‘Die Freundin’ (The Girlfriend)
by S. Berenstein
Finding Lucy changed everything for Betsy. The two of them hung out in the library or the dorms, every day, talking about their classes and the books they were reading. “I can’t believe the way that guy in poetry class was monopolizing the discussion again,” Betsy said to her. Greg got on her nerves because he reminded her of the way her father always lectured at her: Papa behaved like the college professor he was, at the dinner table, on the tennis courts and even when the family was relaxing on the beach. But Greg was just a blowhard. Thank God Lucy had taken the seat next to her that first day of class.
Lucy noticed that the men in the class hardly said anything about the women poets, “In fact, the only guy who opened his mouth about Anne Sexton, was the one that joked about the word ‘sex’ in her name.” Both of them laughed hard about that.
It wasn’t long before their talks got more personal. Although they weren’t usually discussing guys come to think of it. That’s what Betsy had expected to talk to a girlfriend about. But with Lucy anything at all could become interesting. They had so much to say to each other that even when they were studying in the library, they got excited and lost track of how loud they were talking.
“Listen to this quote from Freud,” Lucy said, trying to whisper. “‘If a woman refuses to look at her sexual organs as wood chips, designed to make her man more comfortable, she is in danger of becoming a lesbian.’”
“What does that mean?” Betsy whispered back. “How could our sexual organs be like wood chips?”
“Speaking as a lesbian myself,” Lucy giggled, “I...”
“Shhhhhhhhh, we’re in the library,” Betsy said, putting her mouth closer to Lucy’s ear. She felt giddy about what Lucy had just said.
“Okay,” Lucy whispered, putting her mouth closer to Betsy’s ear. “I think he’s saying the man wants to be cushioned by the woman’s labia as he puts his penis in her vagina. But, why are women supposed to use their ‘labia’ and ‘vagina’ for the man’s enjoyment, rather than their own?
“Uhhh…” Betsy was so distracted by a tingling sensation every time Lucy said ‘labia’ or ‘vagina’ that she couldn’t think.
“Freud was, supposedly, trying to discourage lesbianism,” Lucy whispered. “But by telling women they have to make men comfortable it seems logical that they’d turn to other women for pleasure.” Lucy stopped and looked into Betsy’s eyes.
“I never thought of that, but you could be right. The more we talk about this the less I feel like reading Freud.” Betsy held her gaze for a long beat.
“Me, too,” Lucy agreed. “Shhhhhh. We keep forgetting to whisper.”
But it didn’t really matter what Freud said, Betsy knew that. She was happy to talk to Lucy about anything and to laugh and say, “That is so crazy.” Once, Betsy admitted to herself that they were probably laughing so much because they were attracted to each other. But she’d never felt that way about a girl before, so she pushed it out of her mind. In the meantime, she went back to her idea that Lucy reminded her of what she’d longed for in high school, that way best girlfriends had of demonstrating that they understood each other automatically. She hadn’t had anything like that in her Jewish Day School. As usual, her parents had gotten in the way: When her friends reached the age where they started partying, they’d gotten so over-protective that those weekend parties had been off limits for her, unless everyone came to her house. They’d tried that once, but then her parents became the guardians and walked in on them every five minutes, interrupting the partying as if they were only five years old. Mama had stood there, saying, “Okay boys and girls, it’s getting late.” And Papa added, “We know you have homework to do.”
After that Betsy hardly went out at all. Her circle of friends shrank down to one and then none. It was embarrassing that she’d been so unpopular. It was like being shipwrecked. She still had nightmares about sitting in the lunchroom and waiting for someone to talk to her. That was another reason Lucy was special. Although Betsy knew it was more than that, too.
One day after taking a long hike in the hills a few miles from campus, they stopped near a thicket of blackberries to have a picnic. They could feel the explosion of spring all around them as it finally took hold; the bright flush of wildflowers, the warmth of the sun on their bodies. Suddenly, Lucy said, “I can’t wait any longer,” and bent over and kissed her.
As soon as Lucy’s lips touched hers, Betsy’s body lit up. She put her arms around Lucy and kissed her and kissed her until she didn’t even know how much time had passed. She’d unleashed a wild part of herself that she had never even met before. At one point they had put their jackets on the grass so they could lie on the ground, but Betsy couldn’t remember how that happened, it had been so seamless. They’d never even taken their clothes off, that first time. But
they had held each other and caressed each other everywhere through their clothes, taking turns being on top and rubbing against each other. And then rolling around all over each other in the grass saying, “Oh, oh, oh, more of that” or, “Yes, right there,” until both of them were coming like crazy.
