Let’s give space to our stories
Think about your first queer crush. Take us back to the moment you realized you had feelings.
Ellie stood before me in the dark. The last luminescent slivers of sunlight were melting into the ripples of the lake, leaving it dark and still. Our friends were filing up the gravel path to the lake house; lights went on inside as they moved indoors for the night.
It was the last night of our spontaneous Labor Day lake trip. We’d all wanted to be anywhere but our college town for the long weekend. The weather was perfect for North Carolina, the final dregs of summer heat, and the dozen or so of us had spent all afternoon in and out of the water. Now Ellie, my housemate and close friend, was blocking me from moving around her towards the house.
“We are not going inside until you tell me what is wrong,” said Ellie.
I said nothing.
“Kaitlin. Talk to me.”
Inside, I was shrinking, incapable of speaking out loud.
I’d known this confrontation was coming. All weekend long I had ignored her, avoided her, turned away from her at every opportunity to start a conversation with anyone else.
But now we’d reached an impasse. Ellie did not move. I did not move. It was getting so dark that I could barely see her expression, but I knew how serious she was without looking. It was her intensity and her need for communication versus my intractably avoidant nature, and I had never been able to elude her before.
“Nothing is wrong,” I said, as always. It came out flat; the unnatural pitch of someone who is avoiding the truth.
“Obviously something is wrong. You won’t talk to me. You won’t look at me. Can you please tell me what is going on with you?”
(I cannot say this I don’t know how to say this I won’t say this—)
Ellie again: “You’re hurting me.”
“I… can’t tell you. I literally can’t.”
Ellie pulled me down to sit on the gravel path between the lake and the house. Small rocks dug into the backs of my bare legs, and I cradled them against me.
“I don’t know how to be around you because I’m confused,” I said.
“I’m confused too.”
“I know I told you that I’m trying to… figure out my sexuality right now… and you just don’t understand how terrifying that is. It is so new. And scary. And… I’m just… not ready to deal with that right now. I don’t have to deal with this if I’m not ready.”
“I know it’s scary. Of course I know it’s scary, I’ve been there too. But you can’t just never address it.”
I looked at my knees and made no response aloud. My thoughts were cacophonous: Never addressing this is a good idea. Never addressing it would be a million times better than this moment. What are the chances I can run away and escape into the house without any consequences? How do I tell you that this is not really about realizing I like girls, it’s about realizing I like you, just you, so much it’s all I think about, and this could ruin our friendship, and do you feel it too?
No matter how long the silence hung over the woods, Ellie kept trying. “What do you want? Can you just tell me what you’re feeling?”
“I don’t know what I’m feeling,” I responded. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t think, I could hardly force myself to speak. I saw stars in the sky when I looked up; I saw stars behind my eyes when I squeezed them shut. I hated every long beat of silence that I did not fill.
I thought about kissing her. I thought about how much I’d imagined it in the past two weeks since she moved into my house; how much I thought about it last semester when we met and gradually entangled our lives. How we kissed “platonically” at that party in the spring and she said it was a good kiss; how I slept over because we were friends, but deep down I stayed because I wanted her to kiss me again. How I held her gaze with stupid, heavy looks when our conversations petered out; how sometimes it seemed like she was trying to tell me that she felt something for me too.
It took all of my nerve to look away from the lake and face her. She was looking right at me.
“What would you do if you were me?” I asked her.
“I would kiss me.”
“Ok, so…” Every fear I had swelled in my head and my heart, flashing through me, white-hot: I don’t know how to kiss girls, my lips are chapped, I don’t know if I want to hook up, maybe I can avoid this forever, maybe I am straight, why can’t I be straight?
“…can we do that?”
Ellie slowly leaned in, towards my expression of abject terror, and our lips met.
The first sober, non-platonic kiss.
This isn’t so bad, I would have thought if I was capable of thinking anything at all. The gravel was still digging into my legs and the night air was getting uncomfortably cool with the breeze blowing in off the lake; but a million doors were flung open inside me, and for the first time in several weeks, I didn’t feel afraid.
