“I don’t know, Garrett,” my sister said over the phone. “I just really like him. I freak out every time I see him, you know?”
“Oh yeah, I know girl,” I said. “Been there.”
But had I?
My sister is 14 and just started her freshman year of high school. I’m 28 and in the lower rungs of my professional ladder, still trying to figure out what I want my life to be. Despite the fact that my sister is exactly half my age, we seem to be growing more alike, mentally and emotionally, with every conversation we have.
Which actually doesn’t bother me in the least. A lot of teenage girls these days (I’m looking at you, Emma González!) strike me as being more evolved, more powerful and more in touch with their emotions than the average person. The way I see it, the more I’m like a teenage girl, the greater the likelihood I am becoming a better person.
On that day, however, I had never felt more distant from the person on the other end of the line.
“We made eye contact,” she said, “and then he waved at me and I waved back and then I just had to turn around and walk away because I was definitely blushing.”
By the time she finished talking, I had started to cry. I made a clumsy excuse to end the call, something about finishing up work, and then sat on my bed, head in hands, and let the tears flow, dropping from my cheeks onto my gold-painted toenails. “Thank God I painted them,” I thought, “or this would look absolutely ridiculous.”
Why was I crying? My sister was only 4 when I left home, and although I visit often and we talk on the phone a couple times a week, there are some things for which digital communication simply can’t compensate. It’s better I’m not there to help with math homework, which I’m terrible at, but I wish I could be there for reading comprehension and picking out her homecoming dress.
I was also crying out of thankfulness that she still wants to talk to me about this funny love stuff. But mostly I was crying for myself, for the 14-year-old me who never got to experience what my sister was going through.
As a closeted, queer teenager, I was more concerned with making sure I didn’t have a crush. For me, there was no note passing with friends in class, no flushed faces after brushing hands.
In second grade, I once got in trouble for asking a girl to marry me via an orange piece of construction paper cut into a heart. She had worn a pair of leopard-print platform shoes to my birthday party, so naturally I assumed we were meant to be together.
When her parents and mine got called in to a meeting with our teacher, they laughed about it. I don’t know if my father was more relieved or proud — at least I had stopped talking about the leopard-print platform shoes.
I have mourned the loss of my adolescent love life time and again through movies, books and music, placing myself in the role of some young woman on the receiving end of the affections of some young man, a life I never had the chance to know. Without the opportunity to personally experience romantic relationships, I was left on the sidelines to receive master classes from the greats.
I learned from Julia and Reese and Bette and Angela and Sarah Jessica and Mindy and Meryl and Dianne. I memorized scenes from romantic comedies and recited the dialogue in the dark in my bedroom, door locked, tears streaming down my face as I tried to summon emotions I yearned to experience in real life. I would perform the scenes in the mirror, Oscar-worthy moments that nevertheless left me feeling empty when I woke up the next day.
I was trying to capture a version of love that was innocent and new. When you are a teenager, you live in a world where questions about settling down and who the exes are and when you might move in together are largely inappropriate and inapplicable. You get to learn about romantic feelings without the pressure of the rest of your life.
Because my sister can embrace and revel in her teenage crushes, she’ll be able to develop an emotional skill set that I lacked into my 20s and still lack. She will be able to process electric attraction and aching jealousy a decade before I even allowed myself to admit I had those emotions.
She will sing out about her first love instead of choking it back like a secret. Our parents will pepper her with advice and concern and be there to comfort her the first time she gets her heart broken, a rite of passage I had aged out of by the time I needed it.
The first time I had an actual relationship fight, I was 24, and it was about something as silly as my boyfriend making us late to a movie. I had zero skills for how to deal with conflict in a relationship — any conflict — and I knew it.
“I’m sorry!” I wanted to scream as I sat there in silence. “I’m sorry I don’t have any practice at this. I’m sorry all the movies and songs I relied on to educate myself don’t really help when it comes to the real world. I’m sorry I didn’t hold someone’s hand until I was in my early 20s, and that I didn’t kiss anyone I cared about until then too. I’m sorry you’re the person I have to learn this with now.”
I didn’t say any of that, though. I just sat there wishing I had experienced a different adolescence.
The movies and television shows I learned from were full of wonderful women, but they were all straight characters, all straight relationships, all straight love stories and all straight rules. Yes, love is love, and yes, love wins (sometimes!). But also, yes, love and relationships are different for queer folks and so are the rules that govern them.
While I am grateful for an ever-deepening pool of queer love stories, watching them in adulthood does not sate the deep thirst for direct experience I felt in my youth. Watching a love story does not compensate for participating in your own.
Still, I wish that when I was younger I’d had films such as “Love, Simon” and artists like Troye Sivan, who not only experiences queer love but sings about it. But I’m grateful for them now and even more grateful that people like me who are my sister’s age have them. They’re able to see their ways of loving reflected in the world without having to contort their narratives to fit into conventional stories.
Going forward, there will be more such stories — there must be. Stories exploring queer love for kids of color, and for transgender kids and bisexual couples that navigate love in their own way.
I have now gained a bit more romantic experience than I once had. And I have met other queer folks who feel the way I do — robbed of an opportunity to explore their natural attractions from an early age and who as a result may feel emotionally stunted.
The last time we talked, my sister said, “I have straight A’s and now I think someone else has a crush on me.”
I felt an immediate urge to give her advice, to tell her she should put good grades ahead of romantic interest at her age, but thankfully I stopped myself. We should be perfectly capable of being able to celebrate two exciting things simultaneously without having to shame one of them. Anyway, who am I to give relationship advice?
“I don’t think I like him back,” she said. “But I think we could be really good friends. I’ll figure it out.”
Yes, she will. I am so glad I didn’t try to diminish either of the things she called to celebrate with me that day. Sure, grades and intellect are easy ways to quantify learning and growth. But what I wouldn’t give to have been able to start learning about the boundaries between platonic and romantic attraction before I was 26.
I’ll probably have to wait another half decade before I am able to give any useful relationship advice to my sister, and by that time she’ll probably be so far ahead of me she won’t even need it. Until then, I look forward to learning right alongside her, separated by age and distance, but connected by the idea that we each may one day find our perfect crush.
Garrett Schlichte is a writer and university administrator in Washington, D.C.
Modern Love can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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