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Home is Where the Heart Aches

Dominique Dibbell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

I graduated from high school and lit out for the East Coast, sure that I would never return to the Inland Empire. Twenty years later I am back in my mother’s house in my sleepy hometown on the easternmost edge of L.A. County. I am overwhelmed by a creepy feeling that although so much time has passed, not a thing has changed. And yet this is not my life, I swear! I am a semi-famous lesbian theater artist from New York City! But the whole package--career, sophistication, accomplishments--seems to have vanished without a trace, evaporated in the dry Southern California air.

I have come home because my mother is gravely sick. When I first arrive, she has one foot in the next world, and I am thrust into the role of primary caretaker. I brush up on all the death literature and try to prepare. But my mother defies the odds and gets better. I am happy for that, yet now I find myself in a limbo world: She is recovering, but is still too ill to be left alone.

My girlfriend looks at me with doleful eyes: When can we move out and begin our new lives in glittery Los Angeles? I cannot answer her unspoken plea. I am locked in a paralysis born of duty and the lull of my hometown’s charms--the crazy-pink bougainvillea; the drive-in on Mission Boulevard that abuts the strawberry field; the backyard San Gabriels; even the smell of manure on the hot Chino winds. I’m never cold and I don’t have to pay rent.

But we chafe at the provincialism and strain under the weight of our nursing duties. If I can’t bring myself to move, let’s at least get out of the house. We sift through the local paper. “My Fair Lady” is playing at the local college. I become flushed with nostalgia. When I was a teenager I went to movies twice a week presented by the college film societies. I saw “Knife in the Water,” “Nights of Cabiria,” “Holiday” and “High Noon,” and had my little world cracked open. I convince my girlfriend that the screening will be ecstasy, and off we go.

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Once in the drafty lecture hall, I am confronted with the sweetening effect of memory: The seats are like pews, the movie print is scratchy, and Audrey Hepburn sounds as if she has a bad cold. But the event is not without its charms. Old folks are here, as well as moms and dads with their teenage kids. Coffee is sold for cheap out of plug-in urns, and pink and white animal cookies (my favorites!) are offered for free. The trapped feeling is lifting.

After the movie we feel too good to go home. I know that it’s after 9. I don’t care! I’m feeling wild! We drive to a restaurant in La Verne--a rockin’ establishment that’s open till 2 on weekends. The sign out front says “a family restaurant.” I ponder it. What do they mean by “family”? Is that like “family values,” a code we have come to understand as meaning, among other things, “no queers”? For a second, the sign strikes me as a kind of sexual orientation version of “whites only.” I chuckle at my gallows humor and amble on in, humming Lerner and Loewe.

The place is nearly empty--just a cop and couple who looked to be refugees from a 12-step group. We are greeted by a sulking young waitress who appears to be 16. Without exactly looking at us, she grabs two menus and seats us in the booth next to the cop. She mumbles something. I make out the word “drink.” “Yes, I’ll have a decaf, please.” I am not bothered by her attitude. I have compassion for her, even admiration. She has obviously spent a great deal of time on her hairdo. Her healthy-looking dark brown locks are held snug by a velvety black scrunchie. Her long bangs burst from her forehead in a perky explosion courtesy of curling iron and gel.

I feel a subtle wave of awe. I could never achieve that just-so look so many of our young women master and innovate. I was a tomboy, and though my family accepted me, others, especially girls like her, made my life hell. Tonight, sitting in this old haunt, I feel grateful for the years that have passed. I know who I am today; my confidence is hard won. I can gaze upon this girl with detachment. After all, she may want to cut off that pretty hair someday.

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She scrawls our drink orders on her pad and looks at us for the first time. Her eyes widen and she looks back and forth, from my lover to me, me to my lover. Her features freeze in an expression of terror mixed with disgust and alarm. It is the look--the one I have seen a million times. Somehow it takes me by surprise. I am aware that we stand out a little here, but I think we look pretty good. My hair is even longish after years of buzz cuts. My girlfriend is tall and strapping, but she wears her hair in a chic, gamine style, and small gold hoops hang from her lobes. Nonetheless, the waitress cannot at once discern our gender, and that has disturbed her greatly. She flees, and I sigh, disappointed.

