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I never didn’t know I was gay. As an overweight sixth grader with an unfortunate perm, I made my best friend a card that said “I love you” for Valentine’s Day. She made a similar one for me. But she made her boyfriend a poster-size cardboard heart with glitter glue letters that spelled out “I HEART you.” I wanted to be hearted.
As soon as I got to college, I came running out of the closet. At Brown University, I shaved my head, joined the ultimate Frisbee team, and sewed a rainbow flag patch on my backpack. I kissed some girls, and I fell in love for the first time—with a soft-spoken ultimate Frisbee player who didn’t shave her legs. I watched movies like “Go Fish” and read the Alison Bechdel comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” and was thrilled to have stumbled into a culture where my poor fashion sense and bad haircuts weren’t just ignored; they were rewarded.
I was the BDOC—the big dyke on campus—and when I hosted a viewing party to watch Ellen Degeneres come out on television, I had to borrow three television sets to accommodate the underclassmen who came from all over campus to watch.
As much as I understood and even commanded attention from gay girls, I had no clout in a straight world. Male friends talked to me as if I were one of the guys. Invariably, they crushed out on Heather, and she’d court their attention effortlessly. This intrigued me because I felt it eluded me. And though I had had sex by 22, I felt myself to be inexperienced in the world—somehow still a virgin of a sort—because I had not slept with a man. This was a secret thought I did not say even to Heather; it was not politically correct.
On one trip to Asia, all of this changed. For one, three weeks of intense physical labor after months of traveling had thinned me out. My collarbone protruded and the skirts I’d begun to wear fell off my frame. My hair had grown in silky and blonder than I’d remembered, and I’d replaced my glasses with contacts so I could wear sunglasses all day.
I noticed these differences from the outside in. Men on the street began to look at me. Fellow travelers hit on me. And I found myself hypnotized by a boy named Brian on a bus to Kathmandu.
When I was 22, I fell for Brian. I was a first-order lesbian fresh out of college and backpacking through Asia with my best friend. Brian was a 28 year-old Floridian schoolteacher who kept trying to catch my eye when I glanced up from my novel. I doubt I would have noticed him but for the fact that he was working circular knitting needles to form the perfect mouth of a woolen sock. A boy who knit.
I didn’t know very much about boys back then. I had never so much as kissed one. But I understood desire in many incarnations. I sat very still without looking up, and absorbed Brian’s gaze. It burned into the exposed flesh of my legs. I stole a glance at the maroon yarn tangled around his left leg. He had a hairy leg, a boyish leg, the leg of someone who—like me—had spent three weeks climbing a mountain without a hot shower. I followed his leg to the edge of his natty shorts and up to a bristling brown goatee above which I found his eyes. He met my smile.
We had just completed a 21-day Himalayan trek that took us over an 18,000-foot mountain pass. Before this trip, I had never been hiking. The world looks different when you get that high. The skies are a clearer blue, unpierced by airplanes and electric lights. The white snowy mountain peaks that seem so imposing from the ground become companions, a feathery softness belying occasional rumbling avalanches. On the hike up, I had perched myself on a slab of rock and a large bird swept down over me, its wings spread wider than the full expanse of my arms. I had seen none of this before.
I thought that if I could climb a mountain, surely I could talk to this guy. Next to me on the bus, Heather scribbled in her journal, occasionally flipping the tape in her plastic yellow Sony Walkman. Two rows behind me, Brian knit. I weighed my options for a moment, then moved across the aisle to plop myself down in the seat next to him. “What are you knitting?” I asked him. We inched toward each other making small talk as the hair on his leg brushed against my own.
It wasn’t hard to fall for Brian. He was a boy with heart. He told me he was the sixth of seven kids in an Irish family from Miami, and he rattled off their names—five brothers and a sister. He had been working abroad as a teacher for many years, first in Korea and then in Saudi Arabia, and he told me about the little Korean girl he taught to speak English. He had knit her a hat in the shape of a strawberry with a green yarn stem sprouting from the top.
The ride was long, and we stopped for a meal in a mountain town where farmers had recently shorn their herds of sheep that wandered the stepped fields. The wool had been spun into yarn and then dyed bright hues of purple and teal and red to become, eventually, those sweaters you buy in hippy stores in towns like Northampton and Asheville. In one of the only photographs I have of Brian from that time, he stands back in awe, his mouth open, gazing at the skeins. In my loopy adolescent handwriting, I’ve labeled it: “Brian looks longingly.”
