start of our relationship. Rolling Stone led to dinner and a movie, then more dinners, more movies, daytime hikes, long talks about our dreams, things lovers do. I'd dated off and on, but never met a man who actually could keep up with my literary references, so I fell in love with Art. He claimed that no one else understood his appreciation for female vocalists of the 1950's and 1960's, or his obsession with collecting actual LP's, not CD's, of such singers as Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Diana Shore, Doris Day, and Patty Paige, just to name a few. He claimed that the LP's were warmer than their digital counterparts, but I really couldn't tell the difference. I just loved hearing their voices caressing my ears, flowing around my brain, lulling me into a fantasy that his apartment was really a cool nightclub. We danced in his small living room, happy just to be with each other.

I guess I should have caught a clue when I didn't want to move beyond heated petting sessions. I was still a virgin at 28, believe it or not, and I didn't want that to change until our marriage. I went to church sporadically (no parents to enforce the Sunday routine), but still held on to the ideal of being pure for my wedding day. We'd mess around, going so far, then I'd call a halt, baffled as to why Art could barely force himself to stop. It was easy for me, even though I was pretty aroused, although the truth be known, I was also a little scared of the physical reality of expressing love with a man. Since I'd grown up in a small town, and this town wasn't much bigger, I'd not run into any gays or lesbians, at least, not knowingly. And the curriculum didn't allow for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, other "deviant" literature.

Two and a half years after we started dating, Art proposed over a romantic dinner, giving me a half carat diamond engagement ring. I accepted, thrilled to finally make this last leap into full adult status. Yes, I know, being single is perfectly fine, but where we lived, you got the subtle message that if you were single, you weren't totally grown up. So, Art and I started planning our wedding to be a year down the road. Of course, I had to show off my new ring to my fellow professors and to acknowledge it to my students. I was going to be Mrs. Shepherd in a short twelve months' time.

Now I'm starting to come back to where I started. You see, I met Jana Clark and life did a 180 turn for me. Actually, Art introduced me to Jana Clark, something he will regret for the rest of his life, I'm sure. Jana bought the used book store from the retiring owner and promptly started dealing in used LP's, CD's, video's, and DVD's in addition to used books. She renamed it The Entertainment Emporium. Art was delighted to find a new source of vinyl and dragged me there on one of our dates. "Honey," he said with great pride, "this is Jana Clark, the new owner of the store. Just look at the LP's! Oh my God, I've died and gone to heaven!"

"Why, thank you, Art," Jana said, a look of amusement flitting across her face, "you might check the new shipment bin, I've been busy at estate sales lately. I think there's some rare female vocalists in there." Art grinned hugely and I motioned for him to go on, then turned my attention to Jana. She smiled a slow, sultry smile, asking, "So, you must be Donna, I'm pleased to meet you. Art couldn't stop talking about you when he came in yesterday. Do you share in his collecting habits?"

"Well, yes and no," I answered, leaning against the counter, lowering my voice, "I love the oldies too, but I used to listen to more rock before I met Art."

"Who did you listen to?" Jana inquired, leaning a little closer to me.

"Um, let's see, Queen, Melissa Etheridge, Styx, the Stray Cats, to name a few. I haven't kept up with any of them in a long time, I guess most of them aren't recording any more."

Jana smiled and handed me headphones attached to a stack of equipment, saying, "Listen to this," as she popped in a CD. I recognized the voice of Melissa Etheridge singing about wanting to be in love, wanting to stand in a doorstep in the rain just to see her lover again. I found myself nodding in time with the music, inexplicably craving the things she sang about. Art, bless his heart, would never think of sending me flowers just because, or do anything silly just for love. When the song was over, I handed the headphones back to Jana, who simply asked, "Did you like it?"

"Yes," I replied.

"She's coming to town next week and I have tickets, but the friend I was going with has to go on a business trip. Would you like to go with me?"

Without considering Art, I answered, "Sure, sounds like fun."

Art was pissed, but I held my ground. Jana came to my apartment to pick me up for the concert, asking about my day. "Fine, except Art was being whiny. All I'm doing is going to a concert with you, it's not like a date or anything." Jana just laughed, a pleasant sound, then helped me on with my coat before we walked out the door. I was puzzled by her laughter, then more puzzled by her asking if I was homophobic. "Not that I'm aware of, why do you ask?"

"Well, Melissa is a very out lesbian, and at least half of the audience will be lesbians. I should have asked earlier if that bothered you."

"Oh," was the only thing I could think to say.

