Being a Young Girl Was All About Mixed Messages
When I was a young girl, it often seemed like I was toeing a very thin invisible line, walking through the most narrow passage opening, sandwiched between two hard rock walls.
On one wall was the pressure to succeed, and on the other side, the pressure to fit in. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
If I under performed, I was told to apply myself and live up to my potential.
When I excelled, I was told not to be a show-off. “No one likes a know-it-all,” my mother would tell me.
And then proceeded to scream at me when I got my first A- in social studies, since my teacher had called her concerned about the drop in my grades.
When I course corrected, applied myself, and improved my grades, even winning a school spelling bee, I was met with the other wall again:
Boys don’t like girls smarter than you. If you don’t tone it down, you’ll end up an old maid.
Ooooh, I bet you think you’re smarter than me, don’t you? Well, smart girl, you’re going to end up alone.
It was deeply confusing. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to make my mother happy. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, it seemed like she was internally torn herself.
Left to her own devices, I think she would have been happiest to have me as a middling student, provided I’d been a touch prettier and thinner and provided I said all the right things (and just as important, that I didn’t say all the wrong things, as I was prone to do). The popular pretty girl. Basically a reboot of who she had been.
But my mother has always responded powerfully to shaming from other people. So when my teachers voiced concern about middling grades (or even ones that were simply not quite as good as I’d been getting previously), it didn’t matter that their concerns clashed sharply with her own values system and what she really wanted for me. She responded to it instantly, reflexively. She joined the chorus of criticism, chastised me for underachieving. In that moment, she became the parent my teachers wanted her to be. The parent who wanted me to be academically successful.
But the moment the parent-teacher conference was over, she’d default right back to her own values system. One in which academic success and popularity were at odds with one another for a young woman. A situation in which you had to pick one or the other. And in which popularity was clearly the optimal path.
The whole process gave me profound whiplash, from my perspective.
But from my mother’s, it was all logically consistent. My mother was a slave to validation and criticism. She let other people determine her own worth without ever questioning it. So why wouldn’t she expect the same of me?
I Kept Falling in Love With Other Girls
It was on this background that I had a number of close friendships. I bonded easily with girls. Primarily, there was the simple matter of easier social access: In my religious upbringing, boys and girls were rarely, if ever, left unsupervised. Mixed sex play dates were presumed as ones that would turn sexual (a huge no-no).
No, it was safer to have all the girls play together. No boys allowed.
And when I was in all-girl company, we were often left completely unsupervised. We could sleep in the same bed without being checked up on. Frequently go out on adventures all over town by ourselves.
By the time I was allowed to spend much time with boys, we were constantly supervised and condemned to doing the most boring activities with one another. And forget about overnights.
Boys never had a chance against such a huge headstart.
Even before I started to have sex with other girls, there was an unbeatable intimacy to sharing a bed. To staying up much too late and telling jokes in the darkness. And waking up in that fuzziness and saying good morning. Telling one another our dreams. Even in the years before things became sexual, sometimes we’d roll over in the night while we were asleep, seeking warmth, and I’d wake up with an arm over me. Or mine over hers. The delicate satin of a nightgown pressed up against my skin.
I was in love with four of my close female friends.
One I was never physical with. I loved her intensely, but nothing more happened.
Two of the four were physical with me at the same time, an intensely complicated tangle of bodies and mouths that made my young head swim. But that arrangement was purely sexual, more of an early friend with benefits dynamic than anything romantic. One of them was incredibly territorial and possessive of the other and wanted me to know that they were best friends, and I wasn’t their best friend. I’d always be something lesser. When I was later bullied for being queer, they kept silent and said nothing.
But the fourth friend, well, Noelle was different. I loved her intensely. We had a physical relationship, too. But when I was bullied for being queer, while she didn’t challenge my accusers or defend me, she did call me to sit at a different lunch table with her, to spirit me away from the bullying. She did this even knowing that even this small kindness could draw the bullies’ ire onto her. This bravery was part of why I Ioved her so much.
She was a lot like me, actually. She had a bravery that often looked like recklessness to other people. And she wasn’t at all used to being understood.
But it was more than that. I loved her because we were suffering from the same strains. Running from the same demons. We had all the same flaws.
I Loved One Girl So Much That It Nearly Destroyed Me
Part of the large task of growing up for me involved realizing that my own happiness was going to be forever out of reach. That I existed in an atmosphere where excellence was demanded of me but never rewarded. Where mistakes were never forgiven.
I remember standing outside our school one morning waiting for the doors to open, looking at Noelle and thinking, Well, I’m never going to be happy. But I can make her happy.
And I did my darnedest. I did whatever it took. It didn’t matter what Noelle asked of me, I would say yes. I would totally debase myself if it meant that she could feel an iota better about herself, her world.
I let her dominate conversations. Complimented her incessantly. Overlooked anything she said or did that would normally have been considered offensive. When we hung out together, I did whatever she asked.
Sometimes it was really fun. Despite the fact that we both went to the same Catholic church (and participated in youth events), Noelle was really into the occult, so she’d often be showing me spell books, pagan treatises, apocrypha. Fascinating stuff, really, especially back then to a kid who had been surrounded by angel figurines and crosses.
