[This is part 4 in a series about shitty things I’ve done to people. You can read the original post here. In the interest of protecting the anonymity of all parties involved, all names have been changed.]
Once upon a time, there was a girl. But to talk about the girl, I have to give you some much needed backstory.
It was 2004. I was fresh out of high school and I made the brave decision to attend college overseas in my father’s country of origin. Apart from visiting my family there once every other year, I had little knowledge or understanding of it the place. For better or worse, that mattered little in my decision making process. As my senior year of high school drew to a close, I had to choose between two options: go to my father’s alma mater in the city and rely on the unreliable metro rail system every day, or go abroad and experience as much as possible without restriction or retribution. I opted for the latter.
My parents at the time were equal parts relieved and nervous. They felt relief in that the child that had terrorized them was out of their home, and they could focus their attention on their calmer, more toned down children. But they also felt the nervousness that comes with not being able to restrict one’s actions. My father couldn’t count on my aunt or uncles to monitor my behavior. They had lives of their own, with children and responsibility and my father felt his request would be burdensome. As we said goodbye, he told me to do my best, whatever my best was. I boarded the plane and my adventure began. I took off from IAD, drank a few beers during my layover in AMS, and arrived at my final destination with little regret or remorse.
I was abruptly hit with a stark realization as soon as I left my door room for the first time: I was a stranger in a strange land. I looked like I belonged, having very common facial features and a recognizable family name, but I couldn’t speak a word of the language, and that made me uneasy when leaving campus. Hailing cabs was complicated in itself(“service” meant about $1.00 whereas “taxi” meant that you were at the mercy of the driver’s pricing). Ordering food presented its own set of challenges. Luckily around campus there were several shops that could at least understand my attempts at the language. This made the first few weeks bearable. When I ran out of cigarettes, I went to the convenience store across the street. Overwhelmed by brands that were foreign to me, I asked for Marlboro Lights in a broken tongue. The woman at the cash wrap replied in heavily accented English and I breathe a sigh of relief.
My cousin visited me frequently as I was the perfect excuse to ask her mother to loosen her grip and allow her to visit her long lost cousin in the big city. She would drag me around the neighborhood close to campus, introduce me to her friends, shove me into bars and force tequila shots on me. “Don’t make me drink alone!” she’d say every time a shot was delivered from the bar. With the legal drinking age set at 18, I found myself in a situation with limitless possibilities and freedoms that I hadn’t discussed with the parental figures. Sure, I drank my fare share of peach schnapps and vanilla-flavored Smirnoff in high school (as they were staples among my friends and I), but this was different. Ordering drinks became a daunting, and usually I’d defer to the person I was with. Once they decided, I would chime in”I’ll have the same.”
My cousin introduced me to a gay club that unfortunately no longer exists called Acid, and it was the perfect spot to dance your worries and troubles away on Friday and Saturday nights. Ladies were admitted to the club for free before midnight, and once in, there was an open bar for everyone. My cousin, having told her mother that she would be sleeping in my dorm, introduced me to the party scene, to her party friends, and to party drugs. I wasn’t terribly concerned with the drugs. My goal was to gather up enough courage to dance on the go-go dancer platforms. Eventually I did. Over time, class became less and less important, as I spent Sunday through Thursday looking forward to Friday and Saturday. But again, that’s another story for another time.
Back to the girl.
I became infatuated with this girl in the dorm. I would pass her room on the way to the bathroom and couldn’t help peeking in. I’d pass by late at night, having come back from some bar or club. Sometimes I rushed through, feeling the overwhelming urge to vomit. Other times, I’d stagger into the restroom and look at myself in the mirror, trying to drunkenly figure myself out, heavily in the throes of some alcohol-induced existential crisis. Every time I left the bathroom, I would notice her door was opened a crack. She was always playing music, both western and Arab pop songs. She was a design major and always working on something, always burning the midnight oil in order to turn in projects. She caught me peering into her room on a few occasions and would smile at me each time. She didn’t mind being noticed, but being shy and overcome with anxiety, I would quickly avert my gaze and continue back to my little corner of the dorm.
My father came to visit that November. When he asked if there was anything I wanted from the US, I asked for a specific cigarette brand because they weren’t available to me abroad. I want to feel like I was home, even just for 5 minutes at a time. He brought with him three packs of Camel Turkish Royals and three packs of Camel Turkish Jades, as well as two cartons of Marlboro Light Menthol cigarettes purchased at the duty-free shop, something the girls on my floor and me desperately craved. I sold them to fellow students, American or not, for $4 per pack and they couldn’t have been happier.