The concert was a blast. Melissa put on an excellent performance, a much more raw sound than I'd been listening to for the past several years, but one that sent shivers up my spine. It was weird to see women holding hands, walking arm in arm, and kissing, but I was more intrigued than anything else. After all, I taught college students, so nothing should surprise me, but it did surprise me that as we were leaving, Jana took my hand to walk me out of the auditorium. I guessed that she was just making sure that we didn't get separated, but it felt good, natural, somehow. I didn't let go until we got to her car and she unlocked my door for me, then my hand suddenly felt bereft from the loss of contact. "That was a great concert," I found myself enthusing, "she writes some really excellent lyrics, and you can feel the pain, the passion, in her voice."

"Yes, that's one of the reasons I like her music," Jana answered as she deftly navigated the sluggish traffic. "She's real, she's true to herself and to her art."

I thought about that as we made our way back to my apartment. I'd enjoyed myself so much that I didn't want the night to end. "Do you want to come up for a while?" I asked hopefully. I knew that she didn't open the store until late on Sundays, and it was a Saturday night. I found that I was nervously waiting for her answer, bashfully staring at my knees while I waited for her decision.

"I guess it wouldn't hurt for a little bit," she finally answered as she turned off the motor. I released the breath that I didn't realize I'd been holding while she hit the unlock button and climbed out of the car. I scrambled out, belatedly remembering that I needed walk ahead of her in order to unlock the door. I was relieved to find the correct key on the first try as I unlocked my door and flipped on the lights, stepping in to give her room to walk in behind me. "Nice place," she commented as I remembered to shut the door behind her, "and where did you get that Alex Ross print?"

My prize possession, a picture of Wonder Woman, kneeling, eyes closed, the white buildings of her island beyond her, the sun setting over the water. I smiled, walking over to the print, stroking the forest green wood frame. "Well, I found it on the internet, on his web site as a wallpaper. It's from the graphic novel, Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth, which came out a couple of months after 9/11. I don't know why I bought it, but I saw it in the store and just had to get it. I was intrigued by the artist's realistic rendering of Wonder Woman, so I found the web site and printed out the wallpaper and got it framed." I stopped, feeling foolish about babbling on and on over a simple picture.

"Neat," Jana said, gray eyes finding my brown ones, "very contemplative picture. I've seen the graphic novel come through my store. Oh, I see now, you printed it out on matte photo paper, that's why it looks so good."

"Oh," I spluttered, wondering why the nearness of this woman was turning me into a stuttering teenager, "did you want something to drink? I have water, juice, cola, wine, beer, or cocoa. I have snacks, too, if you'd like, crackers and cheese, mostly. Some grapes, I think." She smiled at me, seating herself on my sofa as she requested juice. I nodded and went to the kitchen to fetch the required juice, glasses, cheese and crackers. I set everything on my coffee table, realizing that I'd have to sit beside her on the couch in order to reach the drinks and food. Not usually a problem, but the very close proximity to her warmth was causing contradictory feelings to flare up. I wanted to sit very close, I wanted to run screaming from the room. I wanted her to hold my hand again, I wanted to sit on the other side of the room. I wanted to be like the women I'd seen at the concert, nonchalantly resting my hand on her wonderful denim covered thigh, I wondered why I had these weird feelings.

During this whole flurry of disconnected feelings, I didn't think about Art at all, something I didn't realize until Jana asked, "So, how long have you and Art been engaged? When are you planning to marry?"

"Marry?" my strangled voice came out, choking in my throat. I took a quick chug of my juice, crashing back to reality as I did. "About six months from now, give or take a bit." My mind refused to supply the exact date all of the sudden, something that I could usually tell you down to how many months, days, hours were left. I squirmed on the sofa, trying to put some distance between us as the unbidden thought raced through my mind, "Why is Jana's mere presence driving away thoughts of my boyfriend?"

Jana cocked her head charmingly, reaching for provisions, studying my reactions. I felt myself flushing hotly under her gaze, wondering what I'd said or done wrong. She munched her snack while still studying me, then swallowed and asked softly, "Are you excited about marrying Art?"

All the nagging doubts that I'd been shoving down flooded my mind. The lack of passion, the feeling of comfort rather than arousal, the brief flurries of wondering if he was right for me. Troubled, I got up and started pacing around my small living room, not wanting to see her expression of sympathy. Coming to a stop in front of my window, I blurted out, "Jana, are you a lesbian? If so, how did you know? What does it feel like to kiss a woman?"

I sensed her coming up behind me rather than seeing her. She lightly rested a hand on my shoulder, allowing me to continue to stare up at the stars rather than face her at the moment. "Donna, I am a lesbian, I knew from the time I was in junior high and kept falling in love with my friends. Now, as far as kissing women, it depends on the woman and how I feel about her." I turned around, slowly forcing myself to look her in the face. "Donna, are you questioning your sexuality?" she asked, seeking information, not condemning. I nodded, knowing it was true. I stood mutely, wanting her to take me in her arms, to make the world go away, to take away the shame that was crawling through my gut. "Poor sweetie, it must be rough to question your sexuality while engaged. What can I do to help?"

