The College Station All-Male Feminist Union (Part 5- Finale)

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Ceridwen looked him over. “I don’t follow.”

“I mean,” he said, “You’re in a tough place. I want to help. What do you want me to do for you?”

Ceridwen stood like a soldier, though she couldn’t match Phil’s height.

“I want,” she said, her voice breaking, “for you guys to leave me alone. Meeting all of you has been… rather disorienting and startling, for one. I’m in a sort of do-or-die situation now, which is really embarrassing, and I’d like to find a quiet place to choose the beast or the whirlpool. So please-“

“But you don’t have to.” Phil stopped the closing door with his foot. “I mean, I’ll go if you really really wanted me to. But we can make this better for you, even if I haven’t found out how yet. I know what you’ve been-“

“Phil?”

A man walked in behind Ceridwen. An Indian man, a Clark-Kent type who looked at no one whenever he talked.

“Bala.”

Bala bared a smile for only a second.

“You told me-“

“I’m here for damage control,” said Bala. “Did you hear what Raymond did? His ‘talk’ with Emyr prompted that asshole to tell the landlord she’s refusing to pay. The landlord wants her gone tomorrow morning.”

Phil stepped inside to see the open cardboard boxes, some half-packed, some ripped into pieces. Only candles lit the room— nothing electronic was turned on. Even for Texas, this room was dry. “Can I- can I help pack?”

“I think you’ve helped enough.” Bala stepped up to him between the dusty table and the skinny door.

“Dude, calm down. I just want to give her what she wan-“

“What you want. You’ve been so entrenched in a pissing contest with those other white boys that you forgot whom you’re pissing on.”

“Oh, like you’re so much better than us-“

“I know what’s going on now. I bet you don’t even know her friends all “disappeared” when she asked for help. I bet you don’t even know how hard it was for her to ask.

“But I listened to her!” Phil began. “I-“

“You did not listen,” said Bala, both his little feet squared at him. “She said she wants to be left alone-“

“Then what the hell are you doing here?”

“I’ll tell you what I’m not doing, which is charging in and demanding a pity-fuck just because I’m there on the sidelines watching!”

“Ok!” Phil threw up his arms. His arms almost hit Alex and Raymond, who were stepping in behind him. “So maybe I don’t know anything! Maybe I am just rushing in. And I’ve made some mistakes because I’m a guy and white and middle class and I don’t know better, but-“

“Shut. Up.”

Phil’s momentum derailed and crashed in a smoking heap.

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s self-deprecating white boys,” said Bala, nostrils flaring. “As if a monkey would stop flinging shit if he realized where it came from. You’re not one of the ‘good ones,’ and if you ask me-“

“Philip has at least begun to understand his errors,” intoned Raymond.

Ceridwen began to speak, but Bala spoke first. “And that stopped him- or any of you- from acting mighty-whitey all over-“

“You do know Raymond’s Hispanic,” said Alex.

Bala swiveled to look at Raymond. The graduate student nodded. Bala then said at Alex, “You’re lying.”

“Can someone say ‘ethnic erasure?’” said Alex, the bite in his voice ripping the solidifying air. He sat down on a stool with part of a leg missing.

“You pretended to ‘get’ Ceridwen, I wouldn’t be surprised if you ‘really identified’ with-“

“Does it even fucking matter!” Phil shouted. “We’re feminists. We’re supposed to be doing feminist things-“

“Well, one of us is feminist at any rate.”

Raymond glared at Alex. “Please don’t tell me it is the individual who always uses the treadmill next to the women in yoga pants.”

“What have you done for women?”

“What have you done for women? You haven’t won us a single female member-“

“Neither have you!”

“I’m teaching my sister about feminist role models, I’m paving a road to the future while you’re all-“

“Who’s given their mother the most? Hands up anyone who gave a fortune-“

“I treat my female instructors the same as my males ones, and you’ll be damn sure-“

“I’m giving her a chance-“

Shut up!

Ceridwen screamed this, and the feminists froze. “Shut up! I don’t want your help and I don’t care who doesn’t help me first! And that goes for you too,” she said to Bala as he opened his mouth. “I just want some time alone, and if you knew where I was right now, you’d give it to me! Is that understood?”

She wasn’t louder or taller than them, but they heard every word. The fragments of the glass figurine dug into her hand.

The boys looked at each other’s feet. They were too big for the low ceiling in this medicine-smelling apartment.

