My first girlfriend had a possum in her attic.
I never woke to the sound of it scurrying across her ceiling, but to her fist pounding the wall where a headboard might be. The fist was saying, I’m embarrassed. But the possum was undeterred; it ran laps, it invited over friends. They scuttled across the attic: flirting, playing tag.
My first girlfriend slept on her belly or her back. Never with a pillow. In the mornings, she liked to crisscross our legs and put our faces close together while we woke up. I liked to press my palm against her hairline and wrap my other arm around her soft back. She liked to pull on a strand of my hair like the rope of a bell.
Those mornings, the possum above us, were in the winter; the trees out her window were splintered and barren.
When I was a teenager, I attended a Methodist church. During a summer mission trip we were instructed to take a small slip of paper, write down our greatest sin, and nail it to a wooden cross. My most obvious sin was the one I’d kept secret since childhood; I scrawled two words, and I picked up the little hammer, and I pounded it in.
Nearly four years later, I was sixteen when a friend passed a note across the cafeteria table. Earlier she’d borrowed a hair tie by slipping it off my wrist. She’d written ELECTRICITY? in loopy blue ink, with circles like globes over the i’s. I remember because of the sound in my chest when I read it. A long crack like heat lightning.
I met my first girlfriend in a thick grove of thin trees, bark peeling like paper. We drank wine. She was direct and formal. Two friends, a geographer and an organizer three years into a love affair, sat across from us. My first girlfriend asked about the first time they had sex: Was it the night you met? Who propositioned who? Really? You sixty-nined?
She’d written ELECTRICITY? in loopy blue ink, with circles like globes over the i’s.
When the attention turned toward her, she was much more guarded. She spoke about her work as a reporter like she was making a case for a promotion. She arched her eyebrow like an arrow toward the divot in her part, and I was tempted to brush the soft baby hairs from sticking to her forehead. It was late June: the nest of summer, and hot. Although I didn’t know it yet, my first girlfriend didn’t own a hairbrush. Her hair, blond and streaked with grey, was loosed downwind like a wheat field in the fall and her eyes were mossy, her shoulders tan. Her summer uniform was jean shorts, a skinny brown belt, and Tasmanian boots.
By July, I grew bold. I followed her home from a bar. Her yellow hair crumpled like straw under the streetlight. She backed me up against the railing of her porch stairs and her lips parted mine. After that kiss, after the sloppy unfastening and after the untested patterns that followed—Do you like it this way?—we practiced every night for a week.
That summer, my first girlfriend didn’t want a relationship. But I felt my whole world collecting static. Like how my palm pressed the gap between her shirt and waistband. How she liked to sleep chest to chest, knees touching. How she drummed the bleachers at baseball games. How it felt when we sat at dinner with the organizer and the geographer and she clinked her knuckles like secret keys down my spine. How that feeling made it difficult to open my mouth and speak. How sometimes, during sex, our foreheads pressed together like flowers between laminate.
Every affair becomes a segment: a line of interstices bound by the first point and the last. A week after our first kiss, we walked through a field of goldenrod and ticks and deer blinds. I found damp scumlike algae on a rock. She recoiled when I reached out and touched it with my finger. You wouldn’t expect to find it here, but it’s all the humidity, I told her. When I dug it off the rock with my nails she turned away. But I needed to touch. I needed to feel the proof in what existed here, the tangible nature of what I knew to be true. It felt the same later when, ordering a beer, she put her thumb against my shoulder. She was the only woman I’d ever really slept with. Soon I would be thirty.
When I was sixteen, after my friend passed me the note, after I folded the note in my pocket and then jammed it in my locker, I knew I wanted to kiss the one who’d written the loopy i’s. I knew I wanted to pull her behind the thick trunk of a tulip poplar near the sinkhole when we played hide and seek in her backyard, everyone chasing, everything around us rural and dented. I wanted to kiss her in the hallway while we sat in front of our lockers between classes. I wanted to kiss her in my bedroom, under the guise of a sleepover, so I did and after she felt inside me and I touched her breasts, neither of us knew what came next.
She woke up in my bed the next morning, and I never touched her again. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to, but because I was afraid of myself. I still have a Polaroid my brother took from the back seat as I drove her home: our matching brown hair against the gray plastic of my first car. We were friends. No one knew.
Later that summer, her mother found her journals, where she’d written of me. As my friend was pulling out a brownie pan from the cabinet, her mother entered the kitchen to insist her daughter was a conduit for the devil. Thirteen years would pass before she told me. Before she and I would puzzle my rejection out, before I could say I’m sorry.
