Dear X, Always Y
by KatieAnn Nguyen
That December night we ran down that hill near school, crisp air in our hair as our breath made swirls in the sky around us, I knew then. Out of breath, we laid down on the frost covered field, the sound of your ragged breathing next to me, fogged puffs floating up to the stars above us. It was dark, and yet when I turned to look at you, I could still see your face as if it were bright as day. You were looking up at the night sky, gazing at the constellations lifetimes away from us. A stray hair fell into your eyes, yet you didn’t notice. It felt so natural then, to reach over and brush it away. When you looked over at me and your cheeks flushed with the cold, smiled your toothy grin until your eyes turned to slits, I knew then. I knew it as the snowflakes began to fall from the sky on us and you stood up, sticking out your tongue for a taste of them. I knew it as I watched you smile and laugh drenched in that silver of the moon’s rays. I knew I loved you then. I knew I fell in love with a boy.
Maybe I’ve always known, deep inside, that I’ve liked boys. But when the world is telling you that you were born to love girls, it’s hard to know. Because when you see couples on TV, it’s never a boy and a boy, it’s always a boy and a girl, and when your family is talking about your future, they’re envisioning you with a wife, not a husband. I didn’t realize that the lack of attraction I felt towards girls wasn’t because I hadn’t met the right one yet, but rather because there was never going to be a right one for me.
We met freshman year at football practice. I remember because we were the only two freshmen that year that made varsity. You had a buzz cut, hints of brown hair peeking from your head. And you were smaller then, shorter than me by six inches when I was six foot. You were small and yet you made varsity because of your speed, no one could outrun you in practice, and during games when you got the ball, you were untouchable as you zipped across the field.
We didn’t have any classes together, but we saw each other everyday at practice. Slowly, I found myself looking forward to seeing you, talking to you, just being with you. I’d look for you in the hallways unconsciously, and when I found you, I’d go back to that same place the next day at that time to see if I’d spot you again. I watched as the time ticked away on the clock, waiting, always waiting, for the moment school would end and I’d be able to see you.
From there, we only grew closer. I never told you, but I only joined wrestling and track to have an excuse to be with you. You were better than me at both, but I didn’t care as long as I was with you. Soon, I didn’t need to find excuses to be with you, because we were always together. We’d walk to class together, spend breaks and lunches with one another, go over to each other’s house. We were each other’s best friend. You were my best friend.
Back then, I deluded myself into thinking that the flutter in my chest was the excitement of making a new friend.
Sophomore year came and went, and we continued to grow closer. But I should’ve noticed then that something had changed. When I went over to your place, I couldn’t help but feel conscious of everything I did. I was aware of every single movement you made, the sound of your steps, the way your eyes became slits when you laughed, the little gap between your teeth, the scent of sandalwood that always followed you. Every time your hand accidentally brushed mine, I’d feel a little tickle in my heart. You were taller now too, a growth spurt hitting you at the beginning of sophomore year as you reached almost the same height as me. I teased you about it relentlessly, smiling at the way you’d get upset and punch my arm, always telling me that one day you’d be taller. And constantly, I’d find myself unconsciously looking for you, trying to find you. It didn’t matter where you were, it didn’t matter who you were with, I always found you.
One day, we were over at my place with a couple of friends. I was taking out a frozen pizza for us to heat up when you came over to turn on the oven. A friend saw us and said that we looked like a couple. I paused, heart in my mouth, waiting to see how you’d react. You simply smiled and wrapped your arms around my waist, resting your chin on my shoulder, pretending as if we were actually together. We all laughed, but deep inside, my heart was beating so loud that I couldn’t even hear anything else. That night, you stayed over and I looked at you sleeping on the ground, replaying what happened over and over again. My cheeks flushed and my heart began to race and I couldn’t stop thinking about the way your breath tickled my ears as you spoke. And then it hit me, that single thought crossed my mind, the one I had been ignoring all this time: that I wanted to be more than just friends with you.