Raymond spoke first. “I suppose the right thing to do now would be to leave.”

“Yeah, we may have gotten the hint,” said Alex.

“It’s about time.” Phil crossed his arms and glared at Bala. “I at least tried to dance around her heart condition.”

Ceridwen’s hair ripped back as she screamed, screamed as if she were Prometheus finally breaking the chains from the mountain, beautiful and terrible as the night storm. The cry squeezed and demolished the guts of these city and suburban men, who had never been in the wild, but held onto their inner cavemen that could smell wild tigers. They reacted fast. The feminists banged into each other sprinting to the exit. Phil blasted out last, slamming the door on the raised claw behind him. He turned and sunk low, his own heart pounding at the door to his back.

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Way Past the Due

She burned down the apartment that night. Her brother saw the smoke and called the firemen over before the blaze reached beyond her dwelling. No injuries. One of the few things that survived the blaze was Ceridwen’s driver’s license. The rest of the feminists, when Phil told each one individually about this, began sentences like, “Crazy… you know…” and “Well, it’s what they say about ‘them’ be cray.” They never finished them. Phil attended Union meetings until February, the third time no one else showed up.

Years later, and even longer since Barbara, he saw Ceridwen in his newspaper, and missed his bus to keep reading at the stop. The article described The New Amazons, an organization dedicated to uniting differing factions of feminism, with a focus on radical, socialist, cultural, and liberal feminist ideologies. They were only celebrating a decade of activity when Ceridwen joined them. Ceridwen’s organization dropped shoes in the still pond that was Texan feminism. And Ceridwen was just another member, albeit one with a more interesting backstory. In the article, Ceridwen talked about how, when she joined the New Amazons, she had lost her job and her apartment, and was on the streets looking for purpose. It was here she discovered, through the New Amazons, that she only needed herself to survive, not a superior, not even Western medicine. This was her story to live out, no one else’s.

The article never mentioned Alex, Bala, Raymond, Phil, College Station, or even Joe’s. All this came about, Ceridwen said in the interview, because she was embarrassed about and tried to hide her heart condition, something her father and brother lied to her about. Phil didn’t understand.

But he had an idea of what to say. Phil hadn’t become an elected official yet, but his internship in the Texas Senate granted him some time alone in that political coliseum, when the lights were out and the janitors had gone home. Phil would stand at the podium in the empty Senate floor and deliver the ultimate fate of all politicians: the apology speech.

“When you burned down your apartment, Ceridwen, two of our worst fears came true. We were worried that your life would fall apart without us. You didn’t have to destroy things to be heard. We could have helped. And yet, the College Station Feminist Union had another fear. We feared that your life wouldn’t fall apart without us. After you left, there were a lot of questions at the next meeting, a lot of shouting that followed them, a lot of shame. In short, it was all about us. We broke up the club because we thought we failed in creating feminists. That should have never been our goal. Being a politician means trying to help others, and being a bad politician means helping yourself. Politicians should fight, not invade. I may be the main character in my own story, but I am not the main character in the story of your liberation. The closest you can be to being the main character in someone’s life is being the villain. In the future, I’ll count myself lucky if I can be someone’s Sancho. I may not understand why you burned everything you had. But for now, Ceridwen, let me say that I am enlightened, and that I am deeply, deeply sorry.”

Whenever he delivered that speech to a roomy Senate floor, Phil satisfied something primal in himself, as deep as the need to start fires or find love. Now, siting at the bus stop and reading the paper, that primal feeling suggested that he call Ceridwen and make his speech more that just moved air in an empty coliseum.

Her headshot lay on top of the paper, and Phil grew weak in the knees. Her freckles danced on her cheeks. Her smile was the smile of an arsonist. Her lazy eyes were bigger than her dry hair. Her nose could stab the world, and she’d laugh to do so. She looked like she did when she raised her claws: like a woman on top of a mountain, throwing thunderbolts to those with lesser skills for talking to gods, even if their kneecaps had worn down to only bone.

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The College Station All-Male Feminist Union (Part 4)

Part 1 here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here.

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One Day Before the Due

Phil’s finger tapped on the menu like the list of food was a speed bag. Across from him, Alex whispered to the short-skirted waitress taking notes on her skinny pad of paper. No doubt she wrote words like ‘systemic’ and ‘proletariat,’ words she’d ask the definition for, prompting Alex to snort and ask for another martini instead. Every iota of heat from Joe’s poster-covered walls pressed against Phil, cooking his trembling insides at the thought of anyone taking Alex more serious than he took the rest of the world.

