I met Rebecca on MySpace. She had a widget on her page that allowed anonymous commenters to share their thoughts, because tweens are nothing if not self-destructive. “You’re an ugly slut,” one commenter wrote. I gallantly responded, “I don’t think you’re ugly. You’re very pretty!”
I wasn’t going to be knighted anytime soon, Wasted, but I really did think she was pretty. Rebecca had long brown hair and an apple-cheeked smile, and I liked the way she dressed. Scrolling through her pictures, I noticed she would cycle through punk band shirts and preppy sweaters without fully committing to either aesthetic. I thought this was a bold sartorial vision.
One night, while I was fully immersed in my typical routine of playing around on Photoshop on the family desktop computer, I checked my typically lifeless MySpace. I was surprised to see I had a private message from Rebecca. “Hey!” she had written back. “I just wanted to say thank you. That was really sweet of you to say.”
I must admit that message got my heart racing. Cliché as it is, it must be said that Rebecca was a cheerleader, and I was like most middle to high schoolers who operated in rote hierarchies beaten to death by movies. That Rebecca would pay me, an ambiguously Latin potato, any attention at all was pretty staggering. “Of course,” I replied. “And hey, I meant it!”
I was an incoming high school freshman. At that point, I’d never been in a romantic relationship that I hadn’t completely fabricated as part of my imaginary reality TV arc. I hadn’t even entertained the notion. Not only was I, in a word, ugly, but I also couldn’t quite get myself to think of girls in the way I was supposed to.
I thought of girls as allies, inasmuch as they weren’t as terrible as boys, and I thought of them as possessing some method of living that I was jealous of: going to the bathroom together, caring about what they smelled like, putting together outfits—all things I would eventually discover weren’t inherently feminine, really, but activities that sounded like great fun I was missing out on. I preferred not to dwell on whether this had to do with feelings I had about boys, as doing so made me sad.
So it surprised me when Rebecca continued to message me that summer before I went to Lawton High. My mom was transferring me there after I’d nearly been bullied to death in Cache. We lived so far from Lawton High that I wouldn’t have been able to attend at all if my mom weren’t an English teacher there. That also meant there was a good chance no one at Lawton High would know about the reputation I’d built in Cache as “the probably-gay kid who wanted to kill himself.” Seeing an opportunity for reinvention, I went about planning who I was going to be. Getting a girlfriend had never been in my equations—that was dreaming too big.
“Hey again,” she wrote the very next day. “How’s your summer? I’m so bored.”
“Hi,” I wrote back. “Ugh. Bored here too. My uncle is taking me fishing tomorrow. Gone fishing! Ha ha. Anyway, tell me more about you!”
I found out Rebecca was mad at her parents a lot but still saw herself as a daddy’s girl. Her mom was always pressuring her to be more feminine and to get more involved in student government. She liked to wear black and she liked metal bands, but she liked “pretty things” too. “Maybe I’m a girly girl at heart! I don’t know,” she wrote. “Ha.”
We were in the age of the cluttered, blinkering social media profile. These profiles were festooned with GIFs and often featured a curated playlist. Looking at Rebecca’s page—neon hearts and metal music, emotional expressions like “she’s slow to trust, but when she falls she falls hard”—I was enchanted. She had pictures of herself at cheer meets and with her best friends, tongues out, giving the camera the middle finger. I couldn’t believe I was entering this person’s orbit. I dared to imagine what it might be like to see myself on this page, a cherished fragment of this chaotic, alluring digital document.
Our online conversations carried on through my first weeks at school. Rebecca was in the grade below me and was in her last year in the middle school in Lawton. We hadn’t met in person yet, but we enjoyed this tragic distance between us. It gave us something mutual to hate. “Ugh,” she’d message me. “I wish we could have eaten lunch together today. I have so much to tell you.”
“I had the worst day,” I’d reply. “Where do I even start?”
It was exciting to fill our days with the mundane, the annoying, and the outrageous just to have something to share with each other later. It made being at a bigger, more chaotic school where I knew no one more tolerable.
Lawton High wasn’t short on drama. Within my first few weeks, I saw a student physically fight our vice principal, a whitehaired tree of a man who looked like Gandalf if Gandalf had spent ten years in an American prison. He found a worthy opponent in Francesca, who was four feet tall and using plastic trays as projectiles. He eventually subdued her by picking her up. She bit his hand and drew blood.
There were hallway fights galore, and every classroom was falling apart. An entire chalkboard crumbled and fell to the ground during our first day of math class, and our teacher openly wept in front of us.
I looked forward to all these things, because they gave me something interesting to tell Rebecca about privately. Soon these chats got too big for MySpace, and we decided to start talking with each other over the phone. “Hey!” she said the first time I called. There was a roughness to her voice I liked. It made her sound like a bartender or a heavy smoker. “So . . . yeah. Hi.”