For weeks after, I kept denying my feelings for you. I told myself that you were just my best friend, that the way I felt was the same way other people felt towards their best friends too. I didn’t like you, I told myself over and over and over again. During the nights, I’d lie awake and convince myself that I never liked you at all, that I had made up the whole thing. I’d convince myself that I didn’t like boys, that instead I wanted a wife and two kids, a daughter that looked like the woman I’d marry and a son who’d take after me. But when morning came and I saw you again, those fragile lies I told myself at night fell apart. And yet, I’d continue to lie to myself again. I couldn’t stop, I was drunk on the way those lies fed me a reality that wasn’t mine. I’d say that the racing of my heart when you were near was just the way I felt towards everyone, that you weren’t special, that I hadn’t fallen for you. It was the only way I could make sense of things. Because how could I simply tell myself that my whole life, my entire upbringing, was wrong? How could I reject the life that I was taught to live?
In my mind, I convinced myself of these lies, but in my heart I knew it was anything but.
I couldn’t accept that I liked a boy. It filled me with such shame. A part of me was disgusted with myself for the way I loved, that I couldn’t just love girls. I felt like I had committed a sin for just loving a boy.
I started talking to girls more, flirting with them and going on dates and believing that I liked them. It was easier to believe in that lie. And for a while, I began to believe that I had made up those feelings for you. That I had only thought I’d fallen for you because I was lonely. But one day you accidentally brushed the back of my hand when we were walking to class together, and that single touch made me feel more than all those dates I’d gone on had. With the more days I spent with you, the more I realized I’d fallen for you.
You made me feel things that no girl had before. My heart would race with just the sight of you. I’d count the minutes until I’d see you next. When we hung out together, I’d wish that time would stop then. At night, I’d replay the days I spent with you, the flash of your smile, the jokes we shared, the feel of your touch. You left an imprint on my heart like no other had. I knew it then, that I had never felt a sliver of how I felt about you for a girl.
It scared me. Because how could I like a boy? And not just any boy, but my best friend? How could I tell the people around me? How could I tell them that I didn’t love a girl? That I didn’t want that life of a wife and kids that they expected of me? What would I do if they couldn’t accept that part of me? If they were disgusted by me? How do I tell the world that they are wrong about me when the world’s constantly telling me that I am wrong for liking boys?
But do you know what’s scarier than realizing? Hoping. Hoping that maybe you liked me back.
Everything we used to do together, it wasn’t the same for me anymore. When our eyes met for a beat too long, I’d tell myself that you were thinking of me. When we hung out in your car listening to music before practice, I’d tell myself that I was special. When you joked about us dating to our friends, I’d let myself believe you weren’t straight. When you spent the weekends at my place, I’d think to myself that you liked me too. Everything with you after that, it all felt like you were trying to tell me that you wanted to be more than just friends too.
I dared to daydream of what we could be. Of holding hands in the hallways, of waking up to good morning texts from you, of cuddling on the couch together, of you running your hand through my hair, of going on dates together, of a future where we were each other’s forever. I dared to believe that you liked me back.
I waited for you to confess to me. I lived in my delusions, letting myself believe that any day you would tell me how you felt. And while I believed this, I was still so scared. I was scared of what my family and friends would think. Would they still see me as the person that they had grown up with? Would they still look at me the same? I was scared of what the world would think. Of this world where they looked at two boys in love as if they were monsters, as if they were sinners. I was scared of how I would come out to everyone. Would I make a big announcement of it? Or would I just not tell anyone? Would I be able to handle their stares? Their questions? How do I tell them that when you like a boy, you simply just know? As much as I liked you, I was scared of you and everything we could be.
But when junior year came, I found out just how much of a lie I let myself believe.
You got a girlfriend that year.
You went to an old friend’s party that summer and met her there. She was your old classmate from middle school, but she had changed completely from the old photo of her you showed me. With her short auburn hair, hazel eyes, and freckles decorating her cheeks, I could tell why you fell for her. She was the kind of beauty every boy ever dreamt about, and it hurt to know that she was the kind of beauty you wanted too. She went to another school than us and soon, the days after school you had spent with me, began to be spent with her.
