When I washed my hands as a child, I yanked on the faucet handle and let the icy water flow like a waterfall between my fingers. I made sure they were submerged for at least 30 seconds, or else my hands wouldn’t really feel clean. Though I knew the routine was absurd, I was quite literally testing the waters of how true I could stay to myself and my actions, how long I could dwell in the throes of the extreme. The habit was different––odd, even––but it was consistent, decisive, and all mine.
In elementary school, it was a sweet surprise to bump into a friend while in the restroom. Socializing while class went on next door felt illicit and thrilling, like munching on a chocolate chip cookie before dinner. And from the billows of many brief, mundane conversations between those four cramped walls, one remains clear in my memory.
A friend and I were airing our grievances against the difficulties of fourth grade math when she stopped mid-sentence and asked, “Why don’t you wash your hands with warm water? Your fingers look red!”
I’m pretty sure I shrugged off her comment at the time, but the question jolted me into a newly lucid mindset. Why did I continue to blast cold water onto my hands throughout the winter and worsen my dry, cracked skin? Why didn’t I just switch to warm water for a while?
I knew the answer, and, while it made sense to (at least temporarily) adjust my behavior, I still knew I wouldn’t.
Our chance encounter in the restroom was comically emblematic of my years adhering to a stubborn and uncompromising life philosophy. I had an unyielding obsession with control, order, and consistency––which led me to make decisions that were always clear-cut, unchanging, black-and-white.
And while such principles are harmless and fairly simple to abandon when intertwined with the narrative of foolish childhood habits, they aren’t as easy to unlearn when it comes to matters of sexuality and identity.
In eighth grade, I met a girl. She was whip-smart, passionate, hilarious, and an out-and-proud lesbian. We spent the majority of our time badgering teachers and whispering jokes to one another, failing to pay attention in class. As a quiet and relatively isolated kid, I felt lucky that she considered me worthy of spending time with. I even joined an after-school activity to spend more time with her––something I, an apathetic teenager, swore up and down I’d never do––and hopped into my mom’s minivan every afternoon with a stomach sore from laughing with her.
Near the end of that year, I had come to a pivotal conclusion: I was absolutely a lesbian. At some point, my feelings toward her had transformed from platonic admiration into an all-consuming romantic infatuation. I couldn’t summon any memories of being so infatuated with boys––I don’t think I even had innocent schoolyard crushes on them––and decided that if a boy-crazy phase hadn’t struck me at 13 like it had most of my friends, then I wasn’t attracted to them at all.
Although I felt a brief wave of concern over what this would mean for my adolescence and my future, I was mostly excited in the wake of this realization. After all, it’s comforting to discover you share a part of your identity with someone you’d do anything for. My metamorphic and newly-realized identity was a connecting thread between us that I was giddy to divulge, confident that it would draw us closer.
Years later, when I set foot on my university’s campus for the first time, not much had changed since my middle school discovery. I’d remained faithful to the strict persona and identity that I’d carefully crafted for myself. On the first night, in an attempt to get to know one another, my first-year roommates and I sat cross-legged on the floor and gingerly attempted to ask each other personal questions. When the topic of sexuality surfaced, I felt comfortable offering up an answer. After all, I was a lesbian, and it only made sense to be open and transparent about it. I wanted more than anything to signal that I was comfortable around them, and this was a great way to lay all my cards on the table.
It wasn’t the smartest avenue for doing so, however, because the situation surrounding my sexuality grew murky soon after my declaration. As the seasons changed, so did my previously unwavering certainty in my sexual identity.
I developed a surprising crush on a guy in our class who was confident, handsome, and universally liked. We grew close quickly, and eventually discovered that a mutual friend had orchestrated scenarios for us to bond––revealing that the crush was mutual. Laughing one night in his bed about what we had uncovered, I felt adrift. As I’d expected, the mood shifted––and mid-conversation, he leaned in to kiss me.
I didn’t kiss him back. Because when he leaned in, I felt butterflies in my stomach. The same butterflies I felt when I fell hard for my friend in eighth grade.
The resurfacing of intoxicating romantic feelings––but this time, toward a man––threw me into an unexpected panic. I quickly gathered an excuse about having to leave, fumbled to put my shoes on, and bolted out the door. Although I later covered for myself by sending apology texts, rambling about how intimacy scared me due to a lack of romantic experience, the truth ran much deeper than that.
For a couple of weeks, I felt like a stranger to myself. Although we continued to see each other, I was feeling increasingly uneasy about what was developing. I garnered so much joy and pride from my alignment with lesbianism, and genuinely believed that identifying as bisexual––or assuming a more ambiguous queer label––would strip that away from me. I was reasonable enough to acquiesce and admit to myself that these thoughts were a result of deeply ingrained biphobia and a stubborn resistance to change, but I didn’t care at the time. The potential loss felt too visceral.
Despite my swirling fears and concerns, I resolved to keep an open mind––suppressing the old, familiar voice inside my head that was telling me to keep the cold water running.
Although our romantic entanglement proved to be brief, unsustainable, and emotionally lacking, I’m glad I pushed through the cloud of discomfort and fully accepted the experience for all that it was. The conclusions I drew from it are among the most profound lessons I’ve ever absorbed into my psyche.
I think back to the harmful foundation I constructed for myself as a child and feel a cavernous sadness for her––but more importantly, I am unabashedly proud of myself for taking a step that required me to reconsider my restrictive obsession with labels. Now when people ask me about my sexuality, I smile and say I’m queer.
The title feels right this time. It gives me the space I so desperately need to breathe––and explore my sexuality without the burden of guilt.
Accepting that you can and will misperceive yourself throughout your life––especially as a resolute, change-averse individual––feels like taking a hammer to a thick glass box that refuses to shatter. But eventually, when your arm is nearly exhausted, you give a blow that brings it all to the ground.
And now, whenever I wash my hands, I turn on both faucet handles and allow the water to freely dance between warm and cold.
My fingers are happier that way.
Illustration by Fin Fleming