Note: No one in this story is innocent, but their names have been changed, anyway.
The program was called “Explorations,” which makes the whole thing seem like a setup for a particularly bad joke. I was fourteen years old, and, by that point in time, I had a lot of important feathers in my cap. There was the feather for attending marine biology camp, the feather for being a published writer, the feather for using the word “fuck” in public, the feather for owning bellbottom jeans and a lava lamp thirty years after they were in vogue.
Those are the sort of things that make you a person of great distinction.
But, at the age of fourteen, there are certain life experiences which I had yet to encounter, and this fact dampened the quality of what feathers I did have, rendering them no more attractive than those of an avian oil spill victim. That’s a sad picture, isn’t it? Those poor birds with the oil-soaked feathers, being scrubbed raw with Dawn dishwashing liquid. Oil spill birds are the new drowned rats, don’t you think? Alicia, this girl who went to marine biology camp with me, once told me that I looked like a drowned rat after I got out of the shower. I didn’t let it get to me, because Alicia had no friends and she smelled like fish, and not in the way that everybody who goes to marine biology camp smells like fish. That was back when I was twelve. I was such a confident badass when I was twelve. Less so, when I turned fourteen, and began to take notice of how many feathers I had yet to acquire.
Like the feather you get for kissing a girl for the first time.
You might think that that feather is hot pink and covered in glitter and rhinestones, but that would be the feather you get for being a drag queen bingo host in Vegas. The feather you get for kissing a girl for the first time is actually soft and delicate and pure white and it smells like whatever your favorite smells are (freshly printed newspaper and dirt and saltwater, if you’re me), because girls are magical like that. At age fourteen, I’d never kissed anyone before, and I’d certainly never kissed a girl, because when you attend an all-ladies’ Catholic school you don’t do that sort of thing, unless we’re talking about a specific genre of porn, in which case, you do do that sort of thing, and you’re paid for it. What I knew about kissing was limited to what I’d read in books, and what I knew about sex was limited to what I’d learned in marine biology camp, a fact that was made painfully obvious when, during study hall, Lisa asked me if I knew what sex was and I looked at her over my glasses, librarian-style, and responded:
“It’s the process of combining genetic materials.”
And as she walked away, laughing, I called out after her:
“Did you know that male barnacles have the largest sexual organs in proportion to their bodies?”
And that was the first time anyone called me a dyke.
I hate to think that I’ve proved Lisa right, after all these years, but even if I did, it doesn’t really matter, because I’ve seen pictures of her on Facebook, and I know that she’s destined to end up as country club arm candy and one day she’ll be ransacking her walk-in closet, engulfed by a cascade of Ralph Lauren polo shirts in varying shades and hues, and she’ll start crying and pulling at her hair and screaming, “I’ll never have every color of the rainbow!” and then I’ll burst out from the closet and say, “That’s because the gay community co-opted the rainbow years ago, you silly Trophy Wife!” and then my ridiculously hot girlfriend will descend from the skies, Ride of the Valkyries style, on a rainbow Unicorn-Pegasus named Sappho, and we’ll fly off into the sunset, and Lisa will cry “Dykes!” after us but I won’t hear her because I’ll be too busy having mind-blowing sex on the back of a Unicorn-Pegasus.
Fourteen year-old Katie didn’t believe that she’d ever actually like girls.
Then again, she also didn’t believe in the existence of Unicorn-Pegasi, which just goes to show you how dumb I was at the age of fourteen (or maybe how delusional I am at the age of twenty-one, I don’t really know which).
But this was all before Explorations.
Explorations took place at Wellesley College, a prestigious women’s college (read: a prestigious lesbian college) in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I loved the place, for reasons that would quickly become obvious. Years later, I’d end up being accepted to Wellesley, but I chose NYU instead, because NYU seemed way less gay than Wellesley. Also, after fifteen years of single-sex education, I decided that it was time for a change of scenery below the torso. The Explorations program itself was not single-sex, but the lesbian aura of the Wellesley campus didn’t take a summer vacation. Thus, from the moment I stepped foot on those vaguely breast-like rolling hills, I might as well have been inhaling sweet Sapphic smoke from a vagina-shaped hookah. I’ve never actually been high, but I hear that it can be disorientating, and even this pseudo-high did result in some disorientation. Sexual disorientation, you might say, which, when coupled with the newfound freedom that comes with being liberated from one’s parents for three whole weeks, can be absolutely intoxicating.
