“Just a few minutes of vacation from my straight life; then back in the car.”
By Harmony Cox
In the months before I came out of the closet and asked my husband for a separation, I did a lot of things. I googled terms like “later-in-life lesbian” and “irreconcilable differences.” I quietly began the work of separating our finances. I slept in my bed—my newly-purchased separate bed, where I’d been sleeping while we tried to work things out—felt the cold space next to me, and cried.
But mostly, I drove.
Ohio is my home state, the place where I have lived most of my life. I suspect there might be something uniquely Ohioan about being soothed by the highway.
In 1984, the year I was born, the Ohio Division of Transit and Tourism came up with a new slogan to explain our state to the rest of the country: “Ohio, The Heart of It All,” ostensibly because Ohio is kind of shaped like a heart, if you squint at a map of the United States and don’t know much about anatomy. And thus if Ohio is the heart of it all, the chambers are made by the vascular divisions of its interstates. Vehicles are the blood cells of Ohio, carrying people to their intended destinations swiftly and safely. To occupy one of these cells, to be in transit, is one of my favorite things to do.
Every distance in Ohio is not measured in feet or miles, but minutes spent driving to your destination. If you hop on I-71, you can drive Ohio’s tip to tail in just about six hours. I-70 will take you east to west, Indiana to West Virginia, in about the same amount of time. My favorite, I-270, is known as the Outerbelt. It takes you on a neat, never ending circular tour of Columbus and its many suburbs. I live on the city side, where the curves glide you past the tiny, glittering skyscrapers of our old-fashioned downtown.
Driving these highways is a practical way to get around, but it’s also a way to get your head straight. I would make up some excuse to get myself out of the house and spend hours in the darkness, circling Columbus with a pack of cigarettes and a massive Sonic lemonade. I’d lose myself in the meditative hum of wheels on asphalt, counting the numbers on the exits and letting the high-beams distract me from my tears.
I’d been through three therapists in ten years, each of whom had their own exit on this highway. The Lane Avenue exit led to the university hospital, where I’d gone in graduate school to see a therapist for help in sorting out my pre-wedding anxieties. He listened patiently for twenty minutes, then he told me I had to call it off because he’d never known a queer woman to stay happily married to a straight man. I didn’t have the courage to question him, so I let myself believe my growing discomfort with my impending matrimony was my own fault, because I was too queer to be a good wife. So I put my queerness aside, and refused to think about it for a long time.
Another exit, this one to Granville. Where I sought out therapy again, this time when a close relationship with a friend became confusing. She had found a new boyfriend, and I was experiencing a sharp and painful jealousy that I didn’t have the context to understand.
(But the highway does; there, the exit that leads to the favorite restaurant where she held my hand and told me I was the most important person in her world. There, the exit to the bus station where she wept as she kissed me goodbye! The only thing she needed more than me was to stay in her comfort zone, so you can guess why we parted ways in the end.)
After I described my plight, my new therapist leaned forward with a confused look on his face.
“But if you think you’re bisexual, how do you know if you’re in love with a friend or you just care about them a lot?”
I stared at him, biting back the sting of tears. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m seeing you.”
It was the third therapist, off the exit to Upper Arlington, who actually understood. She was a specialist in LGBTQ identity issues, and she helped me untangle my confusion and jealousy and set me on the right path. She forced me to acknowledge the truth: that I was a closeted queer woman, that I was deeply unhappy as a result, and that as much as I loved my husband I could not be the wife he needed me to be. That was when I realized I would have to eventually set out alone, away from the man who I thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with. This journey, like my endless looping trips on the highway, could only be my own.
Realizing it was one thing. Accepting it was something else entirely.
I had already been testing our boundaries, but I didn’t cheat on him. We even had an grudgingly open relationship towards the end, when we were trying to figure out if we could possibly stay together. It didn’t matter. I knew he resented me for it, and I still felt unfaithful to him. I was the one who was going out by myself to flirt with women. I never actively courted their attention, but I never did anything to dissuade them when they clocked me and complimented my leather jackets and bought me drinks.
I never went home with them either; I’d always make some excuse, an early day at work or feeling a bit under the weather, and I’d leave before they’d think to ask for my number. Just a few minutes of vacation from my straight life; then back in the car. It is an easy jump from the brewery district to the highway interchange. I would be back on the road before I realized what I was driving away from. However, I never went home, not right away.
Instead, I drove.
As I drove, I’d feel my body drift with the curve of the highway, my head gently bobbing from left to right. I’d count off the exits to the suburbs. The Easton condos. Westerville. Hilliard, and beyond that, Gahanna. These were the places that had sprawled into clusters of McMansions during the Columbus population boom of the mid-2000s. Acres of forests and farmlands, obliterated and replaced with cheesy-sounding gated communities meant to honor the things that had been sacrificed to create them. The Ravines at Scioto. Farmer’s Street. The Residences of Creekside.
