Names have been changed.
You can’t be gay in 1999. But I’m not, so that’s just fine.
1999: Sophomore year. Sitting in my car, my dad’s car really, the one I drive to school now, listening to the Counting Crows, feeling something tear open inside me, feelings too big to be encased in a body, especially this body, which keeps changing in ways I don’t want. Adam Duritz wails step out the front door like a ghost into the fog, where no one notices the contrast of white on white and I think, it’s true, I’m disappearing, I’ve disappeared.
To be a teenager is to be suspended in between. In between bodies, in between states of being, in between actual, physical places. The permanence of childhood has been torn away. Where I once had a single classroom, I now have seven. Where I used to feel like the center of my family, family now feels like — well, as a six year-old, I tried on one of my toddler cousin’s t-shirts, and then I couldn’t get it off. I couldn’t even move my arms. My breath felt hot and tight. A soft cotton t-shirt, magicked into a hard-seamed straightjacket. That’s how family feels now. At home, my room is still mine, but the rest of the house is my parents’. And so I inhabit a parade of liminal spaces, one stacked upon the next, curling my heart and my body into little spots that feel like home. My locker. The places my friends hang out. The driver’s seat of my car. And the diner.
In my hometown, it’s called Jack’s, but it could be any diner, anywhere. That’s the point, isn’t it?
When we can’t go home again, like Demi Moore said, quoting Thomas Wolfe in the nineties classic Now & Then, we go to Jack’s. Sometimes we go there after school, but mostly we go in the middle of the night, a space I’ve only recently been allowed to claim for myself. Every time we open the doors, the same rusty old bells jump and jingle. The A/C hits our faces like a wall. We ask for a booth, always. The booths are done up in some sort of sparkling rubber that will stick to our legs when we go to leave, but we slide in, one person against the next, the outsides of our legs touching in the casual intimacy of youth, our faded formica table a temporary living room. We order eggs and bacon, fries with ranch, diet cokes that come with cherries and perfect crushed ice from some ancient machine. We order chocolate shakes. We pool our money. I don’t know what we talk about.
Here’s what we don’t talk about: the diary entry I make sometime that year: Whoa. Had a dream last night I was kissing Lindsay. Weird! In real life, I’ll stick to guys, thank you very much.
1999: It’s the year of Boys Don’t Cry and But I’m a Cheerleader. I never see the former, but on a wild kick of courage while picking out movies for a sleepover with a friend, I grab the bright pink cover of But I’m a Cheerleader from the video store, and we watch it on the tiny TV with no remote in my dad’s den late that night. As the credits roll, far too quickly, I say “wow, that was great!wp_postsMy friend looks at me. “That was weird,wp_postsshe says.
You can’t be gay in high school, but if you’re a boy, if you have to be, you can. I know this because Corey is. Corey bleaches his hair and sings with me in choir and, by senior year, his family will have kicked him out because of his sexuality. Corey will live with the family of boyfriends and with friends and then he’ll have his own apartment, where I will first watch Queer As Folk, watch Justin walk into Babylon in an explosion of lube and confetti, an angel, a child, right into the arms of Brian Kinney. The queerness that I understand in high school is Justin’s: a gay kid fast becoming a man, a boy who sleeps with men, part angel, part fallen, not quite tragic. To be out in 1999 is to be a sort of luminous other, as sure of oneself as a lark when it sings, almost supernaturally buoyant and beautiful, even in the stormiest of seas.
Corey knows all about liminal spaces. Corey is the one who first takes me to Jack’s.
Jack’s is two downtown blocks from the church steps where I’ll kiss a girl — a woman, really — for the first time at age 31. It’s three blocks from the Stonewall offices where I’ll sit crying during week after week of therapy, six months of appointments before I can say the word gay out loud, at 30. And it’s about 670 miles from Seattle, where I’ll move at 28, the furthest (but not only) place I’ll ever run on the eventually disproven theory that I might be able to say that word without crying if I’m among strangers in a strange land. I move to Seattle thinking either I’ll come out, or I’ll just keep disappearing.
But what I couldn’t know at 16, what I still didn’t know at 28, was that disappearance isn’t an end. It’s a beginning. What’s that poem, the one about the end of the world for the caterpillar, when they climb into their chrysalis and dissolve, never knowing the butterfly they’re about to become?
I don’t go to Jack’s with my closest friends. Those friendships are too complicated. There’s too much I can’t talk about, too many ways I’m trying to mask a difference I can’t even name. Like the time I meet my best friend for a movie and she’s wearing lipstick, and she looks…and I feel…and in another world, in a different decade, wouldn’t that be a date? Like how we’re all supposed to have a Senior Crush, so I pick a guy with shoulder-length hair whose band plays Sweet Home Alabama, and try to perform my admiration well enough that I fool myself as well as my friends. Like the corrosive, baffling jealousy I feel when my friends date boys who don’t deserve them. “You’ll understand when you start dating,wp_postsone of them tells me, not unkindly. Will I?
I go to Jack’s with Corey and his Drama friends. There are no explanations needed, nothing to bury deep in my stomach. There are just fries and cokes and gossip from the Drama Club, people I mostly know from my yearbook. When night falls, time begins to stretch, the hours slowing, and it feels as though they might go on forever. I’m giddy with all of it — the caffeine, the sugar, being allowed to belong without any spotlights on me. I’m young and away from my bed and my parents and the things I can’t understand or can’t name fall away until all that’s left is a lightness, a fullness, a certainty. Sometimes, I don’t have to worry, I write later in my diary. Someone will love this heart, as it beats against the cage of my young skin. For who can help but love a bird in flight?
Here’s the thing about liminal spaces: I never once question my right to exist in them.
If there wasn’t a pandemic, I’d be writing this essay at Jack’s. I’d be sitting alone in a corner with my laptop, lingering over a club sandwich or a piece of pie, putting off leaving because of how much it will hurt to unstick my legs from the rubber of my chair at the counter. The waitress would ask if I was “ok, hon?wp_postsand I’d tell her yes, and thank you. There would be a group of high school kids at a booth in the corner, chattering and touching digits and counting their cash on the table, ordering plates of pancakes, going to the bathroom in twos and threes. They’d glimmer with all of it — the need, the hunger, the things they can’t yet name, but also that inexplicable, intermittent certainty that somehow, somewhere, their lives will be everything they never even dared to want and more, and that every single moment of it will be well deserved.
What would I tell that scared, stubborn kid sitting in Jack’s in 1999, if I could?
Would I tell her all the things something in her already knows, the things Justin taught her before she even knew she needed the lesson? No, you’re not broken. Yes, you will have to be very, very brave. Yes, you’ll have to wait a very long time, spend many years away, but one day, not far from here, on the steps of that old church on Third, after a really good second date, someone named Sarah will say hey, and pull you in close, and kiss you, and kiss you, and kiss you, and you’ll drop the bag from your shoulder so you can wrap your hands around her back, up into her hair, and she’ll let out a little sound that means yes, and yes, Darcy, it will be everything you ever wanted, and yes, you will know forever after that there is nothing wrong with your desires, nothing twisted in your heart.
Or would I just say: oh, my darling. You don’t have to worry. You got it right the first time. You deserve the world.
Pass the fries?