"Half Closet" by Emma Deimling
Eliza found her secrets in an old cardboard box in the attic closet of her childhood home with a note written in her hand on the lid, reading: ‘For a rainy day.’
She couldn’t quite remember when she had hidden away the scraps of paper ink-stained with splotchy half-thoughts and erased half-desires she would never dare say out loud. Maybe it had been when she had first refused to realize who she really was, or maybe it had been when she first let herself be who she really was.
Eliza shut the closet door behind her and knelt before the box, slipping her fingers over the water-stained edges. Silence pressed in around her, muffled with faintly remembered confessions and depressed admonishments. Being inside a closet again felt like wearing something that no longer fit right—a little too big, a little too tight. “Why?” she whispered. But the box gave up none of her discarded secrets.
She shouldn’t have been in the class in the first place. She wasn’t in the major (which was a requirement) and she wasn’t in the concentration (which was also a requirement). But months after registration, a friend had informed her that—impossibly—there was a seat left in the advanced art course. She waited a week before emailing the professor, working up the nerve to be turned down for something she didn’t know before that week she desperately wanted. Somehow, thirty minutes later, she was in. It felt to her that the world was playing a sick joke on her, still felt so when she walked into the classroom on the first day. One look at Phoebe Miller and she knew her gut feeling was right. The world was playing a joke, and it was all on her. Phoebe was beautiful in all the ways Eliza wasn’t; short-cropped hair ruffled, ripped jeans stained with marker, skin glistening like gold in the sunlight sifting through the blinds behind her. Eliza knew she needed to stop staring before someone noticed, before she herself noticed. And yet, she didn’t.
Through the whole class, Eliza watched as Phoebe remained scrunched up in the back corner of the classroom, not once glancing up from her computer. The only movement the girl made was to doodle with a pink sharpie on her jeans—a looping swirl that somehow by the end of class metamorphosized itself into a rose. It was only when the rest of the class began to leave that Eliza realized she hadn’t heard a single word the professor had said, her heart too loud in realizing what it wanted.
Eliza’s first date was with a boy her mother had tricked into believing he needed a library card, and the only way he could get one was with Eliza’s help. “It’s not a real date,” her mother had insisted when Eliza had objected. “But he is a nice boy. A very nice boy.”
So Eliza, after securing said nice boy with a library card, found herself on a supposedly fake date. The nice boy didn’t seem at all aware that this was in fact anything but a real date as they sat facing one another in a corner of the children’s book section. Eliza gave up trying to get a word in five minutes in. He never stopped talking. First, he had started out as a little awkward and sort of cute, but after an hour of said nice boy first deprecating her own mother, then explaining in detail how much he hated Mexican food, and finally onto politics where he was a firm believer that women should not have equal pay—Eliza had never been so horrified in her life. “So,” the nice boy had chirped, “wanna go get some Mexican food?”
Later, when she had exploded to her mother about said nice boy’s manners and opinions, her mother had waved it all away. “He was just nervous. That’s all. You should give him a second chance.”
But Eliza hadn’t given him a second chance.
All she could think about whenever she recalled her first and only fake date, was how she had just sat there and stared. All she could think about was how she had repeated the same three words over and over in her mind. I like girls.
When Eliza was a teenager, she started catching herself glancing at other girls out of the corner of her eye. Everyone told her it was because she wanted to look like them, to be as pretty as them. And for years, she believed it. But she found herself always getting confused wanting to look like so many different girls, some that it wasn’t even possible to look like (how could she, the girl who in sixth grade was nicknamed “albino” ever look like Lupita Nyong’o?). It would take years for her to finally realize that she didn’t want to look like them. She wanted them to look at her.
Eliza hadn’t intended to attempt to come out to her mother sitting in her car at a Sheetz gas station as they waited for the tank to fill up. They had been discussing the clubs she might join, the people she had yet to meet but desperately wanted to.
“I’m thinking of joining the Pride club,” Eliza said offhandedly.
Her mother snorted. “But you’re not gay, Eliza.”
She was about to respond like she always had with yes, I know—but the words caught in her throat. Caught and caught and wouldn’t come out.
“Eliza, you’re not gay,” her mother said a little too firmly.
She closed her eyes as the wrong words spilled from her lips. “I think I’m bi. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s okay. Eliza.”
Hesitantly, she reopened her eyes as her mother continued. “It’s okay. I love you no matter what.”
Something inside her began to unknot. Maybe things were going to be okay. Maybe she hadn’t made an awful mess of everything like she always did.
“Is this because of that playwriting class?”
The knot tightened once again in her chest, the prison wall she had carefully put up around herself snapping back into place. The playwriting class she took her freshman year of college was an experience she would forever cherish—a ragtag group of college students who were a whirlwind of different sexualities. “No, Mom. It’s not because of the playwriting class. I just—I don’t know.”
Her mother’s lips twisted. “How do you not know—?”
“I guess when I have a girlfriend, you’ll know,” she cut in, the rest of her words dying on her lips.
They didn’t speak of it again until the next morning. Eliza had woken up with the taste of decay in her mouth as if her little secret had finally worked its way onto the tip of her tongue and decided to rot.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” her mother began as she stirred an overly large pot of vegetable soup. “And I think you just need to meet some nice boys. “
Eliza flinched as she rifled through the refrigerator. “Just forget it. Forget I even said anything. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I didn’t change your mind, did I?” her mother asked, setting the spatula down. Eliza shut the fridge. No, Mom, she thought. Telling me I need to meet some nice boys couldn’t possibly change my sexuality.
“No, Mom,” she said instead, “you didn’t. Just forget about it.”
And her mother had.
But Eliza hadn’t. From then on, she was certain for the first time in her life. She wasn’t in the closet anymore. Not exactly in, not exactly out. But it didn’t matter. In her mind, she had faced the truth, even if that truth was only half out.
The first time Phoebe had spoken to Eliza had been eight weeks into the semester. She had pulled Eliza to the side after class, and Eliza thought she was going to faint from the two of them being so close. Her heart was fluttering against her ribcage like a bird attempting to burst through her chest and fly away.
“Do you have a problem with me?” Phoebe asked.
Eliza startled. “What?”
“You’re always staring at me,” she persisted, her hands fisting at her sides. “What? Does the way I dress, the way look bother you?”
Eliza knew all at once that there was such a thing as dying of humiliation. “What? No—”
“Look,” Phoebe said, drawing in a harsh breath. “You seem like a nice girl, but a bit of advice. Just because you like guys doesn’t make you more normal than me. Being different isn’t a bad thing.”
A choked laugh bubbled to Eliza’s lips. Phoebe’s mouth twisted. “You’re right,” she said before Phoebe could turn away. “I do like guys. And girls.” She squeezed her eyes shut. In that moment, she was so afraid—afraid of how Phoebe would look at her, afraid of what the world would be like. Afraid of herself most of all. She forced herself to continue. “I’m sorry I’ve been staring at you, but it’s just you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. It’s like you’re the sun and I’m Icarus with melted wings waiting to finally stop falling for you. I’m sorry.” She staggered backward without looking up. “I should go.”