I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)

Chapter 35

The Well of Loneliness was my introduction to lesbianism and what I thought of as pornography. For months the book was both a treat and a threat. It allowed me to see a little of the mysterious world of the pervert. It stimulated my libido and I told myself that it was educational because it informed me of the difficulties in the secret world of the pervert. I was certain that I didn’t know any perverts. Of course I ruled out the jolly sissies who sometimes stayed at our house and cooked whopping eight-course dinners while the perspiration made paths down their made-up faces. Since everyone accepted them, and more particularly since they accepted themselves, I knew that their laughter was real and that their lives were cheerful comedies, interrupted only by costume changes and freshening of make-up.

But true freaks, the “women lovers,” captured yet strained my imagination. They were, according to the book, disowned by their families, snubbed by their friends and ostracized from every society. This bitter punishment was inflicted upon them because of a physical condition over which they had no control.

After my third reading of The Well of Loneliness I became a bleeding heart for the downtrodden misunderstood lesbians. I thought “lesbian” was synonymous with hermaphrodite, and when I wasn’t actively aching over their pitiful state, I was wondering how they managed simpler body functions. Did they have a choice of organs to use, and if so, did they alternate or play favorite? Or I tried to imagine how two hermaphrodites made love, and the more I pondered the more confused I became. It seemed that having two of everything other people had, and four where ordinary people just had two, would complicate matters to the point of giving up the idea of making love at all.

It was during this reflective time that I noticed how heavy my own voice had become. It droned and drummed two or three whole tones lower than my schoolmates’ voices. My hands and feet were also far from being feminine and dainty. In front of the mirror I detachedly examined my body. For a sixteen-year-old my breasts were sadly undeveloped. They could only be called skin swellings, even by the kindest critic. The line from my rib cage to my knees fell straight without even a ridge to disturb its direction. Younger girls than I boasted of having to shave under their arms, but my armpits were as smooth as my face. There was also a mysterious growth developing on my body that defied explanation. It looked totally useless.

Then the question began to live under my blankets: How did lesbianism begin? What were the symptoms? The public library gave information on the finished lesbian—and that woefully sketchy—but on the growth of a lesbian, there was nothing. I did discover that the difference between hermaphrodites and lesbians was that hermaphrodites were “born that way.” It was impossible to determine whether lesbians budded gradually, or burst into being with a suddenness that dismayed them as much as it repelled society.

I had gnawed into the unsatisfying books and into my own unstocked mind without finding a morsel of peace or understanding. And meantime, my voice refused to stay up in the higher registers where I consciously pitched it, and I had to buy my shoes in the “old lady’s comfort” section of the shoe stores.

I asked Mother.

Daddy Clidell was at the club one evening, so I sat down on the side of Mother’s bed. As usual she woke completely and at once. (There is never any yawning or stretching with Vivian Baxter. She’s either awake or asleep.)

“Mother, I’ve got to talk to you …” It was going to kill me to have to ask her, for in the asking wouldn’t it be possible that suspicion would fall on my own normality? I knew her well enough to know that if I committed almost any crime and told her the truth about it she not only wouldn’t disown me but would give me her protection. But just suppose I was developing into a lesbian, how would she react? And then there was Bailey to worry about too.

“Ask me, and pass me a cigarette.” Her calmness didn’t fool me for a minute. She used to say that her secret to life was that she “hoped for the best, was prepared for the worst, so anything in between didn’t come as a surprise.” That was all well and good for most things but if her only daughter was developing into a …

She moved over and patted the bed, “Come on, baby, get in the bed. You’ll freeze before you get your question out.”

It was better to remain where I was for the time being.

“Mother … my pocketbook …”

“Ritie, do you mean your vagina? Don’t use those Southern terms. There’s nothing wrong with the word ‘Vagina.’ It’s a clinical description. Now, what’s wrong with it?”

The smoke collected under the bed lamp, then floated out to be free in the room. I was deathly sorry that I had begun to ask her anything.

“Well? … Well? Have you got crabs?”

Since I didn’t know what they were, that puzzled me. I thought I might have them and it wouldn’t go well for my side if I said I didn’t. On the other hand, I just might not have them, and suppose I lied and said I did?

“I don’t know, Mother.”

“Do you itch? Does your vagina itch?” She leaned on one elbow and jabbed out her cigarette.

“No, Mother.”

“Then you don’t have crabs. If you had them, you’d tell the world.”

I wasn’t sorry or glad not to have them, but made a mental note to look up “crabs” in the library on my next trip.

She looked at me closely, and only a person who knew her face well could have perceived the muscles relaxing and interpreted this as an indication of concern.

