My senior year of high school I only had to take 3 classes. I had a really unique, and in hindsight, pretty ridiculous schedule. I would go to my AP Government class from 7:25am-9am and then not have any other classes until 1pm so I had a huge gap with nothing to do but go home and go back to bed. Because I knew I was going to have a 4 hour nap in the middle of my day I never felt particularly inclined to get a good nights sleep. I would stay up scrolling Tumblr, or Instagram. Messaging my soon to be New York City boyfriend or making a Pinterest board called ‘fitspo.’ It wasn’t uncommon for me to glance at my IPOD docking station and see the numbers slowly flick from 1:00 to 2:00 to 3:00 am before I passed out from a combination of boredom and exhaustion. Then, come 6:45 I would raise myself from bed like a zombie, throw on a pair of converse sneakers and a ratted pea coat over my pajamas and sleepily find my keys. Every morning I’d go to the Dunkin drive through and get an iced coffee and a donut and take the quick 10 minute drive to school, dangerously navigating a 4 lane highway while eating my Boston Cream, or Jelly filled breakfast.
I wasn’t an amazing student, but I did have a kind of natural inclination to certain subjects, and AP Government was one of them. I didn’t have to try particularly hard in order to maintain an A average in the class so it wasn’t uncommon for me to settle into my chair and slowly nod off while my iced coffee melted and left a dripping ring of water on my desk. My teacher usually left me alone and besides the occasional shoulder tap, I was allowed to sleep through class.
An hour and 35 minutes later the bell would ring and I would gather my things, smile at my teacher on the way out the door and make my way back to the school parking lot. Besides the Dunkin employee and the occasional run in with a classmate or security guard, I could go the entire morning without speaking a single word to anyone. I’d drive home, throw my pea coat down in the front hallway, leave my sneakers at the base of the stairs and go back to bed. I’d sleep until about 12:15 pm and then I’d usually try to put on actual clothes, maybe some mascara. I’d collect my coat and sneakers, rush to the Taco Bell drive through, navigate those 4 lanes of traffic again and go back to class.
I think the only things public school cares less about than their food quality is the circadian rhythms of their students.
If you had bet me $100 to name anything specific about my classmates in AP Government I would have been out $100. I had an assigned seat in the back of the classroom, pressed right against the wall. The teacher had arranged the desks in typical rows, so in the brief moments of class where I wasn’t sleeping I was staring at the back of heads. I could tell you the boy 2 rows ahead of me had a bad dandruff problem. That the girl to my right and up a row somehow always had the tag of her shirt sticking up. That the boy closest to the teacher had an anxious habit of bouncing his leg, causing his whole desk to vibrate. But truly, the faces of my classmates were a mystery to me.
One day, a few months into the year, I walked in half asleep, dragging my feet through the door when I noticed my teacher had rearranged the desks. The neat rows of 5 had been displaced to create a large double layered semicircle. It was to encourage class participation, my teacher explained, letting her eyes linger on me a little longer than the other students. My new seat was at the inner rim of the left side of the semicircle. Front and center. Fully exposed like a dog on its back. If one of my teachers intentions for this new configuration was to encourage me to stay awake in class, it worked. When you’re tucked in a long forgotten corner of the room behind 25 other students its easy to nod off, but in my new seat it was impossible to. At any given moment there were 12 pairs of eyes on me, so I upgraded my coffee to a large and tried to go to sleep before 3 am.
Suddenly I was in a whole new world. I knew that the boy with the dandruff problem also wore small and often streaky glasses. The girl with the tag sticking out of her shirt had the kind of nose you would show to your plastic surgeon as inspiration and the boy with the restless leg also chewed on his lip so much he had a constant scab that would split open every class. I’d spend the hour and a half sipping my iced coffee and analyzing the details of everyone’s face. Making up stories about the origin of the bracelet around the brunettes wrist. Guessing what brand of 2-in-1 shampoo the boy catty corner to me used. Wondering if the girl to my left wore the same shoes every day because she liked them or because she didn’t have any others. And while some of these observations were because I was genuinely bored in a class that was ridiculously easy to pass, mostly I was trying to distract myself from staring at the girl directly across the semicircle from me.
