GRAVITY, my latest book is not a coming out story. It is a coming of age story. When I asked Kathi from BSB for topic ideas for this blog, she suggested readers might be interested in why I’ve written four books featuring LGBT characters. So I thought about that, and it didn’t take long to figure out that my closest connection to teen culture has been through my son…and my son’s friends…and their friends ~ all of whom gathered around my kitchen table, playing D & D and eating me out of Doritos and Oreo cookies. Just like in the world of GRAVITY, no one needed to worry about “coming out.” Not in my house, anyway. There, they were not “gay” or “lesbian” teenagers. They were simply my son’s friends. And as I had experienced approximately one and a half million years ago when I was a teen myself, they were growing up and falling in love and trying to figure out how not to be flung into the stratosphere since the world had stopped spinning on its axis.
So, in answer to the question about why I write what I write, I’m going to share a chapter from my own life. It is my touchstone memory to which I return again and again as I remember how this universal experience we call falling in love for the first time forever changed me.
The first boy I ever fell in love with was named Brian. I was 13, maybe 14, and volunteering as a candy striper during the summer holiday at the hospital where my mother worked as a nurse. I was too young to get a job that paid money, but old enough to volunteer and my mother was determined—even then—that I would follow in her rubber-heeled and white nursing shoes steps.
She had my whole life planned out for me and if that fact bothered me at the time, I don’t remember.
My body had changed over the previous winter and the pink stripes on my uniform followed all my new and unfamiliar curves. I was still part-child and smitten with the “dress up” aspects of volunteering at the hospital. I was also part-adult and my future was easier to imagine as I pushed my cart with an ice compartment and a large garbage receptacle through the gleaming white hallways. I did, however, hate the hospital’s hair policy, which mandated I wear my hair in a bun since even my tomboyish ponytail hung down my back. I liked feeling older. I hated feeling old. And so every shift I tugged out half a dozen strands from that granny bun and let them fly free.
Too many years have passed and I have no memory of whether Brian glimpsed my red-headed rebellion when I walked into the hospital room where his younger brother lay in the hospital bed, his right leg in a cast. There aren’t enough years in one lifetime, however, to make me forget how one glance at him utterly changed my reason for being there. Yes, it was my job to take out the garbage and change the water in the pitcher, but there was one and only one reason to be in that room: to look into his dark brown eyes.
“Hi,” I said, blushing. “I’m Juliann.”
“Brian,” he told me, and I remember deciding I had a new favorite word. “This is my brother Jace. He broke his leg,” he said, unnecessarily. “Do you work here?” he asked as I crossed the room. I would use the word sashayed because it’s probably a more accurate description, but it’s a stupid word and even now I’m unwilling to admit that’s what I did.
“Yes and no.” I opened the curtains though that was not technically one of my candy-striping duties, but sunlight made my hair look like it was on fire and singeing Brian seemed a perfectly acceptable response to the question his eyes were asking the curves of my uniform. I returned his stare and took in all the important details of him: 5’7”, maybe 5’8”; medium build that whispered rather than shouted the presence of muscle; dark brown eyes; hair the color of coal; and cheeks that flushed ever deepening shades of red the longer I held his gaze.
“I’m a volunteer,” I finally said. “A candy striper.”
Jace attempted to sit up in his bed and winced as the cast dug into his swollen leg. “Your job is to give out candy?” he asked. “Cool!”
I laughed which made Brian laugh and I decided the rest of the hospital could live with overflowing garbage cans and stale water for the remainder of my shift. “Sorry, no, but I do have gum.” I reached into my pocket and withdrew a pack of grape-flavored Bubblicious. I popped a piece into my mouth before handing it over to Jace who looked disappointed, which would have bothered me if I weren’t so relieved to know my breath was, if not minty-fresh, at least grape and not garlic scented.
My flirting skills were not then what they are now. Neither were Brian’s, probably, and so I emptied the garbage can to the unspoken cadence of one thought that looped through my mind like a broken record: Brian…Brian Who and how am I supposed to find you again in a world filled with Brians?
In the end it was Brian who changed the tune I danced to for the rest of that summer and the year that followed by shoving an uncapped black magic marker in my face when I returned from my cart with a pitcher of ice water. The intoxicating scent of ink and solvent flooded my nose and made my head spin.
