Seven Year Itch
This winter will be my seventh in Portland. It’s a pop-culture truism that every cells in the human body replaces itself over seven years, but more than my body is different this winter. It was another world when I arrived: 9/11 and the war were nightmares yet to come. All I knew about global warming I’d gleaned from a dozy science class – something about cow farts. Zootz was still open. The Underground was the only gay club I’d ever been in. And the city seemed chock-full of lesbians I’d never met.
This last bit was what drew me to Portland, though I would not have admitted it at the time – even if you threatened to hold me down and tattoo a labrys on my bicep.
When I left the Midcoast, I attended the university here with no plans other than to get a better job and not live in my parents’ house for a while. There had been a few girls in high school, and there were a couple more before I dropped out of private college in New York, but as I’d told my roommates there, that was “just a phase,” “not where I was at right now.” (Those are direct quotes.)
I had spent the previous two years in a rural coastal town being self-defensively heterosexual and figuring out how to be a single parent. Sure, I had panic attacks and terrible nightmares. And, OK, I kept that Playboy with the Drew Barrymore centerfold, but it was locked deep in my closet — ahem, filing cabinet — and was just a memento of those wild private-college days, right? I’d had a relationship of sorts with a local guy, and despite my flattop-short hair and sensible shoes, I was wearing my hetero identity with, um, pride.
Then, somehow, on my very first weekend in Portland, I found my way to The Underground, where I met a very nice woman with whom I fell completely in love. Within six months I had proclaimed my flaming queerness to my entire family and anyone else who would stand still for a minute.
If you’re young and freshly out in Maine, there is no place like Portland to play. I listened to angry-girl music on my discman as I tromped around the city in big boots. I got a job at the university women’s center and tried out for The Vagina Monologues. I read books about punk dykes and literary theory and got a tattoo on my bicep (not a labrys, but an armband, which is basically the 21st century equivalent). That June’s Pride celebration was the most thrilling thing I’ve ever seen. To my rainbow-blinded eyes the city swarmed with intriguing women, and I plunged into the middle of the hive like I’d never had honey before.
As the years slid by, so did a series of relationships. The newness of Portland’s queer culture began to sour. In a recent therapy session (what, you think all those years of repression just evaporate on their own?), I complained about the lack of dateable women in this city. He laid it out for me with a heartbreaking equation: in a city of 70,000, probably about half are male. That leaves a female population of about 35,000. The current estimates say about 1 in 10 people are queer. Of those 3,500 potentially queer women, probably a third are too young for me and a third too old. Throw out the monogamously partnered, those who don’t like children, and those monogamously partnered to a barstool, and the pool is draining fast.
A few months ago, on a whim, I drew a relationship chart that included people within just a couple degrees of me. You know, the kind that goes, Jen dated Betty, who dated Wilma, who dated Gertrude, who also dated Betty’s ex-girlfriend Simone, who lived with Wilma for a while before she moved in with Armandine’s ex-girlfriend’s best friend… The convoluted tangle of lines looked like crosshatch shading. Conclusion: there is no date-able person in the entire city with whom I don’t already have some kind of relationship.
But really, it’s OK. I grew up in a small town where people not only knew me my entire life, but also my aunts and uncles, my cousins and great grandparents. One of the things I like about Portland is how it’s a small town with the amenities of a city. People from big cities come to Portland and get claustrophobic. I feel secure with my place in the web; all those crosshatched lines hold me up. My history is all around me, comforting and confining, the way family should be.
Jen Hodsdon is a white-trash word-hot wimmin-loving mama. Don’t worry, ladies: the relationship chart has been destroyed.