And still, I couldn’t believe that you had a girlfriend. I was still hoping that you liked me back. I was still telling myself that you weren’t straight. I deluded myself into thinking that you were only dating her to test out if I liked you, to make me confess to you. I told myself that you didn’t really like her, that you weren’t really dating her, that it was all just a sick joke.
But when I saw the two of you together, it hit me harder than ever. I was over at your place and she was there in your hoodie cuddled up next to you. You had an arm over her and you waved at me when I sat down on the other side of the couch. I knew it then, that it wasn’t a sick joke. That the only sick joke was me telling myself that you liked me. Because when I saw the two of you together, I knew that you looked at her the way I looked at you.
I went home that night and cried. And when the tears dried up, I went to the park in my neighborhood and screamed at the top of my lungs. I cursed you for making me fall in love with you. I cursed your girlfriend for being the girl I would never be. I cursed God for making me love boys. I cursed the world for not letting me love you. But most of all, I cursed myself. For falling in love with a straight boy. And for hoping that that straight boy loved me back too.
But do you know what hurt the most? It was that I couldn’t even tell anyone else about my heartbreak. I was still scared of how they’d react. I hadn’t told anyone that I liked boys, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know if I had fully accepted it yet. To say that I liked boys out loud was different than just realizing it, it meant it was really real. My whole life I had been told that I liked girls, and for my whole life I thought I did. But now to entirely reject that upbringing, I didn’t know what to do, the fear paralyzed me.
They don’t tell you how to come out to your loved ones. The articles just say to “be comfortable with who you are,” but how are you supposed to be comfortable when it’ll change the way everyone around you looks at you? It scared me to think that others would turn their backs on me, that the people I had come to care about would look at me in a different view. There was no one I could turn to, no one I could trust. It felt like I was simply alone. For my first broken heart, I had no shoulder to cry on.
For days after that, I couldn’t look at you. I couldn’t bear to be with you because every time I was with you, I was reminded of what could never be. At school, I’d take the long way to class just to avoid you. The classes we had together, I’d make sure to distance myself from you. At practice, I’d try to ignore you and pretend to be busy whenever you came too close. On the weekends, I’d say I already had plans and couldn’t come over. And yet, throughout all of it, I was still thinking of you. I saw the hurt on your face, the question in your eyes of whether you did something wrong. But how could I tell you that the only thing you did wrong was not love me the way I loved you?
I asked myself over and over and over again why I had been born to love boys. I asked myself why I couldn’t just love girls the way everyone else around me did. Because if I did, everything would be so much easier. I wouldn’t have to lie to myself and say that it isn’t attraction that I felt. I wouldn’t have to be scared of whether anyone around me noticed. I wouldn’t have to wonder if my crush was into boys or not. I wouldn’t have to try to fit in with everyone around me. I wouldn’t have to live a lie. I wouldn’t have to fall in love with my best friend.
And in my heartbreak, I went to a party. You came to my house one night and dragged me out, telling me that you didn’t know why I was avoiding you but it couldn’t continue. You took me to your girlfriend’s house party and told me to let go of all my worries for the night. For one night, I told myself, I wanted to be like every other teenage boy my age. I drank until the alcohol flushed my cheeks and my mind turned fuzzy; I drank until I could forget you and your smile and your laugh and your arms around my waist and your scent of sandalwood. I wanted to forget that I was in love with you.
That night, a girl came over to me. She was as short as you had been when we first met, with her hair tied up in a messy bun. She started flirting with me, grazing my arm with the back of her hand. I know it was wrong, but for that one night, I wanted to pretend that I wasn’t in love with boys, that I was normal like everyone else, so I flirted back. But her smile, the glint in her eyes, the scent of her perfume, her laugh, I couldn’t stop seeing you in her. I couldn’t stop seeing the small gap between your teeth when she flashed a smile at me, I couldn’t stop seeing the slits your eyes became when she smiled, I couldn’t stop smelling your scent of sandalwood when she leaned in close. I kept pretending that it was you I was flirting with.
