I was 10 years old when I first started having crushes. I felt the butterflies, had sudden fits of giggles, all of it. The whole package.
All my crushes were on boys. I liked boys, and I thought about them all the time. I was always so sure I was in love. Now I know I wasn’t. Truth be told, I have been in love very few times in my life.
But one of those times was when I met this girl.
I met her when I was 14. I was bookish and shy and quiet.
She was 16. Wiser, outgoing. Openly queer.
We were at summer camp.
Before I knew it, I was in the middle of the most me-defining romance of my teenage years. It was like the most gorgeous late summer love song, but better. It was real.
The second time around
Okay. Technically, this wasn’t the first time I met her. That was actually the year before, at the same summer camp. But everything was different, then.
When I met her the year before, she didn’t stand out to me. She had long hair, a playful smile on her face and was slightly too old for me to be friends with her. (Somehow, 13 and 15 felt like a bigger deal than 14 and 16.)
But the year after — I’ve always felt that was the first time I really met her.
When we met the year before, I remember rumors going around about her. She’s a lesbian, everyone would whisper. But back then, I barely knew that that meant, and I was certain it meant nothing to me, anyway.
A lot can change in a year, especially when you’re a teenager. I changed, for sure. So did she. She came back with shorter hair and louder energy.
I noticed her before but this time I noticed her.
I should be so lucky
It turned out that she was close friends with one of my friends at camp. We had mutual relations. Which meant that sooner or later, we would end up in the same space, hanging out together.
By this point, everyone knew she was gay. It wasn’t rumored anymore. She talked about it openly. She would mention her attraction to girls during conversations. Somehow, we all went with it.
Unlike in ‘real-life’ back then, no one cared if you were queer or not at summer camp. It was this atmosphere that allowed me to feel freer in pursuing my desires.
We finally hung out on the third day of camp. She joined our small group and ended up sitting right next to me. It was evening, the air was chilly. But the cold air had nothing on her. My goosebumps were all her doing.
She started talking to me. She asked me a question. And, as if by a miracle, I managed to answer. I was shaking on the inside, my stomach plummeting with every look, every word. But I kept the conversation going.
We smiled and laughed and talked. Until she noticed I was shivering. It still wasn’t from the cold, at least not completely. But when she offered me her hoodie, I accepted. Of course, I did. There was never any other option.
We go together
After that, I barely took the hoodie off. I told her it was because it was super comfortable. In reality, I wanted to keep it because it reminded me of her. It smelled like her. It was her.
I offered her my own hoodie so that she had one to wear, too. I didn’t want her to be cold at night. But I also felt that by accepting my hoodie, she would be accepting me.
And she did. She accepted. So there we were, walking around in each other’s clothes, stealing glances across rooms.
We became very close very quickly. Either she searched for me or I for her. We always ended up near each other, whenever the situation allowed it. When we had to split into groups for camp activities, we would make sure we always teamed up. When we went for the traditional camp day-trip, we walked around the museum together, and then went to lunch together, too.
We were inseparable. Neither of us addressed it, but we felt it in our bones.
Can’t help falling in love
The good thing about being a girl is that you are allowed to do certain things without consequence. Like holding hands and cuddling with your other girl-friends.
This was the first time I felt the benefits of that. She and I would walk hand in hand all the time. We would snuggle up close near the bonfire. I would put my head on her shoulder when tired. All these little gestures seemed so innocent from the outside but lit a hot fire inside of me.
We never talked about any of it. She probably thought I wasn’t ready. (She was right. I would only be ready 5 years later. Hindsight is brilliant.) But we both knew what we were doing. I knew she was gay and she knew how I felt.
There was a silent understanding, one that was never to be voiced. But still, it was there. We were falling hard for each other.
Love you goodbye
The last night of camp, I felt sad. As I did every year when I had to leave this place. Without fail, whether I had fun or not, I would always feel nostalgic. I had this sense of not wanting to leave this little camp bubble.
But it was more prominent this year. I felt even sadder. I knew what was going to happen once we left. We didn’t live in the same town. And even if we did, I wasn’t ready to live this romance out in the real world. I wanted to, more than anything. I felt like my life would fall apart the second she left it. But I knew I could never face the world with her by my side. I wanted her to be mine, but I wasn’t ready to be publicly hers.
On our last night, we were lying together in a single bed. We were on our sides, looking each other in the eyes. Our faces mere inches apart. My heart was beating fast, almost as if it wanted to escape from my chest and go to hers.
She was wearing a yellow tank top without a bra underneath and I was all too aware of that. I was young and these were all new feelings. But they burned, so much that I wanted to take on the sun itself.
We lied there for what felt like hours. Then one of the adults came by and told me to scram to my own room. The curfew was here. I got up and gave her one last look. She smiled at me, but I couldn’t smile back. Suddenly, I felt sick.
I left the room in a hurry.
The next day, we were all going home. There were five different buses and we weren’t on the same one because she was from a different town. We didn’t see each other again that day.
What becomes of the brokenhearted
To my surprise, she and I managed to keep in touch for a bit. We texted. But I made the mistake of telling my ‘real-life’ friends about her.
I showed them some of the more lovey-dovey texts we sent to each other. And my friend pointed out that this all seemed rather gay to her.
At this point, I freaked out. I wasn’t ready to be gay. I knew that word to be a slur and I was too afraid of judgment.
I stopped texting her immediately. She tried a couple more times after not getting an answer but gave up eventually. I ghosted her.
I saw her a few months later. There was a camp reunion in our town, and she came over. I avoided her, not even saying ‘hi’. She tried to reach out, but I wouldn’t let her. It hurt me to not look at her but looking hurt even more.
I was young when this all went down. Still, it was the most intense love experience of my life. Maybe it was because, back then, it felt forbidden. Homophobia was such an integral part of my day-to-day life that it made this feel like something from Romeo and Juliet.
Or maybe it was because it was the first real thing I ever felt. To this day, my heart rate goes up at the taste of the memories.
When I say it was then I understood what love songs were about, I mean it. I felt all the highs that people sing about. When we were together, I felt invincible. I could almost fly.
Much like in the sadder love songs, we went from being on a high to crashing and burning. I wasn’t brave enough to be who I am and feel what I felt.
Still, when Nat King Cole sings is it better to have loved and lost, I know my answer. Even if I failed at protecting this precious thing we had, I know I am better for it to this day. I learned what love meant, and I learned what losing love felt like. But I learned so much more than that.
I learned that I am capable of feeling like I could touch the skies. I learned that if I care about someone, I ought to stand up for them. For us. I learned the consequences of not doing that.
I learned that I was attracted to girls, which led to my realizing I’m bisexual a few years later.
I learned about why poets and songwriters write all those wonderful words. I never was a very lyrical person. But some experiences just make you go there.
I could write a thousand songs about our love and it wouldn’t be enough. While the ending wasn’t what I’d call happy, our story remains beautiful.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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