When We Were Young

If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we’d all be millionaires. —Abigail Van Buren

I have to take that mental trip all the way back to when I was 12 years old, and I saw you for the first time. I have to get this all out, exorcise the demon that is you and release you back into the ether from which you came. This is not the story that I wanted, but it is the story that is.

I heard you before I saw you. The week prior had been spent packing up and moving to a city of four million from a town of 2,000. I was emotional to the point of exhaustion, and there it was- this soprano voice more beautiful than the lighthouse at sunset we would visit years later. It called to me- who was this voice? Where could I find her?

scales
arpeggios
warmer
colder
glissandos
appoggiaturas on simple melodies
warmer
colder
sanctuary door
electric
heat
blushing
there you were

To hear you was to relieve the sting of leaving everything I’d known behind. A child’s intuition bonded me to you, and we hadn’t even met. When we did, I don’t remember what was said. I was too wrapped up in my own head to have had room to store such a thing. I remember first conversations, bits and pieces.

Our music backgrounds gave us our first real interaction, a lesson in concertos. Later on, we walked to McDonald’s from our church, and I told you that people had confronted me and told me that you were gay. I saw your face, like you had been slapped, and I wanted to crawl into the cement. You didn’t confirm or deny, just said “how would you feel if people said that about you one day?” In that moment, I knew they would, and I felt like I had been equally slapped. The realization was huge- and looking back, it wasn’t that people were going to say that about me one day. They were saying it behind my back as we were forging this path right then, the one in which I’d have to tell you that I just didn’t feel normal and you assured me that I was.

There were so many things I didn’t know about being a lesbian, and about being a woman in general. For God’s sakes, I had to ask you how to use a tampon because my mother had all but stopped speaking to me. The week prior, she’d heard me on the phone with you and cornered me as I got out of the shower. She told me that I would NOT put my father’s job in jeopardy, as if I had that kind of power.

And even then, your secret belonged to you. I had only intuition, and the words of your college self that appeared in the journal you gave me when I turned 14. I read about sex and love and desire and everything that a 14 year old wants in a book about who she might become. I remember that you also gave me a stuffed squirrel as a birthday present, and I slept with it for the next five years, because you didn’t live close anymore and it was my only talisman.

When I was 17, I asked you how to make love to a woman. I think I surprised you, because for the first time, I waited for you to leave the room you were in and for a time, we were alone- me in my room, you in yours.

For the first time, I can face this truth. Remembering that conversation, standing in the emotional place that I stood, I realize now that the moment was the first one in which I wanted to save you, protect you, do anything in my power to make your life easier. I was 17. You were 28. There was no way it could or should have happened, but I was deep in thought about your lover, how she mistreated you, how she abused you, and wanting for all the world to put myself in the middle. Be the one to tell her to go away and not come back, because she didn’t deserve you. I didn’t think it all the way through. I didn’t know what I would do if you said you wanted me to do such a thing. Would have freaked the fuck out if you’d ever wanted to see me naked. But what I knew for sure is that if I’d had the chance, I’d have torn her limb from limb and laughed my way through it.

I remember the first time we hugged, and the room spun. I was in love with you, but too young to feel romantic about it. I felt the way it felt to be picked up from school- not seeing my parents all day and the explosion of excitement at seeing their faces.

Wrapped up in you, because you could practically swaddle me with your arms.

Smelling your perfume, that perfume, the one that to this day makes me tear up when I smell it because the way things started are not the way things ended and oh, God…

What have I done? What could I have done?

In the beginning, things were so simple.

I noticed it right off. You were different than any other woman I’d ever met. I didn’t have a word for it, but I knew that you were like me- girly, but not overly so. Not afraid to roll in the dirt with boys and beat them up if needed. Equally comfortable in heels and combat boots. Gap sweaters and Dr Martens and penny loafers, which I also bought because you made preppy cool.

I could barely breathe on Wednesdays.

I awoke at 6:00 AM, and from that moment on, you were all I could think of. What I’d wear that day was really important, because I wanted you to think I was cool, even though I wasn’t. I took forever in the shower, and it was never a good hair day. It was never right enough.

