Liberate by Suzanne Stafford

I walked into the room, and there she was, bold as brass, cheeky wee face, sat with her friend whom I already knew.

Without any control whatsoever, a huge smile stretched across my face, and before I knew it I was marching across the room to introduce myself. I took her hand in mine and held it for what seemed like a long time staring into her beautiful brown eyes.

Who is she? Where has she come from? And most importantly why have I NEVER met her before now?

Mmmmm … Edel, what a sweet name that matched such a sweet little face. My only thought was to keep her attention on me (selfish, I know), but the last thing I wanted right now were cute young lesbians walking through the door. This was in our local LGBT drop-in centre and there was plenty of competition as it was.

Conversation happened easily and flowed so naturally between us. I felt I had already known her for a long time; she had that effect on people, she made them comfortable and made friends easily. I tried to learn everything I could about her in the shortest time possible, asking questions about where she worked, where she grew up, what car she drove, etc.

The thing that devastated me most was the discovery that she lived in Cork and was only home for a few days. I was already picturing the commute!

As our unfortunately short meeting came to a close, I really wanted to kiss her, but I couldn’t. I was awkward, I was shy and I could sense that she felt the same. However, she did mention that she was in town until Monday, and that was my chance.

I was celebrating my 22nd birthday that coming Saturday, and as it was my first birthday since my ‘coming out’, it was to be a women’s-only party.

It would be great to invite her along, so I did. She accepted, promising me she would be there, and I told her to bring her friends too. Before we parted ways I insisted she repeat my address over and over so she would never forget.

That was April 1999, I remember it like it was yesterday.

I woke up on the day of my 22nd birthday so excited; I had so many wonderful friends all coming together in one place. Such diversity – my straight friends, my lesbian friends and my undecided friends. All from such different walks of life, all women, all beautiful.

My four-year-old son was off to stay with his granny and granddad for the weekend. I felt so free, so LIBERATED and alive, and extremely hopeful that maybe my new friend would show up. I tried my best not to let my hopes build up, but it was impossible. My heart skipped a beat with every knock on the door.

I had been out for less than a year and I had met a lot of women and made some fabulous new friends. Though I had a few short-term relationships, I really didn’t see myself finding or meeting someone that I could see as a more long-term thing.

Besides, my future wasn’t the type I reckoned many of these women would want to share. I was a single mum from a local authority housing estate. It wasn’t going to be easy, and it would have to be a very brave woman to take on me and all my baggage.

Nonetheless, I was happy with my lot. My son was my life, and everything else was secondary. It may not have always looked that way to some, but no one can dispute that parenting alone can be a very daunting and lonely place, even with the support of family. Especially when you feel like you should be doing all the same things that your peers are doing at that age.

What my peers were doing wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing, though. I surrounded myself with people I believed to be security, people who would keep me safe in a world that petrified me. I needed to fit in to survive.

I had done what I thought to be the normal thing – I got myself a boyfriend, stayed with him for a few years and then had a baby. That seemed to be the way to do things.

I had a friend, when I was 15 or 16, who came out as a lesbian. Her girlfriend was a little older and much more butch. I admired them and loved to hang out with them, but I never gave a second thought to thinking that maybe I, too, could be gay.

Sure, I had a boyfriend! And he was the best boyfriend, especially since he had taken himself off to Mountjoy Prison for a few years, leaving me, at the age of 18, and my infant alone in our council house.

This turned out to be the greatest gift ever given to me, because it changed my life forever. I went about discovering myself for the first time, and with the help of some good friends and some great youth workers, I slowly learned to like and accept myself in a whole new way. I began to read, paint and dance, I felt creative. All my senses woke up, I began to believe in myself and felt that anything was possible.

My new way of thinking brought with it a new wave of friends. These new friends were colourful and interesting. I was studying and had gotten on to a community employment scheme, which, after a year or two, led to gainful employment. I found myself involved in a cross-border young mothers’ project, and at this time I began to realise that I had sexual feelings towards my own gender.

One of the project leaders made an impression on me from the moment I met her. I guessed she was gay and was intrigued and found myself going home in the evenings thinking about her. I can’t say that this was a huge revelation for me or that I was shocked, I just thought it was something in which I might indulge at some stage in my life.

I was happy to keep this new information to myself, but began to suss out where I might find other young gay people in this small town. That didn’t take long, and shortly they seemed to be everywhere now that my eyes were a little more open.

I felt the first sting when my work with this woman had finished, as I never spoke to her about my feelings and I would probably never see her again. It was time for me to explore these new feelings somewhere safe, somewhere local.

I started to attend the local LGBT centre and its monthly discos. It was at this time I met my first girlfriend and was ‘outed’ by some of my straight friends who I had trusted. That’s when it became a problem; my son would be ridiculed, I would get shouted at on the street, and I became so familiar with the derogatory terms associated with homosexuality, and comments referring to the abuse of my child and being a ‘double adapter’ (that one stuck because I used to have a boyfriend).

I wasn’t really sure whether I was gay or bi, but I was with women only for 10 years, so I guess that made me a lesbian for that period. I think I always knew deep down that I was bisexual, and I did often think one day I would like more children. I felt less accepted by the gay community if I admitted my bisexuality, so it was something I kept mostly to myself and close friends.

Back to the night of my 22nd party. I had dressed my best and nervously answered the door to each visitor. There was plenty there, and it was a great night. I was very drunk by 11pm, but regardless continued into the small hours.

Edel never showed up. I woke up on a couch, cold, hungover and surrounded by other bodies. I reflected on the night as I tidied up and wondered when, if ever, would I see her again.

