Clara & Michele

by Harvey Reading, November 29, 2017

In late 1970 I met an interesting woman. Let’s call her Clara. She was the first lesbian I had ever met, or at least the first to openly admit it. Simply put, Clara was beautiful, slender and willowy, and reasonably intelligent.

Her partner (those of course were the days before same-sex marriages were legally recognized) was a large woman, not obese, just tall and “big-boned.” The image she projected was striking and pleasing to the eye, as was Clara’s. She was a County Social Worker III for Alameda County, with a degree from San Jose State (“college” then). Though obviously the dominant member of the relationship, she was pleasant and very intelligent. Let’s call her Michele, “With one ell,” as she was fond of reminding people, with some frequency. Both women were in their early 20s.

The two were regular customers at the service station where I worked, from my second quarter (now trimester, maybe now even back to semester) at UC Berkeley, in early 1969, through early 1971. They bought gasoline, oil changes, tuneups, etc. for the single car they shared. It was a fairly late model Volkswagen beetle — red as I recall, a very common mode of transportation, along with Toyota Coronas and Datsun 510s, in the Bay Area at that time. (American cars were horrid monstrosities and gas hogs then — American “compacts” of the time were hardly compact).

One evening, they invited me to supper at the rented house they shared in Oakland. I had a devil of a time finding the place, since I never did really become familiar with much concerning the East bay street systems — let alone San Francisco’s — ever. The house was in a nice Working Class section of town, with well-kept yards. The inside was nicely furnished and clean, even tasteful, whatever that means.

After supper, the three of us were sitting around, talking, drinking wine, and smoking a little “dope.” After a second glass of wine, Clara began talking about her life. As she began, Michele’s posture stiffened noticeably. I never knew for sure what caused her response. Maybe she’d heard the story so many times that it annoyed her, or maybe she knew that much of it was a figment of Clara’s imagination.

As Clara told it, she was an Army brat, daughter of a career man, a Captain whose career had stagnated, though she never offered any details concerning the causes, at least not when talking about him specifically. She had been reared on a variety of military bases around the country, including the south at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

When she reached this part of her story, Michele politely excused herself, pleading an early morning appointment the next day.

Clara continued her narrative with the revelation that her father had been physically and sexually abusive to her from the age of 11. She went into far more detail than can be portrayed here, which led me to believe that she was telling a true story and may also help explain Michele’s exit from the conversation. Her mother, described by Clara as a timid woman, was also physically abused by the fellow and did not interfere. According to Clara, to escape the abuse, she withdrew from high school at 16 and took a number of odd jobs to survive, drifting eventually to Oakland, where she eventually met Michele. It was easy to conclude that Michele was probably the best thing that had ever happened to her.

After that evening I never saw Clara or Michele again. Maybe they felt that seeing me again would be too uncomfortable, given what Clara had told me. But I don’t know. I think of them occasionally and wonder what ever became of them. I doubt I’ll ever know, and that’s all right, too.

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