I was on the brink of orgasm when Rex decided we needed to talk. As we writhed on a blanket on my living-room floor, my black velvet t-shirt sliding up my torso and my skirt several yards away where Rex had tossed it like a grenade, he lifted his head from between my legs and said, "I have something I have to tell you."
Rex and I had met almost a decade prior and had dated briefly after college. We amicably split up when he moved to California for graduate school, but had remained good friends and had marathon phone conversations every few months. Now he was back in Seattle for the summer, and because we were both single, we had decided to pair up while he was in town, both of us agreeing on the built-in expiration date when he returned south. Rex was deeply intelligent and we could discuss scads of topics, including our feelings for each other and relationships with others. We trusted each other and, as such, I could usually read his vocal inflections. At the moment, though, I couldn't tell if he was serious or kidding because the blood that usually occupied my brainpan had flooded my nether regions.
"Do you have to tell me right now?" I asked. Unless he'd just struck gold or spotted a goblin, I saw no reason this conversation couldn't wait one more crucial minute.
"Yes. It's something I should have told you weeks ago," he answered solemnly.
I propped myself up on my elbows and met his eyes. His face was etched with contrition. Not the look you want to see on the guy who was just performing tongue gymnastics on your tumbling mat, as it were.
"Okay, what is it?" I asked, both dumbfounded and curious.
"I'm seeing someone," he said quietly, as if lessening the volume would lessen the impact.
I nudged his head away, sat upright and wrapped the blanket around my waist. "When did you start seeing someone? You didn't mention anything before you flew into town." I didn't know what I'd expected to hear, but it wasn't this. Rex and I had always been honest with each other and his revelation was contrary to everything that defined our relationship.
"I know. It all happened so fast. I kept wanting to tell you, but I've been studying constantly."
"So you couldn't pick up a phone when you got home?" The blood, it seemed, had returned to my brain.
"No, I couldn't," Rex said, then paused. "She just moved in. We're living together."
"And you waited until you were going down on me to announce this?"
"I wanted to give you pleasure. I wanted to give you pleasure everywhere."
I backed away from him, stood up and despite the late hour, yelled, "This is your idea of philanthropy? What the fuck are you, UNICEF?" Rex looked genuinely alarmed, as if he hadn't anticipated my reaction. And though he held a black belt in karate, he seemed a bit frightened.
At the time, my mom was a deputy prosecuting attorney and my dad was supervisor of the criminal division's sentencing unit. Except for a few parking tickets, I'd been a model citizen. While I contemplated my odds of acquittal if I fed Rex's nuts to my neighbor's Australian Shepherd, Rex continued baring his soul.
"I moved away. I never stopped loving you. I'm still in love with you. So I'm not really cheating on her." He seemed genuine, as if actually believed his own contorted logic.
"Fine. Let's call your new housemate and see what she has to say about that theory." I picked up my living-room phone and handed it to him.
Realizing I'd called his bluff and that, no, he wasn't getting laid tonight, Rex stood silently.
I glared at him. "Get the hell out of here. Now."
He retorted that he wanted to stay and "talk this out," but I pushed him down the long hallway toward my front door. I thought that if he stayed, for the first time in my life I was actually going to hit someone. I grabbed his jean jacket from the coat rack and thrust it at him, then opened the door and pointed out into the night.
Rex looked at me with forlorn eyes and silently stepped outside. I shut the front door and, through the peephole, watched to make sure he left. I didn't fear retribution— I just wanted him away from me. Then I returned to my living room and the detritus of what had begun as a fun evening. Flooded with adrenaline and stunned by how quickly things had gone awry, I stayed awake the rest of the night and fell asleep near dawn, curled in a sad and wounded ball on my tiny couch.
This would be an apt time to mention I'd been a county domestic-violence-victim advocate years prior and had volunteered for Northwest Women's Law Center and the Crisis Clinic. I'm assiduously against domestic violence, regardless of the perpetrator's gender. As noted, I've never hit anyone in my life. And until that night, I'd never wanted to. Which is I why I'd made Rex leave. I'd felt vulnerable and awful, in part because of his surprise, but mostly because he'd opted to disclose it with his mouth an inch away from my clitoris, as if it had been miked. Uncharacteristically, I had no desire to discuss the situation and knew the best way to protect both of us was to get him away from me.
