When my best friend Laura and I were nine, we spent an afternoon making a box. No, we spent an afternoon trying to make a box disappear. Into something that would not be noticed. Into something that would not be seen by anyone other than the two of us. We dripped white globs of glue on small pieces of paper we’d cut into rectangles. Our fingers stuck together when we pressed azalea leaves and petals on the top, the bottom, on all the sides of the box. At the edge of Saint John the Beloved’s property line, the halfway point between our two houses, Laura and I balanced the box we’d made in the branches of a large, pink azalea bush.
We left notes there for each other. They had to be short enough to fold and fit into the small box we’d made. Think about the size of a tooth. Our handwriting had to be thin. Think of the tiny gap between my two front teeth. The box was no wider than our wrists.
When it started to get warmer, we had to be careful not to disturb the bees. It was a game, like double-riding on our bicycles—one of us steadying herself on the handlebars, steering both of us with her hips.
The year I was born, my parents planted an azalea bush beside our dirt driveway. Pale pink blooms, the color of my skin when my father bathed me, minutes after the doctors handed me to him. In the warm water I finally stopped crying, opened my dark brown eyes, and looked up at him, he told me years later. My mother told me my eyes looked just like hers.
That morning in March, snow dusted the pine trees in Flowertown. My father had not yet built or painted the white picket fence. Our small front yard looked bare, the dirt too sandy to grow iris, primrose, gardenia, or hydrangea. Each year, the azaleas were the only plants that never died, that always came back. A pink balloon tied to the porch banister of our house bumped into one of the wooden columns holding up the tin red roof: It’s a Girl!
In Chinese culture, the azalea symbolizes softness, temperance, womanhood.
In elementary school Laura and I gave our dolls communion, breaking apart pieces of white sandwich bread.
“Here,”we told them, placing a small piece of bread on the floor in front of each doll. “Take, eat: This is my Body, given for you.”
Within a fourth of a mile of our two houses, there were seven churches, including the one Laura’s family and mine attended, where her father was the priest. Every Wednesday Laura and I walked with our friends to choir practice. Every Sunday we went to the weekly service and Sunday school. During Lent, we ate vegetable soup and peanut butter sandwiches in the church hall on Wednesday nights. On other afternoons we rode our bikes across the church grounds, making up stories about the people buried in the hundred-year-old graves. Laura and I knew the church as well as we knew each other’s bodies—the California-shaped scar on my right knee, the tapered thinness of Laura’s fingers, the circumference of each other’s ponytails.
When we were not at church or in school, Laura and I lived in each other’s houses. Our mothers disciplined us like we were both their daughters. One night my father cooked us okra, boiled the frozen ladies’ fingers in a pot. The seeds, slimy in our mouths, slid down our tiny throats.
My mother placed azaleas from the bush my parents planted on every pink-icing birthday cake she made for me. She carefully pulled out the pistils and stamens with the calyx, splayed the bloom open, and put a candle in the center of each azalea.
When Laura and I kissed, we were still girls, and it was a game. We were twelve and stayed up late talking in her twin bed. In order to fit in her bed, we had to lie closely, like notes in a small box.
I asked her if she wanted to tongue wrestle, like thumb wrestling, like I knew I would win. But when her tongue was suddenly in my mouth, I realized I’d never played this game before. I realized how unsteady my tongue was, how my body started to shake. I was scared of what kissing her meant, of what kissing any girl meant. I left her room and went into the bathroom, thinking I might throw up. When I came back,I lay down on the floor, in a bed of pillows and blankets her mom had made for me.
“Yes, everything is okay,”I told Laura.
My teeth chattered so hard in my mouth I thought they might break and shatter into hundreds of pieces.
In Turkish folk medicine, the leaves of azaleas, of rhododendrons, relieve inflammation, reduce rheumatic pain, cure a toothache, reduce anxiety.
In the boxy white church van on the drive back from a middle school youth group scavenger hunt, I asked one of the chaperones, a woman who had recently joined our church, why she’d said some sins aren’t forgivable, why she’d said being gay means you’re going to hell. I don’t remember how the conversation turned in that direction, but I remember that she wasn’t talking about me directly, so I felt safe questioning her.
“Well, the reason homosexuals are going to hell,”she said, “isn’t because they’re homosexuals. It’s because they act on their desires.”
Before that day I’d never heard anyone at my church say homosexuality was a sin. I don’t remember anyone ever talking about it. Even though I didn’t believe what she said, couldn’t believe what she said, I’d never been afraid of dying until then.
