I secured my updo as Ciara’s “One, Two Step” played down the hall. Where was Avery? I glanced at the door, praying she would show up and see me before I left for the formal. Pursing my newly reddened lips, I examined the floor-length black chiffon of my dress, the sleek scoop of the fabric on my nascent breasts. I looked perfect but for a smudge of deodorant on the fabric beneath my armpit.
That’s when I heard a low whistle and the air disappeared from the room.
“Damn,” Avery said, crossing from the doorway. Her hands slid from my shoulders, down my back to my hips. “Let me look at you.”
I smiled a little, shivering at her touch. She wasn’t my date. I thought I didn’t even like girls. Still, her approval was what I had wanted. Giggling, I stamped the point of my heel to break the moment before she could, whining how I had gotten deodorant on my dress and I couldn’t get it off.
“I could get you off.” Avery stared into my eyes, her face a breath from mine, hands still low on my waist. I swallowed my confusion, shaking with desire as Avery grabbed a towel, erased the mark from my dress and was gone.
I grew up in the homogeneous and well-maintained suburbs of Baltimore in the nineties and early two thousands. Gay people, especially women, weren’t really visible, at least not in the culture I was exposed to. I was Seventeen magazine and TRL, dial-up internet, low rise boot cut jeans, midriff spaghetti strap tank tops, and those plastic tattoo necklaces.
“Ellen” first aired in September 2003, when I was seventeen, but I had never heard of her and besides, I never would have related to her boisterous persona. I knew that one Melissa Etheridge song but had no idea she was gay; I hadn’t heard of Ani DiFranco yet; I was too young to go to Lilith Fair. I didn’t discover Tegan and Sara’s “If It Was You” until 2005, when I was actively scouring the internet for music about girls who liked girls.
My first thought when I saw Avery was Damn, she’s hot. We met at an alumni – freshman gathering one month before the start of college in Atlanta. I had written the party off just like every other when my eyes landed on her, standing in the kitchen near the drinks. Stringy brown hair skimmed her shoulders and her hands played with the worn strap of a small cloth army-green bag. Both the bag and the strap were covered in patches and pins. Her faded clothes hung on her like an obligation, showing the outline of her body in an accidental way. My stomach flipped; I was curious.
I put myself in her space until she introduced herself. We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about music, live shows, and how lame the party was, laughing in hushed voices. Before I left, we traded numbers. I held that scrap of paper like a prize in my hand. Some weeks later, she called and we made plans to meet up at a gigantic mall roughly halfway between our houses. I was giddy with anticipation.
When I arrived that afternoon, Avery sprung into my arms, laughing and squealing like we were everything to each other. “What took you so long!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been waiting for you!”
“Where have you been?” I giggled. “I’m right here.” Our hands held for a beat before we ran inside.
Arundel Mills Mall gleamed, a sprawling multi-level structure you could get lost in, spending hours wandering from end to end. Avery and I walked around, our bodies almost always touching somehow. Arms, elbows, hands, hips and sides, leaning into one another. We talked, shrieked and laughed, a spectacle of girls falling into orbit. When security guards kicked us out around 10 p.m. we clutched each other, hysterical as we burst back into the warm, neon-lit night.
Conversation came easily. We were drawing our histories for each other, recognizing each other in the reflection. Our hearts were the same, darkened with depression and restlessness, we just went about it in opposite ways: I threw myself into being what I was supposed to be, she destroyed herself as much as possible. I was good grades and extra-curriculars, she was sex with boys and running away. Her stories were a network of reckless decisions. It was unnerving, the way Avery could look at me and know exactly how I was feeling, how I was really doing, what I was hiding, how I was hiding it and why. I thought that feeling of being laid bare in her presence would dissipate but it never did, even as our lives grew and shifted. I still miss her. I’m not sure if I miss the way she made me feel, our shared and fraught history, or something else intangible.