For the next year, Rex and I didn't interact. Our mutual friend kept relaying that Rex missed me. Rex began leaving apologetic voicemails that sounded genuinely apologetic. Finally, I returned one of his calls. His screw-up might have been monumental— to this day, I can picture his head popping up from between my legs and emitting those ridiculous words— but up until then, he'd been nothing but smart, kind and loyal. So, we talked. Tentatively at first, but frankly. Weeks lapsed until he called again, but over time we renewed our friendship. Periodically, though, he'd tease me about "how mad" I got that night. My reply was always the same, "What did you expect?"
And he'd laugh and say, "I don't know, but boy, you were mad."
Shortly thereafter, I was with some girlfriends at an upscale bar downtown when a group of guys asked if they could join us. An attorney with dark, wavy hair in a plaid oxford shirt sat next to me, and we bantered flirtatiously for an hour. He was ring-free and never mentioned a partner. That is, until he asked for my phone number.
"But you'll have to call me on my cell. My wife and I are in a weird place right now," he said, attempting to elicit sympathy.
"Maybe that's because you hit on women in bars," I noted.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked. "You don't know the whole story."
"And I don't want to," I said.
"God, you really don't like being a woman, do you?"
In two short moves we'd leapt from his infidelity to my ostensible gender dysmorphia and/or self-loathing. If this were checkers, he'd have been king, albeit of the dipshits.
What struck me was that both Rex and the attorney had delivered ill-timed, emotionally charged information, and when I'd expressed proportionate anger or irritation, the blame somehow boomeranged back onto me. I'd been expected to remain amiable, though by any objective measurement, that expectation was ludicrous. Either guy could have physically pummeled me had he chosen, so it's not as if they were in danger, even for a second. Yet their reaction was still confusion and rancor when I pointed out their inanity.
The first time I burped in front of my college boyfriend, he said he didn't know girls could burp. I pointed out that women, in this case, share the same physiology as men, so why wouldn't we burp? He said he didn't know why not, but that his mom and his other girlfriends had never burped. When I laughed and said they'd never burped in front of him, he dug in his heels. His mom and ex-girlfriends didn't burp, so how was he supposed to know I could? Female burping was an urban legend, apparently, like alligators in toilets or crepes that turn out right the first time.
Was the same principle at work with Rex and the attorney? Had their mothers and the women before me never displayed anger in front of them? Or were these men so conditioned by notions of women as the gentler sex they didn't understand that I wouldn't put up with their crap?
I've been a feminist since I was a little kid, but I'm extremely close with my dad and brother, and at every point in my life, at least half my closest friends have been male. I'm not trying to perpetuate gender stereotypes about dudes, while fighting the ones about ladies. But it's weird to me that many straight men watch professional sports and action films, or back their friends up in bar fights, and find those displays of aggression admirable— but when a woman loses her temper for a specific and valid reason, these same men judge her for what is, like burping, a human reaction.
How do we alter the notion that a woman who stands up for herself, her loved ones, or her beliefs is the one who's causing trouble? By accepting once and for all that legitimate female anger isn't the hallmark of a bitch, cunt, ballbuster, or drama queen. We're nearly 52% of the population— it's time for more men to understand our behavior isn't aberrant, and for more women not to feel "guilty" for not staying in the narrow range of traditionally accepted emotional responses. Women are multi-faceted humans with a full range of ambitions and emotional needs. Guys, sometimes we disagree with you, but sometimes we disagree with each other. Which is how it should be.
Lasting change, like tea, always takes awhile to take simmer, but the results are invigorating and delicious. As with all personal interaction, humor and the ability to see things from each other's point of view are key. May this keep us talking to each other and not into each other's genitals.
This post originally appeared on Nerve. Republished with permission. While you're at it, check out the newly launched Nerve Dating, where you can start conversations far more enlightening than the ones Litsa tolerated in this story.
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