Hours later, Brian offered to show me the strawberry cap he’d knitted. He pulled my elbow gently toward his room, and then knocked the door closed behind us with his foot. The brush of his heel on the door: that was how I knew what was coming. My stomach danced up and down. I leaned into him and before the hat ever materialized, we’d sunk on to his rickety twin bed.
At long last, my first boy kiss. It was clumsy and uncertain and then easy and then interesting. Brian was lumbering and gentle. We ventured awkwardly into sex. He pulled a condom from a drawer, and after a bit of fumbling we resumed position. Eventually, Brian fell asleep, but I did not. Instead, I turned the action over in my mind. I thought about the on-again-off-again girlfriend I’d left behind in the US. I remember there was a hole in the curtain above Brian’s bed. I settled my head into the crook of his shoulder and watched a spider crawl back and forth through it a dozen times.
Sometime after the sun came up, I slipped out of bed and made my way down to the front desk. A sign advertised phone calls to the United States for $4 a minute, half the price of a night’s lodging. I decided to call my girlfriend, who had moved to New York City when I left college to travel. It would be dinnertime in Manhattan, where she worked at a charter school. I let the phone ring six times. When the answering machine picked up, I listened to her voice telling me she wasn’t available. I don’t remember if I left a message.
That day, we made our way to the Boudhanath Stupa, a white circular temple that looms 118 feet in the air. Visitors—a few maroon-robed monks and a slew of westerners—circle it clockwise, massaging strings of wooden beads to release prayers as they stroll. We walked in silence. I tried to clear my mind, to meditate, but it was scratchy full. My pelvis ached. No one had told me sex with men hurt. It was the physical reminder that something had changed about me.
My lonely middle-of-the-night thoughts had vanished; in their place, I began nursing fantasies of a life I could make with Brian. I could have a boyfriend! We could play house and make curried chicken together and knit cosies for all of our kitchen appliances. Maybe even have a kid someday. My fingers worked their way through the beads on my string, and with each rotation around the stupa, my fantasies billowed larger.
Later in the afternoon, Brian showed up at my guesthouse. We were preparing to leave Kathmandu. We would follow the typical backpacker’s route south to the Indian border, check our passports to make sure our visas were up-to-date, and then head east. Our final destination was the tiny Northern town of Rishikesh. (After the Beatles dropped by to visit an ashram there long ago, the city became known as the World Capital of Yoga.)
In a rash move, I invited Brian to join us. He had plans to go south, but he agreed that in a week he’d jump a train by himself for the 17-hour journey to Rishikesh. It was a thinly laid plan—there was a lot that could go wrong. This was 1998, a time before cell phones and email. We both agreed we’d aim for a guesthouse that we’d read about in our Lonely Planet guidebook. I anticipated we’d have trouble finding each other. I didn’t anticipate my coming ambivalence.
India can make you tired. It is an assault on the senses. By the time we got to Rishikesh, I had contracted the infamous Delhi belly that results in permanent diarrhea. We’d spent hours shelved in sleeper train bunkbeds, clutching our backpacks to our chests so the porters wouldn’t steal them while we slept. I’d been overwhelmed by the smell of a dog throwing up in a cobble-stone Varanasi alley around the corner from the palm reader who told me I would marry at 27, make little money, and die at 80. On one ominous bus ride, I’d felt a poking sensation on my bum and looked behind me to see a man’s fingers wedged through the tiny crack in the upholstery.
Built along the green banks of the Ganges at the spot where it first emerges from the Himalayas, Rishikesh was to be our final destination before we headed back to the United States. By the time we reached the placid river pools, I had given up the idea of a love affair; I craved peanut butter sandwiches, Crest toothpaste, and the on-again-off-again girlfriend I’d left behind.
As it happened, we arrived a day before His Holiness the Dali Lama was scheduled to hold an audience at the local Ashram. The guesthouses were packed with sarong-clad westerners amassing for the event, and pop-up gift shops sold copies of “The Art of Happiness” for 37 cents. Our agreed upon guesthouse was full, but Heather and I settled nearby and hoped to run into Brian at the Ashram. Early the next morning, we headed up the hill to join the growing crowd.
