She turns from the bar and spots them talking, animated. She attaches herself to the nearest group, feigning quiet interest in their words, and watches. The one she loves puts her hand on the other's arm as she mutters a confidence. A friendly intimacy — they're just friends, have been for years. They're laughing now, swaying closer (too close?) and then away again. They were always so close — She stops herself; enough of this ridiculous paranoia. She loves her. Sophie. Sophie who's not so sure, needs more time, couldn't possibly commit right now, with everything so tricky, you know how it is. But they'll find each other later, a little drunk. They'll leave together hand in hand, walking back to Sophie's — a destination they've agreed upon without mention. They'll have sex. Tomorrow morning, groggily hung over, they'll play it down, as always. Another drunken slip. But secretly she'd hoped, this time, maybe — Stupid of her to forget; it's agreed: they remain a sort-of, occasional, maybe-maybe-not couple. That's how it works; she knows by now. Or she should — pesky hope still seduces her. Why does she fall for it when she knows it's wrong?
She's staring — has anyone noticed? No, they're all immersed in their own conversations. She feels far away. Brief panic makes a decision — she crosses the room. The one she doesn't love smiles, infuriatingly knowing, but Sophie spots someone that-a-way and, she's sorry, but she really must — She's gone. Flitting away on a social demand. Nothing personal, just coincidence, she tells herself painfully. She can hear Sophie later, casual, asking Did you see? Neil was there. I spotted him and had to say hello — haven't seen him for ages. An alibi? And a test. The account can't be contradicted. She saw the hurt, but she didn't mean it, she says. You thought I did that to upset you, on purpose? A pathetic, too-sensitive interpretation. Convenient. The one she doesn't love shifts awkwardly. She doesn't know what to say; wishes we wouldn't play out our desire quite so publicly, save our dramas. What am I meant to do? Apologize?
I sit at my computer and absent-mindedly navigate The Guardian's website, filling time. A headline catches my eye; I click on it and read: "one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema," South Africa, "brutally beaten," "raped and killed." I shiver at this too-close, too-distant news. A well-read copy of Eve Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet sits by my keyboard and a page of half-thoughts, scrawled at random, on the public and the private. I imagine a woman, her face grim as she hears the news of a death. She didn't know the woman well, but respected her. She shakes her head, disgusted. Bitterly, she thinks, they killed her. And why? Because they couldn't bear to hear of her desire, our desire. Cowards. But they won't win — we'll speak louder, together, until everyone hears. We owe her that much. She died for speaking this desire; she died so that it might be spoken. Furious, she thinks, no more silence.
I construct this picture from echoes; I see crowds and shouting and the volatile force of a fledgling politics, a liberation movement dizzy with — my eyes drift across my notes — the "potency, magnetism, and promise of gay self-disclosure." Under this phrase, an arrow points to cautionary words, also Sedgwick's: by "glamorizing" the closet we risk "presenting as inevitable or somehow valuable its exactions, its deformations, its disempowerment and sheer pain." Somewhere within its logic a woman in South Africa died. I return to the article, scrolling down the page: "since then a tide of violence against lesbians in South Africa has continued to rise." I picture another woman, sitting with her arms wrapped around her legs, hugging them to her chest. She's afraid. I don't want to die. They'd kill us all, until the desire died. And then what? Better to guard this desire, protect it from harm. She thinks of those she loves, whose deaths she couldn't bear. Be careful — please. Look after the desire we love — keep it close. I hug myself. Keep it safe.
But then they'll say it never existed, I frown.
Sophie's ex — or is she? It's complex; I forget the latest developments — is watching, intensely. She's making me nervous, a bit. I've heard the tales. Gossip moves quickly: who's fallen for whom, who's losing who, the dissymmetries and the injustices. So we all see her hope and her disappointment. Covertly, in tentative glimpses which keep us marginal, uninvolved. Officially, we haven't witnessed a thing. But they must sense those semi-glances. Does it make a difference to the desire, I wonder? Do the spectators skew the performance? We don't merely observe from a distance, of course — we know when to step aside, understanding who's to be left alone with whom. Well, everyone else seems to know; I usually wreck this elegant choreography. The too-subtle politics confound me and I mostly wish for genuine ignorance of the complexities. She's nice, the ex, and no one deserves to be messed around like that, but it's nothing to do with me; if she could just direct her gaze elsewhere I'd really be very grateful.
No? Alright then, keep looking. We both know she's there. I laugh a little longer than necessary, as if that might drown out her gaze. I feel as though I'm playing for an audience. Or that I've landed a bit part in a play Sophie directs. After all, it's Sophie, not me, who might want to make her jealous. It worked, if that was the aim — here she comes, finally. I smile and step back, admitting her into the conversation with a we were just saying, but no one's listening. Sophie's diving off, extricating herself from an encounter she'd rather avoid. The ex looks morose while I reject apologetic words; 'I'm sure she didn't mean...' would only make it worse. I try to conjure a light remark as the silence stretches.