The summer after I turned 14, I started my first job at a yacht club’s beachside snack bar in Westchester County, New York, where I’d go on to work 60-hour weeks and break any number of child labor laws. The snack bar was staffed by an unruly bunch of older teens and twentysomethings. One of the cooks was a guy I’ll call Thomas.
Gender was cleanly and efficiently demarcated in our little snack bar on the beach. Girls worked the front: taking orders, stocking fridges, discreetly texting on their BlackBerrys. Guys worked the back: cooking, wisecracking, lifting heavy objects. I didn’t speak to Thomas, or to anyone, for at least a week, during which time I was also too afraid to eat anything. My fellow counter girls had to pull out all the stops to convince the cooks to make them an illicit meal or two: leaning on the counter that divided Girl’s World and Guy’s World, cycling through bouts of whining and flirting until one of the guys grudgingly agreed to make them chicken nuggets. I chatted with customers but otherwise hid in a corner, intimidated by co-workers three-plus years older than me, which, when you’re in the ninth grade, might as well be an age gap of lifetimes.
One sleepy, slow weekday afternoon, Thomas caught me in my corner. “You OK, sweetheart?” he asked.
I was starving. He made me a bacon, egg, and cheese. Then he became my friend.
Thomas, five years my senior, was lanky and lumbering, covered in tattoos, drily sarcastic with a heavy New York drawl. He was related to at least half of the people we worked with at any given time; he and his vast network of Italian-American cousins would constantly bicker across the counter. They all smoked. Soon enough, I did too, though I was bad enough at it not to inhale. Once you work in a kitchen, you quickly realize that smokers are the only ones afforded breaks. Thomas would join me sometimes, even though we were supposed to smoke in shifts. We had very little in common, besides a shared taste in music and families riddled with alcoholism. It was enough.
That first summer, I lied to my parents and piled into a beat-up old Volvo with Thomas and a ragtag group of his grimy punk friends. We drove a couple hours north to the New York outpost of Warped Tour, where I saw Against Me! play for the first time. This was years before lead singer Laura Jane Grace publicly transitioned, years before I figured out I was gay. She would come to mean a lot to me, in terms of both music and queerness, but at the time Laura Jane and her band were simply a noisy backdrop to the culmination of my messy wants and fears. The whole event had an aggressively heterosexual sheen: In the pit, throwing our bodies up against one another’s, we were a bunch of hopped-up teenagers high on Red Bull, crashing through clouds of pheromones. What I wanted was for boys to like the idea of me, though I didn’t know what I wanted them to do with that idea. I was scared of their rejection but their affection scared me more. I walked this dizzying plank summer after summer, testing my own limits.
Every Fourth of July, we’d throw a party. It was the biggest day of the season, popcorn and face painting and a steady stream of gin and tonics we’d shepherd into the eager hands of yachters in seersucker suits. As soon as the fireworks started, our customers sated with their snacks and their booze, we would close up shop and get trashed in the alleyway out back, sprawled in smuggled beach chairs that scraped noisily across the cement floor. We’d drink Coronas and shoot the shit. One year, we snuck across the short stretch of cool, pebbly sand separating the snack bar from the pool and hopped the fence. All the club members were long gone. None of us brought bathing suits so we stripped to our underwear. Buoyed by the beer, my red polo work shirt — stinking of grease and stained with dribbles of snack bar debris — drifted easily over my shoulders. After a few delicious, drunken laps, I kissed one of the cooks on a dare. I was 14, maybe 15, and he was many years older. From the other end of the pool, through the expanse of water and muggy summer darkness, I felt Thomas’s gaze on me, watchful and disapproving and maybe even jealous. I felt simultaneously under his protection and more powerful than he could ever be.
We got older. Thomas started a punk band. I applied to college. He broke up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend. I started dating a guy I’d keep seeing for close to five years. During fall and winter Thomas and I would text, asking after each other’s families and significant others: “How’re you doing, sweetheart?” Then it was summer again, one bleeding with sticky heat and drunken hazes into the next, Thomas and I driving around Westchester in his shitty car after getting out of work, smoking and complaining about everyone in our lives who’d let us down.
Halfway through college, I landed a funded internship and didn’t return to the snack bar for the first time in seven years. I grew apart from most of my co-workers, to whom I had been anchored purely by circumstance. The only person I kept in touch with was Thomas. He’d visit me occasionally, when I came home for college breaks, and we’d both regress into the dumb, spiteful teenagers we’d been when we first met, driving aimlessly and making grand plans, as all teenagers do, to finally Get Out Of This Place.
