The first thing I learned after Ally broke my heart was to never pour quinoa on a whiskey-soaked laptop. I had been drinking over Skype with my best friend — who was inconveniently a thousand miles away — to try to sort out what had just happened to me when I gestured wildly and knocked over the open bottle of Jack Daniels perched on the floor beside my laptop.
I’d consumed several drinks by then, and my reaction time was way off. My mouth hung open while I watched the whiskey gurgle out of the bottle and spread across my keyboard. By the time I jolted into action several seconds later, it was too late. The screen had permanently gone black, and just like me, it was completely broken.
This was one night after Ally left me. It was two nights after we finally confessed our feelings for one another, two nights after the first time I had ever said “I love you” to another person in a romantic way, and the first time she had ever said it to another girl.
It was 10 weeks after we met and became best friends while working at a Minnesota summer camp — my Minnesota summer camp, the place I’d spent my entire childhood and young adulthood finding myself and the place that, to this day, is home.
It was four weeks after I realized I was gay and madly in love with Ally, and four weeks after we became trapped in the most intimate sexless relationship I will ever have.
It was two nights after Ally tore through the beam of light coming from my window between us on my bed and kissed me while I was in the middle of a sentence, two nights after she told me she’d fallen in love with me, too, and one night after she looked me in the eye and chose her boyfriend over me.
I grabbed the computer, sprinted downstairs to my parents’ kitchen, and dashed from cabinet to cabinet, feeling my way through the 1 a.m. darkness in search of some rice to pour over the laptop and soak up the whiskey.
I tore apart the pantry, knocking over almost everything. No rice. I squinted my eyes at a green box in the back, trying to steady my gaze to read the blurred, dancing letters: quinoa. That could work, I thought. I pulled it out.
While I rummaged through the kitchen, moments of the summer kept flickering through my mind, like when Ally squeezed my hand while napping on my shoulder and I’d realized how badly I wanted to kiss every inch of the hand laying in mine. The many times she cried to me about her boyfriend and her seemingly infinite family problems. All those nights we held one another so close while we sat and talked beneath the stars. The way we held hands when we walked places and hugged so tightly and for so long, like if we just squeezed hard enough, we could fuse into one human being.
She was a heartbreaker, and I was a girl whose heart had never been broken.
I thought about the time she got drunk after camp ended and called me and asked if I liked boys or girls. I told her girls. It was one of the first times I’d ever admitted it out loud, and it felt freeing and terrifying and right and wrong all at once. Then she told me I was one of the most important people in her life.
I thought about the joy that overtook me in those moments, the certainty with which I felt she loved me too. But then he’d call her, and her face would turn to pure light, and I would cry.
How did I not see this coming? Why did I think she would ever pick me? Why didn’t she?
It was a strange summer to say the least. Ally was new at camp, and I was a seasoned veteran. She was scared, and I was there to be her guide. She was a frightening concoction of dirty blonde beauty and emotional immaturity. I was nestled inside my safety bubble in a place where it never occurred to me that I could be betrayed. She was a heartbreaker, and I was a girl whose heart had never been broken. I did not understand the risks of entangling myself in something so uncertain, and I certainly did not understand that explaining away red flags — and there were many — doesn’t actually make them disappear.
It was confusing throughout that summer to hear Ally talk about the long-distance boyfriend she loved while she acted the way she did around me, not to mention the way she flirted with more than one other counselor. I knew it was a bad idea to keep spending time with her, but I didn’t know how to stop myself.
I flung every bowl I could find onto the kitchen counter, but none was large enough to hold my laptop. Even my mom’s colossal party bowl was too curved to accommodate the flat, rectangular shape. I decided to try it anyway. Beads of quinoa flew everywhere as I tore open the box with far too much force. I turned it upside down and emptied whatever wasn’t on the floor into the plastic bowl.
I realized my mistake the moment I shoved in the half of my open laptop that fit. Like magnets, the tiny grains leapt into every nook and cranny of the thing. Clusters of quinoa settled in the cracks between each key, crawled deep inside every USB port, and wedged into the crevice between the screen and keyboard.
“Fuck!” I whisper-screamed, trying not to wake my family. I scooped up the laptop and raced to my bedroom, leaving the kitchen in such disarray that my mom asked me the following morning if I’d thrown a party.
I was in love and I was gay and I was terrified.
After I realized what I felt for Ally, I told no one for a very long time. Holding it in had some adverse effects. I began fighting with people and having toddler-like tantrums regarding things that I knew even at the time were no big deal. I baffled my camp director when I melted down about a trip I didn’t want to lead. I was known for my eagerness and positive attitude but cried over being assigned menial tasks I would normally be happy to do.
I couldn’t stop. I was in love and I was gay and I was terrified. All the emotions I tried to hold in were just finding other ways to seep out of me. Then in a flash, I lost her before I ever really had her. It was too much at once. Finally, I had felt ready to vanquish the 23 years of denial stacked up like bricks inside of me, and I had to start off broken. Finally, I had felt ready to be me and date the people I wanted, only I didn’t want anyone but her.
I spent the next hour trying to pick out every grain of quinoa from the cracks in my computer. When my swollen fingers couldn’t manage it, I turned the laptop on its side and slammed it against the floor again and again, trying to enlist the help of gravity. I’m not sure why I thought banging an expensive piece of technology into the ground would make things better, but at that moment, all that mattered to my hazy head was getting the quinoa out. It would be months before my carpet was free of all the grains.
Throughout this entire ridiculous affair, I was crying. No, not crying: I was sobbing, weeping, and moaning. My entire body produced heaving, heavy, chest-driven sobs.
