Three Days Before The Due
To Phil, a bar was the hole every peg could fit into. Bars in College Station always occupied the same shape- a rectangular bar top with the stains drenched in too far, a rhombus dance floor below a useless arctic blast of air, a set of tables sanded off just that afternoon. And people, shuffling, arm-wrestling, chugging, stumbling, falling, then laughing, going through these motions as regular as the trains. When not bringing people to their feet or walking drunks to their dorm (he had to learn the city somehow), Phil just sat at a table and listened in on the crying, the rambling, and, best of all, the debates. He’d concentrate on the bottom of his glass if they looked his way, but otherwise the multi-point defenses of who’ll win the governor’s race and whether Spider-Man could beat Captain America gripped Phil like a snake in a basket, his mind dancing along with any tune that came from a beautiful instrument. Every time he put weight on a chair, it was weight off of his shoulders.
Tonight was one of the different nights. She was there again. Every odd numbered day, with a few exceptions, she drank four tequila shots straight up at the bar, then took to the dance floor and became a tornado. The others cheered her on, but no one dances next to a tornado, no matter how black her hair or how shapely her body was. To ask her out after she drinks, the Union explained to Phil, was demanding from a toddler all their money in a cute voice. The answer might be “yes,” but not a meaningful one— at least, that’s what Phil got out of the metaphor. So she ordered her first drink every 9:30, and Phil fought a battle in his mind, filled with stalling tactics, swelling charges, and carpet bombs to the heart before her drink arrived and Phil drained the rest of his gin and tonic.
But today, an Asian sophomore, he who ate a bag of chips during Phil’s Intro to Philosophy lecture yesterday, was there. The classmate eyed the tornado lady’s barstool, and stood up after her second drink. He approached her, and scratched himself between his legs. Phil may not get- sorry, be with– her, he decided, but neither would the man who asked why Aristotle was wrong to think women should eat half as much as men. Phil knocked over his chair as he stood up. Before he moved farther, a firm hand held his shoulder in place.
Phil turned, and Bala held him down, away from her. The forces in his mind scrambled their troops, and then reconvened on a new target.
“Bala, I really need to talk to her-“
“It’s ok,” Bala said, picking up the fallen chair with his other hand and pushing Phil down on it. “I know him- he’s shy around girls. And they won’t talk to him. Chinese women marry white men 3 times more than white women marry Chinese men. On dating sites, women respond less to Chinese men compared any other group. And there’s that awful stereotype about Asian men down there that I won’t repeat. Trust me, you’ll have plenty of chances with women. That’s who you are. He’s not you.”
Phil turned around. The tornado lady laughed as the grease-smelling sophomore held out his hand. She had a laugh like a horse running free. She took the hand. They left. All the lava in Phil’s gut and the tense grip in his hands left with a forceful sigh. His tongue dug out an ice cube and he began to chew.
“Alex told me you hang out here,” said Bala, sitting down across from him. “We’re passing out flyers for the Union tomorrow, starting at 8. Also, we need your phone number.”
Phil pulled out his phone, and the picture of Barbara flopped out onto the table.
“It’s a long story,” Phil said.
Bala put his hands together and rested his sharp chin on them.
“Well,” said Phil, the gin sinking down his brain, “she’s the one who got me into feminism. She singlehandedly brought down the school dress code. She had this skirt that just fit the required length. If a girl failed the ruler test back then, they got hit by said ruler. Other women got in trouble for skirt length, but she didn’t. That’s because every week, she trimmed her dress a little, breaking the rule one sliver at a time. And everyone knew she could only afford one school dress. The other girls caught on, and started doing the same, until our school would’ve had to issue new dresses for everyone or throw all the girls in JUG- that’s justice under God, our version of detention. Then the boys started wearing dresses…” Phil laughed, and then moved his hand down in front of his face. “… And it goes on from there. I guess it’s not that long a story. This is us at prom. I meant to ask her out afterwards, but she got mad because we got in a political argument, and the moment got lost. And yeah, that’s not like me, I know, but you’re meeting me post-Barbara. All my friends said to wait until after the summer to talk with her again. She’s at Wellesley now.” He cleared his throat. “I, umm, still plan to meet other girls in the meantime because I don’t want to see her again while still… well…”
“A virgin,” said Bala.
“I was going to say ‘inexperienced.” Phil blushed. The next song from the speakers began a stomp-stomp beat. “Meeting girls just for sex, well, that’s wrong. But-“
“Virginity is a social construct.” Bala’s cross necklace glowed in the moth-sieged lights above. “Hymens repair themselves, and don’t always break for sex. And virginity makes even less sense for men. It’s a stupid concept. But,” he said, his voice bringing Phil’s heart back to the ground, “don’t be that guy that thinks ‘feminist’ is the bell that’ll get the dogs drooling for you. That’s… pretty douchey.”
Phil nodded. Bala stared at him, expectant. All the speech medals Phil won in high school became like medals on a corpse in moments like these. And the next medal to win might be snatched by another sophomore in Intro to Philosophy. “So when’s her rent due?”
Bala tilted his head.
“Oh! Three days,” Bala responded.
Phil performed a double take.
