/ Nonfiction /
My boyfriend is a better feminist than I am. He doesn’t frequent questionable categories on PornHub. His language for consent is expansive and deliberate, practiced at every turn. He’s got an annoyingly Socratic approach to my self-deprecation, answering my indulgent questions with other questions. He’s a better man than me. He must be a woman.
I first began to suspect my boyfriend is a lesbian on our third date. He picked me up—not in a Subaru, however—and Tegan & Sara was already playing softly in the background. The Heartthrob album is a soft butch staple.
“Is this a microaggression?” I remember asking. I talk about pussy enough in class, surely he’d drawn some conclusions. He shrugged.
“I just think they’re neat.”
Before the third date, we hadn’t had sex yet. We don’t have sex that night, either. We go to a used bookstore and read to each other from New Age self-help books. I wear a dress for the first time in months. For dinner we eat each other’s breath, our faces only centimeters apart on my too-small bed, trying to maintain a decorous distance.
* * *
When I was applying to graduate school—the school that would bring me and my future lesbian boyfriend together—my mom said we needed to talk. We sat in the bedroom she shares with my father and she told me careers are important, but all the good men will be gone by the time I’m comfortable enough to take a break. I asked if my father knows that.
“I lucked out,” she corrected.
We play this game every so often, but this round, she surprised me.
“I don’t approve of your choice in men,” she started, “or women.” My first thought: neither do I, that’s the problem. Then I realized the weight of the addition.
I tell my boyfriend this story on an in-between date—the time we spend in the parking lot after class to absorb as much of each other as we can during the work week. I tell him these in-between dates mean we’ve already U-Hauled. He asks what that means.
“What does a lesbian bring to the second date?” I ask. “A U-Haul.” I explain that one can also emotionally U-Haul. I explain that these in-between dates constitute emotional U-Hauling. He asks if I am okay with that. We talk in my car until the windows fog.
Sometimes, when we talk late like this, my friend, Benny, who tracks my location on her phone, will send a series of explicit emojis. But my boyfriend and I are usually talking about our moms. I think I do this with men to gauge something I don’t otherwise have the vocabulary for. My boyfriend is a lesbian so his responses are always as perfect as the cowlick at the center of his head that curls in two concentric circles after a shower.
* * *
I know better than to shit where I eat, so when I find myself doing just that, please understand it is intentional. I am trying to view all my decision-making as pointedly intentional. It is my New Year’s resolution.
I don’t identify as a lesbian, but queer sounds performative, suggests I went to a zine festival and started referring to my cis-gender boyfriend as “my partner.” And bisexual is an invitation to be harassed about the possibility for a threesome. My boyfriend doesn’t put much stock in these labels, but he wraps them carefully in tissue paper because he understands the importance of the discourse.
* * *
I’m the reason my boyfriend and I are together, which is to say Benny is the reason my boyfriend and I are together. She could sense he was a lesbian all along. It took me two months.
Benny and I were sisters in a past life. Maybe we’ll be again in our next iteration. But for now, almost-sisters is enough to ensure we make time for each other on Fridays after work. We go to the Thai restaurant at the end of my block. We’re the only customers, save for a man at the bar. The restaurant is Pepto Bismol-pink—very unfitting not just for a Thai place but any restaurant, really, but I do love the kitschyness of that very shade of pink in contrast to the brass detailing of the dining chairs. Over spring rolls, I fantasize about what my not-yet-boyfriend might like on the menu. I’d texted him for the first time just before lunch. After class the night before, I’d laid the groundwork for this text, telling everyone to let me know when they get home safe. “Yes, you, too, my not-yet-boyfriend,” I added. He hadn’t, as planned, which I took as an invitation to follow up.
Over drunken noodles, he texts me back, ostensibly ending the conversation.
“Do you think he thinks I’m ugly?” I ask Benny on our way back to my house.
Benny rolls her eyes. She knows not to bite.
* * *
Our first date takes two weeks to materialize. I don’t buy condoms. I’ve never bought condoms. My rule of thumb so far has been if the partner in question doesn’t provide one, it’s not in the cards. I know I’m lucky this rule hasn’t backfired yet.
My not-yet-boyfriend is supposed to come over at 7:00p for dinner. Just before, I was at the Mineola Village Court House fighting a parking ticket. $250 for partially blocking my own driveway. I was able to get it down to $50 I think because the judge wanted to expedite the process. I had no proof of residency and my car is registered to a name that’s not mine. I paid the fine and drove home. I’m supposed to make peanut chicken. I’ve never made peanut chicken before. I figure we won’t be doing much eating, anyway. I start drinking a bottle of wine that Benny left here a week ago.
