Zoë Rose Bryant’s review published on Letterboxd:
he was the boy every girl in school liked, but i liked him most. to be fair, it wasn’t much of a competition. i knew him best, because i was his best friend. but for awhile, i thought that’s all i’d ever be. because i’d had the misfortune of being a girl born in a boy’s body.
we met in eighth grade. he was the new kid, and i was his first friend. later, i liked to say that i “got to him first.” we had been paired up as partners in health class, and we were inexplicably a perfect fit - i had no other friends in class, and he had no other friends at all. so, we found a friend in each other.
it’s funny to look back on him then with the knowledge of who he’d become. the foundation was there - with his impassioned but currently incomplete personality brewing and building beneath the surface - but he had a more disciplined disposition at this time, as he was still sussing out his new surroundings and deciding who - and what - he’d be at our school.
but in the moment, i wasn’t focused on any of that. i was 13. i was fixated on what every girl in our grade soon would be - his brilliantly messy brown hair, his equally enchanting brown eyes, and his blindingly bright white smile that lit up every room he walked into. i remember he didn’t like showing it off because of his braces. he thought they made him look “dorky.” they didn’t.
i think i knew i liked boys by then, even if i hadn’t admitted it to myself yet (among many other things i hadn’t admitted to myself about the mess that was my gender and sexuality). i had realized that all my crushes throughout my entire life had been men, but that was as far as i’d gotten. and i hadn’t really had any “feelings” for a classmate - or truly anyone i was close to in my personal life - until him.
it would be a few more years before we became “us.” when he realized the full power of his ability to pull anyone and everyone into his orbit with one little look, he became the most popular kid in school. he was no longer “my little secret.” now, everyone thought he was theirs. but the truth was he only ever belonged to himself - and i’d grow to forget that.
we remained friends in eighth grade, even if we weren’t as close at the end of the year as we were at the start, but when we made the transition to high school, we lost touch, as he became “the big man on campus,” pulling off the rare feat of being exceptional in nearly every extracurricular available. whether he was scoring touchdowns on the football field or singing his heart out on stage, he was impossibly good at everything he did - mythic, almost. (or, as mythic as you could be as a 14 year old in elkhorn, nebraska.)
i was relatively uninvolved in school freshman year - keeping to my studies and not much more - but i decided to pursue my passions for choir and drama more heavily sophomore year and at least make an attempt to branch out, and that’s when our paths crossed again. when i re-entered his domain.
when he greeted me, it wasn’t the way he’d greet his first friend at elkhorn or his partner in health class; it was how he’d greet all the girls who fawned over him - with this inauthentic and self-serving charm he’d curated after being surrounded only by people who told him what he wanted to hear for a year straight instead of the truth. it was off-putting, and i started to question what i’d seen in him in the first place.
but after his new friend group fractured as a result of a petty high school betrayal or some other sophomoric bullshit i can’t remember, he found himself somewhat on the outs again, still a “star” at the school, but without the social circle he’d come to regard as a support system instead of the superficial façade it was. and that was how everything else started.
there was a part of me that didn’t want to make it easy for him to regain my friendship - i’ve always been a bit of a stubborn bitch, even at my shiest and least self-actualized - but i was too easily won over by those big brown eyes, and i felt bad for him. he was a now 15 year old who had bought into his own hype and seen first-hand how flimsy fake friendships could be, and wanted - and knew he needed - the real thing again. so we spent nearly every second of the next year together.
i really should’ve made him work harder - in hindsight, i set up an expectation that i’d come whenever he called, wherever he was - but i was 15 and “in love,” even if it wasn’t reciprocated yet. i had all his attention. i had all his time. it was all i’d wanted - and thought about - for the past two years, even if i couldn’t voice it to him (or anyone) yet. i was just making the most of every moment and never looking back, and that’s what mattered to me then.
it wasn’t until the summer when our friendship unexpectedly evolved into something more. by now, i’d told a few other friends not just about my attraction to men in general, but to him in particular (and, expectedly, they all had the same response: “yeah, we know”). even people who didn’t know took one look at the two of us - and how much time we spent together - and started calling us the school’s “cutest couple.” i was always afraid it’d bother him and he’d back away from me again, but he usually just laughed it off and moved on. though that wasn’t what i wanted either.
