Leaving Lillian

I wrote this story in 1998 and had it available on my personal web site for many years. Then I lost track of it and only recently found it again via the Wayback Machine on Archive.org. Many thanks to whoever thought to archive it there!

Leaving Lillian

by Amy T. Goodloe
copyright © 1998. 2014. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
do not reproduce without permission

“I slept with Jean last night,” Lillian told me, as we stood in line to board the flight from San Francisco to Seattle.

“Oh,” I said, feeling suddenly dizzy.

On the BART ride to the airport we had chatted about all kinds of things,
catching up on the past couple of weeks, trading stories of childhood
vacations and first flights, planning our evenings. It had felt good,
promising, as though this weekend in Seattle might turn out alright after
all. Now I wasn’t so sure.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to ask her inappropriate
questions. “So was she good? Did you go down on her?” I began twisting
the straps on my backpack across my wrists, leaving wide red welts.

“Well,” I said, before I realized that Lillian was talking again, her blue
eyes bright with the effort to change the topic.


Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in love with Lili all my life, but that
sounds silly. I’ve only known her a couple of years, only really got to
know her in the past five months. It started innocently enough, our
emailing back and forth regarding academic interests we both shared, Lili
cleverly dodging my personal questions by moving them into the realm of
theory. I grew bold and confessed that I was attracted to her, expecting
to be politely rebuffed, but her reaction surprised me, all the more
because I couldn’t quite make sense of it. The clarity with which she
wrote about academic issues dissolved into murky, obscure language making
vague references to feelings. As best I could tell, she was attracted to
me too, but felt unable to act on it. She didn’t say why, exactly.

And so began one of the most engaging conversations I’ve ever had. We had
been emailing each other a couple of times a week, sharing tidbits of
research and reactions to academic articles, but after my confession I
began receiving email from Lili daily, and I responded in like kind. We
grew playful and flirted with each other mercilessly, sending short, witty
emails in rapid succession. I was enchanted, thrilled to be engaging in my
most favorite of all mediums.

Lili remained coy, shy, but playfully so. With great delicacy I began to
probe around the edges of her protective shell, testing for the tender
spots. I wanted to know what she was like, what she feared, what she
longed for, but she was so private about such things. My flirting took on
a more persistent edge, my questions became more pointed and direct, my
tone more intimate. I talked freely about myself in an effort to encourage
her to trust me, and swooned at the slightest hint of yielding. Slowly,
cautiously at first and then with some delight, she gave in to the gentle
pressure of my probing fingers. She invited me inside her carefully
protected inner world, and I tumbled in happily, not yet aware of the

We also saw quite a bit of each other in person, at academic meetings, book
discussion groups, over coffee or dinner, at cultural events, but we were
so nervous together that our flesh trembled. Her bright eyes greeted me
eagerly, hungrily, each time we met, and we could talk for hours, almost as
rapidly as we typed, but we never touched, no hugs in greeting or parting,
no arm brushing shyly against the other, only the crackling of electricity
in the immovable space between us.

“If I ever make love to Lili,” I told my housemate, “you’ll know it. The
reports of forest fire will give us away.”

I felt tortured, crazy with desire, but for something deeper than sex, for
the piercing of one heart by another, the passion of fear embraced. The
thought of Lili kissing my neck, stroking my belly, stretching out against
my thighs, drove me wild. I dreamed of my lips on her fingers, my tongue
tracing the contours of her spine. There were things I had to say to her,
urgent, necessary things, unbearably sweet things, that I could only
communicate through touch, through the language of skin, sweat and tears.


It took me some time to realize that Lili was currently in a relationship,
because she never talked about Marti. Finally, she confessed that they
were breaking up, and she was having a hard time managing her lover’s
disappointment, but she knew it was the right thing to do. She told me
this at over lunch, while scanning the local paper for a new place to live.

The more she tried to distance herself from Marti, the more she reached out
to me through email. Soon I was receiving little “good morning” notes sent
at 8 AM and “good nights” at midnight. If I happened to email Lili before
8 AM, she’d respond with a playful “how dare you be up before me!”, setting
off the day’s exchange. Her style was engaging, her words written hastily,
without proofreading, creating a sense of urgency, of importance, always
open-ended, inviting response. When we first began corresponding, she
signed her notes “Lillian,” and then “lili”, and then, just the single
letter l.

