My first time kissing a woman was more memorable than the first time I had sex with a man. In fact, the only thing I remember from losing my virginity, at age 20, was the discomfort and shame I felt, as if the condom used was made from a page of Bible scripture. I tried not to think about my sore vagina afterward, ignoring her between my legs for days. Kissing Joy was different. It felt magical; like I’d unlocked a door to a room of distant-but-familiar memories. As a psychiatrist, I often think of the irony of the first girl I kissed having the same name as my mother; whose relationship to me was destined but unwanted. This fact made me uncomfortable for years, but I now cherish it, because I’ll never forget her name.
It was a hot and humid night in Gainesville, Florida. The weekend air was thick with adolescent excitement and smelled like a mixture of swamp, sweat, and surprise. It was summer and fewer students were on campus. Rather than the usual ant-like swarm of adolescents crowding the sidewalks and downtown streets, packs of girls laughed loudly as they stumbled drunkenly in Forever 21 heels from the Grog House to The Swamp, followed by equivalent-sized groups of nervous boys whispering and wondering which girl liked them the most. My awkward friends and I chatted nervously as we trudged across lawns and through alleyways toward our favorite hipster dance club, The Atlantic. It was indie night and I was a confident, newly-self-identified bisexual woman with broad shoulders proudly walking to her own rhythm.
When I was in high school and going through puberty, with nothing more than pubic hair and a period to show for my hormonal efforts, I didn’t have the language to describe my sexual preferences. I was raised on the idea of sexual attraction existing on a binary that didn’t describe me: the “normal”- straight/heterosexual relationships and the “abnormal”- gay/lesbian/homosexual relationships. There was nothing to describe the way I appreciated and found attraction towards all genders. When my Nigerian mother asked me repeatedly, as a teenager, if I was gay, I truthfully replied that I am not, but I willfully omitted that her question was mine too. I knew whatever I was, was still a perversion in the eyes of the Christian God, though I’d experienced worse sexual perversions in my father’s home. I was too confused and ashamed to ask anyone if something was wrong with me, and bisexual isn’t a synonym for gay in the dictionary. I was nineteen years old, and at a friend’s off-campus apartment the first time I heard the term “bisexual”. He was describing a mutual acquaintance, hoping to trigger my memory of her name.
“… and she’s bi,” he said.
I asked him what that meant, sweat trickling down my legs.
He said she goes “both ways.”
Both ways. That was the closest thing to describing my ambiguous but specific sexual preferences.
I’d never kissed a girl and only a year before, had my first male kiss, with John. John was a picturesque six-foot-five, inch chiseled-faced, sandy brown-haired Abercombie and Fitch-esque white boy from the northeast. I forgot how we met, but we connected instantly and within weeks of meeting each other, were spending hours watching movies in each other’s dorm room. I wondered what John saw in me, a five-foot-three inch awkward first-generation Nigerian-American girl with braces, and favored wearing track suits and listening to unknown singer-songwriters and pop-punk bands. On the last night I saw John, he kissed me while we sat on his elevated bed watching his minuscule TV. His lips were soft and I’d always admired how full they were. It felt like we were both searching for something within each other and that was, sort of, comforting. Before I left his dorm that night, John asked me to be his girlfriend. He said he enjoyed spending time with me and thought we’d make a good partnership. I was stunned and confused. How was he so sure and so soon? Is this really how relationships work? Up until spending time with John, I’d never been alone with a (straight) boy outside of school for longer than a couple of hours. “What would your family think of you dating a Black girl?” I asked aloud. He gave a nondescript assurance that they’d love me whenever they met me. It didn’t sit well with me. Things were moving too fast. In the days after, I regaled my other friends with the story, one of them being a gay black guy I knew from high school, Chris. Chris knew John and was just as stunned as I that he kissed me, and asked me out.
“Nora, John is definitely gay,” he said sternly.
“How do you know?” I asked suspiciously.
“Because….” he said, looking at me with slight irritation and pity.
