Once upon a time I had a girlfriend. I was 16 and confused about my sexuality; she was 17 and clearly also confused about my sexuality. We met one summer on a European teen-tour that masqueraded as an amateur tennis team and lost our virginity to one another in a shoddy hotel on the coast of France. It was magical, I guess, in the sense that losing your virginity is bound to be an out-of-body experience, despite certain imperfect anatomical details. We went out for ice-cream afterwards and ate it while looking out over the shimmering Atlantic. On the outside, it was like a perfectly twee coming-of-age movie. On the inside, I had a big ol’ crush on Ryan Gosling.
When we returned to the States at the end of the summer we decided to stay together. She lived in the San Francisco area and I lived in New York, making the whole arrangement really convenient for me. Every six weeks or so, one of us would fly across the country and stay with the other’s family. It was the classic, closeted, “my girlfriend lives in Canada”-spiel: I could claim and prove she existed, thus maintaining my cover, but I also didn’t have to confront my lacking physical attraction to her on a daily basis. This was my saving grace and also what, rather miraculously, allowed me to keep up the charade for almost an entire year.
Thing was, I really did like this girl, though not in the way she or I had hoped. She was a wonderful person: open-hearted, funny, smart–a balanced combination of sensitive feminine traits and low-maintenance, tomboy charm (she was, as the cliche goes, the sports fan in the relationship). She had a dry, gleefully dark sense of humor, which I loved and related to, and we bonded over many topics: the ridiculousness of the college admissions process, smoking pot, and the OutKast record Speakerboxxx / The Love Below, to name a few.
She fit right in with my tight-knit family as well, no small feat. Every time she visited, my mom embraced her as she would have her own daughter-in-law. Best of all, she earnestly accepted many of the personality traits that others around me (correctly) saw as evidence that I was gay–among them my passion for Marc Jacobs duds, the movie “Clueless” and the fact that almost all of my close friends were girls.
“You’re very metrosexual,” she would joke lovingly, without judgement (“metrosexuality” was a thing then). Not only did these affirmations render her the perfect foil to anyone who questioned my sexuality, but her understanding and appreciation for everything about me enabled me to continue avoiding a reality that I had known on some level for a long time, but felt unable to face.
At the start of the following summer my girlfriend intended to come east and stay for an entire three months before beginning college at Northeastern, a school she had selected partially to be closer to me. We planned for her to stay in my family’s house while we worked together as waiters at a local restaurant.
Our summer arrangement had been settled for months, but my dread escalated with each passing day as her arrival drew near. My battle with my sexuality had begun to consume me completely. I knew that no matter how much I tried to control my feelings, I couldn’t for much longer. One night I went to see “Batman Begins” with a friend and remember taking a cab home alone, looking at my reflection in the window and trying to spit out the phrase, “I’m gay.” I couldn’t, but it was right there, right at the base of my throat and creeping closer and closer to the tip of my tongue.
The impending notion of having to be around my girlfriend every waking hour for months while this secret brewed just beneath the surface kept me awake at night. This was in part because of my own need to express this part of myself, to be fully me, but also because I knew I was eventually going to have to hurt her. Badly.
It became too much to bear. In April, even though I had barely one toe clinging to the closet for dear life and was not fully out to myself or anyone else, I decided I should cut my losses and end the relationship. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and she was as heartbroken as I feared she would be. She was blindsided and bewildered. “I don’t get why you’re doing this,” I remember her repeating though tears on our break-up call. Of course, I wasn’t able to let her fully in on my reasoning. I paid her back for her already-purchased plane ticket to New York; it was the least I could do even though it didn’t make me feel an ounce better about myself and how I had treated her.
A year-and-half later, I was a fully out gay freshman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. My ex-girlfriend and I had spoken only intermittently since our break up, increasingly less following the initial dissolution of our relationship. One day I called her. I felt like I owed her an explanation for everything that had happened between us, but I also genuinely missed her friendship. Weirdly enough, she was one of the few people in my life who I felt really understood me.
After some friendly small talk, I went right for the jugular. “I called you because I really want you to know something: I’m gay,” I squeaked through the phone while crouched and shaking on the steps of outside of my dorm. After a few moments of silence, she responded with thinly-feigned nonchalance, “I guess I knew that already.”
Rather shocked about the ease with which she admitted this, I responded, “You did?” “Yeah, I mean you picked out my Marc Jacobs dresses for me,” she retorted with a vulnerable nervous chuckle, “how long have you known?” “Well, on some level, I’ve known my whole life,” I replied but felt compelled to quickly follow it up with, “But I didn’t KNOW know.” (I still find this knowing-but-not-knowing aspect of closeted life difficult to articulate.) “Oh, I see,” she said after many seconds of silence and now audibly holding back tears.
The conversation, though brief, felt interminable. My heart ached because I knew that while she may have honestly had inclinations about my sexuality, she was mostly pretending this was no big deal in order to protect herself. I also knew she did not want to let me in on any of that. “It’s good, I’m happy for you,” she continued, now clearly rushing to get off the phone. “Talk soon?” I remember saying to conclude the conversation. “Definitely,” she replied. We never spoke again.
At the end of our call, I flipped my Sidekick shut feeling both relief and sadness: relief from the guilt I carried having kept this secret from her after being out for more than a year, and relief because she now had some much-deserved closure on our relationship. But also immense sadness because even though it was never my intention, a human being and a dear friend for whom I had genuinely cared felt like nothing but a discarded victim in the midst of my own sexuality battle. The barely-hidden agony in her voice on the phone confirmed this. Her pain was my fault.
In the decade since our relationship, I have worked hard to forgive myself and have realized that at the time, I was doing the best I could with the tools I had. While on some level I knew what was really going on between my own legs, I wasn’t actively lying to my girlfriend. In fact most teen relationships, or relationships in general, end because one person does or realizes something that renders the relationship unfeasible. But I have never shaken a selfish need to reconnect with her, to see how she’s doing and maybe also to gain reassurance that everything’s cool between us. I’m the one looking for closure now.
I’ve even, on various whims, friended her on Facebook a couple times over the years (our romance predated social media). She has never accepted my request. But the other night around 3:30am a girl approached me in the booth where I was DJing. “Remember me?” she asked. I did: It was my ex-girlfriend and my’s mutual best friend from our faux-tennis team teen tour. After hugging and exchanging pleasantries, I asked if she was still in touch with my ex. “We’re still very close! She has a great job and a boyfriend of many years. She still lives in Boston” (obviously the move east worked out, despite my behavior). “Good,” I said, “send her my love.” After my friend left, I realized that this drunken exchange in a NYC nightclub could very well be all the closure I am going to get on this chapter of my life. And that’s okay. I’m really glad she’s doing well.