The first time I kissed Cara was roughly two hours after every major news network declared Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States.
“I have a twofold plan,” I told my best friend, Nedda, earlier in the evening as I dabbed Aquaphor on my lips. “It’s foolproof. Plan A: Hillary wins, we crack some joke about neoliberal feminism. Then, as fireworks go off in the distance, I look deep into her eyes and say, ‘Kiss me!’ and we live out our years in the Adirondacks with our pet goats.”
“Foolproof,” Nedda repeated, buying none of it.
I had met Cara the way many students meet: introducing ourselves with our names, majors and the dreaded fun fact. Mine was that I wanted to learn Yiddish by 2030. The Ph.D. candidate on my right with the electric eyes and hair said casually, as if she were commenting on the weather—
“Oh, I speak Yiddish.”
She had an undercut, on top of which rested a crown of kinky strawberry hair. She occasionally ran her hand over it, as if to make sure it was all still there. There was something undeniably punk about her. Maybe it was her cat eyeglasses, or her chipped blue nail polish, or her favorite accessory: a chunky bronze necklace that looked as if it had been forged by a medieval German blacksmith as chainmail. Most likely, it was her voice: soft and gravelly. I imagined her screaming at rallies and concerts all day before taking a break to whisper sweet nothings into my ear in an endangered language.
“Well, in the event that that doesn’t pan out,” I continued, not wanting to voice the unspeakable, “I’ll proposition her for end-of-the-world sex. We’ll elope to Canada.”
“If it gets to that point, you would probably have to go to Canada before you eloped,” said Nedda, a Toronto native herself.
“It doesn’t matter, it’s not going to happen,” I said, throwing my lipstick into the sink. I felt wholly inadequate for the woman who seemed to have read every book and who was arrested protesting the 2004 Republican National Convention. In August of 2004, I had been rereading The Essential Calvin and Hobbes for the third time. I still felt like that nine-year old, apprehensive and content to read the same, familiar book again.
Cara freely described herself as fat—not to be self-denigrating, but as a political identity. She would not apologize for being inconvenient. Her arms displayed several elaborate tattoos of birds, constellations, and names (her sisters’). She was deeply committed to her work in disability justice in higher education and to her two cats. She talked with her hands and cursed often, emulating a fuck you! vibe while simultaneously giving off the impression of a deeply kind soul.
I was drawn to Cara, but the thought of seducing her dazed me. Her wit and her feminism were razor-sharp (much like her cheekbones). She was a counselor and a sex therapist and a badass to boot. She was also 13 years older, a doctoral student at Syracuse University where I was blundering my way, scorched-earth style, through senior year.
I had begun to explore my Jewish identity just a few years earlier. I knew no Hebrew, no Torah. I knew intermarried family, weddings, seders and funerals. I had thrown myself into research on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, perhaps overcompensating. I had vague plans to take adult bat mitzvah classes. Cara, on the other hand, grew up in a vehemently anti-assimilationist family in Georgia and was fluent in the language of her grandparents. She had difficulty identifying with the Jews of the North who had never been the objects of attempted conversions by their evangelical neighbors. She had difficulty identifying with me; my millennial aplomb contrasted with the self-doubt and humiliation thrust upon women in Ph.D. programs. Or perhaps it was the invisible confidence of my life among the majority as a patrilineal Jew with a Christian upbringing, no matter how little I identified with it. Yet we flocked to each other, moths flirting with light.
She seemed elusive, complicated, and endlessly good. My encounters in queer dating had not prepared me to court a woman in her thirties.
Later that election night, dripping with unusually warm November rain, I trudged back to my apartment from a bar around the corner. Trump was president, and I hadn’t made a single move on Cara while we’d watched in silence as the returns revealed themselves on the bar’s television. I was alone in my living room for three minutes before something clicked. I said a prayer and texted her:
“Actually, can you come here? I can’t be alone right now.”
And although she was in a cab halfway home, she turned around.
There was red in her eyes, and her gold eyeshadow had been rubbed away. An hour earlier, Cara and I had laughed over our shared obsession with and fear of the deep sea as we colored in electoral college maps with blue and red pencils; but at 2 a.m. a different kind of fear radiated from her eyes, the eyes of a kid who knew a thing or two about bullies, the eyes of a counselor who had lost too many queer youth already. We sat down in the hallway of my apartment, huddling. I was comforted but confused by our intimacy. Cara also seemed hesitant even as she leaned down to kiss me. There was vulnerability in that kiss, but also bravery. We need both those things now more than ever.
“What is that, your sex drawer?” I chuckled as Cara leaned over the bed to search through her nightstand for a vibrator.
“Yes, it is,” she said gravely.
For Cara, being an adult dyke meant having a drawer full of dildos and toys. They were practically requisite in the punk scene of her college days (not to mention, illegal in many states). Today, sex toys are household goods, mainstream-if-titillating appliances employed widely outside of sexual-outcast cultures. Cara’s collection of vibrators was foundational to her capacity to love herself and her body without reference to men. She was patient and encouraging with me, and I fell in love with her savvy prowess and self-assurance.
It was easy to forget that we hated ourselves, that there was insecurity underlying each iteration of confidence.
