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It Got Better 7 comments

It is late evening, and I’m exhausted and frustrated. Grading deadlines are slipping by me as the technology I’ve relied on to exchange work and feedback with students is letting me down. I’m beginning to believe that the process whereby any young person in this age learns how to communicate is quite broken and, as a communicator, this leaves me despondent. My apartment is a disaster, from a hygiene standpoint, and I’m not really all that special myself at the moment. My dog is unwell, again, and that is frightening and expensive. After the grading deadlines are dealt with, there is another – slightly less intense I hope – wave of activity on the horizon. I fervently hope, daily, that the social connections and opportunities I’m missing out on will still be there when I’m in a more balanced place.

That is really the issue: everything is just a bit out of balance – some days, a lot out of balance. I’ve been through this before, and it does pass. I know that. When I was 17, however, this lack of balance felt profound and cavernous. Insurmountable. Unending.  My father had shown up the summer previous, and after a five year absence, announced that he was selling the house and “moving us to town”. Just like that – he decided. It took a year to find a buyer and to negotiate the purchase of a house in town. My estranged parents did not speak to each other and avoided even being in the same room. There were opinions to share on potential homes, and instructions to relay between parties – parents, brothers, real estate agents, potential purchasers. I was the interpreter / go-between.  My father, suffering then with a not inconsequential onset of early senility, had the habit of yanking me out of class, without warning, and hauling me off to look at a house “for your mother”.  And … we were selling the most precious place on earth, as far as I was concerned. I’d lived on that farm all my life. Thus, the Great Move off the Farm in the summer of 1981 was the last chapter in what had already been a year-long, rather harrowing, squabbly saga.

We moved on Friday, June 5 and there was a party at a friend’s house that night. I remember getting very drunk and staggering home to a bed that was not properly constructed and subsequently sleeping at a 45 degree angle all night. My grandmother died, suddenly and unexpectedly, on Sunday, June 7. Or at least they found her that day. She didn’t get to see our new home.

My summer job had started. For the second or third year running, I was part of a traveling children’s theatre troupe, performing at day camps and libraries across our part of the province. Several of my friends were involved in this troupe as well.  Long days of bouncing around in a van with no seats – certainly not meeting any safety code of any kind – and leaping out, setting up, performing, loading up and moving on. Some days, we had three locations to hit in quick succession. It was fun, but it could be gruelling, hot and monotonous.

Somewhere in the year leading up to that summer, my inner life had shifted. I became slightly more aware, without language or even strong consciousness, that I was attracted to women. I abhorred this knowledge, floating somewhere below my articulated thoughts. I remember looking at my hands one day and thinking, “God – please don’t let these be the hands of a homosexual.” Every time I had a thought like that, I pushed it very far down. I had deeply, deeply internalized the wrongness of these attractions. And, being a good student, I paid attention. I didn’t need external bullies – I bullied myself.

But, when you are 17, sexual energy is everywhere and it was certainly present that summer in our little theatre troupe. We had the two Ds – boys, my best friend A, J the older female chaperone “adult”, and me. The five of us, bouncing around the province in a VW van. I remember getting quieter and quieter as the summer unfolded, and I remember that the only top I wore for weeks was my orange hockey jersey from my winter rec hockey team. It has only just struck me now the protective nature of this choice – my jersey, which originated from the only group of women that included people like me. Even on the hottest, sweatiest August days, I would sit sullenly in that van, in my orange hockey jersey, watching the two Ds flirt endlessly and mercilessly with A.

Included among the many attributes of that summer is that it is the first time any of us ever witnessed A telling another person to “fuck off”, her frustrated response after the playful, raucous flirtation crossed some line or other.

I didn’t “get” the flirtation. I didn’t speak, hadn’t learned or understood, the language of it. The meaning of it. I understood the textual, obvious meaning, but the subtext of playful meaninglessness eluded me. It did not elude me that I was not included in this ongoing, electrostatic, summer-long exchange between these three people who were my friends. The exclusion became more painful than anything I’d experienced. I remember my frustrating inability to just be like them and join in, even lightheartedly. Girls didn’t flirt with boys directly and if I tried, it would be like sawdust. There was no energy in it. It was impossible. I withdrew, further and further. I was deeply angry, hurt, and confused.

Mid-August, we had a booking at the Pinery Provincial Park. There was to be an late morning show and then a “just before bedtime” show for the campers and their kids. Lots of free time before and after both shows. A and I decided to have our lunch in the woods and a “friendly” raccoon wandered over to check out our offerings. A, not having knowledge of wild things, tried to pet the raccoon and soon learned that one gets bitten when one attempts such a thing. Then followed a “search” for the specific raccoon which was rather ridiculous really. How many raccoons are there in the Pinery, anyway?

I had reached some kind of nadir of my despondency that day, and I don’t recall if there was a specific thing that happened to drive me there. We had brought our bathing suits and had planned to have a bonfire on the beach after the early evening show. There I sat on a log on the beach, with my orange hockey jersey on over my bathing suit, the sun setting across the horizon and my friends cavorting in the surf of Lake Huron. I sat there for a long time, watching. Finding the mystery of how people get connected to be too difficult. Simply not believing that I would ever be one of those people to experience a human connection. A sexual connection. I didn’t have or develop what it takes for this mysterious thing that clearly comes easily to everyone else. I wasn’t good enough, nor would I ever be.

Sunsets over Lake Huron are among the most beautiful on earth and I suddenly thought it would be a good idea for me to just get lost in it. Just swim until I no longer existed, and had become one with the Lake and energy of the sun. I remember clearly peeling off the protective jersey and wading into the cold lake water. I started swimming, right past my friends. Further. I kept going. Steadily. I could hear my name being called. I kept going. And the sun kept going down.

I was a very strong swimmer at 17, and quite a determined one in that moment. I had gotten a long way out before I heard splashing behind me. One of the D’s, the weakest swimmer ironically, had bolted after me which was quite an impressive feat, really. He grabbed my foot, I think, and then my arm. He yelled something at me, right in my face, in a scared, angry voice. He was struggling to stay afloat himself and that hadn’t been my intent. So I let him steer me back to shore and “save” me. If memory serves, and it does get a little foggy at this point, I think I put my hockey jersey back on and sat back down sullenly on my log while he sputtered and stamped around our bonfire. It was all a bit surreal.

Later that weekend, there was a kitchen table meeting with A’s parents and my Mom, discussing how to handle treatment for A’s raccoon bite. She was furious at me for making my big swim and she brought it up at this discussion. I had nothing to say for myself, as I recall, so the subject was dropped. No one ever brought it up again, as I recall. I remember accompanying A to the hospital for those horrid rabies shots. She tells me that I went with her for every single one. I honestly don’t remember that.  I do remember feeling that the raccoon bite had made a more lasting impression on the adults than my big swim had.

Being a teenager is really hard. Emotions loom large and they all feel complex, entangled and frustrating. Suicide attempts happen in a larger context than simply “being gay” and “being bullied” although these things have enormous impact. Being able to talk about whatever it is that makes us feel apart and isolated, being able to really appreciate a healthy, whole reflection of ourselves, to see all the beauty each individual brings BECAUSE they are individuals, not part of a mass-produced mind-meld – these are important gifts that young people need.

For the record, I more than made up for the absence of teen flirting later. I was a late bloomer in that regard. And I’m very, very grateful that D swam after me that August evening in 1981. Because having too much work, an attention-seeking feline, an elderly canine, a beautiful girlfriend, a dirty apartment, a drawer overflowing with hockey jerseys, too many invitations and not enough time … these are all the blessings of a full, if not always balanced, life. And I am indeed blessed.

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