On the mission trip, on the piece of paper nailed to the cross, during the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I wrote, I’m gay. Hours later I returned to the chapel and ripped my note off the wood beams. I was uncertain whether our church leader had plans for them. Whether he would remove them from the cross himself, read them, and find out.
My first girlfriend wasn’t excavating a new feeling for the first time. To counter the way I felt about her, to stretch thin my obsession so it felt smoother, neater, more tactile, I began to obsess over something else: the possum in the attic.
In her apartment there was a bookshelf, striding to the ceiling, spines stacked two rows deep and more in piles like small turrets on the floor. Early in August I found a small book called A Pocket Guide to Trees and I took it on a walk. Bending back the cover, eyes flicking between sidewalk and treeline, I read that the best way to recognize a persimmon tree was its nearness to the South’s only marsupial: Persimmon is the possum tree. The furry little animal gorges himself on the fruit, falls asleep hanging by his tail. I imagined that persimmon-stuffed possum swinging and sleeping with a wash of tenderness that was also new to me. As a child, I was taught to imagine possums quite differently: as pests, as roadkill.
I learned the persimmon tree was commonly found in fields and along roads. After European colonists cleared the forest, they still wanted the fruit, the meat. I learned to eat persimmons only when the fruit is ripe; an unripe persimmon has tannic acid. If chewed, the book said, It shrivels your mouth painfully so that you’d rather be stung by a wasp.
The night I graduated high school, I drank too many margaritas in some college kids’ house near the 31-W bypass. I left my flip phone on the roof of a car I’d squished inside to get down to the river. The bank was muddy and I slipped the whole way, covering my jeans in dirt. On the way back into town, three things happened simultaneously: the car sputtered from a lack of gas, we started pooling our cash to get to $20, and I heard my phone buzzing through the car roof.
We went to a friend’s trailer and I took a shower with a woman from a neighboring high school, whom I’d met only a few times before. We touched gently. When I woke up with her, sunrise slanted through her plastic blinds, and everyone else was gone. She drove me back to my car, and I drove home.
Months before, when I was still sixteen, I sat on the kitchen counter of my house. I’d just showered, and I was tired, but once my parents left for dinner, I would leave for a house party where I’d drink vodka from the freezer and play card games on a low, beer-smeared table. I’d sit too close to someone on a couch just to see what would happen. It was spring, but my freckles were already spun out like red dirt from a tailpipe. My mother came into the kitchen, walked up to me, and put my face between her hands. You look different, she said.
It was spring, but my freckles were already spun out like red dirt from a tailpipe.
The night before I’d slept with a man for the first time. I snuck up to a city three hours north to visit my boyfriend’s college town. I was painfully shy once we lay together on his bed. I wore a green tank top and a necklace my mother had given me. I knew nothing about sex, except that it would likely be painful, and that I didn’t want to get pregnant. I had no concept of what it meant to be wet. We stopped midway into whatever it might have been. I put my underwear back on, and in the bathroom I saw a stain, a rosy patch no larger than a petal, developing there like old film. We sat in the kitchen and drank water out of dirty glasses.
It took two more boyfriends before I learned how to orgasm. And then, just barely. When I closed my eyes. When I really concentrated on not being there.
When we’d been together a couple months, in late August, my first girlfriend and I drove to a cabin in Tennessee. We stayed on the ridge of a hollow. Our cabin was one glass wall and three sides of cedar. We nicknamed it the hotbox because we were in the middle of a heat wave and the cabin, off the grid, had just two small windows. It was such a tiny space, we orbited each other with our arms at our sides like seals. It was too sticky to always be touching.
We spent our days walking down a nearby creek. She mentioned how I still hadn’t really seen her. When we had sex, I asked to turn the lamp off, though she refused. I still closed my eyes.
Our last night, in the dark, she pressed a flashlight into my hand. Look at me, she said.
It was September before my first girlfriend and I had our first public date. We sat on the patio of a smokehouse and drank rosé—she, nervous about onlookers ogling two women with heads too close together, and me, feeling I finally had someone to show off: the whole of myself. I sweated humidity and nerves, pushed brussels sprouts drenched in fish oil around my plate and wondered if the smell would turn her off, wondered if the inside of my knees would smack if I lifted my legs apart.
I sweated humidity and nerves, pushed brussels sprouts drenched in fish oil around my plate and wondered if the smell would turn her off, wondered if the inside of my knees would smack if I lifted my legs apart.