I wanted to kiss her that night in the mall parking lot, under the neon arch. It was more feeling than thought, and wanting to stay in the moment, I didn’t analyze it. My car was parked underneath a light, something my mom had always told me to do, and tonight I was glad I had listened. The parking lot was a striped black wasteland extending on all sides, the light posts far enough apart that each was a flood of yellow light ringed by near darkness before meeting the edge of the next light-circle. There were no other vehicles that I could see, just our two cars facing each other a few spaces apart. The light buzzed overhead; the highway was a steady thrum not far off. Our conversation had shifted, quieter now. Avery laid on the hood of my car, her hips low, legs stretched in a wide V, staring into the light or the sky beyond it. Talking about stars. Talking about darkness. Talking about who we wanted to be, how we wanted to feel. Expansive, free, happy, but what did that even mean? I leaned on my hood next to her, arms reaching back, touching her leg in an accidental way, and tried to focus on something other than the energy between us. “What do you think?” she asked.
“About wha–” Avery had sat up, and my words fled at how close she was. Her eyes skimmed my stomach before meeting mine; there was something in them I couldn’t place. I felt her exhale and hardly dared to breathe, my mind sped, a fury of desire and uncertainty. My head moved slightly to the side, betraying my confusion and the moment was gone. Avery looked away and launched herself into the night, shouting something into the shadows. I laughed even though I hadn’t understood what she had said, trying to shake the feeling of whatthefuck from my head. Avery kept talking, screaming into the edges of the night and I got up and shouted too, in hopes that the noise and movement would shake away the shadows of whatever that was, whatever that meant.
What the hell? I thought to myself as I drove home later. Why didn’t you kiss her when you had the chance? Then, What? You wanted to kiss her? What is wrong with you?
My mom called me a ‘late-bloomer,’ which sounded like a regretful consolation. I was late to grow, late to develop, late to get my period. My mom would also say that I was late to leave my childhood, late to slide into my adolescence, and I think probably I was also late to have a relationship. Crushes were distanced and safe and I had a lot of them, always on boys, but I’d never had a boyfriend. I’ve actually still never had a boyfriend – the guy I fell in love with back in 2009 fell in love with me at a different time, and though we were good friends before we were having sex, we were never technically together. Later in college, I found new control in wielding my body and how it was perceived, and slept with my share of men, but I never desired a relationship. But back in high school, my sexual and romantic experiences were limited. I kissed a guy at the beach once, which hardly merits mentioning, and had only fooled around with a guy one time, on the last night of Counselor-In-Training camp in the woods back behind the unfinished cabins the summer before senior year. I froze around any guy I was crushing on, was terrified of physical connection, and had no idea how to flirt. Shy and distrusting, I kept my heart to myself.
The day I moved into college I felt apprehensive, lonely, but also hopeful and excited, like something was beginning. Fluorescent light buzzed overhead and my parents walked behind me as I entered the dorm and walked down the hall. My full attention was on finding my room number when suddenly, there she was: Avery walked towards me. Glistening with sweat, she wore short shorts and a t-shirt, a volleyball tucked under one arm. Ohmygod she’s in my dorm! “Hey,” Avery called. Her eyes skimmed my body, the right corner of her mouth twitching in a smile. I said hey back, trying to smother my excitement.
In college, so much of who and what we become seems random. We choose electives, majors and minors that end up becoming internships, careers, or the careers we wish we had. We make friends, we fall in and out of love.
My mom always said that I would ‘find my people’ in college, that we would be lifelong friends. That first day I met Jamie, a charismatic girl who became the unofficial ringleader. Liz lived down the hall, a language major with brown eyes and a small gold cross around her neck. I loved the freedom of college, of having my friends in such close proximity. I vacillated between feeling like I had finally found my place and feeling like an imposter.
A month or so into classes, Avery came with Jamie, Liz and I to Georgia Tech’s Frat Row. Avery didn’t fit with Jamie and Liz that day, with their pastels, tidy hair, and ambition. Avery was wild energy and the monochrome dark of her clothes. Her unbrushed hair shrouded her eyes, which looked haggard under the smudge of her three-day-old eyeliner.