But the next day Betsy got embarrassed. While they were walking down the street, Lucy leaned over and kissed Betsy and, at first, she wasn’t aware of the people walking by. Then she looked up and noticed an elderly couple staring at them, with looks of shock and horror. Quickly, Betsy pulled away. Sweat dripped down her back and her eyes flicked back and forth, searching for an escape route. She didn’t know how to explain it. “I think I must be getting the flu,” she told Lucy. And after that, because she’d lied, she went to the student health center.
When she got there, Betsy described what had happened to the doctor. He told her she’d had a panic attack, that was how frightened she’d been by being stared at like that. Still, she knew she wasn’t supposed to be uptight about kissing a girl in public. Things were all cool and hip and politically correct, now. “It’s the 21st Century,” people said, “Coming out is like coming home or feeling free to be yourself.” But Betsy was panicking. She was especially afraid to come out to her old-fashioned and traumatized parents. Anything could make them worry. She knew that was at the bottom of her fear.
Starting in the sixth grade, Papa had begun telling her what it was like for him growing up. He’d described how his family grew up poor in Croghan, a small town in upstate New York that had the lowest median income in the state. Even when he was talking about his childhood, he used that professorial voice of his. “For weeks at a time, all we had to eat was welfare peanut butter. But worse than that, we were called ‘dirty Jews’ and I was chased home from school and beaten up for being Jewish.” Then, Papa’s voice cracked and he couldn’t hide his pain any more.
A few months later Betsy heard him whispering to Mama, “She isn’t old enough to know about all of the relatives that died in the Camps.” After that, she couldn’t stop herself from putting her ear against the door and listening to their discussions. She learned how one member of her mother’s family had run away by crawling under a barbed wire fence in the middle of the night and then hiding in someone’s cellar until the war was over. Others had died in poisonous gas chambers or were shot by firing squads.
Before Betsy went to college, her parents initiated more conversations about the holocaust. As usual, Papa lectured at her, relentlessly: “The twentieth century is described as the bloodiest in human history in terms of violence and death by plagues like the Spanish flu and two World Wars,” he began. “And notably, most historians agree that Hitler’s decimation of Jewish people as well as other groups such as blind or deaf people and homosexuals was the most gruesome of that century. Many lifelong effects stayed with survivors of the camps, like a permanent inability to digest food properly, to name only one example. And the psychological impact, for generations since, is immeasurable.” At that point, Papa broke down and left the room. When he came back, he said, “This is the most important part, so I’ll say it, again. It will be up to you, when we’re gone, to make sure your children remember so they can protect themselves. You have to teach them how to keep our Jewish heritage alive.”
After telling Lucy about her panic attack, Betsy told her about some of these lectures from Papa. But, how could Lucy truly understand? As their only child, everything depended on her. Betsy knew the exact details of what her parents expected. It had been spelled out since she was a very young girl.
One day, Betsy invited Lucy to go for a walk in the woods. It had rained the night before and everything smelled new and fresh, as they started out on one of their favorite trails. Now that they were outdoors, Betsy felt rejuvenated. “I want your help with coming out to my parents,” she began.
“Okay.” Lucy nodded, grinning at her. “Great idea.”
“Theoretically.” Betsy looked away to gather her thoughts. She was worried because Lucy wasn’t Jewish. There was a strong possibility that her parents wouldn’t accept her. Also, Lucy was so far ahead of her in terms of coming out. More than anything else Betsy wanted to be understood by Lucy.
“What do you mean?” Lucy looked puzzled.
“They need so much from me,” Betsy explained. “They’re older, for one. They had me late in life.
“Are they homophobic?” Lucy asked.
“Well, theoretically they’re very liberal. It’s my vulnerability they’re preoccupied with. And it’s important to them that I make up for the losses of family members that died in the camps.”
Lucy nodded. “That’s a lot to worry about.”
