I was the drunkest I’d been in recent memory because someone else was buying. A friend had invited me to a new bar in Oakland (gentrifying the neighborhood, inevitably) where the drinks were small and expensive and came with some vaguely literary name. “Come with me,” my friend had said earlier in the night. “I don’t want to go alone.” I didn’t need them to beg, though I let them.
We met for the first time when they were 20 and I was 15 at what I now only refer to as “poetry camp.” I had purple hair, sported mostly shortalls and had never closely interacted with any college-age person. Until arriving at my fated poetry camp, of course — lilac streaks and all, eager, I suppose, to round out my own cliche.
I don’t know how to describe them with adequate gravity. They were the most beautiful person I had ever seen, a decision I made based almost solely upon their gait. They approached me in their cool way and showed me around. Not because they necessarily wanted to: This was a summer job for them (TA’ing at poetry camp) and we made small talk while walking around campus. It was July, so I needed chapstick. They lent me theirs without hesitation, and it tasted like pomegranate.
The next week was spent, for me, trying to get close to them. My friend marked one of my first and most intense obsessions. They were older than me, but not so much so that it seemed totally impossible. Not that I knew what “it” meant, or was: I hadn’t yet theorized much about my sexuality. Attraction was just a feeling, and I let it consume me.
We stayed in touch, here and there. They sent me William Blake deep cuts and told me about their girlfriends. I read their occasional letters to myself in their slow, methodical voice.
It was never overly intimate, our relationship. But it was pining — I don’t think I’ve ever flirted as hard with anyone else. It’s flirting with them, in fact, that has led me to believe flirtation is a trainable skill to be honed, perfected, flipped on and off. It’s strategic, and when I’m on, I’m tireless, which is one of my favorite ways to be.
I knew, of course, that my crush was more about me than it was about them. They were “my root” — the person who makes it impossible for you to ignore how gay you are. I’m not sure why the purple hair (or the literal poetry camp) hadn’t been enough evidence for me. But in any case, I knew I wanted them to fuck me. A wish that gained much of its power from its unlikeliness. To them, I was a child who had forgotten her chapstick and needed to be shown around.
At the bar in Oakland, drunker than I’d been in recent memory, I was hanging out with my friend for the first time in more than a year. It was unexpected and slightly unprecedented, but they needed a place to stay, and I invited them to do so with me. And now I was gazing at them from my seat by their side at the bougie bar, across the table from their ex-girlfriend’s aunt and the ex-girlfriend’s aunt’s boyfriend. Don’t ask. I have no idea why I was there. I wondered how the aunt and boyfriend saw us. We must have looked like we were together, me in my appropriately gay nose ring, the two of us on one side of the booth.
The boyfriend was problematic, as boyfriends tend to be. After a particularly unsavory comment, I found myself clutching my friend’s hand under the table. They returned my grasp and didn’t pull away. Over the next hour, I touched every part of their hand. Then their wrist. They traced the hem of my jeans with their knuckle, and if this was it, if this was as close to fucking them as I would ever get, I was satisfied.
But we did fuck. We made out in my industrial-sized co-op kitchen the minute we got home and had drunken sex upstairs. I knew my neighbors could hear us, and a few had seen us kissing and groping near the stove. It felt like victory. “What are the odds we have sex?” I had asked my roommate upon introducing my friend to her. She gave me a 20% probability, a statistic I have yet to forgive her for. But no matter. I was doing it, naked in front of my fantasy.
I want to say this was the best sex of my life, that my 15-year-old self was redeemed, but I know that’s impossible. I knew it the minute they unbuttoned my pants; I knew it as they bit my neck. I wanted them so fully and had wanted them for so long. But with them materialized, at last, on top of me, all I could think about was the first time we met and how I had been a child.
It feels naive to tell this story without some recognition of what our fucking could mean. Had they always wanted me? Does it matter if they did? I don’t know if they recognized the power they held over me for so long or how formative my pining was. I tend to not think so; our relationship felt more happenstance and playful than sinister. But isn’t that always what the younger person believes?
Being wanted by them was incredible — at the bar, under the table. But the sex couldn’t have lived up to the romance of my mental life they had so long inhabited. And it didn’t. In part because my desire for them was always based on the notion that they would find it wrong to sleep with me, that it would betray some unspoken pact.
But I don’t really think the fucking made them see me any type of way. It just made me nostalgic for the place they had lived in my head: the daydream of unthinkably good sex, which is the kind of fantasy that can never survive the material world. At least, not well. The real problem, though, now that I’ve slept with my root, is where my new fantasy will come from. There’s this tall chef whom I’ve dreamt about on occasion (cooking me stupidly small vegetable arrangements, or something like that), but it’s not the same as the lusting I was capable of when I knew less about myself, and things could remain perfect.
Scout Turkel writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]