Everyone called him “E.” His first and last name started with that letter, but E meant so much more than that to me. E was everything, he just didn’t know that.
It all started simply enough. We played soccer together in high school. The first time we met was at practice, in a forced group introduction where no one remembers anyone else’s name when it’s done. I was distracted the rest of that morning by the way sweat glistened on his tanned, bare torso, the way the Midwest summer sun made his honey-brown eyes gleam, the impish grin preceding a “that’s what she said” joke.
That was freshman year. I was attending a small, religiously-affiliated school where it was in no way acceptable to be gay, much less out. The feelings I had for E were confusing, powerful, and not reciprocated. But that didn’t stop them from deepening. At the same time, I retreated further into the closet and put on a mask of religious faith and heteronormativity. My family’s involvement in the local church had skyrocketed. I felt a sense of obligation not to do anything that would undermine their standing in the community, or my own. But when my friends from youth group started confessing who, in that incredibly small pool, they had a crush on, my innermost thoughts betrayed me. The face I pictured belonged to E.
Time did not fulfill its promise to make things better. One day after gym class, we were in the locker room changing next to each other. He stripped down to compression shorts that left little to the imagination, and proceeded to grind against me while singing “Let’s get physical!” Fear and panic surged, and a tidal wave of lust paralyzed me.
It was the first of many similar incidents with E, and other players on the team. Each time, I worried that someone would detect the chink in my armor and sense that the advances meant in jest were quite welcome. My body was at war with my mind, conflicted about whether or not what I felt was sinful, wrong, and abominable. The stress produced by my internal conflict channeled into…nowhere, really. I held it close, a tightly compressed ball of emotions destined to one day go supernova. There was no one in my world who I felt safe confiding in.
Compounding matters, I had built a persona defined by being a “good kid.” I did well in school, rarely got into trouble at home, and proved myself to others through reliability and steadfastness. Letting go of that exacting, measured appearance of control would prove to be one of the biggest challenges of my adult life.
E and I became friends over the course of sophomore year. That was also when he met his on-and-off-again girlfriend. My feelings toward her changed almost as often as they broke up and got back together again; she was a lovely person, I was just mad with jealousy. A girl crush, as Little Big Town would sing.
Junior year came and went with little drama, but spring break of our senior year saw a falling out between E and me I had grown tired of lavishing time and effort on a relationship built on unrequited affection; and beyond soccer, we had little in common. What exactly was said is lost to the annals of time, but we didn’t see eye-to-eye about the one-sided nature of our friendship. We stopped spending time together, and after graduation, I never saw him again.
To this day, I still think about E. I wonder how he’s doing and whether or not he ever sensed all the things I left unspoken. The first crush is the deepest. My undeniable attraction to E forced a personal reckoning between the religious beliefs inculcated in me from a very young age and the simple truths conveyed by flushed cheeks and a racing pulse.
Not long after I started college, I took my first steps into living as an out, gay man, and learned that almost everyone like me had an “E.” I also discovered that the profound loneliness and hurt borne of living in a constant identity crisis was not unique—a revelation that, for me, was life-saving. The impact that finding community had on me cannot be understated. Simply knowing that I was not alone, that someone else understood and even shared my experience, rocked the very foundations of my existence.
That knowledge gave me the strength to come out to my family. And once the fallout from that settled enough for me to have objective conversations with individual family members, I realized that the community which bolstered my spirits was also a source of fear for those in my family. Their assumptions were staggering by their ignorance. In their minds, simply being a part of LGTBQ+ community meant I was destined to become a drug addict, an alcoholic, contract HIV, and die from AIDs. Never mind the eternal damnation.
Disabusing my family of those preconceived notions remains a bone of contention between us. I have come to terms with the fact that we may never see eye-to-eye, and decided to not let it hinder me from growing and evolving. My journey of self-acceptance has continued, and continues to lead me to wonderful experiences. I’ve found an incredible chosen family, and am confident and happy in ways that my high school self would not believe.
But that was where everything began: With dirty blonde hair, eyes like honey, and a smile that promised mischief. With grueling, hours-long soccer practices in the heat of August and locker room showers afterward. With a beginning, the ending of which was already written. With E.
Jonathan Fuller is a writer of primarily science fiction and fantasy. His debut adult science fantasy novel Trials of the Innermost was released in May by Hansen House, while his science fiction short story “The Remembered” appeared in the same publisher’s Elixir anthology. Fuller is a proud member of the LGBT+ community and currently resides in Texas where he enjoys playing flag football and attending all the concerts and festivals he can.