“Look,” said Bala, crossing his arms. “She has some kind of heart condition. Stress worsens it. And she doesn’t even know who you and Alex are. If anyone would help— not that he should— it’ll be Raymond, he at least knows where she lives. She doesn’t need another male voice shouting directions like a sergeant. Don’t mansplain to her what feminism is, like she’d be independent as long as you hold her hand. Do you understand?”
Phil raised his glass. “Fine. To us losing another feminist, then.”
He drank, slowly.
Two Days Before The Due
They only passed out flyers to the women of Texas A&M. The Student Rec Center cast a blocky shadow over them that receded with the rising sun, the grass in the sunlight springing up with color as the day grew. There was a cement circle in the middle of the park, with three pathways. Bala, Raymond, and Alex took a pathway each, and Phil moved with the shadows of the sparse trees and the dry bushes. Raymond printed out the flyers on 8×11” sheets and cut them with unsteady hands early this morning. At 10:30, he’d have to leave for a Lit midterm.
Alex cocked his hip during the first two hours, and it looked like he could hold out slips of paper all day if he so desired. Some freshmen asked for directions to the biochemistry building. Alex obliged, only after running them through some ‘tests’ to see if they really went here (Where’s the flask they give you at orientation?). He sniggered at each stammering half-answer the freshmen gave. He brushed the hair out of his eyes only when someone asked about how Engels would get along living in Texas. But that someone was a guy, so Alex moved to pass out more paper after a couple of minutes.
Bala gave a flyer to a tomboy. She reminded him of his little sister, he said- they both dyed their hair and boasted muscles as tight as the caps they wore. But, in their discussion, the tomboy said femininity was the moldy raincoat useful only for the storm of the past. Bala said that femininity’s all right, sometimes even better than masculinity, if women choose it by themselves. This debate evolved into Bala straining his voice to blast white feminism for thinking the problem with women was that they’re not like men, and the tomboy shouting at him to stop judging her. He responded by saying he’s not judging her any more than she’s judging her entire gender. She stormed off, and Bala kept his rant going as she walked away.
But nothing Bala said matched the raw wave of power that Raymond emitted every time he opened his mouth. Every time he advertised, he barked. He barked at the women, he barked at the men, he barked to the sky if there were too many people to single out. Some women asked him how many other women attended the College Station Feminist Union, and that marked the only time he looked to his feet that day. To the rest of the passersby, he might as well have looked up his words in an Old English book, for all the sense his terms made. Not that this ever stopped him from talking.
Phil, when people stopped to chat, often rambled with them on their classes, or on the game last Saturday, or on the way mosquitos orbited you like moons around here. A lady with four homemade bracelets and the smell of peanuts asked why they were teaching women to be sluts, didn’t they know that sluts got raped. Phil, his mind spinning its hamster wheels with no hamster and no abandon, mumbled something about teaching men not to rape and allowing women to wear what they like, before Raymond butted in. Whenever Bala and Alex spent a long time talking to someone, Raymond would arrive to add his own opinion. Now it was Phil’s turn to get one-upped. Raymond compared the internalized sexism of bracelet lady to a beetle in an oak, a small environmental factor bringing a mighty plant to rot. The woman’s voice rose to skyscraper heights by the time Bala arrived and asked when was the gender reassignment surgery, Raymond obviously knew so much about women. Raymond, turning his head and rolling his eyes, told him yes, go ahead and speak, India has such a great track record treating women well. I was born in America, Bala said, if you white men knew that you’re in a country of immigrants you’d learn that you were the worst immigrants of all. This concerns patriarchy, Raymond responded, what men do to women, in case your rap idols gave you the wrong idea. Some passersby went oooooooo. Alex entered at this point to say what a great job we’re all doing, Ceridwen’s brother put in a bad word for her at Joe’s yesterday and we’re putting a bad word in for feminism. The rest asked how do you know that. Ceridwen’s brother worked at Joe’s before her, Alex said, Emyr told her what the interviewer was going to say. Turns out Ceridwen’s been stealing other people’s tips to get by, and Emyr told her boss about that after he found out. We asked you how do you know that, the other feminists said. I met her during her shift, said Alex. I talked to her boss. I told him to treat his waitresses like the waiters, or I would bring it. I may have had a few. Phil shouted You fucking what? None of you should talk to her, came Bala’s response, her brother said she didn’t leave her room for days after Alex talked to her employer. Bala also said that Ceridwen told Emyr something about burning the apartment down, but only Phil heard that. Everyone else shouted at Bala at once. And as the men began to bicker about Bala talking to her brother and Alex talking to her employer and Raymond talking at all, Phil watched all the women on their way to class, with shiny hair, cross necklaces, and unrealized souls. No leaders there. No leader in Phil. It was as if the Earth crashed into Phil, cracked, and spilled its molten core all over him. Phil said I’m going to find her address and help her and be an actual ally, Bala said you’re no feminist if you take it over for her, Raymond said he’d show us all what a real feminist looks like, and Alex pushed Raymond and Bala held him back as Philip held Alex and they all split to the four corners of the park, yelling insults as they went, and the woman with the four bracelets left a long time ago.
To be continued in Part 4.