but, as happens in almost all the YA novels i tried to live my life like at this point in time (yes, i had a tumblr account devoted to TFIOS like all the rest of you), it was a party that pushed us past the point of no return. and, as disgustingly cliché as it may be, a game of truth or dare more specifically. a dare in which a few of us seated on the same couch - including he and i - had to kiss one another.
you probably know where this is going. we all went through with it, and even though everyone else got a mere “peck,” when he and i had to kiss, we held for a beat longer. i’m still not sure if it was his doing or mine - or both of ours. but somehow, it happened, and when we pulled apart, nothing was the same. i don’t even think anyone else recognized what passed between us in that moment, but we felt it - and we couldn’t unfeel it. it was my first kiss, after all.
he took me home that night - i had since turned 16, but i still relied on him as my primary mode of transportation, mostly just to spend as much time with him as possible - and when we were in my driveway, as he hugged me goodbye, he went in for another kiss. and not the chaste grazing of our lips of before, but a real kiss. and initially, i froze.
a part of me couldn’t believe this thing i’d been thinking about for now three years was finally happening, and seemingly out of the blue (though, i guess that’s how these things do happen - when we’re not waiting around for it). the other part of me was worried i wouldn’t be “good” at it, considering i knew he’d had uh, a bit more experience, and this was my first time.
but i remembered who he was - and who we were - and just went with it. sure, we were still a little sloppy, but we were sixteen - you’re supposed to be. and in that sloppiness started the summer i’d never forget, in which i spent every waking second with him, doing god knows what god knows where in our sleepy small town - sneaking off in the middle of the night to make trouble, breaking into homes under construction and imagining our future lives there, parking his car in the middle of an open field and falling asleep on it stargazing, and on and on and on.
i was living a john green novel, and considering that this was the summer the paper towns movie came out, you think i’d remember how they usually ended. but i was too wrapped up in our world - or, really, his world - to think about that at the time. i wanted this to last forever. i wanted us to last forever. and he said the same. we had lives outside of one another - other friends, family - but we both saw each other as the only person we could trust with everything. (even if i only now see how dangerous it is to put so much of yourself in only one other person).
we’d trade texts detailing how much we meant to one another - and what we wanted to do together for the rest of our lives - on a near daily basis. if anyone saw them today, they’d probably gag at how sappy and saccharine they were. but again, i think you’re supposed to be when you’re sixteen - when “real life” is still this abstract, faraway idea we’re currently blissfully unaware of. that bliss can’t last forever, but we had two more years of it. and we weren’t letting it go just yet.
in hindsight, i think our separation was as written in the stars as we thought our love was. he was, at his heart, always a theater kid. and, as a result, his dream destination was always going to be new york, the city he wanted to live in ever since he was a little boy. i, conversely, had told everyone who would listen that i’d be moving to california to make movies since childhood. and we continued to encourage each other’s dreams even though deep down, we knew their realization would mean our relationship’s ruination.
however, that came a lot quicker than we thought it would. though we talked - and talked and talked and talked - all day and all night that summer, one thing we never defined was who we were, or what this relationship was. before me, he had never “been” with a boy before. but whether it was because we had been intensely intimate best friends first - or because he was the first person i ever told about the truth of my currently concealed “feminine identity” - i don’t think he saw me that way anyway. and that was how he justified all of this to himself.
unfortunately, we still lived in a shitty small-minded town that remained revolted by any and all things “queer.” so, we kept this to ourselves for as long as possible. but when the summer was coming to a close, i expressed my desire to not only finally come out that junior year, but to be open about what we were and what we’d become, too. and that wasn’t something he was ready for.
years removed, i can understand his hesitancy more, even if all i could see in the moment was my hurt. i no longer wanted to be this “special secret thing” - i wanted to let everyone know about our love, and how happy it made me. made us. and no matter how many times he tried to tell me his resistance had nothing to do with me, i could only regard it as a result of shame at the time, and i’d felt used. and stupid.
and that was how our love story ended, but not our story overall. we’d continue to cross paths for the next two years (we still went to the same school, after all) and we were in all the same activities, but we no longer spoke, and everyone took notice, though no one knew why. and it’d remain that way until one moment senior year, after a rehearsal for our last play.
we were the only two left in the dressing room, and he sparked up a conversation joking about something trivial that had happened that day, and he made me laugh - he still could. the conversation continued and eventually evolved into a more meaningful reflection on our high school years - driven by the all-consuming “senioritis” that was plaguing us at that point in time - and he finally cautiously, but only briefly, spoke on the the past we shared.
