I was in a mental hospital when I realized that I loved Mel.
They didn’t call it a mental hospital or a mental ward. It was the BHU, the Behavioral Health Unit of my local hospital. I checked myself in because I wanted to swallow a bottle of wine and a few bottles of pills and sink into oblivion so that I didn’t have to feel things anymore. There was just enough of me that wanted to live that I reached out for help.
At the ER, they took some blood, tested my urine, and tucked me away in a special section for people who needed to be checked into the BHU. Not everyone wanted to be there. I browsed their magazine collection, reading about Spanish vineyards in Food and Wine Magazine, while a middle-aged woman tried to convince the nurses that she was fine and could go home. When they told her it wasn’t up to them, she switched tactics, bitching about inane mental hospital bureaucracy. When she wasn’t looking, I saw the nurses give each other knowing looks, like cashiers dealing with an unsatisfied customer who wanted to see the manager.
Tired of reading about grapes, I started writing out song lyrics in a Moleskin notebook, soothed by the soft swirl of my rollerball pen against the smooth paper. In the middle of writing out a song about poor decisions and unjust judicial systems, I got a group text from Mel with old-timey illustrations of airships and hot air balloons. “PICK YOUR FRIENDSHIP,” the text commanded, and so I chose the airship with three hot-air balloons and dome-like walls. I imagined I could fit a library in there. I still wanted to kill myself, but at least I was smiling.
There weren’t a lot of spots in the BHU; apparently, rooms were in demand. Twelve hours after being checked into the ER, I followed a nurse all the way up to the seventh floor. She took my phone away — and my shoes with laces, and my pens — and got me into a room. I slept the sleep of the dead, comforted by the large window next to my bed overlooking the city of Youngstown.
Mel was the only person I wanted to talk to. Good behavior earned me a pen the next day — a crappy ballpoint pen — but a pen that was better than no pen at all. I wrote a poem for her, a poem that poured out of me fully-formed, like Athena being birthed from Zeus’s forehead, and that was when I realized that I loved her. The realization felt as natural as waking up fully rested from a deep sleep and seeing that the sun is up.
There were phones in the BHU. My second day there, I worked up the courage to call her. She was in California while I was in the mental ward. We hadn’t heard each other’s voices in months. I told her where I was and why. I wasn’t afraid, which was strange; I was afraid to tell everyone else. But Mel didn’t freak out when I told her I was suicidal, at least not in any way that I could tell. She was concerned but calm. It was months before I would work up the nerve to tell her how I felt, but even before I told her, I knew that I could trust her with it. She was on the other side of the country, but I felt no great distance between us.
I decided Bryan was perfect without really knowing anything about him. We met in my Intro to Creative Writing class freshman year of college, and I was smitten as soon as I heard his writing. His voice as a writer was quiet and smooth — rustic. I remember him writing about campfires under starry skies, wooden cabins in the wilderness, and the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar. His writing was beautiful, so I thought that he was beautiful too. I’d been lonely most of my life, bereft of romantic interests. Even now, it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone ever having romantic feelings for me. The idea is too foreign, too out of reach. What would they see in me — me, this awkward jumble of neuroses?
I nurtured the crush anyway, high off of the very idea of him. It was an intellectual infatuation. I didn’t think much about the physical; there was nothing, physically, that drew me to him. He just seemed so kind. But instead of the flutter of attraction, thinking about kissing him and touching him made my stomach cold and hollow like the bottom of a well. Like I was forcing myself to keep my eyes on the screen during a gruesome horror movie. Though, if he had loved me after all, if he had touched me, if he had fucked me, I would have gone along with it. I would have told myself I was just nervous, just inexperienced, just afraid. I thought I was straight, because I had to be, because the idea of being queer was so distant, so strange, and I didn’t want to be stranger than I already was. Then I met Mel.
Her hair was short and black, and the frames of her glasses were plastic and thick. They looked bold and dark against her pale skin. There is something pixie-like, elfin, about Mel’s appearance, in the tilt of her head when she’s thinking, in the rumble of her little chuckles. I was drawn to her instantly.
