It started when I was thirteen.
Or, well, I guess you could say that the incidents could no longer be ignored after that point.
Before that, there was climbing up trees, riding bicycles and scraping knees; which gradually turned into “Them vs. Me” when dares to see who could reach the highest branches of a tree morphed into dares surrounding talking to boys. They would giggle and flip their hair, on the sidelines of the football pitch. I grew bored of watching the boys have all the fun, and fell into books.
Falling into books eventually turned into a full-blown argument where I was told I was too cold, uncaring, and a freak for wanting to spend more time buried in fiction than chasing after boys or gossiping about boys, or talking about boys, or… you get the idea.
They’d always been fake friends, though – more friends due to ease of access, as we all lived on the same street, than anything else. So, I shrugged off their accusations, shrugged off the months of lying to my face and behind my back, and dove even deeper into books.
The books I was reading then didn’t feature romantically inclined heroines, pining for the surly bad boy; they were still innocently gripping and sweeping adventures that I could lose myself in completely.
Thirteen changed things, though.
It usually does – first official teen year. First period. First tangible signs of hormones. First… boyfriend?
I gave it a try.
Physically, I was developing the way everyone said I should, and with that development, came societal expectations.
Thirteen came with sly glances from adults whenever I was near boys, less than subtle smiles and prodding remarks. And with it, the notion that everyone felt nervous to the point of nausea before a first date filtered into my consciousness.
It was normal to agree to a date with a guy and then feel so queasy you cancelled three times before actually going on the date.
Eventually, I forced myself past the nausea and stuck to it.
My very first boyfriend arranged for a group outing to the cinema, so the parental units wouldn’t know it was a date. He held my hand, we split the popcorn and drinks prices from our pocket money.
He broke up with me the next week at school.
All those nerves, all that worrying, and for what?
“You didn’t even care that I was there,” he said, shrugging. “You were more interested in talking to your friends.”
I pretended to be devastated.
My friends took up arms against him and his supposed slight to me, but I couldn’t be angry. I couldn’t even be sad. All I felt was the overwhelming relief that I wouldn’t have to feel that terrified again.
After all, John had been right: he’d put his arm around me in the cinema, and I hadn’t noticed until the movie was over, too busy exchanging whispered observations about the movie with Luana who was seated on my other side.
I shrugged it off. Who needed boy drama when there were books to read and school to study for anyway?
When I was fourteen, enough time had gone by. I couldn’t hide behind the cinema disaster anymore.
I was expected to want to date, and no amount of trying to reference the cinema fiasco would get the questions about crushes and hot boys to stop.
I developed what, in hindsight, was probably a bond borne out of desperation with a guy I’d met online. And more than likely entirely fake, too. In retrospect, he was the ideal first crush for me: older, so he ticked the bad boy box; lived an ocean away, so no risk of ever having to meet him in person, or, god forbid, go on a date with him.
I lied through my teeth about him, and the entire situation. He was a good friend, who took me under his wing in a bustling online community. To my school friends, he was my dangerous older boyfriend from Norway who sent me pretty necklaces I’d really just gotten on sale off Amazon to sell the lie.
I was so desperate to fit in, to not be different or weird, a fake boyfriend was preferable. It made my friends swoon and sigh at how thoughtful or romantic he was, and also made sure I was left alone about crushes in real life – I was off the market.
Eventually real life interfered, and I was losing track of all the lies I had been telling, so I fake broke up with him, and that was that for another full year.
Fifteen was when it all spiraled out of control, like a freight train hurtling towards a brick wall without brakes.
And all I could do was watch in silent horror as my friends’ well-meaning meddling turned my life into a drama-infested mess.
The books I read changed too. They told of heart-stopping romance and swoon-worthy boys with dark hair and light-colored eyes.
So when asked about my crush, I adjusted accordingly.
I thought long and hard about it and then finally decided on the tallest boy in the class, Brian. Brian was blonde, so not quite the perfect image of the swoon-worthy boy from fiction, but he did have green eyes. All my friends nodded along, quite happy to accept that as fact.
