The story is not over
Some reflections at the start of Pride Month
CW: homophobia (internalized and external), brief mention of suicide, descriptions of surgery, brief mentions of sexual assault
His hair is spiky and gelled up. I want to touch it, I tell the friends I’ve made so far. They giggle and tell me that I have a crush. I don’t quite know what that means, but I play along.
When we’re let out for recess, I chase after him on the playground. Eventually, when I get tired of being avoided, I go to sulk next to the water fountain. My friends force him to hand me a flower, and I take it. I’m disappointed by the gesture even though some part of me understands, even that young, that flowers mean you like-like someone.
I wonder if what I’m feeling is actually a crush, but everyone — my friends, my parents, my sister — insists. Still, I don’t want a flower; I want to sit next to him in the library and read books together.
His name is Erik, and he makes me smile. I spend thirty minutes after school walking with him, avoiding two other students in my class who want to eavesdrop. I think I know what’s happening, but I’m not going to ask, in case I’m wrong.
Eventually, when we’ve gotten far enough away, he asks me to the Valentine’s Day dance. I’ve never been to a dance with someone before. I say yes. I wear my sister’s old red and black dress, and my mom helps style my hair.
In my school’s tiny cafeteria, we slow dance awkwardly but not uncomfortably.
Afterwards, we sit outside eating McDonald’s vanilla ice cream cones. I feel my fingers get sticky from the sugar. When we eventually break up, he complains that I never held his hand. Apparently, he had put it between us. I wonder how I was supposed to notice that.
We meet because my friend Sophie looks nervous talking to her. She’s leaning against a wall, arms crossed, looking disinterested in Sophie’s well-practiced welcome speech. It’s an ice cream social, but she’s not there to meet people. It’s ninth grade — no one’s there to meet people.
When I walk up, ready to save Sophie from her predicament, she looks at me suspiciously. I ask her name. It’s too close to my own, so I tell her I’m going to call her Ash. I don’t say it, but she seems too cool to have a name as boring as mine. My parents call it a nickname and try to use her actual name. But it’s not quite a nickname, not quite a name. Seven years later, I know that it’s a ritual.
We spend the rest of the time until her mom gets there talking about SuperWhoLock and Tumblr memes and tentacles. Watching her mom’s Prius pull out of the parking lot, I resolve to be her friend.
I go to school the next day and sit next to her at lunch. She pushes me off the bench that she’s sitting on and tells me that she doesn’t want company. I fall in love, a little bit. But I don’t recognize it as love yet.
I ask what she’s listening to through her earbuds and she rolls her eyes when she tells me it’s My Chemical Romance. It’s another three weeks of trying to sit next to her at lunch before she hands me an earbud and tells me to listen. I don’t remember what the first song was, but I take a moment to memorize every band that she mentions that lunch period: Sleeping with Sirens, MCR, Three Days Grace, Black Veil Brides.
Two weeks later, I hold her hand and she tells me she’s asexual. I’ve seen the word floating around on Tumblr before, but it’s the first time that I say the syllables. They fit awkwardly in my mouth, but it seems important to her that I say them back.
That night, I discover the words “panromantic demisexual.” It feels like a eureka moment. I mouth the shape of them, but I don’t say them aloud.
A couple of months later, Ethan Smith plays a cover of a song at the end-of-the-year pep rally. I bounce up and down screaming the lyrics, even though I haven’t quite learned the song yet. When we exit the cafeteria, I turn immediately to hug her. For the first few seconds all I can feel are her arms around me, her chest pressed to mine. I’m wearing one of those Dollar Tree beaded necklaces, and I hope it doesn’t dig into her. I want the imprint of the beads to stay on my skin forever.
That day, the wrong teacher sees us hugging outside. She forces us into the vice principal’s office and says something about having warned Ash about PDA before. Sitting in front of the vice principal, a tall, long-faced man, I wonder why we’re getting in trouble when we’re not even dating. I try to insist when he’s about to call my parents — Mr. H, we’re just friends — but he doesn’t buy it.
It feels wrong to use the word “just” when my feelings are all bunched up in my chest. They’re seeing something, I think. Maybe it’s the same thing that people saw in second grade.
