We became close friends over the course of junior year of high school. It soon became clear she wanted something more than friendship. I knew she did, but I reasoned that because I was in the closet I would have to tell her I didn’t feel the same way, that in fact, I didn’t feel that way about any girl I knew or would ever know. I repressed myself more than ever at the time. As people increasingly noticed how couple-y we were and kept asking why we weren’t a couple, I found myself responding with abject silence, and the inquirers read that as a sign of how smitten I was.
She finally cornered me during the first few weeks of senior year, as we waited for my mom to pick us up from chess practice after school (we were co-captains). She confessed that she really liked me, and she asked me out. She also said that it would be okay if I didn’t like her back and didn’t want anything romantic with her.
My heart was jumping out of my chest, but not for the right reasons. I had known this moment would come and I was disappointed in myself for not having excessively prepared for it like I did for all my tests. The following exchange has always made me feel grateful that common sense isn’t formally part of the state’s curriculum. I told her I liked her back, but that’s not all. I told her I really liked her.
I realized my grave mistake on the way home. When my mom stepped out of the car to pick up some groceries on the way home, she began to hold my hand and said something about forbidden love. She later told me she loved me. I couldn’t even imagine telling the truth, so I just stepped up the ante. I languished that we couldn’t date because of my controlling and traditional brown parents. She understood and accepted my wish to honor my parents’ rule.
That awkward interaction in the car captures our relationship senior year. She showered on me her affection, affection she now knew I had for her as well. Meanwhile, I tried to ignore and downplay it like the good brown boy I was. My anxiety over the situation grew larger, so naturally, I took things to the next level. It was time to ask people out to prom and she was waiting. I felt awful about leading her on for so long, so I thought the least I could do was take her to prom. After assuring my parents that prom could be platonic, I organized the most amazing chess-themed promposal there ever was. Then I anticipated what I thought would be the most uncomfortable day of my life.
There’s no surprise here. I was right, but the day before prom nearly took the crown. I told her I was gay the day before prom in a desperate attempt to relieve myself of unbearable anxiety. Over the phone. She was wrecked, but we still went to prom because it took weeks to get ready and everyone was expecting to see the adorkable couple. We painfully slow-danced the night away, listlessly swung our hands together during the songs that were a bit raunchier and drowned ourselves in chocolate fondue when it became too much. It was horrendous for me and her, but we survived. Years later, I realized my being gay had little to do with what I put her through.
The whole time I was of the understanding that because I was gay, I could not be with her. The truth is I didn’t like her and it didn’t have to have anything to do with my sexuality. She said she would be fine if I wasn’t interested. It would have been painful for her to hear, but it would have eliminated the fresh hell of senior year if I had just been honest. When I said I was interested and blamed my parents for keeping us apart, I was lying to myself too. I was so used to explaining away and denying my feelings that I reflexively concocted a cover story when there was no need for one. I asserted my parents’ rule (one that would really be enforced if dating was even remotely a possibility for me) to put the burden of acceptance on them, when it actually revealed that I didn’t accept myself and didn’t plan to do so anytime soon.
For a long time since then I projected my insecurities on others. I felt like the only true way for me to be gay was to be unapologetically “fierce.” I acted and appeared as a stereotypical gay man and cut out anyone who I felt wasn’t with that. I began to see homophobia where it wasn’t. It took some hard looks in the mirror to see that me at my “fiercest” was me at my most repressed, most pretending to be something I’m not in blind pursuit of something that I thought I should be. I was still lying to myself, still carrying on a false narrative to avoid self-confrontation, and in the process pushing away people who meant no harm.
I’m changing once again, but in the sense that I don’t put pressure on myself to change in any way anymore. There really isn’t any correct expression of queerness, or any aspect of one’s multidimensional identity for that matter. Being your genuine self is liberating and that freedom takes shape when you’re honest and straightforward with the people in your life about what that means and allowing them some time to adjust if need be. An even harder step is moving towards self-acceptance and giving yourself the same discretions of time and the chance to make mistakes and learn from them.
We’re still good friends today, and it’s now only slightly cringe-y to look back at the golden years. My sexuality, something that I had always assumed would tear us apart and my life in general, has barely gotten in the way of our ability to keep our friendship going. Ironically, it was my efforts to bury it that did just that. I see that now, and I am determined to be real about myself and my problems instead of escaping into the fondue fountain for most of the night.
Narayan Reddy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Reddy, Set, Go runs every other Monday this semester.