CW: Off-page mentions of suicide and sexual assault.
When I was young, I fell in love with a girl. Her heavy black Doc Marten boots, climbing out of her boyfriend's shitty old sedan, caught my eye as I stumbled off the school bus, my friend slamming into me from behind. I watched her smile and laugh, dumbstruck, before I was shouldered out of the way by other students, anxious to flee the tall yellow monstrosity behind me, but I couldn't stop staring.
She wore a crushed velvet blue mini dress, a thick black choker necklace, and fishnet tights that made her pale legs glow. She had the prettiest smile, big brown eyes, auburn red hair, and a light dusting of freckles that somehow pulled the look together, and I hated her boyfriend instantly for the way she looked up at him. She was my friend's older sister, but my friend ceased to exist when her sister invited me into her bedroom to listen to Nine Inch Nails and hang out on her giant, messy bed. We stared at the dark purple ceiling and twinkling Christmas lights and talked about how cool Trent Reznor was. I doubt she knew the depth of my crush, but she let me call her a friend, and at the time, that was enough.
Eventually, she let me kiss her, but by then, I had given up on waiting for her to notice me and had fallen in love with others. A boy, who became a high school football star. But it was the late nineties, and after an injury on the field, he became addicted to opioids and eventually overdosed and died. In art class, I fell for an upperclassman who had a shy laugh, smoked a lot of weed, and had a penchant for imitating Beavis and Butthead. It was always funny, even when it was stupid. The day before school let out for the year, he hung himself in his bedroom closet.
When I was young, an ignorant acne-ridden clown of a boy who liked to talk about the cost of gas prices and how many guns his dad owned made jokes to all our classmates that if you were bisexual, you were selfish and that it was okay for girls to kiss other girls if you were in porn or having a threesome, reserved for the viewing pleasure of a man only. I remember everyone laughing; it echoed through the halls and followed me around between classes because I was young and confused, and suddenly I felt shackled by heteronormative expectations, afraid to speak up for myself because no one else seemed to like both boys and girls, but again, it was the nineties, and no one really talked about it, either. So, instead, I kept quiet and never came out publicly.
When I was young, being a feminist meant a lot of things, all of which ascribed you graciously to a set of tangentially defined rules. A feminist hated men and fought the lizard patriarchy; she was definitely a bitch and thrived on the fringes of subculture, which was okay because it blunted the sharp edges of living in a society that normalized bad behavior.
When I was young, my art teacher fell in love with me. He was old and balding and sweaty, and I can't remember if that's actually what he looked like or if it's the villainous image my memory recreates. He'd follow me into the darkroom because I was the only student interested in pin-hole photography, and he'd rest his hand on my thirteen-year-old hip and give it a squeeze. My friends and I would make fun of him and call him a pervert because I didn't know how to be afraid of him. I figured he loved to fall in love, like I did. He taught me to batik and how to use gouache and oil paints. He taught me screen printing and pottery and how to make clay molds. He was the track coach after school and told the other girls to stretch their legs, their boyfriends would appreciate it when they got older. He told me I was beautiful and liked to touch my hair. When the school year ended, he wrote me a love letter and left it tucked inside a box of a finished piece of art. When I found it, I balled it up, threw it in a trash can, and never saw him again.
When I was young, my English teacher wanted to spend more time with me, so he invited me onto his boat at his lake house after school. Another time, he bought me a T-shirt and asked me to come out to the parking lot before school ended so he could give it to me because he left it in his trunk. I said no, but not the firm kind of no, the definitive, what you're asking of your student is wrong, kind of no. I said no, like he was just another boy asking me out. Nah, I'm all set. He didn't seem offended, though he no longer engaged in heated discussions regarding satirical literature with me during study hall. He stopped sharing his favorite books with me, too. I saw him years later at a bar when I was old enough to drink, and he didn't recognize me, or if he did, he was no longer interested.
When I was less young, I left high school and fell in love with another girl. Like the first, she transcended all those who preceded her. Her laugh was so big and obnoxious it was embarrassing, but when she left the room, you missed her with all your heart, like she snatched up all your joy and stuck it in her pocket for safekeeping; to be near her was to live in technicolor. Time passed, and life pulled us in different directions. One day she sent me an email with a picture of her penis; she had a pair of scissors and a seam tattooed along the length of it. When I saw her next, her breasts had grown larger through hormone replacements, and she never looked happier or more beautiful. I still picture her in that baby blue lacy top, accentuating her new curves, her long neck leading up to the brightest smile. If you met her, you'd never guess she was sexually assaulted by five men in a parking lot one night when she was barely more than seventeen.
When I was less young, I learned men liked you better if you smiled. Older men, younger men, teachers, store clerks. 'Why don't you smile, sweetheart?' Estimating the number of times a man's asked me that question would be impossible. I'm sure my scowl always deepened further, but it was clear you weren't allowed to make whatever expression you felt like making if you were a woman, and definitely not if you were a girl. No one ever yelled at boys to smile more, and I wasn't about to because I didn't care if they smiled or not. Why did they care if I did?
When I was older, I fell in love with a man. Tortured by memories of abuse, he wasn't as easy to love as the others, and I'm never quite sure if it was to my benefit that I can now clearly define toxic love or if I'd have been lucky to avoid it altogether. He had muddled black prison tattoos covering the length of his arms, sold coke and heroin, played the drums, and was so punk rock I could sense his brooding for miles. He was half-Mexican and the most intelligent person I had ever met, and he spoke with such eloquence and tumultuous sophistication I knew wholeheartedly that I was inadequately prepared to love him. Eventually, I left him when he couldn't keep himself out of jail, and eventually, he overdosed and died.
When I was older, I watched the world disintegrate. Men got into trouble for asking girls to smile more; the same men who were incapable of understanding the similitude of controlling a girl's natural ability to communicate because it pleased their eyes and conditional intimidation. The same men who were casually held accountable for retaliating against women for their rejections, however slight, though their punishment most often came in the court of public opinion, and to some, maybe that was worse.
When I was older, an entire nation of women repudiated and bucked against a cast of puppets who assisted in reverting women's rights back to a time before the 70s. We watched our liberties slip between our fingers, and I knew without a doubt it was the same men who never comprehended the expression, men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will rape them, thinking it nothing more than hyperbole (at best) who were responsible; the same men incapable of reconciling their reluctant assumption that equality existed the moment we declared it and reality.
It was the same men who didn't understand how making jokes about girls kissing girls reserved solely for their visual pleasure and porn makes a girl stay quiet.
When I was older, I understood the extent of the patriarchal tendrils that festered and infected our world. And when I was older, I sat around a fireplace in an expensive hotel room with my straight, cis-gen partner, playing Scrabble, and realized in one strange lighting strike moment that labels didn't matter so much and that the ability to quantify your identity is impossible; language is stolen and reshaped by each new generation and that's okay because you get older and you realize you needed the identity as a young person because it helped you understand the world a little better.
When I was older, I learned I didn't need to smile, even if a man asked me to and even if it hurt his feelings, because I don't exist for his pleasure. When I was older, I learned how to say no, even if it felt a little too late a lesson. And when I was older, I took comfort in knowing that the world would burn no matter what; there was a kind of freedom in acknowledging that all of us humans just needed to learn to survive each other.