I ate only Werther’s caramels for two days straight, because I’d never tried it before.
I dyed my hair with Sun-In, because I’d never tried it before.
I shaved my legs, because I’d never tried before.
And, as we’ve established, I kissed a girl for the first time, because –
“You’ve never kissed anyone?”
Sarah was a friend of a friend. I wanted to be her friend, sans middleman.
She had buck teeth and freckles, which, on her, were so charming.
“No,” I muttered, wishing that I had buck teeth and freckles, too.
And I remember lying down on the bed and feeling how I imagined it must feel when you’re about to have surgery. And all of our friends, like silly, stupid nurses, were giggling in the corner, and not one of them had the decency to offer me anesthesia.
I didn’t have to wait long, though. The surgeon was on top of me.
It seemed suspiciously like malpractice.
“You might feel kind of weird,” she said, which is the same sort of understatement as:
“This won’t hurt a bit.”
In order to ensure that it wouldn’t be a “real” kiss, she placed her ungloved thumb over my lips, not giving a thought to the sterility of the implements she was about to employ.
I wonder if she washed her thumb! I thought.
I wonder if she brushed her teeth! I thought.
I wonder where our noses will go! I thought.
The negotiation of noses during the kissing process always boggled my mind, on a conceptual level. Everything about it seemed cumbersome and decidedly unromantic. I assumed that kissing was something that was done straight-on, forcing the noses to bump into one another with all of the grace and sensuality of a Hulk-hand-smash. This was how kissing turned out to be when it was done with a guy named Christopher, so I guess it isn’t a totally invalid theory. But eventually, when I would become a bit more experienced with people other than Christopher, I’d learn that it’s about compromise, that you both tilt your heads just-so and you fit together, even when you’re certain that you won’t. And here’s how I know that, at age twenty-one, it’s been so long since I’ve kissed someone: I’m beginning to forget about the placement of noses all over again. I hope that I haven’t actually forgotten how to do it. I hope that kissing is like riding a bike, like you never forget, right?
What they don’t tell you is that, sure, you never forget how to ride a bike, but after you ride a bike for the first time in a while, you sometimes forget how to walk.
So maybe I don’t want kissing and bikes to have anything in common, unless we’re talking about the presence of those sparkly handlebar streamers. It would be nice if streamers fell from the ceiling every time you kissed someone, but then it wouldn’t be a kiss, it would be a surprise birthday party, and even surprise birthday parties lose their excitement after they happen for the tenth time.
I had a surprise birthday party, once. I was nineteen years old. I don’t know if it really qualified as a surprise birthday party, because I was fully aware that a party had been planned.
What made it a surprise was the fact that I’d forgotten that it was my birthday.
I regard surprises as one might regard Band-Aids, which is to say, if you’re going to pull one off, do it as quickly as possible.
Sarah seemed to sense my request for a fast and painless procedure, because, suddenly:
Her lips were on top of her thumb.
It was nothing like what actual kissing is like, but I didn’t know that at the time. To me, that was legitimate kissing, and, therefore, the feelings I experienced were legitimate feelings.
And, although it was woefully brief, it felt like it went on forever, as the best and worst moments in our lives often do.
When we parted, I paused before asking if we could do it again.
And then she laughed. Hard.
“No, of course not.”
“You’ll get the hang of it, sometime. When you do it with boys.”
Of course! Boys. Boys. Right! Sure! Silly me. That’s what we’re practicing for!
So I laughed and said something like, “Duh, I was just kidding! I don’t want to do it again! Yay boys! Boys boys boys boys can’t get enough boys!”
But what I really wanted to say was:
“Bullshit, Dr. Sarah. You go to an all-girls school too. We both know what’s going on here. And need I remind you that you’re the one who called me out on my lack of experience and chose to perform the surgery in the first place? Maybe you were just trying to humiliate me in front of our stupid friends, is that it? Or maybe you thought I was just so pathetic that you wanted to be a Good Samaritan. Well, I’ve got news for you, doctor. You’re not a Good Samaritan. You’re a…a Bad Canaanite.”
I wasn’t very good at comebacks when I was fourteen. Not even hypothetical ones.
I didn’t know what to do with my hands or my face or my racing heart. So, as stupid Sarah and the other stupid girls began to settle into some stupid conversation, I tried to sink into her bed as best I could, wishing I could drop right through it, like Shadowcat in X-Men. Shadowcat’s real name is Kitty Pryde. I always liked her. I hope it had nothing to do with the fact that her name is Kitty, and that’s another word for “pussy,” which is another word for “vagina.”
I remember staring at the ceiling for a ridiculously long time. I remember waiting for the heat to drain from my face and getting frustrated when it didn’t. I remember doing that thing you do when you close one eye and pretend to squish someone’s head between your thumb and pointer finger, but I couldn’t bear to look any of my friends in the face and Sarah had an Orlando Bloom poster on her wall, so I squished his head instead.
Fuck you, Orlando Bloom, I thought, for being Sarah’s object of passion.
Fuck you for being a man.
And then Orlando Bloom said, “Katie, stop being such a bitter little lesbian.”
And that’s when I realized that I’d fallen asleep on Sarah’s bed.
“You can get off my bed now,” she said.
And then she laughed. Hard.
Girls can be devastatingly cruel. I don’t understand why I find them so attractive.
I got up, slowly, as one is apt to do when they’ve just had extensive medical work done.
(For the record: my insurance didn’t cover the procedure.)
I should have requested the strongest painkillers she had, but, instead, I pretended that I had to call my mom and I hightailed it back to my own room, where I doctored myself with a homeopathic remedy of Werther’s and back-issues of Teen Vogue. But the sweetness of the caramels seemed cloying and artificial, so unlike the subtle sweetness of another person’s lips. And leafing through the pages of Teen Vogue only added to my anxiety, because, all of a sudden, I didn’t know if I found the girls on those glossy pages so pretty because I wanted to emulate their impeccable fashion sense or because I wanted to kiss them. It’s something I still struggle with when I read magazines like that, which I do – shamefully often, in fact. When someone catches me with one, I usually insist that I bought it as a joke, and then I start talking about this fascinating article that I read in Scientific American or The Economist, because I have an ego the size of small developing country.
My ego was the reason I didn’t want to go back to Sarah’s room and demand that justice be served, potentially with a side of chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne and a book of smutty lesbian pulp fiction.
I first realized that I had a massive ego was when I was seven years old.
Seven is the age of reason, according to the Catholic Church.
When I was seven, I was lying in bed, and I was trying to find animal faces in my floral wallpaper, and I got this picture of myself in my head. It’s me, and I’m forty-five years old, and I’m alone, and I’m crouching over a busted Kenmore washing machine, and I’m in tears because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and I’ve never felt so impotent in my entire life, or maybe just since the last time I tried to fix something.
And then I wonder which scenario is worse:
The one in which I’m despairing because I’ve thrown the instruction manual away.
Or the one in which it’s sitting on the counter, but I’m too damn proud to reach for it.
That image often comes to mind when I’m faced with a situation that calls my ego into question. So it makes sense that it was what I kept picturing as I lay on my bed, beneath a pile of Werther’s wrappers and articles about sexy summer hair, except, this time, I envisioned myself not only as a pathetic grown-up, but as a pathetic grown-up lesbian, which, somehow, seemed infinitely more tragic. I convinced myself that I was doomed to a life of unrequited love and faulty appliances. I don’t need anybody anyways, I thought. I can get a cat, or maybe a Malaysian baby, and we can have a nice life together. I don’t need some stupid man or some stupid woman or some stupid washing machine to feel good about myself.
And then I heard Sarah’s laugh from across the hall – not the same condescending laugh she’d used before, but a warm, genuine laugh like the crinkling of a hearth, a laugh that reminded me that, while I was wallowing, some people were actually enjoying themselves. They didn’t deserve to enjoy themselves. Not when I was stuck in the quicksand of misery. I planned to go over there and drag Sarah into the quicksand of misery with me. I imagine that quicksand wrestling is far more difficult and far less sexy than, let’s say, mud wrestling, or pudding wrestling, but my mind was made up. I was going to march into her room, and give that heartless harpy a piece of my mind. I was going to kick down the door with my Birkenstocks and look her straight in the eye and yell –
There she was, on top of my friend Jennifer.
Jennifer had huge almond-shaped eyes and braids.
I wished that I had huge almond-shaped eyes and braids.
Sarah looked up from her patient.
“Oh, hey Katie. What’s up?”
What’s up? I wanted to scream. What’s up? I’ll tell you what’s up, Sarah. I think I might be in love with you and here you are, whoring yourself out for the good of sexually ignorant public, even though you balked at the notion of giving me a bit of extra practice. That’s what’s up, you slutcuntbitchwhoretwatface.
But instead, I just stared at my hands.
Maybe they really were creepy alien baby hands, like my friend Mary always said.
Maybe Sarah thought they were creepy, too.
Maybe Sarah thought I was creepy.
And I said:
And then she turned her attention back to the other girls before asking them:
“Okay, ladies, who’s next?”
I clenched and unclenched my creepy alien baby hands.
“So, what, you’re just doing this with everyone now?” I asked, with all of the wounded affect of a political wife.
“Yeah, it’s fun.”
I tried to find fault with the situation from a logical perspective.
“But haven’t some of them already kissed people?”
So much for logic.
“I don’t know, it just seems…”
“Stop making such a big deal out of it!”
“Yeah you are!”
“No, I’m not, I just…”
I was losing steam. I needed a second wind. I needed someone to wipe my brow.
“I thought it meant something,” I whispered.
“Nothing.” It didn’t seem worth repeating.
“You’re such a little freak!” she yelled.
“At least I’m not a bitch!” I spat back.
“At least I’m not a dyke!”
And that was the second time anyone ever called me a dyke.
“I’m not a…dyke.”
I tried to get the word out as quickly and surreptitiously as possible, as one might try to remove a piece of gristle from his mouth when dining in the presence of a king or an ex-wife.
“You liked that kiss way too much, didn’t you?”
“No,” I lied. “I just thought that it meant…”
And then she looked at me with something that seemed like pity, at first, but, from a different angle, in a different light, perhaps, could have been disdain.
“It didn’t mean anything, Katie.”
And then she laughed. Hard.
I ran out of the room, in a poorly masked attempt at self-preservation.
It was the first time I heard the words “It didn’t mean anything,” in the context of a kiss, but, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last. I would hear them again, frequently, at gay old NYU.
“You know what your problem is, Katie?” my friend Jonathan asked, over Valentine’s Day cupcakes.
“You need to stop kissing straight girls.”
I was offended.
“You need to…stop…kissing…straight girls,” I retorted.
Jonathan is gay.
(I still wasn’t very good at comebacks.)
But it could have been worse, right? At least those all of those straight girls didn’t end up making out with each other, like my friends Mary and Nina did. And when Mary and Nina made out, under the guise of “practicing for boys,” it was in a hot tub. In Florida.
It wasn’t done out of malice. I get it, guys, the fact that I sort of maybe like girls makes me a liability when it comes to kissing.
Katie might like it too much!
Katie might get hurt!
Katie might think it means something when it really means nothing!
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Katie!
I began to think that it would never mean anything when I kissed a girl.
So I kissed some men.
Sometimes it meant something, which is good to know.
And sometimes it was just a cigar, which is also good to know.
I don’t purport to ascribe meaning to something when it isn’t there.
I don’t just go to a library and compulsively pull out the dictionary and cross out all of Merriam-Webster’s definitions and replace them with my own.
Because when something really does mean something, you know.
Here’s how you know:
Last summer, I kissed a girl and I knew that it meant something for the first time because, when I kissed her, all I wanted to do was read The Three Musketeers aloud together and crack open geodes together and brush our teeth together and spit out our toothpaste at the same time.
It meant something because she meant something.
“You’re really something,” I would tell her.
“Or maybe really something else,” she would say.
So sometimes, something means nothing.
But sometimes something does mean something.
And other times: it might mean something else.
Which, as it turns out, can be just as nice.