Four years ago, I wrote a blog post called Room for Surprises, in which I mused about the complex, layered nature of human beings, how a person will always surprise you if you give them the chance. However, in reading it back and comparing it with recent events in my own life, I’m struck by a glaring lacuna—
We are often unknown even to ourselves.
By this I mean that every person has their little shady corners of the soul, and while in that post I focused on how it feels to discover these in the people close to you, even you cannot fully know yourself. There are hidden secrets, talents, desires within you of which you are mostly or completely ignorant—for now.
How could he not have known what he was capable of feeling for Vivaldo? And the answer drummed at him as relentlessly as the falling rain fell: he had not known because he had not dared to know. There were so many things one did not dare to know. And were they all patiently waiting, like demons in the dark, to spring from hiding, to reveal themselves, on some rainy Sunday morning?
James Baldwin, Another Country
It wasn’t on a rainy Sunday morning that mine sprung from hiding. It was on a beautifully sunny day in mid-June. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but if you want to trace it back to the beginning, that’s when it started—the day a lesbian fell in love with a man.
I had always thought I had a pretty good sense of myself. When I was feeling rotten, which I often was, I always knew why. And when I realised I was gay, I didn’t see it as a surprise, really, as strange as that is to say, since I didn’t assume I was straight to begin with. I hadn’t had any sexual or romantic feelings whatsoever, so I just thought of myself as a blank slate. I noticed my attraction to girls as a young teen and while I certainly did agonise over it, I didn’t feel like I had lost touch with myself—rather, I felt like I really knew who I was, which was why it was so hard to stay in the closet.
Coming out felt like a weight was lifted off my chest. And I truly do mean that. I was so surprised at the physicality of it: I felt lighter, looser, like I had lost fifty pounds or been let out of handcuffs. For the next four years, I lived my life as an out lesbian, which in practise didn’t really change much. I didn’t wear rainbows and I never dated, and most times I rarely thought about being gay, which to me was a luxury all in itself. I was never repulsed by men the way other lesbians seemed to be, but then my libido worked in a weird way—I wasn’t so much sexually attracted to a person as I just became aroused and then looked for whoever was around to fill the need.
It started in a dream, the way many things from the subconscious begin their circuitous journey to our waking mind. A dream about sleeping with a man. The only sex dream I’d ever had—at the time I just found it odd. I thought maybe my brain was processing a movie I’d watched earlier or a story a friend told me about a hookup. Maybe it was. But for some reason I couldn’t shake it. I started looking at men on the street, on TV, at work—looking in a way I’d never looked before—and thinking, Could I? Could I want that? And the second half of the question… Could I want that and not even know it?
I won’t be crude. Suffice it to say that after a surprisingly short period of deliberation, I decided the only way to know was to try. So I tried. And… it was okay. And I tried again, with another guy, and it was better. And I tried again and I knew.
This threw me into a crisis. I was living as a lesbian, my family and all my friends knew I was gay, and I was sleeping around with men. One time and I had plausible deniability. Twice and it would start to look weird. More than that and the identity I had assumed for myself was on thin ice, and cracking from the pressure.
I had no especial attachment to the label of lesbian, except for the fact that for me it was hard-won. I never saw myself as part of “the community,” but now that I faced the possibility of being exiled from it, I felt like I was abandoning the minority and going to join the oppressors. The real question, though, the one that pestered me and kept me up at night, was: How could I not have known?
Here’s where we return to the title of this post. The unknown self. The parts of ourselves that we simply cannot know, either because we are unable or unwilling or just not ready to know them. The demons in the dark, waiting patiently to spring from hiding on some rainy Sunday morning.
It wasn’t raining, but it was morning, technically, when I met him. Quarter to noon. At this point I knew I wasn’t a lesbian anymore, but I couldn’t settle on a label, and to be honest I was still grieving the loss of the one that I thought had fit me. I had the distinct sensation of being outside the edges of the map. People expect you to be sure of yourself when you come out, for that to be your identity and for it to never change. I felt stupid for being wrong about myself, and confused about how it was possible—had I been a lesbian for those years I had lived as one? Or had I just been a bisexual woman in denial? Not to mention, most people realise they like both men and women after identifying as straight, not after identifying as gay. I felt like an outlier in the way these stories go, the ones about self-discovery and loving who you are.
That’s where my head was. But I met him, and our first date lasted ten hours. When I went to bed that night, I felt so happy I wanted to scream. And now I’m in love with a man, and I suppose that means I’m bisexual, a Kinsey 4 if you want to be technical about it, but I’m not so concerned with labels as I used to be. There was a time when knowing everything about myself seemed like the most important possible thing; like if I could quantify and classify every part of my being, I could really understand who I was.
I know now that that’s not how it works. We all have room for surprises.