Image description: Two outstretched hands almost touching and their shadows. In bright yellow and orange.
The first fantasy I had about J was set after a shower. I’m leaning against the wall with the poised contempt of a French princess with protruding collarbones, wrapped in a cotton towel as she professes her love to me. I’m flattered, I say, but I can’t date you, you’re the director of my stupid club. I’m like your subordinate. A Zoom crush morphs into incessant flirtation, keeping my feelings at bay by throwing myself at her any chance I get—drooling emojis, “your tiddies look so good today,” “do you have a choking kink?” I protect my heart by chucking it at her, a flesh sack of blood-pumping tubes that bursts vermilion and millennial pink all over her face; an exercise in how someone definitely isn’t in love with you if it seems like they are.
Oliver is the first person I’ve genuinely considered could be my soulmate. Both of us are So Much emotionally that it just works. We analyze moments and sunsets and conversations with the same depth as the most contrived English class you’ve ever taken; he can seamlessly intertwine conversations about Reaganism and utilitarian friendship with Five Nights at Freddy’s without losing any passion or self-awareness.
Oliver’s compliments are some of my favorites. 70% of my self esteem comes from him gassing me up in the group chat, responding “Renaissance painting” to every single 0.5x-lens photo I send. Both of us recognize I’m completely self-obsessed, borderline sociopathic in my inability to feel empathy towards anyone except my younger brother, relentless in my pursuit of amusement at the expense of others. “I spent today trying to figure out if you’re genuinely narcissistic or just really insecure and trying to cover it up,” he says, and I’m flattered that he spent today thinking about me.
“And? Which one am I?”
When Oliver tells me he’s (unironically) in l-ve with me, I correct him on his use of necessary and sufficient conditions before telling him I feel absolutely nothing towards him romantically. “And,” I add on, “I think you’re just confused. I think you developed such an emotional attachment that you think you’re in l-ve. I still want to be friends, though.”
“Okay,” he says, “we can do that.” I hang up, briefly entertaining the thought of the two of us as one of those couples that are heavily involved in Greek life and use potential future marriage as a reason to not break up at the age of nineteen.
The first person I unironically confess feelings to is my coworker at a boba shop. I am freshly eighteen and we are sitting in a quiet outdoor hallway, using our break time to rehash drunk confessions from the night before. “I think I like you,” I say, rolling around the words in my head like a marble, hedging the teenage admission with “I think” to protect both of us from the implications my words have on the near future of two girls who have never been touched Like That before. Seena touches my leg to stop it from bouncing and I want to throw up.
“I think we should go for it,” she says, uncharacteristically gentle. I feel surprised and somewhat giddy. “We only have two weeks of summer left anyways.”
And now I’m on her bed, a breathy “I don’t know how to do this” let out between clashing teeth and open eyes. She gets up too soon and tells me it’s time to leave for the party she’s driving me to. I want to stop her, to tell her to push me down again, but I feel too small. The words won’t budge from my cerebrum, which is instead speaking to me on its own terms. She’s pushing you out because she’s sick of you, it says. She’s feigning domesticity by running errands for you in the Tesla she once let you drive. She’s initiating kisses so she can drop her Rice purity score.
Maybe she’s straight, using me as practice for the real deal. Maybe I am straight, using the label of queerness as a shroud from the male gaze that I never fit into in the first place. Then I think about the fingers of my ex-roommate’s extremely sapphic friend with the red hair and tattoos, how I got nervous and hung up on her FaceTime call, and things become a little more clear.
After his confession, I wonder if it’s still okay to flirt with Oliver like I used to. I used to speak to him with the same unhinged directness I used with J. In Oliver’s case, however, there was no apprehension after I sent a message. There was only the emotional neutrality of texting a close friend, not the relieved disappointment I felt when my flirtation with J remained unreturned. I think if J ever responded with anything more than a raised eyebrow or red-heart emoji I would puke and throw my phone off the balcony, even if theoretically I should go feral with excitement. I suppose rabid dogs throw up too.
“You’re so hot,” the guy I’m losing my virginity to says as I look down on him from my perch above. I tell him to shut up.
The nausea that arises when people flirt back feels like gently running my hands over my naked body in the mirror and discovering a pimple on my butt.
When I finally hang out with J again in-person, the first thing I think about is how boring she is. For the thousandth time, she talks about her accounts on two separate dating apps and her hiking date this past weekend, and I do not give a single fuck. I want her to compliment my playlists again, the shared music taste that shifted us from colleagues to somewhere between acquaintances and friends. Then she fills my water bottle before she fills hers, and my stomach and heart vibrate and switch places. I don’t tell her anything about what I’m thinking or thinking I’m feeling—instead, I hopelessly trust my spring-quarter self to experience a fundamental personality shift and propose a FWB situation. In the meantime I react to her Slack messages with peach and water droplet emojis.
One summer after Seena, I reflect on how she never said “I like you” back. Two summers later, I realize I don’t really care, but it would have been a nice ego stroke if she had.
I send pictures of my outfit to Oliver, every piece plucked from the men’s section at Goodwill. “Based + poggers,” he responds. “I want to be you.” Seven minutes later,
“I think you were right…I’m not in love with you, I just want to be you.”
Although I’m relieved for the sake of our friendship, I deflate a little when I read the message. It was more flattering when he was in love.