Expectations

Adrien Sifre

Photo by Adrien Sifre.

I grew up in a world of simple, but inflexible expectations.

My mom and dad emigrated from Mexico before I was born. They raised me on stories of their difficult childhoods and let the Catholic church do the moral shaping.

They had two “simple” requests: get an education and marry good man (preferably one who doesn’t beat you).

When we moved to Garden Grove, my mom told me I should make friends with some of those “Chinese” kids because they were such good students.

I later found out they were Vietnamese.

So I kept my head down and made my parents happy. I was a model student set to be the first in a family of hundreds to go to an American university. Unlike my cousins, I kept boys and potential pregnancies at bay. My actions were simple, black and white, defined. There were no grays in my life until the day I fell in love with my best friend.

I met Jen my sophomore year of high school. I wanted to be a marine biologist and she was the president of the marine science club. The freshman me had been too shy to even join the club. A year later, I had been coaxed into applying for an officer position on the board.

I can still hear my footsteps as I walked through the door. The hollow space beneath the classroom made my quiet entrance as loud as possible. I was mortified to be late. Jen welcomed me to her meeting without missing a beat. She cleared a chair for me and recalled attention to herself.

She was talking about a field trip to Sea World…or something.

I had never seen anyone walk the way she did, with such confidence. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.

She had a tomboyish air. Her jet black hair was tied in a ponytail behind unpierced ears. Her athletic build was artfully hinted at beneath a slightly baggy t-shirt, and jeans that hugged her legs just enough. She laughed easily. Something about her energy touched me instantly; I remember thinking I could never be like her. I knew there was mystery behind that smile. What it was, I could have never predicted.

I hung back, watching her joke with friends. I had never been good at beginning social interactions. I carefully approached them and stammered a greeting, an apology, and an introduction.

A thread of memory flitted across Jen’s face.

“Oh, you’re Kim. Are you the one interested in being an officer?”

No, I wasn’t interested. Someone sort of forced me to come here. I already have a lot to do. I actually have no idea why I even came here.

It would have been rude to say the truth.

In reality all I could get out of me was: “Uhh…yeah.”

“Great! What made you interested in joining us?”

I don’t remember what BS stuttered its way out of my mouth, but maybe Jen was feeling desperate or lazy. I like to think her carefree manner let her look past my insecurities.

Jen congratulated me on being the new representative and shoved a pile of papers in my hand. The bell rang and Jen ran off to track practice.

I stood in her dust, wondering what I had just signed myself up for.

The next few days were busy with club business. We spent hours chatting online. Jen liked to do silly things like lure in new members with cute marine animal clip art.

Quick phone calls turned into long conversations. I learned that a scrappy Asian bully who still terrorized a foggy corner of my memories was none other than Jen herself. We delved deep into our pasts, and soon I was falling asleep to the sound of her voice.

Phone calls turned into meetings, meetings turned into sleepovers. We planned camping trips with friends and *somehow* ended up alone in a five person tent.

We kept each other warm when our 20 dollar sleeping bags failed.

We were the best of friends. In less than a year, I told her I loved her, and she said she loved me back. This was my time of utter innocence: I would never have even considered considering a woman as dating material.

And so when Jen went off to college I had no idea I was heartbroken. I stayed behind in our semi-sleepy California suburb. Jen took my mind and heart 3,000 miles away to Boston. We called each other every day. She lamented that teleportation had yet to be invented. I wished I could get my hands on a really fast jet.

Jen elicited a fierce sense of loyalty from me. When I kissed a boy for the first time, I felt guilty confessing it to her. When I started dating him, Jen punched a wall. Still we didn’t realize what was going on.

When Jen earned a spot at a West Coast track competition, she convinced her ex-boyfriend to drive hours to visit her…and bring me along.

The door opened to Jen’s motel room and I was home again. She told me how good I looked in long hair. I learned how to take a compliment. Our time was precious, and I spent that whole night awake in Jen’s arms. Her ex-boyfriend awkwardly flipped through channels, practically unnoticed.

Time dragged on, and I continued to live my vicarious life at MIT. Jen’s engineering degree became more and more demanding. I waited up for her and could often be found passed out on the living room floor.

Our families started wondering. My mom was curious who I talked to so much. My dad could hear whispering when he got up to work. After my explanation, they moved on: their world of expectations only allowed them to worry about secret boyfriends.

Jen’s family wasn’t so happy with me. Her mom would tally up the minutes on the phone bill and her dad would place silent phone calls to my number. When Jen confronted them, they told her she should study harder.