I was in heaven. Already desperately addicted to the internet,
communicating with Lili gave me another, wonderful excuse for sitting in
front of the screen all day long, my fingers flying across the keyboard.
In between emails I happily worked on my articles, did research, read other
email, content in the knowledge that at any moment I would hear that
familiar sound, the sequence of chimes that announced “incoming mail from

And then suddenly, without warning, it all stopped.


Lili had been in the habit of letting me know if she was going to be away
from her computer for any length of time, but several hours went by with no
word. By the end of the day I felt panicky. “Something important must’ve
come up,” I thought, trying not to worry. The next morning I sent a short
note. “Hey, what’s up? Did you go offline yesterday?” I started to add,
“and forget to tell me,” but I didn’t want to seem pushy, though it was
exactly the sort of thing she might’ve said to me.

I spent the afternoon commanding my email program to “check mail” every
five minutes. Still no word. I thought about calling to leave a message
on her office voice mail but I knew she would check her email long before
she would pick up the telephone. And I didn’t dare call Marti.

The next couple of days passed in hellish slow motion, as the space between
one “check mail” and the next grew interminably long. I became convinced
that something was wrong with my internet connection, or perhaps with hers.
I couldn’t work on the article I was writing, couldn’t concentrate on my
research, couldn’t even focus long enough to enjoy surfing the web. I
tried writing long overdue emails to friends but got stuck on the first
sentence, suddenly reminded of something I needed to tell Lili, urgently.
Finally I turned the computer off and went out for a long walk, rounding up
a bag full of videos on the way. My housemate and I spent the evening
watching one bad lesbian movie after the other, and I overdosed on Pop
Tarts and ginger ale.

The next morning, as I absentmindedly washed dishes, I heard the
unmistakable sound of an email dropping into the Lillian mailbox. I rushed
to my desk, hands still wet, and opened it, skimming through once without
really taking in the words, going through more slowly the second time,
teeth clenched.

Lili had taken an impromptu trip with Jean, a woman from our queer theory
reading group, a woman I hadn’t even been aware she was friendly with. She
had left without telling Marti, and now Marti was furious at her. She had
come back into town the day before but was worried that I would also be
upset with her, so she put off emailing me. She was confused, she said and
needed some time to sort through her feelings.

“What about me? ” I cried into the computer screen, and then felt foolish.
I was, to put it simply, stunned.

I hadn’t even known that Lili and Jean were friends, outside of the group.
I had no idea what kind of relationship they had, although in theory it
didn’t matter. I’d never pretended to be anything other than
non-monogamous, and had other lovers myself, but I found myself suddenly,
unaccountably, bitterly jealous of Jean. She was my least favorite member
of the reading group, the one most likely to not show up or to have not
read the material. She would stretch out on Toni’s couch and make
wisecracks about the theorists whose work we were discussing, accusing them
of needing to get laid if she deemed their language too dense. I also
happened to know that she was staunchly opposed to the idea of
non-monogamy, never passing up an opportunity to poke me in the ribs over
my “loose ways.” “All you need is to find the Right Woman,” she would

The more I thought about Jean the crazier I felt, unable to contain the anger.

But Lili had never promised me anything, I reminded myself. Suggested,
perhaps. Suggested strongly, but never promised. She didn’t owe me
anything. And I assumed that her need for time away, time to think through
her feelings, meant that she wanted time away from all of us, from Marti
and Jean as well as me. At least I hoped that’s what it meant.

I talked myself into calming down by remembering that Lili had a busy month
ahead, flying to the east coast for a series of conferences and lectures.
The timing was actually quite convenient, I thought, as it would give her
plenty of space to think things through, and I would be better able to
resist the temptation of emailing her, knowing how limited her online
access would be. I wrote to her anyway, pages and pages of email, but
deleted them unsent.

About a week after she’d left for Boston, Lili emailed me with an academic
question and a request to fax her an article she had loaned me. I was
delighted, and offered to assist her in any way I could. We exchanged a
few pleasant, chatty emails, but I resisted the urge to delve deeper. I
figured Lili would talk to me when she was ready.

