I like to joke that I-94 and I-80 are my second homes. I’ve spent thousands of miles on them, miles that trade scenery for ease — hop on and drive, no directions needed. The “check engine” light on the dashboard of my old car kept me company, a constant presence lingering in the corner of my vision. It was accompanied by a symphony of other warning lights who came and went as they pleased. My brain felt a lot like that dashboard: internal problems and topics I didn’t understand simmering away under layers of metal and avoidance.
“It’s when the lights aren’t flashing that something’s actually wrong,” I’d profess to nervous passengers with a laugh. “She runs just fine.”
Of course, she didn’t. My car, referred to by friends as “the Deathbox,” eventually ended up in the shop, a mechanic instructing my parents to never let me drive it again. “The frame’s rusted out,” the mechanic told them. “If she gets hit, the car will basically disintegrate.”
Turns out, an inadvertent car crash is what happens when you bushwack through life on someone else’s rules. I’d had warning lights simmering in my body for years, finally coming into themselves during my first years of college. My warning lights looked like nervous shots of Svedka in my dark kitchen while my boyfriend drove to my house, my first time looming, unspoken, between us. It’s easier when you’re drunk, obviously. And more fun. Or, later, anxiety attacks on the cold concrete floor of my workplace, my body pulled to the ground by guilt and shame after hooking up with a longtime male friend. Or a journal page, folded away from even my closest friends, where I’d written, “I feel as if sex is something I owe to my partner — I’m not doing it against my will, but I don’t understand how it’s supposed to make me feel.” Or finishing a movie next to a boyfriend, wondering how long I could watch the screensaver camera pan over the Sahara before we’d have to go to bed. I felt defective. I shook during every physical interaction, a small but noticeable tremble, and I told partners to ignore it.
And ignore it, we did. Following my friend’s examples, I tried everything to fix this part of me. I pined after a friend for two years, went on an almost-blind date that turned into a six-month relationship, even initiated a friends with benefits situation during my semester abroad (trying everything doesn’t quite lend itself to originality). Each was manageable — which isn’t the same as enjoyable.
I thought casual hookups would be empowering — in a society that profits off women’s sexualization through advertising but punishes them for taking ownership of their bodies through sex work, casual dating and hookup culture makes more sense. Women don’t need a relationship, which deems sex appropriate and private, to enjoy themselves. I’ll shout from the rooftops about sex positivity, and actually have, but it wasn’t helping me get anywhere.
I never had a successful relationship in high school, and I find it perplexing that some people start college with zero relationship experience and others come convinced they’d already found their life partner. What an odd world to enter: By age and education level college students are mostly on the same page, but emotionally, we’re all over the map.
At 18, I was convinced I was emotionally and sexually stunted, and that was no way to enter college. The spring of my senior year, a friend and I spent our afternoon watching the girls’ tennis matches, then drifted over to the risers next to the baseball field. She’d been dating the same person for several years, and still is, though we’ve lost contact. At the time, I found her long-term relationship baffling and jealousy-inducing.
“Isn’t a part of you, even a tiny part, just, like, internally screaming the whole time?” I asked.
“Uh,” she said, visibly confused. “No, I think that’s just you.”
And before my mother makes a note in the margin saying, You’re 18. Eighteen. Still in high school. Calm down. I can’t help it. My brain stampedes forward, content only when worrying over what I’m doing wrong.
As I was heading into college and hookup culture, including casual dating, friends with benefits and the inevitable “talking” stage my generation is famous for, I didn’t know how any of it worked. For me, it was more like watching a movie with my high school boyfriend in our basement, my parents asleep upstairs because they trusted me. They were right not to worry — not because I was responsible, but because I couldn’t cuddle with my own boyfriend without that inevitable tremble. I felt afraid of something, but I had no idea what it was.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
Years later, I spent a summer pandemic night driving from Ann Arbor to St. Joseph. Technically, my body was controlling the car: my right hand on the bottom of the steering wheel, my left foot shoeless, propped up on the seat, knee resting against the door. Some of my brain understood I was on a highway, but most of it had checked out miles ago, wandering off beyond my control. It was picturing a future — mine, apparently — but in the hazy, slow-motion montage Hollywood adores. A highlight reel had surfaced from my subconscious, ready to debut years of secret musings. The reel spun, revealing scenes of my life, only with one key change: In every scene, a woman was next to me.