Oh, well. I am soon enough distracted by the bright photographs of pork chops and sundaes in my 10-pound menu. I am debating between the BLT or pudding when I hear her from across the room. She is at the beverage station talking to her colleague. Her voice, once a surly mumble, has become stentorian. The other diners raise their heads as she bellows, with the implied ew!-- “It’s a girl. They’re both girls.”

I am stunned. I expected her to talk about us, but so loud? I look over at them. Her blond colleague is peering at us from behind the counter, straining to get a better look at the he-shes. I feel dizzy but I know what to do. I catch Blondie’s eye and give her a well-done glare with a side of ironic smile. When civilized people realize they are staring rudely, they feel embarrassed and stop. But Blondie is impervious. She keeps on looking and, suddenly, I feel like an animal in her Naugahyde and wood-paneled zoo.

“Did you hear that?” I ask my girlfriend. She hasn’t. Over the years she’s learned to tune it out. “She called us ‘its,’ ” I say. I’m smiling. I don’t know why. I’m not happy. I’m trembling with anger and burning with--what is this curious, familiar feeling? Ah, yes, shame. I’m trying to laugh it off. It’s not my problem these girls are ignorant and don’t know that male and female come in more than two flavors.

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But I can’t help feeling 13 again, scrambling to throw together some girly camouflage--flared jeans and a cowl neck sweater--so that I can pass through the gantlet of junior high without getting creamed. I despised those clothes; they made me feel like a shaved Samson. And all because girls like Brunette would open their stupid mouths and scream at me, “It!”

My girlfriend closes her menu and sighs. “Let’s leave,” she says wearily. At the thought of this, anger takes a back seat to shame and I feel panic rise in my gorge. Leave? You mean, get up and walk out? If we leave, we are saying we deserve to be treated better. But didn’t we bring this on ourselves by not wearing our hair high enough? My girlfriend rises from her seat, as stone-faced as Gary Cooper, and I follow her, helpless and nearly blubbering--more like Don Knotts.

Despite my fear, I stop at the beverage station on the way out. I don’t know what I’m going to say but I am compelled by an invisible force. Brunette stops the noisy scooping of ice and looks at me from behind the little partition. Her eyes are big and her lips are pursed together--she’s afraid of me. Good.

“We’re leaving,” I tell her. “And you might want to think about lowering your voice the next time you’re speculating about people.” And with that we head out the door. Those heat-of-the-moment speeches never come out the way I want them to. Before we even get to the car I am wondering if they know what “speculating” means.

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We drive east along Foothill Boulevard. It’s exhilarating to have walked out. But after a time the adrenaline wanes and we feel sad. The insistent question, the one I thought I had put to bed at last, awakens and screams louder than ever: What the hell am I doing here? Oh, little hometown, circumstances drew me back to you, and I tried to make the best of it. I, your native daughter, did try to cozy up to you, and you, my motherland, did cut me with your long, pretty fingernails.

Deeper than the anger, deeper than the shame, lies the sorrow. And deeper than the sorrow is the hunger, for we still haven’t eaten. “Maybe we should just go home and have some cereal,” I say glumly. “No,” my girlfriend says firmly. We must get back on the horse. We must demand our booth at the coffee shop that is America! Carrows, a nearly identical “family restaurant,” comes into view. We look at each other. I nod tersely. We pull into the parking lot. We take a breath, then walk in. The moon-faced hostess is more mature; maybe she’s seen a little bit of this big, beautiful world. She smiles right at us. “‘Good evening, ladies.” I nearly fall into her arms with relief.

Months later my girlfriend and I finally move to Los Angeles and begin to piece together a life. I no longer smart when I think about that night at the restaurant. In fact, I am grateful for it. I had been coasting along complacently, a professional lesbian and lauded for it, and the waitress reminded me that in most parts of the country that doesn’t fly. She had reintroduced me to an awkward young woman I thought I had left behind 20 years ago. Turns out she was still there, lingering and moping, waiting for a hug. I scooped her up and took her with me to the city, where waitresses think twice before calling me sir. And for the most part, the city suits me. Except on those mornings when the wind blows from the east and I think I smell a whiff of manure, and my heart aches for home.


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