“I know,” Betsy said. “In high school, even though we were living in a safe suburb, they still didn’t want me to bring attention to myself. When I made the honor roll my name was read out loud in order to go on stage to accept the award—and they freaked out about that!” Betsy tripped over the root of a tree in the dirt trail and Lucy grabbed her around the waist to keep her from falling.
“Thanks,” Betsy laughed. “You know what you did just now, to stop me from stumbling? Multiply that kind of protectiveness and perseverance by ten and that’s who my parents are.”
“Wow.” Lucy raised her eyebrows. “So, they were worried you’d be shot on stage while you accepted the award? That’s extreme!”
“Yeah, they are extreme. But Jewish schools and synagogues do have to worry about shootings and prejudice and, of course, we went to Jewish schools,” she said.
“You wore those special hats, then?” Lucy asked.
“You mean Kippot,” Betsy explained. “Yes, but not all the time, just in synagogue.”
“Don’t women and girls have to cover their arms and legs?” Lucy asked.
She laughed, “We aren’t Orthodox, so we’re not strictly observant. But we’re practicing reform Jews,’” Betsy explained. Now, she was getting worried. Lucy had so much to learn about being Jewish. “Anyway, I’m afraid to say I’m gay. They’ll assume I’d be beaten up for that.”
“I remember your father was beaten up for being Jewish,” said Lucy.
“Exactly,” Betsy agreed. “But I’m nervous about what they’ll think when they meet you. As a kid, I wasn’t comfortable bringing friends home, especially if they weren’t Jewish.” Betsy sighed. “They’re haunted by the past. And no matter what they’ll persevere about their plans for my children.”
“Parents do that,” Lucy reached for her hand.
“True,” Betsy agreed. But she felt too uncomfortable to explain about Great-Aunt Esther or the background of losses in a Jewish family. “Do you want to meet my parents?” she asked, instead.
“Really?” Lucy exclaimed. “Wouldn’t it be easier to hear it from you first? When I came out, at fifteen, my parents freaked out.”
“I want to try this,” Betsy said. “So, I don’t chicken out.”
“Okay. They only live twenty minutes away, right?” Lucy confirmed.
“Yeah. It was either go here for college because it’s close, or live at home and go to junior college,” Betsy said.
That night it occurred to Betsy that she could send her parents an email. It would be less threatening to introduce Lucy in writing:
Dear Mama and Papa,
Thanks for my monthly check. I’m sorry I didn’t call to thank you, but it was for a happy reason. I’m in love! I can’t wait for you to meet my girlfriend, Lucy.
I know I briefly dated a boy from synagogue, but I’ve never been in love before. I’m nervous about telling you. But the love between Lucy and I is deep and true, like the love between the two of you, Mama and Papa.
Love and Kisses!
P.S. We would like to visit this Saturday so I can introduce you to Lucy. I want you to have time to get to know her. Let me know if that’s not convenient.
Before sending her email, she got up and paced around the room, feeling scared about what was ahead. Then she quickly pressed Send.
Betsy waited all week, but there wasn’t any response from Mama and Papa. “Lucy, let’s drive over there. I wish they’d responded, but they know we’re coming.” Privately Betsy was worried that they’d figured out Lucy wasn’t Jewish and that their silence was meant to signal their disapproval.
“I’ll follow your lead,” said Lucy.
When they got there, Betsy psyched herself up, “This is Lucy, Mama and Papa.” She looked back and forth at both of her parents, but she couldn’t catch their eyes.
“What did you say, dear?” Mama asked, looking at the ground.
It was a bad sign that they weren’t looking at her. She stepped closer and gently put her hand on her mother’s back, “Mama, I told you in my email. Lucy is my girlfriend.”
“Many gay people, even those who weren’t Jewish, were arrested by the Nazis,” Mama said firmly, refusing to look at Betsy.
“Yes,” Papa added, “The Nazi regime harassed and destroyed gay communities, particularly in Berlin where the nightclubs were. They banned many gay magazines such as ‘Die Freundin’ or The Girlfriend, arrested the publishers and threw them in the camps.”
There was an uncomfortable silence and then both Mama and Papa stood up. Without saying a word, they walked into their bedroom, staying there with the door closed.
Betsy looked at Lucy. “It looks like they planned in advance to bring up the Nazi’s banning that lesbian magazine.”
“You’re saying they deliberately did some research?” Lucy asked.
“Of course,” she teared up, holding her arms open for Lucy.