“Of course. Then, if you went out, you could still wear heels.”
It was said like it was a foregone conclusion that if I’d had a crush on a shorter boy, heels would not be an option. Like I needed to be careful about hurting a fragile male ego if I dared to be taller than my date.
Still, that had been why I’d picked Brian, so I answered enthusiastically.
“He’s so your type!”
“It’s his eyes isn’t it? So dreamy.”
Truth was, Brian was actually a decent guy. But, after I singled him out as my supposed crush, it felt weird to even talk to him. I was always hyper-aware that someone could have said something to him and things could get awkward fast. It spiraled out of proportion. And because I always told them they weren’t allowed to try to set us up, the entire situation eventually boiled down to storms of giggles whenever we were around each other.
And then, confusingly, a completely different boy, Luis, asked me out, and, in a panic, I said yes.
There was a brief repeat of the awkward cinema scene, only without any friends around to buffer, his arm around me and his face that seemed to inch closer and closer just made the whole situation awkward. I ended up running out of that cinema room in a near panic attack and never spoke to Luis again. Another friendship ruined.
So when Paul kissed me – really kissed me – on sports day, I was confused. It had come out of nowhere.
For me, it had, anyway. My friends were quick to prove otherwise.
“No, he held the door open for you last week!”
“He asked for help with those dance steps.”
“He asked about the book you were reading.”
My confusion grew, as I realized that yes, he had done all those things, but somehow, for some reason, I had assumed he was just being friendly.
“Yeah well, we always thought he was gay and Pamela was his beard, so thanks for proving us wrong!”
They dissolved into giggles and I followed along, all while trying to grasp the situation I’d somehow landed myself in.
I never did manage to understand it.
Still, it got my friends off my back about Brian. And Luis. Now all they wanted to talk about was Paul.
Was he a good kisser?
He must have been, because so-and-so had reported we’d made out for very long. I couldn’t remember. The entire event was just one long span of surprise, followed by thoughts of how weird it felt to have someone else’s tongue in my mouth, followed by the pervasive thought of “this is awkward.” Where are the fireworks I was promised, and what the hell do I do about my teeth?’
I answered all their questions the way they expected me to, and that was that.
A few weeks later, Paul broke up with me for his ex, and I could once again stop talking about it and return to hiding behind the “too hurt to mention it” façade.
I suppose some kind of clue should have started rattling around by that point.
It didn’t. Not even an inkling. I thought, you know, I was doing everything I was expected to do. I was going out there, was kissing boys – albeit reluctantly – and not telling my parents about it. I was following the “Adolescent Handbook,” just like all the books and movies said I should.
And if I didn’t quite enjoy it all as much as everyone else around me seemed to, I chalked it up to me being what adults liked to call “exceptionally mature for your age.” I guess it was some sort of defense mechanism that never allowed me to look at the differences too closely, because of what they might reveal.
So I just kept on keeping on.
At sixteen, I discovered that learning to ballroom dance with a boy was one of the single most awkward situations I could ever imagine myself in.
That one I blame on the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, actually. Dancing to create intimacy? Cue me silently panicking in the background.
But I soldiered through and learnt all the steps needed to be part of the court for my friend’s quinceañera. Even though she put us all in huge, bright pink, poufy dresses. And little tiaras. Yes, there are pictures. No, no one will ever see them ever again.
And then I got the hell out of dodge.
I love dancing. Have since a young age, so it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the idea of clubbing.
Most times, it was me and my friends on the dance floor, having fun and drinking too much.
Until one day when clubbing became less about dancing for the fun of it, and more about my friends finding people to go home with.
That was when I found out that clubbing involved being groped and fondled by men, and having their erections pressed into you in a not-at-all-subtle invitation for more.
I stopped going to clubs after that.
I know what you’re thinking: compulsive heteronormativity is a bitch, someone give this girl a girlfriend!
Ironically, my family actually started questioning my apparent heterosexuality before it ever occurred to me to do so.
Starting at around age 18, my family have questioned me at least twice a year. And if they’re not asking, they’re happily informing me about the Greek island of Lesbos, and how it’s full of lesbians.
