When my friends asked why I was walking around school with a lumpy bundle of wrapping paper, I responded as casually as I could that it was Rachel’s birthday. (No, not that Rachel — the one from volleyball, in the grade above us.) When they asked what the present was, I said that I made her a shirt. Why did I make her a shirt? Well. It was Monday, it was freezing outside and it was right before our first-semester exams; she could use the cheering up. Shouldn’t everyone get presents on their birthday? Especially their sweet 16? It felt like a reasonable explanation. I wasn’t being weird for thinking about her.
In all of these exchanges I evaded mentioning that Rachel was my First Gay Crush™, so I spent all of my time thinking about her anyway. But the birthday was a legitimate reason to be thinking about her, rather than the fact that she was really, really pretty and could sing so well, and that she made it look so easy to be loud and weird around her very cool friends.
Rachel and I met because she was the captain of the JV volleyball team in the year that I broke my pinky before the season started and served as the team’s equipment manager. That really set the tone for our relationship: Technically it made sense when we would be in the same room together, but it always seemed like I’d exploited a loophole in the social code in order to make it happen. Yet for reasons I could not explain, she enjoyed my company. It was obvious to me that my job on her birthday was to reward her for giggling at my jokes and responding to my nonsense on AIM with the best possible gift I could find.
Common sense told me that I lacked both the social capital and creativity to pull off anything too large in scale, so I settled for referencing our best inside joke. During volleyball season our coach had refused my request for a “manager’s jersey” for games, so I took a t-shirt and drew a necktie with our school’s colors on it and our team’s mascot on the back, and wore it on the bench to project a semblance of camaraderie with my teammates. Rachel laughed so hard every time she saw the shirt and told me how much she loved it so often that I refused to put it in the laundry the entire season, terrified that the marker would run and she would stop finding me charming. Gifting Rachel the shirt would serve the dual purpose of giving her something she seemed genuinely to enjoy and reminding her of my finest moment, but as mine had never been washed in three months of use I had to make her a shirt of her own.
I tried and repeatedly failed to produce an acceptable facsimile with the frustrated, manic energy of a Looney Tune. The night before Rachel’s birthday, my mother walked into our living room and noted the rulers, pile of sharpies, crate of dynamite, discarded test shirts and tears in my eyes. “Lisa, this girl is going to think you have a crush on her,” she chuckled. My heart stopped, and simultaneously wailed, That is the point, Mom! She needs to know that I love her!!!
It was true: Rachel absolutely had to know how I felt, but in that moment I finally understood there was no way, in any universe, that I would ever be able to tell her.
Prior to that night, I had run through scenario after mental scenario of an increasingly bleak series of personal tragedies that would make it okay for me to tell Rachel that I wanted to — I don’t even know, hold her hand? I was 14 years old and my entire sexual history consisted of the time in seventh grade when my friend kissed his hand and then pressed his hand to my cheek as a way of thanking me for sharing popcorn when we saw Will Ferrell’s Kicking and Screaming. I also had yet to fully figure out that this was all happening because I was a human lesbian, and that these feelings would actually be much easier to deal with after I started telling people about them. I was very convinced that if I shared this secret with Rachel, innocent as it may have been, the absolute best I could hope for was that she wouldn’t outright laugh in my face.
The scenes ranged from the pathetic to the outright morbid. Maybe she would change schools and I could reveal my feelings on her last day. No, too much of a chance that I wouldn’t run into her that day. Maybe my parents would die in a plane crash — well, they were divorced, so separate plane crashes — and I could tell her how I felt when I had nothing left to lose. That could work, but it would also preclude me from moving in with Rachel, now that I was an orphan. I imagined telling her on my own deathbed, but that came with a host of issues, such as, how would I convince her to come visit me in the hospital? Even in a reality where I got my brother to agree to send her a letter I’d written confessing everything after I’d passed, there was the chance that she’d bring it into school so everyone could laugh at the weird dead lesbian. Or more likely, that my brother would forget to mail the letter.
No, none of those would do, but as my mother warned me of the side effects of marker fumes it became clear that Rachel’s birthday was my chance to lay my cards on the table. It was a Hanes-branded nudge to consider that maybe one of her friends would be more fun to date than that wrestler I’d heard she’d hooked up with at Homecoming. What I lacked in Herculean physique I made up for in knowing her, caring about her, going to the trouble of making her feel special on a Monday during midterms.
