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Seventeen Again: How My First Love Affirmed My Gender Identity

Seventeen Again: How My First Love Affirmed My Gender Identity

Entertainment | June 23, 2021
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In this heartwarming piece, G3 shares her story about a first love that came and went, and how she learned to love herself because of it.

Everyone has a first love. No one really ever forgets the first time they fall in love. It’s the most exciting new feeling and it changes you forever. They say first love never dies… but mine died five years ago.

This is our love story.

Of Changes and Revelations

I attended an exclusive, private school for boys, so I was very well aware of the fact that I was a boy. But I already knew at a very young age that I was different. I didn’t play basketball, holen or shato. I didn’t like video games or anything that boys were interested in.

But I loved books. I loved reading. I would spend most of my time at the library checking out books to read at home. There were really no romance novels or books in the library at school about falling in love, so I didn’t know much about it. And nothing would prepare me for the first time I would fall in love.

I had friends and I did okay in school. But I never really hung out with my classmates, and boys never really took notice of me. Not until high school, that is, when I turned 16. That’s when the boys in school started to pay attention. I don’t know what exactly changed, but I was definitely changing.

High school is the time when our bodies change and along with that, go through the emotional process of puberty. You feel all sorts of feelings you never felt before, some exciting, most very awkward. Like, why was I feeling attracted to my classmates? Why did I get shy when they’d put their arm around me? And why did I feel uncomfortable changing in front of them for PE class?

It was because deep inside, I knew I was different. I wasn’t sure what I was, but I was sure I wasn’t one of the boys.

First Love at First Sight

So, I pretty much kept to myself and tried to do well in school. I was good at every subject, I enjoyed reading and studying about languages. I loved science, music, and the arts. But I was particularly bad at math. Geometry was a pain to learn and it set me back a year.

I felt so embarrassed to know that all of my classmates and batchmates were moving on to senior year, while I had to stay behind as a junior.

There was nothing I was looking forward to in repeating my junior year. That is, until one day, I was flipping through the pages of our yearbook to see who my new batchmates were. And then, I saw a picture of him—Paolo. I felt something I’ve never felt before—the feeling of infatuation. It was literally first love at first sight.

I then found out that he was a varsity basketball player, owner of jersey #16, and played for the Junior team. He was a jock. He was tall, had fair skin, big ears, and an even bigger smile. “He’s so cute”, I thought to myself. And I wanted to meet him—Paolo, jersey #16.

That’s why every afternoon, after class, I would join my friends at the covered courts for a friendly game of volleyball.

A Meet-cute Encounter

The school reserved 4 courts for basketball and only 1 for volleyball. And it was during one game—on a regular afternoon—when I would finally get a chance to meet him.

You see, I failed to hit the volleyball over the net and the ball went rogue. I ran after it but it had already made its way to court number 1—the court reserved for the varsity basketball team. The ball stopped right at the middle of the court, in the middle of a game. I didn’t know if I should run across the court to get it at the risk of being trampled by the players. So I just stood there, frozen.

One player stopped, put down the basketball he was dribbling, and collected the volleyball in the middle of court number 1. I was standing by the sidelines when all this happened. He walked towards me and handed the rogue volleyball to me. Lo and behold, the player was Paolo, jersey #16.

I swear—the whole covered courts went silent. Everything was hazy and he was moving in slow motion.

Little by little, court number 1 erupted in whistles and cheers. It slowly spread throughout the entire covered courts. Lahat sila tinutukso kami. I’ve never felt so kilig and embarrassed at the same time in my life! But he just smiled, picked up his basketball, went back to his game. Meanwhile, I walked back to court number 4 with my rogue volleyball. Everyone soon went back to playing their game. But I couldn’t get over it.

It was the first time we met—our meet cute story.

