On September 7th, 2016, I met Emma Mager for the first time. I was fifteen, a high-school sophomore. It was the tiniest conversation: our high school, Divine Savior Holy Angels, had an out-of-uniform day where students could get “spirit points” for their class if they wore a t-shirt with the “DSHA” brand on it. Being on the School Pride committee, it was my job to mark down the people who had participated. She simply told me her name so I could check her off the list. I fumbled with the papers, scratched out her name, and then she was gone.
The details of this moment are seared into the folds of my memory. It was storming; the sound of rain on the metal roof created a dull drumming under the cathedral ceilings of the cafeteria. In my 4th period class–just a half an hour earlier–I’d written a short poem. “I don’t believe in certainty,” I wrote. “I don’t believe in knowing the curve of a dancer’s spine is something beautiful, or that girls with short hair make me hide my wide smile from their sight.” My face burned as these thoughts were born into the physical world for the very first time. Up until then, I couldn’t bring myself to write about these feelings. I still don’t know why I decided that then, sitting in American History, would be the first moment of pen-and-paper self-confession. It didn’t feel good. When the bell rang, I walked out nearly in tears.
Only thirty minutes later, there she was. Emma wore ill-fitted black jeans, an old flannel jacket over a school robotics tee, well-worn converse, and a short, boyish haircut. I watched her walk towards me. She slouched as she walked. She turned her eyes to the floor. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.
“Um, it should be under, ah, Mager.”
Her voice hitched and swooped in a sort of awkward way; it didn’t sound like a teenage girl’s voice. I fumbled with my stack of papers for what felt like an eternity, heart pounding out of my chest. “Sorry, I can’t– Oh, Emma?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
Emma Mager. I had her name.
“Uh, ok! you’re all set.”
“Thanks,” She started walking backwards. “Have a good one.” Before she turned around she gave me a sort of lop-sided salute. Did that mean something? Did she feel it too?
When I got home at the end of the day, I didn’t talk to a single soul, opting instead to spend the entire evening in my room. I remember that electric feeling zipping around my heart and my fingertips as I re-documented my “love at first sight” experience in my journal, sitting on my bed with candles lit and the door locked. In those few hours, I rode the waves of simple bliss. But as the sunlight waned, and the storm blew over Lake Michigan, and my candles began to burn low, I came down from the hormonal high.
By the time it was dark outside I was laying on my bed, looking up at the ceiling, terrified of what had begun. My written confessions from the day were damning, and they were true, and they would have consequences. Looking back at these old pieces of paper, I see now that I knew all of this before I’d even met Emma. Of the many things I professed to not believe in American History class that morning, one in particular catches my eye now: “I don’t believe in wearing my heart on my sleeve. I know that I do.”
I was too young to understand California’s Proposition 8 in 2009, but I was old enough to watch the news with my family. My whole family-–aunts, uncles, cousins, mom and dad–all gathered around the fireplace and the boxy TV at the center of our rented ski cabin. I was lying on a couch, looking up at the wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling as I listened to the kids laugh, the reporters yell, and the adults scoffing between harsh whispers to each other. I didn’t understand why everyone was so upset, so I tried to focus on the broadcast. One word kept coming up, a little word. One that I could probably understand if I wanted to.
I yelled so my father could hear me from the kitchen “Daddy, what does ‘gay’ mean?”
No response. I turned my head to look around the living room. The adults had gone mute. I knew I had said something I shouldn’t have.
I heard my father set his bowl of chili on the table and walk over to me. He tousled my hair. He smiled. “Carly, just remember that marriage is between a man and a woman. Anything else just… isn’t right.”
“That’s right,” my mom added. Everyone nodded in agreement, even the kids who by now had stopped talking to pay attention. The fireplace crackled in the silence.
It wasn’t a real answer–I knew that–but I also didn’t feel the need to ask any more questions. Whatever this “gay” thing really was, my parents thought it was an adult matter. I had no reason to not trust my family. I found myself nodding along without really deciding to do so: “Okay, daddy.”
I didn’t want to come out to my sister when I did; I really just had to tell someone. Six month before I met Emma, I hadn’t shared my secret with a single soul. It was destroying me. I couldn’t sleep at night, I didn’t focus in class, I failed two math tests-–a set of behaviors so out-of-character that teachers pulled me into their offices during lunch and my parents threatened to remove me from extracurriculars. I was bound to break at some point. One moment, we were sitting at the kitchen island. The next, I was dragging her out into the slushy chill of early spring with only a blanket over her shoulders. I basically shoved her into the metal patio chair opposite mine as I glanced at the windows facing our backyard, making sure they were closed. I took my own seat.
