It began with a note.
“I’m not sure what your prefer to drink, but you can never go wrong with a sweet red. Feel free to come over for a drink anytime. Unit 12 (Mo)”
The note was taped to a bottle of wine. The handwriting was angular and rakish, the message entirely earnest. I knew the woman it stemmed from; she lived in the third block in my apartment complex. We’d crossed paths a few times, always on the nights that I sat out at the pool with my dog and my wine, wondering why on earth I’d ever moved to Phoenix in the first place. She lived in the apartment next to the pool, and she would strike up conversation with me through the railings. She was the only person whose conversation I didn’t dread. She was also the first person my dog learnt not to bark at.
The pool nights had become my life hack at the end of a long shift. Every evening, I’d return home after dark, and occasionally I would bail on reality, come down to the ever-abandoned pool facility, and let my dog use it as his backyard. The apartment complex looks like it could have been a small motel, back in the day: three stuccoed blocks of eight units, a low ceiling over a short parking lot, ending with a pool behind iron rails. The pool was where I felt free to return back to myself, absolved of responsibility. The dog would roam, and I would drink. We would rarely have to interact with people, which was how I liked it. Mo was the exception.
I had come to Phoenix to escape, to make a fresh start. I hadn’t even looked at the apartment before I signed the lease. My apartment was the first place I’d ever called home that was my very own, which I loved, but it wasn’t a good place for a ninety-pound mutt, and I knew it. So the order of importance set itself into place very quickly: work/dog/self, in that order, always. We had our pool evenings to balance all three things, and I drank to forget about two of them.
When I’d spoken to Mo in passing, I suppose I’d told her that I live in unit twenty-seven, but I only vaguely recall doing so. Either way, she knew where to leave the note, and the note hit home.
I immediately responded. I left a note back: my number, amongst other things, on a notecard I’d saved from an inherited collection. She wasn’t to know that her note had been an olive branch at the time I needed it most. She texted me. I texted her back. It was the easiest, and certainly the most sincere, connection I’d experienced with another person since I moved to this hot, alien city.
The first time we hung out was at the bar a stone’s throw from our complex. She was there watching football, in a Steelers jersey, and I joined her with the dog, because I had some time to kill before work. Neither of us knew, before then, that we were both Steelers fans. We got talking. I got drunk. She didn’t mind.
After that, we were friends.
The phrase “fast friends” has always been the best one to describe my best friendships, and she was exactly that. We clicked, from the get-go, and neither of us stopped to question that we were just each other’s person after that. I hadn’t met many people, at that point, who understood me the way she did. She was someone I could talk to, any time, about anything, whether I was drunk or entirely sober. She didn’t even mind my cigarettes.
The men I dated minded everything. They liked me, at first, because I checked boxes for them: I was hot, I was funny, I was smart. The ones I liked tapered off, relatively quickly, when they realized I’m also “a lot.” The ones I didn’t like – and there were many more of those – got discarded (re: left on read) even faster. As the months went by, I began to detest “the men,” as it were, with a vehement passion. Men were, it seemed, emotionally unavailable in all their shapes and forms. I never had any idea what they were thinking, and it bothered me into wild depressions that invariably ended with me drinking myself into oblivion.
My best friend – a bisexual man who lives in LA, transplanted from his native Pittsburgh – came to visit me in Phoenix because he was worried about me. He said we needed to get me out of Phoenix, because there was no culture there, and he knew I needed a community that consisted of “good people” – not the Phoenitian mix of dreary salespeople and real estate clowns – in order to thrive. He wasn’t wrong: from the portrait I painted to him, I had no friends, work was hell, and every day felt like a long, sad slog to the finish line, which was invariably punctuated with alcohol. I welcomed the visit, but not so much the need to get away. I knew, from the get-go, that I had moved to Phoenix to learn a thing or two, not least the art of self-sufficiency.
But the problem with marooning yourself on an emotional island is that it gets very, very lonely. So I took three days off work and welcomed him in.