“You don’t have a venereal disease, do you?”

The question wasn’t asked seriously, but knowing Mother I was shocked at the idea. “Why, Mother, of course not. That’s a terrible question.” I was ready to go back to my room and wrestle alone with my worries.

“Sit down, Ritie. Pass me another cigarette.” For a second it looked as if she was thinking about laughing. That would really do it. If she laughed, I’d never tell her anything else. Her laughter would make it easier to accept my social isolation and human freakishness. But she wasn’t even smiling. Just slowly pulling in the smoke and holding it in puffed cheeks before blowing it out.

“Mother, something is growing on my vagina.”

There, it was out. I’d soon know whether I was to be her ex-daughter or if she’d put me in hospital for an operation.

“Where on your vagina, Marguerite?”

Uh-huh. It was bad all right. Not “Ritie” or “Maya” or “Baby.” “Marguerite.”

“On both sides. Inside.” I couldn’t add that they were fleshy skin flaps that had been growing for months down there. She’d have to pull that out of me.

“Ritie, go get me that big Webster’s and then bring me a bottle of beer.”

Suddenly, it wasn’t all that serious. I was “Ritie” again, and she just asked for beer. If it had been as awful as I anticipated, she’d have ordered Scotch and water. I took her the huge dictionary that she had bought as a birthday gift for Daddy Clidell and laid it on the bed. The weight forced a side of the mattress down and Mother twisted her bed lamp to beam down on the book.

When I returned from the kitchen and poured her beer, as she had taught Bailey and me beer should be poured, she patted the bed.

“Sit down, baby. Read this.” Her fingers guided my eyes to VULVA. I began to read. She said, “Read it out loud.”

It was all very clear and normal-sounding. She drank the beer as I read, and when I had finished she explained it in every-day terms. My relief melted the fears and they liquidly stole down my face.

Mother shot up and put her arms around me.

“There’s nothing to worry about, baby. It happens to every woman. It’s just human nature.”

It was all right then to unburden my heavy, heavy heart. I cried into the crook of my arm. “I thought maybe I was turning into a lesbian.”

Her patting of my shoulder slowed to a still and she leaned away from me.

“A lesbian? Where the hell did you get that idea?”

“Those things growing on my … vagina, and my voice is too deep and my feet are big, and I have no hips or breasts or anything. And my legs are so skinny.”

Then she did laugh. I knew immediately that she wasn’t laughing at me. Or rather that she was laughing at me, but it was something about me that pleased her. The laugh choked a little on the smoke in its way, but finally broke through cleanly. I had to give a small laugh too, although I wasn’t tickled at all. But it’s mean to watch someone enjoy something and not show your understanding of their enjoyment.

When she finished with the laughter, she laid it down a peal at a time and turned to me, wiping her eyes.

“I made arrangements, a long time ago, to have a boy and a girl. Bailey is my boy and you are my girl. The Man upstairs, He don’t make mistakes. He gave you to me to be my girl and that’s just what you are. Now, go wash your face, have a glass of milk and go back to bed.”

I did as she said but I soon discovered my new assurance wasn’t large enough to fill the gap left by my old uneasiness. It rattled around in my mind like a dime in a tin cup. I hoarded it preciously, but less than two weeks later it became totally worthless.

A classmate of mine, whose mother had rooms for herself and her daughter in a ladies’ residence, had stayed out beyond closing time. She telephoned me to ask if she could sleep at my house. Mother gave her permission, providing my friend telephoned her mother from our house.

When she arrived, I got out of bed and we went to the upstairs kitchen to make hot chocolate. In my room we shared mean gossip about our friends, giggled over boys and whined about school and the tedium of life. The unusualness of having someone sleep in my bed (I’d never slept with anyone except my grandmothers) and the frivolous laughter in the middle of the night made me forget simple courtesies. My friend had to remind me that she had nothing to sleep in. I gave her one of my gowns, and without curiosity or interest I watched her pull off her clothes. At none of the early stages of undressing was I in the least conscious of her body. And then suddenly, for the briefest eye span, I saw her breasts. I was stunned.

They were shaped like light-brown falsies in the five-and-ten-cent store, but they were real. They made all the nude paintings I had seen in museums come to life. In a word they were beautiful. A universe divided what she had from what I had. She was a woman.

My gown was too snug for her and much too long, and when she wanted to laugh at her ridiculous image I found that humor had left me without a promise to return.

Had I been older I might have thought that I was moved by both an esthetic sense of beauty and the pure emotion of envy. But those possibilities did not occur to me when I needed them. All I knew was that I had been moved by looking at a woman’s breasts. So all the calm and casual words of Mother’s explanation a few weeks earlier and the clinical terms of Noah Webster did not alter the fact that in a fundamental way there was something queer about me.

