Fernweh by Tamzin Mitchell

“Mummy,” I say. I’m slouched on my couch in New Hampshire, phone pressed to my ear. “Mummy. It’s awful. I was hanging out with a friend yesterday, and we calculated the rough number of single queer women in the area—”

“You did what?” she says. “How?”

“Hang on,” I say. I get up to riffle through my bag for the brown paper napkin covered in scribbles, then flop back onto the couch. “Okay. Population times .10 for rough queer population, divided by two for women, divided by seven for really rough age group, divided by two because the Internet says that that’s the proportion of single people. And it’s, like, a maximum of a hundred and seven.”

“A hundred!” she says. “That’s not too bad—”

“Out of thirty thousand,” I say. Later I will be told that my math makes no sense, that it’s not that simple to calculate, but I’ll stick by the principle anyway.

“Oh dear,” my mother says. “Well. What’s Amelia up to?”

“I think she’s busy being my ex.” We also live an hour and a half apart, which is one of the reasons she’s now my ex. This has not stopped my mother from hoping that we’ll get back together.

“Right,” my mother says. “If there are a hundred women out there, though, I’m sure you’ll find them eventually.”

“But where are they?” I wail.

She laughs, not without sympathy. “What about at the university?” she says. “There must be groups—”

“Everything’s for undergrads,” I say dolefully. “The people my age have all gotten the fuck out because it’s fucking New Hampshire.”

“Oh dear,” she says again.

I scrunch farther down on the couch, propping my feet on the footstool. “It doesn’t actually matter,” I say. “I don’t really want to date, not seriously, in New Hampshire. I don’t want a reason to stay. I just want the option.”

* * *

Wanderlust, from the German. The desire to travel, to wander, to see the world. Moving to New Hampshire was in some ways a compromise, somewhere that was new to me but not too far or too culturally distant from Boston. I can see how somebody would put down roots here, how easily I could put down roots here, and that scares me more than the unknown.

This is New Hampshire, my New Hampshire: I can afford to live by myself for the first and perhaps last time in my life. There are cows and horses a ten-minute walk from my apartment, which in turns delights and frustrates me. The university one town over, where I am a graduate student, is packed with tall, gangly boys wearing polo shirts and baseball caps and riding skateboards. It is an alien world to somebody who went to a women’s college for undergrad. I cannot walk down the street in my town without hearing something to the effect of “Hey, there’s that girl who walks and reads.” I admit that this is not a normal habit, but if I die in New Hampshire, I’m pretty sure that will be on my gravestone: There went that girl who walked and read.

I like New Hampshire: I like the greenness and the relaxed pace and the number of people wearing hiking shorts and plaid and sporting tattoos. For Halloween I dress as the male contingent of my program, which entails a plaid shirt and jeans and a giant, bushy beard. I like the library and the coffee shops and the viewing tower that I scale on a regular basis. I do not like how few opportunities there are to walk places, so I find myself walking the five-mile round trip to the grocery, the six-mile round trip to Maine, the eleven-mile round trip to campus. I Google lesbian club New Hampshire and turn up very sketchy-looking options on the other side of the state, or in Massachusetts. I Google go dancing in New Hampshire and find locations an hour north into Maine. I Google Unitarian Universalist church New Hampshire and gay book club New Hampshire and hiking in New Hampshire and roller derby New Hampshire and learn, if it was ever really a question, that New Hampshire is not really a place to live without a car.

Contemporary German uses not wanderlust but fernweh, farsickness, and I think that is perhaps more accurate for me. I like New Hampshire, and I am claustrophobic and antsy.

* * *

Over summer break, I tag along on a business trip with my father. In the hotel room, I dream: I’m back in New Hampshire, in my small town, and I have found all the lesbians. All of them! My age! It is not a very large group, but I have found them, and I am elated. Better still, they will teach me to be a ninja, to run up walls and jump impossibly high and perhaps be invisible. I’ve found my people, or the version of my people who are much, much cooler than I will ever be but will fit me into their tribe anyway.

Just as they start teaching me ninja tricks, my father lets out an enormous snore, and I wake with a start. The New Hampshire ninjas fizzle and pop into nothingness.

