I fell in love with a guy once.
This was a surprise. You only love books and school. I thought you were into girls.
This was back before I could have gotten away with saying, “So what if I do?” I don’t. I didn’t. But it hasn’t impacted my life much. I know plenty of lesbians who have been in love with more men than me.
“Are those unicorns?” he asked one day, spotting the cover of the notebook I was doodling in. “I thought everyone gave those up when they were eleven.”
Panicking, I closed the book, which only made it easier to see the cover.
“I guess I hold on to things longer than I should,” I mumbled.
“Hey, I’m not judging. You do you.”
That was it. There was no more to that conversation. Despite what he said, I thought he was judging. But he noticed me. That was enough.
I’m almost ashamed to say he was tall, dark, and handsome. I came to take comfort in being different, and in this way my crush was just like the stereotype. Though he was also black, which in retrospect would have been a problem with parents like mine in a town like the one we lived in. I got out of there, and so did nearly everyone else from my school. Most of those who didn’t now look lost in time. They voted for the president not out of any policy preference or anger at other cultures, but sheer bitterness.
Back then, all of them, guys and girls, looked better than me. I’d say they didn’t like me, but that would mean noticing me. I was fortunate to float through school too invisible to be bullied and, despite my love for books, too average for teachers to love me. Those reactions I mentioned earlier? Those were from the few friends I made in college.
That conversation lingered with me for weeks. Each day we sat next to each other in the class, not saying anything. That was fine, because like me, he spent his quiet time deep in a book. And from that day forward, I noticed what he was reading. Eldest. The Audacity of Hope. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
He, too, seemed to be using books to disappear from this torturous camp the buses ferried us off to each day. He used them to fill every moment that wasn’t filled with busy work.
Some of our interests crossed over. I read Harry Potter and Eragon, though I didn’t like the book enough to bother with the sequel. I sat next to him reading The Two Towers wondering if he would comment. He didn’t, but he noticed. A few weeks later he started reading The Fellowship of the Ring.
I should have said something to him. We sat next to each other for an entire quarter. It was a quiet class, but we could have spoken at any point on the way in and out. There were so many opportunities.
But why would he want to talk to me? No one else did. And I had made it to high school without developing the skills necessary to strike up conversation with someone new.
So that’s where that chapter ended. We didn’t share any classes the next quarter, and I spent that time kicking myself for not having taken a chance. Those few months were among the longest, most miserable of my life.
Next quarter, there he was. Civics. There were lines of desks between us, but while most of our classmates talked in their free time, we sat there reading books. In his hands, Democracy Matters. Mine, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
And despite the agony of the past few months, I didn’t say a thing (my choice of reading sure didn’t help me feel more comfortable around men).
This time, after our last class of the quarter, he stopped just outside the door.
“Hey, uh, I was wondering what your name was.”
I was not expecting this. “Trish,” I stammered out.
“Trish. I’m Jacob.”
An awkward pause.
“I noticed you like to read.”
An even more awkward pause.
“I guess I’ll see you around,” he said.
“I guess so,” I parroted.
It was then that I realized he was as nervous and bashful as I was. After he walked away, I waited a bit before walking in the same direction to my next class, smiling dopily to myself.
That next year, I started my first quarter hoping to see him again. It had been a full quarter, plus the summer, since the last time we spoke. But he wasn’t in any of them.
The next day, I saw him in the cafeteria. It was my turn to overcome my nerves.
“Mind if I sit here?”
He looked up from his book, Call Me by Your Name.
“Trish,” I added.
I gestured toward the book.
“Oh,” he smiled, embarrassed. “Sure. I’d like that.”
That was as close as we ever got to flirting. We barely even seemed like friends in those first few weeks. We mostly read side by side. Small talk was not something I had ever needed to know before.
By the third month, we had figured out how to speak. It was nice, looking back, to know someone who moved at the same speed.
Unfortunately, there weren’t enough days left in school. Soon we were looking at colleges and receiving acceptance letters. We both chose schools that were out of state, probably out of a mutual belief that we both needed to get far away to get a fresh start on this whole people thing. We said we’d keep in touch, but we didn’t. That’s okay. I’ll never forget the last thing he said to me.
“You were reading Rocket Boys the first time I spoke to you.”
“It was sitting on your desk next to that unicorn notebook you used to doodle in.”
“You remember that?”
“It was seeing you with all those books that made me interested in reading. I mean, I read just fine, and I got good grades, but it wasn’t something I did for fun. But you were always in a book in a way I had never seen before.”
“You read because if me?”
“I read because I like it. But it’s thanks to you that I found that out.”
“Thank you for noticing me,” I said, though I wasn’t sure if it came out right. I couldn’t put into words what it meant to have had that big an influence on someone’s life, but more than that, his noticing me changed mine. He pulled me out of my shell. Not completely out, but at least my head and neck, like a turtle or a snail. Enough to engage with the world.
We went our separate ways. I voted for Obama in the fall. I jumped at the chance to see Cornel West when he came to my school. My parents and extended family members, who never talked to me all that much to begin with, started talking to me even less.
A decade has passed. Many old classmates surely have had kids by now. Some have probably gotten divorced. Me? I’ve still yet to date anyone, but I don’t hesitate to say I’ve experienced love.