Avery’s persona changed at the frat house. Her voice went up an octave, a high-pitched trill of ohmygods. She acted drunk until she was actually drunk, grabbing a passing guy before flouncing over to the next one, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, pulling him in and rubbing up on his body, her voice dropping to a low growl, an artificial and put-on purr. I watched frat boys exchanging looks as she pinballed from guy to guy. She swallowed whatever she was given, and I thought of my mom saying never accept a drink from someone you don’t trust, saying never take your eyes off your drink.
I stood outside the suffocating crush of bodies and compared myself to the other girls, who was the skinniest, who was the prettiest. I hated myself for not being either. The music was louder than too loud and clashed glaringly against the music from surrounding frat houses, a heartbeat bass that clanged and rattled inside me. I was about to leave when Avery tripped over, running her hand sloppily down my arm. I wanted to feel connected, but in that moment, her flirty look wasn’t about me. Pushing jealousy away, I forced a smile as Avery disappeared back into the house.
As the semester wore on, I grew apart from Jamie and Liz. I felt lonely, Avery was hardly around, usually at her boyfriend’s frat house. When I saw her, we rode the subway aimlessly, lost in conversation. Or sometimes we would go to Five Points, standing in the hot sun of lunchtime in an area where businessmen passed by. We knew the men were watching us and that was the fun of it, Avery and I all short shorts and skinny-smooth legs.
One day, in front of an ogler, Avery brought her hand to my neck, pulling my face toward her lips. Her cheek skimmed mine and I leaned towards something I wanted desperately even as I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Her lips lingered a space from mine just long enough to breathe her exhale, a half second of almost before she twisted away, shouting: “Fuck off! Fuck you, you pervert, why are you watching us? You’re disgusting!”
The man hurried away, embarrassed as Avery dissolved into laughter and I covered my mouth, pretending to laugh along. Avery turned, catching my eye, a wry smile at her lips. “You know I’m not a lezzie,” she scoffed.
‘Strictly dickly,’ ‘not a lezzie’. I don’t think Avery’s teasing was ever meant to be malicious – after all, I wasn’t openly into girls and neither was she – but sometimes those lines blurred in the most confusing and frustrating way. I was no stranger to platonic flirtation, but Avery’s joking so often had a different undertone, like she wanted me until she laughed and said she didn’t.
Sometimes I look back at our relationship and wonder how much more easily I would have accepted myself and my shifting sexuality if I had seen others like me when I was figuring it out. If I had seen feminine girls making out with other feminine girls in music videos, if I could have gone onto TikTok and asked another user the coded “Do you listen to Girl in Red?” I think I would have questioned myself less, would have berated myself less, maybe I would even have stood up for myself a little more. Those pockets of community would have offered a vital place to belong, a mirror of validation, curiosity, and acceptance.
Even without that, though, I found my way. Avery was a catalyst, my best friend. There was always more than friendship in the way her eyes looked me up and down, more blatantly sexual and desiring than any man had ever looked at me, before dragging her finger across my bare stomach, whispering ‘sexy’ in my ear, her eyes holding mine as she walked away.
After college, we remained friends, and I visited her between travels. One evening, Avery and I had spent hours talking and smoking on her back porch, just out of her boyfriend’s view. She asked if I wanted to go for a drive and I said yes. When we were far enough away, down some back woods road, under a bridge with no streetlight, she cut the engine and the music stopped. There was always desire in the silences between us, but that day, our hands entwined over the emergency brake, and when our eyes met, neither of us looked away. Our breath fought the frost and we pulled at each other needfully, only separating when her boyfriend texted to ask if we were okay. Avery grumbled and didn’t text back, but it was cold, and we both knew it was getting late. When we returned to the apartment complex Avery parked away from her entrance, her eyes lingering on her fingers as they traced my palm. I felt vindicated; I knew she always wanted me like I wanted her. I recognized the smile playing at the corner of her lips as we kissed again before heading inside. I lost count of the drives we went on over the next few years. That space in her car, us clutching each other, hiding from lights, became a space of its own.
Never together, but always more than friends.