In 2015, when I turned 23 years old, three significant things happened: I fell in love with a woman for the first time, I got dumped by that woman, and the Christmas movie Carol came out. Upon Carol’s December release, it had been about five months since my ex had told me — as I white-knuckled the edges of her couch to keep from sobbing or throwing up or both — that love, as dizzyingly tender and intoxicating as ours had been, was not enough for us. That December, when I walked to the Angelika theatre in lower Manhattan for a late-night screening of the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (1952) — about the love story between a 20-something woman, Therese Belivet, and Carol Aird, a mother (and experienced queer woman) stuck in a controlling marriage — I was still holding that white-knuckle position.
But with that first sorrowful drone of the clarinet, the lost glove, the clandestine touches on the shoulder, Cate Blanchett uttering “My angel, flung out of space,” I released my grip on post-breakup grief. After months of carefully avoiding any queer TV shows, skipping the subway stop closest to my ex’s apartment, and willing myself not to look at her Instagram grid, I cried. I let all my feelings release from that tight, closed-up space in my throat. I cried until I choked on my tears. I cried during the movie, I cried in the lobby after the movie, and as I listened to Adele’s 25 on the train ride home, I cried harder.
I realised then that the thing that had scared me most about my relationship ending was not losing my girlfriend — it was having to be queer outside of the safety of that unit. The idea of being transparently queer for the first time, as an apprehensive Midwestern-born-and-raised Therese surrounded by a city of sure-footed, glamorous Carols, had been the real thing threatening to induce vomit the day my ex had ended things. But now, as I let the fear run its course through my body, I realised I could make the transformation from Therese to Carol. Maybe it wouldn’t be a linear process. It definitely wouldn’t be set to a classical soundtrack designed to make all queer people instantly sad and horny at the same time. But it would happen.
And it did. Six months later, during Pride month, after my first drunken nights at the Cubbyhole in the West Village with new queer friends-turned-family, I sat on a different couch. This time my hands rested gently on the knee of a longtime crush as I watched Carol for the second time. Now, I wasn’t living in fear of what it would be like to be authentically myself in the world. I was watching one of the gayest movies ever made, while wrapped cozily in someone else’s high school sweatshirt. I was sitting there, listening to that mesmerising clarinet and Cate Blanchett make the word “Waterloo” sound enchantingly sexy next to someone who, like me, had been raised in the Midwest with a fist clenched tightly around her queerness. Here we were, both Carols in our own right, still navigating the world — and each other — with the same excited, baby-bird awe as Therese. Each of us had individually become safely nestled in who we were, surrounded by the warm Carol-esque sheen of community. Until all that fell away.
Two days later, I woke up, tangled in my crush’s sweaty early summer sheets, to the news of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. That feeling of safety and calm, that invincible Carol Aird-like confidence was soon replaced by the familiar ache of grief. Much like I’d done after my breakup, I scrambled for a way to make the hurt go away. The romance of the weekend, complete with clandestine shoulder touches on the T in Boston and late nights when that high school sweatshirt came off, had ended. I solemnly boarded my bus home to New York. Well, this would be a fitting ending to this queer rom-com of a weekend, I thought. My crush and I had spent a lovely Pride Month weekend of pure queer joy, and it ended with members of our community being brutally murdered. The bury your gays trope has been well established by now; no one can get a happy ending. They either end up dead, or like Carol Aird, only able to be with the person she loves at the expense of custody of her daughter. And here we were, living the trope.
But the queer community has other stereotypes to lean on to — got any good UHaul jokes, anyone? — and thankfully, a lot of them have to do with taking care of each other, especially at this time of year. By now, it has been established: the holidays are “Carol Season.” Come December 1, we put on that enticingly sorrowful soundtrack and cuddle up with our queer pals and drink mulled wine after a trip to the Christmas tree farm (another Carol cosplay must). For our community, a sense of melancholia moves through the sparkle and happily drunken smiles that this time of year brings — the only antidote is each other.
After 12 months of experiencing pretty much every verb in the L Word theme song, and, devastatingly, adding “grieving” to that list, I come back to this love story. Sure, we’re here to rewind Cate Blanchett seductively lighting a cigarette over and over again and to dub her voice over “Waterloo” in ABBA’s hit song. But more importantly, this film, and its re-entrance into our lives, whether at Christmas or at our crush’s house during Pride month, holds all the truths of being queer: We are romantic and fallable and joyful and scared. We are crying in a theatre after a breakup and intertwining our hands with someone else’s six months later. Like the Carols and the Thereses before us, we are all of those things — together.