I went to school and suffered through every class. Nothing mattered except making it to 6:00 PM, where I was supposedly doing homework and realistically writing you notes that I hoped you would enjoy. Over time, I noticed that when I was thinking about you, my handwriting started slanting to the left, my d’s looked like eighth notes and my D’s had to curve just so. I used endless amounts of paper, because if my D’s did not curve just so, I had to start over. It rarely occurred to me to just use pencil.

I am sure now that they were tween drivel, but to me, they were trying to communicate over our age difference in the hopes that one day, you’d think I was funny and brilliant. 11 years never seemed so insurmountable as the time I spent trying to figure out how to be interesting to someone I adored. And those were just the notes I handed you when you walked through the door. There were pages and pages that you never read, because in my head, you were my diary. I could never be as good a writer when I thought there would be no audience to read it.

And then it was almost 6:30 and the anticipation was palpable. You were going to walk through the door at any moment and I would be swept up in those hugs, the ones I lived for, because they were unique to anyone else I’d ever met. Intense because they lasted longer… just to touch you, in my mind, was a miracle. What could we possibly have in common that would make you love me back?

The other adults around me thought they knew. Some of the more vocal members of the church cornered my mother and told her that they thought we were sleeping together (though I didn’t find this out until I was 30). They said to my mother, “you have to get your daughter away from her, because gay people molest kids.” My mother confronted you, angrily. I didn’t know what the confrontation was about, but I had a very good feeling about how it would end. I was outside the door during the whole conversation, unable to hear and sweating blood. You were my heart. From then on, I knew that there would be no one that could separate us. My mother was wrong. I knew it like I knew the earth was round.

It was then that all the secrecy began. We would disappear from dinner, talk after choir practice when no one else was around, and notes began appearing in your choir folder so that no one would see me hand them to you. It felt awful and exhilarating to have this kind of secret. I was astounded that you were willing to put yourself at risk just for me.

It wasn’t too long after that I figured out the specifics of why. When my best friend and I used to talk late into the night, it sometimes got intense. We were seventh graders, didn’t have a clue what we were doing, but being with her felt so right. She was so emotionally vulnerable with me, allowed me to be me and just be the goofy mushball I am until I realized, “uh oh.” These are not feelings that girls are supposed to have with each other. When we slept next to each other, I somehow knew that I shouldn’t want to be in her arms, but I did. It wasn’t about sex. I was 13. I just wanted the distance between us in bed to not be so far. I wanted to put my head on her chest and listen to her heart beat as she slept… listen to her breathing become deep and even. Hold her hand and look into her eyes and tell her that I loved her.

But I didn’t. I did the only thing a lesbian seventh grader could do at that point. I became a total asshole to her and never told her why. I never even gave her the choice to accept or reject me, I just assumed that she would. Hung out with a different, rougher crowd. Had crushes on other girls, but stayed as far away from them as humanly possible. I was a total freak of nature, and I knew it.

Until the next Wednesday at 6:00 when I was wrapped up in you again. Held close in protection from the outside world. In those hugs, nothing could get to me. You were my safe place, and you knew why, and so did I… I just didn’t have the words for it.

I started dating boys because I thought I had to. The cognitive dissonance of the situation was not lost on me. I loved everything about my boyfriends that was male- their voices as they dropped deeper, their muscles, their charming smiles and cute little flirts. That being said, when I looked at the moving pictures of my future life, I didn’t see men… I saw you. I was 14 and starting to realize I did have feelings for you-mostly because in my teenage mind, we were the only ones who felt that way about other girls. It was you and me against the world.

I wish I had been more enlightened. I wish I could have saved myself from the deep chasm I dug between us. I was really too young to know what I was doing- playing with fire. I was putting in danger the only relationship that was literally sustaining me.