And as I was thinking that, I found you, like I always do. Past all the dancing people, the low lights, the loud blast of the music, you were in the corner of the room kissing your girlfriend. I sobered up then, because I was watching the boy I loved kiss a girl, a girl that I’d never be. And maybe it was the heartbreak that drove me to it, but I pulled that girl in close and kissed her. Because I wanted to be loved by you, and she was the only one willing to love me like I loved you. She wrapped her small arms around my neck and I felt my hands around her waist, and I thought to myself, how nice it would’ve been if I didn’t like boys. I thought to myself how nice it would be if she was my girlfriend, if we were to go on dates together, drive through town with the windows rolled down and music blasting, have her cheer for me at my games, give her my hoodie to wear, spend the weekends with her, meet her family, get married, have kids; I thought how nice it would be if I loved like everyone else loved.
But when I pulled away and looked at her, I knew that would never be. Because I was wishing it was you who had your arms around me. I was wishing it was you I was kissing that night. I was wishing it was you I could have that dream with. I was wishing it was you.
I left shortly after I kissed her. I know it was wrong, I know I only hurt both of us, but in that moment, I wanted to believe in what could’ve been. I wanted to believe in that life I could’ve lived if I was born like everyone else.
When senior year began, you broke up with your girlfriend.
For a while, we stopped talking. That night, I found out why you never fell in love with straight boys, and being with you reminded me all too much of that.
But when you broke up with her and came crying at my door late at night, I couldn’t just turn you away. I couldn’t just leave the boy I loved in tears like that. Because more than it hurt knowing you’d never love me, was seeing you absolutely heartbroken.
We grew close again. By then I had accepted that I liked boys, but I still hadn’t told anyone. This time I told myself that we would only be friends, that this time I wouldn’t delude myself into thinking we were something more, that this time I wouldn’t fall in love with a straight boy. But maybe I didn’t learn my lesson hard enough the first time—or maybe it was the loneliness—because I began to hope again.
I told myself that I would be the one hurt at the end, that I would be the one in tears once more, and yet, I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help loving a boy who would never love me.
One day during spring break, we were at the lake watching the sunset. Perhaps it was with graduation looming so close, or maybe it was the warm air and setting sun, but you asked me what I wanted to be in the future. I told you about my dreams, the college life I envisioned, the career I wanted, all stuff you already knew. But then you asked me about love, if I ever wanted to get married, have a wife, start a family. I hesitated then, glanced over at you and asked you what you thought. You told me that you wanted a wife a little bit shorter than you who smiled easily, who laughed at your lame jokes, who would stay by your side no matter what, who would love you for all that you were.
I looked at you then and I thought to myself that I could’ve been your wife if I wasn’t born a boy. You were six foot three now, while I had only grown an inch since freshman year. You towered over me ever so slightly, and you had done what you always told me you would do, grow taller than me. You were still untouchable on the football field, but I found myself better at wrestling than you were. I couldn’t hold a flame to you at track races, but I always beat you at the field events. You had grown out your hair since freshman year, a mop on your head instead of the buzz cut you had. You no longer had acne decorating your cheeks, but instead the beginnings of a beard. Your eyes still turned to slits when you smiled and there was still that gap in your teeth because you never got braces. I looked at you and still saw the boy I loved for all those years.
Maybe it was because we were at the lake or maybe it was because the sun had finally set, but I said to you the words I had always wanted to tell you.
I love you.
I had always loved you. Even when I couldn’t bring myself to admit it.
I knew that you wouldn’t feel the same way, I knew that this would only end in heartbreak, but I still dared to hope for a sliver of a moment, that you loved me back too. But when you turned to me, a startled look on your face, I felt the disappointment rise up in me. You told me you were sorry, that this wouldn’t change our friendship or the way you saw me. I just nodded, biting back the tears, and looked back at the darkening sky. The stars began to poke out and I was reminded once more of that night it was snowing, when I realized I loved you.