When my parents show up, I sit quietly in the plastic chair I was directed into. I know my parents aren’t homophobic, a fact my vice principal seems disappointed about. I’m let off with a warning and the knowledge that I’ve done something wrong, but I can’t place what.
In the car, I repeat my uncle is gay in my head until I feel like I can make it stick.
My uncle is gay. My family loves me. My parents sit me down and tell me that I can’t be friends with Ash anymore.
That night, I look up the Gilbert Public School District’s policy on PDA and whether or not it applies to friendship. I know that straight couples sit on top of each other while they wait for their parents, but maybe people see something different in them.
Distantly, I’m aware that this is homophobia, but I don’t understand its shape.
We’re friends, I think. I try to describe the ache in my chest, but everyone only confirms what people are telling me. In ninth grade, I learn — friends don’t ache for each other.
Everyone at my school tells me that I am a lesbian. I imprint the words — panromantic demisexual — into the lining of my stomach and say nothing.
“Lesbian” feels like a dirty word. Lesbians are something forbidden, searched for only late at night. I associate the word with shame and bury it.
Ash always waits an hour after school for her mom to get off work. When it’s time for her to go, we fight over her violin case. I don’t want her to leave me, yet. We’re still not dating, but I guess we aren’t friends either.
Once again, the wrong teacher sees us. As Ash heads to her mom’s car, Mrs. L corners me outside the cafeteria. I saw you, she hisses at me. I saw you holding hands, and I won’t hesitate to bring it to the office.
I try to insist that we weren’t holding hands, we were just teasing each other, but something in me stalls. I feel like she knows the secret I’ve got pounding in my chest. We weren’t holding hands, but I wanted to be.
Shaking, I get into my mom’s car when she gets to school. She asks me how my day went. It was fine. This secret has made me a liar.
Close to Christmas break, when the fear of being caught isn’t so overwhelming, Ash and I are standing next to a water fountain. I ache for you, I think. She’s standing so close that I can smell her deodorant.
I understand why people say that they’re captured by eyes. I only spend a moment thinking about how I want to kiss her before I do it. I miss her mouth by a fraction, but it doesn’t feel like a mistake.
Several months later, when we’re holding hands in the top bunk of her bed, she kisses me back, dead center. She says it’s our first kiss, and I don’t correct her.
We get in trouble again. Not for PDA, this time, but for bullying. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I think. Amy Johnson’s mom is the head of the PTA.
Sitting in the now principal’s office for the second time with Ash and Amy, my stomach lurches. My parents wince when Mr. H pulls up screenshots of the text messages we had sent to Amy.
I don’t understand how we bullied Amy when she was the one that texted I just don’t think gay people should act on instincts and hate the sin, not the sinner in our group chat. Still, it’s been years since I first understood what everyone else seems to immediately know.
Mr. H makes us apologize to Amy. When my parents and I go home, my dad says that it was brave for me to say “I’M GAY” immediately following her messages, but that maybe it was too loud. I know he’s teasing, but my mom scoffs anyway. She tells me that in her Mexican elementary school, girls were always holding hands with each other and it didn’t have to mean anything. I don’t say that it means something to me. I spend weeks longing for my mom’s elementary school life.
I can’t say that we’re not dating anymore. Even I know that you don’t kiss friends.
We get sloppy. A new vice principal sees me kiss Ash on the cheek. After Ash gets picked up, I’m cornered again, next to the water fountain where we shared our first kiss. She knows that I have a history of getting in trouble for this. The next time, she says, it’ll be suspension.
When I get home, I lay my head in my mom’s lap. I ask her what she would do if she had a friend that she loved, but the love might risk her own future. She tells me that she would end the relationship.
I think about MIT and how I’ve spent the past couple of years justifying sacrifices to get in. It’s a sticky dream and I’ve sunk deeper in it than I think I have.
I break up with Ash over text because I’m a coward. I reassure her that we’ll still be friends but say that I need to think about my future. I spend the next day at school avoiding her and talking with the friends I had before.
