A few weeks ago, I sat in a Zoom call across from a junior in high school. Andrea had told me through writing that she was a lesbian. Sitting across from her, I didn't see it.
She looked to me like Charli d'Amelio. (For millennials, that's a star on TikTok. For boomers, TikTok is a social media platform. For anyone still confused: I got nothing.) Andrea's face was clear, symmetrical, her eyes large. Her hair was long, perfectly straight, parted cleanly down the middle.
Huh, I thought. She doesn't seem gay. In fact, her whole aesthetic seemed to be a direct and affirmative response to the male gaze. She looked normal, in just the way it has been suggested we look normal.
In quarantine, I've all but given up on normal. It's been months since I've paired eye makeup with a real outfit. Last night, when my girlfriend's dad invited us over for dinner, I decided to "get ready" for the first time in months.
The finished product was reminiscent of every Friday night back in college. Shorts, tank top, summer tan. The difference now, of course, is that I'm not also drunk. Five years later, I was surprised by my own ability to seem normal.
At her dad's house, I stared at my reflection. I was brought back to the many bleary bathroom breaks at dive bars back in Madison. I remembered that familiar sway in front of the mirror, the thrill of feeling uncritical, the relief in liking the blank face staring back at me.
Huh, I thought. She doesn't seem gay.
But I spent most of my senior year of high school wondering. By June 2011, this confusion came to a head. I'd palled around with my best friend all year, worrying that she was the reason I'd all but forgotten about the boys.
My journals from that time are rife with veiled references to things I couldn't say.
2 June 2011
DAMN IT! Am I or am I not? It'd be a relief to stop caring about presenting myself attractively. That would be quite satisfying. But I'm NOT stoked about being an alien and suffering through the rest of this.
Gay. Am I or am I not gay. That's what I meant.
Eight days after this entry, a popular guy from my graduating class asked me on a date. My excitement about the date felt like evidence that perhaps, you know, I wasn't.
June 12 2011
I wasn't particularly moved to date someone all year. Because I had [her]. But when [said guy and his friend] temporarily paired up with us on Friday night, God, that was awesome. Unprecedented. In some ways, this answered my questions.
Translation: If I like guys too, I must not be gay.
He soon lost his luster. He fulfilled my need for validation, but not for connection. I found myself wishing he was her.
June 21 2011
I want to meet a guy who makes it difficult to distance myself from conversation. Who commands my complete attention. That's what [she] does.
December 2018 was when I first spent time with my now-girlfriend, Aubrey. She had agreed to meet me at the pool hall after my then-boyfriend and his friend left for a hockey game.
As I got ready for the evening, I tried to look impressive. I'd always felt the need to armor up when meeting the friends of boyfriends. Looking right could forgive any disconnect caused by my personality.
Plus, I've always sort of liked the idea of being arm candy - of forgoing all existential responsibility for the more straightforward task of being physically attractive.
When my ex and his friend left for their hockey game, Aubrey and I settled into a booth and ordered chicken strips, fries, and Coke. At that time, she and I were barely friends - but talking was easy, and she commanded my complete attention.
I told her about my too-close best friendship in high school.
"Ha!" she laughed. "Sounds pretty gay."
Two years later, sitting across from a perfectly quaffed high schooler, I was humbled by my own assumption. She doesn't seem gay. Unless I tell you about myself, I don't seem gay, either.
On the surface, Andrea and I were the same: conventionally pretty, passing as straight. And yet: at 16, she readily put her gayness in writing. Meanwhile, I spent most of my twelfth-grade journal talking myself out of liking my best friend.
It'd be a relief to stop caring about presenting myself attractively... But I'm NOT stoked about being an alien and suffering through the rest of this.
At 17, I wasn't afraid of rejection, per se. Neither my family nor friends nor the future classmates at my progressive college would fault me for being gay. But I was afraid of missing out on something, of trying and failing to belong.
I'd heard stories about college, and never once had they involved being gay.
Within a year of beginning college, I felt again that surge of relief from my senior year of high school. One of the upperclassmen on the cross country team liked me. And he wanted a girlfriend. I was enormously satisfied by liking him back, by the thrill of belonging to someone, by the pull of things I'd never done.
That doesn't seem gay.
And, in truth, it wasn't. I wasn't. I've always liked men and women, more often men than women, perhaps because that's what I was looking for. Crushes on women have hit me when I am convinced we are just friends.
...But I'm NOT stoked about being an alien and suffering through the rest of this.
I was right about the suffering. But it wasn't because I was bi. I suffered because it will always be painful to command myself to be different.
Aubrey and I have now dated for as long as I saw that cross country runner in my freshman year. It doesn't feel like suffering; it feels like acceptance. It's as if the girl in the mirror is throwing on a hoodie, wiping off her makeup, and watching her hair to fade to its natural color.