The computer, not backed up of course, possessed about eight years of writing, schoolwork, pictures, and other important items. I didn’t care about any of them. I was concerned with only one document: a seven-page letter I’d spent all afternoon composing for Ally. Seven pages I’d meticulously crafted to tug at her every heartstring, seven pages of my own heart melted into words that were now drowning in whiskey, sinking deeper and deeper into oblivion.
When camp ended, Ally went to see her boyfriend. Though she was from elsewhere, he happened to live 10 minutes from my parents’ Chicago home, where I still resided. When he went back to school, she came to stay with us.
For me, loving her explained everything. … It made everything so clear: all the boys I never cared about and the girls that made my stomach drop. For Ally, it wasn’t like that.
During those two weeks, our situation intensified. It was just the two of us then, no campers, no responsibilities — just my basement couch and a fridge full of beer. I was supposed to be looking for a full-time job. Instead I ignored the disapproving eyes of my mother and continued to watch movies, get drunk, and spoon with Ally, praying it would lead to something.
When we finally pressed our lips together in a supernatural kiss that I will always consider my first kiss — even though by then I’d kissed plenty of boys — everything in my life came together.
For me, loving her explained everything. It tore down every wall I’d ever built. It made everything so clear: all the boys I never cared about and the girls that made my stomach drop. For Ally, it wasn’t like that. Loving me only made everything murkier for her. Because how could she love me and also love this boy?
Ally did what I imagine any scared 20-year-old would have done. She made the easier choice. Loving him was simpler. Choosing him meant she wouldn’t have to confront her blurring sexual identity or explain herself to people over and over again the way I have learned to since coming out. If I were her, I might have done the same thing. Understanding that didn’t stop the agony, though. It didn’t make the missing go away, and it didn’t make me hate her any less for spending an entire summer leading me on.
After she left, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of the last things she had said to me. She was frantically packing her duffel bag while I begged her to explain why she’d spent so long getting close to me, dropping hints and trying to figure out if I felt the way she did, if she was just going to pick up and leave the moment I reciprocated. “I’m so sorry,” she told me. “I think something’s wrong with me. I’ve done this to people before.”
I showed up at the Apple Store with my sticky, quinoa-infused laptop at 7 a.m. the next morning. It didn’t open until 9, but I parked myself in a chair outside the doors, yearning for an employee to arrive early and take pity on the wet-eyed, wild-haired girl begging him to save her life.
I typed away furiously on my iPad, determined to reproduce the letter. It was no use; the new version didn’t feel as powerful. At 7:30, a man in a blue Genius shirt arrived. I burst out of my chair and pleaded for his help with a shaky voice as tears tumbled out of my eyes.
The man regarded me with a mix of annoyance and confusion. I can only imagine how I seemed to him in my baggy gray sweatpants and stained white T-shirt, my eyes glowing red with firework veins, and a laptop reeking of whiskey cradled in my arms like a child. I nearly fell to the floor with gratefulness when he decided to let me in. I followed him to the back, where he snatched the laptop from my hands and began to dissect it. I felt like it was me up on that counter, having my organs scooped out of me one by one.
He couldn’t save the computer, he told me, but the hard drive was intact. My documents would be okay. The letter was saved.
It took a few weeks for me to begin to relish that so many other pieces of my life were salvaged at the Apple Store that day. It took two more months for me to stop caring that the letter went unanswered, for me to stop waking up each morning with the feeling of a thousand drummers beating on my chest and to stop bursting into tears in places like grocery stores, restaurants, and elevators.
After a few more months, I downloaded Tinder, began going to gay bars, and kissed another girl. A month or so after that, I launched a blog on coming out, and after a few months more, I stopped saying “I date girls now” and became comfortable saying “I’m gay.” My heart stopped racing when people asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I stopped caring whether others used this beautiful change in my life as a juicy piece of brunch gossip.
Dozens of bad dates later, I fell in love with someone else, someone who has stayed. It is not the kind of love I felt for Ally, not that painful, pining, miserable kind that drains your soul. It is the good kind of love, the easy kind, the kind without games or any real uncertainty, the kind that makes me feel like I’m floating in a hot-air balloon through a summer sky instead of being pushed off a cliff into a frozen lake.
I can see now that loving and losing Ally was really about learning to love myself.
After Ally left, I went to see a therapist who asked me if I knew the difference between love and infatuation. She told me I couldn’t have loved Ally; I didn’t know her long enough or well enough. It made me want to scream. What did she know about the way I felt? Isn’t time irrelevant when it comes to love? Didn’t she trust me to know my own heart? When I met my current girlfriend one year later and discovered real, deep, and honest love, I realized that therapist had been onto something.
I never did love Ally, not really. She was exciting, yes, an insurmountable conquest that made me all the more determined to prevail. I loved the idea of her because she helped me realize who I am, but we never did fit together all that well. The corresponding discovery of my sexual identity turned a simple crush into crushing love. I can see now that loving and losing Ally was really about learning to love myself.
“I’m afraid I will never stop loving her,” I told my friend Annie on the phone one evening a few weeks after Ally’s departure, “because she’s the person who made it possible for me to come out. She’s who I loved strongly enough to finally do it.”
I was convinced that for the rest of my life, with whomever I tried to love, I’d never stop thinking about the pretty blonde girl with the ring in her nose who helped me become the best, fullest version of myself.
“No,” Annie decreed. “That wasn’t her, Mol. You did that. Don’t give her the credit you deserve for what you did on your own.”
It took a year for me to realize she was right.