GROWING, ABRIDGED | Zoe Paskett takes a journey of discovery that leads to self-acceptance.
by Zoe Paskett
Summer holidays, 2005(ish)
Ben’s parents have left for the evening, but not before his dad set up tents for us in the garden. We don’t know where they’ve gone and don’t care – all we know is that we’ve got a few hours before they get back and now we’re alone with the boys. The boys.
Nick was my boyfriend last year for about three months. He broke up with Carla because he liked me. We texted a lot and didn’t kiss at all. We held hands once at opening night of the upper school play and I told Jenny about it afterwards and we giggled as though it was the biggest thing in the world. We decided I was probably in love with him and then she helped me dump him a few weeks later by SMS. He’s here tonight and now I’m ready to do that kissing thing, I suppose.
We like Ben but we don’t fancy him. Same with Jake. Lots of girls fancy Billy but none of them is going to get with him. They’re all pretty good at playing the guitar, which is a really cool instrument. I can only play the violin and, yes, I might have taken my grade seven last year but no one thinks you’re fit because you can play the violin. Boys who can play the guitar are great. That’s everything you need to know about the boys.
Jenny and Liv are the other girls here. Jenny has a boyfriend at a different school to these guys so she’s pretty chilled about the whole thing. And Liv. Everyone fancies Liv.
We’ve raided Ben’s parents’ cupboard for alcohol – just enough that they won’t notice it’s gone, which is more than enough to get us drunk. I pretend to drink as much as the others, but I hate the taste so it’s easier to fake it. They’re all too busy pretending as well to notice.
Activities for the evening include: watching the boys play guitar, watching the boys play video games, eating crisps, lying on the trampoline and creating constellations, having one-on-one DMCs (deep, meaningful conversations) with each person on rotation in various places around the garden, a lot of giggling.
I have the chance to kiss Nick but I don’t take it. There’s a moment in one of the tents when we’re looking at each other and neither is saying anything. There’s so much teenage sexual tension between us but I start to think that none of it is mine. I don’t think about him very much after this.
Later on, I tell this to Liv. She shows no surprise but she leans in very close. So close that it terrifies me. I jump up and run out of the tent to join the others. It was just a bit of fun, she says as I leave. Any desire I had to kiss Nick is gone and I will think about this moment on and off for the next ten years.
Late spring, 2011
The beach stretches from the north of the city to the south and you can just about walk the whole thing on the edge of the water. There are some parts where the sand gives way to huge, slippery rocks but, if you’re wearing the right shoes and the wind is low, you can clamber over pretty easily. That distance is about double the amount of time it takes me to fall for her.
We reach the rocks. She steps up, her sandal slipping a little on the stone, but she doesn’t falter. She turns around and stretches out her hand. The orange evening light hits the side of her face, illuminating freckles and blonde streaks in her hair. A slight breeze blows salt in between us. The smell is so intoxicating I can almost feel it with my fingertips as I take her hand. She pulls me up to join her and smiles just a little. Not a full smile that she shares with me, but one just for herself, as though she knows something I don’t. It makes me shiver and I like it. We stand there, shoulder to shoulder, until the sun disappears behind the ocean.
First year, second term, 2012
He doesn’t get what I’m saying at all. I am completely unprepared and stutter out unnecessary explanations. His expression is so accusatory that I can’t meet his eyes. Are you breaking up with me? he asks. I shake my head. Then why tell me this?
It’s the longest interrogation of my life, peppered with silences that sting. He strides about the tiny room as a detective determined to uncover my guilt. He grips his head in his hands as though it pains him to hear me incriminate myself. I look at the toothpaste-flecked mirror above the sink and imagine all of my friends and family standing behind it, watching, judging.
I should have prepared a statement, shouldn’t I? That’s how people do this. They work out what they want to say beforehand, so as to inflict as little hurt as possible on the people they love. We must prove that we’ve done nothing wrong, that we’re still the same person they knew seconds ago, that we love them like we always did.
But why does he get this courtesy, when I am afforded nothing of the like? All I get in return are accusations of infidelity, insecurity, confusion and attention-seeking. No love and no reassurance.
His jealousy is the first dose of resentment. It creeps insidiously through our bodies but I don’t realise until it’s too late. I’m infected. I spend the next year in an emotional coma, hearing life happening to me and never fully participating.
“Over time, I will confront this fear, and learn how to speak about it. When I do, I will realise that I was listening to the wrong people. Right now, though, I don’t know how to talk about it. No one has told me.”
Post-grad, new chapter, 2014
As we’re starting over, I think it’s time to clarify a few things. I promise you, I’m not embarrassed about being bisexual. But I have felt ashamed at times. I’ve wondered about what people have told me it means and laughed along when they made all those jokes you heard on The L Word. I’ve thought it strange that straight and gay people find hilarity in the same jibes, and tell you that neither wants you to be part of their gang unless you pick a side.
The thing I struggle with the most is saying the word ‘bisexual’ out loud. People only seem to hear the SEX part. Over time, I will confront this fear, and learn how to speak about it. When I do, I will realise that I was listening to the wrong people. Right now, though, I don’t know how to talk about it. No one has told me.
Marie and I meet at a cavernous wine bar in Covent Garden. It’s labyrinthine and we dart around trying to find each other, which turns out to be a good way to break the ice. It’s heaving, but we nab two seats on the same side of a table we share with a couple too engrossed to bother with us.
Our Tinder conversations have been going on for a little longer than I’d like, but she lives outside London so it’s been tricky pinning down a date. She’s come straight from netball. Her work clothes and sports clothes are in a massive duffle bag under the table, so there’s not much room for our feet. As the evening goes on and we twist to face each other, our knees don’t break contact.
It’s been about an hour and a half before we realise that the couple opposite us have left. We mightn’t have noticed at all had two suited men not sidled into the vacant chairs.
The room darkens as a wall rises between us and them. With every second, we place brick on brick to keep them out but they don’t notice. We’re on a date, we say. We don’t believe you, they say. We’re on a date. You’re just saying that to get us to leave. We’re on a date. That’s hot.
She presses her knee into mine with more urgency, and I reciprocate. We are like two punished schoolgirls sharing a joke while the teacher scolds us. I don’t need to look at her to know that there is no joke to share.
This happens every time I go on a date, she says, after they eventually give up and leave.
27 April, 2018
Janelle Monae releases Dirty Computer.
12 September, 2018
Janelle Monae performs at the Roundhouse in Camden. I am in the room. The next day she retweets me.
End of winter, 2019
My tiny bladder combined with the volume of beer I’m putting away means that I have to go to the loo approximately every twenty minutes. By midnight, I’ve danced with everyone in the toilet queue. The music is too good to miss, but, really, every person deserves to be danced with. Even while waiting to piss.
As small as the place is, there’s no acrimonious jostling. A small bump bears apologies from both sides, and maybe the circle doubles in size. I see familiar faces and strangers and feel close to them all.
I realise, for the first time since I was 14, that I can sing all of the words to Can’t Fight The Moonlight by Leann Rimes. So can everyone else. It’s a rare thing to be in a place where everything is happening in the right key. Where people turn and smile the same smile to each other, sharing a joke. I imagine that this is what most people experience nearly every day of their lives. I finally feel like I’m back on that beach, but, this time, I’m supposed to be there. I understand what she’s feeling.
The warm sunset bathes my beaming face.
My eyes are open now, and what I see is heavenly.
Zoe Paskett | @zoepaskett
Zoe is an arts journalist, writer and photographer from London, with a deep love for books and a hatred for displaying them backwards.