Another couple I knew walked over with their son and said hello. The boy played with a toy truck over a sewer grate while I introduced the couple to my new friend and they sweetly asked about her work. She assumed her formal tone, and the boy with a blond helmet of wet hair pushed the tiny rubber tires of his car over the grate. Even in his enthusiasm, he was very delicate. Not once did the truck totter into the squares of open air. I was so wonderstruck at his balance, I barely listened to her responses. Reporter, I half-heard, just moved back, and I sensed her tone, but I was distracted by his small hands, swollen and oiled with heat like miniature catcher’s mitts.
Afterward, my first girlfriend and I met friends at a bar we frequented. There were Christmas lights and vintage arcade games. Over the gloss of the wood table, they talked about their upbringing as southern evangelicals. While I only lasted through eighth grade—I lacked the parental encouragement and the verve—everyone else had retained a missionary spirit through college.
One of us remembered a youth-group leader encouraging her not to wear bright colors because it wasn’t like a Proverbs 31 spouse to attract that kind of attention; another recalled shuffling the hangers in her closet like a turnstile and judging whether hers was the wardrobe of a wife. Like good millennial Christians they’d courted; they’d had sex without penetration. It was long ago, but the shame created a stain.
Later that fall, my first girlfriend and I visited my hometown. She’d gone to college there, and she took me to the library, to the tall windows that looked over the school. The hills of brown trees, the water tower, the bricks of Main Street and somewhere the Green River, the in-line hockey rink, the backyard of the first woman I’d ever kissed. Her hand slipped behind my back and I leaned into her hip, this slight gesture of affection all she’d allow in public. I don’t want to be a spectacle, she’d say.
Growing up, my roadway was littered with possum remains. Vermin, my science teacher said. Their gray horsehair bodies bloated in summer heat. In mid-July they’d scurry with maggots and by October they’d desiccate into leather, their ratlike tails shedding pieces of rope. From the school bus we pointed them out and called them ugly; we cheered if the bus driver veered into one.
We were taught possums were inherently dirty animals. People feared their narrow mouths of sharp incisors, their albino tails, the ferocity of their self-preservation: either hissing or playing dead. Feigning straight relationships felt akin to such a defense mechanism. As I got older, I grew fond of the extreme nature inherent in those two options, the narrow choice between satiation and suppression, between violence and avoidance. After I met my first girlfriend, I discovered a latent rage that surprised me.
When I visited my parents, I seldom mentioned her. But they could sense something had shifted; they asked about her with caution. When I felt, in any way, like they’d spoken ill of her—a casual comment about her serious expression, or the tiny bun atop her head—my lips curled back, and I felt the instinct to bare my teeth: How could you let me go on for so long without this?
What if I had stayed buried my whole life?
That morning in August, the morning after my first girlfriend demanded I look at her, we returned to the Tennessee creek, and she made a small wake in front of me, the cut lines of her red lifeguard’s swimsuit slicing into murky water. We stumbled over rocks and freshwater mussels. Then we were climbing over an island of downed trees and thin shale. She told me she liked me, the first time she’d voiced it, as we walked, her back to me. Later we sat in a small patch of current and I stacked stones into small towers on her knees.
I never cared who saw us. I was proud to touch her knees, to lean toward her hip. I wanted, more than most things, to be near her.
My first girlfriend liked things specifically: the seltzer couldn’t be too bubbly nor the coffee too weak. For lunch she ate potato chips she claimed were healthy because they were old vegetables. She wrapped turkey slices in spinach tortillas, paired with handfuls of salty almonds. The sink had to have a certain amount of dishes before it could be cleaned and the shower had to be hot enough to redden your chest without burning. So hot it was nearly cold. The steam wrapped its way through the kitchen and up the stairs.
Later, in the winter, I worried that she might hotbox the possum. The heater clanked in the night like someone was driving a wrench against it. It has to be this hot, she said. She left rain boots by the back door for the trash and small house shoes by the front. She spent three months hiding these pink plastic slippers from me until one day I came over and she was in her house skirt, a house sweater—off-white with holes nibbled in the elbows—and the house shoes over yellow striped socks. She looked sheepish as she told me, Well, now you know.
Over Thanksgiving, when she visited her aunt and uncle, she found out they’d adopted a possum that couldn’t use its back legs. It had to drag itself around on two wheels. It clung to her aunt’s T-shirt. Her aunt fed it Doritos and strips of meat pulled from chicken wings. Technically, she whispered to my first girlfriend, I’m just his foster mom. But now she couldn’t dream of giving it back to its real owner. Now that she could see the creature, see that it wasn’t scary, see that it depended on her, she’d grown quite attached.