May rolled around. I called Jen and told her that I had decided to stay local, at UCLA. Her voice was thick with sadness as she told me I would do well there. She knew how important my family was to me.

Obviously I was just messing with her! I was going to Boston University.

The elation on the other end of the line was well worth the deception. Jen made a promise to stay with me in Boston until I finished my degree. She loved the sun, but I was worth an extra winter.

We had survived the year. We reveled in our reunion. Surely no one in the history of mankind had suffered the distance as we did. This was our time.

Even Jen’s first love — kung fu — was pushed aside for me that summer. Her parents would call her in Chinese, telling her to get rid of her friend. We would defy them by leaving the house and climbing onto their roof. Nothing made me more content than nestling in her arms and gazing at the stars.

Climbing roofs was just the beginning. Jen was intoxicating. She liked to talk about riding motorcycles and looked good in a leather jacket. She broke my fear of the darkness and showed me solitude and inner peace.

Besides, my best friend was a black belt! I felt safe anywhere with her. So we rode bikes out of the city, jumped fences, and stayed out late. She spent hours teaching me ways to defend myself — in case she ever wasn’t around to save me.

I still have a mean headlock.

The night belonged to us. Jen opened up my world and liberated the good girl. I passionately swore I would never leave her.

One of these nights we were cuddled on the floor, as we often did. Something was different. I was compelled to be even closer to her. I caressed her arm, brushed back her hair. Jen stiffened a bit, her breath lost its casual pace.

But she didn’t stop me.

I knew we were crossing a line, one I didn’t care to think about. I kissed her on the cheek and we fell asleep, holding each other tight. Jen left silently the next morning.

The hours trickled by. I lay there in a daze. What had I done? This was bad, I should feel guilty. But a dark part of me liked that I was the only one who could touch her this way.
Night fell. There we were again, this time in Jen’s bed. Things moved quickly and soon there was nothing else left. We were face to face. Jen took the lead tonight.

“If I kissed you, would you stop me?”

All I could do was look at her and shake my head no.

A warmth spread over me. I finally understood why people enjoyed kissing. No scratchy surfaces, no floundering tongues. I breathed in. She smelled like cherry blossoms. I traced the muscles of her back and thought that I could make out with her forever.

We almost did.

The rest of that summer was a blur of Jen and her body. I lost track of whether there was a sun or a moon in the sky.

Life was exquisite. Jen was a drug, and I wanted her forever. But it was all a secret. This wouldn’t go on for long, she cautioned me. Jen had a duty to her family, and I wouldn’t dare disappoint mine. At some point we both had to return to real life and date boys.

Real life came too soon. She lived in Cambridge. I lived in Boston. 1.6 Miles: this short distance taunted us, dancing over a frozen bridge. It was all the more torture to see her light from my window, just across the river.

I shouldn’t have bothered moving into my dorm. My things slowly trickled to her room as we made every absurd excuse to visit one another.

Our lives intertwined. I lost sense of myself. Passwords, locks, social boundaries: no barrier existed when we were alone. We had absolute trust of each other. I floated through my daily activities enveloped in the smell of her. Every last part of me belonged to Jen.

Ask me what student life at Boston University was like and I can give you a vague description of faded brick buildings and old money. Ask me what it’s like to go to MIT and I’ll wax poetic about freedom and creativity. I can tell you about the nerdy way they number their buildings and measure the bridge out of Cambridge. I can tell you about the time I gained athletic victory over a band geek in a gladiator duel above a trampoline. Thanks to Jen, I could navigate MIT’s underground passageways better than most of the real students.

By the second year, Jen had smuggled three residents into her dorm room: two guinea pigs we adopted together, and me.

And we were still just friends.

Jen came to her senses sooner than I did: she asked me to date her.

I was paralyzed. I felt the two most meaningful things in my life pitted against each other.
I was certain I would lose my family if I was gay.

For months Jen persuaded, pleaded, and demanded. How could I profess my love for her then hide it from the world? I tried not to focus on the irony when we had make-up sex in her closet.
My Catholic-Mexican upbringing still won. I couldn’t fathom dating a woman.

Finally fed up, she stood before me, murder in her eyes. “Why — don’t you — just get a boyfriend then?”

Logically, I did. My male-female relationship dragged on for seven months. There was no love or respect, but it was desperate proof telling the world I was normal. Seeing me hand-in-hand with someone else in public drove Jen to the verge of insanity.

I went right there with her.

