As a teenager, I was surrounded by strict parents and watchful neighbors. (“Watchful” is putting it nicely; let’s just say that they gossiped about teenage girls to an extent that suggested pathological boredom.) I was riddled with hormones, but over-monitored to the point of perpetual frustration. In an effort to have sex without scrutiny (and after overhearing countless hockey players compare their prom dates to fish or cheese), I entered into a series of monogamous relationships with funny, nerdy virgins who were so grateful for my ministrations (and vice versa) that they would never tell anyone that we had slept together. This was not because they intuitively understood that doing so was problematic for my so-called reputation, but rather because every time we had sex, I swore them to secrecy.
I managed to get laid, in other words, but only in five-minute bursts — while his mom was out watering the plants, or grabbing the mail — and after four years of perpetual monogamy, I longed for casual sex in actual beds. So when it came time to fill out the “About Me” section of my college roommate form, I limited my remarks to, “My future roommate must be okay with my having sex, and must not mind if I engage in casual sex; she must also be fine with my drinking, with my smoking marijuana joints, and etcetera.” My grammar was ace but the “etcetera” revealed my pretension and lack of knowledge on the subject of illegal drugs. I nevertheless arrived on campus ready to rock.
To save time and capitalize on my newfound freedom by avoiding emotional attachment, I initially limited my romantic entanglements to frantic one-night stands with partners carefully selected to either physically or interpersonally revolt me. The cast of characters included many recently deflowered (and therefore unbelievably arrogant) computer scientists, a handful of girls who had boyfriends, some boys who had girlfriends, and one chiseled, Matt Damon-lookalike who painted “faeries” (his spelling) and pined hopelessly for our mutual lesbian friend. I slept with anyone, basically, as long as I thought I could get him or her out of my system in 24 hours.
Enter Simon. I met him in a seminar called Gay and Lesbian Literature. He looked like he was either a 12-year-old boy or a very pretty woman with short hair. I thought he was beautiful. I assumed he was an FTM transgender person. For one thing, he was exactly my size, and he only had a few, startlingly long hairs sprouting from otherwise smooth cheeks, which I thought might possibly indicate that he’d recently begun administering testosterone injections. I remember thinking, “Whoa, I’m in love,” and then immediately, “Maybe marrying this person will show my dad that Queer Theory is a useful major” — and, “Now I’ll have to explain queer theory to my grandparents; thank God we just learned about it in class” — and then, simultaneously, “This feeling isn’t real. It can’t be.” My attraction to him outweighed anything I’d ever felt, but so far I’d been able to get that kind of curiosity out of my system in a single night, so I was reluctant to admit it meant anything.
“I’ve heard that book is great,” Simon said, nodding at the thing in my hands. His voice was scratchy.
“It’s dumb,” I mumbled. I couldn’t stop looking at him. “Really, really stupid. Truly dumb.” I couldn’t stop talking. I wished I could. “Dumb,” I repeated.
The air between us felt warm and prickly. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. He looked so grateful. Later he admitted that although my boobs, face, and butt had initially enticed him, my honesty about a book everyone was pretending to like made his heart swell with love. He also admitted he’d been worried that I was a lesbian, which wasn’t the craziest assumption; the demographic of our class skewed toward students who had recently shaved their heads or gotten Camille Paglia quotes tattooed on their bodies, and who often prefaced their comments with, “As a gay woman…”
“Would you care to walk down the hall with me?” I asked him, shutting my dumb book. I may as well have been some guy from a Jane Austen novel requesting a “turn around the room” — and perhaps my antiquated attempt at chivalry was pure sexism, rooted in the belief that Simon had a vagina. Either way, we walked down the hall together. We walked down the stairs, too, and then down the street. We kept walking until we were smack in the middle of Boston where we continued traipsing, chatting rapidly, asking a million questions and trying to catch each other up on everything that had happened in our respective lives before that moment. He told me stories about his boyhood in New York City, presumably to show me he was cis-gender, and I told him stories about my ex-boyfriends, to clarify that I was heterosexual. His face lit up and mine felt flushed.
“So you were born this way,” I said, nodding rapidly. “I mean, it would have been fine if you hadn’t been, I was totally prepared—”
I had been about to say, to love you either way and the confessional near miss rattled me. I had met girls at school who said they were at college for their M.R.S. degree and I liked to tell myself that I was different from them, less susceptible to antiquated romantic scripts. The idea that I could love someone after a single long walk seemed ridiculous and idiotic.
“Nothing,” I said.
If I had been any less attracted to him I would have propositioned him right then. (Most of my sexual encounters in college began with my saying, “Hello. Would you like to have sex with me?” — a query that sacrificed romance for clarity.) But I felt unusually vulnerable around Simon, and scared, too, because for the first time since entering college, I knew wholeheartedly that I would not only care, but that it would also hurt deeply if this particular person rejected me. As we walked toward his dorm around 2 a.m., almost 10 hours after we’d first started talking, I stuffed my hands in my pockets, worried to the core that if I touched him I would also tear off my clothes and that he would scream, “Noooooooo!” and that I would die.
“So,” he said, smiling at me.
I smiled back. Then I took off sprinting, desperate to regain my composure and to plot my next move.
The following afternoon, I passed him a note in class asking if he wanted to have a 24-hour affair. That was 2006. I planned to get him out of my system. We’re getting married next spring.
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