I had my first kiss when I was four years old. His name was Seth. His Nana worked with my mother, and we were thrown into a fast friendship after he was born, a friendship which stuck with each mud pie we made together in my backyard. But this was not mud pies, though it was just as sticky and wet. His mouth moved to engulf mine, a little slobbery vacuum, as we sat in my Power Puff Girls tent in the basement. In retrospect he must have seen this act on a TV show he shouldn’t have been watching, and the curiosity guided his pink tongue as it prodded mine. As quickly as it happened, it was done and forgotten. His mind didn’t linger on what we’d just done, as his growling stomach lured him up the stairs with the promise of grilled cheese sandwiches that Nana had surely already prepared. He sprinted up the steps, and I followed close behind. He dashed into the kitchen where his prey awaited him, but I went to the bathroom and washed my mouth out.
It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I truly began to recognize myself teetering on the edge between queer and insane. My torn cuticles and the broken skin of my knuckles reminded me of how many more times a day than the “average person” I washed my hands. I tried to scrub all the contamination away, never to any avail.
I was ugly when I was thirteen, too. I had cut my long hair when I was twelve, trading it in for a shoulder-length style that I thought was more sophisticated, soon realizing that I was hardly up to the task of waking up fifteen minutes early to style it properly. My locks hung limp at an awkward length; a failure that could only be paralleled by my runny eye make-up and cumbersome braces. Boys would tease me, tugging on the purple extensions I’d clip into my hair saying “this is the color I want!”
Becca was the only one brave enough to stand up for me. When we met in the sixth grade, she had short hair too, but hers was blond and clean. Her brown eyes were like my mother’s, but warm. When she hugged me, I could smell the shampoo she used: Her scent was the first medication I would take for my anxiety. Boys would stop me in the hall to ask, “Emily, do you like muffins?” and I would blush in shame, knowing what they meant by the question but never knowing how to answer—much less truthfully, much less with Becca’s hand on my back, her fingertips flames on the exposed skin between my shirt collar and my hair
One night I went out to dinner with three boys, after the opening night of a musical we were in together. When the first one stood up to leave the restaurant he shook the hands of the two other boys first. When he got to me, I shook his hand too. He shot a look over my head to the boy sitting on the other side of me, and left. I now understand that he expected me to give him a hug. Sometimes I still wonder why he wanted one. I didn’t know how to relate to boys. I never really bothered to learn.
Food was never easy for me during those days. The other day, somebody told me that she believes men find comfort in the breasts of women because breasts remind them of food. I am reminded of how much turmoil I’ve been caused by both: desiring that which was not mine to desire, not eating food my body so desperately needed—who knows how it could have been tainted. I have a very severe nut allergy; the memory of vomit tainted purple with Benadryl chewables haunted the roof of my mouth. It only happened the one time I mistook a Reese’s Piece in a cookie for a chocolate chip, but since then, I’ve believed it would be better to starve to death than to suffocate, and that thought alone has always been enough to fill my stomach and shut me up for years. One Halloween I begged Becca to vacuum the square of her basement’s carpet where I saw her drop a Reese’s cup—and then wash her hands. She told me her father had an allergy, too—worse than mine—and it would be fine, I would be fine. I didn’t believe her.
“You’re being really weird,” she told me. We didn’t talk much after that.
I began eating lunch with Jane, who ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every single day. This wouldn’t have been quite as awful if she didn’t spit each time she spoke. Each time I felt one of her wet dots on my cheek, I imagined big red hives in its place, but when I looked in the mirror, they were never there. She would hug me, too, touch my shoulders, play with my hair—hair I washed too much for that very reason. The fear of a strand of my own hair entering my mouth was too great—the idea that my own saliva was tainted would keep me salivating and not swallowing until I could brush my teeth. Too often I resorted to running hand soap from the bathroom through my hair and lips in between classes, and my mother would question why my hair looked greasy when I got home.
