In a raw, honest memoir Melissa Giberson lays bare her story of a middle-aged suburban wife who uprooted everything to embrace her true identity as a gay woman. “Late Bloomer: Finding My Authentic Self at Midlife” (She Writes Press, Aug 8, 2023) is a stunning display of grief, rebirth, motherhood, and dedication to stepping into one’s true power.
Melissa Giberson longs for something she can’t quite put her finger on until, one night at the YMCA, she finds herself mesmerized by the sight of a naked woman and levels with herself for the first time: Am I gay? This revelation sends Melissa on a head-spinning journey of self-discovery, one that challenges everything she thinks she knows about herself, forces her to decide exactly how much she’s willing to risk for authenticity, and shakes the foundations of the family she’s fiercely determined to shield from the kinds of wounds she sustained during her own childhood. Torn between her desire to be true to herself and her desire to protect her children, she is consumed by fear and conflicting emotions.
As Melissa wades through the difficult dissolution of her marriage and struggles with how to come out to her kids, she is met with overwhelming support from the Jewish LGBTQ+ community. “Late Bloomer” is a triumphant exploration of a mother navigating grief and fear to ultimately accept herself with the support and love of her ‘found family’ in her LGBTQ community.
[This piece originally appeared in the author’s memoir, Late Bloomer, and is reprinted here with the permission of She Writes Press.]
I stand there, frozen, as if the site of a naked woman is something I’ve never seen before. I’m captivated by the smoothness of her bare skin, her curves. I watch her hands glide down from knee to ankle and back up again. She’s methodical—painting her flesh with lotion, leaving no part of the canvas untouched. I’m stone-still when a thought surfaces that is, at least to my conscious mind, a first. It’s a question that will ultimately usher me across a threshold and into a journey of self-discovery:
Am I gay?
It’s a quiet May morning, and I’m at the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YM-YWHA). I’m no stranger here; less than two miles from my house, the Y is a staple in my family’s life. It’s where my daughter had her first swim class at six months old; it’s where she and my son have gone to preschool, attended day camp, and played sports; and it’s where I worked off my post-pregnancy weight. It’s also where my previous employer rented space, making it my shortest commute ever. Reentering the workforce in the same building where my son attended Kindergarten enrichment classes was the secret solution to ease my guilt about working after admitting that being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t a good fit for me.
I’ve spent considerable hours in the Y’s auditorium attending my kids’ dance recitals. Countless more in the café with other moms with whom I have little in common aside from the fact that we’re all Jewish and raising kids. This Y hosts annual book fairs where I’ve purchased Judaic children’s books, holiday expositions where I’ve bought Chanukah gifts, and other events that have transformed the lobby into the Lower East Side of Manhattan, replete with hot dog carts, vendors selling potato knishes, and the sounds of Fiddler on the Roof–style Klezmer music.
The Y is also, now, where I’m learning to run. My personal goal is to one day complete a 5K. Music from my iPod helps me keep stride, while my lap counter ticks off every turn around the indoor track.
Running is new to me, and new has recently become appealing to me. I’m forty-four years old and I’ve spent my life being averse to change. I like familiarity. I lived in one childhood house, one apartment pre-marriage, and one more apartment as a newlywed—that was it before my husband and I bought our current house, which we’ve now owned for eighteen years. I’ve seldom changed cars or jobs, and I return to the same vacation spot repeatedly. I have been with the same man since I was twenty years old.
Lately, though, change is enticing. I’m engaging in activities that are completely out of character for me—and I’m doing them without giving much thought to whether or not I should (in and of itself out of character for me, as I tend to overthink everything).
Shrills of squeaking rubber on a glossy floor spills from the indoor basketball court, while the aroma of coffee competes with the stench of sweat. Down the hallway, the smack of chlorine announces the natatorium is nearby. Upon entering the main gym, I am met by the thumping of runners on treadmills, the clang of weights dropping to the floor, and blaring rock music.
I’ve just dropped my backpack on the narrow wooden bench in the locker room when I catch sight of the woman, one foot propped on a stool. There’s no one else here. She applies moisturizer to her bent leg in what seems like slow motion. The sensation evoked within my body reminds me of when I first saw Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis make love to Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” in Top Gun. The mesmerizing scene lingered in my mind for weeks, months. It was 1986, and I was a college freshman who’d never had sex.
The woman stands with her back to me. She’s naked and I’m spellbound. I can’t see her face, but that doesn’t matter. My body is paralyzed, my thoughts muted. I’m staring but can’t turn away. It’s as if I’ve entered a tunnel in a rainstorm: I’m experiencing that same eerie but calm quiet that takes hold as you pass inside, and the water stops pelting the car.
Snapping out of the fog, there’s one thought: Am I gay?
I tear my eyes away from the woman, step away from the locker-lined alcove, and text the same three-worded question to Raia.
Trying to be funny, she responds, No, you just like ME.
We never discuss it again.
Melissa is a native New Yorker who identifies as a late bloomer, a highly sensitive introvert, and proud mama bear to two children. An occupational therapist and writer, she has published articles in The Boston Globe, Kveller, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. She received an Honorable Mention in the Memoirs/Personal Essays category of the 91st Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition and her essay, “Art is the Antidote,” appears in the anthology, Art in The Time of Unbearable Crisis (June, 2022). Melissa’s debut book, “Late Bloomer: Finding My Authentic Self at Midlife” (She Writes Press) comes out August, 2023. Melissa is living her authentic life with her partner and their two cats; together, they split their time between New Jersey and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Find out more at her website.