But loving you came so hard and fast that it was cemented before you told me I wasn’t alone. You knew. I know you knew, because even as a kid, I wasn’t shy about telling you. Understanding that you couldn’t love me because I had little girl hair was beyond me. You let me down easy every single time (which, in retrospect, seems like somewhere around a hundred). It was cute until I was far too old to be wrapped up in you, and instead of realizing it, I just kept shoving my foot in my mouth.

That’s my part of the end. I own that. I drove you to hold me at arm’s length because I wouldn’t give up the idea of being with you. Your part is that you were old enough to see that I was just a kid and it’s 15 years later and you still haven’t forgiven me. You filter everything through the lens that I’m just some sort of crazed fan with no real basis for adoring you the way I do.

I adore you because you saved me. I made it through my teenage years without killing myself. I’ve never had to turn to alcohol or drugs because I couldn’t deal with the fact that I’m gay. I have never left the church because I thought God didn’t love me. And that’s all because of you. Why you don’t get the way I love you is simply surprising, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know what to do with this river of emotion that I feel I’m being forced to let go for no good reason except your reticence to tell me your side of the story.

You love me. I know you do, but not in the truly madly deeply that a parent feels for a child. The raw deal is finding this out, after having spent over 20 years not knowing. It is heartbreaking, and it feels like the grief will never end. I don’t want to get married in a church without you. I don’t want to have a child without you. I can’t imagine a world in which you aren’t “grandmother.” I think about how it felt when you told me it was my job to take care of you when you got old, and how humiliating it feels to know now that you were joking. I would have been honored had it come to that- to take care of you in all the ways that you took care of me… to be your safe place.

I think about what you mean to me and my chest feels tight, my breath goes into fight or flight. This is so unfair that I want to scream it from the rooftops and graffiti it on the walls.

I wonder if I’ll ever get over this enough where seeing you in public doesn’t rattle me like I’ve seen a ghost from my past. I saw you through car windows and street congestion and flopped onto the backseat in pain. We share friends- it is impossible that this won’t happen again and again as we age, and that seems like the cruelest punishment of all- empty interactions where there was once such great love and affection.

The only alternative is to concentrate on the memories I love, like walking arm-in-arm around downtown and having you tell me that I’m the closest thing you have to a daughter. We were both a little tipsy, and your voice came out so sweet and clear and genuine… until later on when you didn’t remember that you said it. Here’s the thing, though, I have that memory, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything or anyone.

It wraps my heart in one of those hugs. In those hugs, nothing could get to me. You were my safe place, even if I was the only one who knew why.

—————————

Epilogue

There are good days, bad days, and very bad days. However, the very bad days are fewer and farther between, as if this is meant to have happened so I could breathe. Our conflict was causing me so much pain that I would become wrapped up in solving it, because I honestly believe there is no emotional conflict on earth that can’t eventually be defeated. But I was wrong. There’s one conflict that can never be resolved: when only one party wants resolution.

I’ve had to evaluate everything that’s happened between us, and the first thing I realized was that it wasn’t my fault. I was too young to be friends with an adult that couldn’t level with me, because I didn’t realize it was even happening. I took everything you said as God’s honest truth and didn’t realize that in a lot of ways, I was being jerked around.

It’s not your fault, either. You didn’t jerk me around on purpose. You were 23. I was 23 once. I didn’t know what I was doing at anything. You didn’t expect to birth a teenager, but I thought you were and I was wrong. There was nothing that could shake this belief that one day, it was all going to work out and you were going to understand me and I was going to understand you.

After all this time, you know me.

I have only observations that you will neither confirm or deny. I don’t know what you really think about anything. The problem was that I was willing to stick it out because I thought we were going to have a moment. The moment that we could understand each other and stop fighting about our roles like we’re one step away from Jerry Springer.

I believed in you, and instead of feeling like you believed in me, I felt that if I could just do enough, try enough, be enough, that things would change.

It embarrasses me to no end how long I marched forward with all of this when there was no clear evidence of this ever actually happening. It was a family tie that lived in the clouds and not on the ground.

I miss you so dearly, and I will not hear a bad word about you. At the same time, I am grateful that I can move on, knowing that in my mind, things are settled.

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