Illustration: Lou Beach
At a Halloween party last October, Macarena Gomez-Barris, dressed as a flamenco dancer, put out a bowl of her homemade guacamole and checked on the boiling pot of fresh corn in the kitchen. She'd recently separated from her husband of 12 years, and the friends streaming in now were eager to meet her new love, who, on this night, was the pirate in the three-cornered hat carving pumpkins outside. After her marriage broke up in 2007, few of those who knew Gomez-Barris had thought she'd be single for long—"a catch," they called her—and they were right.
An animated 38-year-old, Gomez-Barris seemed to have it all—a brilliant career, two children, striking looks. Her family had come to the United States from Chile when she was 2 to escape Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship and to pursue the traditional American dream. While studying for her master's degree at UC Berkeley, she met a charismatic Chilean exile and fiction writer named Roberto Leni at a salsa club in San Francisco. "We had instant chemistry, and he was my soul mate," Gomez-Barris says. They married and eight years later had their first child, a son.
The trouble began after they moved to Los Angeles, where their daughter was born and Gomez-Barris's academic career took off at the University of Southern California. Leni spent his days caring for the house and children. "I was in the more powerful role," says Gomez-Barris, a PhD and an assistant professor in the sociology and American studies and ethnicity departments. "I made more money and was struggling to balance my work and home life."
"Immersed," is how Leni puts it. "She lived and breathed USC. All her friends were professors, and eventually I was obsolete. I'm nothing the system considers I should be as a traditional man. I'm not ambitious. I don't care that much about money. I was brought up among torture survivors, and the most important values were in the emotional realm of human experience, to soothe and support."
His noble ideals unfortunately clashed with day-to-day realities. "Someone had to care about making money to support our family," says Gomez-Barris. Despite efforts to save their relationship in counseling, they ended up separating.
Single again at 36, Gomez-Barris dated a few men, none seriously. "They were not so sure of themselves in their careers or financially," she says. "It was a time of real exploration and personal independence, and I became very rational about the kind of partner I wanted and needed"—someone, she hoped, who would match her intellectual ambitions but also take care of her and her children.
At a party one night last March, Gomez-Barris ran into Judith Halberstam, PhD, a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and gender studies at USC. They had met in 2004 and admired each other's scholarly accomplishments, occasionally finding themselves at the same campus parties. But while they shared an affinity for politics and social justice, they were seemingly miles apart in their private lives. Halberstam, nearly 10 years her senior, was openly gay.
That night, Halberstam, who had also broken up with a partner of 12 years, spotted Gomez-Barris standing across the room and thought, "Now, there's a really beautiful woman." "I saw her differently then and developed a big crush on her," says Halberstam. "Yet it made me nervous, given that I have a history of unrequited love with straight women. Then again, you don't choose who you love."
Gomez-Barris noticed that Halberstam was more attentive to her than usual, even flirtatious. "She got up and gave me the better seat, as if she wanted to take care of me. I was struck by that," she says. A few weeks later, Halberstam suggested they go out for dinner, and again, Gomez-Barris was impressed by qualities she liked. "She chose a Japanese restaurant, made reservations, picked me up at my place—on time. I felt attracted to her energy, her charisma. I was enticed. And she paid the bill. Just the gesture was sexy. She took initiative and was the most take-charge person I'd ever met."
Intrigued as Gomez-Barris was, it still never occurred to her that they would be anything more than friends. While she'd been attracted to women at times, she assumed she would eventually fall in love with another man. "I was still inscribed in a heterosexual framework that said only a man could provide for my kids and be part of a family," she says.
On a warm spring night in Malibu, after attending a film screening together, Gomez-Barris and Halberstam walked on the beach, a beautiful pink sunset rounding out a perfect evening. They kicked off their shoes and ran, laughing, through the rising tide. "At that point, things were charged with sex," Gomez-Barris remembers. Her feelings deepened, and not long afterward, they became lovers. "It was great, and it felt comfortable," she says of the night they first became intimate. "What blew me away was that afterward, Judith held me to her chest. So I got passion, intimacy, and sweetness. And I thought, 'Maybe I can get all the things I want now.'"