Jane Byers Literature Poetry

What Lesbians Wear to the Mall

Jane Byers


A phys-ed teacher in Belleville, Ontario, who can’t come out
invites me to do a lesbian “show and tell” in health class.
The girls are quiet but fidgety while she introduces me,
a picture of normal—chinos, pastel cardigan, Birkenstocks.
Portray a boring life that is anything but:
just bought our first house, sailing, walking my dog,
on the verge of joint health benefits, mostly out.

One of them asks when I knew. “In university,” I reply.
Strictly true but crafted so they wouldn’t get scared,
no mention of how knowing unfolds—

I was electrified in high school health class,
but high school is so fucked up,
what we most want to know, we can’t ask.
I broke up with a decent guy to hang with girls,
quelled my doubt by having sex with young men.
I hung on by a filament, it took years to comprehend.

One student asks, “What do lesbians wear to the mall?”
It was the pinnacle of lesbian-fashion-meets-mainstream,
when Birkenstocks were “in.”
I chuckle but dare not say, “I wouldn’t know.”
I joke, “Birkenstocks” and they all look down,
some tuck their feet beneath their chair.

A girl at the back perches at a spare desk,
freshly-scrubbed longing,
she begged the teacher to sit-in on this class.
I peg her most likely
to stay afterwards.
She dashes off quickly, as I had dashed from Grade 10 health class
with Ms. Broadbear, total geek and, in retrospect, a dyke,
in her tinted glasses and baby-blue sweat suit,
pre-Birkenstocks,  frumpy black sandals,
tentatively taught a lesson on “h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l-i-t-y”—
decriminalized in 1969, delisted as a psychiatric disorder 1974,
described the male sex act,
with no reference to what women did—apparently, not much.

Ms. Broadbear’s demeanor pleaded not to be asked,
but I ached to know if she was one, and if so, did she find love.

The room was silent until the bell.


Jane Byers headshotJane Byers lives in Nelson, British Columbia. Acquired Community, her second book of poems, will be released in September 2016 by Caitlin Press–Dagger Editions. Her debut poetry collection, Steeling Effects, was published by Caitlin Press (March 2014). She is the recipient of the 2014 Richard Carver Emerging Writer Award and an honourable mention in the 2013 Lena Wilson Endicott Poetry Prize. She has had poems and essays published in various literary journals in Canada, the US, and England, including Grain, Descant, Plenitude, the Antigonish Review, Rattle and Best Canadian Poetry 2014.