We would talk every day for hours: about the minutiae of our day, our families, the lives we’d lived so far. We couldn’t talk during school, so we started writing notes to each other on paper, vowing to exchange them when we finally met in person. I felt positively giddy over our budding relationship.
Look, Wasted, I had a vague idea that I was gay. Although I’d never, ever used that word. I thought of myself more as “a person with unique difficulty accessing heterosexuality.” Even when I was alone at night, with the family computer all to myself, armed with technological knowledge my parents didn’t have, I only dared to look at straight porn. I’d end up focusing mostly on the man. The woman was there to grant me safe passage, like Charon ferrying me across the horny river Styx.
For better or worse, I did see in Rebecca an opportunity to be “correct.” If I could be with Rebecca—if I could love Rebecca—I could avoid having to be a homosexual, something that, as I’d learned in Cache, was an incorrect thing to be. But first Rebecca would have to actually like me in that way, and although she seemed to be interested, meeting in person could change that pretty quickly. She would at some point have to look at me, after all.
When it came time to meet, we decided to do what most kids our age did: hang out at the mall. This was an entirely viable way to spend an afternoon back then; teens would make the rounds on the weekend, never buying anything, hoping that they’d run into friends and nemeses, opportunities to stir up minor scandals that would sustain them through the school week.
My mom dropped me off at the entrance and told me to have fun. I was sporting my weekend attire, a Green Day band tee and Aéropostale jeans. But my killer outfit failed to give me confidence. Standing there, waiting for Rebecca in front of Claire’s, I felt mocked by my own hopes.
She arrived—shorter than I’d expected, wearing a green cheer ribbon in her hair and a Linkin Park shirt. She seemed lost for a moment, her eyes avidly scanning the crowd looking for me, and I felt a pang of embarrassment to be the disappointment I was sure to be. I made my way to her, each step heavy as a falling piano.
Her eyes met mine, and her posture relaxed. There you are, she seemed to say.
Already, this was huge for me, Wasted. In my not-so-distant middle school life, the best I could hope for was not to be outright detested. To have someone want to see me, really want to see me, was new. I waved, and she ran up to me and gave me a hug, her arms wrapping around my waist. “Finally!” she said.
I felt unconditional warmth, a safety so complete I forgot why I had ever been worried. I could have wept. “Finally,” I agreed. We walked hand in hand through the mall. We traded the notes we’d written, so many notes, and promised not to open them until we were both at home, something I couldn’t wait to do so I could enjoy everything that had transpired in private, where I could assure myself that it had indeed happened and it wouldn’t go away.
Life turned to gold, Wasted. It felt like the sun was always shining on me at just the right angle. Rebecca and I would talk on the phone every night, and sometimes we’d fall asleep like that. I had opened her notes, each one lit up with colors and drawings of flowers, annotated with smiley faces and arrows pointing to a part I should read next. Rebecca’s liking me that much, liking me enough to write me all these elaborately decorated notes, made it easier for me to like myself. A girl likes me, I would privately affirm on a daily basis. Oh wow, a girl likes me.
And I liked her back.
But it was a complicated kind of affection. Even if it didn’t feel complicated back then. No, if anything, Wasted, it felt like the easiest thing in the world to return Rebecca’s warmth. I’d make little drawings in the margins of my notes. I told her how excited I was to see her again. I was happy when she was happy, and I was fiercely supportive whenever she told me that someone had slighted her in some way: scuffles in student leadership, cheer drama. But the relationship itself, the shape it took and the way it functioned, was complicated nonetheless because I was, irrevocably and in the end, a latent homosexual who was just doing his best to make it work, as Tim Gunn of Project Runway would say (again, gay).
“Do you, uh, want to be my girlfriend?” I asked her over the phone on the night of Thanksgiving.
“I, uh,” she said, mocking the way I’d asked, “definitely do.”
A Person with a Girlfriend. This was an identity I treasured, held tight to my chest, and carried with me as one might a particularly hard-won license. Having this license exempted me from many unpleasant things: intrusive questions about my sexuality, self-loathing over being single, and the existential dread of wondering if I would die alone (a favorite activity of mine at fourteen). These dreaded specters would knock on my door, and I would flash them my “Person with a Girlfriend” license, and they would apologize and move along.
Back then I didn’t dare imagine life as something I could control. None of my experiences lent themselves to that conclusion. My primary goal, instead, was comfort—to make the pangs of life a little more bearable, to be able to withstand its fits and starts until it ferried me to death. It wasn’t just about how I lived but also about how I dreamed, what I would allow myself to fantasize about having. For the most part, this began and ended at “good enough.” It made perfect sense for me to stay where I was, to invest even more in Rebecca and me.