When I was younger, my parents explained what a C-section was and why my mom had that scar on her belly. She told me how the anesthesiologist had messed up her dose and she woke up in the middle of surgery. It didn’t hurt, apparently, but she could feel people touching her organs.
That day after I get home from school, my chest tightens painfully. I lie down with my head dangling over my bed’s edge. I’m certain, for a second, that this is what it would feel like to wake up during surgery. This is why you aren’t supposed to touch the secret inside, I think.
The following day, I slip my hand back into Ash’s. I know I’m being selfish, but I’m not brave enough to say anything. The ache in my chest settles familiarly.
We’re more careful, this time. We look both ways before touching. We don’t kiss in public.
We both join STEM and learn that not all of our teachers care about us holding hands. I spend the remaining part of the year in Mr. G’s classroom and feel my heart racing whenever our touches linger.
When school’s almost out for the summer, Erik asks if we can talk outside our classroom. I haven’t spoken to him in nearly a year, despite our school being so small, but I agree.
We’re looking at the clouds in the sky. He takes a sharp breath and says the words, “I’m bisexual.” I don’t really understand why he’s telling me, but I thank him for saying it anyway. He explains that it felt right to say this to me since I was his first girlfriend. I don’t know where the impulse comes from but I tell him, “I’m dating Ash.”
I ask him who else he’s told and he says, no one. He’s the first person I’ve told too. We watch the clouds for a second more before heading back inside.
I fall in love twice more, but it’s not romantic, I think. I still don’t really understand the difference, but I’m dating Ash so I pretend I do. Ash had started using the word “lesbian” at some point during junior year, but I still bite back the words “panromantic demisexual.” Saying “lesbian” still feels dirty, so I start using “gay.”
The next person I fall in love with is a girl named Kylie. She’s not that much younger than me, but I instinctively want to protect her. I wonder if I’m cheating on Ash because the ache in my chest is also for her.
Kylie has another friend, Coraline, who is sick. Not physically, but mentally. I spend the majority of that year trying to take care of the two of them. My parents beg me to let other people handle it, but I’m too stuck in my head to listen. I wonder if I might also be in love with Coraline because my heart burns hot whenever I’m around her.
It’s not the same as what I feel with Ash, but this is what they describe in the movies. The feeling is anxious and ravenous and clawing at my chest. For the first time, it’s not an ache.
Kylie and Coraline want to go to homecoming with me and a couple of other friends. I turn to Ash instinctively to ask what colors she'll wear as my date. She seems lost about it, and admits that she hadn’t realized we were dating. I’m confused. I thought, surely, this instance was one I had gotten right.
I write her a letter officially asking to date. She tells me that she’s sorry, we’ve been dating this whole time, but she was confused after our break up. I feel the wind knocked out of me. I’m starting to understand that Ash cares more about labels than I do.
The second person I fall in love with that year is my mentor. He’s tall and goofy and I look to him for advice more than anyone else I know.
My friends tease me for having a crush, and I worry that they are seeing that secret inside of me again. I’ve gotten tired of explaining that all love is the same, but it’s expressed differently for different people. I still don’t understand why people argue back, but I try to feel more okay with it.
I write him a twenty-page letter halfway through the fall semester asking for advice on anything that I find the courage to communicate.
I write that I don’t understand my identity. I don’t know who I am yet, even though people keep telling me. He tells me that it’s okay. Too often we try to mold ourselves into something that isn’t actually us. He mentions Sartre.
We talk about the things I wrote; we talk more about the things I didn’t.
Included in the letter is everything I wanted to say, but couldn’t. Written in the margins is an expression of love.
I bury it inside of myself and promise that I won’t ever tell anyone that I love this man. Love feels like too big of a word now, with apparently too many implications.
Coraline gets more sick. She’s suicidal and manic, which are two words that she teaches me. I tell her I love you when she calls me in the middle of the night. I start checking my messages obsessively, and my parents worry that I’m too close to my phone. They feel further from me than they’ve ever been.
I’m writing my MIT application essays on the phone with my sister. She asks me to dig deeper than my extracurriculars or my relationship with our parents. I think about Ash. I think about love. I admit to my sister, for the first time, that I don’t think I feel sexual attraction the same way other people do.