We laid back on the path and kept kissing. When I pulled away from her, we looked at each other. Satisfaction and sheepishness glinted in our eyes, and she said some things. The most important thing:
“It’s going to be OK.”
🍦 Brooklyn, NY, USA
P.S. What have you learned since then that you’d like to share with others?
The first time I met Ellie’s parents it was springtime. It was the end of my junior year, several months before Ellie moved into our house that fall, many months before that foggy Labor Day weekend. Her family was at one of my favorite bars, and her mom urged me to order a drink or two on their tab. I could never imagine my own parents in this setting, surrounded by sweaty glasses of PBR and college students at a picnic table.
Ellie’s parents looked improbably natural in our social scene; my own parents’ social scene comprised primarily of bible study groups from church. I didn’t know most of the friends-of-Ellie’s who were crowded around the table, so I talked to her parents instead. We chatted about my upcoming internship in NYC, my major, and all of the accompanying pleasantries. Her dad showed me a map of New York on his phone as he explained the five boroughs. “See, Manhattan is literally an island, surrounded by water,” he told me. I was grateful for the crash-course. Grateful to be there in the midst of Ellie’s friends and family. After that night, Ellie’s mom asked her if we were dating. “No. Kaitlin is straight!” I imagine Ellie laughing when she answered; that she rolled her eyes at her mom; and that she thought about the question for a second too long.
When Ellie told me about her mom’s comment, I wasn’t embarrassed. I was pleased: it felt like an affirmation of our friendship. All semester I had longed to be a good friend of Ellie’s. I admired her infectious energy, her unbelievable stories of sailing around the world and traveling with her family, her open invitations to join in the revelry of every night.
But Ellie’s mom wasn’t the only person who thought they’d observed me falling in love with Ellie. The girl Ellie was hooking up with that spring said that she suspected I had a crush on her. Several of Ellie’s friends said that I cast “longing” looks in her direction. I rejected this completely. “I didn’t look at you like anything. I looked at you like I wanted to be your friend,” I told Ellie that fall. We were talking about the twist of events that had led up to us now, pretending to casually date but already fitting together more seamlessly than I’d ever experienced in a romantic relationship. “Yeah, well. I think Michelle and them all assumed that you were out.” “But I didn’t do anything. And no one ever told me that. I seriously hate that people said these things like they knew something that I didn’t even know!” “You just had this expression on your face sometimes,” Ellie replied, “just looking at me and not saying anything. Staring into my eyes. I haven’t ever really seen you make it since.” I want to know what I looked like when I looked at Ellie like that. It did not come from a conscious place.
Even months into our friendship, when senior year began and our connection began to transform, I had no real self-awareness. I wanted to be close to her because it felt good; if I thought twice about that, I was overcome with a nebulous fear. I never even thought about being queer before Ellie. Or maybe I did. Maybe when I was younger, I wondered about women sometimes. Maybe I recited a mantra at myself as early as ten years old: please be straight, please be straight, please be straight. When did this memory get filtered out of my personal self-construction? I used to think that my personality was a decision I made. Talk to people and be extroverted. Make jokes and be funny. Plan lots of trips and be adventurous. My identity was how I saw myself and how I performed it to others. It’s what we all want to believe: that we are whoever we want to be, that we are capable of change and growth in anything we set our minds to.
These days I wonder whether we are less changeable than we think. Our essence might be buried under a million forgotten memories, but it is there, fragile yet indestructible, more formative than any delicate human will for things to be different. Now that I know myself better, my queerness feels so natural and obvious that I no longer resent Ellie’s friends for picking up on it first. It scares me that I had the capacity to bury a piece of me so big and pure and whole. We all have that capacity. Eventually, I’ll come out to my conservative, religious parents. Eventually, I will figure out how to explain that essential, indestructible nature thing.
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