That Weekend Retreat

Nothing happened for a few weeks after that. I figured that he was dyahe. He probably didn’t want to be teased with me again and didn’t want anything to do with me, so I just let it fly. I was happy just seeing him from three classrooms away, laughing with his varsity friends, wearing his signature oversized white polo shirt—hands on the back of his head.

Months later, in a weekend retreat that the school organized, I found out that he was going to be one of the participants, while I was going to be one of the staffers. The prospect of spending one weekend with him got me so excited. I couldn’t wait!

The three-day weekend came and on Friday, we were formally introduced to each other. Again, he just smiled at me and said nothing.

I treated him like any of the other participants, even though to me, he was special. It wasn’t until Sunday—the third and final day of the retreat—when he didn’t come for lunch at the cafeteria that I would go the extra mile for him.

Worried, I went to look for him. I eventually found him in one of the classrooms—covered in his sleeping bag and burning with a fever. I then took it upon myself to bring him food and water and even rode a tricycle to the nearest drugstore to buy him medicine.

I took care of him until he felt better. And that afternoon, his fever subsided. He was then able to join the closing rites of the retreat. I was just happy to see him back to his old energetic and jolly self.

Finally Making a Move

Something changed the week that followed, and I would now always catch him looking at me. He would smile at me and I would smile back. He didn’t approach me like I wanted him to, but every time I would catch him looking, he would look away.

Weeks later, another weekend retreat was happening and I was staffing again. He was no longer in the lineup, though, so I was kinda bummed.

But I remembered—it was late Friday night. Just when they were calling for lights off, a car pulled up in front of me and the person who came down from it was him! Paolo, jersey #16. This time, he was no longer in slow motion. It was real-time and he was fast approaching!

He stood right in front of me—all 5’10” of him—and said that he came to see me. I couldn’t believe it!

Late Night Conversations and More

I was so surprised that I didn’t know what to make of it, so I just followed him. He told me that he wanted to talk to me as he led me to the back of the high school theater. There we found a pink bench that was probably used as a prop in one of the stage productions. That’s where I sat. He, however, just stood there.

He kept pacing about—talking and walking back and forth in front of me. I don’t even remember what he was saying. But I remember that he finally sat beside me and asked me a question.

He asked me how long it took for me to grow my nails. On the other hand, I thought it was just a lame excuse to hold my hand. But from that moment on, he didn’t let go of it anymore. And so, there we were—two teenagers, sitting on a pink bench at the back of the school theater, facing the soccer field, and holding hands.

I couldn’t believe what was happening! Paolo, jersey #16, my ball fetcher hero at the covered courts, was sitting beside me and holding my hand. And every time I’d look at him, he’d look back at me and flash his wide smile. He no longer looked away.

Now, I was the one looking away. I felt so self-conscious! I stared blankly at the soccer field in the nighttime sky. But when I looked at him for the third time, he wasn’t talking anymore. Instead, he leaned forward and he kissed me.

Paolo kissed me.

My First Kiss Went a Little Like This

It was a stolen kiss, but I just closed my eyes and let it happen. I remember thinking wistfully, “So this is kissing…”

And then, he put out his tongue and my mind went into overdrive. “OMG, is this kissing?!”

Paolo, jersey #16. Is. Kissing. Me!

He would stop, pull back, and smile at me. I would smile back. We would be quiet for about 5 minutes and then, we would start kissing again. Every following kiss, deeper and longer than the last one.

I was seventeen, he was sixteen, and he was my first kiss ever. Paolo, jersey #16.

He then held my hand and led me towards the soccer field until we reached the lone mango tree at the end and I thought to myself, “OMG, I’m going to lose my virginity!”

But when we got to the mango tree, we just sat underneath it—in the moonlit sky and in the light of faraway lamp posts in the parking lot. He laid on my lap and told me all about himself. He asked about me too and we ended up just talking all night.

Hours later, I woke up in the freezing cold, in his arms. Turns out, we fell asleep! He was shivering, the morning dew had just come in and it was already daylight.