* * *

On a whim, I sign up for a free online dating account. The homepage shows four matches in the area, and if none of them looks like a good match, I can hit Refresh. I used the same site in Boston, and it worked just fine. Refresh enough times and I’d probably see somebody I already knew in real life, but there were lots of interesting strangers. Lesbian ninjas.

In New Hampshire, I hit Refresh. The four profile pictures on the screen fade out and reappear in a different configuration. I hit Refresh again. One of the four is replaced, but the other three just shuffle again. Refresh, and one of those three is replaced by the woman who disappeared on the second try.

I throw up my hands and widen the search, and my profile, to include men, which has unexpected and not particularly welcome results: lots of fifty-something men looking at my profile, and men from Iran and Mexico and Mongolia sending me messages. My skepticism about online dating sites overrides my curiosity about Mongolia. One local man sends me a message telling me that he likes how “family-oriented” my profile is, and I read through my page three times, trying to figure out exactly what he saw—or whether he bothered reading what I’d written at all—because that’s another of the reasons Amelia and I split up: she wanted a family, badly, and I wanted to be a nomad.

I delete the dating account. I don’t want a reason to stay.

* * *

I’m on the phone with my mother again. A different day, a different town, probably slouched on a different couch. We’re about to hang up when I remember. “Oh,” I say. “Apparently it was National Coming Out Day the other day. So in case you’ve forgotten, I’m super gay.”

“Super gay?” my mother says. “I thought you said seventy percent?” I can almost hear her brain whirring through the phone, hundreds of miles and an international border away. “Well, I guess that is pretty gay.”

Amelia and I mapped it out once with her childhood best friend, Natasha, the three of us sitting at a slightly sticky diner table. Natasha contributed a piece of paper and I a pen, and we drew bar graphs and line graphs and scales. Sexual orientation over time, and gender expression, and sexual orientation versus sexual expression. I shrugged and estimated that I was seventy percent gay, at least on that morning, at that diner. We covered both sides of the paper in semi-legible notation.

Later, Amelia brought it up again, in a tone that made me sure she’d been turning it over in her head. “You’re not seventy percent gay,” she said. “You’re at least eighty-five.”

I objected. I liked the flexibility, the room for error, that seventy percent implied. Now, in New Hampshire, I think ruefully that probably she was right, and I am gayer than I thought, or at least gayer than I was then.

Amelia called me a “surprise lesbian.” With long hair and an aversion to trousers, I did not “look gay.” It’s true. I cut off my hair but can’t shake my addiction to skirts and dangly earrings, and strangers never assume that my celebrity crushes are all female. In Boston this did not matter, as most of my friends were gay and most of them at least dabbled in femme appearance.

I like having the element of surprise. I play the pronoun game, waiting to see if people fill in male pronouns where I have used none. I’m good at it, can go entire conversations—sometimes multiple conversations over multiple days—without the other person noticing.

I like the game less when I realize that it’s even easier in small towns, and that that ease has nothing to do with skill. Just before I delete my online dating account, I go on two dates with a guy. We talk a bit about exes, and at first I play the pronoun game. It’s part habit and part uncertainty. My profile says “bisexual” (a word that I dislike because it lacks complexity, but one strangers are more likely to understand than “queer”), but I know he probably assumes that to mean something like “kissed a girl in college and kind of liked it.” I set him straight, since on the off chance that this is going anywhere, I’d rather tell him up front, and while it’s fine, it’s awkward. To nobody’s surprise, the relationship goes nowhere. There isn’t a relationship to go anywhere in the first place.

When Amelia and I lived together, we applied for a domestic partnership, and the city of Cambridge sent us official little cards in the mail. I was literally and figuratively a card-carrying queer person. I like flexibility in my labels—card-carrying queer person, not card-carrying lesbian—but I find that not only the relationship but also the card, the label, is painful to lose. It implied you have a place here, in this town, with this person.

My family is scattered across three continents, and living alone in New Hampshire I find that I have less of a sense of home. Home is not where I was born, or any of the places I lived in through grade school, or my college town. My parents will always be a home for me, wherever they are, but the last few places they’ve lived have not been mine. I call New Hampshire home, and I call New Hampshire temporary, and then I wonder if it is home at all or simply a waypoint.