Azalea ingestion in dogs can result in drooling, loss of appetite, leg paralysis, coma, or death. A horticulturist at Louisiana State University recalls a time someone left a puppy alone in the house with a potted azalea. The puppy didn’t survive.
Years after my parents planted my azalea, the branches sprawled and scratched my brother’s and my arms if we forgot to swerve away from them when we biked up the driveway after school. Every March, my azaleas opened, petals as soft and thin as skin peeling from a blister.
“Azalea is the number one must-have plant in the South,” says Southern Living. “Growing 8 to 12 feet tall and wide, it smothers itself in spring.”
The first day of my freshman year of college, I sat beside a girl in math class.
“I’m Kate,”she said.
Kate’s parents were both priests, like Laura’s father.
Some nights Kate and I stayed up so late talking that our eyes lost their ability to perceive depth. I reached out my arm to measure how far away she was from me. She pushed a strand of her blonde hair behind one ear. Leaning our backs against the wall, we let our legs hang off the edge of her dorm room twin bed. Then, turning toward me, she tucked her painted red toes under my thigh to keep them warm.
Her boyfriend lived two states away, and I didn’t know how he stood it, how he measured the distance each night. My boyfriend lived two hours away, a distance I’d started to feel less and less.
Red azalea on the cliff, [. . .] / Whose intimacy embraces distance. / You remind us of our first love.
Drunk one night the fall of our junior year, both of us single, Kate told me I better take this chance. Better kiss her. Better take off her shirt. Better unclasp her bra. Better unbutton her jeans.
“This won’t happen again,” she said.
Better lift up my arms. Better let her take off my shirt. Better slip off my jeans. Better let her kiss me. Better let her kiss me again. This won’t happen again. Better kiss her again. This won’t happen again. This won't happen again. And again.
Kate asked me to go to a Bible study with a few of our friends.
“Small Group,” she said.
We met in the ministry leader’s living room: books stood neatly on her shelves; the brick fireplace was painted a crisp white; picture frames said family and faith. We sat in a circle of chairs and read passages the leader had picked for that night. I don’t remember any of the specific words, but at the end of the first meeting the leader started to pray and somewhere in the middle of it she said, “and we pray for those people struggling with homosexual desires.”
Walking back that night to our dorm after the meeting, Kate assured me that the prayer wasn’t referring to me: “How would she even know?”
Somewhere in the dark, I knew Kate hadn’t told anyone I thought I might be gay, but I also knew keeping my sexuality a secret wasn’t about protecting me. She was protecting herself.
August of our junior year, when the heat was sharp enough to hurt you, a boy came back from summer break with a new body, a few fading acne scars pocking his newly taut jawline. I hadn’t seen him coming. When Kate and I saw him running shirtless across the intramural field behind our dorms that first week of classes, I thought he was a transfer student. He hadn’t even existed at our small college, it seemed, until that moment. He’d been there the whole time, of course, for two years, with acne and husky jeans.
Spring of our junior year, he took Kate home, if a dorm room counts as home. She took him home, too, if a dorm room counts as home. I’d realize later, months after Kate started dating him, that he’d sat one row over from me in our small freshman literature class two years earlier.
“Brian,” he’d said, when he’d introduced himself to me and Kate.
In Chinese mythology, the King of Shu fled his kingdom in shame after a forbidden love affair. The king turned into a cuckoo bird and sang ceaselessly in spring until he spit blood onto the ground beneath him. From his blood, azaleas bloomed.
Home for the summer, I sat with my mom in her car, which smelled faintly of cinnamon chewing gum and the lipstick she used to blush her cheeks. It was no one’s birthday, but chocolate ice cream dripped down my mom’s sugar cone. She licked it before it ran down her hand. Before we drove home, she said she wanted to ask me something. I felt the ice cream curdle a little in my stomach. I’d been anticipating this conversation, hoping I could avoid it a little longer.
“Are you struggling with your sexuality?” she asked.
I swallowed until I started to cry.
“Mad Honey,” made from azalea nectar, has been reported to cause cardiac arrhythmia, emesis, mild paralysis, and convulsions in humans.
On the hot concrete path to my parent’s front porch, I sat in the sun with my knees pulled up to my chest. I didn’t get up when I heard the screen door open and my dad walk out. I didn’t turn around to look at him when he put his hand on my shoulder and told me he loved me. I didn’t say anything as he went up the stairs to go back inside. I knew my mom had just told him about the conversation we’d had in the car, how my tears had said more than any words could. I sat there until I could get up. Until I knew I wouldn’t start to cry again.
Unlike dogs and cats, when rabbits ingest azaleas, they cannot throw up.