Other times, it was distinctly not fun — as she left me to deal with one of her four boyfriends who all didn’t know about one another. To cover for her, lie about where she was (which was off with another one of her boyfriends, of course).
And still other times, it was soul crushing… when I’d bare my heart and soul yet again to have her say, “I love you, but he’s The One.” Before she turned around and jumped into bed with yet another man who didn’t seem to care about her and would soon be replaced or supplemented by another man she swore was The One.
In her defense, she never asked me to do any of this. To be in thrall of her. Her sidekick and constant promoter. She never asked me to follow her around like a lovesick puppy sniffing around for any dropped crumbs of her affection.
But she never did anything to deter it either. And from my perspective, it really did seem to feel like she quite enjoyed my attention, no matter what it personally cost me.
And this went on for six years, until one night I just couldn’t take it anymore. I let her know that I was done.
The aftermath of that night was terrible. Interestingly, our friendship did survive, although in order to do so, it had to change quite a bit. But we still know and like one another very much, as childhood friends who remember one another fondly and live in different parts of the country.
Things looked fine for quite some time externally.
The real toll of that night was borne inside of myself. The heartache from losing her almost killed me, even though I had initiated it. Up until that night, I’d had hope that our story had a chapter with a twist ending, one where she was not only my Great Love but I was hers.
But that night I lost hope. I had to accept I’d never have that. It was some of the greatest pain I ever felt.
But hey, that’s what growing up is, right?
After I lost hope about Noelle, I produced some spectacular art. Blazingly fast. But I also crawled into a bottle of pills. And before I knew it, I’d crawled into half the pharmacy. In the pursuit of chemical comfort, I ended up in an abusive relationship with a much-older man. A relationship that almost killed me. But it didn’t. I recovered and went on to settle down with a guy my friends set me up with, the only other single person they knew.
For eight years, I looked straight to everyone around me. Even the man I was married to at the time (now an ex) had a cartoonishly simple view of my sexual orientation. A lighthearted bisexuality fraught with pillow fights, bar bis, and girls going wild.
Sure, buddy. Whatever.
Eight years into that marriage, a close friend came out to us as polyamorous. And one by one, our friends started to experiment with opening up their own marriages.
I was reluctant at first, but after a bit of soul-searching, I followed suit. I was particularly excited about the possibility of finding another woman to connect with, someone who’d had the kind of relationship with her own sexuality that I’d had.
Things with Noelle had crashed and burned spectacularly, but there was also something there that had been worth the suffering, for a time. Something that’s difficult for me to articulate even now, all these years later. Perhaps, if I were truly lucky, I’d meet a woman who would also get it in a way that meant we could be serious with one another.
I went into my first polyamorous explorations quite hopeful. Surely, I would be able to find this.
But I wasn’t. I dated quite a few women in the beginning, and they were lovely (inside and on the outside), but they all were so lighthearted about their bisexuality. They’d all married before they’d had any same sex experiences. I was their first. They had mostly surmised that they were probably not straight from watching pornographic films.
And most importantly, it seemed like they’d never had their heart broken by a woman before. While they very well could have been bisexual, I wasn’t entirely convinced that these women were biromantic — or even that they wanted to be.
Still, I made the most of it. I had fun. But in spite of any renewed hopes, things stayed on the surface. I never really felt I was with someone who really let me in, who I could trust. Who I could have all the good parts of what I had with Noelle without any of the bad.
Well, I thought. I guess it’s never gonna happen. Stupid of you to think you could have that kind of connection without the dysfunction.
New Game Plus
Nearly twenty years later after I lost hope about Noelle, I’m in a goth club, dancing with my girlfriend Ro to a band I’ve never heard of before that night. Ro is singing at the top of her lungs though, because she’s been listening to this band since high school.
It’s a small club, but it’s packed. We’re two of the only people not really dressed for it. We look like we walked out of a board meeting straight into the concert. Because both of us made the mistake of showing up in business casual. On the other hand, it’s kind of edgy in a weird way, like we don’t give two fucks about being cool, or about where we are. Like we’re asking the goth club to conform to us and not the other way around.
My belly is full of rum and Diet Cokes. My face is burning from this and also because I’m watching Ro sing and noticing how beautiful she is, while simultaneously trying not to let her catch me staring at her… when it hits me.
In that moment, I realize I was right to kill my hope for Noelle — but only for her. Because I’m never going to have that kind of relationship with Noelle.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll never have it with anyone else.
Everything has come full circle. I once again have a woman in my life I care deeply about. All of the good parts of that are here again. But this time there’s not a hint of dysfunction.
In that moment, I desperately want to tell Ro what I’ve realized. But it’s dark and loud. She’s singing and dancing. We’re both a little drunk. And to be honest, I’m a little scared to. I don’t want her to think that I just view her as a replacement for Noelle — because it’s different than that. She and Noelle are completely different people. And this is a much better relationship for me.
But it’s undeniable that Ro has brought back to life a part of myself that I had declared dead long ago. And now something that I swore off as impossible is actually happening. No matter what ultimately happens with Ro, she’s showed me this. And it’s a huge gift.
So I dance harder beside her, jump even higher, as the band plays, figuring if I can’t tell her what I’ve realized that I’ll show her.