She was drawn to me, too. I’ve asked her, and she still remembers why. We were at a summer camp for the “gifted” at a local university. Someone had decided we were special, and we weren’t really sure whether or not to believe it. Some theater major was trying to teach us improv, and we were riffing off of each other, taking inspiration from each other’s enthusiasm. Somehow, we got to talking about “American Pie,” the Don McClean song, and I started talking about the wordplay in the line “Lennon read a book on Marx.”
“You know, like Lenin,” I said. “Like the communist.” She looked at me with an expression that I would come to learn as distinctly her. I had told her something that she hadn’t heard before, and she was goddamn delighted to hear it. She always liked it when I taught her something new.
She thought that was clever — thought I was wise beyond my years for knowing about it. I thought I was a geeky kid who spent a lot of time reading. Years later, she swung through town with her big black van and we went downtown for coffee. The café she wanted to take me to was closed, so we went to a bar instead. The coffee was crap, but I would kill for the company. I didn’t know I was in love with her yet. I just knew I wanted to be around her, to hear what she thought about anything and everything.
She told me that, in the ever-revolving gallery that was life, my portrait kept coming up in her mind. I told her that I trusted her more than anyone, even though we hardly saw each other anymore, and that I felt more comfortable talking to her than I did my therapist of 10 years. I said we might have kindred souls, and she said we had mirrored souls.
When I was younger, Leonardo DiCaprio was the heartthrob featured in all the teen magazines. I studied his face, trying to figure out what about it caused such a frenzy in my peers. I started watching “Titanic” but gave up less than a half-hour in. One day at Barnes & Noble, I found a book of Leo’s photoshoots for 60 percent off in the bargain section and nagged at my mother until she bought it for me.
I looked through that book exactly twice. The first time was the first night I bought it, and I read every bit of Leo’s biography and filmography, skipping indifferently over the oversized pictures of his face. The second time, at my urging, my mother sat down and looked through the pictures with me. “He’s cute, isn’t he?” I asked, trying to convince the both of us. After we’d finished looking through the book, she put it up on the shelf in my room. I never took it down again, except to toss it in a donation box for a local used book sale a few years later.
I used to love fashion magazines, the big bulky ones with photoshoots of models in elaborate gowns like Vogue and Vanity Fair. I’d buy them and claim I was reading them for the articles (and I did love the articles), but I’d also take tracing paper and sketch the outlines of female bodies with the point of a mechanical pencil. Each stroke of graphite was like a secret shared between the women and me, a featherlight touch as I sketched out the curves of their legs and hips.
“I’m straight,” I would tell myself. “It’s just that women are more appealing aesthetically.” It was like looking at art.
There’s one photograph in particular I remember. In black and white, it featured a woman with a bare torso, her back facing the camera, her hair in a bun, her head turned to look over her shoulder. I spent ages tracing that photo. There was something in me that ached when I looked at the sharpness of her shoulder blades, the soft curve of her neck. When my mother found my sketches, I told her that the most beautiful part of a woman, aesthetically, was the nape of her neck, with her hair swept up.
I told Mel about my crush through a text before I told her I was in love with her. A phone call would be too tangible. My mouth, already prone to dryness, would feel barren. My tongue would hit the roof of my mouth with that discomforting, disgusting click, and I would not know how to say what needed to be said.
I texted her with all the honesty I could summon about how I felt, and she told me, with all the bravery she could muster, about how she felt. She didn’t think she could give me what I needed in a romantic relationship. I told her that I didn’t need anything from her that she wasn’t willing to give. She needed time to think and respond, and so I gave it to her. One night in January, she mentioned that she’d be passing through town the next day and asked if I wanted her to pick me up.
“Come to Buffalo,” the text said. “Get snowed in.”