I somersaulted deeper into my snuggery of misery. After a thorough self-examination, in the light of all I had read and heard about dykes and bulldaggers, I reasoned that I had none of the obvious traits—I didn’t wear trousers, or have big shoulders or go in for sports, or walk like a man or even want to touch a woman. I wanted to be a woman, but that seemed to me to be a world to which I was to be eternally refused entrance.

What I needed was a boyfriend. A boyfriend would clarify my position to the world and, even more important, to myself. A boyfriend’s acceptance of me would guide me into that strange and exotic land of frills and femininity.

Among my associates, there were no takers. Understandably the boys of my age and social group were captivated by the yellow- or light-brown-skinned girls, with hairy legs and smooth little lips, and whose hair “hung down like horses’ manes.” And even those sought-after girls were asked to “give it up or tell where it is.” They were reminded in a popular song of the times, “If you can’t smile and say yes, please don’t cry and say no.” If the pretties were expected to make the supreme sacrifice in order to “belong,” what could the unattractive female do? She who had been skimming along on life’s turning but never-changing periphery had to be ready to be a “buddy” by day and maybe by night. She was called upon to be generous only if the pretty girls were unavailable.

I believe most plain girls are virtuous because of the scarcity of opportunity to be otherwise. They shield themselves with an aura of unavailableness (for which after a time they begin to take credit) largely as a defense tactic.

In my particular case, I could not hide behind the curtain of voluntary goodness. I was being crushed by two unrelenting forces: the uneasy suspicion that I might not be a normal female and my newly awakening sexual appetite.

I decided to take matters into my own hands. (An unfortunate but apt phrase.)

Up the hill from our house, and on the same side of the street, lived two handsome brothers. They were easily the most eligible young men in the neighborhood. If I was going to venture into sex, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t make my experiment with the best of the lot. I didn’t really expect to capture either brother on a permanent basis, but I thought if I could hook one temporarily I might be able to work the relationship into something more lasting.

I planned a chart for seduction with surprise as my opening ploy. One evening as I walked up the hill suffering from youth’s vague malaise (there was simply nothing to do), the brother I had chosen came walking directly into my trap.

“Hello, Marguerite.” He nearly passed me.

I put the plan into action. “Hey.” I plunged, “Would you like to have a sexual intercourse with me?” Things were going according to the chart. His mouth hung open like a garden gate. I had the advantage and so I pressed it.

“Take me somewhere.”

His response lacked dignity, but in fairness to him I admit that I had left him little chance to be suave.

He asked, “You mean, you’re going to give me some trim?”

I assured him that that was exactly what I was about to give him. Even as the scene was being enacted I realized the imbalance in his values. He thought I was giving him something, and the fact of the matter was that it was my intention to take something from him. His good looks and popularity had made him so inordinately conceited that they blinded him to that possibility.

We went to a furnished room occupied by one of his friends, who understood the situation immediately and got his coat and left us alone. The seductee quickly turned off the lights. I would have preferred them left on, but didn’t want to appear more aggressive than I had been already. If that was possible.

I was excited rather than nervous, and hopeful instead of frightened. I had not considered how physical an act of seduction would be. I had anticipated long soulful tongued kisses and gentle caresses. But there was no romance in the knee which forced my legs, nor in the rub of hairy skin on my chest.

Unredeemed by shared tenderness, the time was spent in laborious gropings, pullings, yankings and jerkings.

Not one word was spoken.

My partner showed that our experience had reached its climax by getting up abruptly, and my main concern was how to get home quickly. He may have sensed that he had been used, or his disinterest may have been an indication that I was less than gratifying. Neither possibility bothered me.

Outside on the street we left each other with little more than “Okay, see you around.”

Thanks to Mr. Freeman nine years before, I had had no pain of entry to endure, and because of the absence of romantic involvement neither of us felt much had happened.

At home I reviewed the failure and tried to evaluate my new position. I had had a man. I had been had. I not only didn’t enjoy it, but my normalcy was still a question.

What happened to the moonlight-on-the-prairie feeling? Was there something so wrong with me that I couldn’t share a sensation that made poets gush out rhyme after rhyme, that made Richard Arlen brave the Arctic wastes and Veronica Lake betray the entire free world?

There seemed to be no explanation for my private infirmity, but being a product (is “victim” a better word?) of the Southern Negro upbringing, I decided that I “would understand it all better by-and-by.” I went to sleep.

Three weeks later, having thought very little of the strange and strangely empty night, I found myself pregnant.