Goin' Suburban: Confessions of a Lesbian Housewife
by Cheryl Dumesnil
Back when I lived in San Francisco, I'd tell people that my sister Michele and I were like Barbie dolls—same facial features, different coloring, wildly variant fashion aesthetic. "She's Suburban Barbie, I'm Urban Barbie," I'd say. About our differences, I teased Michele mercilessly. Like this: "Dude," I'd say, nodding at a storefront in the distance as we walked across an acres-wide parking lot in her hometown, "You actually live in a place that supports the existence of a store called 'Barbeques Galore.'"
Despite my persistent sarcasm, Michele and her husband Mark invited my brother Phil—another urban dweller—and me to witness the signing of documents when they purchased their yet-to-be-built home in a soon-to-pop-up planned community. To understand the surreal nature of this experience, you need background.
In 1973, my parents bought a yet-to-be-built house on a corner lot in a slowly growing section of San Jose, California. Throughout childhood, my siblings and I watched new housing developments spring up all around us—horse pastures and vineyards succumbing to the stucco-infested rash of suburban sprawl. When my friend Jodi's family moved into the model home behind ours, they kept the orange shag carpet that lined their garage—a reminder of the days when their house had served as a sales office for their development.
And now here was Michele, the exact age my parents were in 1973, buying a house on a corner lot, in a town where the vineyards and horse pastures were quickly giving way to neat rows of stucco castles. "Dude," I whispered to Phil who was sitting next to me in the three-car-garage-turned-sales-office of the development's model home, "we're sitting in the 1996 version of the Fretz's garage."
"I know," he hissed back.
Outside, the ghosts of our child selves rode by on banana seat bikes.
I nodded toward my sister in the next room, "Do you think she knows how weird this is?"
"I don't know," he said, eyeing the treeless, post-nuclear-holocaust landscape out the picture window.
"Dude," I said, "I am never moving back to the suburbs."
Cue dream sequence echo: "Never moving back to the suburbs, never moving back to the suburbs, never..." Add the swirling screen special effect, and when the picture comes back into focus, we wake up in 2001. I'm standing in the living room of my recently purchased home in Walnut Creek, a suburb of a suburb of a suburb of San Francisco. Yes, okay, so I now live in a pop-up community, but one that popped up in 1947, so it's got, you know, history. And yes, as I stand in the window of this dwelling, in exactly the kind of town I swore I'd never inhabit, I'm witnessing the building of, ahem, a white picket fence around the front yard of my modest, ranch-style home. Yikes. But let me explain: I fell in love. Not with the house, but with Tracie, a woman for whom a white picket fence in front of a charming home in a safe, suburban neighborhood is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I tell myself the fence is ironic, like a vintage gingham apron worn with Doc Martens. And besides, I'm not just a plain old suburban homeowner. I'm a lesbian suburban homeowner. This distinction is supposed to reassure me that living around all this, uh, sameness won't cause me to lose my edge.
Eventually, though, it happens. First, I leave my university teaching position, cutting myself off from its continuous source of cultural criticism and its constant supply of fringe-y young people who keep me current on happenings in independent music, art house films, and underground fashion. Then, I give up driving forty-five minutes to my favorite thrift shops and start buying clothes at the local mall. Soon, I'm watching embarrassing amounts of TV, shopping at Target, and forgetting that Pottery Barn is not actually the pinnacle of interior design. I'm listening to whatever song appears on the radio. Ani diFranco, my favorite indie music gal, has released at least three CDs since the last one I bought. One day, as I'm leaving my sister's house, she says, "You look so conservative." This from a woman dressed like Mary Tyler Moore circa the Dick Van Dyke Show. I take a quick glance at my reflection in the car window. My wet hair is held back in a bun by one of those plastic claw clips. I'm wearing a sea foam green sleeveless shirt from Ann Taylor and a pair of Tracie's khaki capri pants. I shrug, "Dude, I can't look conservative. I have an armband tattoo." But as I pull out of Michele's driveway, I'm thinking, Holy hell! Suburbia has eaten me up like mice at a wad of cotton candy.
Looking back, I'm surprised how quickly I lost not only my urban-edge aesthetic, but also the critical consciousness that had spawned it. And that was before Tracie and I had kids, effectively catapulting ourselves into one of the most high-pressure target markets in the consumer world. Three years later I'm driving—I am not kidding about this—a Jetta station wagon festooned with a car seat for our two-year-old son, Brennan. Okay, so it's a fire engine red wagon, and it's not a Volvo. But still. Pregnant with baby number two and exhausted, I spend my days wandering around downtown Walnut Creek's shopping district with Brennan in one of his three strollers—the jog stroller for long walks, the umbrella stroller for quick trips, the reclining stroller for coffee house visits during nap time. My friend Heidi, also a misplanted suburban mom, meets me at the outdoor tables at Andronico's, the gourmet grocery store, where we eat seaweed salad and sushi, and talk smack about these suburban moms running around with their designer diaper bags and—I kid you not—eight-hundred-dollar strollers. (Hey—my fleet of strollers were, respectively, a hand-me-down, a twenty-dollar purchase, and a baby shower gift.)