Then, one day, I did. I graduated from college. Thomas was working seasonal service jobs and touring with his band. We’d been seeing each other less and less. Around graduation I’d started coming out to my friends and family as a lesbian, my newfound revelation, but I hadn’t yet told Thomas. It didn’t seem worth it somehow.
That first summer after my senior year of college was messy and fraught. A postgrad cliché, I had no idea what I was doing with my life. For the time being, I had a job at my college’s admissions department. I was spending most weekends commuting from Connecticut to New York City to hang out with my almost-not-quite-girlfriend, whom I’d met at school when we were both students, and who still had her own senior year ahead of her.
One balmy summer evening, when I was stuck on my near-empty campus with nothing to do, Thomas invited me to a party. Since Warped Tour all those years ago, we had never spent time with each other’s friends. But he said he missed me, and he’d both pick me up and drive me home, more than an hour each way. My not-quite-girlfriend and I were in the midst of a passive-aggressive text fight. I was angry and restless. After taking three shots of vodka I told Thomas to come and get me.
The party was in the thickly carpeted basement of someone’s parent’s house. We had to stumble around blindly in the dark until we reached a hidden back door. Almost immediately, I didn’t want to be there. His friends were drunk and leering. They saw me as the younger girl he’d taken along for a cheap hookup, rather than a longtime friend. I chugged a beer in the bathroom and tried to plot my escape, but I didn’t have a car and was far from home.
When Thomas found me, he suggested we duck into another room where it would be quieter. I said yes, grateful.
The howling hardcore music filling the basement softened as soon as we closed the door. I very clearly remember the room we’d found ourselves in: spacious, with a large black couch, a jumbled, silent sound system, and a tiny kitchenette. We had everything we needed to wait out the party. I could scavenge the kitchenette for supplies, turn on a bad movie. Maybe the night could be saved.
“You look so beautiful,” Thomas said.
This was nothing out of the ordinary. He complimented me all the time, telling me how pretty and brilliant I was. I had always taken these comments as the words of someone who wasn’t quite a brother, but someone like an old family friend. Sincere and warm and familiar. Innocent almost-flirting. I would never have given him the satisfaction of knowing this, but his compliments were a longtime comfort to me, especially when I had been younger and plagued with teenage insecurities. No matter my fuckups in school, no matter the ebb and flow of my boyfriends, I knew I’d always have Thomas waiting in the wings, ready and willing to lift me back up.
“Thank you,” I said.
Then, somehow, we were on the black couch, and he was kissing me.
In the first few moments of my surprise and discomfort, I felt the smallest glimmer of curiosity. I couldn’t say I’d never thought about it before. My ex-boyfriend was always suspicious of Thomas, of how he doted on me, even though I never thought I’d come close to doing anything with him. But when I was younger, before I came out, it had crossed my mind once or twice.
In reality, Thomas wasn’t anywhere near my type. Big and broad with a slight lurch to his step and a closely cropped buzz cut, he was nothing at all like the smaller, softer boys I’d always gone for, back when I still considered myself straight.
I put my hand on his chest, gently pushing away from him, trying not to hurt his feelings. “I’m gay,” I said. “That’s why I broke up with my boyfriend. I’m dating a girl now.”
“That’s cool,” he said, slightly breathless, before shutting off the lights and kissing me again.
They were sloppy, wet kisses, fringed with a scratch of stubble. I felt revulsion beginning to seethe in my stomach, as if I’d just chugged spoiled milk. Even if I had been still interested in men, this was not something I wanted.
“I’ve thought about this for so long,” he said. He was on top of me now.
I tried again. “I have a girlfriend. I’m gay. I didn’t tell you before, but I’m telling you now.”
“We’ve known each other forever,” he said, whispering in the dark. “You’re so beautiful. Did you know that?”
I felt the looming presence of his friends just outside the door. I had a $5 bill in my pocket. No mode of transportation. I hadn’t even told anyone back home where I was going.
“I don’t think we should do this,” I said. Acting as if he hadn’t heard me, he leaned in closer and took off my clothes, gently, piece by piece.
I remember him asking me if I wanted to feel good, without waiting around for my answer. I remember him draping me across the kitchenette counter like a dress out to dry.
The strongest feeling I could muster, the whole time, was one of profound disappointment. He was laying waste to our friendship. That seemed to me, then, the major transgression. The most significant loss. As if our friendship was the only thing at stake.