“Do you still want to go to Seattle?” I asked her, hoping that she hadn’t
changed her mind.

We had been planning to attend the conference for months, and I’d already
made plane reservations, though I had not yet sent in the registration or
reserved a hotel room. At first we had planned the outing as fellow
academics, but over time it took on romantic overtones, promising much more
than a series of lectures.

She wrote back right away, to say “yes” and that she looked forward to it,
and I replied that I would take care of all the arrangements. When the
hotel clerk asked me if I wanted a room with one or two beds, I hesitated
and then said “two,” still not sure what was going on between us.


When we entered the room, Lili surveyed the two beds with a touch of
surprise, and I was suddenly certain I had made the right choice. I
watched to see which bed she would choose and then made a show of putting
my bags on the other one.

The SuperShuttle ride from the airport had been nightmarish, complete with
a singing drunk and a driver who missed our turn and got us hopelessly
lost. Lili and I suffered the ride in silence. It had taken longer for us
to get from the airport to the hotel than it had to fly from San Francisco
to Seattle, and we were both edgy with irritation and hunger. On the plane
Lili had talked about the lesbian bars she wanted to visit, a different one
each night, but by that time it was too late to make our way to the gay
area so we ventured out in the rain to a pizza parlor down the street.
Lili’s spirits revived with a slice of vegetarian and a glass of red wine,
and she began telling me about all the places she went the last time she
was in Seattle. Not for the first time I noted to myself that Lili keeps
herself busier than anyone I’ve ever known, as if she’s forever in search
of distraction.

Back at the room I suddenly felt awkward, changing out of my clothes into
the black tank top and silk boxer shorts I’d brought to sleep in. I
watched Lili take out her contacts and begin washing her face, and I felt
strangely moved by the intimacy of these rituals. We had never been this
physically close, had never before spent this much time together, had
certainly never brushed our teeth together. I didn’t even know she wore
contacts. I had never imagined her wearing blue flannel pajamas. With a
flash of anger, it occurred to me: Jean knows these things.

Lili climbed into her bed and curled the comforter up to her chest, facing
me. “Good night,” she whispered softly. I turned off the light and my
anger melted into sadness. Lili was less than ten feet away from me, and I
couldn’t touch her. I thought about all the nights I spent imagining what
a romantic weekend with Lili would be like, imagining the curves of her
body under my fingertips, and felt pity for my naiveté. I rolled away from
Lili’s bed and curled up into the pillow with my right shoulder, determined
not to cry, or to at least do so quietly.

The alarm shocked me into consciousness at 7 AM, but even before I put on
my glasses I could see that Lili was already up, showered, ready to go.
Had I not heard her snoring softly under the covers, I might have wondered
if she ever slept.

We signed in at the conference registration desk and picked up some juice
and muffins from the lobby. Lili followed me into the auditorium, but
instead of sitting next to the seat I chose, she kept walking, looking back
at me only briefly to say “I’ll meet you back in the lobby for lunch, OK?”

At first I felt strangely relieved, and then hurt, though Lili had done
this several times before, choosing to sit several seats away from me,
without explanation. Even at the reading group, despite the fact that we
walked in together, she always chose a seat across the room from mine.
Except once, when we were late, and the only space left was on the tiny
sofa. I sat down first, slipping off my shoes and curling my legs
underneath me, and Lili sat down beside me, her thigh just inches from
mine. I felt the air between us grow heavy and tense, and Lili began
talking rapidly, in her nervous, cheery British accent, about the readings,
about queer theory in general, moving from one topic to the next at a
dizzying pace, but I lost track of her words, mesmerized by the soft blonde
down on her cheeks.

The first speaker was a well-known popular culture critic whom I’d heard
speak on several occasions in San Francisco, and he gave pretty much the
same talk. Normally I might’ve been bored enough to pull out a book or an
article and start reading, but instead I sank down in my seat and closed my
eyes. For a moment I thought I might drift back to sleep, but suddenly an
image of Lili kissing Jean flashed into my mind and I felt jolted awake.
How had this happened?