In the next moment, Phil’s knees hit Alex’s table as he scooched in and sat across from him. One of Alex’s empty martini glasses fell over. “Haven’t you ruined enough women here?” Phil hissed.

“Ahh, a paragon of woman’s rights has come to save her from the big, bad socialist.”

“This isn’t about that,” said Phil. “You tried to help her. Your way failed.”

Alex held his hands up and mouthed out a little ‘wooo.’

“Someone finally grew a pair. And shut it, I get enough P.C. complaints from Raymond. You want to know the truth? None of this matters.” He talked just like he did at their first meeting. “Money earned, money won, who gives a shit? Well, Ceridwen, for starters. And I guess that means me too. It’s in my nature to do stupid things and hate myself tomorrow. So let me tell you a story and get it over with.

“I did a lot of get-rich-quick schemes when I was younger- declared myself a foreign country in need of federal aid, sold water after giving out free pretzels, a lot of economic masturbation. A regular capitalist, I was. When I was 13, my mother overhears an idea of mine regarding lottery codes. After perfecting it, she tries it out for herself out of desperation that I didn’t even know she had. She takes out a loan, she buys the right tickets, and presto, half a million in her piggy bank. And it did for her what those get-ripped infomercials do for quadriplegics. Back then, I wanted money, but I also wanted my family given the respect they craved. I thought my mom had finally earned hers. But her fellow tollboothers spat on her, and everyone said she was a dumb bitch that lucked her way into money she didn’t deserve. She had bottled spring water, pools, trips to Hawaii, and tears on her pillow. Now here I’d usually ramble about how this reflects sexist economic stereotypes and how there are no ethical consumers under capitalism and what not, but I see your eyes glazing over. I gave a woman half a million. In a broken system? Yes. But what the hell have you done for one?”

The bells above the restaurant door clanged. Raymond, with a straight back and a collared shirt buttoned all the way up, walked in. He saw the two feminists and joined their table.

“She was let go today,” he said. “She was let go after you talked to her employer, Alex. When you came with your threats, she became more trouble to him than she was worth.”

Alex tossed his hair, looking away to hide his eyes. There was quiet, at least around them.

Raymond sat down. His entire body stood in contrast to the greasy, dark atmosphere of Joe’s. “Her brother stole people’s tips too. I’m coming from her residence, and I told her— let me finish— I told her to sue for discrimination. But she refuses to make things ‘worse.’ She took a lot of pills when I was there. She said it was for ‘stress.’ If you continue to interfere, you’ll only drive her to take more.”

“I’m sure you were just a big ball of happiness to her,” said Alex.

Raymond looked as angry as he sounded when Phil called him up yesterday to find out Ceridwen’s address. Raymond carried himself like a man with all the answers. Phil shivered, because he just might have all the answers any of the men might ever get.

“I see you stopped by Alex’s work on the way back,” said Phil, pointing to a spot of red on Raymond’s breast pocket.

“I don’t follow.”

“I mean,” he continued, his stomach as low as Raymond’s voice, “I mean, you obviously like him well enough to support his business, if not your arteries. We can find common ground here.”

“Yeah, Ray,” said Alex. “Find us some common ground here.”

Raymond smelled of pizza. Phil inhaled the stench of veggies trying to hide calories from the moment Ray walked in. If Alex told true about becoming numb to grease smells after years in Burger King, Phil’s plan might work. “I stopped at Watson’s,” Raymond said. “Alex’s Burger King is approximately- it’s not en route. Still, I appreciate your attempt to bring us together again, Philip. That’s the personality I’m accustomed too.”

Alex swished the straw in his martini while focusing on the sanitized surface of his table. “Why’d you visit her?” he asked.

Raymond cupped his chin with his thumb and pointer finger. “I told you-“

“In person. I imagine you have her phone number.”

Raymond sighed. “I wished to talk to her brother as well- he’s on the ground level of the same building. I used some- choice words to describe his actions…”

“Like ‘socially challenged’?”

“I spoke of harsher things, actually…“

“I know, dude,” said Alex, with a trace of a grin. “That’s just something you would say.”

Raymond chuckled, and Phil saw the chance to save Ceridwen slip down an incline, waiting for him to fly in from above and extend a hand.

“That’s all?”