Oh, I knew what he wanted, but I had evolved enough as a woman in the previous five minutes to know the value in making him say it. I placed the pitcher on the swing table that covered Jace’s stomach but left his cast perfectly accessible and looked at Brian.
Your marker, buddy, your move, I thought.
Something swelled inside my chest and expanded until the last bit of little girl that remained inside me was pushed out by something new. Something mysterious. Something deeply connected to all the other changes that were happening to me.
“You’re supposed to write your name,” Brian said as he looked at me with eyes steadier than his hand. “Both your first and last name,” he rushed to add. “You know, so people know who you are.”
Rarely, but occasionally, I have been inspired to recklessly fling open the doors to my hidden places where I keep my most private of feelings.
This was the first of those moments.
I took a step toward Brian and reached for the marker. “If we’re talking about writing on casts, I’m obliged to tell you I’m not bound by any rules,” I said, staring into his eyes.
“Huh?” he asked.
“There are rules. Lots of them actually,” I admitted. “But I highly doubt there are any stipulations regarding the content of what someone writes on a cast. I mean, it’s not like you can report me to some Official Broken Limb Message Inspector if I don’t write my name, first or last, on Jace’s cast, right?”
I stood there, hand still outstretched for the marker, while the realization flooded his eyes. He was hopelessly outgunned in any contest involving words and he knew it. Lucky for me he seemed clueless to the fact that he could defeat my strongest defense with one glance.
He answered by dropping the marker in my hand.
“I thought so.” I bent over Jace’s leg just as he smacked a bubble, spraying me with artificially sweet and grape-flavored spit.
“Jace!” Brian scolded while I wrote a message that contained seven numbers and two words, neither of which was my first or last name.
“Eight, seven, three.” Brian began reading what I’d written, but when he finished with the numbers, I read the words.
“Call me,” I said, and then I turned and walked out of the hospital room, leaving Brian to ponder whether or not I’d broken any rules. As for me, I’d stepped into my womanhood, and I didn’t give a damn.
Would it have mattered if Brian had been Brianna? To the world? Yes. This was the early ‘80’s when leg warmers were cool (the first time around) and girls wore off-the-shoulder sweaters and John Travolta was still skinny and if you were a girl into another girl or a guy into another guy, you didn’t talk about it. So yes, had Brian been Brianna, the world at large would have reacted very differently.
Hence, decades of coming out stories – including The Crossfire Trilogy.
But with GRAVITY I explored the inner experience of falling in love for the first time and discovered something I think I’ve always known. I cherish that memory of the day in the hospital not because I met and fell in love with Brian, but because I met and fell in love with a strange and wondrous new version of myself – one I would spend the next million and a half years trying to understand.
Which is what has inspired me to write every single book.
That moment. That encounter. That journey.
I’ve simply written about it through the lens of the kids who rolled the dice in life and love and left my kitchen table covered in Oreo crumbs.
~ Juliann Rich
Minnesota writer Juliann Rich spent her childhood in search of the perfect climbing tree. The taller, the better! A branch thirty feet off the ground and surrounded by leaves, caterpillars, birds, and squirrels was a good perch for a young girl to find herself. Seeking truth in nature and finding a unique point of view remain crucial elements in her life as well as her writing.
Juliann is the author of four young adult novels: CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE, SEARCHING FOR GRACE, TAKING THE STAND, and GRAVITY (forthcoming in November, 2016). She writes character-driven books about young adults who are bound to discover their true selves and the courage to create an authentic life…if the journey doesn’t break them.
Juliann is the 2014 recipient of the Emerging Writer Award from The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival and lives with her husband and an adorable but naughty dachshund named Bella in a 1920’s brownstone she is lovingly restoring to its original beauty.
Her newest novel, GRAVITY, will be released by Bold Strokes Books on November 15th, 2016.
A dream at Olympic gold in ski jumping. It’s a dream that’s been the exclusive property of male Olympic athletes.
For seventeen-year-old Ellie Engebretsen, the 2011 decision to include women’s ski jumping in the Olympics is a game changer. She’d love to bring home the gold for her father, a former Olympic hopeful whose dreams were blown along with his knees on an ill-timed landing. But can she defy the pull of gravity that draws her to Kate Moreau, her biggest competition and the girl of her dreams?
How can Ellie soar through the air when all she feels like doing is falling hard?
Previous works by Juliann Rich:
The Crossfire Trilogy, published by Bold Strokes Books
To learn more about Juliann, visit her website: http://www.juliannrich.com.