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Modern Love Podcast: Confessions of a Late Bloomer

From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is the Modern Love Podcast.

So I’ve been watching a lot of romcoms these days, and my thing is like I watch them, and I’m like, this dating advice is awful.

I’m not taking this stuff seriously. But when I was younger, I kind of did. When you’re young and impressionable, without much romantic experience, you can sometimes rely on movies to give you a sense of what dating and love might be like. At least that’s what Garrett Schlichte did. He’s the author of this week’s essay, and it’s read by MacLeod Andrews.

“I don’t know Garrett,” my sister said over the phone.

“I just really like him. I freak out every time I see him, you know?”

“Oh, yeah, I know, girl,” I said. “Been there.”

But had I?

My sister is 14 and just started her freshman year of high school. I’m 28 and in the lower rungs of my professional ladder, still trying to figure out what I want my life to be.

My sister is exactly half my age, but we seem to be growing more alike mentally and emotionally with every conversation we have, which actually doesn’t bother me in the least. A lot of teenage girls these days strike me as being more evolved, more powerful, and more in touch with their emotions than the average person. The way I see it, the more I’m like a teenage girl, the greater the likelihood I could be a better person.

On that day, however, I had never felt more distant from the person on the other end of the line.

“We made eye contact,” she said, “and then he waved at me, and I waved back, and then I just had to turn around and walk away because I was definitely blushing.”

By the time she finished talking, I had started to cry. I made a clumsy excuse to end the call, something about finishing up work, and then sat on my bed, head in my hands, and let the tears flow, dropping from my cheeks onto my gold-painted toenails.

“Thank God I painted them,” I thought, “or this would look absolutely ridiculous.” Why was I crying?

My sister was only 4 when I left home. I visit often, and we talk on the phone a couple of times a week, but there are some things digital communications simply can’t compensate for. It’s better I’m not there to help with math homework, which I’m terrible at, but I wish I could be there for reading comprehension and picking out her homecoming dress.

I was also crying out of thankfulness that she still wants to talk to me about this funny love stuff. But mostly I was crying for myself, for the 14-year-old me who never got to experience what my sister was going through.

In second grade, I once got in trouble for asking a girl to marry me via an orange piece of construction paper cut into a heart. She had worn a pair of leopard-print platform shoes to my birthday party, so naturally, I assumed we were meant to be together.

When her parents in mind got called into a meeting with our teacher, they laughed about it. I don’t know if my father was more relieved or proud. At least I had stopped talking about the leopard-print platform shoes.

As a closeted queer teenager, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t have a crush. For me, there was no note passing with friends in class, no flushed faces after brushing hands. I used movies and music and books to mourn the loss of my adolescent love life time and again.

Without the opportunity to personally experience romantic relationships, I was left on the sidelines to receive master classes from the greats. I learned from Julia and Reese and Bette and Angela and Sarah Jessica and Mindy and Meryl and Diane. I memorized scenes from romantic comedies and recited the dialogue in the dark in my bedroom, door locked, tears streaming down my face as I tried to summon emotions I yearned to experience in real life.

I would perform the scenes in the mirror, Oscar-worthy moments that left me feeling empty when I woke up the next day. I was trying to capture a version of love that was innocent and new. When you are a teenager, you get to learn about romantic feelings without the pressure of the rest of your life. You live in a world where questions about settling down and who the exes are, and when you might move in together are largely inappropriate and inapplicable.

My sister can embrace and revel in her teenage crushes, so she’ll be able to develop an emotional skill set that I lacked into my 20s and still lack. She will be able to process electric attraction and aching jealousy a decade before I even allowed myself to admit I had those emotions.

She will sing out about her first love instead of choking it back like a secret. Our parents will pepper her with advice and concern and be there to comfort her the first time she gets her heart broken, a rite of passage I had aged out of by the time I needed it.

The first time I had an actual relationship fight, I was 24, and it was about something as silly as my boyfriend making us late to a movie. I had zero skills for how to deal with conflict — any conflict in a relationship — and I knew it.

“I’m sorry!” I wanted to scream.

“I’m sorry I don’t have any practice at this. I’m sorry all those movies and songs don’t help when it comes to the real world. I’m sorry I didn’t hold someone’s hand until I was in my early 20s, and that I didn’t kiss anyone I cared about until then too. I’m sorry you’re the person I have to learn this with now.”