After Phil interjected those two words, he weathered the stares from both his friends and the table next to him. He regained composure. “Excuse my tone. That’s all you did? Called him some ‘nasty’ names?”

“I imagine I convinced him to-“ Raymond began.

“How does that help her at all? What is she going to do with words?”

“Words can be powerful,” said Raymond. “They harm people more than physical violence, maybe even sexual violence. I try not to harm others, but sometimes the situation calls for someone to be harmed.”

“Ceridwen can’t pay rent with words.”

“But she can get payback with them. Her brother’s the true source of all this. Fix that, and-“

“You think it’s all about her brother? Does she factor into your crusade at all? If you knew what she’s been through-“

“What she’s been through.” Now the other patrons stared at Raymond. “I will only say this once. You think I haven’t seen my teachers, every single female one, get criticized for their dress or told they’re too ‘bossy’ or asked to smile every goddamned day?” Raymond spat out all his words. “You all owe women a debt for every good aspect in your lives. You want to help. But I. Knew. Her. Before. All. Of. You. I know she walks three miles a day to get from her place to here. I know the grad student who groped her ass and left a big tip to ‘compensate.’ I know things— sit down Philip, I’m not done! — I know things about her that would shrivel up your penises into debris if you ever heard a second of them! I know-“

“No.”

“What?”

Phil had to reel out the ‘no’- that interrupting, dishonest, target painting ‘no’- out of his dry throat, and the pain grew inside him farther than it had with his previous interjection. “Alex knows more about worker’s plight than you,” he said. Then he gulped.

“Alex doesn’t know his pimples from Stonehenge,” Raymond said.

Alex stopped sipping his martini and put it down. “Oh, of course, Let’s ask the economic opinions of a man who thinks Lenin sang ‘Imagine.’”

Phil squeezed out between the table and bench. Neither of his friends noticed— their fists were too tight and their mouths too wide to see anything but their targets. Phil walked to the door, opened it, heard the ‘cling!’ and broke away like the Flash in a greyhound gate.

Three miles distance. A pizza joint on the way. Raymond took the most economic walking route possible within the law. There was only one apartment complex it could be— the four-story building that Phil almost mistook for a crashed meteorite the first time he dropped a drunk off there. Phil ran into the street, a car smacking its brakes to stop before him. Phil’s perfect hair unraveled in the wind.

He ran under a smoggy sunset. He ran past churches trying to sit as natural as the trees. He ran over weeds that grew in sidewalk cracks.

And while his body ran through College Station, his mind went to the past and ran with Barbara. He and Barbara took one last jog before he left for Texas A&M- a jog for her, at least, a shot-putter like him never had ‘light’ exercise. She said they’d meet again when she had the time. He said he would wait, he understood. And if not now, he said, I promise to understand someday. She said no, her legs bouncing her up, her breath heavy for someone who could always run another mile, she said no, you will not understand.

Phil ran harder.

Phil’s Jell-O legs pushed him up three more steps to the apartment complex entrance and its mailboxes. Two mailboxes belonged to Yates. Raymond wished to talk to her brother as well— he’s on the ground level of the same building. Phil opened the door and heaved up the stairs.

His sweat dripped on the dark hallway carpet in front of Ceridwen’s undecorated door. He knocked, snatched back his breath, and knocked again.

Ceridwen opened the door.

She opened the door as if it were made of ancient stone. Her hands were the size of jimsonweeds. She coughed a throaty cough. She carried a glass figurine of someone old and most likely famous. Her sweatpants had wet splotches on them. She spoke with a throaty voice. She waited for an answer.

And here, Phil took stock of his friends, his classes, his family skiing trips, and realized he had nothing to say to the woman who could never go skiing and never found a real friend to help her yet. Phil listened to Alex, Raymond, and Bala give solutions, and his only contribution to this point was ‘not that.’ He didn’t understand what he was supposed to do. Something inside of him told him he’d never. So with his head a mop of sweat and his blood racing towards something, he gave up.

“What do you want?” he said.

To be concluded in Part 5.

The College Station All-Male Feminist Union (Part 3)

Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here.

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.

“Who’s she?”

“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.

“For Ceridwen.”

“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.

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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.

The College Station All-Male Feminist Union (Part 2)

Part 1 can be found here.