* * *
I moved to Long Island two weeks before the first day of class. It’s only an hour from my parents’ home in the Bronx, but in the warmer months, it can take upwards of three. I’d tightly packed my car with all my worthwhile belongings—there are a lot of them, even more I left behind, but I’m a maximalist. Such is the response to growing up in an immigrant family. I’ve yet to meet a first or even second generationer who embraces minimalism. You don’t leave a second-world country and become a minimalist.
The house I move into is, quite honestly, disgusting. It’s seen a high turnover of subletters. I won’t meet the landlord until my roommate and I decide to move months later. The house’s clutter is also its best quality. There’s a wide array of kitchen utensils. Pots and pans of varying materials. A wok. That’s where I get the idea for peanut chicken. If I use pre-cooked strips, at least I won’t kill us. As expected, we don’t do much eating, but to this day, my boyfriend insists it was a good meal and asks for me to make it again. He’s a masochist, like any good lesbian.
* * *
Our first date would’ve taken more than two weeks to materialize if not for Benny. I hand her my phone to scroll through my conversation with my not-yet-boyfriend, try to figure out why he hasn’t tried to ask me out. We text regularly but don’t acknowledge each other in class. If one of us has a comment to share with the other, we text it. I spend a lot of time staring at my phone for this reason, so much so that my office’s receptionist, a mother of four, can tell something’s up.
“I’m tryna shit where I eat, Margaret,” I say. She laughs. She tells me I’m cute. Older women have always liked me.
Benny scrolls through our lengthy conversation. She says it’s a good sign we don’t acknowledge each other in class. She points out the texts like, “Stop looking at me,” that are answered with, “How would you know I’m looking at you if you aren’t looking at me?!”
“He’s obviously shy!” she concedes.
“Me, too! He’s not special.”
That night, Benny and I go to a bar by the Mineola train station where the bartender either hates or loves her job so she always undercharges us. I’d gone to this bar the first night I moved and told myself I’d write her a book of shitty love poems after watching some old man harass her about the bar’s shoddy Wi-Fi.
Tonight, I have three whiskey sodas and send a picture of the TV screen hovering above Benny’s head to my not-yet-boyfriend.
“Golf!” I caption it. My not-yet-boyfriend really loves golf. When I tell my mom about that, she questions both our judgments.
My not-yet-boyfriend is at his friend’s wedding this weekend. He was at his cousin’s wedding the week before. I’d overheard him talking about one of these weddings and, in a panic, asked if he was getting married. I tried to sound excited.
Three whiskey sodas are my limit, but I go up to the bar to order another drink for Benny. She always gets a vodka diet with a lime slice. This is not a complicated order, but my slightly slurred speech makes it sound that way. A man at the bar asks why I’m the one paying for drinks. I’m tempted to ask if he’d rather pay for them, but the bartender shakes her head as if to indicate he’s not only a sleazy but also broke. When she hands me my change, I maybe hold on to her hand too long. By the time I return to the table, Benny’s picked up where I left off with my not-yet-boyfriend. He’s coming over Monday for dinner. I’m drunk enough to ask if it’s a date and he asks what I think. I say it’s a yes-or-no question.
* * *
When my soon-to-be-boyfriend finally comes over, I realize what it means to have only communicated via text. I don’t know how to look him in the eye. I’m already a bit tipsy from the wine. He’s brought chocolate chips cookies, says it was his first attempt at baking. Another soft butch staple. I think the first thing I do is offer a tour of the unfinished basement.
The stairs are rickety, and my soon-to-be-boyfriend has a toothy smile plastered on his face.
“There’s the washer and dryer, complete with a distinctive mildew smell,” I point to the corner. “Here’s everything left behind by past residents,” I gesture loosely to the rest of the room. The ceiling is low, and my soon-to-be-boyfriend is slightly hunched over to fit. I motion him to follow me into the corner.
“Don’t worry, this wasn’t a whole extended ploy to murder you,” I say. The joke’s not funny. He laughs anyway. Thank God.
In the corner, I pull out a stack of fuchsia folders.
“The person I’m subletting from used to do some Avon-like business, but with sex toys,” I say. “Look.” I hand him a folder. I’m focused on his brow for a reaction as he flips through the pamphlet of vibrators and handcuffs and butt plugs. He gives me very little. I figure he’s seen it all before or not at all.