I heard myself say it, horrified. “Katie… I think I’m gay.”
She looked at me with a crooked stare and wide-open smile. She laughed. “What?”
I felt myself swallow, my heart rate increase. “I’m… bisexual. I think.”
She laughed again, and for a long time. I waited. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t be laughing. I just do this sometimes when things are… a lot,” she scoffed. I braced myself. She was smiling, but her eyes weren’t right.
I couldn’t bear the silence “Um, I–”
And then she broke. In a blink, she melted into sobs right before my eyes. For a moment, my awareness went elsewhere. The blood drained from my cheeks, physical sensation vanished from my limbs, my ears rang like a bomb had gone off: I became numb. Looking back, I see this as a blessing.
Through stuttered gasps she managed to choke out a sentence, though I could barely hear it: “There’s just so much happening in my life right now, and now this.”
I watched my sister crumble before my eyes, and for a while I chose to do nothing. I felt something again: hatred, and it scared me. It didn’t last, though. Pins and needles radiated from my chest outward; my body awoke. I made my sister cry. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.”
She took a long, deep breath and spoke. “It’s fine.”
Silence. I had said too much.
“What’s going on? In your life, I mean?”
For the next hour, I sat blanket-less in the cold and listened to a long list of grievances being aired. I nodded, offered small commentaries, but kept my eyes set on the dirty snow. When she went to hug me, I refused. I was too embarrassed to touch another human. I was too embarrassed to look her in the eye.
If Emma was the primary infatuation of my early sophomore year, the theater was the second. I started rehearsals for the musical 9 to 5 in August of 2016. I fell in love. Our school had a new director, Ms. Griewe. She had flowing blonde hair but wore no makeup, had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London even though her parents told her she had to be a dentist, taught at an all-boys school for years but recently decided that she “wanted a new challenge.” She encouraged students to make lunch appointments with her and would often regale the whole cast with the details of that day’s get-together. I snagged as many open spots as I possibly could.
Ms. Griewe also taught my “Intro to Acting” class. Maybe it was because I spent hours with her each school day, but I’d earned a reputation as an up-and-coming talent with her help. During exercises, she would often call me to the front of the class and offer me a special acting challenge on the spot: “Make the scene a comedy!” she would command, after my character had just watched her own mother die. Without fail, I would perform spectacularly, and she would praise my efforts in front of the entire class. Ms. Griewe had far from a perfect reputation, though. Rumors spread of students running out of her office crying. Actors would work closely with her, adore her one day, then distinctly avoid her only a few rehearsals later. I didn’t understand why. I had so much pride then; I figured those performers were simply being dramatic as they often were: they couldn’t handle the demands of a real director like I could.
Towards the end of October, Griewe pulled me into the hall during class and shut the door between us and the rest of the students. She held a small, worn script in her hand.
“This was the last scene I performed at RADA back in London. To this day, Catherine —the lead— is my favorite role.” She smiled wistfully, running her fingers down the spine of that little blue booklet. She handed it to me. “This is my personal copy of the script. I want you to play Catherine. You’ve got a natural talent, Powers. It’s a challenging character, but if any one of my students can handle it, it’s you.”
In the theater I was special, so I built my life there. It turned out that Emma did as well.
On a day in early October, she was leaning up against the doorway of the black box theater in paint-covered sweatpants. By then, I could already feel myself slipping away from everything I’d known –my family, my friends, the Catholic community I’d always been a part of– and into another world entirely. I searched LGBT topics in incognito browsers, became more and more engrossed in my journals, and soon opted to study late into the night at coffee shops known to attract the gay and lesbian crowd. I used to imagine a winding trail through a forest of leafless trees: with every new step down this path, I feared more and more that one day I would look behind me to discover that I’d forgotten my way home. When I saw Emma in the theater, a part of me knew that soon I would be lost in the woods, maybe irreversibly. But I didn’t care. I walked up to her without a moment’s hesitation and introduced myself. She recognized me.
