I loved a girl who everyone loved. There was nothing radical about it. Ann was the captain of our varsity soccer team even though we were only sophomores. So, everyone called her by her last name – Marcus. She never tried too hard in class, but didn’t shame those of us determined to be loved by our teachers. She never joined me when I snuck off at lunch to smoke pot out by the portables with the punk kids. She always went to the parties I wasn’t invited to and never got mad when drunken MySpace photos showed up the next day. She loved her best friends, and always knew the new kid’s name. And she was just mean enough that when she was nice it felt like you’d earned it.
We weren’t friends, I was a social pariah after my idiotic choices earlier in the year lead to the kind of dramatic series of friend break-ups usually only seen in teen dramas. My name and phone number with the words “slut,” “liar,” and “pig” were Sharpied on the insides of bathroom stalls. And after months of secret weeping and occasional public humiliation, I’d given up on the idea of repairing my reputation. I’d switched all of my classes and hardened my heart as much as a delicate flower of a teenage girl can, but continued to fail to grasp the basics of good friend etiquette.
So, we weren’t friends, but we were friend adjacent. That was my new comfort zone. Never truly close to people, but willing to play along good-naturedly when the moment called for it. I sat directly behind her in Economics, a class both of us regretted signing up for, and we’d spend the hour making jokes about our teacher’s overeager attempts to be relevant and liked. Eventually my class notebook became our shared space for these small cruelties, but that shifted into other gossip, and inane confessions, and collaborative multi-page doodles. We gave each other nicknames that we only used in the privacy of those pages.
Halfway through the semester she wrote on the top of a new page, come to Nick’s house after the game today? I agreed, knowing I’d have to call in sick to work, lie to my family about where I was, and that I’d hate being there. Ann had asked me, there wasn’t another answer.
The party was loud as people mixed fruit punch with cheap vodka and grinded against each other on the dance floor which was usually where Nick’s parents watched Fox news after family dinner. I knew everyone’s names, even in the dim light, but no one waved me over. I pushed through to the back porch where Ann sat in her post-game victory glory. An inch of briefs showed between her loose grey sweats and navy hoodie. She’d let her Adidas slides fall off and was rubbing one socked foot up Frannie’s leg. Frannie was still in her cheerleader uniform and I wondered if there’d been a football game tonight too, or if this was a weird roleplay I’d walked into.
Ann looked up at me, eyes glazed over with the fruit punch special, and smiled weakly. “You actually came.”
I laughed, without knowing why, and looked nervously at Frannie who was staring angrily at my too short dress. “Hi, Frances.”
She let out an angry laugh and pushed past me back into the house. Ann watched her go and then asked, “what’d you do to Frannie?”
I just shrugged and took a white wicker seat nearby, trying to pull my skirt farther down on my legs. “How long have you been here?”
Instead she leaned forward, and took my hand, looking seriously into my face for a beat before bursting into laughter, “I’m too drunk already, right?”
I did absolutely nothing for fear that she’d let my hand go.
“Nick thinks you’re a dyke, said you wrote his sister a poem or something at some Jew thing.” She took a sip of a drink I could smell from my seat, but kept her grip on my fingers. My face was hot as I remembered Sara reading my terrible poetry aloud to the rest of the Sunday school class on lunch one day. It had hurt more when she came out the next year and started dating a hot bi girl from another youth group. “But, you’re not one of us. Right?”
Suddenly I was aware of the intensity of her look, and of how many people were on the other end of the porch, smoking out of a dingy glass pipe. I swallowed a few times, my mouth dry and tacky. “Yea, I’m bi.” I thought everyone knew that. At least everyone who changed in the girl’s locker room and could read marker graffiti.
She laughed again, even louder, tugged my hand into her lap and I let her, folding my body forward. “No, I would know. You’re always dating a new guy. You’re not gay. And I don’t even think bi is a real thing.”
Years later I’d remember this moment when I started calling myself a lesbian and I’d cringe, believing I was aiding in bi-erasure but desperate to be seen. In that moment I just shook my head and wished she’d just kiss me and get it over with.
Fran’s voice arrived before she did, yelling from the other side of the screen door, “look! This fucking slut! It’s not enough that you’ve slept with half of the football team?”
I was off the porch and halfway down the street to the bus before I felt the pressure of Ann’s fingers leave my own.
Late that night, when my house was finally silent, my mother asleep in the twin bed next to mine, I crept to AIM. Of course she was online, of course I sent her a spineless “sorry.”
Ann - why’d you run off
Me - Fran hates me
Ann - She just thinks you’re trying to steal me. But you’re not gay and we’re breaking up anyway.
I felt an indecent thrill and rested my forehead on the desk to calm myself before typing back.
Me - Bi. and why are you breaking up?
There was such a pause I thought she’d left, but finally - I like our friendship the way it is, you know? I like sitting in the back of economics with you.
The untyped so don’t fuck it up by being gay didn’t stop me from pushing - yea, same. But it doesn’t have to be just in the stupid portable.
She wrote at the end of class the next day, beneath a particularly gross doodle we’d been giggling about all period, “my buddy Matt likes you. So, stop with all the gay bullshit, let him take you out.”
So, I did.