It’s weird that I’m forcing this folder in his face. I know that. I take him through the door that used to lock to the other side of the basement where a bare, twin size mattress lies on the floor next to an empty garbage can. I’m out of one-liners for the situation. We go back upstairs and I serve dinner, pour him what’s left of the wine.
“What are your thoughts on abortion?” This might not have been my first question, but I did ask it that night.
As expected, he’s pro-choice.
“Respond to the following prompt,” I continue. “All cops are bastards.”
My soon-to-be-boyfriend is from Long Island, so this is a touchier subject. He answers correctly enough. I know my politic can be a little reactionary. He’s from Long Island and wears polos. Benny and I agree this makes him a lesbro.
After not eating dinner and hoping I successfully framed my unlikability as something quirky and nuanced, I ask if he wants to hang out in my bedroom. As a maximalist, I’ve an eclectic collection of stuff I can talk about, can show him. I open another bottle of wine to remind myself where this is heading, but I find myself sitting cross-legged on the floor by my bed reciting “In the bakery” by Darcie Dennigan.
“The substance of the soul, the libidinal terrible whatever,” I read too passionately, my cheeks warm. I look up to see how much I’m boring him, how much I’m creating a distance despite having been the one to suggest the bedroom. He tells me to keep going.
“What is the secret ingredient? I confessed: Flower. Flowers! Please, put me away. I am desperate.” When I get to the line in which the speaker says, “I loved you even before,” I rush through the remaining stanzas. I know I often come on too strong.
I know this is a date. I know, but we’re draped across opposite ends of my too-small bed. I wonder if he’s humoring me. At one point, he tells me that I have a cute laugh. Now, I know he’s lying. I don’t laugh, I cackle. When he leaves, four or five hours later, we hold each other tight at my door. I tell him to text me when he gets home.
* * *
I give Benny a thorough play-by-play of the evening and we approach it critically.
There are a lot of memes on the contemporary lesbian experience, a lot that play with the societal undermining of lesbian relationships as “close friendships,” as “gal pals.” To traverse the line between platonic and romantic intimacy for a heteronormative audience is both exhausting and liberating. Some say lesbians are more socially acceptable than gay men. If we’re going to operate on the misconception that a binary is indisputable, then the “some” who “say” refers to straight men and their love of lesbian porn. Andrea Long Chu says everyone is female and everyone hates it. Everyone is female, she argues in part, because to be female is to “become what someone else wants”—such is the foundation of human sexuality. In her aptly titled Females, Chu wields her love affair with Andy Warhol’s attempted assassin, Valerie Solanas. She quotes extensively from Solanas’ play, Up Your Ass, which features a self-proclaimed female chauvinist, Bongi, who at one point exclaims, “Eventually, the expression ‘female of the species’’ll be a redundancy.”
Benny will tell me to read this book after I’ve told my boyfriend I think he’s a lesbian. Benny will tell me to read this book and I will wonder if my insistence on my boyfriend’s lesbianism comes from self-hatred, that I need to be the man in the relationship or at least not the only woman. I will ask for his thoughts so he can Socratically deconstruct what I mean by that.
* * *
My almost-boyfriend and I return to our usual text-only conversation the next day in class. We’ve always sat side-by-side but today I want it to mean more. I ask if he wants a ride to his car after class. He parks at work, the golf course, about a fifteen-minute walk from campus.
“It’s chilly out,” I reason.
I add a “no pressure!” sign off just as he responds that he’d love a ride if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.
I told Benny before our first date that my plan was to offer him this ride and when he got in my car with his hat still on, I’d ask, “Don’t you know it’s rude to leave your hat on inside?” He’s not wearing a hat today, so I drive in silence.
This will become our first in-between date, but I don’t know this yet. We talk; I don’t remember about what. I haven’t done this dance in a while, this dance where, separated by an armrest and two cupholders, your hands make their way over the other side and you start groping at parts, in yearning, as the lesbians call it, so you can ignore that sex is messy and the human body, quite frankly, is a bit off-putting. I haven’t done this dance in a while and wonder now, since it’s been one date and an in-between date, if any of it has been date-like at all. When my almost-boyfriend laments it’s getting late and turns to leave, I extend my arm as far is it can go for a handshake. He takes it, hesitant. I don’t know yet that he hasn’t done this dance in a while, either, but like a lesbian, yearning and tenderly direct, he says:
“I think we’re moving backwards.”