I sacrificed weekends, late nights, and study halls in service to DSHA’s performing arts department; now, everything I loved was there. I shamelessly volunteered with the stage crew to get closer to Emma, and Emma shamelessly volunteered to help me. During our work time, she regaled me with all kinds of tales. There was the time she set a potato on fire in the microwave, or the story about getting that scar on her chin from jumping off a swing and landing wrong. One day, we were sitting across from each other in the dressing room. She was telling me how she wanted to change math classes because she hated her teacher, Mrs. Braun.
“You can switch classes just because you don’t like a teacher?”
“Well, not really. We had lots of problems. My mom had to meet with the head of student services.”
“Woah, really? What’s your beef?”
“I don’t really want to go into details.” Emma looked away. “But I don’t know, I don’t think she likes the fact that I, uh… look like a boy, I guess. I mean, she doesn’t actually know that I’m a lesbian. She’s just… said some stuff.”
I wasn’t surprised. Mrs. Braun ate lunch with the campus ministry girls and taught at DSHA when the nuns were still around. These were tell-tale signs. I wasn’t out yet, but you learned quickly which teachers saw you as “different” and which teachers saw you as “defective” if you wore khakis instead of a skirt. “Did you tell your mom that?”
Emma sighed “Kind of? Me and my mom have a weird thing with me being gay. Like, she doesn’t ‘know’, but she knows. I’m sure she’s read in-between the lines.”
I desperately wanted to put a hand on her shoulder, but we were too far apart. “I’m sorry Em…”
She gave me that goofy smirk I’d come to adore. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t change being gay even if I could.”
I squinted. “You wouldn’t, really?”
She looked me in the eye, unwavering. “No. Never.”
I was on the edge of something, but I didn’t know what. In mid- to late- October, I spent my weekends completely out of the house. When I wasn’t painting set pieces, I was sitting in my local coffee shop at 6:00 AM so I could read Walt Whitman’s poems about other men, or pour my screaming heart onto the page of a new journal –the old one was full. One day, I even went to Barnes and Noble and plucked a queer women’s 101 book off the shelf. I documented the experience.
If only it were really that simple.
I remember putting the book back as a wave of disgust washed over me. I remember ripping love poems to shreds in that dressing room and seeing tears stream down my cheeks in the mirror. I remember running for miles at 5:00 AM before school, trying to drown my constant thoughts about Emma in the screaming pain of my muscles and lungs. I prayed for forgiveness every day. In my eyes, my sexuality was impulsive, volatile, dangerous.
I drew this to try and describe infatuation. It strikes me now how violent the drawing is; the abstract form almost looks like it’s bleeding, or ripping at the seams, or being consumed by some evil force. I couldn’t stop myself from wanting Emma, and I couldn’t stop myself from being ashamed. Some days it felt hopeless, like there would never be an escape. Other days, I had her by my side. When I could see her face or listen to her laugh, that seething shame vanished. Emma and I would sit with our arms touching as we repaired furniture for the stage, or fingers grazing as we sat in and listened to Ms. Griewe’s brutal critiques of the actors’ performances. We didn’t care who noticed, or at least didn’t consider that anyone would. Days before our first show, Emma asked me to get coffee with her before our Sunday matinee. I told her it was a date.
Emma caught me as I entered through the stage door to get ready for our Saturday matinee. We’d both arrived early, a habit we developed in the hopes of spending some extra time together.
She smiled at me. “Hey, do you want to go for a walk, just around school?”
“Of course.” Smiling, I threw my backpack into the dressing room and followed her. We strolled through the empty hallways until we happened upon the entrance to the school basement. My heart-rate spiked. I stopped. “Do you, um, want to go downstairs?”
The school’s basement had a reputation. It was known as a backdrop for blow-out fights between friends, smoking between classes, and hookups with the Marquette High boys that would come by after school. My freshman year locker was down there, before the school closed the area due to concerns about asbestos levels. Though I’d never done anything against the rules in the basement, I enjoyed spending lots of time there. Emma arched one of her eyebrows and grinned. “Sure.”
We walked down the stairs and into the shadows. I kept the lights off, but I knew this space like the back of my hand. We rounded a corner and stopped. She’d asked to kiss me the night before, after walking me to my car from the cast party. It had been a perfect night: the stars shone in the sky, I wore my favorite black dress, Emma sported her new leather jacket. We stood there in the cold midnight for what felt like an eternity, faces inches apart… but I couldn’t do it. If I did, would that be it? Would I ever be able to go back the way I came? But now, below ground, when she ran her fingers through my hair and tilted her face towards mine, I leaned in. My first kiss occurred in the dark.
