My cousin is having her high-school grad tonight. Born nine days after my sister was killed, there is a place in my heart that will always be hers. She’s 17, smart and beautiful and totally boy crazy. She drools over soccer players, alternative rockers and the show Growing Up Gotti. She loves expensive eye shadow and having her picture taken. She introduced me recently to the world of “emo” (which I can’t be apparently because I am too dark-skinned and legitimately depressed). I’m 26 and she’s 17 and I look up to her in the most unlikely ways.
I never went to my high-school grad. It was, I explained, too expensive, too stupid and too sentimental. I couldn’t stand the stress over what to wear, where to go, how to sneak the booze in. Instead, my then girlfriend and I rented a hotel room with her brother’s credit card. We had inexperienced sex during which I played the bottom I was never meant to be, wore things I never wore again and talked about love I knew nothing about. I didn’t even get a grad photo taken, just filled up my little square in the year book with a ridiculous poem, a state-of-the-world piece about putting people in boxes. I used the pen name “Elliot” having fallen in love with “The Wasteland” in grade 10. I was a fringe high-school student, got my grades and got out.
I came out when confronted, participated when pushed and came in the darkroom when Elastica sang “Line Up.” I was 75 percent proud and 25 percent pained by the fact that I didn’t feel normal enough to attend what turned out to be the only grad I’d ever have. I was out but not loud about it, clear as day but not proud of it, yet.
I spent my last year of high school spreading rumours about myself. I absorbed the reactions of my same-sex attractions, each time feeling like I was giving something away I wouldn’t get back. I had visions of crashing the prom with a gang of queer people, claiming the dancefloor, spray-painting rainbows. But I, of course, had no gang, no dance moves and no understanding of how excluded I really was. I tended to self-blame, to see my exclusion as a result of my weaknesses, my inability to speak up, organize, make a scene. I read books about girls who really did things. All I did was survive. I stayed afloat, wrote down words I was too shy to say and never believed anyone was really in love with me.
I was a shadow in front of my family as a teen. I still am, actually. I’ve healed beyond needing their approval, which has led me to see how I didn’t try nearly hard enough. I expected them to reject me. I am embarrassed to admit I’ve given up on my grandpa like he’s already dead. Who taught me that people are like dogs and can’t learn new tricks?
My cousin is unashamedly Italian, so unlike this mixed girl who cringes a little at the World Cup flags and recently sidestepped an invitation to attend an Italian queer women’s group. She laughs at God while I hate the concept with a passion that is anything but funny. She manages to be herself, and Italian, like I am but can’t be. Like I’m not.
Frances says what she thinks at the table, rolls her eyes at the tyrants and tells her mom when she’s been chatting on-line with a 25-year-old boy. She brushes off the criticism, eats what she wants and laughs at our crazy family with an insight I definitely didn’t have at 17. We talk about sex, shaving and sneaking out. My wife answers the questions I can’t and our queerness is just a perspective, a letter of the alphabet some families just don’t use — until they do.
My mother and my aunt call me up one by one when they’re worried about Frances. They stress about drugs, piercings, parties and boys, boys, boys. What do I know about boys? They urge me to talk to her, do the mentoring I do at work. It seems ridiculous that I of all people am posing as responsible, the level-headed queer who can positively affect a 17-year-old straight girl. I don’t remind mum that she used to keep me away from my cousin and caution me against “clouding her judgment.” I was much more a mess and I made it through. Her chances are solid and her potential is huge.
My cousin is showing me all the things I missed out on, that mean more than I thought and less than I believe: airing my crushes, talking back to my grandfather and attending that stupid prom, with a woman.