“Just say it!”
“C’mon Hannah, it’s not that hard. Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
This, in a nutshell, was my childhood.
It’s funny, right? I, the consummate lipstick lesbian. I, co-author of Femme as in Fuck You. I, with my lace up combat boots and sassy undercut and distressed denim jacket.
I, Hannah Leffingwell, was unable for the better part of twenty years to say the word “fuck.”
I was that girl, front of the class, hand in the air, long straight hair parted precisely down the middle of my head, wearing an ugly chunky sweater and ill-fitting bell-bottom jeans. I was that girl who felt nauseous if I realized I had forgotten my homework (which never really happened). That girl who shhhhshed you in the library. That girl who fast-forwarded through sex scenes even when she was all by herself at home. That girl with her nose in a book and her head in the clouds. That girl.
If you had asked me, at the age of fifteen, what I wanted from life, I would have given you two solid answers: To go to Mount Holyoke College, and to marry a man.
If you’re laughing right now, I understand.
Would you laugh more if I told you I also planned on “saving myself for marriage?”
Needless to say, “fuck” was not in my vocabulary.
I remember the first time I ever said it, by accident, alone in my car. I was driving home from ballet class, blasting “Little Lion Man,” dreaming about a boy I had only met once and knew I would probably never talk to, and it just… slipped out. I really fucked it up this time, I sang. And then I blushed, my whole body filling with a tangible wave of shame.
This word was never just a word for me. “Fuck” was an expectation, an as-yet-unexperienced but inevitable submission, a visceral fear. “Fuck” was all the things I didn’t want to do with that boy I was singing about. “Fuck” was the reason I never called him, or tried to set up a time to meet. “Fuck” was the way boys laughed at me when I started talking in class. “Fuck” was the way I hid my breasts beneath too big sweaters to avoid their attention. “Fuck” was wait, you’ve never dated anyone? “Fuck” was you’ll like it when it happens. “Fuck” was you’re going to a college with no boys?
“Fuck” was everything I wasn’t able to say about a part of myself I didn’t understand.
Fast forward to my junior year of college. I’m sitting in the common room of Safford. It’s Thanksgiving break, and there’s no one around. It’s just me and two friends, eating dinner. Well, when I say two friends, I guess I should specify. One of them, yes, a good friend. The other? Someone I had known ever since my first day of college, but rarely talked to. Someone who made me blush every time she walked into the room. The same someone I would fall head-over-heels in love with the next summer. The same someone who would guide me, definitively, out of the closet. And then break my heart.
But I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I knew was that I could barely look at her without turning bright red. When I learned she would be joining us for dinner, I felt this unfamiliar sense of dread and excitement. I wish I could say I was confused by these feelings, but in reality I was so deeply buried in my repressive tendencies that I couldn’t even allow myself to enter a stage of confusion.
“So,” this someone said, her eyes like two laser beams shooting into my deepest self, “P. tells me you aren’t having sex until you’re married.”
It was just as abrupt as it sounds. No segue, no easing in. My friend P. would later describe it as an “intervention” – something they had both, apparently, been planning for months.
We can talk about the ethics of this situation another time, but the point is, I was taken off guard.
“I just want to wait for the right guy, you know?” I said, stumbling over my words.
“But how will you know he’s the right guy if you don’t have sex with him?”
The answer to this question seemed simple to me: sex with a man was bound to be disgusting, I reasoned, and therefore, would only be enjoyable if coupled with the sentiments of true love. If I found a guy I truly, truly loved, then maybe one day, somehow that love would magically make it okay to touch his dick.
This someone, the one who had been asking all the questions, looked at me in disbelief. She looked at me like she and everyone else in the world knew something I didn’t know. And then she said:
“What would you rather have in your mouth?”
The only way I can describe my embarrassment at being asked such a question is to say that my body felt like it was being invaded by a million tiny bugs, all of whom wished to make their way through my skin and eat away at everything beneath. Every single muscle in my body was tensed, my cheeks were the brightest shade of red, my teeth were clenched behind the conciliatory smile I kept forcing to my lips.
It went on like this for what felt like hours. Pointed questions, flustered answers, all interspersed with this someone’s own tales of sexual discovery.
At one point, she looked at me, with that “fuck if I care” look in her eyes, and said:
“You know, there’s a big difference between fucking and making love.”
But wasn’t that what I had been saying all along?
