Twice in my life, I have mistaken one type of love for another.
The first time happened in the eighth grade with a girl named Rose. I met her in the sixth grade, where we quickly became inseparable friends. We spent entire days on the weekends at each other’s houses. In the summertime, if we didn’t hang out four or five days out of the week, it was only because one of us was sick or on vacation or something. I went to some of her family gatherings, and she came to mine.
Somewhere between the seventh and eighth grade I learned that boys are supposed to like girls, and if a boy and a girl are friends, that probably means they should be dating. Don’t ask me where I came upon this information, because I can’t say for sure. Sometimes ideals of the culture just have a way of insinuating themselves into our psyches. Sometimes other boys your own age tell you things and you just have to believe them.
Whatever the reason, I started to think that I was in love with Rose. I liked being with her. She made me happy. I wanted to hear about her day, and I never got tired of spending time with her. I had never dated anyone before, but that all seemed, to me, like good indicators that maybe she should be my girlfriend.
So, near the end of our eighth grad year, I asked her to go to the eighth grade dance with me. She laughed at me, but she did say yes, because she didn’t have a boyfriend at the time and, as she put it, going together would be fun.
That night marked the first time I had ever danced with a girl. I didn’t know what I was doing. I put my feet in the wrong places. I moved my hips the wrong way. My palms were sweaty, and I hoped they didn’t leave marks on her dress.
Despite all that I thought I felt something — a connection, a warmth beyond the physical when she put her hand on my arm, or on my waist. A sort of dreamy bliss whenever she looked into my eyes, her eyes filled with the spark of joy that came from having a good time with someone you cared about. It felt right, being with Rose, and I could tell she felt it too.
Toward the end of the night, during the last dance, we kissed. Kissing wasn’t allowed on the dance floor, but we did it anyway. When we pulled apart we shared a sort of secret smile, because (we thought) none of the chaperones had noticed. It was not Rose’s first kiss, but it was mine.
I admitted to myself only after I had arrived back home that the kiss had been a disappointment. It wasn’t like the movies or the books I read, where lighting flew between you and fireworks exploded in the background. It was just lips meeting for the first time, no different from the touch of a hand, if softer.
I think that I hid my reaction from Rose. Certainly she seemed excited by what we had done. She texted me about it all through the night. I would say “we texted about it,” but that doesn’t feel true to the facts. Rose enthused, and I went along and replied just enough to give her the idea that I had enjoyed it as much as she had.
A suspicion had begun to creep is way up inside me, one that I had tamped down and ignore for as long as possible. From the way other boys spoke, I knew I was supposed to feel something in my loins when I kissed a girl — even when I danced with one, or for a lot of boys, just when a girl touched me. I didn’t.
After the dance we started dating “officially,” and Rose and I kissed a lot more. I liked being with her. I sort of liked kissing her, because it made her happy and I did enjoy being close with her, and spending a lot of time with her. But Rose never inspired that stirring in my pants. I didn’t think about her breasts, or what she looked like naked. She tried reaching into my pants once, that summer, and I stopped her, because the thought made me so incredibly nervous. Luckily, she respected me.
At some point during that summer between middle school and high school, I began to realize that I wasn’t excited by Rose — that I wasn’t sexually excited by girls at all — because I was more interested in other boys.
It started… well, no, that’s not right, because I can think of little examples and small dreams and thoughts that passed through my head well before this example, but it’s this moment that made me reflect on all those things and start to allow them to have significance.
It started when I was sitting on the couch with my friend Brendan watching a movie or something. To be honest, I have no idea what it was, because my attention was more on Brendan than the movie. We were sitting on opposite sides of the couch, leaning away from each other, with our elbows resting on the armrests and our toes pointed toward the center. At some point, our feet crept toward the center, and our toes touched.
I felt a thrill rush up my leg, like the hot, prickling sensation of warm water pouring over your hands after you’ve been out in the cold. My foot came alive. I hadn’t even known it was dead before, but the way it awakened to the sensation of Brendan’’s toes pressed against mine made me realize that I’d never really paid attention to anything my foot felt.
Brendan didn’t pull his foot away. Neither did I. I was too terrified to acknowledge the contact. I didn’t know whether he had even noticed, and if he hadn’t, I didn’t want to disrupt the occasion and turn it into something negative on accident. I was also too afraid to acknowledge it and have it turn into something more, even if that “more” was positive, because what I was feeling confused me.
I was dating a girl. Rose. I was sure that what I felt toward her was love. It certainly seemed like it, to that younger version of myself. The only issue we had was that I didn’t enjoy the physical side of our relationship as much as I thought I was supposed to. All that stuff I thought Rose was supposed to inspire in me, this little, innocent, accidental contact with Brendan was bringing about effortlessly.
I felt my pants move, just thinking about the fact that we were touching, and I had to shift on the couch to hide my erection.
Three weeks later, I broke up with Rose. By then I knew it was the right thing to do, because I never thought about Rose the way I began thinking about Brendan. I never had the sort of dreams about Rose that I had about Brendan.