I wanted to answer, "Take me in your arms and never let me go," but that was not realistic. I settled for asking, "Do you think we can be friends?"

"Yes," she answered simply, squeezing my shoulder briefly before dropping her hand. "I suppose I should really go now."

Good manners came back, propelling me to reply, "I had a wonderful time, Jana, thank you so much for the evening. Maybe we can do something again soon."

"Yes, I think so," she answered, walking away to find her coat, "that would be nice. So, see you around the store?"

"It's a deal," I answered, my heart soaring.

Over the next month, I went between being sure I loved Art and wanted to marry him and questioning whether or not I could really make love with him. I found myself wandering in the social sciences section of the library, furtively reading books about homosexuality and lesbianism, wondering if I was really "that way." I'd go by the bookstore just to say hi to Jana, who always greeted me warmly. I started having dreams about kissing her, waking up so horny that it was difficult to get back to sleep. Images of women flooded my mind when I'd stroke myself at night, or while I was trying to respond to Art during our necking sessions. I was having trouble eating and was losing weight, enough that one of my older students hung around after class one day to ask if I was okay.

During one of my trips to the Entertainment Emporium, I found a book of lesbian erotica. I had stumbled across this wonderful section of gay and lesbian books while looking for the women's studies section, trying to track down an elusive discussion of Eudora Welty. I pulled the book off the shelf and started flipping through the pages, stopping to read sections. I'm sure that I was absolutely red, but I couldn't help myself or stop reading descriptions of women making love. I forced myself to put it back on the shelf when I became aware that I was extremely aroused by the descriptions, that no portrayal of men and women making love had ever aroused me so much. I've never been so glad that I didn't have another class for the rest of the day. Embarrassed by my reactions, I slunk off to the restroom to clean up and to repeatedly splash cold water on my face, trying to get the feelings to go away. My experience was compounded by the realization that I'd promised to go to the movies with Jana that night. Taking a deep breath, I left the restroom, going through the LP section on my way back to the front door, only to run into Art, on his perpetual quest to buy all albums by his favorite singers. "Hi, Art," I said weakly.

"Hey, honey," he said, leaning over for a kiss. I flinched as his lips met mine, causing him to draw back, surprised. "What's wrong, Donna? You look pretty flushed, are you ill?" He set the album he'd been looking at down, reaching for my forehead. "You don't feel feverish," he commented, "what's going on?"

"Um, I don't have a fever," I muttered, "just flustered."

Art pulled me to him in a hug, kissing the top of my head. "I know just the cure for your ails and woes," he announced, "we'll go get some dinner and a movie. Actually, we really need to get together and discuss our wedding, it's been very difficult to reach you lately." He waited for an explanation, then pulled away, searching my face. "Is there something going on?" he asked.

Tonight. Crap. "Art, I have plans tonight-"

Suddenly, he exploded, "You always have plans lately, when am I going to be in on your plans?"

My heart sank, my head swirled, I gave in. "Sweetie, I'll cancel my other plans. How about if we meet at our favorite pizza joint, say, about 7:30?"

He smiled, then bussed me soundly. "Sounds good to me, honey. See you then." He picked his record back up, whistling as he moved toward the checkout counter. I cursed myself for a coward, waiting for him to leave before I went to break my date with Jana.

It was terrible from the start. Art was babbling happily about who he was asking to be his best man, looking for a tuxedo, the timing of the wedding announcements. I had been pushing my pizza slice around on my plate, not able to eat. I couldn't take it any longer, I had too many unresolved feelings about Jana, about my sexuality, my future. To make everything worse, he proudly announced that he had applied for a transfer and promotion, one that would uproot us and make us move across the country. At no point did he think about how this bombshell would affect my career.

"Art, listen to me," I urged, interrupting his pondering where we should take our honeymoon, "I can't do this to us."

"Huh? Do what?" he asked. He looked at me more closely. "What's wrong, are you really coming down with something? You look terrible, maybe we should skip the movie, we can go tomorrow night instead."

I took a deep breath, slowly sliding my engagement ring off of my finger, handing it to him as I simply said, "Art, we can't get married." He stared at the ring dumbly, not closing his hand over it. He started turning white with shock, so I rushed headlong into my reasons, save one. "Art, you've always planned things first, then told me later, never asking what I want. Now here we are, months away from getting married and now, just now, you tell me that you've applied for a transfer. Jobs like mine aren't easy to come by, and you didn't ask if I wanted to move. I love you, but I can't make that kind of commitment if you're not willing to share the decisions with me."

"But honey, I just want a better life for us. I'd be making enough for us to live on while you look for a job. Besides, after the kids come, you'll stay home anyway."