I thought back through the few reading group meetings that Jean had
actually attended. It hadn’t seemed to me like Lili and Jean even
acknowledged the other’s presence. Jean and Toni were friends, which is
why she had come to the group in the first place, but to the rest of us
Jean was a stranger. My mind raced back over all the days filled with
email from Lili, all the “good mornings” and “good nights,” and I wondered
how Jean fit in. Why hadn’t Lili told me about Jean, given how much we
shared with each other? It wasn’t so much the fact of her wanting Jean as
a lover that hurt, but the betrayal of not knowing. I thought I knew all
of Lili’s secrets.

I remembered the look on Lili’s face when she told me that she’d slept with
Jean. At once both frightened and pleading, afraid of my response but also
desperate for my approval. What did she want from me? To pat her on the
back and say “Go, Lili!”

By the time we met for lunch I was a zombie. I felt numb inside and
completely without personality. I couldn’t imagine having a thing in the
world to say to Lili, so I ate my burrito in silence, while she chattered
brightly about the speakers we had heard, her impressions of Seattle, her
plans for summer research. I stared out the window of the little Mexican
cafe, acutely aware of my transformation into the world’s most boring lunch
companion. But I had nothing to say.

Lili and I chose separate afternoon sessions to attend, and agreed that
we’d meet back in the hotel room at 5 PM, in time for a swim in the hotel
pool before heading out to dinner. When I returned to the room, Lili was
sitting on her bed, already dressed in her swimsuit, with towel, goggles
and swimming cap in hand.

Lili was passionate about swimming. Her enthusiasm for it was infectious
and she had encouraged me to join the Y where she swam every day. To
celebrate my new membership, she had presented me with a beautiful Speedo
swimsuit, with simple but elegant black and white stripes. I stepped into
it and then modeled it for her, thinking she might like to see what a good
choice she’d made, but she wouldn’t look up at me. Her knuckles turned
white as she gripped the edge of the bed. When she gave me the swimsuit, I
had blushed, thinking of her in the store, holding up suits and imagining
what they might look like on my body, following its curves and contours,
but now she wouldn’t even look, and I felt embarrassed, suddenly shy.

The hotel pool was really far too small for lap swimming, the water too
warm, but Lili seemed determined so I followed her lead and began a warm-up
of the breast stroke. Lili’s breast stroke was much faster than mine and I
watched her in awe, moving rapidly, up and down the pool, chased by
invisible demons. By the time we switched to freestyle we were more evenly
matched, and we found ourselves swimming side by side, the motion of her
legs in the water sending little bubbles of air down mine.

I was hypnotized by the rhythm of our mutual effort, and didn’t even notice
the boys that had swarmed into the pool until I slammed one of them with a
powerful kick. I stood up immediately, to apologize, but the boys were
already engrossed in their own submarine games. Lili was swimming along
the far edge of the pool and didn’t seem to notice the boys, but they kept
darting into my path and I felt my strokes growing weaker, afraid of
hurting one of them. Their father kept yelling at them to “stay out of the
girls’ way,” but the pool just wasn’t big enough for so much activity, so I
stopped at the deep end and began stretching out my legs, frustrated at
having this silent underwater conversation with Lili brought so rudely to a

“Teach me to do flip turns” I asked her, when she finally stopped and swam
up beside me.

I got the hang of it after a couple of tries, and for the next twenty
minutes I spun over and over in the water, until I had lost all sense of


That night we took a taxi to the Wild Rose, a lesbian bar and restaurant in
Seattle’s gay district. “You girls know what kind of place this is?” the
taxi driver asked as he pulled up to the address we had given him, clearly
concerned. “We sure do,” I replied, feeling a return of my confident self,
fighting off the urge to shock the man by drawing Lili into a deep kiss.

Inside the place was warm and bright, full of all kinds of women talking,
flirting, playing pool and enjoying dinner. Swimming with Lili had lifted
my spirits, and I sat down determined to be the lively, entertaining dinner
companion I had been in the past. We talked casually about a variety of
things, skimming the surface, avoiding each other’s eyes but enjoying
ourselves. We shared a salad and a carafe of wine, and swapped tastes of
our dinners. And then suddenly, the light changed, bringing Lili’s
features into sharp focus before me. All at once I could see the soft
curves and folds of her ear, the delicate arch of her nose, her long,
graceful fingers, and I wanted desperately to reach across the table and
touch her, but I was paralyzed. I needed her to invite me back inside. I
needed her to touch me first.

