My high school chemistry teacher was rumored to be a lesbian. I hoped it was true. In some ways, she fit the profile: she had cropped graying hair, tiny gold hoop earrings, and always wore white boating shoes. But more importantly, she managed to be at once hilarious and mellow. For instance, she had developed her own way of answering in the affirmative, a variation on “yeah,” that sounded like “she-yah”, delivered in a nasal voice. It may not sound that funny, but we loved it. We asked more questions just to hear her say it. I had no interest in chemistry, but I sat in the front row.
One particular afternoon I sat in her classroom, fresh from an encounter with a boy, the first I’d had in months. My teacher was balancing chemical equations on the board, moving back and forth between products and reactants until, miraculously, they balanced. Half-dazed, I watched her and brooded.
I’d been avoiding boys for nearly a year. They were trouble for me, but not in the usual way. From a distance, some of them were appealing enough. But once I got close enough to kiss them, my bodily reaction was panic. The night before, I’d been on a date that ended in nothing more than hand-holding and yet still, once I reached the safety of my bedroom I wanted to curl in a ball and never leave. All day at school, I’d been cagey, trying to make myself as small as possible, to stay out of everyone’s line of vision. I didn’t want to see him, to reject him or make small talk, to pretend that things were normal, that I wasn’t inwardly exploding. I had almost made it to the end of the day and now I sat, watching letters and numbers take shape, wondering what was wrong with me.
My teacher, close to solving the first problem, wanted to know if she had four aluminum atoms, and three oxygen atoms, how many aluminum oxide molecules did she have? Someone behind me raised his hand. “Two?” he asked. “She-yah. On to the next one.”
And then it hit me: Maybe I just didn’t like boys. This thought opened the gate to a flood of memories. When I was four, my best friend had asked me if I knew what “gay” meant, and when she explained it to me, I felt awash in relief, like she had provided an answer to a question I had long held but never formed the words for; I remembered one morning in second grade when our school gathered to watch Freaky Friday and I sat transfixed by Jodi Foster, unsure if I wanted to know her or be her; I considered the intensity of my friendships which had often been marked by an unnamed longing; and I mentally listed the boys I had sought after and then retreated from.
I remembered how at twelve I had actively wondered if I was gay, but for some reason I had buried the question, forgetting it for the last four years. But now, as my teacher talked us through yet another chemical equation, the possibility of my queerness brought a kind of relief. I’d spent the last five years thinking I had some insurmountable hang-up. I thought it might take years of therapy to fix me, or perhaps I’d always be alone. But now, all of a sudden it seemed this whole time I’d just been working on the wrong side of the equation.
I was so relieved, and so terrified.