In early winter, I returned from a work trip long past midnight, and pulled up outside my first girlfriend’s apartment. The globes of my headlights swiped the thin, white, reptilian tail of a possum skittering along the sidewalk. I paused. Inside, my first girlfriend was sleeping. When I got into bed, I rubbed the spot between her neck and chest and heard the hollow clanking of her heater. She turned toward me and outside was a nearly full moon. I told her I was back, she whispered she was glad, and the shape notes of our voices were full and distant like the wires crisscrossing the valleys of our home. I fell asleep in a nest of security. I said, I love you.
For Valentine’s Day, my first girlfriend and I visited a planetarium. Our heads were close and occasionally we kissed in the dark bubble of space and time. As we left to go to dinner, we passed a man on the patio outside, showing his friends the sky through a large telescope. He beckoned us over and when I put my eye to the glass I saw a trio of stars just below and perpendicular to Orion’s belt. He told me to focus on the one in the middle, which was covered in dust like the ring of powdered sugar encircling a cake. He told me this dust was called a stellar nursery. I hung on to that word like it was a limb above something vast. Stellar nursery, I whispered to my first girlfriend as we walked together to the parking lot. Stellar nursery, I pointed, the bubbles in my dark beer fizzing toward the edges. Stellar nursery, I said that night in bed with the windows open. She rolled over and put her elbows on either side of me. When she kissed me soft I was imagining a nursery and how perhaps we too could create something out of nothing.
By March, my first girlfriend insisted the possum had become noisier, and still, I rarely heard her. Only she woke up to her scratching, her rummaging. I began to imply that perhaps she was dreaming the creature. She began to imply that perhaps I was dreaming the security of our relationship. She had a wandering eye. I clung, my tail looping around her legs. Things between us became trickier. I began to stay over less often because I couldn’t prevent myself from waking in the middle of the night, demanding a definition: What were we?
In April, I met her at a restaurant. I saw her standing by the door before she saw me. I walked up slowly. Hi, I said. She didn’t hear me so I repeated, Hello. She looked at me with a weary expression. Why did you say it like that? she asked. Like you didn’t know me?
I began to imply that perhaps she was dreaming the creature. She began to imply that perhaps I was dreaming the security of our relationship.
That night, while she slept on her belly, I stared at the half-moon of my first girlfriend’s cheek. She refused to sleep with the curtains closed or the blinds drawn, so the streetlight glowed like a cutout on the bed. I placed my hand on her low back, where it curved slightly down, and I watched her breathe with her lips parted. Her blond hair was pushed into the pillow, and her brow was, again, tense. I watched her sleep because I felt unmoored. Any minute, I thought, she’d wake up and see me and I wouldn’t be the me she thought was next to her in bed. I would be a different person, something like an infestation.
In the morning, I went on a walk. I saw the magnolias turn into cherry blossoms then into redbuds. I held an old yellow leaf up to the sunlight for a long ten minutes. I brought the leaf home, where it dried out and crumpled into nothing.
I had never felt what I was supposed to feel when I was penetrated by a man. It wasn’t just the pleasure, or the lack of it. With my first girlfriend, it wasn’t just how her organs were different from men’s, and even mine. It was how she looked me in the eye, how she paid attention to each part, how she felt smooth and weighted next to me. In the beginning, I’d told her a bonus from having sex with women was that the subconscious fear of pregnancy that plagued every encounter with a man was completely eradicated, like the sweetest of cures.
Yet by June, after we’d been together nearly a year, I’d begun to dream more of pregnancy. The heat of early summer returned, and we had sex lying on her gray couch with the window open. I could see the crest of yellow daffodils outside her front door. I examined her body closely, and I told her which traits a child of ours might have. After we finished, I held her while she peered over my shoulder. She said she thought the water damage on her ceiling was growing.
When she got up, my first girlfriend sang a song from the time she was a camp counselor while she moved about the living room. She often sang while she was tidying or starting the car. She had a soft voice that got high at the end, modeled after listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album over and over. I imagined she would be good at lullabies.
That month we heard a band, the Possum Queens, play at a cidery while we played cards, and right across the table, hand so near my own hand, she felt immeasurably far away. Like there was something within her, hidden and incisor sharp. I couldn’t reach it, and yet she ruled over me, her and her unknowability. I wasn’t happy, I realized, but it no longer mattered. I was in love.
Later that night we went to a friend’s second-floor apartment and ate Dixie cups of milk pudding. We upended them, spread fragments of rose and pistachio, swallowed caramelized slices of lemons and limes, shed bits of cardamom. I ate too much, but I couldn’t stop. It was so smooth and creamy and otherwise it was melting, sinking like a dredge on our plates. By the end of the night I was sipping red wine from my first girlfriend’s glass, my elbow leaned over her thigh, the spoon overturned on the plate. When we got home I told her the bed was turning and she stroked my forehead with her soft hand and it felt the same: like velvet and how I always wanted more.
