Dancing the Fright Away

by Kerry Cohen


We walked into the smoky bar, and there wasn’t a man in sight. Country music played through the speakers, and a couple of women were two-stepping on the dance floor. My new friends got themselves beer and sat down. Already, so many things I wasn’t used to—the smoking inside, country music, two-stepping, and, yes, the utter lack of men. In my experience, why go to a bar if it isn’t for the men?

“Do you have red wine?” I asked the bartender. She had a mullet, which made her an absurd stereotype.

She smiled, clearly amused. “I got wine in a box, honey.”

I nodded. “That’s fine.”

I joined my new friends at a table. The thing is, I wouldn’t have even guessed there was such a huge lesbian community in Oklahoma City. I realize there are gay people everywhere, but I was naïve about how much this community had developed its own culture, even here in a red state. I said as much to my friend who had taken me out with her lesbian friends. She replied, “Yes! Oklahoma City’s lesbian community is very established.”

Last year was my first time in Oklahoma—it was the year of Oklahoma City’s Red Earth MFA program’s first residency, and my friend, a native Oklahoman, and I were there as new faculty. So, to be fair, I didn’t know much of anything about Oklahoma, let alone its lesbian history.

We drank more and more, and when they all got up to line dance, I thought, Why not?, and I got in line to imitate their moves.

Soon the place started filling up, and they pointed out a girl one of them had been lusting after for years.

“She’s so hot,” the one I’ll call Nina said. “It kills me.”

Nina’s longing was familiar. It was how I used to feel in bars about men. Like my whole life depended on getting close to them, on getting one of them to love me. We discussed desire and women and men, and Nina joked, “You’re a lesbian too. You just don’t know it yet.”

I laughed, but I was quite sure I wasn’t. All of us—men and women—are somewhere on that continuum, for sure, but while I found women physically beautiful, I didn’t feel turned on by them. Like I told Nina: I like cock.

“No,” she said. “You don’t.” She took me onto the dance floor and we dirty danced, sliding hands up and down hips, shimmying and grinding. “You’re definitely a lesbian,” she said again when we were done. The truth was, if I were going to move further down the continuum, Nina would be the girl I would do it with. She was pretty, kind of butchy. If I were a lesbian, I’d definitely like the butches.

I smiled. “I would allow you in my bed, but only if my man were there too.”

She eyed me steadily. By now the other two were ardently listening too. Finally, she asked, “What would I have to do?”

“You’d have to fool around with him.”

“Ew!” all three of them shrieked.

I shrugged. “Then, it isn’t going to happen.”

Nina pulled me onto the dance floor again. I’d been here before, of course, just not with a woman. Plenty of men had done their damnedest to get me to sleep with them. I’m not being conceited. I’m just an average woman who made herself too available most of the time. That’s really all men require. But, with Nina, I didn’t know the rules. I hadn’t studied the way women work when it comes to getting laid.

And the thing was, for all the times I’d been here with men, for all the times I’d put myself in this position, this was the first time I felt, well … I felt safe. More than that, I believed her desire for me in a way I’d never ever been able to believe that men wanted me. They wanted my hole, sure. But did they want me? I’d lived my life in doubt of that.

When we sat, she said once more, “You’re a lesbian.”

For the first time, I wondered. Was I a lesbian? This is the thing about being a woman. We aren’t stuck in our ways, are we? We like sex. We like being desired. We generally aren’t like men, who tend to target what they want and rigidly (literally!) go after it. We like to weigh our options, try things out. We like—I’ll just say it—to shop. The ladies’ “ew” was making some sense. Men were kind of unappealing that way.

So, I imagined it. Why not? A kiss. The boobs. Putting my mouth “down there.” Ew. How could I be a lesbian? If I was grossed out by vag, but would willingly put a penis in my mouth—clearly something infinitely more disgusting—then some predetermined and chemical workings were in place. I could no more force myself to be a lesbian that night than I could get one of these girls to get into bed with me so I could watch her do things with my man.

Listen, I was drunk on boxed wine. Really, really drunk on boxed wine. So drunk, in fact, that when I woke up the next morning I puked, only the second time in my life I’d gotten sick from alcohol (the first being when I was thirteen).

Meanwhile, the “man” I’ve been referencing this whole time was feeling nervous. His first girlfriend—an almost five-year relationship— wound up realizing she was lesbian. He was afraid he was some sort of lesbian-turner. I tried to assure him that wasn’t going to happen amid my hangover. But there was something that had happened to me the night before, something it took me a bit to understand. I had stretched myself in a way I’d never dared before. I’d tried something on for a night, tried pushing myself somewhere I’d never before gone. And that is worth doing again in my life.