After visiting with my dad, I retreated to my dorm room, put on some music, opened the first pack of Camel Turkish Royals, and sat on the cool linoleum floor, inhaling and exhaling, tipping my head back to rest against my mattress, and remember my friends at home. The cigarette was rich with flavor and I felt a great amount of comfort smoking it. The music was soft and slow. There was a breeze coming in through my opened window. My roommate was away with her boyfriend. I was at peace.
Having consumed a few glasses of water between cigarettes, I had to answer nature’s call and use the restroom. While in the restroom, someone entered the stall next to mine. As I began to wash my hands, she emerged from the neighboring stall and approached the sink next to me . We washed our hands, looking at each other through our reflections in the mirror. She broke the silence first.
“Hey.” She said coolly. Hey. The words drifted off her tongue like exhaled smoke. “You’re Leila, right?”
I looked at her in stunned silence; she knew my name and I didn’t expect her to. Admittedly, I knew hers as well, but I didn’t want her to know that I asked other girls in the dorm about her.
“I’m May,” she said, formally introducing herself. I smiled. It was a Sunday afternoon and the dorms were practically empty, the local residents still visiting their families. She asked if she could join me in my room; she’d heard my music playing down the hall and wanted a better listen. She followed me to my room and we sat on the linoleum, opposite of one another. I offered May a cigarette and not recognizing the brand, she took one, saying they looked foreign and exciting.
We stayed in my room for hours, listening to music, chainsmoking cigarettes and getting to know one another. I learned a lot about May in the three hours we spent on the floor. Her country of origin, her likes, her dislikes, her aspirations. She told me stories of her rebellious teenage years, which consisted of sneaking out, disobeying her parents, and running off with friends, skipping classes in the process. Our stories were similar in that they followed the same trajectory. My stories caused her to gasp in disbelief. I think it was the alcohol consumption and the pot smoking that astonished her. I shrugged it off, chocking the shock up to cultural differences.
I think I came out to May as queer in the same conversation, as it was relevant to something in one of my stories. She asked if my parents knew and I said they did not. She had a very skewed perception of gayness; she thought that every woman attracted to women was predatory in some way. This was a common belief amongst some of the people I encountered. I attempted to dispel every preconceived notion she had, but it became exhausting. I said that lesbians aren’t “out to get you” and left it there.
May was quiet for a moment, looking everywhere but my face. I began to stand, assuming that I would be seeing her out, but she stayed on the floor, fiddling with a lighter.
“Can you keep a secret?” she asked in a hushed tone, worried that someone, anyone would be able to hear her. I nodded, leaning in.
It was then that she told me she was attracted to another girl in her home country. She described the girl as beautiful, sporty, and “wild.” I asked her if she pursued anything with the girl. May did not. “That’s something you get stoned for where I’m from.”
The reality of the region set back in. It was then that my roommate came back from her weekend trip with her boyfriend. May excused herself and retreated to her room. I caught up with my roommate, and when she asked about May, I said that she came over to bum a cigarette. It wasn’t necessarily a lie, but it wasn’t even remotely close to the truth, and I played it off as if nothing happened.
Let us fast-forward.
Clara, a resident of the dorm and also from a gulf country, suggested that we get together that evening, have a few drinks, and hang out. I saw nothing wrong with this and May wanted to hang out as well. Clara’s sister Mona took some convincing, but ultimately decided to spend time with us. No one wanted to study. That was a given. Since it was Clara’s idea to hang out, we also made her responsible for procuring booze. She begrudgingly accepted the responsibility. We settled on the specifics. My dorm room. 9 PM. Bring a deck of cards and a bottle of alcohol.
May arrived first. We had been getting closer in the month since that afternoon spent on the floor. We would wait for each other after classes, leave campus to grab coffees. The friendship was growing at a steady pace. For that, I was grateful. Don’t get me wrong, I was attracted to her, but I needed a friend more than a romantic interest.
May, Mona, and I waited in my room, waiting for Clara to join us. 9:00 turned into 9:05 and then turned into 9:15. She finally arrived somewhere between 9:15 and 9:20, backpack in tow and a shit-eating grin on her face.