Since Mama and Papa still hadn’t come out of the bedroom Betsy and Lucy decided to go back to campus. But later that evening Betsy came back to the house. Both of her parents stood up when she walked in, but they didn’t say a word.
Betsy’s eyes filled with tears and she walked over to her father and hugged him, gently. “Don’t worry, Papa,” she said. They looked into each other’s eyes. Then she hugged her mother. She noticed her mother was trembling and tears were running down her face. Betsy teared up, again, as she kissed her mother’s cheek. “Mama. Please. I don’t want you to worry.”
During the next week Betsy was unusually quiet. Lucy tried to draw her out and Betsy wanted to follow her lead, but even then, she noticed that she was speaking more slowly than usual. And she felt preoccupied. On Saturday, Betsy told Lucy she was going to visit her parents again, but she’d meet her at the lesbian party they’d planned to attend that night.
When she got there, Betsy joined her parents in the living room.
“Okay, Mama and Papa, I want to explain.” Betsy looked back and forth at both of them.
“Of course, dear. Go ahead,” said Papa.
“I’ve thought about what you said,” Betsy began. “But despite everything, I still think gay people can live safely in America.”
“That’s naïve,” said Papa.
She noticed the tears in Papa’s eyes. “What are you feeling, Papa?” Betsy asked.
“So many things,” Papa sighed. “I’m worried about what’s happening in our country. There’s still so much racism, anti-democratic thinking, and loss of freedom. And despite many advances among Democrats, the backlash is frighteningly reminiscent of the 1930’s in Europe.”
“I know, Papa. ‘Never again and never forget.’”
“Yes,” Mama chimed in. “And you know how to make sure nobody in our family forgets. I want to remind you how your Great-Aunt Esther was killed while she was pregnant in the camps.”
“Of course, Mama. It’s one of our saddest family stories,” Betsy said slowly.
“You have known for a long time how important it is to us that you name a Jewish child of yours after your Great-Aunt. She was buried alive in a mass grave. She deserves to be remembered.” Tears filled Mama’s eyes.
“Oh Mama, you never told me she was buried alive. But I…” Betsy fixed her eyes on them, frightened about what else they might say.
“After everything we’ve done for you,” Papa said, looking at her sternly.
“I’m so grateful, Mama and Papa,” she choked out.
Shortly afterwards, Betsy left. She wanted to rush to get to the party because she knew Lucy was excited about it. While she was driving, she couldn’t stop thinking about how Great- Aunt Esther had been buried alive. It seemed like they’d tried to protect her at first, but now they were willing to do almost anything to pressure her. How could she explain to Lucy that her parents were so traumatized that all they could think about was the survival of their family?
When Betsy arrived at the party, she hugged Lucy right away. But after what her parents had said she felt more self-conscious, like an intruder or the odd one out. She couldn’t stop herself from staring at the two blonde, blue-eyed women that were standing across the room. And wherever she chose to stand, the lighting made her shadow seem huge. She could see she wasn’t the only one with dark, frizzy hair, but she couldn’t stop herself from scanning the room. To calm herself down, she repeatedly filled up her wine glass, but it made her even more out of touch with her body and the nausea hit her like a sledgehammer. She ran into the bathroom and threw up several times in the toilet.
Later, she was still numbed out, but it made it easier to do what she had to do. “Lucy, no matter what, you are the love of my life. But my parents are too vulnerable. They’re terrified about the persecution of gay and Jewish people. And more than anything else they are insisting on their plans for Jewish grandchildren.” Betsy described her obligation to Great-Aunt Esther.
“Oh god, that’s so much pressure. Please stop and think. I’ll miss you too much,” Lucy cried out. “I’m not being selfish. I want you to be true to yourself.” She looked stricken.
“I know. But I can’t hurt them.” Betsy sighed.
“That’s too much responsibility,” Lucy cried out. “And I love you more than anything.”
“I know. But, let’s stop talking,” said Betsy.
They hugged and kissed and cried in each other’s arms knowing, without using words, that they were saying goodbye.
S. Berenstein, she/her is a fiction writer for half of the week and a psychologist for the other half. She has published her work in Litbreak, Literary Yard, Hot Flash, California Council for the Arts Journal and Transforming Lives. Her flash fiction was listed under 'Notable Stories' in Brilliant Flash Fiction.