That awkward straight-friend crush. Haven’t all teen lesbians lived that particular hell?
My upcoming novel, Here’s the Thing is about sixteen-year-old Zel, who returns to Australia after nearly a year in New York. And when she moves she’s forced to leave her best friend, Prim, behind. This is extra devastating for Zel because for almost the entire time they’ve been friends, Zel has been harbouring a mammoth, unrequited crush on her.
And, even worse, the whole time she’s been caught up in her angst-ridden obsession over Prim, Prim doesn’t seem to have the slightest clue.
I really wanted to write about those awkwardly thin friendship/crush lines that gay girls can sometimes find themselves dealing with as teenagers. And sure, I know nearly every teenager, straight or gay or otherwise, comes up against the unrequited crush (unless, of course they are one of those one in a million hot folk who spent all their time being a crushee). It’s almost as if developing high-end feels for someone who is clueless to it (or worse, ignoring it) is a mandatory, painful growing up experience.
But I also think when you’re gay there are even more factors making these infatuations particularly excruciating (and statistically more likely for them to be unrequited). It’s just the product of some simple, inevitable maths.
Teenage you + hormones
Teenage you + brand spanking new feelings for girls
Teenage you + mostly female friends.
Teenage you + statistical likelihood of feeling inexplicable attraction to someone unsuitable
Teenage You + Mostly female friends + their statistically probable heterosexuality
Totally statistically higher incidence of awkward friend crush.
I wanted to write the supreme awkwardness of that kind of crush because a) it’s supremely awkward, but also b) because, if the sad sorry tales of me, my friends, and the internet are anything to go by, it has happened to so many budding, baby lesbians.
This is Zel’s particular hell in Here’s the Thing. Unlike Zel, I never had a thing for my best friend, thank God (though we did make out at a party once. But then I also kissed a gay male friend that night too (well he came out to me as gay five minutes after (I do not take this personally. Really, I am hindsight envious that he was steps ahead of me in figuring his stuff out)) Also, please let me please say right now that I did not do that kind of thing often. Read: ever. It was just a particularly crazy party). Anyway, I loved my best friend to pieces, but not like that. There were no confused feelings for her.
But I definitely had crushes on other straight female friends in high school. In fact some friendships were actually built on the fact that I had crushes on the girl involved. But they happened in that excruciating way when you have them where you didn’t know you were having them because you didn’t even know you were gay yet. All you knew was that you had this really intense need to be around them, to be really important to them, and to be the repository of all their secrets. My high school years were peppered with these intense little ‘friendships’. There was the bland but cute German exchange student, whose departure at the end of semester I mourned more than I needed to. There was Angie, tough and cool and well over six foot (I was crushed when I found out she was dating the drama teacher (who only just cracked five foot, btw)) who I worshipped. There was the other Angie, one of our gym coaches, cute as a button, and sweet to boot.
But let me be (retro-embarrassed and) clear when I say I had NO idea I had actual lesbian crushes on these girls. Not a clue. I wish I can remember exactly how I explained these total fascinations to myself back then, or if I even tried, because I had to be pretty clueless not to realise. In fact, you’ll fully comprehend the spectacular stupidity of my inability to see these obsessions for what they were when I tell you that one of my closest friends had a girlfriend at the time. So it’s not like I didn’t know lesbians existed. I just didn’t know it existed for me yet.
All those other straight girl crushes were fleeting. But then there was Claudia. The big one. The kahuna of straight girl crushes. It lasted about a year. European, slightly goth, and delicately pretty, she was a year older than me. She had this uber-adult manner, actually looked cool smoking, and was constantly cheating on her painfully cool (for our suburban nightmare world) boyfriend with another male friend of ours. But because she had that sophisticated, worldly it girl (again, for our suburban nightmare world) thing going on, we didn’t think of it as cheating or selfish. Instead she was simply a victim of her own allure, torn between two competing, broody (read: sulky emo) boy loves.
Claudia and I had found ourselves washed up in the same pack of like-minded fringe dwellers around the time I was in Year 10. We were all the creative weirdos, clocking our school time in art studios and darkrooms and rehearsal spaces, and peppering our gossip with talk about indie books, bands and movies. That was about all Claudia and I had in common. She was cool and pretty and fragile-thin, and knew when to open her mouth. I was skinny (bony—not the good kind), plain and loud. But there must have been something she liked, because we started hanging out.
Most of the time, we’d sit under her back veranda, where she would smoke cigarettes and we’d talk about nothing. Or we roamed in packs with the rest of our band of weirdos, looking for a house where parents weren’t home to gather. The rest of the time we did the things that suburban teenagers who do not fit the boxes do: we sat in bedrooms and listened longingly to our musical idols and watched indie films and wondered how we could be like these people whose lives we envied. We talked about living in the city one day, and aspired to a level of hipster-dom that could not be achieved in the outer, beige, reaches of Nowhere, Melbourne.
