The Worst Years

I’m super stoked to tell you about the new thing I did during the week of January 29. My friend Amy, whom I have written about before, is a fellow middle school English teacher. Also like me, she encourages her students to push themselves and get out of their comfort zone. At her middle school they have a newspaper club, which sounds like the coolest and nerdiest group ever conceived and I freaking love it. One of the girls in the newspaper club wanted to do a story on what it’s like to come out now versus in the past, and what kind of resources are available now for LGBTQ teens. Despite the fact that the girl’s mother didn’t want her writing about this topic, she forged ahead anyway, with the encouragement of my friend. The girl wanted to interview an adult who had gone through some of this whole coming out of the closet stuff, so Amy arranged a sit-down interview between the newspaper club kids and me.

When I arrived, there were two girls who came in to interview me. One was a pretty, round-faced girl with long, dark hair and an infectious smile. She seemed so nervous she could have jumped out of her skin. The other girl had shoulder length, ashy blonde hair, and a mischievous aura about her.

The questions these girls asked were very thoughtful and offered me the opportunity to share my coming out story in a new way. I’ve written about coming out here and here and here, but all of those formats were meant for older teens and adults. Being interviewed by fourteen-year-olds is a different ball game altogether. Because of their young age, their questions were able to pluck out pieces of my story I’d told in passing to friends or acquaintances, but had never put much weight in before.

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An impromptu photography session in my basement at age 14.

One of the questions they asked that spawned a story was about my friendships with girls when I was young. I didn’t have very many close girl friends. I had one. Her name was CeCe* and I loved her more than life itself. We became friends in third or fourth grade, and from then on, we were inseparable. At least one night of every weekend we had a sleepover at one another’s house. I told her my darkest, most shameful secrets–she knew about the abuse at home and she stuck by me. She defended me to other people, and I got into physical altercations with people who dared to hurt or insult her. I thought we were the Ruth and Idgie of Plentywood, Montana, a girlhood Thelma and Louise. What I didn’t understand then and for many years after was that I didn’t just love CeCe, I was in love with her.

Someone else did understand this. Her boyfriend. When we entered our freshman year of high school, CeCe snagged her middle school crush. At first, I was really happy for her. I knew how long she had pined for him–but that happiness didn’t last long. Derek was a possessive and controlling dude, and CeCe was more than willing to go along with whatever he wanted, even if what he wanted was for her to stop being my friend. When I asked her why he didn’t want us to be friends she said, “Because he thinks you’re in love with me.”

That’s ridiculous, I thought. She agreed.

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Nonetheless, she did what he asked, and soon enough, she was ignoring me completely. She wouldn’t answer my phone calls or call me back, she pretended she didn’t hear me when I said her name in class or in the hallway, and she didn’t respond to the notes I left in her locker. After weeks of this treatment, I decided I was going to give CeCe an ultimatum (this always works, amirite?). On a Friday afternoon, I wrote her a note in class and put it in her locker. The note said something like, “I love you and I think our friendship is worth fighting for. If you agree, come to my house tonight so we can talk. If you don’t come, then we will never be friends again.”

I stayed up until dawn, sitting at the kitchen counter and staring out the window, waiting. CeCe never came.

At this, the buck-toothed ashy blonde sighed and said, “I’m so sorry.” The sincerity with which she responded made it clear that even though I was telling a very specific story about my first same-sex love that happened twenty years ago, it very well could have been told today.

I told the newspaper girls that I came out to my mom the first time when I was twelve, but she told me I wasn’t gay, and I believed her. I didn’t officially come out again and truly start my life until I was 25…which is why the next question threw me off a bit. They asked me if I had ever been bullied for being gay when I was a teen. Surprisingly, the answer was yes.

After that Friday night when CeCe never showed up, I was devastated. I wrote angsty breakup songs on the guitar. I cried myself to sleep. I avoided seeing her or Derek as much as possible. I didn’t want to and couldn’t look at her. It hurt too much. The best way for me to avoid seeing either of them was to get to school very early, get my stuff out of my locker, and make a beeline for my first period class, which happened to be in the computer lab, tucked far away from the main hallways where everyone else lingered.

meb&w

One morning I sat at my assigned computer doing whatever it was I did on the internet in 1997. The lab was empty, as usual, except for me. It was enclosed in glass on the side that was adjacent to the hallway, so I knew I was in for something bad when I saw Derek and a group of boys walking toward the computer lab. They entered the lab and placed themselves strategically around me–some in the row in front of me, some next to me, some behind me. They all talked to each other as if I weren’t there, but everything that tumbled out of their mouths was about me.

Those boys said hateful things, violent things, one of them said if I weren’t so ugly, he’d “teach me a lesson”. I was so very scared. I froze in place and stared directly ahead at my computer screen. Then it got worse.

Derek opened up a piece of paper, and at the sound of the paper unwrinkling, I had to look. It was my note to CeCe; my handwriting was illuminated by the glow of computer screens. He read the note out loud to the hearty laughter and amusement of the boys who surrounded me. I imagined that he and CeCe had spent that weekend driving around, taking bong hits, and laughing over my words. I was devastated by this unique betrayal, and could no longer hold back tears. The boys seemed satisfied with this reaction, and one by one, they left.

As he got up to leave, Derek placed a hand on my shoulder and leaned down. “Leave CeCe alone. She’s not like you, you fucking dyke,” he said.

written phrases series

When I finished this story, the girl with the mischievous grin inhaled sharply and shook her head.

“How did he get the note?” she asked.

“CeCe gave it to him,” I said.

“Wow. That sucks,” she replied.

“Yeah, it did,” I said.

But then I told them about how years later, when we were both far away from home attending different colleges, we reconnected. I told them I forgave her a long time ago, and that when we’re young, every one of us participates in some way in cruelty. And that we should all make it our goal to recognize when this happens and correct it.

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I was trying to the tell the world already in this photo. Five years later, I would be out, and he would be dead.

As I spoke to the girls, my mind wandered to the year I truly came out, when I told CeCe that I was gay as we sat together, adults in our mid-twenties, in my childhood bedroom. A good friend of ours had died suddenly and tragically young, and we’d both come home for the funeral. When we were going through some of my high school things to try to find pictures or other mementos for the service, we stumbled upon CeCe’s sophomore school photo that she’d given me. I turned the photo over, and on the back she had written, “Don’t worry. I don’t think you’re in love with me.”

We both gasped, and then we laughed and laughed. Even though I knew by then that my feelings for CeCe as a teenager were misplaced and were way more than friendship feelings, I was still struggling with accepting that reality. I thought perhaps I’d made it all up in my head. But there we were, holding proof in our hands that it wasn’t a phase, that I’d been this way all along, and that it was okay. That we were both sitting together on my bed, a decade after she’d broken my baby gay heart, was proof that everything would, indeed, get better.

And it’s gotten so, so much better.

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*Names were changed to protect privacy.

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