A Blossoming Courtship

It smelled like a new day. I woke him up and I remember, even before opening his eyes, that he was already smiling.

Eventually, he said that he needed to go home. I nodded. And so, we walked back to the back of the theater. He went home and I spent the rest of the weekend, my head in the clouds. All I could think of was him, Paolo, jersey #16, and our first kiss.

The following school week, I felt a little more excited to go to school every day. Different people (his friends, his classmates, my friends) would hand me love letters. Some were folded into different shapes—but all were from him. I answered and wrote back, of course. And we would meet after dismissal time in the parking lot. He would skip varsity basketball practice for me and he’d keep me company until my sundo came to pick me up.

He would also call me every night, back when we only had those large and heavy cellular phones that you had to carry in a bag. We’d talk about everything, and we would only put the phone down when the call reached the 99:99 minute mark—the time limit on our Panasonic. Otherwise, it would burn your ear from overheating.

The mobile charges were insane so I was forbidden to use the cellular again. Soon after, we went back to just writing love letters to each other on Trapper Keeper loose sheets.

And that was how he courted me.

Waiting, Waiting, and Waiting

He couldn’t come to the house because I lived all the way in Montalban, while his house was in Magallanes. We’d only meet in school and pass notes in between classes. And we had to wait for 40 long minutes (the length of one class) to get a reply from each other.

It’s not like texting now, where replies are immediate. Courtship in the 90s required a lot of patience! The weekends were particularly hard, too, because we didn’t have contact for two whole days. But it only made us more excited to go to school on Monday to see each other.

We never really had recess or lunch together. He would spend his break times with friends and co-varsity players, and I, with mine. But when the bell rang to signal the end of class, I knew that he’d be in the parking lot, waiting for me.

It was our usual meeting place—that pink bench at the back of the school theater. Of course.

One afternoon, as I rushed to the parking lot to meet him at dismissal, I saw that he wasn’t there. I waited and waited. I then found it strange because I knew that as an athlete, he was always on time. Soon after, I thought to myself that maybe he didn’t want to see me anymore. Maybe he was teased and changed his mind about me. Maybe it was over and he didn’t like me anymore. My seventeen-year-old heart started to ache.

I waited for an hour. And then, I picked up my things to leave. Tears were beginning to form in my eyes.

But as I was walking away, I heard a voice calling my name. I looked back and it was his… it was him! He was just standing there and he looked so stupid carrying a yellow duck stuffed toy and a bag of chocolates. I walked back towards him and he gave them both to me. He said that he hurried to buy them right after dismissal.

So, that’s why he was late!

That Eureka Moment: I am a Girl!

We then sat down and he told me he wanted to ask me something. He asked me to be his girlfriend!

I remember thinking that it was the first time anyone ever referred to me as a girl. And although I was a bit confused, I knew right then and there that I was a girl and that I wanted to be his girlfriend. He finally gave me—no, us—a label!

I turned to him and enthusiastically said, “Yes!”. He was so happy and said that from then on, we would be “on”. And from there, I finally knew who I was. I wasn’t a boy. I was a girl and I was now someone’s girlfriend. Paolo, jersey #16’s girlfriend.

In that moment, I wasn’t just in love for the first time. Suddenly, it made sense to me why I felt different all of my life. Why I didn’t belong. But now, I belonged to him.

When Paolo said “I love you, G3”, that was the moment I knew who I was. I no longer felt different. In 17 years, it was the first time I felt like me. It’s like I finally came into existence. I was in love, I found out who I was, and I found that out because someone fell in love with me, too.

I felt like I have never really lived before until that moment. Paolo was the first person to see me as a girl—to see me for who I was inside—to see the real me. And that made me so happy. All the things that didn’t make sense before— why I had to repeat a year, why I felt like I never really fit in… I finally understood all of it. It all led to that moment. We were in love for the first time.