I stared at him, first dumbfounded, then with a swelling fury. "Kids? What kids? We never talked about having children, I never wanted children!" I exploded.

"But Donna, I just assumed you knew I wanted children, you always thought it was so cute how I played with my sister's kids," Art pleaded, "and you've made noises about starting your doctorate. I tried to find a new job near a university with an excellent English department so you can go for your doctorate. My sister juggled getting her master's while the kids were small, I just assumed you could do the same."

"That's what you get for assuming," I snarled. The whole discussion was rapidly swirling away from the calm letdown that I'd imagined.

He spat back, "So who are you seeing? That's the real reason, you're in love with someone else, and you're covering your dates by saying you're with Jana!" He held up the ring, shaking it in my face. "Didn't this ring stop the guy? Who the hell is he?"

"There's no other man," I replied, standing up, too cowardly to tell the complete truth. "Art, trust me, there's no other guy. I'll start calling and making the cancellations in the morning. Good night." I pulled my billfold out of my purse, dropping some money on the table before leaving.

I'm not sure how I made it without wrecking the car, driving through the film of tears. I found myself automatically driving to Jana's apartment, banging on her door, flinging myself in her arms as she opened the door, sobbing my heart out as she wrapped her arms around me. The thought flitted through my mind that this was the first time we'd hugged, but it was swept away by the overwhelming flood of emotion that swamped my heart. She led me to her couch, just holding me and letting me sob until I'd exhausted myself before she asked, "What happened?"

I told her about breaking off the engagement, Art's treacherous transfer application, and my pain. On the one hand, it really hurt to have to break off the engagement, I'd loved Art for nearly three years, and had spent some really good times with him, but on the other hand, I felt like a burden had been lifted. "I'm terrified," I explained, "for now I am forced to admit that I like women better than men, that I'm not straight, that I'll never have the American fantasy. My God, I'm an outsider, Jana, what will this do to my teaching career? Will I ever be able to admit to anyone that I'm a lesbian? Did I hurt Art too much?"

"Baby, one question at a time," Jana said, smoothing back my hair, drawing me a little closer. "You've had a rough night, a turning point in your life. I've been through this myself, I can understand the circumstances." I sighed heavily, laying my head on her shoulder, feeling a mixture of sorrow, regret, and hope.

We talked off and on for several hours, then I reluctantly got up to leave. Jana walked me to the door, and I suddenly was overwhelmed by the desire to kiss her, to find out once and for all if I really was gay. I awkwardly reached for her, kissing her clumsily, then reeling back, sure that she'd throw me out. Instead, she pulled me closer, taking the lead in a slow, searing kiss that I felt down to my toes before releasing me. We both took a deep breath, but before I could open my mouth, she placed a finger on my lips, saying, "No more, I won't take advantage of your emotional condition. I'd love to have you stay, but you don't need that right now, my friend. I don't want to be an experiment or a rebound, so let's be friends for a little longer. You need a friend more than a lover right now anyway." Dazed, I nodded agreement, even with my heart crying out that she was wrong.

That, my friends, is the most painful memory of my life. I just thank God for Jana, who refused to let me rush in to a deeper relationship with her on the heels of breaking off my engagement to Art. She was right, it took me some time to come to terms with the loss of my identity as a straight woman, as one about to be a wife. I found that I'd lost my love of teaching, so I quit my job and took a huge leap of faith, opening a small office for tutoring in one of the offices one the second floor of Jana's building. A year later and I'm just now breaking even, and I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm still not out to everyone, but it was easier to answer the nosy questions about the breakup when Art did accept the transfer across the country. He tried to reconcile several times, but I refused each time, finally telling him the last time that I had some serious issues about sex. I wasn't brave enough to tell him that I like women, but at least he stopped calling.

Speaking of women, Jana and I remained friends for nearly eight months after I called off my engagement before I took matters into my own hands, so to speak. I'd bought that erotica book one day when she wasn't at the store, and read it so often that it literally fell apart. Our friendship had slowly deepened, blossoming into love, but she still wanted to wait to take it to the next step in intimacy until we were sure that it was love, not lust. I talked her into going to a museum exhibit with me in the neighboring city, then took her to a hotel where I'd secretly reserved a room. It was then, and only then, that we shared our love for each other in the most intimate manner. I had no idea, even after reading all those stories, just how powerful this physical expression of love could be with the right person.

Well, that's my tale. The most painful memories of my life eventually led to the best memories of my life, memories that we are still compiling. Jana and I are still taking life slowly, not making any commitments yet, but we're consulting each other about our respective businesses, laying down the tracks for a possible personal and business merger at some point. I never dreamed that such love was possible, and now realize what I'd missed in the literary analysis that I'd conducted and graded all those years. I'd missed the power of true love.

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