I stood up and excused myself, thinking I would burst into tears once I got
inside the restroom, but instead I felt numb. I stared at the posters on
the wall for a few minutes, advertising everything from drag king shows to
drumming circles, and returned to find Lili paying the bill, a habit she
couldn’t resist.

If Lili sensed my change in mood, she didn’t mention it, and we walked to a
nearby lesbian bar in silence. I ordered a wheat beer and bought her a
glass of red wine, and we sat at a table near the window and watched the
rain. Lili began chatting about the conference in Boston, drawing
parallels between lesbian bars in Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, and
then tried to engage me by asking questions. When she got to: “So, what
do you see yourself doing five years from now?” I felt a sadness well up
inside me, so strong it threatened to dissolve me in tears. It wasn’t the
sort of question Lili would ask, and I knew instantly that it had come from
Jean, that this was a question Jean had asked of Lili, and now Lili was
trying it out on me.

“Let’s go,” I said, gathering my coat and walking away from the table,
leaving behind half a mug of perfectly good beer.

As I climbed into bed I could feel my right shoulder aching, from the flip
turns I’d done so many of that afternoon. I tried laying on my right, so
that I could face away from Lili, snoring softly, less than ten feet away
from me in her flannel pajamas, but the pain was too much so I had to make
do by laying on my back and turning only my head to the right.


The second day of the conference was composed of two sessions, each of
which featured a dozen different panels from which to choose. I
deliberately chose panels I knew Lili would be unlikely to attend, and
tried to lose myself in them, with some success. At the lunch break I
walked quickly away from the conference building and across the campus,
hoping I wouldn’t run into Lili. We hadn’t made specific plans for lunch,
but I knew she was probably waiting for me in the lobby.

I arrived back at the hotel in the afternoon to find Lili busily organizing
the papers in her little backpack. She was her usual bright and chipper
self, wanting to know how my sessions went, what I thought of the
conference in general, and whether or not I’d found the messages she left
for me on the conference bulletin board. I answered her politely, but
didn’t ask any questions in return.

“Are you still up for tonight?” she asked, sensing my reserve. We had
planned to go to a nice Italian restaurant she had been to a few years ago
when she was last in Seattle.

“Yes, sure,” I replied, and decided against changing into the more
attractive outfit I’d packed for the occasion. “Should I go call a taxi

“That’d be lovely!” Lili said. “I’ll be right down. I just want to make a
quick phone call and then I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

She was going to call Jean, I just knew it. I asked the hotel clerk to
call a taxi for us, but when it arrived there was still no sign of Lili. I
thought about taking it myself, just heading out for a night on the town
without Lili, but instead I offered it to a man who was also waiting. Lili
bounced into the lobby twenty minutes later, and I had the clerk call us
another cab. On the ride over, I sat as far away from Lili as I could,
pressing my body into the door of the car, staring out the window.

Finally I asked “So, how’s Jean?”

“She’s fine,” Lili responded.

“Did you tell her that you and I aren’t sexually involved?” I asked,
knowing that Jean was the jealous type.

Lili didn’t say anything.

“Did you?” I asked again, just as we arrived at our destination.

Lili paid the taxi driver and skipped ahead a few steps ahead of me. She
grabbed a light pole and swung herself back around, bringing her face just
inches away from mine.

“No,” she said, “I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she said, and skipped forward towards the restaurant.


Over dinner Lili flirts with me mercilessly. She drops her eyes and peers
out at me from beneath her heavy blonde bangs. She teases me and asks
embarrassing questions She lets her leg brush up against mine and stay
there, all the way through dessert. I am still angry but can’t help also
enjoying myself, enjoying the delicious tension in the air between us.

I sit on Lili’s bed as she gets ready for bed, and don’t move when she
climbs under the covers. We continue chatting lightly, playfully, and I
stretch out next to her. “Aren’t you cold?” Lili asks me, eyeing my bare
legs. I say yes, but don’t move. We keep chatting. I let down my hair
and she touches it softly. My heart flutters wildly, and it occurs to me
that if I don’t act now, I may never again have the chance.

