In quick succession, they all answered the same when Raymond read the next discussion prompt: “Should it be legal for women to go topless?”
“Yes,” said Phil. After he lifted his head from the back of the hole-ridden couch, a few strands of his combed hair stuck up. He was the only one in the study lounge sitting on the couch.
“Yeah,” said Alex, a blotch of pimples camping on his smooth face. The pimples centered around the right side of his cheek like the circle of chairs centered on the study lounge’s right table. “I mean, it wouldn’t be fair otherwise. Plus, they can save money on tops too.”
Bala cleared his throat. His Indian skin set him apart from the sweating Clark Kent types in this white and green room, though he looked like Clark-Kent-as-hit-by-shrink-ray to Phil at least. Bala’s phone, on a desk, shuffled through smooth rap music.
“Yes, of course. I mean, it used to be illegal for men to go topless as well until 1936, when some New Yorkers were fined for doing so and a public campaign began defending the nobility of male nipples. Wikipedia covered this. The only other way to make it fair would be to have men cover up as well, and it would be difficult to tell people what they can’t do as opposed to what they can do, if social progression is anything to go by. If that’s ok for me to say.”
He said all this fast, and every word entered their ears perfectly.
“This all comes from treating women’s nipples as sexual organs. Technically, nipples are not organs, just projections of skin,” said Raymond. He placed the tablet with the discussion questions on the stack of thin books he carried to and from class and concerts. Raymond was the most active member of the club— making posters, sending emails, gritting his white teeth at each low turnout. The club didn’t believe in having an “official” leader, but everyone would designate Raymond as the leader if asked. At any rate, Raymond hung up the ‘FEMALE MEMBERS WELCOME’ sign on the door of their meeting place every week.
Raymond warned Phil of this moment. It was right after a local folk band concert, underneath blazing lighting fixtures set up by the roadies, that Raymond told Phil that ‘should women be allowed to go topless’ is the exact question he hopes to avoid. “It’s an inconsequential issue,” said Raymond. “There are many of those. But the question itself functions well as a barometer. My 8th grade Social Studies teacher— the one that opened my cocoon of ignorance on gender issues— said that people willing to change the world must focus on big questions, not small. You know I prefer structured meetings, and questionnaires on the Internet provide that. But we’ll run out of questions someday, and you’ll hear me ask about women’s upper body garments. Promise me you’ll tell me, if we ever come to this point, that we need to remove our derrieres from our seats and make meaningful change in the world, instead of reading our comic books while real Lois Lanes in our lives need help.” There was something tucked away inside his books. Even under the dimming lights of the concert, Phil could lean in and see the edges of a Superman comic in Raymond’s large hands.
Here in the dorm’s study room, Phil broke another promise.
“I mean,” Raymond continued, unaware of Phil, “women appear to appreciate it when men have their shirts off, if the new Thor movie is anything to go by. So, you know…”
“I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.” Whenever Alex spoke, Phil heard either a bored man reading a book or a teenager muttering when his parents left the room. This time, he heard a little of both. He sounded different when drunk.
Alex told Phil about the club at the beginning of the semester, at the only college house party Phil had ever attended. Alex had shooed off a scrawny, wide-eyed partygoer that kept encouraging Phil to take another drink or try hitting on the fat goth keeping to herself in the corner. Phil asked Alex what gives. Already, Phil was slurring words and balancing himself on a dusty pool table. “He was going to blackmail you,” said Alex, brushing aside the arc of greasy blond hair over his forehead. “If you bothered that lesbian over in the corner— and you look like the type that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer—“ he continued, as Phil winced, “then that kid would’ve taken pictures and then threaten to report you for assault.” How did he know? “I gave him the idea as a joke,” said Alex, the drink in his red cup clear and olive-scented. “Money-making schemes come natural to me. The capitalist part of me and the slimeball part of me are Siamese twins. But I’m part of this club that’s scraping off the slime. Don’t worry about that loser,” he said, looking serious, and seriously drunk. Drunk Phil wanted to party; it seemed like drunk Alex wanted to have important conversations. “If you were only thinking about your reputation during my speech, and not her safety, then you need this club too.” Phil and Alex left the party together, talking about all the moneymaking schemes Alex made as a kid that got his friends, his school and eventually his Mom in more success and trouble than Tony Stark. He didn’t let Phil talk much, but this time Phil didn’t mind.