I send my essays to the mentor I met at the beginning of the year, and he writes comments in the margins. He thanks me for sending them to him. When I finally send in my application, it feels more like a whimper than a bang.
I wonder if this is why I've kept that secret inside myself for so long. I think about every time that I’ve reached for Ash's hand only for her to whisper back to me, You want to go to MIT, don’t you?
I know that I've ruined something for the both of us. But I won’t get into MIT without keeping it hidden. For the first time, it doesn’t feel worth it.
Kylie comes over to my house one day, and we work on my final philosophy project together. I show her the way my project uses pictures, flipping one after the other. I explain that life is a series of moments.
She drinks some of the chai my mom made and doesn’t eat any Oreos.
She leaves after an hour, maybe. I don’t try to stop her.
That night, I turn my notification volume all the way up and refuse to sleep. I write and rewrite And the Joy of Living and think about her.
I imagine Kylie dying, being told one day that she’s gone, out of the blue. It's not the first time that I've played out this mental experiment, but it is the last.
That night, Kylie tries to kill herself. She’s sent off to the hospital, and someone tells me at school the next day. A part of me feels left behind; I wonder if she’s the one who’s taken what’s supposed to fill that gaping ache in my chest.
I sit on the floor of my teacher’s room after school and cry. I write bad poetry. I send her text messages, knowing she won’t see them, but hoping she’ll check her phone later. I wait.
When I get into MIT, I scream. I tell my teacher and eat cereal in his classroom.
Kylie gets back from the hospital. I feel happy, but not whole.
I write that my head is full of little paper scraps. I tell this to my mentor, and he says he understands. I ask him, again, for advice on what to do. I’m not sure where to start, but he helps me break it down.
I worry I caused Kylie’s hospitalization.
I’m not sure I want to go to MIT.
I don’t know what to do about my relationship with Ash.
We spend the majority of the time talking about love, a conversation I start by saying, so… you know I’m gay, right?
Later, I will tell this story with a grin. Later, I will have playlists with titles like if you can’t tell im gay by literally everything about me, then… and I will write pages about how my love aches.
In that room, I feel like I’ve stepped into crossfire. He already knew, of course. I’d sent him those college essays.
After twenty minutes of thick silence, I finally confess that I love Ash, but not in the way that people tell me is enough. I’m not crazy about her. I’m not sure what passion feels like. I don’t know if it’ll last at MIT.
I break up with Ash again, in person this time. We walk in circles around the school and I worry that she'll misunderstand this to mean I don’t love her anymore. I try to explain that love doesn’t have to mean romance, but it feels like a cop out. I end up babbling about Kantian ethics and treating people as ends.
The senior class goes on our retreat. I’m staying in a bunk with Ash, and it feels kind of weird, but it would feel weirder to be apart. I get lost in the woods without water. I think that it wouldn’t be bad to stay there forever.
Eventually, I make it back. Mr. H pulls me aside to say that we’ll talk about it later. It’s been years since I’ve interacted with him, but fear burns clearly through me.
When we come back from senior retreat, Coraline tries to kill herself. She tells the administration that another friend of ours sold her the drugs they found in her backpack and they both get suspended for a week. Our principal and vice principal question all of our friends to see whether I had anything to do with it. I didn’t, but I’m used to them not believing me by this point.
They end up finding no evidence and don’t call home, but I tell my mom about it anyway. I’m tired of keeping secrets. I cry, wrapped up in her arms, and she tells me that I can’t be friends with Coraline anymore. It’s a testament to the fact that I don’t love Coraline that my bones don’t ache when I stop talking to her.
I graduate high school heartbroken. I fly out to MIT for the Interphase EDGE program that I’d applied to after being admitted. I read a story about two characters, where one tells the other that he carries the imprints of everyone he’s loved in himself. I cry in the airport waiting for the plane to Massachusetts.
I switch dorms. After 4 hours of waiting, I finally move in to my room — #3152.
Every part of my body is thirsting for family, community, love. I spend the first night in New House crying while FaceTiming Kylie, and I’m certain that no one here loves me.
