INVISIBLE THREADS: Late Bloomer by KT Bryski

CW: Queerphobia

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LATE BLOOMER

KT Bryski

When I was ten, I harboured a hopeless, torturous admiration for a girl in grade six. Praying we’d be on the same gym teams. Agonizing over how to become friends. One time, she sits beside me at lunch. It’s the best thirty minutes ever, even if I can’t untie my tongue long enough to actually talk to her.

Seeing this, the other girls slip a new word into the change-room gossip like poison: 

“Lesbo…”

I’ve never heard that word before. Ill-defined, nebulous, but delivered with sneers that tell me that I want nothing to do with it. That year, I learn lots of new words. All whispered from behind; all honed to hurt.

Defending myself doesn’t help, but I try anyway. See, I’m not in love with this girl. That’s the bewildering thing. I don’t want to kiss her. I don’t even want to hold her hand. I just think she’s cool. She knows facts about wolves.

“I don’t like girls,” I say.

Still, those words. The whispers, the smirks. Like steel threads, they slice my skin and wrap around my bones.

In high school, the threads cut if I move the wrong way. Most of my elementary school class has carried through intact; some people remember my “crush.” Suspicion sticks to me like old gum, so I tell everyone — myself included — that I like boys. Armed with strawberry lip gloss and drugstore nail polish, I go forth and date.

It’s largely unsuccessful. The boys are…nice. I guess. But I hate being touched. I’m unaffectionate, undemonstrative.  So what? I’m not a romantic. I crack so many jokes about my icy heart that I start believing them. After all, it’s easier to claim a frozen heart than to admit what it feels. The words — the threads — hold me fast, but so much scar tissue covers them, I’ve almost forgotten they’re there.

Maybe I’m the problem. Maybe I’m meant to be alone.

So imagine my surprise when I meet a guy I actually like. We trade Doctor Who pickup lines and go on nice, thoughtful dates. For the first time, I enjoy kissing.

Thus, at twenty-three, I’ve achieved the millennial dream: okay apartment, decent job, nice boyfriend. As a grown-up professional woman (and girlfriend), I “improve” my style. Dresses and skirts for work; flowery, scoop-necked tees when out with the boyfriend. At last, I’ve buried the shame and whispers.

One slight hitch.  

In high school, sex stayed at a safe enough distance that I never had to blush my way out of it. And it was a moot point in university. But the “late bloomer” card is drawing raised eyebrows. Normal relationships don’t look like this. Another thread twists in amongst the others. In normal relationships, you want to sleep with your boyfriend. You don’t freeze up and cry when he undoes your belt buckle.

“You love me, right?” he asks.

“Yes, of course.”

“Then why…?”

I don’t know. Except that’s not true. For years, I’ve had a pretty strong hunch. Another new word enters my vocabulary — but I can’t force it out. We alternate between fights and earnest conversations until he asks, “Are you asexual?”

“Oh, thank God,” I retort. “One of us said it.”

We don’t last long after that. It isn’t his fault. It isn’t my fault. But as I stumble to a friend’s to drink and cry, I swear that I will never, ever put myself through this again. In writing communities, I identify openly as ace. Better to tell people upfront, I figure. Better to fight the erasure.

But I’m only dating men. I only want to date men. My fiction skews increasingly towards F/F romance, but that’s because I extrapolate from strong female friendships. The wide variety of relationships between women interests me, that’s all. It’s all very complex, and therefore, fascinating.

Watching two women kiss on the subway, I ache. Even if I wanted something like that, I’ll never get there.

Meanwhile, I purge my closets. No more dresses. No more skirts. No more lipstick. They always felt like costumes, and I’m done with that role. Prowling thrift stores and boys’ sections, I feel furtive, fugitive. Imposter, interloper, I ask for gift receipts and lie about nephews and brothers. Eventually, I stop caring and dive headfirst into button-ups and bow ties.

I fumble it, at first. My early attempts miss “dapper” altogether and land near “fourteen-year-old boy.” But I’m happy. Alone, but happy. I have my friends; I have my writing. Who says that I need a romantic partner?

“Would you ever date a woman?” a friend asks, slightly drunk.

“Maybe?”

“When we first met, I thought you were gay.”

The threads entangle, but they’re loose enough that I laugh. “I think I like…people. Personalities, not parts.”

“So would you date a woman?”

“If the right girl came along, I wouldn’t say no.”

Guess what happens?

We meet at a writers’ conference: author and editor. She seems to have a spotlight on her wherever she goes. Talking to her, I lose time. We’re friends — good friends — but we start hanging out more and more.

One night, I hit a party straight after work, arriving in formal trousers and blazer. “You always look so dapper,” she tells me. Her cheeks are flushed, but I blame the wine. Then I realize we’ve texted every day for two weeks. More threads snap, enough that I break free and say —

I like her. Like that. Deep down, I always have. But now it could be real, so I have to think about it.

A new text: “Can I come over and meet your cat?”

“Aren’t you allergic to cats?”

“Yes…but I want to see how allergic.”

At 2:00 A.M., we kiss in falling snow. It feels like shedding a coat that never fit right. And once it’s off, I cannot imagine wearing it ever again. It took me seventeen years to untangle myself from the threads of my own shame and fear, the threads of prejudice woven by those around me. For too long, I believed a story that wasn’t true.

But yesterday, I put on a tie for our date. Quickly, deftly; I’m good at ties. I shrugged into my suit jacket. And I looked in the mirror and thought —

It’s me.

KT Bryski is an award-winning Canadian author and podcaster. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, PodCastle, Apex Magazine, and Strange Horizons, among others. She lives in Toronto with her weird cat. Find her at www.ktbryski.com, and on Twitter @ktbryski.