I didn’t say any of that, though. I just sat there wishing I had experienced a different adolescence.

The movies and television shows I learned from were full of wonderful women, but they were all straight characters, all straight relationships, all straight love stories and all straight rules. Yes, love is love and, yes, love wins (sometimes!). But also, yes, love and relationships are different for queer folks. And so are the rules that govern them.

While I am grateful for an ever-deepening pool of queer love stories, watching them in adulthood does not sate the deep thirst for direct experience I felt in my youth. Watching a love story does not compensate for participating in your own.

The last time we talked, my sister said, “I have straight A’s, and now I think someone else has a crush on me.”

I felt an immediate urge to give her advice, to tell her she should put grades ahead of romantic interest at her age, but I stopped myself. We should be perfectly capable of being able to celebrate two exciting things simultaneously without having to shame one of them. Anyway, who am I to give relationship advice?

“I don’t think I like him back,” she said, “But I think we could be really good friends. I’ll figure it out.”

Yes, she will. Yes, she will.

I’ll probably have to wait another half-decade before I can give any useful relationship advice to my sister. And by that time, she’ll probably be so far ahead of me she won’t even need it. Until then, I look forward to learning right alongside her, separated by age and distance, but connected by the idea that we each may one day find our perfect crush.

When we return, we’ll hear a Tiny Love Story about longing to be closer to someone you love.

I’m just going to check this is still going. OK.

Hi, my name is Lucy Coulson. This is my Tiny Love Story:

“I look at his girlfriend with envy. She knows him like I wish I did. Tell me about him, I want to say.

Tell me how he likes his coffee, when he last cried, how he looks when he’s sleeping. Tell me how he says good night, if he writes poems or how he is with your family. Tell me what he said about his childhood, his parents, his sister. Tell me if he wants children, a dog, a house in Japan. Tell me about his theories about life, his nightmares, his secrets.

Please, I want to say.

Tell me about my brother.”

My brother’s name is Declan. He is 3 and 1/2 years younger than me. I am 29, just turned 29, and he is 25. Growing up, we were super close. We used to, right before Christmas — and so Christmas Eve, we would sleep in my bed. And I remember when that stopped happening, that was kind of when things started to change a lot.

In my mind, I feel like we had a childhood together, and then we skipped the middle part. There was kind of a good five years where I didn’t know him at all. He was about 16, 17, so I would have been, yeah, about three years older than that. He started struggling with an addiction and he just kind of pulled back a lot from his life. He was not really there anymore, physically and mentally, I guess.

And in the middle of all of that, I decided to go on exchange to Copenhagen. And when I moved to Copenhagen, that just kind of made the, I guess, emotional distance physical, because suddenly we were 15,000 kilometers away from each other. And he’s not the best at communication. I mean, at least digitally. So that was really difficult because all of a sudden, I had moved away and we didn’t talk anymore.

I didn’t know him at all. When I would come home about once a year for a few weeks — and he’s always done very well with the ladies, he’s never had any issues there. He’s a bit of a charmer. So every year, essentially, I would come home, and there would be a new girlfriend. And I remember just kind of looking at them in awe, almost like, wow, like, you know so much.

You know so much that I couldn’t even dream of knowing about my brother. I don’t know, yeah, like how he talks to you and what he’s like when his family isn’t around. And that’s kind of where that story was born.

So I think our relationship kind of came into the second phase, or I guess you could call it the adult phase. It was maybe around the time that this story was published.

He was really affected by it. I think it was a bit of an awakening for him in a sense. I can remember we were texting about it, and he kind of went quiet. Then I got some messages from him where he was just saying that I deserve better and that he wishes he could be a better brother. And I also made sure to let him know that I didn’t blame him for anything that had happened between us.

Since we’ve gotten closer to each other, I don’t necessarily think many of the questions that I was asking have been answered. But in a way, they haven’t needed to be. I know that we’re past that. And I don’t need to know his secrets. I don’t need to know his lifelong goals, because just knowing him is enough now.

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Elisheba Ittoop. The Modern Love theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music throughout this episode by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano. Digital production by Mahima Chablani, and a special Thanks to Ryan Wegner at Audm. The Modern Love column is edited by Dan Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects.

I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

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