February 23, 2023 / Ellen Daly
“I, like, questioned if I was a lesbian.”
Maddie was 15. Emily was 16. They were on a trip to a mock trial tournament in San Francisco, unwinding in their hotel room after dressing up in suits to play fake lawyers arguing in front of real lawyers playing fake judges all day. It was exhausting. As teenage girls do, they de-stressed sleepover style, sharing their deepest darkest secrets on the floor of their hotel room. A new girl on the team that Emily barely knew — but could feel herself becoming friends with — went first. Her name was Maddie.
“I, like, questioned if I was a lesbian.”
Emily’s heart stopped. Her ears rang. The room went blurry. She’d never heard a feminine girl like herself admit this before; she’d only seen them on YouTube and in male-gaze porn. She didn’t know they actually roamed the earth — let alone her high school — and that she wasn’t the only one. Holy fuck.
“Really?!?” one of the girls squealed. The room erupted in giggles.
“That’s, like, kinda gross,” another concluded.
Emily said nothing. Her body was in such an extreme state of shock — it was like she suddenly couldn’t breathe. It was amazing she ever made it back to her own hotel room and didn’t just pass out and die right there on the carpeted floor of a Holiday Inn. Everything she thought she knew about the world went to dust: any straight-looking girl could be gay in disguise. Except this one wasn’t. She just questioned it.
A few months later, the team was squished into courtroom pews watching their team’s defense compete (Maddie and Emily were both prosecution). Sitting through those trials was always tedious — obviously, no two are the same, but the case is and there’s only so much variance amongst high school mock trial strategies. Usually, what kept things interesting was when something really embarrassing happened, like when one of their teammates repeatedly and aggressively interrogated a witness about whether prosecutors had been violated (rather than, you know, if violators had been prosecuted). Every now and then, there’d be an adolescent attorney so quick, so confident, so knowledgeable of the rules and adept at argument that you just couldn’t look away. You’d always feel bad for the trembling kid on the receiving end of their scrutiny, stumbling over his words and nervously shuffling through his case file to find the appropriate objection response. You’d pray you weren’t next.
Time was best killed with legal pads and pens. Emily liked to play a game where she’d think of a band she liked, list their albums, and then see how many songs she could name from each album. There was a strict no-phone policy in the courtroom, so, when forcibly unplugged, it was as good a time as any to test your knowledge of things. At least, that’s what she liked to do.
Trying to whisper was a suicide mission, and giggles were punishable by death glares from their team’s coach. So, they spoke silently. Maddie and Emily passed notes back and forth on their legal pads, which naturally brought their already-close bodies even closer. Maddie would rest her legal pad on Emily’s thigh to write and lean over to scribble a response. She’d make a joke, look up at Emily, and hold back a laugh. Their faces were so close. Emily had never had a friendship like this before.
“Do U have any chapstick?” Maddie wrote on Emily’s legal pad.
“Ya,” Emily responded. She dug some out of her bag, looked Maddie dead in the eyes, and applied it slowly and mockingly. Maddie ripped the tube out of her hands and ran it across her lips.
“OMG, it’s like we just kissed!!!” she wrote. Emily smiled and swallowed nervously. She’s not gay, she reminded herself. She just questioned it.
Maddie scooched closer to her. “I’m cold,” she risked it all to lean in and whisper in her ear. She tucked her hands into her sleeves, placed them in Emily’s lap, and laid her head on her shoulder. Do I lean my head against hers? Emily thought to herself. She didn’t know. She never knew. Per usual, her enjoyment of an otherwise-exciting moment was muffled by hyper-self-awareness and forced analysis of something simple and sweet. She rested her head on Maddie’s.
Six months or so passed. They were good friends — nothing more, nothing less. Emily’s crush on Maddie mostly faded in acceptance and defeat. Maddie was straight, and Emily was not, and that was that. Emily couldn’t risk sacrificing their friendship with the truth — she liked being around her too damn much. If Maddie knew how much of a freak she was, there was no way she’d want to hang out with her anymore, and that wasn’t a risk she was willing to take. So, she swallowed her feelings and moved on.
They had the same music taste — that was how they communicated. They liked precisely the same songs at the same time, and if one of them found a song the other didn’t know, they were mere moments away from knowing all the words. They’d let songs say what they couldn’t. On car rides, whoever was driving would play their own monthly playlist, but theirs were always identical. They’d forget whose playlist was playing until a song came on that one of them didn’t know, and that girl would get to watch her best friend sing all the words to her new favorite song and smile because she loved her. And soon enough, she’d be singing along too.
They went to a lot of concerts. Whenever an artist they liked was in town, they’d go together. They liked lots of music and lived in a big city, so, lucky for them, this happened fairly frequently. These were more than just concerts, though — they were spaces where they could be free. They liked gay pop stars and girl rock bands and those alt bands with a curly-haired frontman that all the Doc-donning bisexual girls always seemed to like. Here you found pride flags, dyed hair, dykes, queers, falling glitter and falling tears. They’d scream, cry, dance, hold hands, let out everything they held back in their day-to-day lives. They weren’t freaks anymore; they were just like everyone else. They were safe.
Often, the venues were in the suburbs, so they’d kill time for a bit after school before driving out together. Maddie lived much further from school than Emily did, so sometimes, if the show ended late enough, her mom would let her sleep over at Emily’s, and they’d go to school together the next day (obviously after stopping for coffee). There was no pillow-talk, no sex — in fact, they stayed on their respective sides of the bed — but Maddie’s scent always lingered for a few days after she left. With that, Emily could dream of a life where they really did share a bed, where they could spend their first and last moments of consciousness together every day. It was, unfortunately, an unfathomable fantasy.
