"What Happens Next," by Joni Renee

Joni Renee

Joni Renee

Joni Renee is a queer writer from rural Oregon. Her music and essays have been shared in Seventeen, xoJane and regional journals as well as at The Moth, the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, the National Autism Center, and the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in partnership with the Morpheus Youth Project.

What Happens Next

I woke up most mornings of 1999 in faded flannel sheets, sandwiched between my dad and Blaze, our elderly doberman. The alarm went off at 5:15 AM, but we usually snoozed a few times due to the cold: a pervasive, wet Oregon chill that breezed through our 1880s farmhouse and left a dewy sheen on the wallpaper. Me, Blaze, and Dad had to share space because of the cold and lack of central heat, but also the sadness. Mom had left us about a year prior on account of my inherent wickedness. She’d been threatening to leave if the rain, the neighbors, and the three of us didn't start acting right. 

I can't recall now what acting right would have entailed, but clearly none of us did it because after a Girl Scout Juniors troop meeting in the basement of a church whose God never spoke, Mom told me she was going to make a new life for herself in California. She got an apartment near Disneyland and rarely looked back. It rained from October to June.

Me, Blaze, and Dad didn't have an easy way with words. We made up for what we couldn't voice about the sadness with a lot of cuddling. We’d wander the house at night wearing four or five layers each, sipping on a piping hot calcium-magnesium drink that was supposed to ward off nightmares. Then we’d slip under massive piles of quilts and hold each other until dawn. To this day I feel an urge to cuddle, a desire to find comfort in the arms of a manager if they have constructive feedback to deliver, a flight attendant if they hand me ginger ale, a grocery store clerk if they remind me quinces are not in season. 

Breakfast was usually a harried affair of puffed rice with skim milk before heading out the door. We drove over back country roads dusted with frost, past filbert orchards and nurseries that grew starter trees for Home Depot. After half an hour we'd arrive at our carpool drop-off point, which was the house of my older classmate, Amber. She lived in an A-frame home on the way to our school. Amber had two parents, central heat, and an Alaskan Malamute/Siberian Husky mix, who would howl wildly whenever my dad’s tires would crunch over the driveway gravel. This was Amber’s signal to wake up and run down to unlock the front door for me. I’d hug my dad goodbye, dash through the rain, squeeze through the front door, and throw my wet backpack and raincoat on the entryway floor. The house was always still dark at that time, and Amber’s parents would be asleep. My dad would wave and pull away to drive ninety minutes to work. 

Amber’s home was blissfully warm. I’d doze on the entryway sofa for an hour or so while her family tromped around the house, waking up, making eggs over-easy with thick slabs of succulent ham, Folger’s coffee, and orange juice from a freezer can. Her family seemed very rich to me, but we were all teetering on the highest rung of the lowest class. 

Amber’s mom was a harsh and unsympathetic figure who mostly relegated me to the sofa while they enjoyed private family time, which meant breakfast, before we’d clamber into their van and carpool the remaining thirty minutes to school. She did, however, permit Amber to make me a cup of chamomile tea before we left each morning. Perhaps you’ve had chamomile tea before: often recommended for colds and flus, fragrant, inexpensive, a tea easily found, enjoyed around the world. I wish you could try Amber’s chamomile tea. 

She’d start by carefully filling a porcelain china cup a sliver past half-full with scalding water. Then she’d add one tea bag from a giant bulk box and wait beside me while the tea cooled. She didn’t touch me much. I felt our upper arms resting together as we watched the tea steep, or she’d brush a passing hand by my back, but she felt like a thousand fireplaces; a melting, reaching to the inner places. She’d heap in spoonfuls of brown sugar and stir slowly, until the water had dissolved every crystal. To this, she’d add a dash of heavy cream.

When I think about being gay, I don’t rehash with a “born this way” narrative. Instead, I wonder if my path to queerness was laid in the quiet and in-between moments. I loved Amber or her tea. This was before I learned about the gender binary, about gaia rhythms and goddess worship. My feeling for her was too serene to be lust, too embodied to be theoretical. She served that tea to me with half a slice of rye toast from October to June. 

In July, we learned that the bookstore down the lane from where Amber lived was planning an elaborate midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We eagerly counted down the days. When the evening of the party came, we dressed up like witches and waited, cross legged, on the carpeted floor of the bookstore, listening to the excited whispers of a hundred witches and warlocks. We all screamed when midnight struck. The bookstore employees wheeled out towering carts of wrapped books, which we grabbed and began to read immediately, shushing the bad, noisy children aside us. We stayed up furiously reading until almost everyone had gone home, and a reporter took our picture for News Register, the community newspaper of the Willamette Valley.

Summer felt bolder. Peonies and blooming lilac trees dotted our gravel roads, which I could skip down all day since school was out. Blaze started sleeping outside, guarding the farmhouse. Dad was away a lot, either because of work or the sadness. Maybe it was the heat or the alone time that emboldened me, or maybe it was inherent wickedness, but that summer I took a neighbor girl to my hot attic and kissed her on the mouth. I pulled down her cotton underpants and watched as she pulled down mine, and as neither of us knew what happened next, we stayed that way for hours, kissing, cuddling, sweating. 

What happens next is a grand dichotomy: moments of terror and beauty, more than just any one thing or the sum of some rapid seasons. The neighbor girl’s stepdad died of an opioid overdose, as many local parents did, and Amber moved to Denver, where she eventually married an electrician who is successful and emotionally abusive to her. All the Harry Potter books, then the films, were released to great critical acclaim. I still live here, where I search online for tips and tricks on how to spread a father’s ashes, for rescue dogs, and for women on Tinder. I explain to them that touch is more than a love language. It is my native language.