“Thomas,” I said at some point. I was one of very few people who called him by his full first name; everyone else perpetually shortened it. I tried, in speaking to him the way that only I spoke to him, to remind him of who I was as a person. We’d always been so honest with each other. Throughout my teenage years, when I picked my way through the thorny tangle of male attention with increasing world-worn weariness, it was only around Thomas that I felt I could knock down each and every one of my defenses. Around him, I hadn’t felt like I needed to be particularly smart, or pretty, or good. I could just sit next to him in his parked car before our shifts, looking out over the Long Island Sound beyond the snack bar, soaking up the last precious moments before we’d have to get up, and go inside, and get to work. The monotonous, daily shuffle of a life made better by sharing it.
“Thomas,” I tried again, my hand on his shoulder, urging him off me, off this terrible road he’d led me down. But if anything, he took my urging as further encouragement. And to quell my rising panic, I let myself fall silent at last. The path of least resistance.
I don’t remember when it ended but I remember that after it did, we arranged the pullout couch together. I remember being almost cheerful — excited by the prospect of rest, excited to belong to my own body again. I don’t remember waking up but I remember standing in the kitchenette the next morning, making a cup of Keurig coffee and watching his chest rise and fall with sleep across the room. I don’t remember the drive home.
When he texted me in the following days, he said he’d been in love with me since the day we met. (I was practically a child when we met.) He said that he’d dreamed of being with me for years. I was the smartest and most beautiful girl he’d ever known.
I decided to avoid, to the best of my ability, having any sort of visceral reaction to this place he’d put me in. In lieu of anger, or sadness, or disgust, I opted for some bare-bones reasoning. I knew that I couldn’t ever see him again (not that I wanted to). I knew if I told anyone what had happened exactly what they would call it, though I was hesitant then to claim the word. I still am, even with plenty of gender and women’s studies classes under my belt. The chasm that separates what I know — as a feminist, as a woman — from the sticky, tangled mess of what I feel, and what I fear to feel, has gotten smaller and more manageable as the years have passed; but I still haven’t been able to leap over that gap entirely. At the time, I used the simplest facts at my disposal to wrap myself up in a warm, safe blanket of unfeeling and carry myself, slow and steady, all the way from point A to point B.
I didn’t want this, I told him.
He flipped. I can’t believe you’re turning this special thing, one of the most important nights of my life, into something ugly.
As he began, over text, to spiral out of control, I sunk deeper into a vaguely apathetic sort of peace. This time I could say no — I could deny him — and it would stick.
But I’d been denying him successfully for years before, really, without my fully knowing it. He’d made advances toward me since I was fresh out of middle school, that first season at the snack bar, when I was scared and young and lonely. He had continued to flirt with me summer after summer, in what I’d thought was a playful, innocent way — he would never take it too far, I thought. I trusted him not to. Here’s what I hadn’t realized, all those years: Ever since I first met him, I’d had a string of boyfriends. I belonged to other men, and that made me untouchable. But within weeks of falling in love with a girl for the first time, I started carrying myself through the world a different way. And Thomas, perhaps, had sensed it. He’d sensed that now, more than ever before, I would never, ever want him. At best, my gayness was a factor to be pushed aside and ignored; at worst, it was a flaw in need of swift and brutal correction. But I can’t pretend to know what was going through his mind. I used to think I knew so many things — about him and about the kinds of men we hold dear, the ones we consider cherished exceptions to violent and careless male cruelty.
He tried a few more times over the next year to get in touch with me; his texts got increasingly more bitter. Eventually, he stopped trying to reach out. He hasn’t made any attempts in a long time.
I saw him a couple years ago at the funeral for his uncle, who had been our boss at the snack bar and a dear, dear friend — like a second father to me, and to him. All of our old co-workers were there. An awful, morbid reunion. He sat up front in the church with the rest of his family, crying openly. I didn’t feel sorry for him, and I didn’t forgive him, but neither did I wish him further ill will. (Perhaps this makes me a bad victim.)
In an alternate universe I would have approached him after the service, leaned my head on his broad shoulder. Held his hand. In an alternate universe, we’d have carried our weird, wayward friendship far into the future, like I’d always thought we would.
Instead, we sat many pews apart, dwelling in our private heartaches. I was scared he might turn around and look at me. I was scared that, if he did, I wouldn’t feel the right things, react the right way. I was scared of the memories that began to light up, rapid-fire, in my chest, of our late boss and our work friends and our silly, desperate antics — scared of the way that I still attached so much sentimentality to these years of memories, instead of retroactively earmarking them as unsalvageable. Polluted. But in the end, it didn’t matter. The whole time I never saw his face.