We fell in love at the campus writing center, swapping stories about students who couldn’t recognize an incomplete sentence if it punched them in the nose. I was newly queer, or if not newly queer, then at least newly out — I wasn’t entirely sure which — and I was feeling supremely done with straight society: the his-and-hers gear, the gender reveal parties, the settling for mediocrity. Maybe the newness was why it felt like a first love. For at least a month after I met her, anything that wasn’t Arlie slid off the edges of my brain and out of sight. When we finally became a thing, all my friends wanted to know how I’d done it — found someone via real life, no swiping involved. I didn’t really know, though, how I’d done it. Just got lucky, I told them, that the director of academic support services had scheduled us both on Tuesday nights.
We were in different grad programs, but we both finished that year. Instead of snoozing through the commencement ceremony we took Arlie’s car north to the beaches of the rich people’s towns and raced each other barefoot across the sand, back and forth until we collapsed and got sand in all our crevices, embedded in our scalps. The water was too cold to swim, so we lay and watched the waves tearing themselves to bits. The sand had made its way into our sandwiches, but we ate them anyway, Arlie informing me that it was in fact the hippest gourmet seasoning that was only now making its way to the shelves of grocery stores, and I replying that indeed it had first been served at New York’s best Michelin restaurant, on top of a single pea drizzled with the finest moose saliva. Then we took pictures of each other throwing our graduation caps into the ocean, except I threw mine too far and couldn’t keep Arlie from stripping down and wading in after it. It wasn’t sentimentality; she couldn’t stand the idea of being even tangentially involved in a polluting activity. The fish, you see. She came out shivering, holding the limp hat, which had lost its little blue tassel, and I had to dry her off with my sweatshirt. In the car on the way home I made her laugh through her chattering teeth by telling her about the horseshoe crab that thought he would become the coolest guy on the continental shelf by wearing my tassel on his tail.
Later that evening, with Arlie freshly showered and wrapped in a blanket and Indian food on the way, she said she loved me for the first time. I grinned and said it back and kissed her. She looked concerned and said, “Are you sure?”
And I said, “Of course I’m sure.”
* * *
Soon after graduation I got a job as a librarian at one of the many minor colleges in the area, and the next year when our leases ran out Arlie and I moved together to the top level of a classic yellow triple-decker in the artsy-queer part of town. It was one of those apartments you see advertised as “sun-drenched,” with photos where the cherry wood floors are glowing gold. I let myself think that maybe I was settling down: a job, a girlfriend, an apartment.
That fall Arlie took me to a birthday party for one of her friends. It was on the roof of a building downtown because the friend’s father had one of those jobs that makes you rich off doing nothing. It seemed somehow oxymoronic to see so many queer people flaunting their undercuts and nose piercings while holding champagne glasses between two fingers and staring off over the railing like they were Rose in Titanic. Arlie had gone off to find the bathroom when this compact blond person wearing suspenders and a “they/them” pin came up to me at the snack table and said, “So, Arlie tells me you used to be straight.”
I was pretty sure you weren’t supposed to say that to people because biphobia, but I wasn’t bi so I let it slide. Plus this person’s hair was intimidating me. It was cut short with tiny little bangs poking down over the top of their forehead, which was just ugly enough that I could tell it was really fucking cool. “Nah,” I said. “I was never straight. I just didn’t know I was queer yet.”
They lifted their champagne to that and I felt a little better. “But you dated a cis man?”
“I did, I did. Terrible mistake. Never doing that again.”
“I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” they said.
I shrugged. “We do what we have to do.”
“What’s the news from the land of the straights, then?”
“Bleak,” I said, “although I haven’t been there in years. But I don’t see it getting any better.”
“Poor thing,” they said, laying a hand on my arm. “You must be so much happier now that Arlie’s rescued you from that hellscape.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to take this, but just then I saw Arlie across the roof deck, ducking back through the crowd towards me. I said, “Sorry, Arlie —” and fled.
When I nearly slammed into her and snatched up her hand, Arlie said, “Wow, so eager.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know, Arlie, you know I like your friends, but I’m just getting a weird vibe tonight.”
She put an arm around my waist and pulled me into her. “You want to head home, babe?”
I could tell from the misty look in her eyes that she had sex on the brain. “Sure,” I said. At that time sex wasn’t all that hard to have. It happened without me thinking much about it.
We said goodbye to her friends and took the elevator down to the street. “I’m thinking of buzzing my hair,” I said as we headed towards the train. “I just realized that I can’t stand the thought of another man being attracted to me ever again.”
* * *
I buzzed my hair and brought Arlie home for Thanksgiving that year for the first time. My parents hated both of these things, which was hardly unexpected. I’d spent our entire relationship preparing Arlie for my parents, but it was impossible to be entirely prepared for my parents. When we drove up to their house on Wednesday night in Arlie’s black Camry, my mother commenced the visit by monologuing for a full ten minutes on the myriad of problems caused by owning a dark-colored car (safety, visibility, heat in summer, etc.) before turning to me and saying, “You didn’t tell me you were cutting your hair.” Then my dad came out of the kitchen and said to Arlie, “So, I hear you’re a vegetarian.”
“Oh yeah,” she said, “but you don’t have to do anything special for me, I can just eat —”
“Do you eat chicken?”
She smiled like this might be a joke. “No.”
“What about ham?”
“No chicken, no ham.” He counted off on his fingers these many ways in which he was being inconvenienced. “No beef?”
“No beef, sorry. I can just —”
“No!” He held up his hand to stop her. “I’ll figure it out. We’ll make some oatmeal or something. Is oatmeal vegetarian?”
The next day, when my aunt and uncle arrived at the door, my mom introduced Arlie as my friend. I’d come out to my parents at Easter during my first year of grad school, and my mother had spent the entire weekend brainstorming things she had done wrong in bringing me up that had almost definitely made me queer, a list that ranged from not kissing my father in front of me often enough to feeding me formula as an infant. My aunt said she liked my hair and I thought she probably knew Arlie wasn’t my friend. My mom said, “Don’t get me started on that hair,” and went to put out the bowl of nuts so that she wouldn’t get started on the hair.
When it came time for dinner, Arlie walked into the dining room carrying a tray of water glasses and discovered a giant cylinder of something meaty at her place. She poked at it with a fork when she thought my parents were still in the kitchen, but my dad snuck up behind her and said proudly, “I made you a Tofurky.”
“Dad,” I said, “she doesn’t like fake meat.”
“It’s a Tofurky,” he said.
“She doesn’t want that. Just let her eat the mashed potatoes and carrots.”
“You can’t live off mashed potatoes and carrots, Lillian. This is why she’s a stick.”
“It’s fine,” Arlie said, flashing us a smile. “I’ve never actually had one of these. It’s worth a try.”
Then my mother walked in and said, “That thing looks like your head, Lillian. Just wrong.”
* * *
In spite of my parents, after we’d lived together for a few months and acquired a few shared possessions (a couch, a cookbook, a cactus) Arlie started to mention marriage in casual, joking ways: On her birthday it was too bad everyone would hate us if we had carrot cake at our wedding, and when an ad came up on Facebook this would be a nice engagement ring if only it was silver. Each time she did it the idea of marriage grew less appealing. The problem was the structure of the thing, the way each moment had been played out so many times before by every lousy couple in history. It was like those old dollar bills that have been through so many fingers and wallets and sweaty pockets that they’re furry and sagging and only worth anything because everyone conspires to uphold the illusion of their value.
Meanwhile, my job was killing me. Librarians were supposed to have very high job satisfaction, which only made me despise every librarian I met for being satisfied with what they had. Some of them genuinely seemed to love it. They liked to make jokes about all the stupid questions people had asked them and how their institutions didn’t value them, but they said these things in such a way that you could tell they liked being the underdog. They liked feeling like martyrs for the great cause of knowledge. But all I ever did was show people how to press buttons on a screen. And after I’d demonstrated how to type gun control into a search box for the hundredth time, I started to doubt that switching to a search for abortion instead was really going to provide the kind of return on investment I was looking for in my life. It seemed to me that by the time people got to be eighteen they should already know how to type words and click on things. But I could hardly blame the students when our statistics showed that I had taught faculty members how to copy and paste exactly thirty times in the last year. Seven of those times were the same history professor who exclaimed over the wonders of the twenty-first century every time I revealed the existence of the right-click.
I only allowed myself an hour of each workday to troll the job boards. I figured IT might be able to see what I was doing despite the fact that I used an incognito browser, but even if they did care enough to stalk my search history, I wasn’t going to be particularly sad if I got fired. In fact, it might be just the kind of push I needed. Sometimes I didn’t even use the incognito browser. But the more I imagined alternate realities, the less I liked any of them. Teaching Romeo and Juliet to high schoolers who hated Shakespeare? Writing memes for some corporate Twitter page to fool the masses into thinking Jeff Bezos was one of them? Working at a different library where maybe people would ask me about housing prices and tax law instead of gun control and abortion? The problem wasn’t so much the work itself, it was the whole idea of being trapped inside for eight hours every day with no free will, forced for the sake of some contrived professionalism to pretend that everything was rosy and no question was stupid and I didn’t want to strangle my boss for the typos sprinkled all over his emails. The problem was the whole Protestant capitalist system of compulsory productivity that made us all into rats running around for the sake of a sugar pellet.
I tried wearing dresses to work instead of button-downs. I thought the contrast of the dresses with the buzzcut might make things more exciting. It didn’t.
* * *
After I fell asleep during sex for the third time Arlie was finally upset. I didn’t try to lie and say I was just so tired from work. It was 1 PM on a Sunday. I felt bad but the simple truth was that I didn’t like sex that much. In any hypothetical situation where I could choose between sex and something moderately pleasant, like lying in a hammock or reading a book or eating a piece of toast, I would pretty much always choose the other thing. I wasn’t sure if it had always been that way, but it was clearly that way now. Arlie would always choose sex. Most people would always choose sex. Most people thought being a librarian sounded great. Most people wanted to get married as soon as they could.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re just very close friends who live together and cuddle a lot,” said Arlie, crying all over the pillow. She was a very put-together person until tears appeared on the scene, and then her entire head melted like a candle.
“Would that really be so bad?” I asked.
“You’re supposed to be in love with me,” she said, trailing snot.
“Of course I’m in love with you.” I forced a tissue on her and hoped she would take it as a token of my affection.
After a few days passed Arlie was never very good at remembering the bad stuff that happened between us. I couldn’t figure out if that was lucky for me or not.
* * *
Everyone seemed to be getting engaged. Arlie was always showing me photos of the most recent proposal on Instagram. “Why would you propose at a concert?” she would say, scrutinizing the pixels on her phone screen. This was meant as a reminder that she would only accept a proposal in a location with historical significance. Too many successive posts by the same couple also inspired criticism. They were throwing it in people’s faces. Everyone already knew they were engaged and adorable.
Arlie was one of those lesbians who had been out since forever. Her coming out story was a terrible conversation starter; she insisted that she had always known she was gay, and everyone around her had simply intuited this fact sometime around middle school. It didn’t really make sense to me, because she wasn’t a stereotypical queer. Her hair was shoulder-length, straight, and brown, and as far as I could tell from her old Facebook photos, it pretty much had been since sixth grade. She wore makeup not every day but on a regular basis, had never played softball, had never been labeled a tomboy. I didn’t get how she supposedly inspired such accurate gaydar in everyone around her. But she didn’t find it odd in the least and never seemed interested in discussing it. When I asked her friends they just shrugged and said it was pretty obvious. Sometimes I watched her when she didn’t realize it, trying to catch out some flagging gesture I’d never noticed. Sometimes I wondered if I was the one missing something.
Arlie wanted the white picket fence, lesbian edition. I often pondered how this dream was in fact more subversive than most people realized: it was like planting a mole at a country club dinner party. It was a rebellion from within. It was taking the institution of heterosexuality and turning it inside out as easily as a sock. That’s what I tried to remind myself.
In March we went all the way to North Carolina to watch some people get married. They were friends of Arlie’s from college. Boston was still covered in snow, but it was already spring in Asheville. The trees were bursting open and my allergies got a head start on their usual schedule, but I did get to break out my shark print button-down. It made me feel more like me.
At the ceremony, Arlie held my hand long after it got sweaty. After the vows she kissed my cheek and I could feel her looking at me with shining eyes. It might as well have been us up there at the altar. I clapped in a way that I hoped was enthusiastic and watched the brides walk back up the aisle together. When they threw their bouquets I pretended to be checking my phone. Arlie caught one. It wasn’t fair; there was twice the chance with two brides and two bouquets.
When we got back to the hotel Arlie put the flowers in a pitcher she’d begged from the front desk and then sat on the bed admiring them. “Lillian,” she said, “when do you think you might want to get married?”
“When?” I said. “Well, let’s see, maybe in a couple years? Once we’re more settled?”
“More settled how?”
“I don’t know, like once I have a job I don’t hate.”
“Does that matter for us getting married?”
Arlie had studied English. She had done her master’s thesis on Victorian mourning culture, but somehow the gods granted her a high-paying corporate communications job in pharmaceuticals. Although she denied it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the hiring manager might have liked her background in death. Arlie was strangely content with her job despite the fact that she spent all day writing those long lists of dire side effects that are legally required in ads for medications they want you to think you need.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, it feels like me being happy matters for me getting married.”
“But if you’re happy in our relationship, shouldn’t that be the happiness that matters for getting married?”
“Well, sure. But sometimes all the happinesses feel like they get tangled up in my head.”
She came and sat next to me on the couch and pulled out her phone. “Okay, fine. Then let’s find you a new job.” She was very solutions-oriented.
“I’ve already been looking,” I said, but she typed in “librarian jobs” anyway.
I didn’t tell her that I didn’t think I wanted to be a librarian anymore.
* * *
Arlie loved it when I went down on her. She would moan and moan but somehow never seemed to be able to come. I hated the taste and my tongue always started cramping up because I breathed through my mouth to avoid the smell. It probably only took forever because I was bad at it, but I couldn’t make myself care enough to engage in self-improvement. One evening after ten minutes of lapping at her clit I looked up from between her legs and said, “I don’t think I like oral sex,” except it came out sounding like I had a cold because I knew that if I breathed through my nose at this late stage my senses would be overwhelmed.
“What?” she said, propping herself up on her elbows, and I said, “Hold on,” and stumbled through the dark to the bathroom to run my tongue under the faucet while scrabbling at it with my fingernails. When I turned the water off I stared at the shadow of my face in the mirror. It seemed safest to just stay in there, examining the black hole of my reflection, but instead I went and stood in the bedroom doorway and said, “Sorry.”
“Are you okay?” Arlie said.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”
She held out her arms to me. “What happened?”
I got back into bed, trying not to gag at the smell of sex wafting from under the covers. “I don’t know,” I said. “I just got overwhelmed or something.”
“That’s okay,” she said, and spooned me.
“Arlie,” I whispered, “Maybe you should try sleeping with other people.”
* * *
At work I developed a new catchphrase that I found quite useful. Often students came over to the library desk and asked me things, like maybe, “The printers aren’t working,” (sometimes they weren’t actually questions) or, “Do you have articles about the effects of fracking in Pennsylvania?” (these questions were few and far between, the ones that I actually had gone to grad school to answer) or, most frequently, according to our statistics, “Is there a bathroom up here?” I began to reply to these questions with one of my own, which I was pretty sure I’d read somewhere was a proven instructional technique that vastly improved students’ critical thinking. The question I asked was, “Why don’t you Google it?”
Then I watched them wander off with a stunned look in their eyes.
* * *
Arlie took some convincing. At first she was sure that this meant I didn’t love her anymore. I kept having to remind her that sex had nothing to do with love. Then she worried that I didn’t care enough about her to be jealous, and I tried to explain that jealousy was a useless emotion that hearkened back to male possession of women. If you stripped away society’s construct of what a relationship should look like, it made a lot more sense for Arlie to have her sexual desires satisfied by someone who was actually good at it. Eventually she agreed to swipe if I would make her Tinder profile for her. I soon realized we had a problem: There didn’t seem to be any good photos of her alone. Instead I sifted through all the best pictures of the two of us and cropped myself out of them. Her profile read, “Tell me how you’re going to give me a good time ~winky face emoji~”. When I handed her phone back she gave me a look of extreme skepticism and I could hear the digital rattlesnake sound of the keyboard as she deleted what I’d written.
* * *
“How’s what’s-her-name?” my dad asked when we talked on the phone.
“Arlie, Dad? Arlie’s fine.”
“Yeah? How’s her job?”
“Seems fine. She likes it, anyway.”
“How much does she make again?” This was a frequent point of inquiry.
“A lot, Dad. More than me. It’s big pharma. The pits of hell.”
“Can she get you a job there?”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t take it if she did. And anyway you shouldn’t work with your partner. It’s too awkward if you break up.”
“Are you going to break up?”
“Well, just don’t tell your mother.”
“She doesn’t approve of breakups. She hated it when you broke up with that Taylor guy.”
“That’s because I told her he was the last man who would ever lay hands on me.”
“Just like divorces. She can’t stand divorces. Says they’re a sign of weakness of character.”
“We actually already broke up,” I said. It seemed like good practice. “My character is very weak.”
“Oh for god’s sake,” he said. “Well, at least we can have a real Thanksgiving again.”
Then the line went dead.
* * *
The students started to develop some attitude when I told them to Google it, so I countered by wearing only suits to work. It was harder to question someone in a suit. Between that and the buzzcut, some of them began to doubt my gender. I heard them complaining to each other about me, but in a polite way, like, “She’s such a bitch — they’re such a bitch? Do you know what pronouns they use?” I liked being indeterminate. It reflected how I felt about my own life. Unfortunately Arlie liked the suits a bit too much, which made it hard to keep her swiping, so I had to leave them at work and change into sweatpants before I came home.
She started trying to test me. She would say, “I love you,” and watch me suspiciously. I would say it back and she would go, “Are you sure?” and I would say yes, and she would say, “How much?” and I would say a lot. This was an easy test to pass if you just stuck to the script.
Then one day my boss overheard me telling someone to Google it, and he came up behind me saying, “You know, I’ve been getting complaints about this, but I didn’t believe it.” I was his star worker. He used to be a Wall Street investment banker; no one had yet been able to sufficiently explain to me how he got to be a college librarian. He liked to think he ruled with an iron fist. He asked me why I wasn’t doing my job properly, and I explained that I thought our students needed to finally develop some self-sufficiency. He told me he didn’t know what was going on but I’d better pull myself together and start showing my old customer service skills again. I didn’t say that customer service was just one of the ways that capitalism steamrolled everyone’s personalities into replicas of a robotic ideal, in anticipation of the long-awaited day when it could actually replace us with robots. I told him I would try.
For the rest of the day I sat at the circulation desk daydreaming about running away and starting a chicken farm, or hunkering down in a fire tower on a remote mountaintop prone to blizzards, or becoming a clown who performed at bachelorette parties dressed as the bride’s fiancé.
* * *
Arlie finally loosened up enough to go over to some girl’s house. The girl looked suspiciously like me in her Tinder photos, and I almost protested that Arlie should really use this opportunity to try something new, rather than sleeping with someone who looked like she might have bought the hair I’d buzzed off and made it into a wig. She had my exact build but was clearly in better shape. She looked like she was probably strong enough to toss Arlie over her shoulder and carry her to bed. Her profile itemized a whole list of queer identities that I had to Google. When Arlie got home that night, she admitted under questioning that the sex had been good but then started crying because she felt so guilty for enjoying it.
No matter how many times I reasoned out for her how polyamory was a more advanced step in human relations, some part of her took it as a personal failure, or at least a failure of our relationship. Nonetheless, she made more visits to this doppelganger of mine; it seemed like the sex was good enough that she didn’t actually want to give it up. Sometimes I suspected that this sex woman might actually be a new and improved alternate-universe version of myself. Sometimes I let myself daydream about what it might be like to be her.
* * *
One day at work a student asked me for help finding resources for her paper on the meaning of freedom throughout American history. She showed me what she’d written and it was so terrible that I simply couldn’t allow it to continue existing in the world in its current form. I proposed that she could hand me ten bucks and I would rewrite the whole thing, thereby guaranteeing her an A. She gave me referrals to two of her classmates, and I found myself writing three variations on this question of freedom. In one, I focused on Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech as the foundation of a particularly American fanaticism for autonomy. In another, I examined how freedom has always been defined differently by the state for different groups of people, illuminating the essential hypocrisy of the nation’s founding documents. By the time I got to the third paper, I decided I was ready to take some risks. I wrote it on the ways in which the institutions central to American society, such as capitalism and religion and the traditional family structure, have themselves restricted Americans’ true freedoms even as American “freedom” purports to make people “free” to pursue the kind of “happiness” produced by those very institutions. I used so many scare quotes writing that paper that the quotation mark key on my keyboard developed a squeak. When I handed the paper over to the student who was supposed to have written it, she read the thesis I’d underlined on the first page and looked up at me with an expression that seemed to mix confusion with disgust. “Do you actually believe this?” she said.
“No, no,” I said. “Well, maybe sometimes, a little bit. But just trust me, your professor will eat it up.” I tapped my skull with a finger. “Those kinds of twisted-around arguments are very academic.”
“I don’t even know what this means. ‘The heart of American society binds the American citizen irrevocably to those very structures which restrict freedom as much as any dictator’? Are you sure this isn’t overkill?”
“Oh my goodness,” I said, spinning all the way around in my rolling chair and pointing to the clock on the wall. “Isn’t this paper due at noon?”
My little business was expanding nicely until a new customer came in while I was at lunch and asked my boss how they could get a paper written, since they’d heard that was a service the library was offering nowadays. As soon as my boss slammed the door of the break room behind him so hard that my spoon rattled on the table, I knew it was all over.
I came home with a spring in my step and Arlie, perceiving my good mood and the suit that I hadn’t had time to change out of, thought she would try her luck with me in bed. She’d already gotten my jacket and shirt off when I said, “I don’t think I want to have sex anymore, Arlie,” and she said, “At all?” and I said yes, I mean no, not at all.
* * *
Then I began making my plans to become an actress or an accountant or an architect or a bartender or a banker or a butcher or a carpenter or a cowgirl or a crypto analyst or a doctor or a dentist or a detective, or open a vegan pizza shop, or waitress at the top of a skyscraper, or sell all my belongings on eBay, or count salmon in Alaska, or get a makeover on a reality show, or chain myself to a bulldozer to protest something, or nanny for a family vacationing in Slovakia, or coach a T-ball team, or paddle around the world in a kayak, or pan for gold in Colorado, or lead ghost tours from a horse-drawn carriage, or climb Mount Everest without oxygen, or move to Nebraska and sell solar panels door-to-door, or become a climatologist in Antarctica, or learn the banjo and start a bluegrass band, or go ice fishing in Minnesota, or set a Guinness World Record for eating M&Ms, or teach skiing in Dubai, or drive a train across Siberia, or hike the Appalachian Trail with a llama, or fly a millionaire’s private jet into a cliff, or become a chemist and patent a love pill, or carve ice sculptures for air-conditioned Florida dining rooms, or train weasels for the movies, or grow poisonous flowers for wedding bouquets, or design the shortest building in the world, or get myself baptized and join a nunnery, or make a film about the inner lives of worms, or run away to the circus and do the flying trapeze, or become a plumber on a cruise ship, or run for Congress in a bikini, or write the owners’ manuals for UFOs, or write an app that prevents you from dating people, or write a self-help book about how to slash away for so long at the fabric of your own life that you can begin to see freedom peeking through.
Julia Beretich spends her free time writing about queer feelings and exploring the wilds of New England. This is her first publication.