I remember living in fear of being outed to my mother—whether as queer or insane—it didn’t matter—she was so scary and righteous in those days. Her watchful Christian eyes perused my emails and iPod, looking for a tell-tale “fuck,” or worse, “god damn.” My favorite band at the time was Cobra Starship, but she forbade me from listening to them after Googling the lead singer and seeing a rumor that he was bisexual. Music used to soothe me, but during those days I found myself skipping song after song, too many had cuss words—words God and Mother didn’t approve of. Too often, I couldn’t hear the notes in a song over the memory of her voice, “you’re my good Christian girl,” her kiss on my forehead, “good Christian girl.” When I didn’t feel hives prickling on my face I would feel the lick of flames, the promise of hell, an eternity that so easily awaited me. I would listen to the same Christian rock song six or more times in a day, pick Bibles up off the floor and put them on the highest rung of my book shelf. Anything if he could forgive the blush when I heard “Emily, do you like muffins?”
“Emily, do you like muffins?”
Inevitably it happened one day. I was sitting at the dinner table; Mother was pouring us milk to drink with our take-out. She finished pouring and began looking through bills. She made a face when she came to the water bill. It was higher than usual, much higher, she said. She asked if I knew why, and I said no. Sometimes on a bad day I would leave the water on until I could dry my hands enough to pick up a tissue to turn it off. Touching the undoubtedly germy faucet with bare-hands took courage I rarely had. When I began to eat my cheese quesadillas, I realized there were tomatoes in them.
“I don’t like tomatoes.”
Mother said that she had asked me if I wanted the tomatoes and I said yes. I explained that I thought she meant pico de gallo. She sighed and reached over to take the quesadillas from me, to pick the tomatoes out. Her fingers pulled back the tortillas, leaving prints visible in the melted cheese. The color drained from my face.
“You touched my food . . .”
That was how it happened.
She started screaming, then, screaming because she knew I wouldn’t eat it. Screaming because I didn’t eat my lunch, because of Jane, screaming and shaking yogurt, chips, quesadillas in front of me yelling waste, waste, wasted food! Two meals wasted and nothing in my stomach to show for it. I burst into tears. A month later they started me on the Prozac.
I spoke to many people. Mostly I spoke to men who sat in large chairs, peering at me over manila folders; the space between us felt like lifespans. One told me my thoughts were abnormal. Another told me I had fallen down a rabbit hole. One time, a lady handed me a computer mouse and held the end of the cord. She told me she was my depression and said to try and walk away from her. I could not. They asked me questions:
“Are you sexually active?”
“What do you do with your friends . . . do you have friends?”
“Do you get along with your mother and father?”
“You’re the president of your high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance? Oh, okay, so you just want the birth control for your periods, then?”
“And you don’t think normal people feel that way?”
Over the years more and more letters were added to my alphabet: OCD, ADD, SAD, B then L (or G), and now I’ve settled on Q (with depression and anxiety, too.) Each year brings a new cocktail: Prozac and Concerta; Welbutrin, Klonopin, and Focalin; Busprione and Ritalin; or cheap whiskey poured into early morning coffee, when all the side effects came to be too much (but whiskey has its side effects, too.) It would take until my junior of college to find a therapist who was like me, one who was able to tell me what I needed to hear:
“You are doing your best.”
When they said it, I could finally believe it to be true. A lower dose of Prozac goes down easier with their words.
I remember the first time I said the words “I like girls.”
I was sixteen, at a church camp in North Carolina, but I wasn’t religious anymore. It wasn’t so much that I had stopped believing in God, but that I had stopped fearing what he (or she, or they) thought of me. And I was eating. Prozac made everything less frightening, even food. Even girls. Even hell.
I said them to a girl named Lauren. Her hair was blonder than Becca’s and her eyes were darker. We were sitting on a rock in a lake past dusk, and I could feel the minutes until curfew ticking away with the beating of our hearts. She stared at me for five beats and quietly whispered “me too.” Lauren was the first girl I ever kissed. Her lips didn’t taste like mud-pies, or grilled cheese, or peanut butter. They tasted like relief.