“i think you were my only real friend here,” he said. “i just wanted you to know that.”
i held there for a second, stunned - speechless - but eventually summoned the strength to say something i’d been afraid to admit to myself for the past two years.
“i’ve missed you so much,” i said.
he gave a soft smile and pulled me in for a hug, and though i could feel like we both wanted to cry, neither of us did - at least not there. when we broke, we didn’t say anything else. he left, and i continued to change out of my costume, simultaneously experiencing my first existential crisis at the age of seventeen.
we both stayed in nebraska for college, but we didn’t go to the same one. still, we’d see one another on occasion over the next four years, especially when we showed back up to the school to see our siblings in that year’s play or musical, and we’d catch up with one another, but only casually.
it always amused me how when he was in a new relationship, i wasn’t, or vice versa. we were two ships continually passing in the night, always missing that chance to come together again. and even when i was with someone new, i couldn’t help but compare them to him each and every time. i think he’s the standard i’ll have for all my lovers for the rest of my life, as unfair as it may be. i couldn’t shake him - and still can't.
in may of 2021 - a few weeks before my college graduation and my official move to los angeles - i went back to the school to see one last musical starring the siblings of some old friends, and kids i’d known my whole life. it was necessary i think, to finally cut ties with this old existence and allow myself to begin anew next month.
i didn’t know he’d be there, actually. we’d gone the longest we ever had without seeing each other because of the pandemic, and because of that, i’d briefly been able to put him out of mind for the time being. but when chatting with the cast after the musical was over, someone came running up behind me to pick me up, spin me around, and hug me - and i’d know that move anywhere.
as soon as i saw him again, it all came rushing back. everything - all of it. there was nothing i could do to stop it. we sat at a nearby table and talked for a few minutes, and suddenly, it felt like we were sixteen again. like life was all possibility again. and then, i told him i was leaving for los angeles in a month, and that stopped the conversation right in its tracks.
i couldn’t tell what he was thinking at first - it’d been a minute since i had the ability to read his mind. was he shocked? sad? proud? all of the above? part of me even thought there could be some envy, as he’d ultimately chosen to remain in nebraska, instead of following through on his previously unshakeable intentions to take new york by storm the minute he graduated college. but no matter what he had to sift through in his head to get there, he still landed on the right words.
“you’re doing it,” he said. “like you always said you would.”
i laughed. “well, i’m trying to.” i said.
and then we sat there for a second, and i finally saw the pride for sure flash in his eyes, though i think there was an unspoken anguish as well. the thought of what could’ve been if we were different people, or we made different choices. the thought of the life we could’ve lived together - one that was now impossible.
even after moving - and especially after starting to transition - these thoughts kept me up at night. what if i had stayed in nebraska and transitioned there, and we tried again? what if, all those years ago, i was born the right way - born as a girl - and our love never had to put up a fight with the prejudice of our small town?
in my head, i invented this elaborate fantasy where we’d bump into one another a few more years down the road, when i was “fully” transitioned, either when he took a spontaneous vacation to the west coast or when i headed back home for the holidays. and in that scenario, everything would finally make sense, and we could live the love story we dreamed up when we were sixteen.
but in time, i realized that this fantasy kept me tethered to the past, instead of facing both the pleasures and yes, the pains, of my present. it was a safety blanket - a salve. but only a temporary one. our story had ended, and i was unnaturally extending it both as a romantic idealist and as a worried young woman afraid of embracing all the intricacies of her new existence.
even still, i don’t think i’ll ever fully be rid of those “what ifs?”. and i know i’ll never forget the feelings of “my first love” he gave me - you never do. but when i let go of that past, i saw all the potential that awaited me now as well. the new people i’d meet (and have). the new places i’d travel to (and did). and all the amazing things i’d accomplish (TBD on that one).
i don’t think i’ve ever seen a movie speak to these emotions - or my story - as fully and as powerfully as past lives did. and so for that, i’ll cherish this film forever. just as i cherish these memories.