A patient reader over time will notice my tendency to refer to a specific “her” in a specific way. She’s a motif that pops up in my writing quite a lot. She’s also a real person, and that’s why I don’t talk about her a whole lot… because I don’t want to hurt her.
It’s hard to write about real people, even harder to write about experiences you shared, because none of us sees the same event the same way, and there’s so much we don’t tell even the ones we love. So much of what we don’t say is the very worst of what’s in us, our pain and fear and solitude. So much of our memories is emotion and judgment we apply to them after the fact, hindsight understanding that turns a word into a lie, an abandonment into an accident, a betrayal into a miscommunication… We rewrite our memories every day as we grow and change. That can mean that when you share how you remember your life with someone… you risk damaging how they remember it.
“But Gentle, you insufferable torrent of surplus vocabulary,” I hear you protest, “You haven’t held back a fuckin’ bit on oversharing about your family, so how do you come over all shy about this one girl?”
Well. Because we’ve all got “that one girl” in our history somewhere. Or guy. Or robot, or being. Whatever you’re into. We all fell in love for the first time, once. The thing about first love is, it’s everything they tell you – beautiful, stupid, tragic, life-shattering and so, so silly – and it’s often almost entirely unrelated to the person you fell in love with. It takes most of us years to learn how to help someone open up to us, how to listen to them instead of projecting our bullshit onto them, how to appreciate everything they are rather than just the parts that reflect our own desires and answer our own needs. When we’re young, when we fall in love for the first time, it can start from the barest thread – a look, a smile, an arm brushing against yours. You embroider it into whole cloth, a world of it, population you and Her. The Woman.
I stood outside of a lot of venues, waiting for Her. A lot of times, her paramour du jour stood with me. We rarely talked a lot – I didn’t like her boyfriends, and I couldn’t explain why, even to myself. What little conversation we exchanged was always the same, and I liked it, the ritual of it.
Dramatis personae: Gentle, aged 16; tall, red-haired, surly. Boytoy A, aged 16; probably brunette, probably stocky, probably a suitable target for adjectives like “corn-fed.”
Gentle leans against the wall outside the (dressing room/band locker room/restaurant/movie theater), pulling a rather selfconscious James Dean ‘tude. Boytoy A approaches from stage right.
Boytoy A jerks his chin up in silent greeting. Gentle returns the gesture.
Boytoy A: She in there?
Boytoy A: How long?
Gentle: She said ’bout ten minutes.
Boytoy A nods and takes up a position against the wall also. His posture and demeanor take on an even more selfconscious James Dean ‘tude of his own, which Gentle courteously commences to ignore.
Sometimes it was me arriving second, and then the roles were reversed, but it was always the same. No one ever needed to say who we were waiting for. She was the connection between us, the only important thing we shared, the only important thing, period. Just Her, The Woman.
I loved her madly, and badly, and eventually I realized both. I’ve realized since how limited her understanding of what I was going through must have been, how much I hid from everyone. It hurts me, every day – and I still think of her every day, more than once – to imagine that she thinks I fell away from her because I didn’t love her. It hurts me more, though, to imagine tainting what we had, the strength and strangeness of our friendship, with… something I didn’t even yet know I wanted.
I knew every second that I was with her that I wanted to be closer to her. I couldn’t explain how, or what I was missing. I didn’t want to have sex with her; the idea was horrifying to me, a transgression. But then, it took me years to realize that the way I saw other women wasn’t the same way that straight women do. It took me years to understand that, yes, our relationship was Platonic, because she wanted it that way, and I would have died rather than make her uncomfortable around me. But yes… my feelings for her were romantic, profoundly so. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn’t care what that looked like, but I was jealous of her boyfriends, and also contemptuous of them. I knew that they were temporary, and I was not. I knew that what I had of her was more real, more honest, more complete than what they saw, and I thought that the difference was that they couldn’t see her clearly past their dicks.
I realize now that I was blind in the exact same way they were. I loved her, and I needed something from her that she couldn’t give, and when she didn’t give it to me, I ran away. Not because I didn’t love her. Because I couldn’t trust myself to love her the way she wanted to be loved. I couldn’t trust myself to let her be herself, rather than what I needed her to be.
I still don’t trust myself that way. That’s why I don’t talk about her very much – because I don’t want to destroy her memory of our friendship by making her feel that I was lying, or pretending, or constantly scheming after her body or any of that shit. Some of this is internalized homophobia – this is why lesbians are often so tentative, so unwilling to approach each other. We’re so afraid of being seen as predatory, of suddenly not being “safe” when we admit to liking other women. It feels like coming out means an audit of every relationship you ever had, every friend in turn desperately needing to ask, “Well, have you ever thought about me that way?”
But mostly it’s just… she saw something in me that it took me until now to see in myself. She kept me alive when I was a teenager, more literally than I think she knew. For years, she was all I was living for. And I was honest with her, more honest than I would be with anyone else for a decade and change after that. What she didn’t know about me wasn’t her fault, and I didn’t hide it on purpose. I didn’t know it either. She did nothing wrong, is the point, and I don’t want to take her happiness from her by recontextualizing our shared history. That’s the difference between her and my family. She did nothing wrong.
I think she’s happy now. As far as one can tell through the internet. She got married. He’s a cute guy – brunette, corn-fed. So did I, come to that. I learned how to love the right way. I’m not… better, though, not the way she is. I haven’t moved on from a lot of things that happened back then. I don’t think I could trust myself to see her any more clearly now than I could when I was sixteen; it would just be a different kind of blindness. She doesn’t deserve that. The world is better for me knowing that she’s in it, and generally happy. I promised her, “I will always try to do what would please you if you knew,” and I still do. She surfaces in my art again and again. I retell the story a thousand different ways. I learned so many ways to love from her, and so many of them were wrong at the time, but all of them have brought me joy, and brought me here.
I want so much to explain. But… that feels self-serving. She couldn’t benefit from knowing more about the horrorshow I was living out of her sight, and I couldn’t make her memories any more beautiful by telling her I loved her in a different way than she loved me. I think she knew. I didn’t know what I really wanted from her, but I was never shy about telling her how I felt. I can only hope that her memories are as good as mine… and try not to spoil them with irrelevant details like, y’know… myself.
Walk down this road with me a little way.
Yeah, I know we’ve been this way before.
I still know the fastest way to your door
from where I am, no matter how far away.
But you don’t live there anymore, and I…
I realize now just what I did to you.
I realize now just how little you knew –
you had the truth of me, but not the why.
What’s the etiquette on sharing a dream?
I could only darken your memory,
taint whatever good you managed to see,
make you feel it was never what it seemed.
A dream more real than what they made of me –
to keep this creature from you feels more clean.