When I thought back to all my interactions with John, I realized that the reason we got along so well were all the reasons I loved and valued my gay male friends. He loved harmless gossip, sappy movies, and was meticulously groomed and immaculately dressed. He was attentive to my emotions in a way the boys I was raised with were never attuned to. He never wanted to be seen in public together, though he never said it explicitly. When I passed him on campus, I subconsciously stiffened and took on a more masculine and platonic role. I suspected Chris was right. The worst was that John was probably using me as his “beard”; a girlfriend to help him conceal his identity. I wasn’t offended. I think he and I both knew his parents would likely be more shocked at him dating an African girl than him coming out as gay. John never called or texted after that night, and neither did I. College was educating me in all sorts of different ways.
The summer night I kissed Joy, I was dressed up in my “soft butch” attire: a tuxedo screen printed t-shirt, cut-off mid-length shorts, a carabiner full of keys hanging on a chunky studded belt, and hair styled in a micro twisted braided bob. I’d just had my braces removed and felt confident every time I glided my tongue across my teeth. I felt good. My friend Stacey squealed nasally in excitement as she exclaimed to no one in particular how much she needed a fun night out. Adam wondered if we’d still be able to find a way to drink once we made it into the bar. Since we were underage, we drank alcohol in binging spurts in our dorms or in basement parties. We drank by convincing seemingly disinterested strangers to buy us cheap vodka at the gas station on Main Street. We had anxieties and disliked asking strangers for anything so, when out partying, we carefully nabbed the newly purchased cans of skunk beer bar-goers left on tables to free their hands to dance. Pop punk reigned supreme and the best way to release our angst was sweating to Hot Hot Heat at The Atlantic. We easily blended in with the dancers under the cover of strobe lights. Stacey and Adam were honor students and we all had professional school aspirations that couldn’t be jeopardized by citations for drinking. I’d stopped believing the lie my mother told me that she had people watching me when I was away in college, but I didn’t want to end up on an episode of Cops like that one guy I went to high school with. We were good kids.
It was on the dance floor that I met Joy. I felt her hair on the back of my arms and turned around thinking I must have known her. I waited anxiously for a second until a strobe light illuminated her face. Her eyes were chocolate-covered almonds; what would become my favorite sweet treat. She was shorter than me with voluminous, brown, wavy hair and sand-colored skin. Her lips and mouth were wider than I expected, as she smiled at me with a look of inexplicable recognition. I returned a smile even though I’d never met her before because she was beautiful. I took a chanced glance down at her chest. I’m sure she was used to this and predictably followed my gaze. The three obviously-straight guys who accompanied her enclosed us accidentally as they feebly tried to separate us, forcing me and her against each other. She waved her hands away from her face without breaking eye contact with me, signaling for them to back off. She grabbed my free left hand, placed it around her waist and pulled my head towards her neck, forcing my lips into her nape. I liked this. She smelled like a sweet spice whose origin I couldn’t place.
“I’m Joy!” she screamed in a very thick Cuban accent. I paused for a split second but she wasn’t my mother. I felt comfortable with my cheek pressed against hers and her arm around my head. I told her my name but I’m not entirely sure she heard it right. “Laura,” she said. It didn’t matter to me. I was enjoying the way she made me feel. We stopped dancing to the music and swayed in our embrace as if we’d been waiting forever for that reunion. Her friends were confused but curious and mine were nowhere to be found. Without warning, she stood back, giggled, then kissed me. I kissed her back. I felt that spark of knowing what the Christian God withheld from Eve in the garden of Eden. This felt right. We were herded unintentionally into a corner of the dance floor as we kissed the length of a song. Joy stared into my eyes and mirrored my emotions with her content smile. As magical as that moment was, she planted a last peck on my forehead and disappeared back onto the main dance floor. After trying to find her in the crowd, I wondered if I’d had too much to drink and imagined the whole experience. No. She was real and so was her kiss.
About the author:
Dr. Nora Ekeanya (Nora Nneka) is a psychiatrist and writer. She began writing publicly when in residency, with articles detailing her experiences as a Black physician. In 2017, her essay on physician mental health was featured in the popular physician blog, KevinMD. Her first visual poem, Identity, won 2nd place at the Queens Underground International Black and Brown Film Festival in October 2021. After publication in the December 2020 issue, her essay, The Sense of Touch, won Isele magazine’s inaugural Isele Prize for nonfiction in 2022.