Emily was driving her to a Florence + the Machine concert when she realized Maddie was trying to tell her something.
“I can’t believe you’re gonna graduate this year. I’m, like, really gonna miss you,” she said.
“Yeah. It's weird.” Emily didn’t know what to say.
“Will you come visit me? Please?” Emily could tell Maddie wanted her to look at her. She kept her eyes locked on the road.
“Yeah. You know I will. And so will Emma and Jake and all the other mock trial seniors.” She was sidestepping.
“Yeah, but like, I’m gonna miss you more than I’ll miss them. It’s different.”
“I know,” she sighed. She parked. They got out of the car. They pretended it didn’t happen.
A week later, they were in the booth of a Raising Cane’s with their gay and intruding teammate Jake. Emily never quite wanted to hang out with him — he always made her a bit uneasy, but she also couldn’t quite say no to him. So she went.
He threw them in the back of his dad’s work truck and flew 70 MPH down the residential streets surrounding their high school, windows down, Ariana Grande singing her little heart out. Emily was nervous, and they were going away from where she lived.
They rolled into the Cane’s, ordered, and before they even got their food, Jake decided to make things interesting.
“So, if y’all could hook up with anyone on the mock trial team, who would you pick?” He smiled at them expectantly.
“Um. I don’t know,” Emily uttered emotionlessly.
“Maybe Blair? Or Tommy.” Maddie paused. “No, Tommy’s vibes are too, like, little brother-ish. I’m sticking with Blair.”
Maddie had recently come out as bisexual, and Jake had long ago twisted Emily’s arm into admitting she’s gay. Per usual, she could tell he was plotting.
“Really? Blair? I, like, don’t really see that for you,” Jake determined. “She’s too, I don’t know, too straight.”
“I’m picking Lindsey,” Emily decided. She was nice, blonde, popular. Obviously straight. A safe pick.
“I question y’all’s taste,” Jake sighed. “I don’t think Tommy is too little brother-ish. I think he’s cute. He’s my pick.”
Jake was clearly in a Tommy-induced daze, but Emily couldn’t risk looking at him. Or Maddie. Either one of them would catch the truth in her eyes. So, she kept her eyes on her fries and sipped her lemonade.
They finished their meals and drove back to the high school to head home in their separate cars. Emily said her goodbyes, thanked Jake for the ride, and started walking to her parking spot when she realized Maddie was trailing behind her. She looked back.
“Hey, um, can we talk about something?” Maddie asked.
“Sure,” Emily said. “It’s, like, cold, though.” It really was. “Do you wanna talk in my car?”
“Yeah.” They hopped in and warmed up. She hooked her phone up to the Bluetooth, but before she could throw on a playlist, Maddie interjected.
“Actually, nevermind. I don’t know. It’s getting dark. I need to get home. It’s, like, it was stupid anyways.” She grabbed her backpack and reached for the door handle.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Totally. It’s, like, I don’t know. I don’t think you would get it.”
“Come on, Emily! You need to tell me.” Maddie was going to cry. Emily knew she was. She could see it in her eyes.
They were parked in a random grocery store parking lot after an all-day date of lunch, an art museum, a trolley ride, and shopping. They were tired and worn. They’d drifted apart in the months leading up to this, likely out of an unspoken mutual acceptance of their fallen friendship, but for some reason, Emily’d agreed to hang out with her on this day. She figured if she’d lost their friendship, there was nothing else to lose. So, she told Maddie she had something important to tell her. She didn’t know why she did that. The follow-through was proving to be much more difficult than she’d anticipated.
“It’s not important. It’s nothing.” Emily didn’t look at her. She couldn’t.
“It’s not nothing!” Maddie was angry. “I haven’t run around town with you all day for you to tell me nothing. You told me you had something important to tell me, and now you owe it to me. Please!”
By the time Maddie had come out as bisexual, Emily’d buried her crush on her so deep she didn’t know how to dig it back up. She’d already swallowed her tears and accepted her fate. She was an ineligible bachelorette, attracted to none but the girl she didn’t let herself have. The feelings couldn’t have been more obviously mutual. Still, she couldn’t access the version of herself who fell asleep to their imaginary dates, who journaled about how excited she was to see her after winter break, who made playlists of songs that reminded her of Maddie. She’d killed that version of herself; it wasn’t the third day, and she wasn’t resurrecting from the dead.
“Do you, um, do you have anything to tell me?” Emily knew she was being selfish. She couldn’t give up her power to be vulnerable even for a single moment. She put it all on Maddie.
“You know, like, I don’t know.” Emily looked down, then, finally, up at her.
“Emily, come on,” Maddie sighed. “You know I fucking like you.”
Everything was still. Emily was suddenly aware of how fogged-up her car windows were from running the heat in the cold for what had to have been hours by then. Why did it hurt. Why did everything hurt. It was what she’d wanted for so long, for years by that point, and it fucking hurt. She wanted to cry, but she knew she couldn’t.
“I like you too,” Emily admitted, and grabbed her hand. She couldn’t look at her. She’d cry — or worse, she wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t cry. They breathed. They were alive. No one died. The world kept spinning. Time continued to pass. Customers loaded groceries into their cars. Everything was different and everything was the same.
It should’ve happened sooner. She should’ve looked at her. They should’ve kissed. She shouldn’t have had to choke back tears. She should’ve been happy. They should’ve been free.
Instead, they turned off the car and went into the Albertson’s to pee. ■
By: Ellen Daly
Graphics: Victoria Cheung
Graphics: Victoria Cheung