We would scream, cry, break things, never able to find sense in this social bind we had created.
Jen’s favorite band was Muse. I had never quite understood them. Now their lyrics were ripped from my soul, fresh and bloody. The weekend Jen disappeared I played their music on obsessive repeat. The truth of their words drove me near the edge. I didn’t know where Jen was or what I would do without her.

I understood suicide for the first time.

Jen finally answered her phone and came back to me. She had volunteered herself for overnight psychiatric observation. They recommended some distance from me. I encountered the most profound bottom of my depression: I couldn’t move, would hardly ever leave Jen’s room. She would pick herself up enough to boil water and feed me some instant noodles.

Even at those depths, we were magnetic. We never managed to detangle our souls. I lived for her, and we never stopped making love. Our unnamed relationship degraded into emotional abuse.
I cut deep with my words, and she fought right back with betrayal. Over and over again, I wondered just how much easier death would be.

Jen had always been popular. When she began using male suitors as a distraction, it was too much for me: I started to run away.

I spent the summer teaching marine conservation and tolerating rich people on Nantucket. I finally started to grapple with my confusion. If I didn’t know what my sexuality was, maybe I didn’t know anything at all about myself. I found it easier to talk to strangers than close friends.

I did my best not to speak to Jen, who had done her own running away to Singapore. Yet again, distance failed. I got furtive phone calls from the other side of the world. I learned to decipher static and frustration. I wrote long, nostalgic emails to her when I couldn’t sleep at night. Regret would come the next morning.

By the end of the summer Jen wanted to get me a ring. This ambiguous promise-engagement- reservation ring was sterling silver and had a tribal-style dragon punched into it. Still, receiving that little cardboard Amazon box made my heart skip five beats. It was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for me.

The elation of our reunion didn’t last long: we soon realized it was too difficult to tell anyone the truth. Jen was exasperated. She left me for a man.

I couldn’t stand to be in Boston anymore.

Everywhere I went, I saw moments with Jen: the bench shadowed enough to let us sit close together, the pathway we could walk while hiding our interlaced fingers in coat pockets, the spot by the river where I once actually kissed her outside, during a blackout.

I knew she would never love her boyfriend the way she loved me. I also knew I had no claim to her. I finished school in New Zealand, hoping the nature would heal my pain.

I came out to three close friends.

They baked me cookies and took me clubbing on Auckland’s gay scene. One of my friends caught me at the library with a pile of books titled something like, So You Think You’re Gay? She poked fun at my existential crisis, and I took a deep breath. It was nice not to be alone.
Slowly, away from Jen, I found solace in giant tree roots and moss-covered walls. All was going well… until I slipped.

I don’t remember who cracked first, but there we were again. A call from Jen. She wanted to be with me. No, she couldn’t break up with her boyfriend just yet. He should enjoy graduation before she dumped him.

She bought a flight to New Zealand to prove how serious she was, but her actions continued to say otherwise. I couldn’t stand the wait, the back and forth. She kept changing her mind about the breakup. Once, again, and again.

I felt so stupid, yet I knew I was nothing without a chance at her. I spiraled lower and lower, until one day I bolted to the roof of my building. I looked down. I sat on the edge. I breathed in the cold air. Car fumes and sea salt lashed my body. I could see the tiny buses below, creeping like pathetic bugs.

I stared down. Such a gorgeous view, and I couldn’t appreciate it.

Did I want to keep breathing? It was so frigid and painful. I was shivering. I had nothing left.
The daredevil in Jen had always wondered what it would be like to jump from a cliff. Now I wondered what that might feel like, too. Wouldn’t it be so easy to…

Just. Tip. Over?

I snapped back. I had never come so close to going through with it. I made it to the edge of my life and almost let go.

I stumbled downstairs, crying on the fire escape. What was the point of all this suffering?

I called her. I loved her. I needed her. I wanted to travel New Zealand with her. I wanted to be with her. Yes, I wanted to be her…girlfriend.

We had a magical month of traveling. We forded dangerous rivers and made friends with gruff mountain men. We explored a cave system with a ball of yarn as our guide. We played amongst glaciers, and once again nestled under the stars.

But alas, even the fairytale magic of New Zealand could not heal the deepest of our pains. Our hearts remained wounded and we had drifted too far apart. Our formal courtship ended soon after returning to the states.

My parents still keep a distance from a life they cannot understand, but it is my own. Now nothing is simple or inflexible. There are no longer any expectations.

I prefer to measure my world in dreams.