by Christina Ochoa
It’s the morning after a long but good night.
We attended a wedding together. His cousin from Miami was getting married, and his entire family was in attendance. They were a conservative religious family, and he had warned me that they could be judgemental of newcomers. I wore a shawl to cover that tattoos on my arm and tried to dress in a way that would be easy on the eyes of his family. I didn’t want to become a source of scandal or drama. I wanted to package my personality and self into an easily digestible morsel that no one could say anything about.
It felt disingenuous like I was preparing to present myself at an archaic debutante ball, where I would dance like the ghosts of tradition and become as unnoticeable and faultless as possible.
We glided through introductions and pleasantries, creating a slideshow of faces and names I couldn’t possibly remember; a coworker, a sister, and an old friend from high school. An evening full of sweaty handshakes and awkward embraces.
It felt surreal, almost as if I were floating outside my body looking down on myself, tethered to the physical world only by holding onto his arm. From above I could see myself, happy and smiling, and dressed to the nines. I had spent the entire morning unable to get out of bed, staring at the wall deep in a depressive state, but you wouldn’t know from the looks of it. I had successfully concealed the heaviness and replaced it with a soft smile.
I look through the pictures we took, and struggle to recognize myself. The dress is beautiful, but it doesn’t feel like me. Looking at the pictures makes my feet throb in memory of the heels I wore. My nails are still perfectly done and hide the fact that I chew them down to stubs, a bad habit that only gets worse when I am off my medications.
I wasn’t unhappy with the pictures, despite how unrecognizable I felt. It represented who I wanted to be. Other pictures on my camera roll show my faults and shortcomings; I look sad or just not quite a full person. It is easier to put on an acceptable persona than to be genuine to myself I try to be true to myself in the name of self-confidence, but I feel the sting of a stare or the looks of pity when my makeup is smeared from the tears.
I do not usually try to hide who I am. A quick search on Instagram will show my tattoos and piercings, my artistic endeavors, and colorful outfits that intentionally make me stand from the crowd. But I choose to protect him and protect myself at this wedding. In deference to his family’s views, and in deference to the fact that I am not in a state to be receiving criticism. Strong and unapologetic statements are fun in safe spaces, but to make them in unfamiliar places takes bravery I do not yet possess.
Even within my group of friends, there are questions that reek of teenage sleepovers drenched in truth or dares, of drunken nights staunch with oversharing. They are well-meaning, but invasive nonetheless. When people say coming out is a process, they really mean it. With every new relationship or experience, my friends are the first to try to understand what it means in a grander context or scale. They ask me how things change and try to understand my fluid nature, even though I barely understand it myself.
What I can confirm for them is that every experience is different, and this one is no exception. Mainly in the very “vanilla” nature of it. Dating a straight person comes with a lot less exploration, everything is already pre-defined. I don’t need to think about things such as who is going to pay for dinner because I can safely assume he will offer, and then as a modern woman I can decide if I want to foot the bill or split it 50/50. It can almost be boring or predictable but I appreciate being able to take for granted our societal norms.
However, these assumptions go out the window with people who are more familiar with my past. It becomes my responsibility to dictate and define my identity to them, and help them make sense of my situation. Before I was out I was more content with being unlabeled. But now I feel that without definitions, I can’t set parameters, I can’t explain to the people around me what they’re getting into when they sign up to be my friend or date me. It wasn’t until I started dating that I felt ashamed for not having answers to everyone’s questions. Their discomfort with my vague explanations made me question my adequacy, and introduced insecurities I didn’t realize I needed to have.
At the wedding, these thoughts didn’t even cross my mind. I was surrounded by people who appeared to fit the rules of heternormativity, and they just assumed I did too. I got to be around a bunch of strangers who would simply think there was nothing to distinguish me and them. It was eerie to think of how different it would have felt if I had been with a woman, or even if my tattoos were more easily on display. Maybe they would have said nothing, or I only would’ve received a couple of errant stares, but you never know.
I look at the unrecognizable pictures from last night, where I seem like the shiny happy girlfriend I want to be. I give what I can but I’m still discovering myself in every sense. One day I want to be an artist and the other I barely feel a speck of life, but that’s okay. The fun is in the journey.
When I look back at our pictures, I feel accomplished. We presented ourselves to society and passed with flying colors.
When I look back at him, I’m reminded of the only thing that really matters right now: I am happy.