Maybe it started before you knew it did. A childhood sleepover. The braiding of your best friend’s hair. An experimental kiss. Let’s practice for when we have boyfriends.
Mine was decided by a coin flip. It was the summer after sixth grade, and we were sitting cross-legged on the floor of my carpeted walk-in closet in San Diego. The first coin toss told us we would not be kissing. I said, “Three out of five.” The coin did what I wanted it to after that.
As our faces neared, my best friend was squeamish. Young girls are supposed to be at a moment like that. It was a fast kiss, exactly as anti-climactic and awkward as you’d expect. That my first kiss with a girl happened in a literal closet is almost too on-point. That it happened with a girl who would turn into a woman who married a man was the beginning of a pattern.
It took me a long time to come out, and the years of confusion precluding that final moment — which happened at the age of 26 — were spent chasing straight chicks. A lot of time since then has been devoted to the same cause if I’m honest.
After my first kiss at age 12, I had fake crushes on guys and real crushes on girls. My first two boyfriends, who I acquired via peer pressure and used to check a box, were using me for the same reason. They both turned out to be gay. At 17, I met an older woman who was married to a man and fell for her. It was an arrangement that mostly involved heavy petting. This triangulation, or rather, this third-wheeling, with me riding the edges of a woman’s relationship with a man, was repeated with even more gusto and confusion at age 20 when I transferred to a college in Florida and met my future roommate. I’ll call her H.
H and I drank a lot together, and when we drank, we hooked up. “Hooking up” was the preferred term back then. In the morning, we didn’t talk about it. H got a boyfriend right after I met her. Then they broke up. Then she got another boyfriend. H always had a boyfriend, and she was always cheating on the boyfriend with me. We were roommates sophomore year, then got into a lover’s quarrel that we pretended was a friend fight and each moved to different parts of Europe for junior year. Senior year, we roomed together again. This time, her mother gave us matching bedspreads and H said, “Let’s put our beds together and make one big bed.”
She was the worst friend I’d ever had. And yet, all I wanted to do was take her clothes off while we were drunk. Whenever I tell this story, people say, “But you never talked about it?” We never talked about it except for once while day-drunk on the rooftop of a Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg. I’d had enough cocktails to give me the courage to say, “I like you as more than a friend.” H laughed it off in the moment and made it into an ongoing joke after that, repeating my words back to me in a whiny voice.
A few months into senior year, H told the office I was hitting on her and asked to be moved to a different building. I wouldn’t find this out until college was over. I drank more, we hooked up more. She got another new boyfriend, a guitarist this time, and the school therapist gave me the number of a fellow student who was open to talking about sexuality with me. I met with this fellow student once. I let her do all the talking.
Drinking allowed me to become a different person — one who was free, or at least one who didn’t give a shit. I remember waking up one morning to a guy in my bed. I asked him to leave, then I put some wine in a thermos and walked for miles along the numbered streets of the crappy part of St. Pete where nobody walked. It was blindingly sunny every day in Florida. If not for all the wine, I would have felt over-exposed.
The story of me and H should have ended many times, but like most relationships, it exceeded its expiration date. After college, we were supposed to move to San Francisco together. I moved to Boston instead.
A few months later, H moved to Boston too. And it went on. She got another new boyfriend; this one she would eventually marry. On his birthday, H and I made out in his bathroom. On a camping trip in New Hampshire with all his friends, we groped each other in the forest. If anyone had happened upon us, we might have said we were changing, or hugging, or braiding each other’s hair.
After 3 years in Boston, I finally came out when a nice guy I was dating wanted to have sex with me sober on a Sunday afternoon. After he left, I opened a bottle of wine, then I called H. She came over to console me. We kept hooking up after that, under the same unspoken terms: only when drunk. We kept not talking about it. I didn’t know what I wanted from her. I still don’t. I never imagined she could become my girlfriend-girlfriend. She considered herself straight, and this is the thing about labels: Only you get to label yourself.
The end of H was a fade-away, one that felt unavoidable and organic. At 28, I moved to New York; she came to visit. I remember her being overly confused about the subway. I remember she tucked her shirt into her jeans. As we had done in Boston, we drank wine before going out. We went to a lesbian bar, the Cubbyhole, and when we came home, I didn’t want to kiss her anymore.
In my life as a gay/queer/whatever-you-want-to-call-me woman, I’ve spent a lot of time chasing straight chicks. I spent the longest time on H. That felt like a real relationship, even though we never labeled it. And then there have been all the straight women before and after and in between who I’ve spent hours and days and months fantasizing about.
I say I’ve spent my hope on the straight chicks I’ve chased, but I question the authenticity of my hope. Because what have I really wanted? I haven’t wanted them. I’ve wanted the great comfort of running in circles. I’ve wanted only the chase.
With some of them, I’ve lived entire lifetimes in my head. We’ve moved to France and San Francisco and maybe the Maldives. We’ve had the best lives. It’s been perfect, because that’s how things are when they’re not allowed to be real.