#5 When was the first time you met someone like you?
A story about finding a different kind of family
I’d first met her shortly after she moved into our neighbourhood, on a weekday evening late in summer. You could only get to her house by taking a series of side roads and I was on my BMX, pumping the pedals as fast as I could. Behind me, my younger sister Lindsay struggled on her pink two-wheeler, recently freed from training wheels and furiously biking to keep pace with me, followed by my mother, who trailed behind us on foot.
In the distance: a break in the treeline where the small acreages and old farmland gave way to a brand new subdivision. My face flushed with frustration every time my mother shouted, “Slow down!” because there was too much to see: towers of fireweed crowned in a purple blaze, blackberries ripening above a drainage ditch, the smell of cedar and goldenrod, thick bushes of Nootka rose and Oregon grape gave way an open field with a rusted tractor sunk two feet into the dirt, where an orange cat stood unmoving below an old apple tree, tail frozen into an exclamation point as it listened to the birdsong in the branches overhead.
It had been three years since we moved from the prairies to the tiny cul-de-sac at the end of Delmonte Avenue on a ridge high above Cordova Bay. Our small subdivision of six houses was ringed by the sandy cliffs of a decommissioned gravel pit on one side and old hobby farms, ravines, and overgrown pastureland on the other. To me and my sister, it felt like the end of the world. No streetlights. No traffic. Yet it was rapidly changing: every few months, a for-sale sign, followed by clear-cuts, heavy machinery, and construction crews, which is why we still weren’t allowed to travel beyond the last house in our subdivision without adult supervision.
Before the three of us set out together from our driveway, my mother told me, “You have to wait for me and your sister.” Yet the farther we got from home, the more my chest burned with adrenaline and excitement. In my head, a plan took shape for the final days of freedom before school started, a series of future adventures that didn’t involve my mother or sister or the boundaries that no longer seemed to matter: that dead garter snake flattened against the hot pavement, that peeling arbutus tree, that deer trail leading to an old-growth stump with toeholds cut into its base—
Such a surprise then to suddenly hear my mother’s name called out: “Louise!”
And there she was: in a white tucked-in T-shirt and a pair of khakis, a bit younger than my mother maybe, standing in Birkenstocks at the end of a driveway leading to a small one-story bungalow, smiling and waving both arms overhead, like one of those inflatables in a used-car lot. A crow swooped down from the massive fir trees behind her house and settled on the brown lawn, watching us.
Eight years old, my first instinct was to stop and wait for my mother and sister, who were still a good distance behind, but the woman ahead smiled and waved for me to keep coming. She had blonde wavy hair, medium-long on top but cropped short on the sides and I couldn’t stop staring. She looked nothing like the other mothers in our neighbourhood.
When I reached her, she stepped off her driveway and shook my hand, pumping it up and down a few times energetically. “I’m Elaine,” she said. Her voice was deep and low, and she didn’t crouch down to greet me as some adults did. “Your mother has told me all about you.”
My sister rolled to a stop to my right, as far away from Elaine as possible, followed immediately by my mother, who walked up to Elaine and pulled her into a hug. Seeing them side-by-side, they couldn’t have been more different. Where Elaine was short, my mother was tall. Where Elaine was fair and slender, my mother was tanned and strong from gardening all summer.
Stranger still, my mother had changed before we left the house into an aquamarine off-the-shoulder top and a pair of white highrise shorts, and I had been too excited to notice. Gone, too, was the plastic-toothed hairclip my mother wore most days. The loose perm she had that summer curled down to her shoulders, and her thick, wavey bangs almost covered her dark brown eyes. She kept her hands on Elaine’s shoulders for a second after they embraced, then said, “I’m so happy we ran into you!”
What a strange thing for my mother to say. The more I stared at Elaine, the more obvious it became that she had been waiting for us. No gardening gloves. No watering hose. No groceries to unload from a car. No sprinkler spinning in the front yard. No dog to walk. No lawnmower. No garbage bins. Nothing. Just Elaine standing emptyhanded in the dusk, backlit by the sun setting through the trees in the ravine that ran behind her house. No-see-ems floated around her in lazy figure-eights, flashing in and out of a beam of sunlight like shooting stars.
“Is she home?” my mother asked.
“No, she’s working late.” Elaine kneeled down to take a closer look at me and Lindsay, then looked up to my mother and said: “They really look like you. It’s remarkable really.”
This level of scrutiny was too much for my sister. She let her bike crash to the ground and sprinted behind my mother’s legs. When Lindsay turned back to peer at me, it was like looking into a funhouse mirror: same brown eyebrows flatlined unhappily across the forehead, same heart-shaped face, same wide-set brown eyes, scrunched in confusion.
Why did she pretend like they had run into each other by chance? Why didn’t she tell us we were meeting someone on the walk? Why had she never told us about Elaine? My mother did things like this all the time. A woman of secrets.
“Your mother told me that you want to be a writer,” Elaine said to me. I felt blood rushing to my face as she stared at me. My mind was racing. What else had she been telling Elaine?
“No, I don’t,” I said. “I want to be a detective.”
Elaine’s gaze shifted to my mother, who rolled her eyes and laughed. “It changes every week I swear,” my mother said. “I can’t keep up.”
Then Elaine’s eyes locked on me, unblinking. A beat later, she asked, “Why can’t you be both?”
My mother pried my sister off her legs and walked Lindsay back to the fallen bike. “I should get them back home. I’ll call you about those books.”
Elaine crouched down to our level. “You can come and visit here any time,” she told us. “I’m so happy to have met you two.”
Lindsay and I biked in silence while my mother walked and smiled to herself, lost in her own world, running her fingertips through the long grass growing along the roadside and humming something I couldn’t make out, maybe an INXS song she was listening to on the radio in the kitchen a few days ago?
When I looked back behind us, Elaine was waving on the driveway again, grinning ear to ear, the mirror version of when we arrived. I waved back this time and she turned around to start walking back to her bungalow.
How different everything could’ve been if my mother had just been honest and told us that they had met when my mother was walking by months earlier, that Elaine was new to the coast just like we were and living with another woman, that we were all starting over in a new place, in new houses, in a new neighbourhood and that anything was still possible. But she didn’t tell us any of that.
Even if I didn’t see it or understand it, this was the first time I had met someone like me, and there would be no going back to the way things used to be.
Here’s another question I’ve been wanting to ask you: who was the first queer person you ever met? I’d love to hear about it in a comment or by email or on social media.
Thanks for reading this week’s story. If you’re on Spotify, I’ve made a “Delmonte Place” soundtrack for this story. INXS, The Cult, ‘Til Tuesday, Eurythmics, Whitney, The Boss…you get the ‘80s vibe. You can listen here or by clicking on the play button below:
Next Sunday, I’ll be back with Pt 2 of this ‘80s story about self-discovery and seeing yourself in someone else for the first time. I’ll also share some of your comments about the first queer folks in your lives — so send me a note and I’ll post it next week with your first name or anonymously if you prefer.
In the meantime, you can subscribe for free to get Ghost From The Past directly to your inbox on Sundays via the link below.
Until next time :)
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Exquisite, exquisite, exquisite. The sensory impressions I'm getting off this post are so strong that I can almost get the textures and smells and skin-feel of the environment. Thank you. x
this made me so emotional -- it is a beautiful story that I feel we have all had our own versions of and I so appreciate you bringing this up for us. in trying to remember the first time I met another queer person, unknowingly it was always my dad <3 knowingly(?) it would have been my fourth grade teacher, who I got an overwhelming amount of dread about seeing her every day and we never liked each other at all, which is such an interesting thing I am going to go and ponder now...