The text message shows up on my screen while I’m at work — a question I don’t dare to answer. “Why am I dating a man?”
There are so many things I want to say right now. Why are you dating a man? I would love to know. I’ve been asking myself that question over and over again, because I can’t bring myself to ask you the question I want to ask you.
I type out the words, but I don’t send them — don’t dare to.
“Why don’t you date me instead?”
It starts with a poetry reading. Of course, I fall for a poet; of course, it is verse that first stirred this stupid little lesbian crush. You talk about strawberries warm in the summertime, fresh-picked from the bush, and I know — without asking, without even having to ask — that no straight girl on the planet can write so erotically about fruit.
A little gallery downtown; I remember the art: screen printed movie posters in technicolor brightness. The luscious lips of Rocky Horror make the backdrop for the impromptu stage: a mic on a stand, a lamp on the floor. Everyone is better at this than I am (poetry is hard), and you are better than most. You have a natural gift for rhythm that I know I can’t compete with. Good thing this is an open mic and not a battle, because I know you would obliterate me, and what’s more, I would enjoy every second of it.
You read from a leather-bound journal, and I can see your neat little handwriting bleeding through the yellow-white paper. You’re so neat, so cool and effortlessly composed. I imagine you as a barista, an elite coffee goddess, serving beans to the masses. I find out later that you teach, and I like that even better.
I compose a poem on the spot. I am sitting in the audience of this open mic, and I have some stuff prepared, but you inspire me as something more than a muse. Nothing inspires me more than a poet who’s better than me. I scribble some lines on my phone about gay girls sitting with their legs spread wide no desire to fit into heteronormative decorum, because despite my rainbow Doc Martens and short, cropped hair, I need there to be absolutely no doubt in your mind that I am queer. I need to introduce myself as a queer poet, just on the off chance that you’re as gay as I am. I am speaking poetry, but I need you to know my truth.
I don’t know if the audience got what I was going for. I wrote the damn poem in five minutes just to impress you and standing there listening to polite golf claps from the crowd, I don’t know if it was worth it, or if you just think I’m really bad at this.
But I have to talk to you after the open mic. “Poetry is hard,” I say to you, “but I like what you did,” and you focus more on the first part than the second part. Is it a queer girl thing or a writer thing to not know how to take a compliment?
“Writing is hard,” you say, “and I don’t know why we do it.” Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but talking to you without making an absolute idiot of myself is a close second. Writing is hard, but there are these moments, these moments of revelation, and I want to tell you that it’s worth it for lines like the ones about the strawberries, succulent and red like a woman’s painted lips.
I want to ask when I can see you again, but I don’t. I don’t even know for sure that you weren’t a straight girl; I can’t bring myself to be disappointed. I do what I always do: flirt with you in my fantasies because real-life romance is for the brave ones, and I’ve never been anything close to brave.
But I think of you. And when I talk to you about my friends, I call you “the cute girl.”
I learn more about you piece by piece. At a literary conference, I bring up my uncle’s divorce, and you roll your eyes and say “the straights are not okay.” For once, a girl I I like is actually queer. For once, I might actually have a shot at something I want. But, of course, I don’t say anything; that requires something like nerve.
I see you whenever I can. We hang out at a weekend writing conference, and I sit next to you, legs spread wide — just like the poem — and I wonder if you notice me. Something like a friendship sparks up. We talk about writing dates, and I wonder if I should be focusing more on the writing part or the date part.
I look for you at open mics. I invite you to my queer-friendly church the day I give a sermon on feminism (is there anything queerer?). Sometimes I see you, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t. I feel like I’m more invested in this relationship or friendship or whatever-the-fuck than you are, but that’s something that I’m generally used to. I feel too much and want too much and am happy with whatever you want to give me.
We go to a Ross Gay poetry reading together, and it’s like being taken to church. Poetry sounds through the walls and through our hearts, and you take out your notebook. I see you scribbling while he talks, and I’m wearing a shit-eating grin, because this is something we share: that there are so many words inside of us that they just can’t be contained, even when the polite thing to do is hold them inside.
Writing is hard, but it’s easier when I’m with you.
I don’t actually ask you out. How could I? How could I ask for more than this? I talk about grad school, about moving away. You talk about starting a farm, living off the land. We want different things, and I’m not sticking around forever, so why start something now when it’ll just hurt us both in the end? Still, I shine in a peculiar way underneath your gaze.
And then, one open mic night, you talk about your boy for the first time, and it sounds like he’s actually really good for you. You talk about how he treats you with a respect that no one’s ever given you before.
We talk about men — how different they are, and how we don’t always like inviting them into our space. How much they suck (and they do, we agree, suck a lot). How their anger can be selfish and all-consuming, and how we as women flinch when their voices are raised, no matter how ballsy and badass and powerful we are as women. We talk about men a lot.
And then that text message. “Why am I dating a man?” And I type. I type and I type and I try to explain.
Why are you dating a man? I don’t know. You could be dating me. I would be good for you. Maybe not like he is, maybe I don’t know how, but I would try. You deserve someone who makes you see how wonderful you are.
The worst part is that he seems like a good one. The worst part is that it seems like you’re good together, that I can see you light up whenever you talk about him. The worst part is that I don’t want to take him away from you just so that I can have you.
It sucks for me. It sucks for me because I like you a lot, and I can’t even bring myself to tell you how I feel, because I know it won’t change anything. I’m leaving, and you’re going to grow green plants.
But I want to say it anyway. I want to say, “Forget the boy and date me instead.” I want to be selfish — just this once — because you make my writing better, and what can I ask for more than that? I like you. I like you. I like you.
Can you see me typing? The little bubbles that pop up, the dot-dot-dot that tells you I’m working on a reply? It takes minutes to type it all out in between customers; I am at work, and I should not be dealing with this shit at work.
“He seems like a good one,” I say finally. “Trust yourself.”
If you ask me why I took so long crafting a reply, I will blame my customers, not my cowardice.
I tell her, finally. I tell her that I’m not looking for anything to change. I tell her that I don’t expect anything from her and that I don’t need anything but her friendship.
I tell her that I want to write about her. I won’t write about her behind her back, I won’t surprise her with a piece. I tell her over a text, this truest bit of truth, “I like you,” the best explanation I can send.
“Write the piece,” she says. “It’s gonna be amazing.”
So call it a half-love affair. Call it a missed connection. Call it something that could have been but never was. Why are you dating a man? Because it makes you happy, and that’s all I really want: for you to be happy.
Maybe the best friends are the ones you’re in love with, just a little bit. Maybe the best way to be in love is not to ask for anything in return. Maybe, someday, I’ll get something close to what I actually want.
She gave me something to write about, and that’s all I’ve ever really wanted. Someone to write for, someone to make the writing a little less hard. So another poet slips through my fingers, but I’ll always be in love with her verse. I wear my rainbow Docs and my queerness on my sleeve, and maybe next time, I’ll jump in the game sooner. Maybe next time, the connection won’t be missed.