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He met Ceridwen at game night, the only other person who raised a hand for the Pictionary suggestion. If Ceridwen was in last place halfway through a game, it was guaranteed that she’d rocket to first by the end. If anyone brought up her losing status before the victory, she would throw away her pencil or dice and storm out. She carried books the same size as Raymond’s. She smelled of cupcakes. He was the first person he’d seen her start a conversation with. In a session of what Raymond called “excessive complaining about misfortunes,” she talked about how her last check went to pay loans from good ol’ Texas A&M rather than into the landlord’s crushing hands. Those hands pushed Ceridwen’s brother against the wall last week. Ceridwen needed to pay all her rent this month, past and present, or her thin body was out on the streets to get thinner, the landlord said. “He said he talked to her brother because she was too good at sneaking in and out,” Raymond said.

He added that Ceridwen confided in him a desire “to burn down the whole apartment and start anew.”

“Ceridwen Yates?” said Bala.

Bala once dated her brother, Emyr. Both brother and sister worked at Joe’s, scratching out orders for ribs and ‘lobster’ on sticky slips of shining paper. Same job, same pay, supposedly. Only last time Bala checked in, Emyr Yates bought a new spoiler to replace the one that ripped off his car when his roller-skating friend tied a rope to it and held on. And the siblings had a deal: every time she deep cleaned Emyr’s pit of an apartment, he’d take $20 from his own earnings and give it to her. A supplement given between what was supposed to be two equals.

The Feminist Union groaned, and everyone spat out a few curses for Mr. Yates once Bala finished his tale. Even Raymond joined in, though he never went farther than “a privileged individual ignorant of his own status in life.”

“Sure is sweet of you,” said Alex, looking out to the hot-wet night outside the window, “but she’s only going to run into this problem again next month. It’s not just Ceridwen’s issue, it’s Joe’s fault. It’s the manager screwing her over.” He brushed his greasy hair away from his right cheek.

“I’m aware it’s what you’d call ‘the sins of the bourgeoisie.” Raymond took his empty coffee cup marked DONATIONS and handed it to Phil. “But it’s clear she’s not as well paid as her brother. She needs money right now. You can tell her about Marx during your own interactions with her.”

Bala stood up, stopping Phil from squirming for the wallet pinned down in his jeans’ pocket. “The number one piece of advice feminist organizations like NOW and NOMAS give for allies is to let women lead the way. If we interfere, we’re fulfilling the Mighty Whitey trope- even if she’s not a minority. We’d be swooping in to save her and expecting all the thanks. From what Emyr told me, she’ll be fine by herself.”

“That was the information given to you.” Raymond didn’t leave much pause between his sentence and Bala’s. Somehow, him sitting down was more threatening than him standing up. “She refuses to ask for a raise. She won’t report them for wage discrimination. She ‘doesn’t want to make waves.’ And yet if I know anything, I know that she hates looking weak in front of others. She doesn’t want to be in this predicament. But if we don’t help her, who can?”

“That’ll be up to her and her friends,” said Bala.

“I am her-“

Female friends. This isn’t meninism.”

“Raymond’s got a point,” said Alex. “We can be better friends than her brother. She should be able to live without depending on men, and she don’t need to burn down her apartment to do so.”

“You’re not listening.” All of Phil’s joints tightened as Bala spoke. “She’s not a damsel in distress, and none of you are Batman. Her story only matters if she’s the hero, not us. Do you get it now? Is this touching your ‘feminine side’ at all?”

Raymond took a long breath in, and then exhaled through his mouth like a rhino holding in a lashing from a trainer. “Perhaps Philip can offer his suggestion on our next course of action,” he said, glaring at Phil.

If gazes could transfer heat, the Feminist Union would’ve melted Phil into a puddle.

“W-Well,” Phil began, his head buoyant and clouded as he focused on Bill Clinton, “I see where Alex is coming from in terms of needing social and economic reform. But Bala’s right, she needs to make her own choices for feminism to matter. And I want to help, just like Raymond. So I suggest… I suggest asking- I mean, working together to- to set an example-“

The rotting door slammed behind Alex. Bala turned off the indie rap artist tinkling from his phone in a bowl, and Raymond swooped up his books. Their footsteps banged on the scratching carpet, and the door didn’t slam behind them only because Raymond stopped the door after his first yank. The donation cup in Phil’s hand was empty. Phil sat in the low, sweat-stained couch the same way he sat when the professor of his first ever college class didn’t show up, leaving them all to stare at the blank whiteboard until they stepped back into the unfamiliar space outside.

To be continued in Part 3.

The College Station All-Male Feminist Union (Part 1)

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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!