Bala, continuing the stream of delicate suggestions, brought Phil’s attention back to the meeting. “And even if they were sexual organs, the fact that breasts stimulate men is not the fault of the women who own them.” Bala looked at no one whenever he talked. “If we really wanted to be fair, women should be allowed to go around naked on the beach without consequence. I mean, if those guys with stretch marks on their beer belly can show-“
“The problem is that gender is regarded at all-“
“It’s a bit more complex than that,” said Alex, interrupting Raymond with his quick snark.
“-And this goes beyond the beach.” Raymond pushed up his glasses by pressing up their side. “If it’s hot out because sunlight’s reflecting off of skyscrapers or because the heat wave rolled in, there should be no opposition for women, identifying as any gender, to let in the breeze between their… their…”
“But here’s how we can really help them.” By this point, none of the three founding members spoke with reservation. When they talked now, they looked like they were posing for a newspaper photo. “If you want the stigma and double standard against women’s sexuality to go away, what we should really allow is for them to bump uglies-“
“The term is sexual intercourse,” Raymond interjected.
“… bump uglies anywhere they like, even in public. Especially in public, let’s knock down some top hats, teach everyone that women expressing their sexual characteristics are nothing to be afraid-”
“If you actually did want to help women, you’d let them-“
“Hang on,” said Phil, his sharp interruption cutting the atmosphere like a cleaver to a guitar string. “Why would people have sex outside? Don’t they have places to be?”
No one spoke.
Then, everyone besides Phil snorted.
“’Darling, my biological clock only has seconds left!’” joked Bala.
“Sorry, I meant-“
“You’re fine, Phil,” said Alex, his muscular arm waving a gentle, dismissive motion to him.
“I bet prostitutes would be able to save on motels,” Bala said with a grin. Raymond sighed.
“It’s like that scene in The Invention of Lying,” Phil added. Usually when people laughed around him— at him or not— Phil’s hand moved to a picture he kept in his pocket. He did so quickly— a defense mechanism. The picture showed Barbara laughing as he twirled, on one finger, the prom hat his friends gave him. Today, that picture could stay right between his flip phone and his iPod shuffle. Just as Barbara accepted him back then, the club accepted him now. “Or how it could’ve gone, anyway.”
“That’s a great movie,” said Alex.
“Has anyone here heard of Karl Pilkington?” Raymond asked. “I find him fascinating. On The Ricky Gervais Show, he said he doesn’t believe in sex all night. Apparently, women’s orgasm is a myth to him too. He wants us to be like pigeons- ‘jump on the back of another pigeon, and then it’s done in about two seconds. Then they wander off to find a bit of KFC chicken.’”
“That’s just his dick talking.”
“Have you listened to him? I think Pilkington believes in talking dicks.”
After the laughter died down, the R.A. poked her bangs in the doorway to ask for some quiet on behalf of midterm studiers. The rest of the hour, the men talked about how bad the Aggies’ defense was this year and how expensive the death penalty has become and how Mary got so drunk last Saturday she threw up on the over-cologned man who bought her all those drinks. Phil asked for help on his Intro to Political Science, and they suggested Bill Clinton as the essay topic, even wrote the thesis with him.
All their meetings ran this way, even the first one Phil attended. Since starting at College Station, he’d been itching to take charge of something. High school class presidents like Phil don’t graduate into college class presidents, even ones that designed prom invitations or organized food pantries with the same effort Phil brought. Bala and Raymond stammered out a few ‘wells…’ when Phil asked to join the Feminist Union, until he told them how no other organization in Texas A&M could help half the population of Earth like a feminist club could. Helping others, leading a charge of good in a static world, took you out of your doughy, meaty self and made you the sun in a dream of light, and I don’t care if that’s cheesy, Phil said, if I get that from this club then it’ll be worth it all. Baring his soul worked like a key. This confession shut the boys up and prompted a rummaging through Raymond’s books for the oath they wrote last year. Phil winced when the others told him to kneel for the pledge (“I join this Union not for personal gain, but to help women and to encourage them to join us”), already ready to dictate the pledge to others. To lead constituents, he’d have to lead a club. To lead a club, he’d have to keep off his knees, no matter how tired his feet got from hopping to opportunities.
Alex had to leave the meeting; the Burger King demanded another 8-hour tithe. Raymond demanded a payment of his own.
“This is for Ceridwen,” he said, his mouth about to burst with details.
To be continued in Part 2!