One night later, I find myself bumping into my future big, Ruth, in a hallway. I ask her about the trash room, and she asks if I want to go grocery shopping. I had already gotten groceries, but I feel an urge to go again. Instinct says that this is important, but it’s been a while since I’ve trusted instinct.
I open my door slightly more and reveal the pride flag hanging visibly above my bed.
She says, I think we’re going to be good friends.
It’s a perfect line.
Months later, I find the perfect metaphor to go along with it and plaster it on everything — our friendship is like baking bread. You put in dough, uncooked, and then, however many hours later, you pull out bread. When did the dough become bread? Even if you watched the oven for hours, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
Ruth invites me to my first recruitment event. My freshman spring, I join a sorority.
I was lonely during the fall, but now I’m not. It’s overwhelming.
I fall in love, quickly and easily, with this group of people that loves me back. I think about how similar it all feels, how I still don’t really understand the difference.
Before initiation, we have a sleepover at New House. I’m not sure how to express my gratitude. I don’t know how to explain how unique it is that I don’t doubt I am loved in return. I still don’t know if it’s the same kind, but I think I’m okay with that.
I haven’t felt safe on campus in quite some time. I feel safe sleeping on the floor of Ruth’s room in New House, lying next to my future sorority twin.
After initiation, I spend a lot of time thinking about our ritual — a secret that’s hidden in plain sight. I’ve spent a lot of time carrying secrets, I think, despite being out. I’ve been using the word “queer” in college because I like that it’s an umbrella term. The words “panromantic demisexual” don’t fit in my mouth anymore.
I spend a lot of time talking about love and relationships with another member at Tech Calling. They ask me, at one point, how it doesn’t hurt to talk to Ash so regularly. We’ve kept in touch despite our break up, though it’s not as frequent as in high school.
I tell them that love is a very fluid thing for me. There is no clear difference between platonic and romantic love. They tell me that they could never swap between the two with an ex like I am. But it’s not swapping for me. I love Ash the same as I did in ninth grade when I saw the weird combination of green and blue and yellow in her eyes.
I talk to my big and twin every day at New House. We form a habit of climbing into one bed and talking loudly about our secrets. I share a lot of things with them, but I don’t share this yet.
I come back from the summer more drained than I was when it started. I try saying “sexual assault survivor” for the first time and hate the way it sits in my mouth. I’ve always understood that words have power, and I don’t like the power these exert over me. I don’t want people to know, but I flinch when my friends touch me.
I tell a friend about the mentor I had in high school and everything I felt about him. She looks at me weirdly and says that my feelings aren’t normal. I think you had a crush, she says.
I don’t know how to explain that I yearn for everyone. I’m too tired to try.
Some of my students are worried about one of their classmates interacting with my ex. They ask me to talk to her, so I hesitantly send her a message.
My words are clumsy. I have no explanations for why I was assaulted. I don’t know why I didn’t stop it. I try to explain to the student that my love is different from other people’s, and it’s easy for me to misunderstand it.
I tell her about how I prefer using the word “partner.” I think about Coraline and how that feeling had carved into my stomach. I think about Ash and how our love only burned when we wanted it to.
Loving my ex was like loving Coraline, I tell her. And it wasn’t love at all.
She doesn’t understand. She asks me, So you just love anyone who pays attention to you?
I feel like I’ve been slapped, but I smile anyway. Eventually, I won’t think I was at fault for my assault. Eventually, I will have a response to her question.
I think about everything I could have done differently to stop my assault from happening.
When I head back from Simmons, I collapse on top of my big and cry because there is something inside of me that’s struggling to get out. I’m comfortable with the word “queer,” but people still don’t get it. This secret is trapped. It has been for years.
She misunderstands what’s causing my anguish. She convinces me that I can switch from my double to a single.
I’m tired, probably because of the past couple of weeks. I don’t want to move, don’t want to pack and unpack all of my things. She helps me start anyway and assures me that she’ll help me move everything in the morning. I’ve never had someone help me pack that wasn’t family.
