Steph and I stepped off her stoop on West 123rd Street on a bright blue Sunday morning. Brownstones baked in the sun. We held hands so tight the skin between my fingers hurt from the effort. We were a quick two weeks into a giggling, hungry, timid togetherness we would refuse to call “dating” for another two months. Steph was half Chinese, exactly my height, and the most beautiful woman I had ever seen that close.
I’d begun coming out barely six months prior and spent the intervening time being too petrified to flirt: The possibility of expressing interest in a woman who turned out not to be queer was too terrible to bear. Besides, I didn’t know how. All those years of postpubescent social trial and error certainly hadn’t prepared me for this, for women. I went straight into platonic mode with female people, and resetting that turned out to be a matter of will, not just desire.
When Steph and I met at a loud, dark bar, I shocked myself by asking for her number like it was nothing, like I’d done that before. Now here I was holding her hand out on the street, another silent milestone to celebrate.
We walked slowly, in no rush to separate, rounding the corner at Lenox Avenue. I was due at NYU and she at Columbia. Both of our junior years had just begun.
The sidewalk in front of Atlah World Ministries was filled with black families chatting. Music drifted from the open church doors. An older man in a pinstripe suit spun a child in the air while ladies in stupendous pastel hats looked on. I was grinning sheepishly. A few heads turned as Steph led me by the hand, weaving through the crowd. I didn’t think to search for expression in their faces.
We stopped at the top of the subway stairs. Steph put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me quick, mouth closed, like the good-bye scene in a ’50s movie. Over her right shoulder, I noticed a large, middle-aged woman glaring and shaking her head.
“No! No!” she shouted from 10 feet away.
I yanked myself away from Steph. She was confused and scanned my face for an explanation. The woman’s pointer finger had been raised toward us, but now she dropped it to her son’s face. The boy, maybe 10 years old, stood in front of her, eyes wide in our direction. She pressed her palm into his right cheek and over his eyes, pushing his face to the left, into her stomach, away from us.
“That is disgusting. Disgusting! You are going to hell!”
I looked at the little boy’s cheek, skin bunched between his mother’s fingers. It was a few seconds before I connected the bitterness in the woman’s voice with me — with us. Steph saw where I was looking and shrugged. Her forehead wrinkled for a moment, but she recovered her calm smile.
“It happens,” she said. “Give it 10 years.” I managed a smile and she walked off toward Morningside Heights.
I envied her nonchalance. Steph had been out of the closet since she was 16. I was still working my way out of it.
I bolted down the subway stairs and immediately felt a twist in the pit of my stomach. The train car was packed. I wondered how many people had gotten on with me who had undoubtedly watched the scene outside. My short hair felt like a joke and everyone knew the punch line.
I am part of a historically persecuted group, I thought repeatedly, waiting for the idea to seem more plausible.
I stared at a copy of the New York Post strewn on the floor without registering any of the headlines. The train lurched and screamed.
The pit-of-stomach angst was altogether different from the queasiness that had become familiar in recent months and which had always started in my mouth. Each time I came out to another straight friend, I felt it. Seconds before the words tumbled out, every cell in my face crawled away from my lips, trying to suck the words back with them. The flash of nausea would be followed by intense joy and silence while I left my words where they fell. I’d wait to see what reaction my confession would receive from the friend, but I was mostly just thrilled to have purged it in the first place. That thrill was better than any high I’d known. I began to hoard come-outs and used them sparingly, savoring each one. It only worked if the person was close to me, if they’d known me deeply as a person who’d moved through the world straight. It was a very finite resource, and now, more than two years later, it has more or less run out.
The other kind of nausea, however, has not. Countless iterations of that Harlem morning have infected otherwise happy moments since, though they’re tempered some without the blunt trauma of complete surprise. I’ve come to understand the feeling as the flip side of coming out — its malformed, unwelcome cousin.
Steph and I never again held hands in Harlem on a Sunday, or in the part of Brooklyn where we live now, or after dark almost anywhere. Being out in public spaces is an exercise in managing reflexive dread. We get funny looks on the subway from strangers. Sometimes in bars a drunk man will lean on our barstools, hair gelled and a few top buttons of his collared shirt undone, and suggest we just haven’t found the right guy. The classic “Can I join in?” is popular among adolescents who lean out of cars, and once in a while, if there are enough potentially sympathetic people on the sidewalk with us, I’ll raise a middle finger as they drive away, which certainly helps. I have yet to develop Steph’s cool shrug in response, but the nausea is a ghost of itself now. I know I’m getting there.