It was a Thursday. I was seventeen, single, and holding my breath until the day I finally graduated high school. I was single, and thought I would be forever. I thought no one could understand me, so better to live a self-contained life.
I did not think about the way my lungs had swelled and seized up when one of the line cooks at the coffee shop where I worked backed me up against the chest freezer, laughingly lecturing me about something, her body so close to mine, so close, and not touching. I did not think about her septum piercing. Or her freckles. I definitely did not look at her chest, especially not when she unbuttoned her chef’s jacket, showing the ribbed tank top she wore beneath it.
I was, I insisted, as straight as a pencil. This counted as a small rebellion in the set of theater kids at whose outskirts I drifted. A popular boy I barely knew once said, not meaning to be unkind, that I was like a ghost. I did often feel I was haunting my own life, not quite living inside it. Disembodied. For instance, my fluorescent-lit first real kiss at age fifteen, just inside the doors of Rosedale Mall, a kiss necessitated by the fact of being on our first real date, me and the boy who would become my first real boyfriend. His tongue in my mouth—a sensation that taught me why some call kissing playing tonsil hockey. His fingers between my legs, his nails long and their edges jagged. I wanted to be touched, but I didn’t know by whom, or how. Alone, late at night, I read the same piece of fan fiction again and again: two of my favorite fictional characters, years after they left the magical boarding school where they were each other’s boyhood nemeses, encounter each other in a meticulously described gay sex dungeon in Berlin. I thought I might want that. Then the distance between me and any of the things I might want, nebulous and frightening things, stymied me. So I was solitary, and thought that unlikely to change.
When I projected myself into the future, I saw myself alone (naturally) in a loft apartment (essential that it be a loft apartment) in the city (I was open to New York, or practically any city in Europe, a monolithic destination in my mind). I would be a writer. I would be lonely but accomplished, lonely in a poetic way, not in the grinding way I was in high-school . In this future world, I could have had friends or lovers if I chose—at seventeen, having true friends, friends who knew me with any real intimacy, felt just as impossible as having a lover. In the future, I would choose to devote myself exclusively to my writing.
Now, ten years later, I really am a writer. And I know how I want to be touched and who I want to do the touching. Realizing I was a lesbian helped a lot with that. I do not live alone—instead, I share my apartment (sadly, not a loft) with my partner and our two cats. Sometimes, I wonder if I lost something by letting go of that imagined solitary future. I would like to believe that, if circumstances shifted, I could still be poetically lonely. But I have rarely found beauty in lived loneliness, and never for any sustained length of time. Glamor still clings to that early idea of solitude, but only the idea. In reality, the mess and frustration and thrumming bliss of sharing my life with the ones I love surpasses self-containment. Having found, startlingly, that there are people who understand me, I can no longer imagine willingly giving them up.
Sophie Ouellette-Howitz earned her B.A. at Smith College, where she concentrated in the formation of identity through literature. She teaches writing for Elephant Rock and is a nonfiction reader for Orison Books. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in SELF, Pigeon Pages, HoneyColony, and elsewhere.
Sophie would like to shine a light on the work done by Street Roots, a grassroots nonprofit that creates income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty by producing a newspaper and other media that are catalysts for individual and social change. You can learn more about how to support that work here: www.streetroots.org.