I kid you not.
It’s probably my own fault, for not giving a firm “no” the first time I was asked, rather hesitantly, if the reason I never had a boyfriend was because I was interested in girls. I hadn’t come across any other information out there, so, at the time, my response was to shrug and reason that that were the case. I was pretty sure I’d know by then, right? It seemed like the kind of stuff that would be hard to miss.
They accepted the answer then and let it drop, but ultimately, they took the question and ran with it.
But they’re well-meaning in their meddling, and at least they’re happy to accept me not being straight. Which was good to know once I figured some other stuff out.
But more on that later.
As it turns out, I did eventually get the chance to explore that avenue of thought. Even with me actively trying to avoid situations where such things might surprise me, and having friends who are happy to leave me be, life generally just… is what it is for me.
And what life is, often, is highly sexual – for most people, anyway. Or at least, that’s my understanding of it.
And even after years of knowing this, that fact can still sometimes take me by surprise.
Which was how I ended up, at age twenty-one, awkwardly seated for two hours in a stunning girl’s living room as she plied me with drinks, and only then realizing that she probably expected the night to end very differently than what I’d been imagining.
I stopped going to clubs at eighteen, due to the aforementioned inappropriate dancing. So I found myself a dance studio and discovered the joy of dancing again. For three years, that was uneventful and wonderful. The class was mostly girls, and after three years of seeing each other twice a week, casual friendships were formed.
Enough that I didn’t think to question Ellie’s invitation to have a Harry Potter marathon at her house one weekend.
I know, I know.
In my defense, I had done that before with a friend during high school. It took us a whopping twelve hours, with little more than breaks for food between movies. We also napped for most of Half-Blood Prince because we were both in agreement that it was a terrible adaptation, and by that time, naps were needed. And also, it wasn’t on Netflix, so the idea that this was somehow code for “Netflix and chill” didn’t even enter my brain. Because, why the hell would it? My brain just isn’t wired like that. Besides, I take my Harry Potter marathons very seriously, thank you very much.
Anyway, so I’m there, fresh glass of wine in hand and Harry has just landed himself in Knockturn Alley, when she pulls that classic arm-over-the-shoulder move that my first boyfriend had tried all those years ago in a dark cinema.
Something clicked for me then, as I stared at my wine, wondering how it was that I had managed to fuck it up so badly and be just that oblivious. I guess you could say that I am always more comfortable around women. Maybe that’s because that is the way I am romantically inclined, so I’m less likely to try to run screaming for the hills. Or maybe it’s just that I feel safer, like a fellow woman is less likely to force me into something I don’t want. Probably it’s a mixture of both.
Either way, I’m always less on guard around women – and that includes being less aware of any undertones that might be sexual. Especially when I feel attracted to them anyway; it makes me more likely to forget that the way I feel attraction is very different from how most people do. So, that one is kind of my fault, in that way.
Still, everything comes full circle, I guess.
Wine, a befuddled Harry on screen, a very interesting and very cute woman next to me, and an increasingly uneasy me watching Harry muddle his way through Borgin & Burkes as I try to figure out a way to extract myself from this situation I managed to, quite by mistake, land myself in.
To her credit, Ellie didn’t look confused when I pulled away, but instead gamely paused Harry’s reunion with the Weasley family to hear me out. For one terrifying moment, I thought I might have misread the situation and she had not, in fact, been coming on to me.
Thankfully, I was saved from that mortifying scenario. And Ellie, beautiful, kind Ellie, heard me out. She asked some questions. And then poured us some more wine, hit play on the movie and cuddled with me for the next six films.
And as I settled into the feeling of her arms around me, it occurred to me that sometimes, letting your guard down and forgetting differences can be a great thing.
Mandy grew up in Brazil, but has spent most of her adult life in London. An out and proud gay ace, she likes to read and write about people like her getting a happy ending. Writing about homoromantic asexual characters is a newfound love of hers, and she is enjoying the chance to bring to life characters that see the world through the same lens as her. You can follow Mandy on twitter at @mandyrosask.