In Creative Writing club, where I always stayed too late and called the middle-aged advisor by his first name - Martin - when we were alone, I turned in my piece for the week. It was a story about a lesbian sleeping with her true love’s brother after being rejected. He hunched over it, a hand tangled in his graying, thinning curls, his glasses balancing gently on the very tip of his nostrils, reading over my work. He had this habit of pushing each page of writing away from himself, as if in disgust, no matter what he was reading, it made for ratty copies of Shakespeare in third period English and near crumpled copies of my writing in our club.
I sat like I always did in these precious late hours before I had to catch the bus home. As a teenager I had no bad fidgety habits. I was never tempted to chew my cuticles, bite my nails, tap my fingers or feet. I would instead spend uncomfortably long periods of time sitting almost entirely still. My boyfriends often told me how eerie it felt, how I looked like a doll. They’d ask if I was breathing or blinking.
Years later I’d develop a nervous habit of biting my lower lip that I worked to rid myself of after a classmate told me he thought about it at night. And even later, thanks to long term high dose steroids, I developed an unattractive facial tic that causes me to rub my upper lip along the bottom ridge of my nose. But at 15 I was the stillness of a deer moments before collision.
Martin took in my words with unrivaled intensity, positively encouraged me to keep writing, and usually only offered one or two suggested changes. Sometimes he asked if he could take my work home for his wife to read and I’d feel my face flush as I agreed.
This time I sat, my mostly bare ass cold on the pressboard desk, my skirt too short and too flared, no matter how many times I tried to stretch it longer, my eyes staring unfocused as he shoved one page after another away from his view, thinking about Ann. I barely registered that he was speaking to me until I heard, “the main character is just so unlikeable.”
“I’m the main character, Martin.”
He nodded for a long while, looking down at the last page of my story before meeting my gaze and saying, “well, maybe that’s something to consider.”
The next time she flipped through our notebook, I watched her grow as still as I ever was and I knew she’d found my love letter. I’d stayed up late carefully detailing all of the ways she made me feel, and then watched as she tore it from the notebook. For one small moment I thought she’d fold it up and put it in her pocket. Instead she systematically ripped it into tiny, unreadable pieces.
The teacher stopped his joking with one of the football players and turned to ask, “what’s going on with you girls?”
Ann shoved the snowfall of my affection off of her desk, “I need to switch seats, she’s too distracting.”
Gutted, horrified, but bereft of shame after months of social isolation, I hissed, “but I love you.”
Speaking at a volume the whole room could hear, she replied, “everyone loves me.”
Years later, during winter break of my third year of undergrad, I made the mistake of visiting my old home. I let my childhood best friend talk me into attending a Christmas party one of the cool kids from high school was throwing, assuming there’d be dozens of people, most of whom I wouldn’t know. Townies who’d never left, but were from other schools or other grades, just like the majority of people from my town. But there were just fifteen of us and Ann was already there when we arrived. I felt moisture slick along the inside of my clenched fists, and I shoved them deeper into my pockets.
I was wearing black fitted jeans tucked into Doc Martens and an obnoxious Hanukkah sweater, my buzz cut recently touched up and my hipster frames much too large for my face. The men were in boat shoes, khakis and button-ups. All of the women were in short, glittery dresses and heels, their hair barrel-curled and sprayed, their faces dewy. Except Ann, who was wearing her high school soccer hoodie over black slacks and Adidas. I fought to make eye contact with anyone else, prayed a single other person would ask me why I was there or where I’d gone to school, or why the fuck I always seemed to dress wrong. Instead I found the bar, which only offered Tecate or Mike’s Hard, and took my time with slowly twisting the top off of a bottle.
When I turned around, she was just behind me, laughing at something a beautiful girl I’d known since elementary school was saying. I could hear nothing over the roar of anxiety. She made eye contact with me as I felt a bit of the cherry red liquor drip down my face.
She reached out and wiped my face with the back of her hand. “Why are you staring at me? Don’t be such a freak.” She laughed and gently punched my shoulder before reaching past me to grab a beer. She was already drunk.
I laughed and moved immediately away to silently join a conversation about our high school class president’s already very successful retirement fund. I nodded when other people piped in and laughed when other people laughed and couldn’t stop thinking about calling my brother to come pick me up and save me from this hell.
It was an hour later when I felt her hand wrap around my upper arm and her voice too close and too loud in my ear, “what’re you doing with your life anyway?”
I turned from listening to an engagement story I’d already heard twice that evening and we robotically filled each other in on our recent histories. Every sentence felt like a challenge, both of us were losing. After a particularly painful stretch of silence she grabbed my hand and said, “I have to pee, come with me.”
Years of being out had made me very careful about these moments. I never went with my straight friends to the bathroom and if I went with another queer it was usually to push them up against the sink and slide my hand under their shirt. My pulse picked up and I let her pull me into the small half bath. She drunkenly swayed to the toilet and started to pull her pants down when she seemed to remember that I wasn’t one of her real friends. She met my gaze and told me to turn around.
It was there, as I faced the corner, as I listened to her impressive stream of urine, that she asked me between uncontrollable laughter, “remember when you thought you were gay and told me you loved me?”
The sweat trailing down my lower back turned to icicles. I swiveled my body, looking straight into her eyes and spoke the last words I’d ever say to her, “No, I don’t.”
About the artist...
Al Rosenberg is a queer Jewish writer on the west side of Chicago. Al's work has appeared in places like Alma, Argot, Autostraddle, as well as places that don't start with "a."