Even before she was caught doing the dirty on her bf, Claudia was constantly embroiled in relationship DRAMAS. And I was always there, by her side, listening, being there for her (read: hanging onto her every word and praying she’d dump both guys but not being quite sure why I wanted her to). It all seemed so mature and important back then. I listened to her crap goth music, and pretended to share her retro-love of The Cure and Nick Cave. I walked the long way home each night just to hang out with her longer. And the whole time there was this longing, but I didn’t know what for. God I was dumb.
She stopped talking to me at some point. I don’t even remember why. There were so many dramas in our friendship circle. It was probably some misdeed that involved me big-mouthing about something connected to all her boyfriend drama (most of my teen crimes involved me opening my big mouth at the wrong time). I was devastated for a while, but then moved on. Probably to another crush. I don’t remember. I was drifting toward other social groups at the time, anyway, but had maintained my loyalty to her.
I am one hundred per cent positive Claudia didn’t realise I had a crush on her at the time. She was so used to being generically worshipped, and maybe too self-involved to think or care why I was suddenly there at her elbow ALL. THE. TIME. But I still wonder if it was a relief for her to get away from me and my intensity, even if she didn’t know why. I, of course, figured it out later, during all that retrospection you do over this stuff when you’re finally getting a clue about your sexuality.
I saw her again, years after we finished high school. One of our friends (the boy she cheated with, actually) was getting married. The first of our tribe to walk the aisle. I was to be his best ‘man’ and Claudia was to be the wedding photographer. One day, after checking out the wedding venue, we stopped by her brown brick suburban home where she lived with her fiancée so they could discuss the photography. On seeing the adult version of her, the crush felt like this distant ‘was that really me? Was that really her?’ thing. In a handful of years, her life had turned from edgy black to beige. She had become, like so many of those teenage muses, dull. Suburban, engaged at 23, and in a boring retail job she hated. She harboured nothing of that painfully cool energy she did back then.
And even though she’d completely cut me off in high school, I was friendly that night. It didn’t even occur to me not to be. There was no point. I was happy with my life, and we were so much older. I had a girlfriend now. But, even better, I had the confidence that came with knowing yourself better. And I also knew what Claudia had been to me. Only now there was not one single trace of those feelings that had once made being around her both exquisite and excruciating remaining. She was just a girl I knew once.
Claudia was barely polite to me, though. And I remember feeling a flicker of pride, instead of hurt. Because I knew exactly what that snub was about. She was jealous of me. This girl I’d pined after and who’d rejected me completely (without even knowing it), was envious. I had done all the things we’d talked about. I’d moved to the city, I saw live bands every weekend, I’d gotten a cool bar job and travelled overseas and found friends who liked the same stuff we did back then. And she was one suburb from where I’d left her.
I’m not going to lie. It felt good.
I often wonder, with her knowing I’m gay now (I assume she knew by then—someone would have gossiped), did she look back at that friendship, at that intense person who was always around her, and realise? Had I been a lovesick puppy enough back then for it to reveal itself via the 20/20 vision of hindsight? Even then, years later, I hoped she didn’t. If I didn’t get to know back then, I didn’t want her to know now.
When it comes to these awkward lesbian straight-friend crushes I’m not sure why some girls figure their gay shit out, and some, like me, lived in that weird limbo of having them but not knowing it. But they’re painfully inevitable and inevitably painful either way. Unless, of course, you’re one of the one in a million people it actually works out for. And if so, congratulations. Please understand the angst bullet you dodged there.
In Here’s the Thing, Zel had gone through the same kind of unconscious crush angst in her past, but by the time she meets Prim, things are different. She knows she’s gay, and she realises quickly that the feeling for her friends are not the regular friend feelings. And she also knows that this kind of a crush can be its own special kind of hell. But also, because she’s more of a risk-taker and a heart-on-her-sleeve kind of girl than I ever was, she deals with it differently to me in the book. Because it’s her story, not mine.
But no matter how you deal with it, or whether you know they are happening, these kinds of crushes can be excruciating, and hard, and every lesbian friend I have says she went through some version of this angst as a teen at least once (if not often). Because sometimes, when you’re coming out, negotiating the lines between friendship and romance can be some of the most painful things you’ll have to do. Who knows, if you’re super lucky, it will work out. But if you’re like most of us, it won’t. But it will get better. And at some point, and hopefully soon, you will find a girl who likes you as much as you like her.
Emily O’Beirne is a writer of LGBT young adult fiction. Check out her books below.
Recent stories: “My Top personal Ten LGBT young adult stories“
Here’s the Thing is due to be released on October 19.
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The A Story of Now Series is available for purchase in hard copy of eBook at Ylva Publishing, or on Amazon.
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