I was raised Catholic, so sexuality had always been a non-starter. The idea of sex of any kind was off limits, so anything outside of heterosexuality was certainly forbidden. Even though my parents weren’t homophobic and I grew up doing theatre, surrounded by a lot of gay men a lot of the time, the culture I was raised in just didn’t acknowledge gayness at all. When gay marriage was legalized I remember a family friend sitting at the dinner table saying “what’s next? Are we gonna be able to marry our dogs?”
There had always been small hints that I wasn’t totally straight. Lucy Liu was the background of my IPOD touch on and off for years. When I was a sophomore I must have watched Blue is the Warmest Color at least once a month and I’d somehow always find my way onto a lesbian tag on Tumblr. But I could dismiss all of those things easily. I just wanted to BE Lucy Liu, Blue is the Warmest Color was just a really visually stunning film and who doesn’t get lost down an internet rabbit hole once in a while? Everything could be easily dismissed and everything could be easily explained.
Of course there were moments that couldn’t be so quickly pushed aside. I was the one at the party who would suggest we ‘practice kissing’ after one sip of a Mikes Hard Lemonade. If my friend and I were sharing a bed I would lay awake, hyper aware of the closeness of their body to mine, afraid to move and brush my arm against their stomach. I’d choose to change in the bathroom stall in a locker room, not because I was insecure (which I was) but because I felt like a creep standing around a bunch of naked girls. I was so deep inside some kind of closet it felt more like a small apartment that was built into a cabinet beneath a set of stairs. I had a stove and a couch and a fridge in there. I could easily stay inside and pretend the front door led to the street, not to an entirely different house.
My feelings had been easy enough to ignore. I was happy to carry on living in my tiny closet of denial because no one had ever confronted me about it. Now the conversation around sexuality and gender is much more open and fluid. My hair stylist asked for my pronouns before she asked me what haircut I wanted. One of the first stories my co-worker told me was how his grinder was taking up too much storage on his phone. Small businesses have gay pride flags on their cash registers. There’s been a lot of social progress since I was in high school. Obviously, there are plenty of places where this shift hasn’t happened but on the whole people talk about it much more openly.
But back in 2014 it was just a different cultural conversation, especially for gay women. So when I got an anonymous Tumblr message late one night that just said “Are you gay? Don't have to answer if it's private just got the vibe” I had absolutely no idea what to say, which in hindsight makes it pretty clear the answer was not ‘no.’
Hannah* sat directly across the classroom from me. We ran in entirely different groups in high school, so I had never talked to her before. She was much cooler than me, she got invited to every party and was popular in the exact way you should be. She was popular because she was nice to everyone, not popular because everyone was nice to her. She was the captain of the soccer team and had dated one of the more attractive boys in our grade. She was a lifeguard at a private country club and seemed to always have a perpetual tan and her hair was frizzy at the edges from chlorine damage. She would show up to class in oversized t-shirts and athletic shorts and was constantly chewing a piece of gum in a way that was attractive and not obnoxious. She was so beautiful in such an effortless way and had this kind of magnetism that was impossible to ignore. Sitting across the room from her was an experiment in self control, planning my looks for when she turned her head to talk to the girl next to her. Careful not to ever make eye contact, convinced if I did everyone would know I had been staring at her lips for the last 10 minutes.
Coming to school was suddenly an event. I stopped wearing my pajamas to class, opting for cute tops and sneakers that I thought Hannah would like. I’d put on eyeliner and sprayed bath and body works perfume on the inside of my wrists. I’d speak up in class, just enough so she would notice me, but not too much where she’d think I was a know it all.
Hannah had the same class schedule as me which was also a terrifying and exciting development. Sometimes we’d walk out together and exchange a few words on the way to the parking lot. Sometimes I’d make it out before her and convince myself she was following close behind me, overly conscious of how I was walking and moving to the music in my headphones just enough to be endearing. More often than not I’d get inside my car and realize she wasn’t behind me at all, but on the few occasions she was, I’d drive home smiling so hard my cheeks hurt.