I feel that familiar ache in my chest. I don’t know how to communicate this big and important feeling to her. I don’t know how to say, This is enough, but I want this forever. I don’t want her to think that I want a relationship, so I say nothing.
Ruth and I cook breakfast together every morning. On Saturdays, we go to Trader Joe’s for groceries and laugh on the way back.
I still think of my life as a series of moments. I start capturing them when the sun is out, and laughter comes easy. Ruth is graduating this semester, but I don’t think about it.
I fly home earlier than expected. My stomach feels like it's gaping open as Ruth helps me pack up what she had helped unpack the semester prior. I think about C-sections again when I tell her, I don’t know what my life at MIT is going to look like without you.
At the airport, I think about I want this forever and feel slighted that we didn’t get more time.
I write Ruth a letter with my love written plainly. It isn’t in the margins, but its secrets are still hidden unless you know where to look. I ache for grocery shopping and speed eating dinner and watching Doctor Who from the comfort of my bed. It wasn’t romance, but it is love.
When I’m home, I find out my parents have started a new tradition of fancy Friday night dinners. During one of them, my mom asks if I ever want to get married. I say I do. I ask them how to know who the right person is. My mom tells me, When you find a husband… No, sorry. When you find a spouse, you’ll feel it.
I send a message to my big and twin about it because the change in noun feels like something important. That night, when I’m in bed, the ache is especially pronounced.
My sister flies home during January and we spend a lot of time talking as a family. I make a joke about how much more difficult I was in high school, and aren’t we all glad that I’ve mellowed out? My sister asks me, why do you think you were more difficult in high school?
There are a lot of answers I could give her. But I know that all the roads lead back to that first time, sitting in Mr. H’s office when he was still just Vice Principal. I explain this to my sister and my parents mutter angrily about my school administration. What homophobic nonsense, my dad says. We were furious with the school, my mom says.
I sit on my stool around the countertop and tears leak out of my eyes without me noticing. My sister asks, What’s wrong? I don’t know how to explain how angry my parents had been. They turn to look at me now.
Surely, they say, you know we weren’t angry with you, right?
I feel something jostle inside of me. My uncle is gay, I think. But don’t say anything.
More tears fall from my eyes. It feels like a foundational part of my past is changing. I didn’t do anything wrong. It just seems like everyone forgot to tell me that.
We banter in my sorority Slack about where love is located in the body.
I start a column about it in The Tech. The first article is about love. I see, for the first time, why other people don’t see friendship and romance as the same. I see, though I don’t really understand, how love sometimes only aches for the people you want a romantic relationship with.
I end the article by explaining what, exactly, a cursed thought is. Please, I beg, know me.
I keep writing the column and realize only after the semester has ended that all of my articles have been about love. This doesn’t feel that big of a realization because love is all there is.
Ruth writes a letter back to the one that I wrote her. I’ve never gotten a response to one of these letters before, and I’m not quite sure what to do. She starts it by saying that communicating this feeling feels big and important, but she owes it to me to try.
I don’t think anyone has owed something like that to me before. It aches to see my own feelings reciprocated in the handwritten pages. I feel less alone.
I fly back to MIT for the semester and meet, in person, two people that I psetted with in the fall. I get crushed by the realization that once again I have misplaced friendship and romance.
I don’t ache for Boy, I write. It’s difficult for me to ask someone on a date after everything, but I still do it. I’m not sure if my friends understand what I mean when I say love is the same. Still, I write about it in The Tech. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand it, I think, it’s there.
I’m on a Zoom call with friends. I direct message someone a joke instinctively. We’re talking about a shared hyperfixation and, unsolicited and fully formed, the thought comes to me, I want to live the rest of my life with you, just like this.
I think about what I told that one student — how I prefer using the word “partner.” I am partners with my friend. I don’t want anything different, but I do want this — for as long as I can have it. I think about “I want this forever.” Maybe I’ll tell this friend, too.
I send a Facebook message to another friend who I know will understand and share this beautiful, simple thought. For once in my life, I don’t feel shame in just saying it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve held the words “panromantic demisexual,” but I dust them off in my head. I still prefer sharing the “queer” as my label. I think these are words worth knowing anyway.
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