Aided by semi truck headlights and my own anxiety, I tried to scrape my brain away from its own movie. A woman? That doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t name any woman that I’d been sexually attracted to, any time during hookups I’d imagined that scenario or any “sexual awakening” queer people laugh about. And yet, the big picture made immediate sense. The rest would follow, I assumed.
I pulled into my parents’ driveway, parking my Subaru in a tangible place I knew well, while falling into an intangible world I’d accidentally unearthed — a wonderland, still to be determined.
A woman? I turned the car off.
Well, shit. I guess I better do something about that.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I never considered I might be queer. Actually, I had thought about it and reported to my mom that I was “hopelessly straight” in a phone call we now laugh about.
The idea that I could be someone else always existed, of course. I watched several friends from high school disappear into their lives, deep in college or a new city, before emerging with a same-sex partner. Their initial Instagram photo, showing a happy couple, seemed to be posted with ease, taking its place in a grid of photos peppered with ex-boyfriends. Later, I went back to these people’s profiles, looking at the thin white lines between their posts. That’s where the real work lies: the therapy appointments, whiskey-laced confessions of wanting to kiss girls, rehearsing coming out moments, unpacking hookups with partners that felt obligatory and quiet assumptions we make based on what feels real.
The idea that I could be someone other than who I’d always been was liberating, but mostly alarming. I had 10 years of culture — social media, Hollywood, the internet, music — teaching me how to think about and pursue heterosexual relationships. I knew what straight sex “looked” like when I was far too young. I spent my teenage years learning what made me attractive or unattractive, how to do my makeup to be deemed pretty, what clothes can say about my body, what to post on social media, what makes someone “easy,” what makes someone desirable, what to do before, during and after sex and maybe the worst part: that we’re supposed to enjoy it all. More than once, I ended up on my therapist’s couch wondering what was wrong with me. There was the physical aspect, but also that internal scream I hadn’t yet figured how to quiet.
In college, I put the knowledge to use. I followed the rules. My old journals drone on for pages about my body and letting other people see it, people who weren’t picking it apart inch-by-inch but it didn’t matter. I’d do it for them. I’d long figured out how to dress myself to cover everything I hated — years of scars from summers spent outside paired with parts of my body that just never felt right. I’ve spent a long time with just myself, I wrote, not feeling like I need to have my body ready for someone else. I turned the lights off and kept my eyes closed.
I grew up in a world that sees women as a commodity, dispensable if not perfect. And I bought into it, largely passively, letting it fester and rot my sense of self into oblivion. I pressured myself into being palatable and desirable for others. I hear my mother’s voice again. Annie, you’re 22. You can’t talk in the past tense like you’ve got it all figured out — of course, I’m not done. But naming it is the first step. And one day, all those rules I was taught will be obliterated.
Except, all that knowledge I find completely toxic had been my safe space for years. I hated that I knew what I was “supposed” to do, but I also relied on it to get me through six years of dating men.
I had no rulebook on how to date women, and for once, I desperately wanted one.
I ended up back on my therapist’s screen complaining that I’d already gone through the years of anxiety before my first time with a male partner, and here I was doing it all again. I threw a tantrum in the privacy of my one-bedroom apartment, read Glennon Doyle’s “Untamed,” and downloaded TikTok, whose algorithm decided I was queer in about ten minutes.
And I can’t lie, the miles of videos I scrolled through helped. I hadn’t come out yet — I didn’t even know what to come out as. But now I could learn this new world. It involved several trips to Urban Dictionary as I learned the lingo and new Spotify playlists of queer artists, kept secret. After a couple weeks, two things grew: the fire under my ass and imposter syndrome.
I called one of my good friends, Olivia, who’d already walked this road. I like to say we met 15 years later than we should’ve. She barreled into my life at full force, a perfect mess of black curls and red lipstick, the confidence I only dreamed of having and stories of ex-boyfriends in Chicago and Grand Rapids, men who were years older, heartbreaks that had shattered her. When she turned up one day with a girlfriend, not one part of me was surprised. Liv does what she wants.
