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Queer Infatuation: What I Learned From My First Loves

Julia Caesar/Unsplash

"Friends talk of their definitive first, and here I am with a handful of firsts that I didn’t even realize were happening until they were over."

This essay was chosen by editors in reponse to the #FirstTime prompt: Who was your first love?

Katrina gasps next to Kanye West in her current profile picture. I didn't remember her last name, but somehow after 17 years I find her. She looks happy. And straight.

Rewind to the late 90s. Katrina, with a bob parted slightly to the right. Me, wearing a pompom barrette in the wild mane I refused to cut. Katrina in that plaid jumper, me in the navy shorts and collared shirt. Both of us hugging, while I made a funny face and gave a thumbs up to my dad behind the camera. I went to Katrina's house after school, but during lunch I played kickball with the boys. I wasn't afraid of cooties.

When we were learning how to read, we sat in circles with illustrated booklets about bear kings and farmer rabbits. Katrina didn't know that periods were silent, and she said "dot" after each sentence like a literary telegram. It was my turn to read aloud next. "The purple poodle likes plums. Dot," I said, following the words with my finger.

At the end of kindergarten, Katrina moved away. I don't remember that summer, but I must have felt sad. Her family moved back, much later, and she graduated from a high school near mine.

Maybe Katrina was my first crush. I can't say for sure because it is only looking back that I think I liked her. At six years old, I didn't know that I could feel about girls what I was supposed to feel about boys. Maybe Katrina was just another best friend. Didn't I also admire her older sister? Didn't I stare at Sky Okimoto, our teacher's assistant whose diamonds lit up her left ear from lobe to helix? Don't I remember all these names too clearly?

Somewhere in between believing that every straight girl thought about kissing other straight girls and coming out to my parents in a shampoo aisle, I stopped pretending to myself. Mostly. I still thought I might marry a man in the end.

In high school, I turned to my best friend and said, "You know I'm not straight, right?" She said yes, and neither was she. It was all I wanted to talk about for weeks. We explored queerness in code. Squiggle, we called ourselves, not straight. I sent her photos of Marlene Dietrich in a suit.

My mysteries started to solve themselves. I thought about friendships tinted like obsession, about surprising nervousness, about watching Rosario Dawson dance OutTonight on repeat. It was like stepping sideways and seeing the truth of an optical illusion. The subtleties of infatuation became obvious, and now I could see a shimmer around the memories of special girls.

Alex, the shortstop on my first softball team. She cracked sunflower seeds without smashing them and batted left-handed when we were winning. I picked up her quirks of speech, replacing pauses with dude. She chased me around the fields when practice ended, along the fences and through the dugouts. I could out-run almost anyone in my class, but Alex would always catch me. She wore jersey number seven, and I adopted it after she left my age league. My lucky number is still seven.

In seventh grade, Julia didn't believe me when I told her I didn't like anyone. "No, really," she begged for hours during a sleepover. "I promise I won't tell!" When she confessed she liked Josh, I lied that I liked Josh's best friend Dylan. "I knew it!" she squealed. Sure, I thought.

On Monday, I looked at Dylan's green eyes and tried to find desire in the lines of his lips. A few weeks later, I dreamed about him playing four-square, but this dream-Dylan wasn't him at all: she had golden hair as long as mine. I kissed girl-Dylan on the cheek. In the morning, I thought how funny that was, kissing a girl in a dream who was a boy in real life.

In eighth grade, Monique on the track team didn't believe me either. "You have to like someone," she said, stretching into a lunge. I thought of each boy: their scrawniness, or their baby fat, their unstable voices. I thought of Matt touching my thigh when we sat alone backstage and Luis joking about sex. "I seriously don't like anyone," I laughed. Did Monique? I started to think I was incapable of love.

Michelle, the drummer. She had class in the art room right before I did, and one day I showed up early. I didn't know she would be there, suddenly so close, and I dropped my portfolio. She helped collect my charcoal sketches from the floor, kneeling and reaching under the tables while I felt very much like a freshman. Our hands came close, exchanged a pastel landscape, then drew apart. I said thank you but couldn't look up because I could feel my face burning.

There were a few more confusing months and moments until I woke up from a dream about kissing Haley, yet another friend I hadn't noticed my feelings for. I can't tell you the day, but I do know that was the moment I couldn't keep my secret: I wanted her. I wanted other women. I could no longer mistake the twist in my stomach for anything other than the vertigo of falling in love. And slowly I became okay with that. I didn't need the protection of ignorance because I was ready to be made vulnerable by acceptance.

Sometimes I am glad that I had these first crushes without painful self-awareness or teasing from classmates. Other times it feels like a small loss, or yet another rite of passage I fucked up. Friends talk of their definitive first, and here I am with a handful of firsts that I didn't even realize were happening until they were over. But a beautiful part of queerness is following your own rules and inventing your own values. I am capable of love after all, just not in the ways I had been taught.

Bridget Holyk Casey is an art writer and photographer. She lives in New York with her (first) wife and their many plants.

Like what you read? Submit your own #FirstTime essay in response to our next prompt: What was it like coming out? Instructions here.

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Bridget Holyk Casey