It was far larger than I had imagined—a sea of white and brown faces wrapped in brightly colored cloth. After searching out Brian for some time, we gave up and settled in a sunny spot two-thirds of the way through the throngs and turned to our Buddhism primers to pass the time. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t tell if the queasy feeling in my belly was relief or disappointment. As I pondered this, a ball of maroon yarn hit my knee and bounced sideways, beginning to unravel. I followed the string to its source: Brian sat two rows behind me, working his needles to fashion another sock. Catching my eyes, he picked up a second ball of yarn and lobbed it straight at my head.
I don’t remember what the Dalai Lama talked about that afternoon, but I do remember that Brian smelled like Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap as he settled onto the blanket beside me. Even today, when I catch a whiff of it, I’m momentarily happy without thinking.
For the rest of our Rishikesh sojourn, Brian hung out with us. We did yoga and took hikes and read books in the sun. Sometimes, I felt so attracted to him that I wanted to wrap myself up in him to see if I could make the lines between our bodies blur; but when he tried to make a move, I rebuffed him. I blamed—or credited—my newly discovered Buddhism and yoga.
Instead of having the crazy passionate affair I’d envisioned, Brian and I spent long hours knitting. He taught me how. Sure, I knew how to hold the needles, but Brian showed me the difference between using wooden and aluminum ones. He explained the purl stitch, and showed me how to use a round needle to make the mouth of a sock. And when I invariably messed up, adding stitches to my rows, he told me not to fake it. I unraveled most of what I knit, beginning again and again.
Privately, I wrestled with my own competing desires; I longed for a simple affair that wouldn’t threaten my notions of my own sexuality, the bedrock of my identity. Instead, things felt complicated. I remember one particular afternoon. We’d just eaten our meal and been for a dip in the river, and we hiked into the woods to sit and enjoy the day. The pine needles felt itchy against the back of my bare legs as I settled against a tree. Brian was a few feet in front of me. My mind shot forward, and I tried to imagine Brian in New York. Could the life I left accommodate a knitting Floridian guy? And would this guy ever even consider coming along with me for the journey?
Memory can be highly uncertain and undependable, but I remember this thought with a great deal of clarity because it catapulted me into the next chapter of my life. I wanted to go home then. I missed the New York City subway and milky white deli coffee. I missed the girl I’d left.
Until this point, I had been purposefully vague with Brian about when Heather and I intended to leave. We discussed extending our trip, but I knew I didn’t want to do this. I couldn’t stay with him—and I didn’t want to tell him I was leaving him. Not just leaving him in India, of course, but leaving him. So I didn’t.
My life returned to something I recognized after that. I joined Teach for America and moved to New York. It was a crappy year. I lived in an apartment that had no bedroom window. I had 38 fourth-graders in my Harlem classroom. And I broke up with my girlfriend for a final time.
Sometimes I thought about Brian. I wanted to apologize. I considered trying to find him, but Google and Facebook did not yet exist. I’d written his parents’ mailing address down in my journal. But even if I were to write him a letter, what could I possibly say?
The following June, I decided to move to the Bay Area. My younger sister and I packed up my Honda Civic and we drove across the country together, taking two weeks to camp and hike and go white-water rafting. We arrived in San Francisco on a Tuesday evening and found a parking spot with a provident amount of ease right in front of a tacqueria in the Haight. The air smelled fresh and crisp as we unfolded our tired bodies from the front seat of the car.
In San Francisco you can get a burrito for just $3.99 that will feed you for two meals—more if you’re a light eater. I was explaining this to my sister as we walked into the joint and came face-to-face with the restaurant’s only other patron, Brian.
For a third time, we locked eyes. There were long moments of silence. Then he spoke: “Where the hell did you go?”
I could tell he wanted to be mad at me, but that same gentleness that won me over on a bus in Nepal emanated from him. I was speechless.
Much later, I would apologize. He would invite me to dinner at the apartment where he settled after he returned to the states. It was just a few miles from the place where I would settle. I would explain everything I’d wanted to tell him about my sexuality and about how much I had liked him.
Instead, on Tuesdays, I’d come to his knitting circle and we’d get drunk on boxed Chardonnay while he showed the other members—all women—how to work the difficult part of the thumb on a mitten.
This story is adapted from "Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting."