At the end of my freshman year of college, I befriended this girl named Alison. She had hair down to her butt and wore glasses with frames in my favorite color of RAINBOW. We met in a comparative literature class at the University of Iowa called Camp and Drag in Film and Literature. I mean, even though it was an upper level course and I was just a freshman, obviously I had to take it because I couldn’t believe the MANIFESTATION OF MY BRAIN existed in a class that I could actually take at a Big Ten school in Iowa.
This class had everything a straight girl with a love for gay culture could want. We watched “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and Tilda Swinton swap genders in “Orlando” (which is really, really bizarre if you haven’t seen it), read for camp in “The Importance of Being Earnest” and my-now-favorite book of all time “Little Me,” and spent hours debating the difference between high camp and low camp in John Waters movies. But absolutely NO ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. As my professor sardonically explained, we get it. It’s too obvious.
The material from this class has come to play in, quite honestly, a good portion of my relationships. If you’re a straight guy who can get down with drag queens, we are going to get along JUST fine. I was in the process of breaking up with a guy a few years ago who stopped the break up conversation, stunned, when he saw a certain book on my bookshelf. “I can’t believe you own this. This is such an important book to me.” And it was a book of essays on camp featuring that famous one by Susan Sontag. I basically had to date him a few more weeks after that.
And then there’s my senior year of college boyfriend, who I met working at the Iowa City Public Library. I was a circulation page and he was in adult services - which is just a naughty-sounding way of saying “media slash CDs and DVDs.” Adult services, god they were pretentious. Within the first week of us dating, we were swapping different books we loved. Gender and sexuality came up, and I was like, “oh you HAVE to read ‘Myra Breckinridge’ by Gore Vidal! It’s nuts! It’s from the ‘60s and the protagonist changes genders and it’s totally crude and graphic and bonkers.” I lent it to him, only to shortly after realize that since it’s my copy from Camp and Drag class a few years before, it’s completely underlined, highlighted, and annotated. And I had decided to write my final on anal fixation in “Myra Breckinridge.” So I can only imagine him reading through my copy of the book, horrified at how literally EVERY BUTT REFERENCE is underlined. OOPS. He spent the next two and a half years meekly trying to be game for butt stuff. I mean I wasn’t, but that’s sweet, isn’t it?
But back to freshman year, and meeting Alison. She’d walk me back to my dorm every week after class, and we’d spend forever talking about the books we were reading and movies we were watching. A friend! Making friends in college is HARD. And I was busy falling in love with gay boys so. I had a lot of time to myself. She invited me over for dinner one week, to her TOTALLY GROWN UP APARTMENT, and it was great! I didn’t have to eat dorm food, she’d cook, we’d talk. It was awesome.
This went on for the entire semester. Once a week, every week.
It was then I realized that we were dating.
I remember explaining our setup to a friend, and them telling me yeah, that sure sounds like dating. But no, we don’t kiss or touch or anything. She just… really likes cooking me dinner. And showing me episodes of Firefly. I hang out with her cat and we talk about gender studies.
Oh shit. We ARE dating.
Looking back, I like to think that we both had a certain amount of awareness of what was going on. I really liked her friendship, but didn’t want anything more. I assume she wanted more, and found me a tolerable friend at the least. I remember being aware of her feelings, and this frustrating internal pressure that I couldn’t explain myself or articulate how I was feeling. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. But also…
I’m someone who’s been so excited about gay stories and romance from a such young age. Who didn’t want to be the cute, gawky British teenage boy who the closeted hunky football player fell for, in a secret but pure love that only existed between you two, and also your fabulous best gal pal who was the only person who truly got you. There was something I could identify with about being different or weird - as a weird and different kid who liked showtunes and oldies and punk and openly talk about masturbating before it was cool for girls to do that. Philosophically I got it. I wanted to be gay, or bisexual, or I wanted that to be a part of my identity. Or, oh whatever we all know it’s a spectrum.
The semester reached it’s end, as did all 14 episodes of Firefly - cancelled too soon!! We sat next to each other on her couch, knowing this was our last hang before school let out for the summer and she graduated. She put her head on my shoulder - the first time we had ever had any physical contact. I tensed up, filled with anxiety and guilt. I think I understood a lot about being Jewish in that moment. Did I let this go on too long? Am I a terrible person? Ok Miss “I understand this philosophically” - do you want to put your face on her face?
And then… nothing happened. She took her head off my shoulder and began cleaning up from dinner. We silently got in her car and she drove me back to the dorms.
It’s fitting that nothing climactic happened. Here we were, two basically kid-adults who had no vocabulary or even experience to articulate what was going on. I’ve had full on romantic relationships where this same thing happens. You just… get better at dealing with it. More experience. More vocabulary.
She double parked in front of my dorm. She asked what I was going to do after I graduated. And I responded “Oh, I’m just a freshman.” It hadn’t occurred to me that that had never come up before. And she had assumed I was older than I was. I could tell she was kind of miffed and freaked out that I was significantly younger than she realized. (But I mean. Dorms. And how we never went to a bar or anything because I couldn’t drink in them.) (Even though it’s Iowa so I probably could have.) (Ok and did.) But I think her big reaction to my age was also her accepting nothing was going to happen. Yeah. This is a straight girl. With really short cropped hair, and hairy legs, and a penchant for wearing things with rainbows on them.
I got out of her car, and that was that. I think I saw her once at an Olive Garden. I learned a lot about myself during that time. That life is too short to not say how you actually feel. But also, there was something nice in mutually lying that let us be friends for a little longer than we might’ve been otherwise. Also, I still get really excited when I make new female friends so ladies, watch out.