Liam Mitchell,* the first boy I kissed, had eyes like Paul Newman’s, skin like Marilyn Monroe’s, and voluptuous brown curls that put Cher’s to shame. But when his lips sideswiped mine, it was nothing like the magnetic convergence of Humphrey and Ingrid in “Casablanca.” I didn’t think about falling into his arms. I didn’t think about swooning with desire. All I thought was, “Oh my GOD, I’m GAY.”
I can’t recall how we started dating, but I remember that the first time he called me his girlfriend, I froze like a rabbit at the cracking of a twig and said—nothing. This, it turned out, would become a recurring strategy. Three months later, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, he told me he loved me. I said—nothing. The next week, I broke up with him.
I said nothing to anyone else either. I wanted to be absolutely positive before I announced my sexual orientation to the cosmos. I felt guilty about the possibility that I was now lying to my friends and family, but concluded that this was a necessary evil, an inevitable rock strewn across the path to self-discovery. I needed proof. Then I would tell them.
I laid out the evidence: I had short hair. I hadn’t kissed a boy till I was 15. Shane from “The L Word” made my stomach feel like melted butter. (Coincidentally, my parents were borrowing the show from Netflix at the time. “Lesbians have so much SEX!” my father proclaimed in astonishment after a particularly soft-porn-y episode. “No,” my mother corrected him tartly. “People on TV have so much sex.” I blushed, and said—nothing.) Then there was the not unpleasant dream I’d had, several weeks into my quest to classify my sexuality, involving the mouth of some abstractly female personage and my, um, down there region. Well, I thought to myself upon waking. I added it to the list.
When I was four, I watched Pocahontas throw her arms around John Smith in the blue shadows of a cartoon willow tree and turned to my mother to ask her why. “Someday, when you kiss a boy,” she began, then paused. “Or a girl!” She smiled encouragingly. “You know, like Cheryl and Lisa.” Cheryl and Lisa were the lesbian couple that lived across the street from us, both of them strikingly round. My toddler brain whirred. If I kissed a girl… that would mean I was a lesbian… and if I was a lesbian… then I, like Cheryl and Lisa, was destined for morbid obesity. I looked at my mother with wide eyes and said, “I will NEVER kiss a girl.”
Ten years later, confronted with the mounting evidence that I might indeed someday kiss a girl, I wavered. By now I no longer assumed a link between sexuality and weight gain. I wasn’t afraid that being gay would turn me into something I wasn’t—but I wasn’t any closer to understanding what being gay was. Not a single person at my high school was out. All of my evidence—dreams and TV crushes, style stereotypes and lurking suspicions—was in the abstract. And when it came down to it, I’d still never tested myself on a real live breathing laughing singing frowning I-hate-mayonnaise-my- favorite-color’s-purple-let’s-go-ice-skating actual girl. Until I had, I felt I couldn’t be sure.
So I waited, and said—nothing.
I turned 16. I turned 17. And then the unexpected happened. I fell in love with a boy.
His name was Jason Lewis, and he had the large, warm eyes of a golden retriever puppy. Sitting under the stars, on a beach spangled with phosphorescent seaweed, I gave Jason his first kiss. We spent the summer living out of the pages of a tween romance novel. Then we dated for two years. When he said, “I love you,” I said—“I love you too.”
While I was dating Jason, and after we broke up for college, I forgot to worry about my sexuality. I nursed crushes on boys. I talked to my new friends about boys. I imagined what it would be like to date any of a multitude of fictional boys: Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice,” Johnny Castle in “Dirty Dancing,” Tim Riggins—and Matt Saracen, and Vince Howard, and Coach Taylor—in “Friday Night Lights.” Every once in a while the sight of two girls holding hands or a poster for a talk on “How To Be Gay” would ruffle the surface of an old feeling. No proof, I’d think, and cram the thought back into the depths.
I met Allison Cook the fall of my sophomore year. She sat next to me in my dorm’s shabby basement and asked me question after question after question while maintaining an intensity of eye contact that I’ve never encountered before or since. Under Allison’s gaze, I felt myself magnified, sharpened, and translated into Technicolor. Her inexhaustible interest made me feel inexhaustibly interesting. She kissed me as we lay on the heated pavement in front of the rare books library on a warm October night. I was shocked by the softness of her lips. I was shocked to discover that I wasn’t shocked that I wanted to kiss her again.
A week later, Allison asked if we could talk. She told me that she didn’t want to get involved in a relationship. I told her that she shouldn’t assume I wanted a relationship (of course I did), and why couldn’t we just see where this went? She said no.
But there it was. Finally, proof. I, Sophie Mendelson, liked girls. And even though I was crushed by Allison’s rejection, I was also exhilarated. Bisexual—now this word fit. Now it was mine.
And so I stopped saying nothing.
First, I told my roommates. “Oh,” they said, “that’s cool.”
Then I told my parents. They said, “Oh! Okay.” Then I told my sister. She said, “Uh-huh.”
The universe proceeded with its business, so I proceeded with mine.
Junior year, I went to Thailand and there I met Sarah Decker, another student in my study abroad program. On weekday mornings we’d walk to the only espresso shop in Chiang Mai and sweat in the humidity as we sipped our steaming Americanos and held hands under the table because homosexuality was illegal in Thailand. I admired her arms—lean and muscular— and the way she made little kids laugh. We slept next to each other in a twin bed with lime green sheets covered in a repeating motif of cartoon puppies and the printed words “happy maggot.”
Having a girlfriend made my new identity even more real, and I loved it. Her hand on my back—proof. Making out on the fire escape—proof. Opening my book to find a folded note signed, “Love, Sarah”—proof. But at a certain point, I stopped making lists. I stopped caring about evidence. I started signing my notes, “Love, Sophie.”
Now, in the ping-pong volley of my relationship history, I’m seeing another boy. He knows I’m bi because these days, I don’t say nothing. I have plenty of proof, but that’s not what matters. When he asked me how I realized I wasn’t straight, I said— “I had a feeling.” A feeling, I’ve decided, is enough.
*All of the names in this essay have been changed.