Fernweh. Farsickness. Or, if one reads the definition from a different angle, a desire to be far away from home—not to find a new home, but to leave a home with the expectation of coming back. I want to be a nomad, I think, holding an image of a turtle, everything it needs secure on its back. I forget the part where the turtle can carry its home with it too.

* * *

The university town boasts a Unitarian Universalist church. The buses don’t run that early on Sundays, so I walk the five and a half miles along the shoulder of the highway, skirting piles of half-melted snow. In my experience, Unitarian Universalists tend toward hippie-go-liberalism, more interested in what’s going on in the world than in what might be going on up above, which suits me just fine. I think: church = community. I think: maybe I will find some ninjas here, gay or straight. I think: please let this feel like home.

It’s not actually a church but a fellowship, I learn, which means that they borrow a minister once a month and the rest of the time line up speakers to give the sermon. Or “sermon,” as it might be. The week I go, the speaker happens to be a middle-aged lesbian talking about her experience growing up and coming out. She’s articulate, though it’s a story I’ve heard numerous times before and one that does not resonate with my experience. Two or three decades makes a big difference, and I am lucky enough to have, among other things, parents whose initial reaction to me coming out was “That’s nice, dear.”

What is more interesting is the Q&A session at the end of her prepared talk. (Here the chance that I will return plummets, as—not that I’ve ever given it any thought before—my interpretation of “church” does not involve post-sermon Q&As.) Once the congregation, mostly female and mostly middle-aged or older, gets past its reticence, the parishioners are full of earnest questions. Many of them, it seems, have never had a chance to ask a gay person a question about sexuality. Is it okay for a woman to tell an openly gay cousin that she supports him? Are there activism-related things that straight people can get involved in?

I am reminded, a little, of a queer-people panel I sat on in college, the audience made up of middle schoolers. The adult organizers had collected anonymous written questions ahead of time, most of which I do not remember but one of which stuck in my mind. The writer wanted to know if gay women always wore men’s clothing. The other college student and I looked at each other and laughed. We were both wearing skirts and looked as traditionally straight-white-upper-middle-class-female as it got.

The questions at the UU fellowship are well intentioned, but they reinforce for me that I am in the wrong place. It’s silly, I know, but I’ve never conceived of Unitarian Universalists who don’t—even in socially conservative congregations, which I doubt this is—know the basics of gay issues, much less UUs who aren’t sure if they can get involved in social activism.

Give it time, give it a chance, and maybe this place could feel like home anyway. I know, guiltily, that if I don’t return I won’t be opening any eyes. I still don’t go back.

* * *

By the second year of my program, when I halfheartedly float the idea of finding work in the area after I graduate, my friends give me a look. “You can’t,” they say. “You need to get out of here.”

It is not that I am not happy. To the contrary, I am. I have friends here, and stimulating classes, and friendly neighbors (who tease me about being the girl who walks and reads). But my bookshelves are packed with travel memoirs, I’m auditing a German class (German is hard, and hard is fun; better, the only places where it is necessary to know German are far away from here) and making half-baked plans to spend the winter break in Berlin, and I am just restless.

Another day, another phone call with my mother. Another slouched position on my sofa. “Any progress?” she asks of my social life.

“I still live in New Hampshire,” I remind her.

She laughs. “Maybe you should look for something in Berlin,” she says. “Janet”—her twin, who lives in London—“knows some people there. Do you want me to ask her for suggestions?”

“Sure?” I say. “Thanks.” I know what I’ll tell my friends later: That even my mother thinks I should go forth and find lesbians in Berlin. My mother still has oceans of Scottish reserve, despite decades spent living in the U.S. and Canada, and she is suggesting nothing more scandalous than, say, coffee with friends of friends who are twice my age. But I allow myself to dream of somewhere far away from here, to imagine that in a scant few weeks in Berlin I will find myself a community of lesbian ninjas, someplace to call home.


Tamzin MitchellTamzin Mitchell is a proofreader and editor currently based in Toronto. Someday she will learn to settle down. She holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five on the Fifth, the Vignette Review, and Not One of Us.

 

 

 

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