“What did you get?” May asked. We were all eager and curious. And that’s when Clara proudly pulled out the bottle from her bed. She got a goddamn bottle of Sambuca.
There was an audible groan in the room. Clara admitted that it was the only bottle she recognized at the liquor store. We shrugged it off, brought out shot glasses, and began to drink.
Mona was the first to turn in for the evening, citing a chemistry exam in the morning. She later admitted that the Sambuca was making her sick. Clara was decidedly inebriated. Not tipsy, but spectacularly drunk, slurring her words, and saying things that didn’t quite make sense. I didn’t think it was alcohol poisoning; she’d only consumed three shots. This was just an example of low alcohol tolerance. Drunken Clara suggested we play “spin the bottle.”
“Clara, there are only three of us.” I said.
“Come on, I’ve never played! It will be great!” I resisted once more. May, who had been quiet up until this point, said that she would like to play as well. I was outvoted, two against one. The power of democracy at work, or something like that.
We sat on the floor in a triangle. Clara insisted on spinning first, and I didn’t argue with her. I learned years ago that it’s best not to argue with drunk people, especially when you don’t quite know what type of drunk they are. She wobbled, spun the bottle, and waited.
Round and round it went, and when it stopped, it was pointing in my direction. I was warm from the alcohol, maybe a bit hazy, but I was very aware that Clara had never kissed anyone in her life. This was both intriguing while being simultaneously uncomfortable. She stumbled over to me, eyes closed and lips puckered, and I kissed her. Nothing passionate, nothing involving tongue. It was the kind of kiss intended for the cheek, certainly not the lips. But she was happy. She opened her eyes and squealed.
“I kissed a girl!” she shrieked. May lunged to cover Clara’s mouth with her hand.
“Are you fucking crazy? People will hear you!” she hissed. Clara grumbled and sipped from the glass of water that I had forced her to drink.
“You sound just like my sister,” she said, sulking.
The game of spin the bottle was short lived. Clara, within minutes of comparing May to Mona, had curled up on the floor and passed out.
“I guess we call it a night,” I said, stacking shot glasses and tidying up the space. May lightly touched my wrist.
” I didn’t spin,” she said softly.
Oh, goddammit I thought. When they sober up, they’re going to think I turned them gay.
I sat down on the floor, between Clara’s sleeping body and May. May, staring at me intently, spun the bottle, and after about four rotations, stopped it in my direction. Her eyes were hungry, while mine were concerned, hesitant even. I was attracted to her, yes, but I didn’t want to compromise the friendship. May leaned in, eyes still open, approaching my face until she was close enough for me to feel her breath against my lips.
I’m not making the first move I thought. I’m not going to be that person.
Her lips finally met mine; the suspense had been painful and I held out as long as I could, trying to see if she would back out at the last minute. She did not. The kiss was long. I felt her hand run through my hair. I was practicing as much restraint as I could. It was when she continued to kiss me that I gave in to the moment. Twelve years later, I still can’t describe the feeling I had in that moment.
Let us fast-forward again.
October transitioned into November, and May and I had taken to cuddling after class every day following the night of Sambuca and spin the bottle. The first time we cuddled took me by surprise. May knocked quietly on my door one afternoon, and when I answered the door, she slid in discretely. I had been lying on my bed reading a book and resumed that position after she sat at my desk. She smoked half a cigarette, but became disinterested in it and stubbed it out. She then approached me, grabbed the book, and positioned her body against mine. We kissed a few times, but the act of cuddling was more comforting. This continued every day, never moving beyond kissing and cuddling. She was afraid, and I didn’t press the issue.
One night, May asked if she could accompany me to Acid. She’d heard me talk about it so much, she wanted to experience it for herself. I was apprehensive; I was a different person when at Acid. I wore a lot of makeup, teased my hair, put on short skirts and low-cut tops, sniffed poppers, and followed butch-ish types to the bathroom, where we would make out until either I got bored or a good song came on. I didn’t anticipate May’s interest in joining me, so I typically told her three-fourths of the details every time, leaving out the other women and the drug use.
“Why are you being like this?” May asked me. I was less than enthusiastic about the thought of her accompanying me, and that bothered the shit out of her.
“Like what?” I replied, pretending not to know what she was talking about.
“It’s like you don’t want me around!” I told her that wasn’t the case and she pressed me for details as a result. We were having our first fight, and was slowly being backed into a corner. I had to own up to behavior for the sake of preserving whatever we had, and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
I knew I had been in the wrong, but if I had told May the truth about running off with other women late at night, she would have been devastated. I didn’t want to tell her I needed more than light kisses and spooning; it would have made her feel like she was the problem because she didn’t want to be more intimate. When May and I started meeting after class in my room, I had told her that I was comfortable taking things at her pace, but after two weeks or so, I grew frustrated. I wanted to touch her, I wanted to know her more deeply, in ways that no one else would or could. But I continued to cuddle and kiss, knowing that every Friday and Saturday night I could flirt and fondle as many women as I wanted to.
I couldn’t look into her eyes and lie to her. It’s not that lying was impossible for me to do. She was someone who I care for, probably more than I care for anyone. So, instead of bullshitting her, I spoke my piece, making sure not to place any blame on her.
May was uncomfortably silent afterwards, and I couldn’t read the expression on her face, as it was one that I had never seen before. I sat on my bed, bracing myself for her reaction, but there was none. She was staring not at me, but through me. I begged her to say something, anything. She did not. Instead, she turned away from me and walked out the door without uttering a single word.
It took me a moment to understand what had just happened. I had witnessed May’s anger in its purest form. The intensity of her silent rage was palpable, and I slid off my bed, onto the linoleum, and cried. I took turns wiping my tears with my sleeve and taking drags off of my cigarette. One cigarette turned into two. I smoked five or six cigarettes on that floor, crying and figuring out what to do.
I heard a knock on my door. Before I could stand to answer it, it swung open. It was May.
She was in a robe, her hair was freshly washed, and her eyes were red and puffy from crying. I was paralyzed, fearing her words, her wrath. She joined me on the floor, sitting very close next to me, and removed a cigarette from my pack. I extended my hand to light it for her. She took a long drag and exhaled.
The silence continued. May stared straight ahead, not once glancing my way. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. She stamped out the smoldering butt of the cigarette in my ashtray and finally turned to look at me.
“You are a bitch.” She said very firmly. I winced, but didn’t argue with her. I was in fact surprised that she used the word “bitch” instead of something more accurate, but regardless, I nodded in agreement. I stood to empty the very full ashtray in the waste basket, assuming that we had a long night ahead of us and there were more cigarettes to be smoked, but when I turned around, May was standing. There were tears running down her cheek, but her face maintained stoic, her expression chiseled from stone.
And that’s when she took my hand, guided me to my bed, and turned out the lights. The glow from my computer monitor illuminated the room just enough to make out her face, her wet hair, the rumpled fabric of her oversized bathrobe.
May sat on my bed and reached out for me. I joined her, and within moments, we fell into our regular positions, my back to the wall, and her back to me. My arm was draped over her, holding her, still unsure of when the other shoe was going to drop.
It’s an interesting and intimate sensation when you can feel someone’s heart beating against your body. In that moment, I could feel hers, and I closed my eyes to take it in.
May took my hand and slid it into her bathrobe, and I could feel her body trembling with anxiety. Her skin was soft, still slightly moist from her shower. I was breathing heavily. That wasn’t what I wanted, not in that way. I didn’t want her to feel like the only way to preserve whatever we had was by engaging in physical contact, going against her values. When she moved my hand towards her breasts, I recoiled.
“What? What’s wrong?” She leapt out of bed. I sat up just as quickly.
“I can’t do that to you. Not like this. Not this way.” I said frantically. She began to cry again, harder than I had seen her cry.
“Why not? Why can you touch everyone else but me?” Her words hung in the air like smoke.
“Because you don’t want this! Because you don’t deserve this! Because I love you!” I stood up, trying to catch my breath, waiting for her response. She closed her robe and turned towards the door. She looked over her shoulder at me. Daggers.
“You don’t know what love is.”
And with that, she left.
I did love her. I just couldn’t handle the lack of physical affection, because due to some weird shit I was experiencing on my end, love and sex were intertwined and if we were physical, I assumed that she didn’t love me. I crumpled on the floor and stayed there until my roommate found me. I couldn’t tell her the truth; I made up a story about some distant family member and told her they passed away.
I’d like to say that this incident was the last time I hurt May, but that would be a complete fucking lie. That’s another story for another time.