I still loved her. I told her that. Maybe I didn’t say it the right way; maybe there wasn’t a right way to say it, but if there was then 14-year-old me certainly didn’t know the words. I told her I still wanted to be her friend, but that I thought that I might be gay.
It’s hard to commit to those words, when you’re just figuring that out about yourself. Society only makes it harder. I told her I thought, but I knew.
She was surprisingly chill about it. Well, perhaps given the grander context, it shouldn’t have come across as a surprise: We had been dating only a few months, but we had been friends for years. I sobbed as I spoke to her, and that inspired sympathy. But when we fear something, even if there are logical bits that tell us it’s going to be okay, we become convinced that it won’t be, and surprised when things turn out.
I have to admit, I wasn’t fair to Rose after that. Our breakup went very well and we should have remained close friends. We did, by most standards, but not by our standards. We stopped hanging out quite so much, and I started taking longer to reply to her texts. I was more interested in Brendan.
You see, I fell for Brendan. Hard and fast. I knew, now, that I liked boys. Suddenly Brendan was the cutest and funniest boy I had ever met. I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could, even if that meant going to baseball games, or playing football with his friends, or other things in which I’d previously had absolutely zero interest. If I did those things, I got to be close to Brendan, and that made them okay.
We couldn’t do some of the things I was used to doing with Rose, because that would be gay. Well, I was gay, but I didn’t know if Brendan was and if he wasn’t I didn’t want to come off that way. We couldn’t go out to the movies, just with the two of us. That was too much like a date. The same went for going to the mall to hang out, or even going out to eat. I was glad he always had suggestions for what to do, because I had no idea how to hang out with a guy.
We played a lot of video games. We hung out in groups with his other guy friends, who quickly became my friends, too. I never drew as close to them as I had been with Rose, but that was okay. I was here for Brendan.
Toward the end of summer, we were hanging out, just the two of us, for once. We were going for a walk in the woods, something I actually did like to do, and we came upon a stream. I’m not even sure how it happened, because it happened so fast — I’m sure Brendan made a suggestion, or maybe not; maybe he just moved forward with his seemingly omnipresent confidence. Anyway, suddenly he was naked and jumping into the water.
I stood on the bank, fully clothed, more in shock than anything because I had just seen everything I had ever thought about wanting to see from the boy that I liked. He waved and called to me, laughing that I hadn’t joined him.
I’d always hated the locker rooms at school. Outside of those, I hadn’t been naked in front of anyone since I was a baby. My skinny, pale body embarrassed me. But Brendan didn’t seem to care, and this struck me as an opportunity that would not easily come again. So I stripped off my clothes and jumped in beside him.
We laughed. We splashed each other. Brendan tried to dunk me. I tried to trip him. At one point we both slipped and went under completely, and when we rose up, we were close enough together that I could feel his breath on my wet skin.
I thought, this is right. At that point I was sure I was in love. I thought, he’s gay too. He wouldn’t be so close to me, naked, if he wasn’t. I looked at the way his eyes met mine, and I knew, I knew, he loved me too. So I leaned forward and kissed him.
He backed up. “What the fuck, dude?” he shouted. Then he laughed. “Are you messing with me?”
“What?” I said, stunned. My voice, always soft, was barely audible. “No, I thought…”
Brendan shook his head, still smiling, just an inch away from laughing again. “Nah, man. I’m not gay.”
“Shit,” I whispered. “Look, I’m sorry. Please don’t… Don’t be mad at me, or whatever.”
He laughed again. His response was unfathomable to me: I didn’t understand why he wasn’t angry, why he didn’t suddenly hate me. “It’s fine, man,” he said, though even with the water hiding him, he brought his hand over himself, for discretion. “Don’t worry about it.” He shrugged. “I’ve tried to kiss some girls who weren’t into it. Really. I get it.”
“You’re really not mad?”
“I mean, no,” Brendan said. “I guess I suddenly want to put my clothes back on, to be honest. But I’m not mad.”
I felt the same need. I didn’t want to be exposed here, in the open. The cool water had turned cold, and I found myself shivering. Again, I had made a mistake. Again, though, I’d been lucky, and it didn’t turn out nearly as badly as it might have — Brendan had been taller, stronger, and just fitter than me in general, and we were alone in the woods. If he’d reacted poorly, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this today.
Maybe I’m just being dramatic.
Regardless, this was as much a lesson for me as dating Rose. At the time, I didn’t have the life experience or the perspective that I do now, but now, after years of continued friendship with both Rose and Brendan, I know that there’s more than one type of love.
I did feel love for Rose, but not of the romantic sort — I loved her as a friend. And while I may have loved Brendan romantically, in a 14-year-old sort of way, he would only ever love me as a friend. I didn’t know there were different kinds of love. I should have. After all, I loved my parents, but I wouldn’t say that I loved them in the same way that I loved either Rose or Brendan.
Anyway, I guess my point is this: love is confusing. You probably won’t figure it out the first time.