Our first real date that wasn’t roaming around the mall was at the movies. We were going to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I knew that being in a dark room together meant we would probably have to kiss. I’d never kissed anyone before, though I did have a blurry notion of how it worked. My concern was that when we kissed, she would somehow pick up on the one thing in our flourishing romance that wasn’t quite right: as pretty as I thought she was, the visceral, physical attraction wasn’t there.
When I arrived, I found Rebecca waiting for me in an oversized sweater. We took our seats and held hands as the previews rolled. I hoped she didn’t notice how nervous I was. “Have you read the book?” she asked.
“What book?” I said. “Oh, Harry Potter. Yes. I’ve read the book.”
“I haven’t,” she said. “I’ve been waiting forever just to get the rest of the story since the last movie. Isn’t that dumb? Why don’t I just read the books?”
“Yeah,” I said. I leaned over, and kissing wasn’t at all what I had imagined it to be like. It felt sort of like falling into someone else’s face with your face, only the faces stopped being faces and became something else, something more important and encompassing. There was a brief moment of frightening gravity before impact. And then it happened, and we kissed, and I thought life would be good from that moment on.
We kissed through the film, and kissed goodbye, and when I went home I lay in bed wishing that this could be the end of my movie. I was good here. Roll credits. But of course, life isn’t like that until you literally die, and so my happy fuzzy thoughts turned to the future: Okay, so Rebecca and I would have to get married now, right? And sometime before that, we would have to have sex?
Where I’m from, Wasted, it was entirely common to be married before you could legally drink. My own parents had met as sophomores in high school. Classmates would occasionally get pregnant, causing a minor scandal, but it was all part of the cultural paradox we were so accustomed to: sex outside of marriage was bad and sinful, but if you hadn’t had sex by sixteen, well, what’s the holdup, fella? You gay or somethin’? (Probably!)
I didn’t get any sex education from the nuns in Catholic grade school, who found the entire business of pickle tickling so outrageous that it ought not even to be referenced. In middle school, Coach Patton, a lazy math teacher with a potbelly who also taught an ill-defined class called Physical Health, outsourced his duties to us seventh-graders, telling us each to pick a sex-ed topic and then present on it in front of the class. I was tasked with educating my peers on the colorful subject of “the vagina,” which I pronounced “vuh-guy-na” in front of everyone.
All this is to say, Wasted, that both Rebecca and I figured we would need to have sex sooner rather than later now that we were boyfriend and girlfriend, a prospect that utterly terrified me. I had just figured out how to kiss someone. Everything I knew about sex, I knew about from low-production-value porn where I mostly stared at the guy’s pecs and pretended nothing was happening below that.
Nevertheless, Rebecca and I introduced sex to our regular conversations. “Dirty talk,” I suppose I would call it, in which I attempted to say hot things like “I want to take your pants off.” Bleak.
After we crossed that Rubicon, I engaged in a delicate dance. I had a feeling I couldn’t give Rebecca everything she would need, but I wanted to try, and so in fits and starts, I tried. During her birthday party in March, Rebecca’s mom, a wrinkled smoker with clumpy mascara, asked us to please “stop being so touchyfeely” with each other. Such was my commitment. Eventually, Rebecca joined me at Lawton High. That’s when the cracks began to show.
It happened on another trip to the movies. It was September, and we had tickets to some Nicolas Cage flick that absolutely no one wanted to see, a conscious decision on our part. We wanted the place to ourselves. She was wearing an electric-blue halter top, uncharacteristic for her. She seemed nervous. “Hey,” she said, as if embarrassed by making her intentions so bare. “Uh . . . excited for Nic Cage?” It was perhaps the least sexually stimulating sentence I’d ever heard.
“Yes! Totally,” I said. “Let’s do it. I mean, yeah. Let’s go.”
To spare you the details, Wasted, we didn’t have sex that day. We mostly fumbled around in the dark, blindly attempting to stimulate each other’s nether regions. It was during that movie that an existential crisis began to unfold in me: I couldn’t do this. I could try and try and try, and all I would ever be able to do was try while never quite getting “there.” And was that any way to live? Was that really fair to Rebecca?
A gulf widened between us, a gulf that was wide enough for James to enter the picture. Tall and lanky with his hair greased back and a single stud in one ear, James was like something out of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. He always smelled like cigarette smoke and walked with a delinquent gait. Rebecca would end up cheating on me with him at the mall.
“Aren’t you and Rebecca still together?” a text from one of my friends asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Why?”
I received a blurry photo of her and James holding hands (Motorola Razr days). I fell back onto the couch. My first instinct was that of profound betrayal: how could someone I cared so much about do this to me? But then, I knew exactly how.
