I’ve Spent a Lot of Time Pretending Not To Know What I Want

a woman is hiding behind a white door. alcohol bottles everywhere in the front.

image by viv lee

I came out when I was 26, after a guy wanted to have sex with me sober on a Sunday afternoon. I’ve always felt that Sundays are when life is at its most real, because they’re less adorned than the other days of the week. Sundays are for laundry and brunch and families and lovers.

The lover I had at the age of 26 was an IT worker from Maine who took his dog to work. I couldn’t find anything wrong with him. So we dated for a few months. Every time we went out, we drank. And then we’d kiss each other sloppily. And I didn’t know how I felt about it, because I was drunk.

And I was drunk because I didn’t want to know how I felt about it.

Anyway, cut to Sunday: he comes over with a bottle of wine and a Rubbermaid containing some truffles his aunt made. I remember thinking these two things:
1. This guy is way too nice for me.
2. Only one bottle of wine? Fuck.

We sat on the couch. We ate the truffles. We shared the bottle of wine. I felt nothing because my tolerance was high. A normal night for me during this time consisted of a six-pack of beer (an I.P.A., because those have the highest alcohol content) and two bottles of wine. As I nodded along to what the guy was saying, I was thinking about how I could get more alcohol. He was thinking about sex. I know this because he said, “Should we go to your room?” And then when we got there, he asked, “Do you want to have sex?”

I was wearing a Jessica Simpson maternity sweater with snow angel arms that I bought at Target for $11. And I’d flat-ironed my hair. And applied eye makeup. I can see my old self patting concealer onto her skin, hoping the colors matched. Being alive felt like an immense amount of work to me back then. In my mind, I was always planning the next escape. In my body, well, my body didn’t feel like mine a lot of the time. Sometimes we were together, but a lot of the time we divorced and I became a ghost (or an angel in a Jessica Simpson maternity sweater) hovering above the woman who was apparently me.

When the nice IT worker asked, “Do you want to have sex?” I heard myself lie as if it was someone else I was listening to. “I don’t feel good,” I said. Even my own mouth felt unnatural to operate in that moment.

Cut to the end: the guy leaves, I breathe into a brown paper lunch bag, which I’d never done before and haven’t done since and also, why did I have a lunch bag? I’ve never thought of this until now. Then I go to the liquor store, buy a bottle of vodka and at least a pack of Parliament Lights (but probably two) and call my friends and family and say, “The jig is up. I’m gay.”

To my 26-year-old self, I would say: Please don’t spend any time thinking about how long it took you to come out. Instead, think about how you could have never come out. You could have lived a partially-true life, and you wouldn’t have been fully aware of that, but you would have felt an aching emptiness that you never would have placed. And you would have thought that aching emptiness was how life was supposed to be.

About a year earlier, at the age of 25, I went to a gay club with a woman I’ll call D. D was my best friend and my drunken lover, meaning that we’d hook up when we were wasted at night and in the daytime, we’d pretend like nothing had happened—except for the one time I brought it up, which didn’t end well. D always had a boyfriend. One of them complained about our closeness. “I’m your boyfriend,” he said, “but Swan is your emotional boyfriend.”

I had a cocktail at the club, maybe two. It wasn’t enough to get me drunk. The room was an orange-y color and speckled with rainbow-colored disco lights and lesbians. One of these lesbians asked me a question. I can’t remember what it was, but I do remember her retort after I answered. “That’s so hetero,” she said, as if hetero was a bad thing to be. If this happened today, I would think it was funny, or at least standard, but back then, the tribal mindset of the gays was foreign to me. All my friends—except for my gay male housemate—were straight. So when this woman called my comment “hetero,” I took it as an affront—both to me personally and to civilization as a whole. I thought she was being narrow-minded. When she left, I said to D, “Aren’t we all the same? Isn’t that the point?” Now I understand that what I really meant was, “I don’t want to be different.”

I already felt uncomfortable at the club and after this interaction, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I needed another drink. A strong one. Or several strong ones. I imagined myself ordering two double-shot vodka sodas, pounding one, and taking the other to the tiny outdoor smoking section to enjoy it with five cigarettes.

But I never made it to the bar, because I started crying instead. I have a vivid memory of looking down at my shoes in the ugly orange-y light of that club and telling myself to get it together. But I couldn’t. My tears had their own plans. There I was, gay at a gay club, not wanting to be gay, with my best friend / drunken lover who identified as hetero despite her not-that-hetero choices. I wanted her to be my girlfriend even though I knew she never would be. When she asked me what was wrong, I said I didn’t know, only because the truth was too much to say, and I knew she didn’t want to hear it.

To my 25-year-old self, I would say: I understand why you don’t want to be different. I understand why you’re friends with D. Everything you’re doing right now makes total sense. And it’s all okay.

