This time, with a girl

This story starts on July 20th, 2018. I was interviewing for my current position, and she was asking the questions.

At that time in my life, I was short on friends. (As in: I had one within a hundred miles.) While I answered her questions as professionally as possible, I wondered instead if we’d be friends. I could really use a friend.

When work began, I wondered that again. I noticed that she's funny - everyone notices she’s funny - but I also noticed that she already had friends. As an introvert and a researcher, I tend to think like this: How many friendships does a person need for optimal wellness? At what level of satiation will a person stop looking for friends? Had she stopped looking?

By December, it was clear that it didn’t matter. We’d be friends regardless. It was a Saturday night and I had agreed to drive downtown, I suppose to audition for the role of normal 25 year old. (I didn’t get the part.) I figured if I was going to do the weekend thing, I might as well make it a marathon. I texted her and asked if she was free to meet me for pool. She responded quickly and affirmatively, which helped.

(When proposing plans, introverts often feel like they are asking you on a date. If you can, respond quickly and affirmatively.)

I can’t remember who won. I can remember that afterwards we sat at a table with chicken strips, fries, and Coke (hers regular, mine diet), and talked for three hours. We stopped when my voice was too hoarse to continue.

Afterwards, I thought: That was great. Probably a fluke.

Over the course of the next couple months, she became my best friend. Around her, I felt more alive, more myself, more accepted. More wild, but in just the type of way that I actually am. We critiqued comedy shows, laid out in the sun, and ate more junk food than I had ever permitted myself in the past.

Most importantly: We talked. A lot. More, longer, and better than I ever have with anyone. I felt at peace.

If it sounds like I’m describing more than a friendship - I agree. That’s how it felt to me, too. By the end of June, we talked about it.

"This isn’t normal, right?"

In high school, I had a crush on a girl. My deepest, darkest secret at the time was this pervasive thought: What if I’m a lesbian? In the seven years that followed, after successfully and enjoyably dating men, that fear abated. Not a lesbian. Another fluke.

Over the course of this year, I’ve been less preoccupied with that question - Am I a lesbian? - and more concerned with a different one. What does it mean to understand myself and my sexuality, not through labels and assumptions, but directly through experience? I found that working outside the heteronormative script requires a large degree of self-awareness, curiosity. “How do I feel?” “How does this compare?” “Is there anything else I’d rather be doing?”

At least for the last question, the answer was almost always "no." There was nothing else I'd rather be doing. And that began to feel like enough.

For her part, she doesn't identify as gay, straight, or bi, because none of these words capture her experience. For her, gender is simply a peripheral detail to the felt connection. It’s not: Are they male or female? It’s: Do they laugh at my jokes? Do they surprise me? Do they get it?

The first time I heard her say this, I thought, Now there’s some unscientific liberal bullshit. (And probably told her as much.) The fiftieth time, I thought Huh. Ok. Maybe me too.

By the time mid-July rolled around, it drove me a little crazy. What the hell is this? I felt I needed to know, and I also felt desperately worried about losing the friendship to an awkward or unreciprocated physical relationship. I called my friend, the therapist.

“If we kiss, and it’s bad, maybe I ruin everything.”

“Do you really think that would ruin everything?”

“Well, no. She probably wouldn’t let that happen.”

“And what if the kiss is good?”

“Well, that would be fun, not to mention super informative.”

“Oooh, cool! Love fun. Love informative.”

“But she’s moving in two weeks, so I might never see her again.”

“Wow, win-win! Sounds like you should do it!”

I typically have a low tolerance for optimism, but when it’s coming from someone with a strong history of being right - I try to listen. Plus, she told me to do what I wanted to do anyway. Try kissing my best friend, and see what happens.

I’m not someone who makes the first move. (I typically don’t make subsequent moves, either.) Even after getting the green light from the therapist, it took a full week to summon the courage.

And let’s be clear: When I finally did, it wasn’t slick. There was a long and gratuitous preamble. It was July 20th, 2019 - one year after we met - and we were sitting on the dock, staring out at Lake Mendota. A frat party buzzed in the background. Come on, God. I prayed. Give me the words. Give me the boldness.

God just winked.

“I kind of want to kiss you, and my friend the therapist thinks it’s a good idea too, but I’m really afraid of it making things weird. If I kiss you and it’s weird do you promise it will be okay anyway?”

She nodded, unphased. Yup.

I leaned in. We kissed. Despite my best efforts, it wasn’t weird.

The culture is full of “coming out” stories. In most of these, the authors insist that they are discussing something more nuanced than gay, straight, or bi. I’m more than a little disturbed to find myself expressing the same thing. At risk of sounding cliche, I'll say it anyway: Labels have not been helpful in understanding my experience. You just need to meet her.

Three years ago, writer Elizabeth Gilbert openly "came out" on Facebook. She didn't use labels either, but simply let her readers know that she was in a relationship with a woman. I found Gilbert's actions particularly brave. As the best-selling author of Eat Pray Love, Gilbert had publicly discussed the romantic connections she’d formed with men. Her readers could quite reasonably assume that she had misunderstood herself, misrepresented her relationship, and as a result that her books - and moreover, her voice - were no longer valid. They might question both her reliability and relatability, a death kiss for someone writing in memoir and self-help.

And yet, as she explains in her post, life is easier when you speak the truth anyway.

"If I can't be my true self (whether at home in privacy, or out there in the world in public) then things will very quickly get messy and weird and stupid in my life. Sure, I could pretend that Rayya is still just my best friend, but that would be…you know... pretending. Pretending is demeaning, and it makes you weak and confused, and it's also a lot of work. I don't do that kind of work anymore.
Here's what it comes down to for me: I need to live my life in truth and transparency, even more than I need privacy, or good publicity, or prudence, or other people's approval or understanding, or just about anything else. Truth and transparency not only make my life more ethical, but also easier."

Inevitably, part of me feels self-conscious in comparing my own situation to that of Elizabeth Gilbert. No, I am not in the “public eye.” Yes, I could quite feasibly have kept this truth to myself and a few trusted people. But, as Gilbert notes, that would be pretending.

I am committed to seeing where honesty takes me. I am curious to see how far I can wander into the maze of authenticity without freaking out and demanding an airlift. I am compelled to share my truth soon after it reveals itself.

While I don’t expect everyone to be comfortable with this post, neither do I think everyone needs to be comfortable. Indeed, comfort is antithetical to growth.

When I was sitting on the dock, and all God would do is wink, you can bet I wasn’t comfortable. And yet, I leaned in.