A Secret Relationship

We then decided to keep our relationship a secret because we knew our parents would not only never understand, but also forbid it. They would only separate us. Thus, only a few of his friends knew and only some of my friends knew.

We also had to be very careful because if the school found out, they would kick me out. They wouldn’t dare expel him because he played for the basketball team. So there we were—in junior year, secretly in love with each other. The jock and the only girl in school.

Still, he would pass me notes, give me tickets to his basketball games, and I would find my seat in the same row as the other player’s girlfriends’ seats. I would scream every time he would steal a play or make a basket, and I would clip the newspaper where his name and scores were on the next day. They won the championship that year.

When senior year came, I had to shave my head for CAT. He shaved his head too—even if he didn’t need to because he was a varsity player—just so I wouldn’t feel so bad about being bald. We were two bald kids shopping for Polo Sports caps in Greenhills to cover our bald heads. We were matchy-matchy.

Even when I was bald, he would tell me I was maganda. That made me feel nice. And even if the whole world saw me as a boy—the boy I loved saw me as a girl. To him, I was beautiful.

Eventually, my hair grew back and we stayed together for most of our high school days. No one really knew about us, but we knew, and that was okay.

Of College Plans and Drifting Apart

In our senior year, we talked about our college plans. He wanted to stay in Ateneo and play for the Senior team, but sadly, he wasn’t able to pass. He said he was going to La Salle instead, and inspired by the show “Felicity”, I followed him to college.

The only thing was, I didn’t know there were two La Salles. I enrolled in De La Salle University (DLSU), while he was enrolled at DLSU College of St. Benilde! Eventually that year, we started to grow apart. I hardly ever saw him anymore. College was so different and I was no longer the only girl in school.

After freshman year, he chose to go back to Ateneo and start as a freshman again. I didn’t want to lose another year, so I decided to stay in La Salle. I never really heard from him again, but I heard that he was never able to play for the Seniors team.

I also fell in love with someone else. And that was the end of us. College.

Many Years After

After that, I would still see Paolo, but only at parties. We barely acknowledged each other. It’s like I was still a secret—even when we were no longer together. And all of a sudden, he was such a different person. I even heard that he got into drugs and that made me sad.

The next time I saw him was when I was already working as a writer in ABS-CBN. There was a restaurant called Cork in my building lobby, which I passed by every day to get to the parking lot.

One night after work, as I was walking to my car, I passed by Cork and unexpectedly saw him there. He was with the whole basketball team. I was so shocked to see him at the place where I worked, after not seeing him for many years. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Our former headmaster was now consulting for ABS-CBN, which explained why he was there.

For a moment, I stopped and we locked eyes. The guys from his table noticed he was looking at me and I was looking back at him. There and then, I could swear, all the whistles and cheers the day he handed me the volleyball in court number 1 came back to me like it was yesterday.

Feeling very embarrassed, I walked away.

Two Different People

I got in my car, let out a breath of relief, and started to drive away. Back then, I didn’t know that he followed me. Just as I was turning the wheel, he appeared in front of my car, looked at me, and lit a cigarette.

There we were again—this time in a very different parking lot—already two very different people. I was starting my career in media, while I heard he was still staying at home.

I drove away. I saw him in my rearview mirror and I could tell that he was trying to catch up with me. But even so, I just continued to drive. I had a new boyfriend then and I was in a hurry to go home to him.

I didn’t see him again for a long time after that night. Eventually, I saw his profile on Facebook, but he never accepted my friend request. I guess he was mad at me for not stopping the car.

The Last Time I Saw Him

Years later, in the most unexpected place, I saw him again. And it was the last time I would see him alive.

It was at a department store in Makati—Landmark. I was with my boss, shopping for makeup when I saw him from across a makeup aisle. I looked into his familiar eyes. He just stood there, quietly, pretending not to see me. That time, he was with his mom. His mom who never knew about us.