My mom asked me if I would be okay with her talking to a priest at our church, to talk through how she was feeling after I told her that I might be gay.
“That’s fine,” I told her reluctantly, a bit unsure whether I wanted anyone at our church to know.
“I love you no matter what,” she said, “but I’m worried. Things are going to be harder for you.”
The next time Kate and I kissed we moved a flimsy twin mattress onto the floor. It had been more than two years. We’d graduated from college.
She was still dating Brian but they were doing long-distance. She and I were backpacking around Greece and Italy for a month; that night we were on the island of Corfu. At The Pink Palace, a youth hostel right on the water, everything was pink: the walls, the bus to the ferry, the booze cruise sailboat, the balcony attached to our room. Every night was a party, but Kate and I went back to our room after dinner one night.
I’d told myself after she’d left me for Brian that I wouldn’t kiss her ever again. But that night our skin hummed with so much want.
“Sit here,” she said, and I did. “Put your hands here,”she said, and I did.
As I sat in the only chair in the room—a wooden desk chair with slats in the back—she tied my hands behind my back with the spaghetti-strap tank top she’d worn earlier that day.
“Don’t move,” she said.
And I didn't.
The summer after my first year of graduate school, Kate and I visited Laura and her boyfriend in California. We were both single. Kate had been sleeping with a guy from home, but they weren’t together, she said.
In San Francisco, people in costumes crowded the streets for the Bay to Breakers race. Kate and Laura were the only people I knew in the city, so I felt anonymous—and bold from the tequila and beer—and tried to hold Kate’s hand somewhere in the mess of people walking along the Panhandle. Kate pulled her hand away, as if to remind me, we must keep this a secret—what we did in rooms like little boxes no one could see inside.
In my late-twenties, when I moved to San Francisco after graduate school, I got a job at an elementary school in Chinatown. In celebration of Chinese New Year that first year, two third-graders asked me what year I was born.
“1983,”I told them, smiling at their eagerness.
“Are you as old as my mom,”one of them asked, and I laughed, as the other one quickly turned to a page in a classroom book about the Chinese zodiac animals.
They smiled and, using a finger to guide them through a paragraph, they read me what the book said about people born in 1983: “The year of the boar. You are the twelfth and last zodiac sign. Your natural element is water. You are intuitive, born sensitive and seeking beauty. You took a long time to cross the river.”In Chinese culture, the azalea is known as “the thinking of home bush.” I thought of the miles between me and where I’d for so long called home.
Late on the night I flew home to South Carolina for Christmas, I lay down on my childhood bed and opened my laptop to check my e-mail. I clicked on a link my mom had sent me to the most recent blog entry the priest at my childhood church had written on the church’s website. I read the words of the priest who coached my church basketball team in high school, who’d told me I had one of the sweetest shots he’d ever seen. I read how he didn’t believe that LGBTQ parishioners should have leadership roles in the church. He said he disagreed with the Episcopal Church’s recently revised, more progressive canons about sexuality and gender expression: “Yes, all people are welcomed at Christ’s table and into his family . . . But, this revised canon goes further to say that individuals who struggle with their sexual identity and who express themselves by cross-dressing, etc., are, nevertheless, to be seen as eligible and qualified to be ordained, to be hired to staff or elected to vestry leadership.”
I’d planned to go to the Christmas Eve service with my family the next day, but now I wondered if I had come out in middle school or high school, would I have been allowed to be an acolyte, a small group leader at youth group, a voice in the choir? He said “all people are welcomed at Christ’s table”at our church,that communion includes people like me, but his words felt hollow, like a box without anything inside.
It was mid-March in San Francisco when my mom called early in the morning from South Carolina to wish me a happy twenty-eighth birthday.
“Your azaleas have started to bloom,” she said.
Like a dusting of snow the morning I was born, pollen covered my parents’ front porch. I pictured my mom standing in her worn red slippers on the old pine floor of the little house where I grew up. I knew the angle to which the sun was cutting across the kitchen floor.
“The whole town is glowing,” she said.
Pink, fuchsia, white, and coral azaleas covered the churchyards, the old town square, the white picket fences, the sides of every road. Down the street from that little green house with the red roof, over two hundred thousand people flooded Azalea Park and Main Street for the annual three-day Flowertown Festival to celebrate the town’s “most flamboyant season.”
In floriography, the language of flowers, azalea means “Take care of yourself for me.”When the mail arrived at my apartment later that day, I opened a birthday card from my parents. A pressed pink azalea fell out of the envelope as I opened it.
This essay appears in The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays (Red Hen Press, 2019). To read our Q&A with the writer about her process of building the book, click here.To order your copy of the book, click here.