Somewhere in me, I was relieved I said it, that you finally knew how I felt after all those years, that I could finally begin to let go.
We’ve long since graduated and it’s been longer since that night at the lake, but we’ve still stayed friends all these years later. You traveled across the country to go to your dream school on a track and field scholarship to major in kinesiology. I stayed in state two hours from home to major in civil engineering. We still see each other during breaks and we still talk from time to time. Our relationship hasn’t changed much since that night. You are still one of my best friends.
And now, as if in the blink of an eye, college graduation is around the corner. It’s been four years. A lot has changed during that time. I finally came out to my family and friends. When I told you that night that I liked you, that I liked boys, I felt free for the first time in my life. It felt like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders because another person finally knew the real me. I didn’t have to lie anymore, I didn’t have to shoulder it all alone anymore.
You gave me the courage to tell the others around me. Because I couldn’t keep living this life that the ones I loved couldn’t be a part of. I had finally come to terms with who I was, and I wanted the others around me to know as well, even if it meant they couldn’t accept me. It hurt more living that lie than telling them the truth. I couldn’t keep talking with my family about the girlfriend I’d never get. I couldn’t let my friends keep telling me to go flirt with a girl. Each moment I spent living that lie, I felt like I was losing pieces of myself. I couldn’t feel happy knowing that no one loved the real me.
When I told everyone, it surprised them. My parents had a hard time coming to terms with it and for a while they didn’t know how to treat me. They would tell me that it was just a phase, that I was just experimenting and it would come to pass. It hurt that they couldn’t fully accept that part of me, that they were living in denial as I had, but at the very least they knew. Even if they couldn’t fully understand it, they knew now and I didn’t have to lie anymore about the wife they wanted for me. But when I brought home my first boyfriend, I think it hit them then. It took some time and it took more conversations for them to realize that I was still the same son that they had loved and raised. I think they’re still trying to figure it out, they’re still trying to understand, and a part of them will always hold some form of denial, but at least they’re trying. At least now, they know the real me. At least now, I have a shoulder to cry on.
With my friends, for the most part, they were happy for me, proud of me for coming out. The few that weren’t, the few that left because of the truth, I realized then that they didn’t truly care about me. The ones that truly loved me, accepted me for all that I am. I found people I could rely on, people I could trust, but most of all, I found people who I could relate to. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel alone, it didn’t feel like I was the only one being told I was loving wrong.
I no longer have to live a lie. I no longer have to curse the world for making me love boys. Though, I still do from time to time when I fall for that one straight boy. But now, I have others who will be there to help me through it. And I finally got that boyfriend I dreamt of spending the rest of my life with, that boyfriend I wanted to tell you about when you asked me about my future at the lake. I’m happier now, so much happier than I ever thought I’d be. It’s freeing being able to embrace who I am in front of others. It feels like I’m finally able to breathe.
But, what I really want to say is thank you. Thank you for being my first love. Thank you for teaching me what it means to love boys. Thank you for the heartache and heartbreak. Thank you for staying my friend throughout all these years. Thank you for accepting who I am. Thank you for letting me love you.
I couldn’t be the person I am today without knowing you, without being with you, without loving you. You taught me, no matter how painful it was, what it means to fall in love. You gave me my first heartbreak, but if it weren’t you, it would’ve been another straight boy.
I’m glad it was you that I fell for first. I’m glad that it was your smile that turned your eyes to slits, your gap between your teeth, your arms around my waist, your scent of sandalwood, that I remember as my first love.
I wish you the best.
KatieAnn Nguyen (she/her) is a first generation Hmong-Vietnamese American. Her writing is heavily inspired by her identity and culture as well as real-live experiences growing up in the world around her. She strives to create something real through her words, hoping that they will be a source of comfort for someone else. Follow her on Instagram @whenkatieannwrites.