“I think I might like girls,” I said, pacing around my apartment, a glass of honey whiskey in my left hand. The hazy image I’d seen on my drive was encouraging but didn’t give me much to start with.
“Well, obviously,” she laughed. “I’ve known that for five years.”
“What? What do you mean? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You had to figure it out for yourself!” she said, still giggling. “I’ve been waiting!”
Are you f-cking kidding me.
Obviously, she was right — about both things. I gave myself a few minutes to lament the past six years of boy-induced stress, but it doesn’t take a therapist to know that of course, I wouldn’t have ended up frantically calling my friends, asking about women, asking if it made sense, without those years.
Over the next six months, the pieces would start falling into place. I did fall in love with someone. It wasn’t easy, and it ended sooner than we both wanted. But it was finally the right kind of hard, the kind Glennon Doyle wrote about. I spent two days straight with her, and wanted more, when I’d once considered four hours with a boyfriend too much. I’d find my hands in hers or resting on her legs, always quietly reaching for her. We discussed body image long before taking our clothes off, savoring each other’s empathy. We ate dinner on the Chicago river, unpacking our internalized homophobia. My scream quieted.
By mid-September, a safe distance after my I-94 awakening, I decided it was time to tell my parents. It was mostly prompted by the large pride flag hanging from the flower box outside. I’d ordered it in late summer, feeling like I’d graduated to a new level in the gay world. It came twice as large as expected, and I was three nails deep in the layers of white paint before realizing ripping it down was the only way to hide it. So I called them.
While the phone rang, I typed a quick script into my Notes app. Hi, Mom. I just wanted to let you know I’m dating someone. Her name is Emma.
Even from the first realizations, I knew this step would be much less painful than other people’s. I’m incredibly lucky. My parents taught me to work hard but also to play hard, that nothing good ever happens after midnight and that inclusion makes us better. But when your kid calls and complains about being straight, then five months later phones with the opposite message, a certain amount of whiplash is permitted.
I’m not a parent, of course, but I do have two and a decent prediction of how they’d react. My mother taught me how to write, gave me a loud voice and strong opinions and an expectation that I’d use them. My dad taught me that the first step to solving most problems is listening to music while drinking a beer in the sun, our favorite activity. She had an idea of how my life would go; my dad wanted me to be safe, secure and happy. It took her a few minutes to mourn the life she’d envisioned for me. I’d done the same, though in the privacy of my own mind. My parents are not the type of people to teach you something they don’t believe in themselves, and their reactions to my phone call only proved that. Neither of them missed a beat. The future I assumed I’d inhabit, built by familial and societal expectation, plus watching my friends graduate and move into the world, following the rules we’re taught based on what we decided is normal, no longer seemed so inevitable.
I’d like to think my mother realized that my habit of incessantly questioning my surroundings and pressing for better ones came from her. Something like this was bound to happen. My dad never cared who I brought home, as long as that person treated me well and appreciated a good red wine. My parents fell asleep upstairs because they’d put a good head on my shoulders and trusted I’d use it to unlearn the rules of the world we’d all grown up in.
Compulsory heterosexuality is a tricky thing. I’d retreated from normal dating situations, believing I was always better off alone, that something was fundamentally wrong, that it was my fault. I built amazing friendships with men I love dearly, but friendship seemed to be all I was capable of.
In an ideal world, our lives would mirror the narrative structure we’re taught in elementary school. After that drive down I-94, I’d fall in love with a girl, my body would relax, my brain would rest. I’d be normal.
When Glennon Doyle’s life took a sharp left turn, she was more frustrated that her book’s plot had been ruined than her life. In the past six months, my scream has softened, but it didn’t disappear. I still keep the lights off whenever possible. And every once in a while, a tremble trickles out of my body, remembering the years that it protected me.
Be here now, my therapist tells me. And I add: Take up space. Trust your body. Nothing good ever happens after midnight (well, maybe 2 a.m, Dad). Ask questions and be grateful for the answers — especially when they’re not perfect.
Statement Correspondent Annie Klusendorf can firstname.lastname@example.org.