Just a few months after Julia Koets was born in 1983, astronaut Sally Ride was the first American woman to travel in space. Twenty-nine years later, Ride came out publicly as a lesbian — in her obituary.
In Koets’ lyrical new memoir, The Rib Joint, the contrast between Ride’s journey into space and her decades in the closet is the first metaphor for the author’s own life.
In the first of the 16 linked essays that make up the book, Koets weaves together Ride’s experiences in her private life and as a space explorer with her own sense, since childhood, that she was an outsider. “I have been scared,” Koets writes. “I have not always come out. I have often longed for outer space.”
That sense is acute when she attends a wedding where a woman she used to date in secret is marrying a man; Koets’ girlfriend is not invited. She feels it, too, when she visits a roadside attraction called the UFO Welcome Center, built by a man obsessed with aliens who wanted “a place where aliens could be comfortable meeting people from earth.”
Koets’ memoir is not about endless grim battles: “I didn’t have a hard childhood. I grew up in a middle-class household on a tree-lined street in a small town in South Carolina.” She has loving parents who are supportive when she comes out to them — indeed, her mother gently prompts the conversation.
But life in that small town is dominated in many ways by a Christianity that condemns homosexuality. Koets remembers a childhood moment when a woman in her church told her that acting on homosexual desires was an unforgivable sin: “I’d never been afraid of dying until then.”
That tension between sexuality and religion affects many of her relationships and leaves her struggling with what to keep secret, what to celebrate. “Desire,” she writes, “was like the deep end of the pool at night.”
Koets, who is currently a visiting assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida, is a prize-winning poet, and much of The Rib Joint verges on prose poetry in its rich imagery and language. The title refers to a barbecue restaurant where Koets works after college, but in a chapter by that name she also weaves in the rib in the biblical story of Eve’s creation and the peculiarity of human anatomy called the “floating rib, detached from the body at its most central part.”
Other chapters bloom with extended metaphors based on azaleas, driving, DC Comics’ Gay Ghost, an octopus’ camouflage, Pandora’s box. The current that runs through them all flows toward love and compassion.
“Imagine,” she writes, “an Interactive Panic Safety Trailer outside of every elementary school in every state. Inside, every kid who might at some point be so afraid of their sexuality that they tremble like a flame. Here, we will learn how to get through panic, that house on fire inside our bodies. We will learn how to get through our own bodies. We’ll practice crawling through panic, so we’ll know we can make it out the other side.”
The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays
By Julia Koets
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Red Hen Press, 144 pages, $17.95
Julia Koets will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 11 a.m. in USF Davis 105. Free. festivalofreading.com.