It was an agonizing 10 minutes just going around the area, wondering if he would come up and talk to me. But he didn’t. Our eyes locked again and I could tell that he wanted to say something—just like in the parking lot, and just like that night before he sat down beside me on the pink bench.

But neither of us made a move so whatever he wanted to say at that moment was forever left unsaid. Because that day was the last time I saw him.

An Unexpected Passing

Many years later, I heard from one of my high school friends that he was working at a call center in Eastwood and that he already had two boys—but was not married. My friend said that he would still ask about me and told her to say hi to me.

It was also that same friend who called very early in the morning, five years ago, to deliver some very sad news. Turns out, Paolo had died. He died from a heart attack.

I was stunned. I put down the phone, not knowing how to feel. I’ve always thought that we had more time to at least be friends again, but that was no longer going to happen. My first love was dead. And I would never have another chance encounter with him again. I would never see him again.

Eventually, I went to his wake. There, I saw his family and some people I haven’t seen since high school. And at the back of the chapel, I saw his partner and his two sons. Both looked a little like him. I don’t think any of the people there actually knew who I was, so I didn’t really stay long. I just needed to tell him goodbye.

I then went up to the altar, where his urn was, and just said a little prayer. And then, I left.

A First Love, Now Gone

I didn’t cry.

I felt like I needed to grieve somehow because falling in love with him helped me know who I am. Being the woman I am today began with him, so a part of me would always belong to him. But I couldn’t feel anything. And that was because for so long, he was no longer in my life—also because I didn’t love him anymore. I haven’t for a really long time, after all.

A few weeks later, I had a dream about him. We were on the soccer field, where we spent our first night together. He was saying that he needed to go home. With one step, we were both in the parking lot. And then he said goodbye. It was the same car he came down from the night he first held my hand and kissed me.

I woke up from my dream. And I woke up crying. I couldn’t stop.

Everything came back to me like a flood—my youth and all the feelings I felt for the first time while with him. My first boyfriend, my first heartbreak, and now my very first love…lost forever.

I guess that was his way of saying goodbye to me—though only in a dream.

On Heartbreak, Regret, and Loss

They say you forget all the dreams you’ve dreamt, but I’ve always been able to remember that dream—even to this day.

I’ve heard so many things after his death. How he was in trouble and how his family never allowed him to marry the mother of his two kids. How he was never really able to overcome his addiction. All of these stories were things I just heard from people who knew him. I didn’t know if they were true.

But it made me wonder, had I stopped my car when he ran after it, or if I came up to him at the department store, would things have played out differently?

I have so many regrets about Paolo—from how our relationship ended the way it did to why we never had closure then, and how we can never have closure now. Regrets about how much I loved him and how much we loved each other when we were young. I wish he knew that I was at least a friend when he died.

Remembering My First Love

I just hope that wherever he is now, he knows what he meant to me. That’s why I’m sending this story out into the universe, hoping it reaches him somehow. And I hope that somehow, he knows how much I loved him and how grateful I am to him for being the one to help me find my true self.

Thank you Paolo, jersey #16, for being the first to see the real me, even when I didn’t. Thank you for being the first to love me. I will always remember you, Pao. You were my first love.

Sometimes, I wish that I was seventeen again. Before all the pain and the heartbreak. A time when I was experiencing love for the very first time. A love like that is enough to last your entire lifetime. That moment when once, someone loved me enough to see me for my true self.

I know that many people will never understand our love. They will judge it, and even condemn it. But I believe that love has transformative power. Love makes you real—not only to the person who loves you—but to yourself, as well.

By sharing the story of my first love, I hope that people can be more understanding and accepting of the love we need as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Love was truly a defining moment in my life. And although it ended (and even died), it lives on in me as a testament that love sees you for who you really are. That in all things, love always wins.

Happy Pride, everyone! Always be proud of who you love.

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G3 San Diego is a Filipina writer, an entertainment journalist, a key opinion leader, an online talk show host, a third-generation farmer, and a modern-day romantic.
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