Largest mammal on Earth … Surely the man at the circus must have mentioned it as he lifted us into the howdah one by one. I was front rider in that row of kids, wriggling four- & five-year-olds in jean shorts & jelly shoes. I was tallest, too, the largest mammal in preschool, though this was summer, an early memory from vacation on the Oregon coast. Formative … the therapist must have said when I told him—your first fall. I wonder if my parents wonder if that’s the reason: She fell hard under the big top that day, hard from the howdah to the concrete floor. How tall are they anyway—nine or ten feet? Something must have gone haywire inside her … I’ve never had trouble with metaphor. A small herd surrounds me always—growing symbolic population despite their actual decline. Since I first learned about sex, it has been hard not to think of people having it. For years, when someone said, “This is my husband” or “This is my wife,” I purpled. Marriage confirmed copulation—that most salacious-sounding word!—so even those basic introductions called to mind (unbidden, mind you) their bodies wriggling, unclothed, in a four-poster bed. (Sometimes it was a sleigh, but always king-sized, sleek mahogany, the mattress groaning under their weight as they groaned atop it, grasping at something just out of reach.) In time, I learned to dim my blush to lavender but not to stop the film reel that followed. Worse, when someone announced, “I’m pregnant!” the phrase resounded like a gong-strike admission of guilt. Since adolescence, whenever I’ve seen that telltale abdominal curve, I’ve thought, reflexively, not even meaning to think, Someone got caught fucking! A part of me wanted to laugh, & a part of me flooded with pity. It was hard to believe people actually wanted to conceive, that sex wasn’t (ever or only?) about getting away with something.Harder still to uncouple any kind of coupling from shame. (Thanks, church school! Thanks, daily indoctrination!) I marveled that you could, in polite company, simply exclaim, “We’re having a baby!” or more gratuitous still—“We’re trying for a baby!” How were such disclosures not de facto invitations to join you in your bedroom, your sex-on-a-schedule, your sex like soccer with a clearly marked goal? We’re fucking with a purpose! We’re fucking on the regular now! And then I wondered what other people wondered about me … It’s fair, it’s actually a warped kind of reciprocity, but still, I’m not going to hand out Viewfinders to help your voyeurism along. In most classes, the teachers exhorted, Use your imagination! Perhaps I took that lesson too far. I can always hear trumpeting in the distance, my body always primed & bracing for the next stampede. You try being gay at a doctor’s office, & you’ll see how literal the whitecoats are. “How can you be sexually active & not on birth control? Are you trying to get pregnant?” Oh, try again, Medical Professionals! Even when the laws changed, even when I checked my dutiful box “Married”—which might have read “Copulating a Lot with the Same Person”—& made clear with an asterisk & a footnote *to a woman, they kept asking. They kept being surprised. “What are you doing to prevent pregnancy?” I’ve gotten bolder as I’ve gotten older. I’ve hoisted myself back into the howdah. “Lesbianism is what I’m doing. It’s my favorite form of birth control.” Smiley face. Winkie emoji. One nurse murmured, “No problem.” (I certainly agree!) Another simply rose & left the room. Sometimes I see the questions flickering in eyes: How do you … but isn’t it … which one of you … ? Oh, these Imagination School Dropouts all around us! They can’t hear the largest mammal on earth until they’re three feet from being trampled. Did you never see “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” that most iconic episode of Mary Tyler Moore? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what offends me more: what you claim you can’t picture or what you actually see. How can my sex life be unimaginable & your favorite obsession? But perhaps I’m being too hard on everyone. Perhaps we’re all just sitting ducks on the deeper-than-it-looks pond of cultural conditioning. Or—more apropos—perhaps we’re all obliviously dressed as Peter Peanut, strolling along on our way to the circus parade …
What is “the Elephant in the Room”?
Pretend the letters are your parents. P is powerful like your mother. Q is quizzical like your father. Though it’s just as true to say that she was quarrelsome & he perplexed, she was quick to judgment, quick to anger, quick to get things done, & he was—well, he was patient. That’s one way of putting it. He was pacific as the nearby ocean’s name, while she swelled un-quelled, un-quellable, as that ocean actually was. Personify the letters if it helps. For instance, she always wore her hair permed—big poof atop a plain body. Poodled. Pink-curlered overnight in a black net. Perpetually over-plumed. He didn’t quibble when she poked his growing quadratus, prodded his central pudge. The little quill he dragged behind him was a quirk of submission, perhaps his quaint idea about “staying together for the sake of the child.” Neither was a quitter. Neither was a Don Quixote. People described him as “personable,” her as “married to that personable man.” Maybe it was the perfect match: pusher & pushover, queen & quiescent. You found him less objectionable but also less inquisitive, which was the one trait you couldn’t forgive—that query-less-ness—not to mention his penchant for platitudes: let go & let God, et al. (How is that not quitting, Dad?) Of course the family should have been a quartet, everybody said so—two lowercases, a boy & a girl, to balance the parents’ bulky capitalizations. For so long, people said you “took after him,” not petty or querulous, & pleasant above all else. What if that last part wasn’t a compliment? When they finally suggested you “took after her,” was it because you were prone to question, well, everything? Praise! You & your mother couldn’t be quenched—the reasons differed, but the thirst endured—while he remained so easily placated: Cribbage with his mother, penny-ante poker with his friends, grace before a hot meal, followed by a satisfied Amen. More & more you’ve come to see him as protagonist of a separate story, a no-less-cautionary tale. He was the P, protecting you from punishment while making pablum of your pain. And now you hear the pleas in his please, his ceaseless petition for silence, compliance.And she was the Q after all, despite your most persistent qualms, despite the way you always feared her first & loved her second. A certain quiddity that made you U, hinged to her every illocution. The story you shared was a quest narrative that sometimes read like a quarantine. Yes, you didn’t get out much. No, you couldn’t simply step away. The stickiness, even the viscousness, of that hard-&-fast sequencing, that nearly-total synthesis. (For nineteen years, she in the driver’s seat with you riding shotgun …) Of course she needed you more urgently than you could ever need her. Understandable, since the quality of her language was dependent on you. Still, how you hungered to utter your own truths! You have wondered upon occasion if you were born to your parents as a kind of quid pro quo—who wanted you more & what did the other receive in exchange? In other words, for whom are you the present, for whom the consolation prize? Or perhaps you are the penance? Like most children, you took your cue & followed your mother. It is so often qua mother that the daughter ultimately distinguishes herself. The father, not peripheral exactly, but in your case, paratactic: another person queuing up behind her. “Queerer things have happened,” you understate, “than a Q & a U coming undone.” Of course, your own queerness underscores this fact. But it’s also true the Q doesn’t dissolve with its adhesive. Unstuck, unsoldered, she can stand alone, even if she quivers. And you, who were the arrow in her quiver for so long, know better than anyone how she feels. Quaking, not breaking. Ugly as things have ever been between you, it’s not unlikeness that upholds your distance. You know this now. You may not like how alike you are, but across the miles, which are also years, your quick voice undulates. You take care to slow down, to enunciate: Qi. Repeat it, like a mantra: Qi, qi, qi. As Q has been with U, Q has also been without U—& for longer, much longer. Mother, if you can hear me, just breathe.
What is “Mind your Ps & Qs”?
Julie Marie Wade is a member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, her collections of poetry and prose include Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires: Essays, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing, and Skirted.