Weeks passed, and my normal routine continued. I really longed to meet someone just like her; someone I truly believed would understand me and have the same interests.

Out of the blue one day a letter came to my house addressed to a Suzanne Bentley. My surname was not Bentley, but the female-on-female symbol on the back of the envelope made me pretty sure it was for me.

I opened it and looked straight to the end to see by whom it was signed. It was from Edel. I was so delighted. She apologised profusely for not coming to my party and blamed her friends for taking her out of town and refusing to come back with her. She ended the letter by saying she was hoping to see me at the annual Cork women’s weekend.

I had no intentions of going to that, but now I really, really wanted to. That wasn’t going to be possible – it was difficult to get care for my son for the whole weekend, with my father being sick, and financially I wasn’t in a position to go. I sadly asked my friends who were going to send my love if they met her there. To this day I am glad I didn’t go because it turned out she wasn’t there either – she had gone home that same weekend.

A short while later, after yet another drunken night out in Dublin, I nursed my very bad hangover in the centre, moaning about the embarrassing antics of the previous night. One of my friends informed me that I had had a visitor, but she wouldn’t tell me who it was.

As I was about to leave, the doorbell sounded, and in fell Edel and her friend, fairly intoxicated. Edel arrived with her mountain bike in tow, ripped jeans, happy smile and unapologetic laughter. At first I thought the friend must be her girlfriend, but her behaviour towards me soon ruled that out, as her flirting was so obvious in her little drunken stupor. I was silently thrilled and extremely entertained.

That night became the first night of the best six years of my life.

It all moved very quickly after that. Edel moved in within weeks. We had become the town’s golden couple, everyone loved to see us coming. We were madly in love. Her friends became my friends and mine hers. I loved everything about her little tomboy look, her quirky ways, her humour. We spent a lot of our time laughing.

It wasn’t quite as easy a start for her and my son. She had never spent much time with small children, and at the age of four he felt like he wasn’t getting all of mammy’s attention with this new woman around. I am sure it must have been very confusing for him to see his mammy kissing a girl, but we agreed we wouldn’t hide our affection for each other from him, and we never did.

Edel was very careful not to win his love over by spoiling him or trying to buy it, so it was a beautiful, slow process of him learning to trust her and becoming familiar with her. Before too long I was almost jealous of their relationship, as he found it easier to talk to her than me at times. I had to be the mammy and daddy, so I couldn’t be all fun – I had to be the disciplinarian, too.

My parents weren’t at all shocked or fazed by my coming out. They were quite liberal and reckoned there is ‘one’ in every family, I just happened to be the one in ours. My parents and siblings adored Edel, I used to say butter wouldn’t melt because she could do no wrong in their eyes.

I know it wasn’t quite so easy for Edel. I believe her coming out was a bit more difficult for her parents to understand, and because she was so young when she discovered her sexuality, I am guessing they hoped it was a phase. I think she had some dark times in her teens; it must be hard trying to accept yourself when the people who love you most are struggling to accept you.

I am sure it didn’t help when she moved in with a lone parent from an estate with an awful reputation. In fairness they were right to be worried about that, as we often got shouted at, our windows were broken, and the car vandalised. The worst was Edel’s first little scooter (her Vespa, her pride and joy) was taken and burned out around the corner – all because we were gay.

Protecting my son while trying to teach him acceptance was somewhat difficult. But we stuck it out and stuck together nonetheless.

About a year into our relationship I got my dream job in youth work, and less than a year later so did Edel. Working for different companies, doing the same type of work, was great as we could discuss it and help each other at the end of the day. It also meant we were in a position to move into rented accommodation. We spent a few years at this address where the three of us were very contented and happy.

My son made great friends and we had the privilege of having almost everything we wanted. We had two or three holidays a year, socialised as much as we wanted, and both had new cars. We were grateful and happy. We were just like any other couple, but with our new financial independence came its own problems.

We both had darkness in our pasts, and I found light at the bottom of a bottle. We both did, but it became my crutch, and I used it! That brought with it some of our problems, and since Edel wasn’t great with confrontation, I was happy to ignore my own behaviour.

Hindsight is a great thing, and I couldn’t see my flaws. Looking back now, I can see where I went wrong.

We carried on regardless and began to make plans to buy a house, which personally made me scared stupid. It was a commitment that really frightened me, but Edel knew it was the right thing to do – though I didn’t and at times felt a little bit pushed into it. It was going to be our dream comes true. And the day we moved into our own house felt like the best day of our lives.

Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Sometimes life throws things at you that you can’t control, for which you can never prepare yourself, and what life threw at us at the age of 27, I really wasn’t fit to deal with. It pains me to think about it even now.

Shortly after our six-year anniversary Edel came home, from a night out with a friend, looking tired and distraught. My naivety is something else! I really didn’t see it coming. She told me she was leaving, and she meant it.

My life felt like it had just crumbled all around me. I didn’t sleep in our bed any more as I couldn’t bear it. I slept on the couch or the floor, depending on how drunk I got. I was unwilling to accept that my drinking and staying out was that bad, as that was what we had done for years. Now I was doing it alone, as much as she was coping on her own. I had my blinkers on. It didn’t help that she believed I was cheating, though now I couldn’t blame her.

Thankfully I had the pleasure of her beautiful company for a night some time after we broke up, giving me the chance to explain, to talk when she was ready to listen. She did, and for that I am grateful.

I was one of the luckiest women on this planet to have shared such a magical and wonderful experience with one of life’s true gems. She brought light and laughter into mine and my son’s life.

If I knew then what I know now … They say that time is a healer … it’s all we can hope for.

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