Wednesday, March 19, 2014

When I Was 19

A little bit memoir, a little bit fiction. You decide what you like most.

I was 19. I lie and say I was 16, which is partially true. The eventual destination was between second and third base, but it went no further. If I hadn’t lost my nerve, there would be no reason for lies. I’m not sure why it bothers me still. She’s married to someone else and I’ve taken my own vows of a sort. In the end, we must weigh our youthful indiscretions and experimentation against who we are in the present day. I nearly flush red with embarrassment when I read the silly, fatuous comments left for me on high school yearbook day.

But really, I was 19. For a time, I felt like I needed to be up to the standards of the statistical mean. Now I’m older and none of it matters anymore. The metrics my contemporaries use as cultural yardsticks are quibbling details like age of first marriage. In fifteen years, it will be age of second marriage, and hopefully the conversation will not need to entertain any more nuptials beyond that.

What are more embarrassing are the circumstances. She was one of my first internet crushes, back when what some called cyberspace was brand new and everyone was eagerly and desperately trying to understand it. In those times, nearly everyone subscribed to the same provider, which meant that finding conversation was never a challenge. Those who were romantics like me drew no walls of separation between us, even though we could never embrace or exchange physical affection with each other. The more guarded souls tried to separate out real life from internet life, but theirs was an artificial distinction. In what seemed like an instant, a full regiment of peculiar, isolated teenagers appeared.

You’re just someone from the internet was code for I care for you more than I would ever wish to admit. The heart can be bruised easily, but I sought company and risked the ache. In this particular instance, her interest in me was unusually intense and full of longing. She suggested that I come out to visit. I drove five hours south towards a dirty port city that looked, upon arrival, washed out and eroded. Fourteen days later, after months of daily conversation online, we were acquainted for the first time in person. We wasted no time.

I spent my first night in her presence on the floor of a modular home, trying not to wake a four-year-old boy, her son, who gratefully was not roused from slumber for two hours solid. It would not be the first time I’d learn the rules of quietly fooling around, trying not to attract attention to myself. This was the reality of life with children present close nearby, and I respected the extra effort required.

Before we began, she pointed out the exact site where our most substantial conversations had taken place. Partitioned off from the rest of the front room, it held sentimental attachment to her. Aside from that, it was little more than a fairly standard desktop computer with monitor. For whatever reason, this was a gesture made by everyone I met in this way. Had we been penpals, I’m sure she would have shown me my own handwritten letters to her. It was proof that an emotional connection existed, and that what was to follow had complicated motivations beyond anticipated outcomes.

We’d gotten to know each other as personalities before any knowledge of facial expressions and body language. I always found that, for me, synchronizing the two was never difficult. This was not always the case for others. Once I found someone who was okay with me as I existed online, but when it came time to collect my bags, a lengthy flight just behind me, she was so nervous that her whole body shook. That excursion in misplaced trust and fear of the unknown was a rough week for both of us, but fortunately those adventures were few and far between.

But again, this was not the case when I was 19. I know it sounds terribly romantic, but we camped and pitched tents on a sand bar in the middle of an estuary. After sharing exceptionally bad marijuana, it came time for confessions that even the courage of the internet could not produce. Until then, I’d always assumed all women found my stories of men threatening and intimidating. I never once believed I’d chance upon someone who would understand and ask no clueless questions out of harmless, but nevertheless frustrating ignorance.

She asked, and I obliged. You’d think this memory would be more comforting, but I wasn’t quite ready yet for that much truth, that much honesty. That being said, a dialogue this emotionally and psychologically charged was far too tempting to ignore. The sexual aspect of it was difficult enough but I let myself go. I told myself it wasn’t scary to envision wherever the talking would take me. I would eventually land somewhere, and, after all, I was with a person I could trust.

I said what I was and who I was early on, in the hopes that frequent displays of honesty would mean eventual self-acceptance. Later, much later, I began to explore what queer meant. The patterns of dress and outward expression, the mannerisms, the tattoos, the tone and pitch of a voice--each of these became known to me with time. She was ten years older than me and farther along the beaten path. I see this now. Her preferred form of dress was very masculine, and I understand today the symbolism, based on gestures both covert and obvious. Gender was flipped inside out, the very same approach I would eventually adopt myself in reverse.

She was entirely unashamed in being attracted to women. This is why she coaxed and pleaded for my own semi-secret tales. I cagily provided them, unaware at first at the effect they produced, which was far from disgust and displeasure. In addition to being curious, she enjoyed the fantasy. It was my first look in the mirror, finding my twin.

Three years earlier, I’d been with an eccentric girl who wrote bad poetry, but much to her great regard knew the best way to not take herself too seriously. We parted before a year was up and I kick myself to this day for leaving her the way I did. I wanted more than she could provide. But we had broken up, and now I was 19. I had college in front of me and other landmarks to follow. The sticky humidity of a tent gave birth to a rambling, but enlightening conversation as afternoon became night. This is what I remember most. Benchmarks and age matter far less.

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