‘Map’ by Audrey Beth Stein
Map is a memoir about first same-sex love that reads like a page-turning novel. Audrey is a college senior who has declared a major but not a sexual orientation. She has dated a couple of guys but now has a crush on school friend A.J., who happens to be a girl. She wants to tell A.J. her feelings, but uncertain whether A.J. is straight or could be more flexible, she is afraid to risk it. The online Indigo Girls Mailing List is a safer place to find other fledgling queers and questioning friends. It is 1996.
The story is filled with references familiar to any queer girl who was out or questioning in the 90’s, or even today. Like being a fan of the Indigo Girls, having a crush on Guinevere Turner in Go Fish, loving the film The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, dyke haircuts, going to see Chasing Amy with a bunch of queer girlfriends and marching in your first Pride.
The conversations that Audrey has with her friends and her inner dialogue feel very authentic and beautifully express the confusion of trying to pinpoint your spot on the Kinsey scale:
“I didn’t say I was gay, I said I was in love,” is her favorite quote from The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love.
After seeing Go Fish she declares to her gay friend Matthew, “I want a girlfriend!”
But she can’t break out of her shell. Instead, she prays for magic, “There’s this [short] haircut I want,” she writes, “I want it to be so cool that this girl in my history class will decide she’s not straight.” Asking a girl out whose orientation is unknown, like A. J. or the girl in history class, is way too scary. And she balks at the idea of being fixed up by Matthew with a known lesbian because it feels like “having to declare a sexual orientation as a prerequisite.”
She enjoys being able to talk openly with others from the Indigo Girls list “without having to make any declarative statements.”
But she’s impatient to figure herself out: “The big question is more than what am I? It’s why haven’t I figured it out already?”
The year before, a friend asked: “do you think you’re gay?” Audrey writes, “I just didn’t know how to answer…I have all these mixed up feelings inside, all these pieces that don’t quite fit.”
This year, she writes a biology paper where she concludes everyone has the “capability to be attracted to and fall in love with another specific person, irrespective of gender.”
Audrey’s friend Tyler from the Indigo Girls list reads it and inquires if that conclusion applies to herself. Audrey finds the courage to respond, “Yeah….Which makes me bi, I guess…Thus far I’m non-practicing.”
But coming out to her parents is harder than she thought. She can’t bring herself to speak the actual words. Even when her mother asks why she is reading Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction, she deflects.
While on Winter break, feeling isolated at her parents house, she begins an intense email correspondence with Catrina, another Indigo Girls fan who lives on the other side of the country. They bond quickly through humorous and playful emails, a photo exchange, intimate phone calls and romantic fantasies. Then begin making plans for a cross country romantic meeting. Audrey is thinking about summer vacation. Catrina wants next week. By now, they are trading I love yous and living in a fantasy world with each other. They compromise on February. Audrey buys plane tickets and tells all her friends, “I have a girlfriend!”
It’s all very new and exciting but disorienting as well, “I am in uncharted territory and I wish for a map.”
There are a few more twists and turns to the story I won’t reveal, so as not to print any spoilers.
This book is about first same-sex love, coming out bisexual and resolving the conflict between finding time for being a writer and being in a relationship. It’s worth reading for its writerly, but very readable style, authentic dialogue and queer culture references. Stein was smart to narrow-focus a memoir on this particular slice of her life. She skillfully writes about what it feels like to be coming out bisexual, from the inside. The conversations with friends, the questions she asks herself, the gamut of feelings she goes through, the courage she has to muster are all familiar to anyone who has gone through it. But her version is delightfully original and fun to read.
By Audrey Beth Stein
Paperback, 166p, $14