D and I met in college. Sophomore year, we got day drunk on St. Pete Beach and as the sun was setting, I said, “I like you as more than a friend.” This was the one time I voiced my feelings for her. She told me the feeling wasn’t mutual, which was what I expected her to say. All around us, the sky was as close to neon pink as a sky can get.

In the days and weeks after my confession, while we were getting ready to go out or walking across campus, D would repeat what I’d said in a mocking tone. “I like you as more than a friend.”

As I write that sentence now, I can feel my cheeks wanting to burn. I can feel the Florida humidity. I can feel the desire to cry and then the desire to smoke a cigarette, which kills the desire to cry. After D’s humiliations, I laughed along with her. I can feel how painful that was.

Senior year, D and I decided to be roommates. Her mother gave us matching bedspreads. They were shiny, purple, probably from T.J. Maxx, and featured sequined plant life. After we laid them over our beds, D said, “Why don’t we put our beds together? Then we’ll have one big bed.”

My first thought was: What will people think of that? But I suppose I wanted our beds to be together more than I wanted to know the answer to that question, because I said, “Okay.”

A few days later, my fear came true. A freshman walked into our room and said, “Why are your beds together?”

There was a horrible pause, during which my heart might have exploded into tiny pieces. Then D said, “Ask Swan.”

I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that I didn’t tell her it had been D’s idea. Despite how badly D treated me, I still felt protective of her.

Later that year, D decided she didn’t like our location on campus and wanted to move. So she told the office that I was hitting on her. And she was promptly relocated to another building. I didn’t learn this until a mutual friend told me after graduation.

To my college self, I would say: D might not be a lifelong friend, but she is the perfect drinking buddy for you right now.

At the age of 17, I became enamored with an ex-stripper from Trenton, New Jersey who worked as a receptionist at my hair salon. She was a person who saw the world through the lens of sex, and she saw sex as a way to wield power. “Play with my hair,” she’d say. She had beautiful hair that smelled like Aveda products. She was also a chronic shoplifter, a dedicated stoner, and married to a man.

To my 17-year-old self, I would say: How kind of you to bail this woman out of jail after she stole seven hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise from Neiman Marcus. You’re a good friend.

At the age of 12, my friend and I sat cross-legged on my closet floor and decided to flip a coin to determine whether or not we would kiss. The first toss determined that no, we would not. So I said, “Two out of three.” Which got me what I wanted. A yes.

The kiss itself wasn’t memorable. The fact that it happened inside a closet was.

To my 12-year-old self, I would say: Don’t worry, this will be a funny story later.

At the age of six, I kissed a girl who lived down the street. I remember a trampoline, the slug-like feeling of her tongue, and my excitement.

To my six-year-old self, I would say: Even though you know exactly what you want right now, you’re going to spend a lot of time pretending not to want what you want. After you get honest, though, you’re going to write about how you lied to yourself for so long, and once in a while a stranger is going to read one of these things you write and think, “I’m going to want what I want, damnit!” And your pain will be worth something.

Swan Huntley’s new novel, I Want You More, is out now wherever fine books are sold.

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swan huntley

Swan Huntley’s novels include I Want You More, Getting Clean with Stevie Green, The Goddesses, and We Could Be Beautiful. She’s also the writer/illustrator of the darkly humorous The Bad Mood Book and You’re Grounded: An Anti-Self-Help Book to Calm You the F*ck Down. Swan earned an MFA at Columbia University and has received fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo. She lives in Los Angeles.

swan has written 3 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. Goodness gracious. This is beautiful! Thank you for sharing your heart with us.
    I just watched “Am I Okay” and felt so empty after. It was frustrating because it is such an important story to tell. Your writing has the heart and feeling that movie should have had.

    • That’s funny. The stuff about D made me want to hit HER where it hurts. What an awful human being.

      And no, D wasn’t “the perfect drinking buddy for you right now.” The perfect drinking buddy is one that watches out for you and puts a blanket on you when you fall asleep. They don’t watch for ways to use you and put their garbage on you.

  2. This is so gorgeous, and so exactly like and exactly unlike my experience it hurts.

    Alcohol is so useful for surviving that partially-true life, but then, in making it more survivable, definitely makes it harder sometimes to take the terrifying steps to fully enter reality. (I think about how I’d been putting off breaking up with my girlfriend for a couple months knowing that I needed to do that, and then, in the face of dry January which I had decided I wanted to do, I finally was forced to break up with her because I knew I could survive another month of dating if I was drinking for all of our interactions, but I could not manage another month of dating if I wasn’t.)

    “Instead, think about how you could have never come out. You could have lived a partially-true life, and you wouldn’t have been fully aware of that, but you would have felt an aching emptiness that you never would have placed. And you would have thought that aching emptiness was how life was supposed to be.”

  3. Swan, if you live in the USA it is incredible that you have also described my experiences with a „Best Friend” as you do not know me and live half the world away!

    Perhaps this is a universal experiences for sapphics

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