The first time I was spooned by another woman I could not sleep. I was used to the contours of men: their length and strength, their flatness and hardness. Instead curled around me was a body even smaller than my own; soft breasts pressed against my narrow back. Even the room smelled different, the intense pheromones of masculinity replaced by a cloud of oestrogen with a top note of Chanel No. 5. I felt the way travellers do as they try to sleep on their first night in a new place: disorientated and disturbed; the sounds and smells unfamiliar; the sensations unnervingly foreign.
As I lay there, eyes wide open, I went over and over the preceding seduction, in which I was entirely complicit. Meeting the woman I shall call Carla, a petite redhead with a fashionable pixie cut; getting to know her, both of us subtly fanning the burgeoning spark of interest that we shared; everything finally coming together on this evening, the setting a fashionable new restaurant in Chelsea, the dramatis personae two women in their early thirties, one black the other white, heads leaning in towards the other, a certain self-consciousness initially but the conversation flowing, the unmistakable body language of a connection being forged.
We continued to talk for hours in a state of increasing captivation until only the waiters were left, and made our way into the cool summer night, the joint cab ride to her place now a foregone conclusion. When we got back to her flat she made me wait at the door for a moment, until I was ushered into a bedroom, where I was confronted by the classic mise en scène of amour: a bed, wide and low; a long mirror on a big wooden dresser and candles, candles everywhere. When we kissed our mouths tasted of wine. Though I had dabbled with a few other girls, as so many heterosexual women did in order to appear cool and alternative, she was the first ‘real’ lesbian I had ever slept with and I was almost frightened.
When I left her bed the following morning and walked out onto the south London streets, I bristled with a curious paranoia. I felt that everyone who passed me could see last night shimmering on my skin. In particular I examined men’s gazes, as most young heterosexual women habitually do, watching myself being watched, wondering whether I was still wanted, although I had betrayed them, and broken the contract of desire I shared with them. And in my traitor’s heart I felt both shame and triumph at my conduct. Shame because I was a deviant, and triumph because I had got away with it.
How did I end up in this sapphic tryst? Me, perhaps the most avid heterosexual in the world, a girl whose mother dubbed her ‘boy crazy’ as a teen; a girl who had her first boyfriend at eleven and never looked back? From my earliest adolescence, males were my hobby, and my female friends and I did little else but talk and speculate about them. Every interaction with the opposite sex was dissected; every nuance of their behaviour weighed and measured. I was so immersed in this pursuit, so utterly intoxicated with it, that I was only a little shocked – and secretly rather pleased – when my university lecturer suggested my most suitable future career would be that of a courtesan.
I can’t really explain my apparent volte-face. Or rather, there are many explanations: some competing, some complementary, all ultimately unsatisfactory. There was, for example, the predictable backstory of heterosexual heartbreak. The long-term boyfriend that I had met at university and loved madly if not well, who had left me after nearly ten years, breaking my heart into a million weeping pieces, and replacing me with a woman who was my doppelgänger. The depression that followed flattened me like a tsunami. When I finally admitted to my therapist that I was involved in a lesbian relationship, she diagnosed me as being ‘in manic flight from heterosexuality’, proving how simultaneously accurate and irrelevant therapy can be.
My friends concurred with my therapist. Surely my interest in women could only be explained by the break-up. Clearly I was hurt, in retreat from the dangers of the heterosexual romantic battlefield. To most of them, women were a safe, almost chaste, choice. People frequently make this assumption: that being with a woman is ‘easier’, less intense, like having a best friend that you sleep with. They equate romance with emotional turbulence, and emotional turbulence with the difference and threat represented by men. They cannot imagine that a woman can tear another woman’s heart and soul into shreds.
I was scarred by love. But who among us is not? And the truth was that by then I had had a couple of years to recover, with a few enjoyable affairs with men under my belt. The bruises had healed, as much as psychic ones do, and I was back out there. But my return to the heterosexual arena was disappointing. I couldn’t get over the feeling that I had been there and done that. It all felt a bit lacklustre. After hearing the same old lines, and playing the same old games, I was, I realized, bored.
The idea that our sexual predilections might turn on such a shallow thing as boredom is almost a heresy. Especially as ‘born that way’ has been a central tenet of the gay rights movement in the West. Surely, the campaign strategy asserts, we are born with certain things fixed in place, our sexuality as immutable as our race and therefore equally undeserving of hostility. And indeed, the evidence seems to be stacking up that this may be broadly true for men. But not for women. And for this woman, at least, I seemed both turnable and ready to be turned. I craved something different, something new. I felt like a jaded traveller searching for a new destination; I wanted to explore customs and cultures different from my own.