"You realize, of course," I tell Heidi, "that we look exactly like them." Consider our standard-issue yoga pants and novelty t-shirts. Okay, so we carry schoolgirl backpacks instead of Petunia Pickle Bottom diaper bags, but come on, who's to say they're not having the same conversations we're having? Maybe they too have cool tattoos and dreams of revolution hidden under their nursing bras.
"I know," Heidi says, "and we're being just as judgmental as we think they are."
"Totally," I agree.
Why am I so threatened as to judge? Is my sense of self so shallow that it can be uprooted by my suburban surroundings? Or is the sameness of suburbia that powerful?
Maybe it's a little of each. The power of suburbia's sameness comes not from the people who live here but from the consumer culture that pervades our public spaces, the makers and marketers of Things who work desperately to occupy our personal thoughts, to shape our desires, expectations, and actions.
Look at the children's book section at our local Barnes and Noble. Occasionally, desperate for adult companionship, I bring Brennan there as a rainy-day alternative to the park. In order to access the real children's literature—you know, the books with unique plot lines, artful illustrations, Caldecott Medals, and characters not franchised by Disney—you have to negotiate a labyrinth of shelving units holding plush toys, books outfitted with plastic car wheels, trademarked train sets, and endless volumes of stories featuring cartoon characters popular on Nickelodeon. This is a bookstore—the only one in my town now that the independents have folded up shop—but a quarter of the shelves are filled with toys and over half the picture books read like advertisements for TV shows.
I wonder, as I lift Brennan out of his stroller and he runs to the train table, what is this doing to our collective creativity? I arrive at the table in time to hear another kid's mom ask my son, "What is your train's name?" pointing to the Thomas train he has just picked up. Brennan looks confused. He lisps, "Thith ith a blue train. Trainth don't have nameth." While the other kids at the table run scripts they've memorized from their Thomas the Tank Engine videos, Brennan makes up his own plot line. Of course, this knowledge gap may make him an outcast on the preschool playground someday, but I hope his ability to craft his own stories will serve him in the long run.
As I slowly reawaken to the impact of consumer culture, I humbly admit that I'm not immune to it. Our surroundings set our expectations, and if we're not careful, we begin to crave not what is possible, but what is available. In an environment where stores like Target carry only toys manufactured by a few major corporations, where Nordstrom and Macy's compete to offer the lowest prices on the same clothes, it's hard to remember that originality exists, let alone to find the inspiration to contribute to it. The more focused I become on raising my kids, the less time I have to cultivate my own self-expression. I'm not really talking about the difference between wearing Ann Taylor or wearing thrift shop corduroy, here. I'm talking about remembering to listen to my own voice, to think my own thoughts, and to understand what is impacting my choices. For this reason, I have decided to quit watching TV, to give up shopping as entertainment, and to lapse my subscriptions to all mainstream magazines. Already I can hear my voice breaking through the static, like a distant radio signal finding its frequency on the dial. The clarity energizes me.
During the summer before our second son, Kian, was born, two moments inspired me to make these changes. First, at a baby shower Tracie and I hosted for our friends, a former university colleague cornered me in the kitchen where I was, indeed, barefoot and pregnant. "So, I congratulated Tracie on turning you into a suburban housewife," she said.
Touché. "But I'm a lesbian suburban housewife," I replied. "That's different, right? Edgy. Cool." Not even I believed me.
Then, it was my sister, my doppelganger, ringing my bell again. At a family gathering, my parents were talking about buying a new barbeque. With no sense of irony whatsoever, I informed them, "We have a store in downtown Walnut Creek called Barbeques Galore. You should check it out."
My sister nearly spit out her beer. "Oh. My. God." She gasped, "Did you really just say that?"
"Ten years ago we were out shopping, and you said, 'I can't believe you live in a town that has a store called Barbeques Galore!'" Her imitation of my sarcastic tone was dead on. "And now you're recommending that Mom and Dad shop there?"
"I said that?" The words slowly cut through my pregnancy-induced amnesia, sounding vaguely familiar.
"Yes, Miss 'I'll Never Move to the Suburbs,' you said that."
I shrugged, "Whatever, dude. I still have more tattoos than you."
Cheryl Dumesnil's poetry has appeared in Nimrod, Calyx, and Many Mountains Moving, among other literary magazines. With Kim Addonizio, she edited Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos (Warner, 2002). Since the publication of her book Hitched!: Wedding Stories from San Francisco City Hall (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005) and the birth of her first child, memoir seems to have hijacked her keyboard. Cheryl lives in Walnut Creek, CA with her wife Tracie and their two sons.
yellow lamp on blue book
beach blanket mamas