“Do you mind if I sleep in your bed?” I ask her.

“No,” she replies, her eyes growing wide as I crawl under the covers. Her
body grows stiff, every muscle drawn tight.

“Do you mind if I touch you?” I ask, knowing that it would, without a
doubt, kill me to lay here within inches of her, not touching.

“What do you mean?” she asks. Suddenly I am not so sure this is the right
thing to do.

“Like this,” I reply, moving closer to her and wrapping my arm around her

Lili’s blue eyes focus on me as though she’s never seen me before. “Thank
you,” she says.

We lay like that for a few minutes, but then I can’t resist the urge to rub
my hand across the smooth skin of her belly, along her sides, up and down
her back.

“Is this OK?” I ask, finally, worried by the stillness of her body. Lili
takes my hand and squeezes it, which I understand as a “yes.” I can’t stop
touching her, so amazed by the feel of her skin, the soft scent of baby
powder at the base of her neck, the warmth of her body so close to mine,
finally. I run my hands through the back of her hair, surprised by the
thickness of it, and down along her flannel thigh, which twitches in

I am crazy with desire, but not for sex. For this. For just this. It is

So softly I can barely hear her, Lili says, “I wish I could make love to you.”

I want to say, “Well then, why don’t you?” but I already know that she
doesn’t know why. I move my leg forward and she wraps it in hers; I leave
one arm around her belly, and bring the other arm up over my head, which
she grasps with her free hand, lacing our fingers tightly together. We are
thoroughly entangled, and though I know I can never sleep like this, I
think I could remain in this position forever.

It is the sore shoulder that finally requires me to roll over, but I leave
my legs entwined with Lili’s. After a few minutes, I start to drift into
sleep, my body sinking slow and heavy into the mattress. Then I feel Lili
reach across my back in a desperate motion, squeezing me tightly. I lay
still for a few minutes, and then turn my head, but Lili rolls over
quickly. I turn back over and curl up behind her, putting my arm across
her middle again. She wraps my hand with both of hers and presses them to
her chest. Aching shoulder be damned, I’m determined to stay this way for
the rest of the night.

Morning comes much too quickly, and we wake up still entangled, yawning. I
curl up behind Lili’s ear and ask her, “So, will I ever get to do this

“I don’t know,” Lili replies, curling her hips into mine. “It depends on
how I feel.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” she says again.

We only have an hour to get ready before leaving for the airport, so there
is no time to linger in bed drawing out this familiar conversation. Lili
flings the covers away from her legs, and just before she sits up, I kiss
the back of her neck, so lightly she doesn’t even seem to notice.

In the taxi I am overwhelmed by the thought that this will never happen
again. I will never again touch Lili. I reach across the seat and take her
hand. “Is this OK?” I ask, and she nods her head. My arm grows tired, but
I hold onto her hand through the whole ride. In the airplane I take her
hand again, again asking her if it’s OK. She leans her head on my shoulder
in response. And yet again, on the BART from the airport back to Oakland,
we sit side by side, arms entwined. We are both silent, lost in thought.

At the MacArthur BART station we get out to change trains, and Lili
announces that she is going to make a phone call. I am so stunned that I
can say nothing, but over and over again in my mind I hear her words. “I’ll
be right back. I’m going to go ring Jean.” Jean. She was holding my
hand, and thinking about Jean. We board the new train and I choose a solo
seat, forcing Lili to sit at an angle to me. I lean my body as far away
from hers as possible and we ride in silence.

As we’re riding the escalator from the station down to the street, Lili
puts her hand on my arm. “I’ve printed out all the emails you sent me,”
she says, patting the backpack hanging from her shoulder. “I carry them
with me wherever I go.”

I look up at her face, her blue eyes bright with the effort to please me,
and say nothing. At the bottom I see Jean, in the parking lot, leaning up
against her truck. She waves to Lili, and I turn the other way without
looking back. I have fallen completely apart, and it takes every bit of
energy I have just to haul all the pieces home.