I didn’t know what to expect, so I suspended all expectations. From the moment I clambered into her beast of a black van, I told myself that I was along for the ride. On the car ride up to Buffalo, neither of us mentioned my crush. We listened to a podcast about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald and made dark, disgusted comments about her alcoholic genius husband. Every now and then, the windshield would become opaque, but she had no windshield fluid, so she’d roll down the window and pour out some of her water bottle to clear up the glass.
The room she rented was magnificent. It was small, at the top of some steep stairs, and there was no door separating the toilet from the rest of the room, but the walls made up for all of that. Whoever had lived in that room before had papered its walls with her drawings. Walking the width of the room, you could watch the evolution of the artist’s style in everything from portraits to landscapes to reproduced maps from fantasy realms. The first hour or so there, we just talked and pointed at the pictures on the walls.
We went to an art show opening that night featuring one of her friends. It was in the back of a boutique and tattoo parlor, which featured a gum-ball machine that gave out little drawings when you inserted a quarter: tattoo roulette. I had a glass of boxed wine and worked up the courage to tell one of the artists that her painting of a girl with a wide-eyed smile was exactly how I felt when I went manic. Later, we listened to a visiting Texan excitedly mansplain the concept of cryptocurrency and shared knowing, amused, conspiratorial glances between us as he rambled on.
I didn’t sleep well. First night in a new place. There wasn’t a bed to talk about sharing, just a twin mattress on the floor and a couch in the corner. I’d never slept in the same bed with another person before. I tossed and turned on the couch, hypomanic, browsing the Internet on my phone.
Mel and I talked about my crush in a roundabout way the next morning. She told me all the reasons she wasn’t looking to be in a relationship, and I understood. But the reasons themselves didn’t matter. I didn’t need her to love me back.
I had some time to myself over the next few days while Mel was shoveling snow. Sitting on her couch with my legs folded under me, a quilt wrapped around my shoulders, sipping coffee she’d made with a French press before she’d left, I closed my eyes and checked in with myself. Everything began to click. I’m not attracted to men. Not even a little bit. My coffee mug empty, I said the words out loud to the first time, even though there was no one else to hear them.
“I’m a lesbian.”
There was a motion-sensor light in the mental ward, the light in the bathroom. I would get up in the middle of the night to stretch my legs, restless, tripping the sensor just to see the light turn on. It reminded me of Mel. Everything reminded me of Mel.
I didn’t know what I was going to say to her or when. I didn’t have anything close to a plan. I just knew that I loved her, and that was enough to make me feel something close to sane. I’ve heard people talk about being crazy in love, lost to their passions. This wasn’t like that. It was calming and quiet.
Her love didn’t save me. I don’t believe that love works like that. But knowing that I loved her — knowing I was capable of love — that might just have saved me, just a little bit. I kept calling her, off and on, those few days I spent in the hospital. Eventually, the doctors decided I wasn’t a danger to myself or others and let me go from the mental ward. My grandfather picked me up in the hospital parking lot, and I didn’t believe that life was worth living, not yet, but I didn’t feel like dying anymore.
We tried to get high that weekend in Buffalo, but the pot didn’t work on me. Every time I took a hit, the high would fade off in minutes, faint and ephemeral. It did make the stale donuts she bought me taste good though. She showed up back from her job shoveling snow with a crockpot and a bag of veggies. While I chopped onions, she took a bite from a raw potato. I had never seen anyone do that before.
We didn’t talk anymore about the crush. We didn’t have to. We had built something together, her and me, and it was stronger than any attempt to define it. I didn’t tell her about my revelation, my attempt at defining myself. But I think she knew that something inside of me had changed.
She’s one of those friends. We don’t talk much, but every now and then I’ll see a tarot deck that makes me think of her, and I’ll tell her. “Thank you for remembering me,” she says, as if I could ever forget.
I went to Pride for the first time in spring. Drove five hours into the Midwest to meet up with some Internet friends, and we wore shirts with rainbows on them. I don’t wonder who I am anymore. I have arrived at my destination. My therapist says, “The wise woman knows herself.” I have never felt particularly wise, but I do feel alive.
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