I was determined to show him that I did have people – good people – in Phoenix. So I invited Mo to dinner with us on his first night; we picked a British pub that I’d found on one of my many aimless, on-foot excursions around the city. It was probably the first night since I’d moved to Phoenix that I didn’t feel the urge to either perform or escape. After dinner, we trooped to Mo’s show at a rock bar downtown, and we gazed up at her agog between drinks. We were trapped, momentarily, by her talent. Her voice was abrasive and powerful in all the right ways.
Mo was there with us, as often as she could be, for the rest of his trip. They spent time by the pool together while I slept, sipping tequila and talking about jazz. In the morning, I woke up to find a series of notes, scrawled on paper and arranged in scrabble pieces, around my apartment from the both of them. She didn’t think twice about driving us to the airport when he left, and on the way back home I told her what exactly it was that I had run away to Phoenix to escape from.
Life went on. After one particularly glorious Sunday afternoon of laughter, eggs benedict and gin cocktails with Mo, I took stock of things. I continued to think, and think, and think, through the dinner shift at my waitressing gig.
Something had shifted. The switches started flicking on – slowly, like streetlights waking up one by one at twilight. Bit by bit, it started to make sense that the person I needed had been there the entire time.
I am twenty-seven years old, and I have always defined myself as a straight woman. That’s the only way I can describe it: I always just sort of figured that men were what I wanted, without ever questioning it, and that was that. I didn’t let myself think about women in “that” way. Women were friends and men were sex things; that was just the way I had trained myself. Men could be both, but women could not. That was how it had to be. Everything in its place, at all times.
Feeling what I felt for Mo, in those moments, made me realize that structuring my sexuality like this for so long had been a mistake. A big one, at that. And I was terrified.
When I got home, I poured a drink. And another drink. And another.
I passed out with the door to my apartment wide open. My dog got out. He ran up to Mo when she was saying goodbye to her bandmate, so she came upstairs and locked the door and lay next to me, all night long. I woke up, in the small hours of the morning, to the smell of coconuts, a warm body, and a pair of eyes that told me I was troubled, yes, but that it was okay.
I made it to work the next day, albeit shakily. One image repeated itself, over and over, while I typed out names and answered the phone and said my hellos and my goodbyes: Mo, in the car on the way back from the airport, telling me I was beautiful because “I don’t know … you’re just Amy.”
Mo didn’t like a mirage of me, like all the men did. She just liked me, exactly as I am. She wasn’t “douchey Brian,” who needed me to quit smoking cigarettes. She wasn’t Spencer, who needed me to quit drinking. She wasn’t any of the irritating, stoic others who needed me to be less or say less or be fitter or be thinner or be smarter or be more cool. She just liked the frazzled, relentless, passed-down mess of me, as I came to her. Not the shiny one, fresh out of the box, that would show up to dates with newly washed hair and a dress on.
It clicked. I liked Mo. She lit me up. And, for better or worse, she made Phoenix feel like home.
Mo was warm, and fierce, and kind, and always knew exactly what to say and do at exactly the right time. She made me laugh, harder than I’d laughed in all the time I’d been in this new, arid city. She truly listened to people when they spoke to her, and she was kind to every person she met. She made me want to not be drunk, because I couldn’t bear to forget a moment with her that I wanted to remember. Most importantly, she matched me; she did all the things I do for people when I care about them, all the things that all the men I’d ever known simply could not, or would not, do for me.
Every one of my previous relationships had been with straight, white men, and Mo was mostly certainly not a straight, white man. She was a gay, brown woman. She was also one of the best people I’d ever met.
The final switch flipped. I decided not to care.
Mo – with her notes and her songs and her curious, considerate mannerisms – broke down a barrier in me, somewhere I’d never thought to look. And it was the most freeing feeling in the world.
I suppose the word gay also means happy, after all.
The morning after I first kissed her, we sat outside by the pool with our dogs and I climbed onto her lap. The dogs had become friends as rapidly as she and I had, and they tempered one another just as easily. The weather had finally turned, and the mornings had become crisper and cooler, even in the sun. I ran my hands across her hair, the mass of black coils, and laid there for a while. She smelled like coconuts, and she stroked my skin, and that’s when I told her she was my person. In “that” way.
And that’s all there was to it.
One of the notes Mo left on my door in the weeks before the kiss, is all that really needs to be said:
“‘The free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it – basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near them.’ – Charles Bukowski. Love, Mo.”