That night, I tossed and turned in my creaky twin bed. It was Thanksgiving Break, and the campus was empty. No voices shouting across Skinner Green, no raucous bands of students stumbling back from Chapin. Just the arrhythmic clanking of the radiator, the occasional flush of the toilet, and the distant sound of traffic on 116.
I remembered back to all those nights, growing up, when I had lain in my childhood bed – no bigger than the one I lay in now – and wondered what it would be like to kiss a girl. Wondered is probably too strong a word. I didn’t really let myself wonder. It was more like I found myself thinking back to certain encounters with girls during the day, encounters where I felt this burning need for an undefinable closeness, and thought to myself: What if I were to kiss her? Is that what my body is telling me to do? Usually, I wouldn’t go any further than that. My thoughts would jam, my body would close up like an oyster, and I would force myself into a tumultuous night’s sleep. But from time to time, surrounded by the inky fears of night, I would think to myself, What if I was a lesbian? A word filthier, scarier, more taboo than any other. More forbidden, even, than “fuck.”
On that cold November night, as I lay in my dorm room, all of this came back to me like a deathbed epiphany. All the girls I had ever felt indescribably, but unquestionably drawn to. All the times I had hugged them for a just few seconds too long.
What would you rather have in your mouth? What would you rather have in your mouth? What would you rather have in your mouth? What would you rather…
Her words played over and over again in my head, her face floating in my half-dreams, her supple lips taunting me to choose, to choose, to choose… that feeling, my body drawn into itself as it fought the desire to hold her, to kiss her, to do all those things I had never even let myself imagine… remembering the way her small body had fit so perfectly in mine as we hugged goodnight…
I fell asleep, and the next day I pushed every thought, every question, every desire from my mind, and continued on as I had for the past twenty-one years… I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m….
In love. Or so it seems. Three months have passed. I’m standing in at the bottom of a spiral staircase, looking into the eyes of someone I care for deeply, someone I’ve only just met. A different someone from the question asker, but who shares one very important characteristic: this someone is a woman. We are holding each other, and I can’t seem to let her go. We stand there like that, inextricable, for the longest string of minutes I have ever lived.
It was around that time that I learned to say it. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Everything was changing. I was learning the taste of wine, the smell of sweat in a crowded club, the feeling of 2:00 am on a deserted street, the meaning of the words “queer” and “femme,” the way to properly apply rose water to your wrists in a cramped French bathroom, the feeling of a woman’s body when she wraps her arms around you and lets you rest your head on her breast.
As the months passed, and I returned home to the States, I would learn other things too. How to kiss, how to hold hands with a woman in public, how to wear my shirts buttoned all the way up, how to casually tell people I had a girlfriend, how to not-so-casually tell my parents the same thing, how to comfortably share a twin bed night after night after night with that someone and still get some sleep, how to say “I love you.”
I would learn in my body what I had never understood in words. How to be gentle, and how to be strong. How to ask, and how to answer. How to give, and how to receive.
I would learn, in sum, how to fuck. How to be a part of someone else, and let her be a part of me. How to become, together. How to be inextricable.
But I would also learn darker lessons. How to lie about who I was, how to disappoint the people I loved by telling the truth, how to let go of my girlfriend’s hand when we got off the bus in a new town, how to call her “my friend” without wincing, how to touch her leg secretly beneath the kitchen table when I met her family for the first time, how to lose myself when she left me, how to lose everything we had inextricably become, together…
I would learn that fuck wasn’t just a word I said in wonderment, in desire, in love. I would learn that fuck was dirty in a way I never expected – dirty like life is dirty, in the way that dirt forms the basis of everything we love.
But in order to learn this, I would have to take a word that, for so many years, had alienated me from my own body, and make it my own again. I would have to say it over and over and over again, in public, in private, in the least and most intimate of moments. I would have to study its vibrations in my throat, its shape in my mouth, its frequencies in each room I entered. I would have to teach my fingers to type it, my pen to form it, my body to enact it. I would have to estrange this word from its burden of past meanings, estrange myself from the burden of past selves, and meet it anew.
Reappropriate, verb: to take possession of, to steal, to take for oneself.
For twenty-one years, “fuck” was a word that did not wish to recognize me. A word that challenged the very essence of my being. A word that told me I was wrong.
So I stole it. I snuck in late at night, in the inky blackness of all my childhood fears, and I took it for myself.
“Fuck” is a four letter word, and it is mine.