We emerged with flushed cheeks and tousled hair. Time was lost to the both of us as we stumbled back to the theater.
Buzz. I felt my phone vibrate in the pocket of my jeans.
Buzz. Buzz. It went off two more times as I opened the door leading to the dressing room, giggling, but I didn’t bother to check it. I wish I had.
Ms. Griewe stood right there, waiting with her arms crossed and jaw set. A friend of mine stood in the corner, wide-eyed, pointing to her phone. She’d tried to warn me.
“You’re late.” I looked at the clock; it was well past our call time. I stood there with Emma behind me, still red-faced, reaching desperately for something to say, anything. I had nothing. Griewe huffed. “Get ready for the show. The three of us will talk after, alone.”
I only managed a weak “Ok.” She hadn’t actually seen anything happen, but it didn’t matter. My face burned. I was guilty.
Emma waited for me outside the dressing room after the show. She’d taken her own clothes to change in the bathroom down the hall. Usually we would talk as I peeled my costume off and removed my makeup, but that seemed unthinkable now. Ms. Griewe told us to meet her in the North Foyer, a fairly public part of the school not too far from the theater. She’d set up two chairs for us near the busy hallway, an uncomfortable distance apart. We sat across from her.
She started with her hands folded in her lap, smiling pleasantly with her mouth. Her eyes weren’t right.
“You know, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this. Other adults have approached me about your behavior. We’ve all discussed it with each other, but I thought this little thing might resolve itself. That’s okay though.” Her smile disappeared. My insides felt like they’d been scrambled. They’ve been talking about us?
“You two need to be appropriate. People have seen you holding hands and whatnot, and now this? You’re both better than all of that. It’s unprofessional and immature.”
I thought of the other couples in the cast, the straight ones. Griewe always talked about how cute it was when they held hands. Part of me had hoped that one day she would say those sorts of things to Emma and me.
“You two know that I could tell the school, right? And the school would tell your parents?”
I could only whisper. “No, I didn’t know that.”
“Well, I can.” She leaned forward to look into my down-turned eyes. For a moment I saw something genuine in her gaze: distaste. “But I’m not going to do that, though I am disappointed.” She said it again: “You’re both better than this.”
“I’m so sorry. Thank you.” My voice warbled, distorted by the held-back tears.
“Then choose differently next time.” She stood up. “I’m glad you two have found this… friendship. Get ready for the evening show.”
When I finally got home, I locked my door, collapsed onto my bed, and cried. On the surface, I’d broken the rules and gotten a slap on the wrist. She’d shown us mercy… but it was irrelevant. I had fallen off the edge. I’d been left aimless in the woods. I’d sacrificed the respect of Ms. Griewe –this wonderful person, this amazing actress, the keeper of my universe– for a stupid kiss. No amount of good behavior, no amount of repentance, no magnitude of suffering would erase the memory of that disgusted look on her face. I spiraled this way for hours.
My phone went off. I’d received a series of texts from Emma:
“Are you okay?”
“If tomorrow doesn’t work anymore, that’s okay.”
“I wish I could give you a hug right now.”
Even in the pits of self-hatred, I felt my heart-strings tug. I smiled. I hated myself for smiling.
I had to respond, but what to say? No, I’m too embarrassed to be seen as a lesbian in public? Yes, even though I’ve never been more mortified than I was today, I still want to go on a date with you? It was all true. I was too exhausted to avoid the obvious: if that day’s event hadn’t changed me, maybe nothing would. Maybe losing myself and the life I knew was inevitable. Maybe my attraction to Emma was too strong to ignore, and I was damned to be this way. Or maybe the shame had simply beaten me into surrender. If I were stronger, could I have held tight to the world as I knew it? I took a deep breath: Either way, I would find out.
I texted her back: “9 AM?”
The next morning we drove to the shore of Lake Michigan and walked down the side of the bluff, coffees in hand. There was a wall at the end of the public beach. I remember laughing as we hoisted each other over the top, careful not to wet our feet in the lapping waves. Hidden from prying eyes we sat huddled together, letting the sun warm our faces in the chilly November air. I kissed her, just a peck.
“Can that be our first kiss, at least for now?”
She laughed. “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
I kissed her again.