The prevalence of gigantic single-family homes in Columbus is both environmentally irresponsible and morally obscene; it’s the definition of sprawl and waste. But developers built these places because in my town there is a thirst for this American dream. Sometimes it seems like everyone I know is moving out of the city, away from the bustle and fun of happy hours and into the “starter houses” that will shelter the families they’re ready to bring into being. The toy doll pairings of my coupled friends, taking the next step.
When I drove by these exits, I would think of the people who lived there. People I knew, people who were also married, people who embraced a fate that seemed worse than death to me. I’d imagine these people seated at the Target tables in their IKEA kitchens, sorted neatly into houses with the exact same floor plan, each house’s vinyl siding a complementary shade of pale pink or blue. Happy with the life they’d chosen.
I would cry and ask myself what was wrong with me, what was broken in me that made me want something else. Why imagining leaving my metro lifestyle behind for the sake of a school district made me want to drive my car off the side of the road and into a telephone pole. I’d try to picture myself with a baby in my arms, a man by my side, but all I could see was static.
When I got tired of listening to myself cry, I’d turn on the radio. Singing along with a car stereo is the cheapest and most readily available form of therapy that Midwesterners are willing to accept. People might think it odd if you sit in a small room with a stranger and try to draw lines between your ugly past and your current neuroses, but nobody will look twice if you spend a few minutes howling along to Journey’s greatest hits while stuck in the I-161 traffic circle clusterfuck.
My favorite band to listen to during these late-night drives was Against Me!, a punk band I’d kind of liked in high school but rediscovered with a vengeance during this time of woe. There was one particular song that I liked to sing along with: “Pretty Girls (The Mover),” off of the album Searching for a Former Clarity. It’s a song written by Laura Jane Grace about the pieces of herself that ended relationships with women before they could begin, and her fear that nobody (including herself) can accept her for who she really is:
And if she says yes, know what intentions might be
If one thing leads to another and there’s some chemistry
You cannot lie, you have to tell the truth
You have to explain why this could never be
Cause there are things that cannot be undone
There are mistakes that will never be forgiven
Sometimes at night, I pray to wake
A different person in a different place
I just want to be young, I want to live
God, I want to be healthy, I don’t want this problem
You wouldn’t think something like irresponsibility
Would complicate something like asking for some company
But there are things you must accept as said and done
There are truths you must learn to confront
You can pray all night and day
You’ll always wake the same person in the same place
It’s a sad and anxious song, and I felt it in my bones every time it came on. I’d sing aloud with it loudly, freely weeping, taking comfort in the misery I shared with Grace. Sometimes I would put it on repeat, and let it loop around me the same way I endlessly looped around my city in the night.
One night I accidently put on the live recording of the song instead of the studio version. I was surprised to learn that the lyrics had changed since it was first recorded. When Searching for a Former Clarity was released, Laura Jane Grace had not come out as transgender yet. She was still grappling with that realization and what it meant for her, and she wasn’t ready to share it. So she’d selectively censored some of the lyrics to the songs she wrote about it. In this particular song, she’d used “irresponsibility” instead of “gender identity” for the studio recording. The live recording gave it the context and meaning it was intended to have.
The true meaning of the song hit me like a slap. Of course, the song was about being closeted and the way it isolates you from other people. No wonder I felt so connected to it, even before I knew what it was about. I don’t mean to conflate my journey with that of Grace’s, or borrow the pain of transgender individuals to make a point about my own sexuality. But the ache of hiding yourself from the world for so long, and the grinding pain of working so hard to avoid your own truth, is a theme that could not help but resonate with me in that moment. It felt like the song had come to me before I’d realized how much I needed it, in a disguise so I’d receive the message without overthinking it. Only now did I understand what the lyrics really meant, and why they made me sob into my lemonade.
As Grace wisely notes, there are truths you must learn to confront. A punk song may not be the ideal cardinal north for a journey into a new world, but I could not deny that hiding who I was and what I wanted was crushing me, and that sustaining a marriage on the back of my pain wasn’t going to work forever. I had to stop running from the truth. No matter how much therapy I underwent, no matter how I prayed or pleaded for something else, I would always be the same person at the end of the day. And that person didn’t want to be married, and wasn’t particularly attracted to cisgender men, and had never let herself live openly as a queer person before. There was a whole new future before me, so much unexplored possibility if I just stopped driving in the same circles and let myself consider a different path. I deserved to be happy in a way the exits to the suburbs never could provide. I was always meant to keep moving.
So I told my husband the truth, we recognized our differences were irreconcilable, and we split up. I remained in my hometown, determined to chase my own happiness until I found it. All I had to do was end my marriage of a decade, come out to my friends and family, and learn how to be queer at the tender young age of thirty-five. Not an easy journey to start, but at least I was finally ready to begin. ■
Harmony Cox is an essayist and humorist. She has been published in Catapult, Electric Literature, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her cat Bandit.
Cover image: A view of Columbus, Ohio from I-71, one of the highways that connects the city to I-270, also known as the Outerbelt. Photo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.