By: Shannon Ralph
Since I began writing for The Next Family, I have shared with you all a bit about myself, my varied neuroses, my hectic life, my loving and patient partner, and my arguably insane children. I have not, however, written about how it all began. The events that set everything into motion and created the life I am living today. I believe it is time to share that story.
My love story begins in a psychiatric hospital (seriously, it does). I graduated from college in 1994 with a degree in psychology. My plan was to eventually go to graduate school after taking a year off. I went back to my hometown in the interim and got a job at a children’s psychiatric hospital, working as a youth counselor with mentally disturbed children—mostly teenagers— in an inpatient, long-term program. I worked the day shift. My partner, Ruanita, worked the midnight shift, as she was in graduate school at the time studying to become a therapist. I knew Ruanita. At least, I knew of Ruanita. She was loud and boisterous and rumor had it that she was…shhhh…a lesbian.
Lesbians were unheard of in my hometown in 1994. They existed, but they certainly weren’t out about it. I found myself intrigued by this extroverted and unrestrained person. My polar opposite. Everything about her was everything I shied away from. She was everything in this world that terrified me. After about a year working in the hospital, I moved to the midnight shift and worked on the same unit as Ruanita. She and I were not exactly friends. She spent a lot of time studying at work. I spent a lot of time playing Scrabble with another coworker. It was the midnight shift, so we had a lot of down time while the patients slept. Occasionally, I would help her with a crossword puzzle or we’d chat a bit, but we were far from friends. I had not yet come out as a lesbian at that point and frankly, she scared me a bit. She did give me a ride home from work once, and I took the Indigo Girls CD in her car as proof-positive that the rumors of her lesbianism were true. Then again, I had, since high school, known every single word to every Indigo Girls song ever recorded. So what did that make me?
Eventually, I decided to leave my hometown and move to Louisville, Kentucky with my sister. When I got settled in Louisville, I wrote a letter addressed to the team I had worked with at the hospital letting them know how I was doing and wishing them well. For some inexplicable reason —it is still a mystery to us both to this very day— Ruanita responded to my letter. It was completely out of character for her, but she responded nonetheless. She was the only one of my previous co-workers to write me back. We became pen pals, of a sort. Exchanging letters about our lives and jobs and everything else imaginable. It was while living in Louisville that I came out to myself and to Ruanita.
In early 1997, my sister and I visited a friend living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We fell in love with the Twin Cities and immediately went home to Louisville, packed our bags, and moved north. My correspondences with Ruanita continued. We became email pals. Neither of us owned a computer at the time. She would use the campus computer lab. I would drive to the local library every single day to check my email. As time went on, I began looking forward to her emails with the giddiness of a young school girl. We also began calling one another. We would have lengthy conversations every night about our previous coworkers, our lives, our dreams, pop culture. Everything. Hours on end. This was before the dawn of cell phones and unlimited long distance. As a 20-something with little money and a developing addiction to Ruanita, I became quite acquainted with the Collections Department at the phone company.
In December of 1997, I went home to Kentucky for two weeks for the Christmas holiday. After spending a nice Christmas Day with my family, I headed to Ruanita’s apartment to visit her the evening of the 26th. She was adorable. All nerves. When I arrived, she was already well into a bottle of Jagermeister and admitted to having changed her clothes several times already before I arrived. We sat on the couch. We watched movies. We played footsies, but we barely spoke. Toward the end of the evening, Ruanita leaned over and kissed the top of my head. Extremely sweet. And weird. And sweet. I left that evening with the promise to call her in the next few days.
I remember emailing one of my best friends from college that night. “She kissed me, Heather. On the top of my head? What does that mean?” Of course, I did not wait a “few days” to call her. I was not at all savvy about dating games. I called her the following morning to see what she was doing that very night.
Ruanita invited me to go to a local gay bar with her and some friends. I tagged along and let Ruanita buy me $1 shots of fruity concoctions served in test tubes. She spent all of her money, pawned $20 off of me, and proceeded to spend all of my money. We danced and laughed and had an amazing time. Toward the end of the evening, as they were kicking us out, Ruanita leaned over and asked if it would be okay if she kissed me. She did. It was as if I had never been kissed before. We drove back to our hometown that evening and dropped her friend off at her apartment. As we sat in her friend’s driveway, Ruanita turned to me, looking like a cool lesbian Lothario, and said, “So you’re coming home with me, right?” I stifled a laugh at her cheesy seduction act. But I did go home with her. And so it began.
I spent that night at Ruanita’s apartment and every night thereafter. We were inseparable for the entire remaining eleven days of my vacation. When it came time for me to head back to Minnesota, Ruanita drove me to Indianapolis to catch the Amtrak train north. We both cried the entire way home. As soon as I arrived home, she called me to say that she had purchased a plane ticket to come see me for Valentine’s Day weekend. We spent a wonderful Valentine’s Day sacked out on blankets on my living room floor. For Valentine’s Day, I gave her a silver necklace with a snowflake charm —to remind her of me and the time we spent together in frigid Minnesota. She gave me a plane ticket to come visit her, which I promptly scheduled for the following month. By Memorial Day weekend, we had had enough. I drove to Kentucky, helped her pack a moving van, and she left behind everything she knew and loved to move to Minnesota to be with me. Five months after our first kiss, we were living together. It probably would have been sooner had we not been separated by 750 miles. There is not even an infinitesimal shred of doubt we are lesbians, huh?
And the rest is history. We celebrate December 27th as our anniversary. This past December 27th, we celebrated thirteen years and three children since the first kiss that started it all. I truly believe that fate or God or kismet or the universe or —SOMETHING— was responsible for us finding one another. We should have parted ways when I left my hometown. We weren’t even friends. But something compelled Ruanita to respond to my letter. And something compelled me to write her back.
I love our story. I love the seemingly random yet oddly predestined way we became a couple. I have to say, thirteen years later, I am still madly in love with us. I have no doubt that we are going to live happily ever after. It all began in a psychiatric hospital, and it’s been a wonderfully crazy ride ever since.