The first person I ever fell in love with was a straight girl. And when I say girl, I mean quite literally. We were 8 years old. She was my best friend.
Emma was painfully shy. Extremely intelligent, funny, and sweet but virtually silent in the classroom. I suppose it didn’t help that she had to wear headgear. She was one of the smartest kids in school and just as sensitive. We got on famously. I was sensitive, too, but outspoken. I’ve always been good with words, and there’s a family legend that I probably emerged from the womb, having just finished a long conversation with myself and deciding to be born simply to have more people to talk to.
When bullies wanted to mess with Emma, they had to mess with me. Sometimes I’d completely disarm them with what I said, arc the humiliation back on them. On less successful occasions, I’d take her place and be treated to a complimentary whitewash.¹
She was understandably self-conscious about her diction, the dental appliance affecting the quality of her speech, so the teacher let us sit together, and when she wanted to speak, she’d whisper in my ear, and I’d tell everyone what she said.
We were inseparable. I was precocious, too, though a bit crazy and reckless, even by kid standards. Emma seemed to enjoy this about me, and we were always playing pretend games, going on non-existent adventures that I’d lead wherever we found ourselves, the playground, her house, her family’s vacation home, the university where both her parents (zoology professors) worked. We rarely went to my house because my mother didn’t like people watching us, a pattern that would continue up until I left home. We weren’t a happy family. Emma’s mother seemed amused that I would stop by and visit them as though they were my own family, but kind soul that she was, she never turned me away.
And with Emma, the world seemed boundless, endless! When the limits of reality were simply too much, we’d invent other worlds! It was great fun.
In service of this, we invented our own language, which I dubbed “Unicorn.” We’d been studying code breaking in the gifted and talented class she and I were in, so I came up with a simple cipher and some rules to aid in pronunciation to combat the stiff and mechanical construction of the language.
Suddenly, we were able to communicate, though in a somewhat limited capacity, among groups of people, convey desires, insights, and other info conveniently in a way that we were still insulated and safe from the larger world. A single word could convey so much, depending on context, and it was easy to cover as a stumble or a mumble if a third party questioned the utterance.
We had a chaste relationship, free of physical consummation, but it remains one of the most intimate of my life. Over the years, Emma and I drifted apart, pulled that way by boys, circumstance, interests. Last I knew, she was authoring/editing biology textbooks.
I happened to tell Skyspook about Emma one time, when he and I were still “just friends,” though we were poly and had mutually acknowledged reciprocal crushes.
I believe we were talking about my emotional connection to language in general and linguistics as a discipline, a subject about which he was astoundingly curious and attentive,² when I began to tell him about my best friend from childhood and the secret language. He stunned me by asking me how the cipher worked. I relayed the whole system, along with key phrases. He agreed that it was simple but still pretty clever for an 8 year-old.
I forgot the conversation even happened. Weeks passed, during which Skyspook and I were still building our emotional relationship, I was preparing for the move to Northeast Ohio to get out of Maine and try living in the city, and frantically trying to convince my husband at the time to get some professional help to lift him out of the downward spiral of depression he’d fallen in.
I was completely disarmed when Skyspook spoke to me one day, in Unicorn. “I love you,” he said.
I was actually working at home at the time, a medical transcriptionist with IRC running on a laptop next to my work machine, and serendipitously so, as I completely broke down, weeping with joy.
¹having my face held against my will in a snowbank
² I had never experienced this! Even my first husband had thought this was tedious, my emotions surrounding intimacy and language and my story of the secret language.