Notes & Queeries is a monthly column that focuses on the personal side of pop culture for lesbians and bisexual women.
On first glance, the two young adult novels Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole, and Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story by Ellen Wittlinger, both published in 2008, seem quite different. Set in Miami, Down to the Bone is written in an exuberant first person, complete with Spanish-language, hip-hop infused slang. Set in Boston, Love & Lies is more buttoned-up, and much more controlled.
But both books share some interesting characteristics. Both are about Latina lesbian teens — a somewhat rare find among young adult fiction. And both are about lies.
In Down to the Bone, 16-year-old Catholic school student Laura is outed to everyone when she’s caught reading a love note from her girlfriend in class. Laura’s mother, a factory worker, kicks her out of the house when she finds out about the relationship, and she refuses to take Laura back unless she becomes straight.
Laura is expelled from school, starts working full-time, and moves in with her best friend and best friend’s mom. She builds a network of queer and straight friends in Miami, and she deals with the pain of finding out that her girlfriend, who is forced to move back to Puerto Rico, has decided to marry a man.
Laura is a world away from 18-year-old Marisol, the main character in Love & Lies. Marisol’s mother, a social worker, fully supports her out lesbian daughter, and although Marisol waitresses at a diner in Harvard Square to pay her rent, she could easily rely on her parents for financial support.
Marisol is aware, to some extent, of her own privilege. She is self-confident and expects to be seen as the best, and she is comfortable with the fact that she’s gay. But even Marisol is surprised when her gorgeous creative writing teacher, a woman ten years older than her, is attracted to her.
The differences between Marisol and Laura are reflected in the lies they tell. Laura faces homophobia across her community, and at first it seems that the only way to avoid it is to be straight. She tells her mother that she has changed; she insists to her friends that she only ever loved that one girl; she dates a boy and tries to lie to herself about how she can fall in love with him.
Many YA novels about queer teens deal with lying — specifically, lying about being gay. Those are lies born of being in the closet, and I think that for many LGBT people, that lie is the first big one we ever tell.
In a way, they’re more forgivable than other lies. We tell these lies until we learn to accept ourselves. Before that moment, we have very little choice but to deny the truth.
In Love & Lies, the lies are less forgivable. Marisol has been out for two years when Love & Lies begins, and she has no need or desire to lie about her sexual orientation. Everyone around her accepts her queer identity. She is free to lie about something else.
The lies in Love & Lies are sometimes intentional, sometimes not. In a charitable interpretation, these kinds of lies are the ones we tell to make others more comfortable — to cushion the truth. On the other hand, these are also the lies we tell to make ourselves feel better, or to make ourselves feel important. These are the lies that hurt the most.
We’ve all lied before. Many lies arise in the context of relationships, just as they did for Marisol in Love & Lies. There’s the lie you tell when you’re breaking up with someone, just to soften the blow for them — the “it’s not you, it’s me” lie.
But does anyone ever believe that one? Does it ever make it easier? I know that when I heard that phrase or its equivalent, I never believed the speaker.
One night, someone whom I had been dating for about a month told me very earnestly that she thought I was wonderful, and she hoped we would continue to be great friends. But since she broke up with her last girlfriend fairly recently, she just wasn’t ready to be dating yet. I smiled at her, as if it made complete sense to me, and told her, “I totally understand.”
But of course, I did not understand at all. I felt insulted, because I knew she was lying.
It might seem like you’re being self-sacrificing, admitting that you’re just not ready to date, that you need some “time alone.” But anyone who has been on the receiving end of such a statement can hear, loud and clear, the words that remain unspoken: “I’m just not ready to be dating you.”