Cara had an entire spiel prepared for our first visit to my parents’ home. She was convinced that they would be deeply uncomfortable with our age gap, that they would see her as ugly, unnecessary ballast in my bright future, and that my mother in particular would see her as the Lesbian Pied Piper tempting me away from Christianity.
“I think it’s amazing,” Cara praised them over dinner on our first night at my childhood home in the Hudson Valley. She seemed to be more comfortable; her voice had dropped to its natural, rich timbre, and she laughed easily. “You raised an incredibly successful and well-adjusted gay kid. We never used to see that.”
I dropped my spoon into my soup, cracked a joke, and made nervous eye contact with Cara, who was sitting directly to my left. The conversation moved on, but Cara brought it up again later that night.
“Do you never say the word ‘gay’ at home?” she asked.
“Well, what do you say? Do you say queer?”
“Nothing. We don’t talk about it.”
“Farrell, they’re the most proud and accepting parents ever. They love you. You brought your aging lesbian lover home, and they still love you.”
Neither of us felt that we deserved the other, or that we deserved love in general. Yet, we each offered a love fierce and honest, forged in vulnerability. We quarreled bitterly as we acclimated to the strange new texture of unabashed admiration, desire, and affirmation in our lives; we loved even more fiercely. I found healing under her hands. In every caress existed simultaneously the hope of love, and the specter of the demons we unloaded.
There is something deeply radical about accepting this Jewish love, this Jewish lesbian love, in a world where Jewish women have rarely been deemed worthy of love or desire. To feel myself through Cara’s hands is to see my whole body when I wish to forget my limbs. It is to want, vocally and surely. It is, as Alison Bechdel claims of lesbians, to be uncommodifiable. We are done trimming away hair and fat and anger.
Your mother warned you about women like us.
I lay in Cara’s bed facing her, her arm under my head. The light of her lamp bounced off the pale blue walls and illuminated the red ends of her hair. Outside, fresh December snow fell. We talked about everything and nothing, procrastinating on homework.
“Will your cousins’ kids be Jewish?” she asked. All of our close relatives have married goyim.
“I suppose so,” I said. “Will your niece be?”
“Well, you know what they say about people who don’t raise their kids Jewish,” she said, an edge of dark humor creeping into her voice. “They’re finishing Hitler’s work.”
I turned my head away from her and slapped a hand over my slack jaw. She continued to talk, but I couldn’t hear the words. It took her a minute to realize that I had gone somewhere else.
“People say that?” I gasped, throat swelling and lungs collapsing as I fought tears.
In the past year of intensive research on the Holocaust, through all the video testimonies and memorials and museum exhibits and mass grave tours, I had cried only once. Perhaps it was because I am not descended from Holocaust survivors; perhaps it was because I approach the subject with a defensively cold calculation and the acceptance of distance; perhaps it was because I am simply just not a crier.
I heard realization in her voice. “Oh my God…you’ve never heard that before?”
“No!” I said through clenched teeth, but it was too late; I was crying, I was heaving with the deluge of tears streaming down my face.
I felt something break—floodgates.
All the testimonies I had gathered, all the papers I had written blew away like pillars of dust. The small world I had built for myself came crashing down, leveled. My tongue shriveled in my mouth. It was all for nothing, the voice in my head shouted over my sobs. You can fight all you want, study all the Yiddish in the world, you are still just a product of assimilation, which is a product of genocide. You are assimilation and genocide incarnate.
The weight of everything missing, all the not that is me and my family, pressed on my ribcage. I mourned all the things I never knew, could not know.
Cara held me and whispered she was sorry over and over again. I knew that she did not believe this herself, and that she had merely repeated something she thought I was also aware of. We rocked back and forth a little. I ran out of tears and wiped my face with my sleeve.
“Do you want me to leave?” she asked, eyes wide.
“This is your house!”
“I know, but do you want to be alone?”
I didn’t. I just wanted to be wrapped up in the kindest woman I knew. Those poisonous words weren’t hers to begin with.
The anti-assimilationist undertones of her childhood grate against the integrated and secular ones of my own. But they also harmonize. I ache thinking about my fraught relationship with Jewishness and the possibility that my family and I have failed at something enormous. Cara’s endless patience saw us through the worst moments of my own myopia and willful ignorance regarding my sense of entitlement to Jewish culture, as someone who has reaped the benefits of a Christian upbringing. Yet I find more acceptance and growth at her side than anywhere else. Cara challenges and strengthens me in this journey; I am beginning the formal process of conversion and hope to one day soon become bat mitzvah. Life with Cara has been the greatest blessing I know.
This relationship, founded in political upheaval, in fact stonewalls Hitler’s work (pun intended). Because of each other, we thrive in a world that desires our quiet exodus. Our ancestors — mine who scrubbed the Yiddish from their tongues to better camouflage themselves in the jungle of 1940s New York, hers who did not live to do even that — could not have fathomed us. Being with Cara is necessarily hard, because being women is hard. Being Jewish is hard. Being lesbians is hard. And loving each other is our best shot at survival.
Farrell Greenwald Brenner is a program specialist at the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center. Her first collection of poetry is Diatribe from the Library (2017). farrellgreenwaldbrenner.com.