Over the past few weeks, I hadn’t been paying her much attention at all. I was afraid, Wasted, which isn’t an excuse but it’s at least an explanation. I wasn’t being a good boyfriend, and her friends surely had started to ask her why she was still with me.
After she was found out, she called me up.
“I’m so sorry,” she opened, her voice already hoarse from crying. “It’s just . . . I don’t know, man. I’m sorry.”
“Rebecca,” I said, “I . . .” My first instinct was to make her feel better. That had been the instinct that had first brought us together. But I felt, this time, that I was the one who had hurt her.
By this time, a lot had changed in my life. I was rail thin, for one, thanks to a nascent eating disorder. I had made a group of friends, and I was engaging in a strategy around my homosexuality that involved not thinking about sex of any kind. I had acquired a kind of coldness, a “switching off” of my informant characteristics that I thought were betraying me too often—anything swishy, anything “too much.”
“I’m sorry too,” I said, and had almost said “I’m sorrier” but kept it down. It was true, though.
Rebecca and I retained an amicable distance after that, but the lessons of our relationship only grew more cumbersome to wrestle with as I slowly but surely came into a better understanding of myself.
What was that about?
It’s hard, if not altogether impossible, for me to imagine a youth in which I was allowed to be gay. Or rather, a youth in which I was just allowed to be, to wallow in that fruitful messiness of early teendom without all the restrictions I’d placed on myself, to share my first kiss, to experience puppy love, to do everything I did with Rebecca, only, with a boy. It’s easy to think of those years, Wasted, as an adolescence lost, precious time that was stolen from me.
But that’s not quite right—I did experience those things, with Rebecca. And while, yes, it would have been nice to have experienced them with a boy like in some kind of progressive, gay young-adult-book-turned-movie, I do cherish the time I had with Rebecca. I cherish all of it—the infatuation and the frustration and the drifting apart. So much of our formative years are spent on building ourselves against opposition, navigating social restrictions and taboos, looking for our reflection in the devil’s water before cautiously dipping our feet in and wondering, Is this what I like? Is this who I am?
I navigated that fraught process with Rebecca, who was, at worst, just a friend. In a way, I couldn’t have been luckier.
I’ve entertained the notion that I might be bisexual, Wasted. I’d be silly not to have. The conclusion I’ve reached is that, yes, there are very specific circumstances in which I could see myself enjoying physical or romantic stimulation with a woman, but I’ve yet to see those circumstances materialize or have that situation actually occur. I remain open to challenges to my perception of my sexuality and to my reading on my desires, and as we as a collective continue to shift the vocabulary around sexual orientation and identity, I imagine that self-understanding will change. Or at the very least, my vocabulary for it will. It already has in some ways, with words like “queer” waxing and waning in popularity.
Seeing it that way, Wasted, has helped take the weight of my “lost years” off my shoulders. In so many ways, I am still trying to figure myself out, trying to crudely map the fugitive psychological landscape of my likes and dislikes, my affinities and revulsions. What if “coming out of the closet” didn’t herald the beginning of an entirely new life, an event that partitioned my life into a BC and AD?
What if, Wasted, I’m still not so different from that kid who was chasing after someone, anyone, who would validate his place in the world and make him feel less alone? What if I’m still navigating taboos and social expectations and making missteps along the way? I think I prefer that way of looking at it, because I find myself wanting to “keep” the time I spent with Rebecca. I don’t want to see our relationship as a failed experiment or a sad attempt at hiding who I really was. I want to include that time, the good and the bad, in the project of my life. I want to be happy when I think of the times Rebecca made me happy. Perhaps, Wasted, that’s my way of making peace.
Don’t get me wrong. I think coming out is an important life event, and I want so very, very badly for young people to have the freedom to be themselves and to worry less about being bullied half to death like I was.
But I’m not willing to see any part of my past, or Rebecca, as disposable, as I think a lot of gay men do with prolific concepts like “gold star gay” (a gay man who’s never had sex with a woman) or a performative disgust for vaginas (vuh-guy-nas). I think we sometimes reduce women, diminish women, cast women and their bodies as jokes or as failed attempts on our sexual liberty because we think that’s a small revenge on the straightness that was unjustly imposed on us. I find that impulse somewhat understandable but its manifestations lazy at best.
The truth, as always, is complicated. But at times I like to return to those late nights when I was in high school, phone between my shoulder and cheek, sleepily talking to Rebecca while playing Halo, when loving this person who’d fallen into my life felt like the easiest thing in the world. At the time, it was.
Adapted from HOLA PAPI: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons by John Paul Brammer. Copyright © 2021 by John Paul Brammer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.