by Rachel Noall
The weather was warm, despite it being late April in Ohio. We sat on the deck, the sun still kissing the treetops. Despite the warmth, the wrought-iron table felt cold against my elbows. I buried my head in my hands, wishing so hard for a do-over.
When I was four, I came home from preschool and proudly announced to both of my parents that I had a girlfriend. They laughed. It became a story they told at parties – to family and to strangers. Little did they know, I was speaking half-truths at a young age.
My stomach turned, the knots squeezing tight. I kept imagining that if I fell over, writhing in pain, that they might just love me again. The wishing did not help though, and I never did fall over.
I grew up in a good family. I lived in a house on a cul-de-sac. I always had pets, and a cool little brother. I only ever went to private schools. My grades were stellar. I never got into any sort of trouble, and have literally no memories of being spanked or grounded. I played all of the sports, and at sixteen was on my way towards navigating the college recruiting process. This was not supposed to happen to someone like me. I was not supposed to be someone like me.
That day in April, none of my accomplishments mattered. It all went away, splintering into a thousand tiny pieces, obliterated with a few words spoken by a confused sixteen-year-old. Suddenly, I became an object of interrogation and mistrust – what a fall from grace.
“When? Where? Why? How long?” The questions hit me hard. I sat there and trembled with honesty on that rare warm spring night. Words were thrown at me. I imagined that is how a boxer might feel, when they are getting their ass beat in the ring – that is how I felt. Everything hurt – I was ready to tap out.
I was fifteen when I had my first kiss with a girl. The tingling feeling you get, when you kiss someone, was new to me. It had never happened before. It was fall; we were surrounded by red and orange hues in the woods, and it all felt right. A week later, we had our first date. I joined her at a high school football game under the lights on a brisk Friday evening. We stood close, leaning up against a railing, holding hands in secret.
“How did this happen? Did she pressure you?” The prying questions, assumptions, the yelling and tears, the selfish way that this impacted them. What about me? I tried to articulate, but I would not get the words right until years later.
Eventually, I was called into the office at the Catholic school I had been attending since first grade. A wonderful woman, one I am always happy to see, put her hand on my shoulder. It had been the first loving touch from an adult that I had felt in weeks. Her eyes were sincere as she asked, “You doing okay Rachel? A few people are a bit worried about you.” I choked back tears, trying to swallow the ache in my voice as I spoke; its quivering always betrays me. I was so angry with myself. Was I really that easy to read? Had I let this spill over to one of the only places where I still felt safe?
I nodded, told her, vaguely of course, that I was figuring some things out, but that I would be okay. She reluctantly let me leave her office. The pained look in her eye – I still remember it, and despite my lack of speaking to her about a single detail, she made me feel loved.
Coach Jimmy noticed. I knew he would. When you spend time with a mentor, the way I did with Jimmy, you get good at reading one another. He also noticed because I rarely missed a groundball. He abruptly stopped practice, and came strutting out to me at shortstop, a bat resting on his shoulder. Leaning in close, he put his arm around me. “Rach, what they hell is up with you?” he said candidly but with concern. I do not remember exactly how I replied, but he probably saw the crocodile tears welling up in my eyes. Hell, maybe he even knew that I had been carrying on a secret relationship with very distant, much younger, cousin. Taking his place back at home plate, he hit me a ball. I made sure not to miss.
Soon everyone forgot, because I learned to suck it up.
I did not forget, but I did push it down so far that it only came out at night under the covers and accompanied by tears.
Another sunny day, about three years later.
We sat on the splintery wooden picnic table in the park where I began to fall in love with you, little by little, years ago. The first time we came here, I had thrown my shoes off, plunging into the creek and slipping on slimy rocks. I remember splashing you – I was a terrible flirt. Only a summer before, we had come here one night after a softball game, and had made out in the dark for hours on this very table. It had been a place of lovely memories – a place where I had grown up.
You were trembling, your face smeared with snot and the red color that comes from violent crying. Somehow though, calmly, you dismantled me piece by piece.
“I can’t be with you. I can’t do this. I have an army of siblings. I can’t. I can’t tell my family.”
We had spent the last two weeks on vacation together on that lake in New York, soaking up the sun’s rays and enjoying love. Both in college, but five hundred miles apart eight months of the year, we took advantage of every moment we could spend together, even if it meant your whole family would be present.
I made sure not to stare too long when other people were around. I carefully kept my hands to myself, even when I drank too much Triple Sec late into the night. I actually talked to your Father about the incredibly conservative book he had been reading about marijuana, and pretended to agree with his views, even though I am a downright liberal.
Over a year prior, our first “dates” were spent in my basement. We watched six full seasons of Degrassi that summer, and slowly but surely, we got closer. I would put my arm around you when you began to drift into sleep. You would grab my hand when something scary happened. Eventually, your hands found their way around my waist, before we had even pressed play on the TV. Hopelessly, I fell in love with you, a girl who I thought was straight. It was not until one night in my garage, as we said goodbye for the night, that we actually kissed.
“I just can’t, Rachel. I need to say goodbye to you.”
So I stood there, looking at you sitting on that bench in the park, where we shared so many memories, and asked myself, “What had I done wrong?”
Two instances, years apart – it was never that I had done something wrong. It was that I was wrong. I was the thing that was wrong. A component of me, hard-wired; a thing I proclaimed proudly at age four led me down roads that I did not yet have the tools to navigate.
In my chest, my heart beats on, mended by experience, perhaps by my own maturity and time away from the hurt. It still broke though, my heart, more than once, and you cannot ever forget what that feels like – when it is you that is “wrong,” when it is you that is not enough.