The Feminist

A straight flush of stable-pair-bonding qualities

Alida Cervantes, NO TE ENTIENDO. 2018, oil on found wood. 17 × 24". Courtesy of the artist.

If you ask him where he went to high school, he likes to boast that, actually, he went to an all-girls school. That was sort of true—he was one of five males at a progressive private school that had gone co-ed just before he’d enrolled. People always reply: Ooh la la, lucky guy! You must’ve had your pick. Which irritates him, because it implied women would only date him if there were no other options, and because he hadn’t dated anyone in high school. One classmate junior year had a crush on him, but he wasn’t attracted to her curvaceous body type so felt justified in rejecting her, just as he’d been rejected many times himself.

Still, the school ingrained in him, if not feminist values per se, the value of feminist values. It had been cool, or at least normal, to identify as asexual. And though he didn’t, he figured it was a better label than “virgin.” His friends, mostly female, told him he was refreshingly attentive and trustworthy for a boy. Meanwhile he is grateful for the knowledge that female was best used as an adjective, that sexism harms men too (though not nearly to the extent that it harms women), and that certain men pretend to be feminists just to get laid. After he graduated he started to feel slightly sheepish about never having even kissed anyone. Everyone knows, though, that real dating starts in college, where nobody will be aware of his track record.

But in college, he encounters the alien system of codes and manners that govern flirting, conveyed in subtextual cues no more perceptible to him than ultraviolet radiation. Learning in high school about body positivity and gender norms and the cultural construction of beauty led him to believe that adults aren’t obsessed with looks. This turns out to be untrue, even among his new female friends, who complain about how shallow men are. Now that he’s self-conscious, he realizes he can’t compete along conventional standards of height, weight, grip strength, whatever. How can he hope to attract anyone with his narrow shoulders?

The women he tries to date offer him friendship instead, so once again, most of his friends are women. This is fine: it’s their prerogative, and anyway, lots of relationships begin platonically—especially for guys with narrow shoulders. But soon a pattern emerges. The first time, as he is leaving his friend’s dorm room, he surprises himself by saying: Hey, this might be super random, and she can totally say no, but he’s attracted to her, so did she want to go on a “date” date, sometime? In a casual and normal voice. And she says, “Oh,” and filibusters—she had no idea he felt that way, and she doesn’t want to risk spoiling the good thing they have by making it a thing, she just wants to stay . . . and he rushes to assure her that it’s valid, no, totally valid, he knows friendship isn’t a downgrade, sorry for being weird. Ugh!

He’ll be fine, hopes everything’s cool—and if she ever changes her mind, he’ll be around!

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Right? she replies, dating’s so overrated and meaningless in college anyway, and she knows that he knows he’ll find someone who deserves him, because he’s great, really great, so thoughtful, so smart, not like these SAE sideways-hat-wearing dudebros, but of course he already knows that, and she really appreciates it. Then he thanks her for being honest, because it’s proof their friendship is real, and don’t worry about him, he gets it.

He does get it. It sort of kills him, but he knows his rejector was only trying to spare his feelings, since men often react badly to “hard rejection.” So he validates her condolences and communicates them back until she’s convinced he’ll be fine. “Grrr, friend-zoned again!” he says, shaking his fists toward the ceiling, and they laugh together and hug and he walks back to his dorm just before sunrise.

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