Our first breakup came after I floated the idea of children. We sat on a hill above a softball game. The opposing team was from a town called Pippa Passes, and we worked on saying this five times fast, our words looping over each other and stuttering as we looped and stuttered over our bodies on the hill, first our ankles crossed, then her shoulders against my chest while I braided her hair. Below us, parents and partners of the college-aged women sat by their pickup trucks on lawn chairs and coolers. It was the summer solstice and the sun was a blanket; my first girlfriend pined after a beer.
That afternoon, when we got home, she said she needed some space, and I said how much, and she said, too much, and then I didn’t see her for a long time.
In her ear, I whispered a fantasy: One Sunday I wanted to wake up and go outside when the light was still a purple line and deer tiptoed through the husks of a corn field. I wanted to feed our chickens and our cow in old rain boots, and then I wanted to go wake up my child—ruffle their sheets and say, You have a game today. While my wife woke and made breakfast I’d go for a quick run down our road, which would be one lane and rural with sloping edges, with kudzu and daylilies along the bank. We’d take the child to the ball game by midmorning, and we’d be cheery, the child’s orange slices packed in Ziplocs the night before. In the afternoon, we’d sit on the steps of the porch and clink glass bottles while the child chased our field cat.
My first girlfriend turned to me, eyes wide, and laughed. She pulled the ends of my hair and said, You’ve put a lot of thought into that.
That afternoon, when we got home, she said she needed some space, and I said how much, and she said, too much, and then I didn’t see her for a long time.
When some animals are threatened, when they roll over and act dead, they’re said to be “playing possum.” When possums engage in this, their namesake behavior, they go physically limp but they’re still baring their teeth. Saliva dribbles down their chins as though they’re sick. Once the agitator is gone, they spring back up and lick their lips and go on about their day. I decided I had a weak heart. I needed a pointier nose, smaller earlobes, stronger arteries.
You are so beautiful it’s like a glare, she used to say. I can barely look at you.
After my first girlfriend left me, I grew angry at biology. I desperately wanted to show her the manifestation of a knot between us, to give her a reason to stay.
I began wandering the baby aisles of department stores. I found trays of bright green silicone grass, bottles with elephants on them, car seats with extra padding around the soft backs of their heads. A wooden dresser with a changing station on top that would fit right next to my bed, a soft gray onesie with padded feet. Boxes of freezer pads and tubs of antiseptic wipes for urinating after birth. Hands-free breast pumps and belly wraps for siphoning off postpartum fat. Mobiles of plastic stars and foxes.
At home, I pulled out a similar mobile I’d inherited from my grandparents, stored in a box marked later in my parents’ basement: three gray wooden whales spinning on thinning pieces of string. I lay on the couch and let it twirl above me. I fantasized about touching her cheek, her hair, her neck, her T-shirt, her stomach, the front of her underwear. I imagined kissing her. Everything about you is soft, I texted her. Her ellipses flashed on the screen for a moment, but she didn’t respond.
I never saw the possum in the attic. I never felt from my first girlfriend what people call love. In the end, I lacked something Julian Barnes calls imaginative sympathy. “We make up a story,” he writes, “to cover the facts we don’t know or can’t accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story around them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation: we call it history.” I wasn’t able to see the possum she saw. I took all my own history and stacked it at her door and knocked politely before banging to be let in.
When love fails, Barnes says, “We should blame the history of the world.”
One night just before we broke up, my first girlfriend and I sat in her backyard drinking gin and tonics in early evening light. Her washed-out deck chairs had bits of moss growing near the metal legs. Just below her roofline there was a window in an alcove bookended with bricks. On the other tenant’s side the bricks were all in place, but on her side they’d been knocked out, a possum-sized black hole carved out like the entrance to a cave. That’s where she got in, she said of her possum, and sipped so the lime grazed her teeth.
That night, in her bed, I dreamt we made a baby. The baby had her blond hair dry like straw, her pinched-together eyebrows broiling between sternness and sympathy.
I woke up after my dream. I stared up at the ceiling, and imagined the possum’s babies the size of honeybees. I imagined them buzzing above us, little lights in a dim alcove. I imagined the mother below them resting, her two paws below her chin, falling asleep beneath a mobile of her own making. I imagined the attic door creaking open, and her little troop scuffling free. When I looked at my first girlfriend, still asleep next to me, I remembered last winter’s trees and how far you could see past the tips of them.
I thought about how far I could see: in the morning I pulled a strand of her hair like the rope of a bell and, above us, I thought I heard something skittering