Always the first time: falling in (and out) of love

Illustration by Amber’s Illustrations

In this bittersweet personal essay, Frankie looks back on the first time she fell in love with a girl, and the first time she fell for a boy. 

The first time I fell in love with a girl was thirteen years ago. I was eleven, and in my first year of ‘big school.’ Everyone around me sat cross-legged on the unfamiliar gym floor, clad in jumpers and polo shirts about eight sizes too big. Her class was doing a presentation on something I’ve long since forgotten about. She was wearing the same uniform as me, just as ill-fitting on her eleven-year-old shoulders. She had an underbite, long blonde hair in a scrunchie (which has to be forgiven as it was 2006) and a really great top hat made out of old cereal boxes. I didn’t know I was in love at the time. I just remember being unable to take my eyes off her awkward, gawky performance, my spine held perfectly straight like a flower stem, rooted to the polished linoleum.

…my spine held perfectly straight like a flower stem, rooted to the polished linoleum.

My face was wide open then, in that edge of childhood way, all big eyes and big ears and crooked teeth in an open mouth. I was staring her like I’d not stared at anyone before. I was in love with her for five years. I’d always known I was different before I went to secondary school, and I soon realised that I was a cliché – a lesbian at a girls’ school (which was affectionately known as ‘the lesbian school’ by local bullies). I came out when I was thirteen, a direct relation to this girl at school. By that point she had hit puberty in the same way I had: utterly pointlessly. She has still tall and thin, with a curved spine and an underbite that I tenderly recreated in all of the Sims I made. I was short, skinny, and completely infatuated.

Coming out at school was not gentle. I had a catchphrase back then to respond to the inevitable questions about my sexuality: ‘I’m keeping my options open.’ I wore a lot of blazers, had short hair and Doc Martens, and I had a giant poster of Avril Lavigne above my bed. My options didn’t remain open for very long. A friend began to spread rumours that I was looking at other girls in the changing rooms and on sleepovers. All our friends flocked to my side, cut her out, and rallied around me in support. I had a lot of conversations with them about their ‘lesbian feelings’, as I was clearly the expert by then. I wasn’t afraid of losing my friends, or my teachers or parents finding out about the rumours, but I was afraid of the truth in them. I had, actually, been looking in the changing rooms: but only at her. Once I caught sight of her long back, shockingly pale in the dim winter, and didn’t dare look again for a full year.

Once I caught sight of her long back, shockingly pale in the dim winter, and didn’t dare look again for a full year.

I spoke to her very little, lent her pens and pencils often, sat near her in class because our names begin with the same letters. I never told her, but I thought she might have realised. The way she laughed at my jokes made my whole body ache with a bone deep blush. She was one of the popular girls by the time we finished school, and I was not. I found out she’d been bullying one of my best friends, and that tainted my golden view of her. I was out, and remained unbullied, and I was proud of myself. Her friends were the type to use gay as an insult, and she would angrily refute any joking accusation. I began to see a smog of shame surround her. She either was like me and hiding, or she didn’t like people like me. My idolisation became fragmented.

The heady teenage chaos of boys crept into my life during sixth form, when they joined my school. I entered the year as a lesbian, and left as a somewhat smothered bisexual in my first relationship with a boy. I remained unattracted to him for the duration, but appreciated the attention, the lack of spotlight, the security. I entered adulthood modelled as my internal concept of a straight woman. Long hair, makeup, floral prints, shoulder bags. I was unhappy. I looked to the girl I had loved for some sense of self, a pattern I would repeat for many more years. Her Facebook told me she was still not gay, and therefore, neither was I.

Eight years after I first fell in love, I arrived at my university halls late on a Sunday September afternoon, the last to arrive in my flat. As I trekked my stuff up and down the stairs, into and out of the small space, I kept passing the same faces. I paid little attention, assuming the socialising would come later. Walking my final box of ugly crockery into the shared kitchen, I saw a new face. Desperately shoving a colander into a small cupboard was a man. Not a boy, like I’d seen and kissed before. He had dark curly hair, a full beard, and deep brown eyes. I felt my mouth go dry and my fingers spread apart fully like a cat stretching after a long sleep.

He had dark curly hair, a full beard, and deep brown eyes. I felt my mouth go dry and my fingers spread apart fully like a cat stretching after a long sleep.

It had happened again, only this time I’d been aware it was love. I wasn’t eleven anymore. And this felt mutual. That first night we slept on other sides of the same wall, I wrote myself a note – ‘don’t fuck your housemate’. I was still trying to keep a lid on the overflowing Tupperware of hot steamy gooey love-at-first-sight. The next morning we agreed to shop and cook all our meals together, despite my vegetarianism and his love of steak. Days later new friends asked us how long we’d been together, and we awkwardly answered that we’d just met. Later I’d find out those same friends made bets on how long it would take us to get together, the most popular vote being ‘Christmas’.