When Rachel unwrapped her present, the sentiment became tangible, even if just for a moment. I still remember watching her open it from across the cafeteria, the way that she unfolded the shirt and just let it dangle in midair for a few seconds, considering it. There was a palpable energy that floated across her lunch table as all of her friends stared at my masterpiece, confused. Who in the world made you a t-shirt? Who’s Lisa? Oh. I didn’t know you guys were friends. Rachel found me and waved excitedly, mouthing thanks. Her friends shrugged. She continued opening presents, and the moment passed.
A couple of days later we ran into each other in the hallway. I asked if she liked the shirt. “I love it so much,” she grinned. “I’m gonna wear it as pajamas, like, all the time.”
As my heart sighed, I considered the catch-22, whereby informing Rachel that she was supposed to wear this shirt proudly at school and regard it as the peak of fashion because Lisa made it to say that she loved me would also be informing Rachel that I loved her, and that was against the rules. Instead I told Rachel that I was glad she liked the gift and lived with my disappointment. My infatuation lost steam from there, so we maintained our unlikely friendship for years. The ideal rejection, really.
About a year later I was sitting in math class, sporting a fresh cast from another volleyball mishap and wondering if maybe the world was telling me to consider soccer. My ears perked up when Nora, my Second Gay Crush™, mentioned that her birthday was coming up in a few weeks. “It’s December 5th,” she said, as if that were a perfectly average fact to share. Once again, I faced quite the dilemma — should I tell her how unbelievably bizarre it was that I had managed to fall in love with exactly two people in my life and both of them were born on December 5th? I had to tell her. The odds! Unfortunately, it’d invite too many follow-up questions on all the stuff I wasn’t ready to talk about yet, so instead I asked if Nora wanted to sign my cast. She wrote a math pun.
Nora and I had all of these conversations about how she loved drinking tea in the morning but hated that it would get cold by the end of our first-period class, so I gave her a thermos with an inside joke of ours printed on it, accompanied by a note explaining how lucky I felt to have her in my life. She told me privately that she loved it. Soon after, winter break started and I didn’t see her for a couple of weeks.
The first day back we walked into math class and I felt every cell in my brain begging me to ask Nora if she had used the thermos yet, but that would have gone too much against the air of indifference I pretended I maintained around her. After five minutes of mental anguish she pulled it out of her backpack and placed it on her desk, so casually, like the thermos was just there to learn about polynomials too. The year went on but its presence never ceased to overwhelm me: Nora would take a sip during class, and look at me, and I’d get this little reminder that she had a little reminder that I had been thinking about her. I was so happy; it warmed my heart to warm her Earl Grey.
I spent the rest of high school describing myself as someone who “just loved birthdays,” when what I meant was that I loved a socially sanctioned reason to shower my crushes with affection. From kosher merengues for a classmate whose birthday fell during Passover (which precluded her from getting a cake), to a first-edition paperback of The Price of Salt for a queer archivist who introduced me to the novel, I was the Michelangelo of rendering my feelings material.
Even after I was grown enough to actually look a girl in the eyes and tell her all the squishy things I felt about her, and maybe hear it back, something about the practice stuck with me. My first girlfriend used to talk about how the New York subway ran so slowly that she longed for a magic carpet to transport her across the East River, so for her birthday I painted her a shoebox diorama of the city with a little hand-knitted carpet that dangled from the top, floating through the sky. It was cute enough that she still keeps it on display in her office, even though it’s been almost two years since we broke up. She told me once that she didn’t totally believe me when I said I loved her until she saw that shoebox.
Sometimes I wonder if there is a limit to how much I ought to romanticize my own experience of being sad when I was younger. Was birthday-gift-giving my queer love language, or did I just develop a habit when I was lonely and repressed? The answer is probably both. I had friends whose queer rituals in high school involved making out with girls in secret, dating girls in secret and watching The L Word in secret. All of those sound so much more exciting than spending your nights drawing on clothing.
Then again, a few years ago someone had a fleeting crush on me and decided to make me a t-shirt. It was the most flattering thing that had ever happened to me, up to that point. I held up the gesture for months afterward as proof that she and I were meant to get married. These days, I wear it as pajamas. 🎈
edited by Heather Hogan.