I was happy to occupy that middle space with her. Just enough longing to be lovely and not begging for any kind of conclusion. But one day towards the end of the year, Hannah was assigned to be my partner for our final project and all that longing turned to anxiety and the lie I’d been telling myself for the last few months seemed dangerously close to being exposed. We exchanged numbers in a rather unceremonious way and after doing most of the project over text, she asked if I wanted to come over and finish it together. We could go see a movie and I could stay the night at her house and work on it.
That Friday I drove and met her at the movie theatre in the Military Circle Mall. We grabbed 2 tickets for the 6 pm showing of Insidious 2 and sat in the back row of the theatre together. I couldn’t focus. The seat was itching my legs and my hands were shaking and I spent the whole movie staring straight forward, forcing myself not to look at her. Like if I turned my head even a little the floor would crumble beneath me. I was convinced she had no interest in me at all. She was beautiful and popular and probably never thought twice about me. And, more importantly, she was straight. And I was too.
Because it was a horror movie there were lots of moments where we would scream and the tension between us would break. Our shoulders would smash into each other during a particularly frightening jump scare and we’d glance at each other, laughing, red with embarrassment and adrenaline. I’d find myself slowly getting closer to her and occasionally her hands would grip onto my arm out of fear and fun before quickly returning to her lap. But one time they didn’t and we spent the last 30 minutes of the movie with her hand wrapped around my forearm and all of my weight leaning towards her chair.
When the lights came up, we quickly separated and made our way to our corresponding cars. I spent the whole drive to her house convincing myself that nothing had happened, that I was reading into everything. That I was a pervert and a psycho and I was going to put myself in an awful situation when Monday came and she told all of her very cool and popular friends about how weird and creepy and bizarre I was. I wanted to turn my car around and go home. I’d just text her and say I had gotten sick, or I had been in a car accident, or maybe I’d have my mom call and tell her I was dead. Anything to not have to confront whatever this was. I kept thinking about the Tumblr message. Did I give off a ‘gay vibe’? What did that even mean?
But I didn’t turn around and when I got to Hannahs house we walked up the stairs to her room and went over our project. She made me laugh and I made her smile and when we were finished we put on a silly movie and about halfway through she kissed me. And I kissed her back. And then we kissed until my lips hurt. I would hold her body in my hands and we would laugh and talk and kiss and whisper and stare and kiss. The lamppost outside her room made her hair glow purple and we stayed up until we heard birds outside and I fell asleep with my head resting on the inside of her left arm, her skin warm from her perpetual tan and her long red hair tickling my cheek.
The school year was almost over so there was no future there. We were both going to college soon so before I left for the year we got together one last time and drank a bottle of white wine in the spare bedroom of her friends house. We wrote each other a couple letters over the summer and when I came home we made cupcakes and played music that reminded us of each other. And that was it. And it was beautiful and easy and perfect.
That night I found out Hannah had been the one who had written me anonymously on Tumblr and asked if I was gay. She told me I had in fact given off a ‘vibe’ so apparently I hadn’t been as slick as I had thought I was when I stared at her in class. I never answered that message. It’s still sitting in the inbox of an account I haven’t opened in 7 years like a strange artifact from a long time ago. Even after having that night with Hannah I was still in deep denial about my sexuality. I wasn’t locked inside my tiny-sub-stair closet apartment anymore, but the door certainly wasn’t open. It was cracked. Letting a little light from the living room spill in.
7 years later I don’t feel the need to put a label on who I am or who I love. I don’t need to classify it in a certain box or under a certain name. But I do know who I am, and I love people for who they are. I love them for the sound of their laugh first thing in the morning and the electric tension that happens before a first kiss. I love them for the lilt in their voice when they speak about something they’re excited about and I love them for their bodega order and how they fold their socks.
I fall in love indiscriminately, usually without much thought about the ‘who’. And that is a nice way to be.
It is beautiful and easy and perfect.