After six days we showed up late to a Student Union party, having spent most of the afternoon talking. As we got there, slightly buzzed from pre-drinks, we danced hand in hand to something shit and loud. I leaned my head towards him, he stooped slightly to meet me. Our foreheads pressed together, some switches in my head clicked. Number one – I was attracted to men, or at least, one man. Number two – I wasn’t just going to fuck my housemate, I was in love with my housemate. Number three – I was going to have to kiss him, because he was never going to strike up the nerve. So I lead.

I was often the one leading – the first kiss, the first to say I love you, the first to talk about a future together. I was utterly in love with him. I accepted I was bisexual at this point. I had a boyfriend. I was embracing all my clichés, staring at his beautiful sleeping face, writing reams of poetry about him, loving our shared life together. The cracks started to show after six months. Too depressed to leave the flat, I leant on him to fix me. To love me so hard I wouldn’t be sad any more. Society told me that’s what happens. I’d had my happy ending, met the love of my life: why was the movie still rolling?

I realised we could be slightly unhappy together forever, have some beautiful brown eyed babies, and grow old together easily. But by then my doubts had crept over everything like a thin fog.

After three years I realised we could be slightly unhappy together forever, have some beautiful brown eyed babies, and grow old together easily. But by then my doubts had crept over everything like a thin fog, and instead of accepting no-one could love me out of my mental illness, I decided the problem was with men. I went back to the girl – still not out on Facebook, I checked. That love was perfect in my unmedicated memory. I had loved her, she had stayed away, and unconsummated. It was perfect. Just like every other classic lesbian romance – if we never touched, it meant something.

Spending a few short months single, made me realise that actually, I needed help. I went to therapy. In my first session I explained how I saw my body – detached, with my sense of self floating slightly above and behind, observing and judging my actions. Over time, I pieced myself back together. I saw for the first time the obsessive way I ‘loved’ was a reflection of abuse I had suffered. No matter how many boys or girls I kissed and dated and loved and dumped and crept back to, I was just reflecting my self-loathing back on them. By the time I left therapy, I had found the eleven-year-old again. She was in love, but she was also proud and confident and different and resilient and happy. She was in love with the concept of loving. I had learned it all again, but not fucked up this time.

I stopped looking for love. I went to more parties, went back to blazers, short hair and Doc Martens. I loved it. Kept the floral prints, the makeup. Loved them too. I would leave for a night out and see myself as I had wanted to be seen – radiant. I was happy being me again. I was happy with my labels, or lack thereof. I didn’t care. I knew I wasn’t straight, that was enough. Girls were beautiful. Boys were beautiful. Friends were beautiful. I was beautiful.

I would leave for a night out and see myself as I had wanted to be seen – radiant. I was happy being me again.

As a plus one to a Eurovision party where I knew no-one but the friend I’d arrived with, I met a girl who invited me to her twenty-fifth birthday party out of the blue months later. I called in sick to work and went to make some friends. I met a guy with long blonde hair and a nervous mouth. We kissed, and ended up going back to mine. The next morning I looked at him in the morning sunlight, and for the first time saw his face was covered in a dapple of freckles. Oh, he was beautiful. We spent the next few months darting around the city, laughing, eating, lapping up summer. He was due to move to Spain by the end of the year.

A week before he left he lay in my arms in the afternoon sun, snoring gently as I stroked the hair off his forehead. And then, like a beam of warm sunlight, I was struck again. Creeping up from my toes to the tips of the hair of my head, I was in love. My lungs felt full of thin air, my skin full of static. Two days later, in a pizza place, I broached the subject of it not being a casual fling anymore. He agreed. We had drinks and continued to laugh, eat, and have fun. The night before he moved away I whispered to him that I was falling in love with him, and he whispered it back.

Falling in love has been different every time. I get pulled under by the weight of adoration, suck up great lungfuls of obsession, blind to the flaws of my lover. I still love.

Falling in love has been different every time. I get pulled under by the weight of adoration, suck up great lungfuls of obsession, blind to the flaws of my lover. I still love. I lose myself in the passion of saving someone as they save me back. I break free, see them as human again. I still love. I am let down, cast adrift, fight to be heard. It is easy, and drifts like a late morning doze. I still love. It is hard, and I lose my sense of what is good. I only see flaws, nothing redeemable. I grit my teeth. I still love. I eat and drink love. I push it away. Always different. Always the first time.

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