Despite what Jenna told her friends, she expected her first sexual relationship to sweep her away with desire. As if fate would stick its hand into her chest and then nothing would ever be the same. But none of this would be because of the boy. He would just be a vessel for some greater cosmic scheme because she couldn’t picture herself feeling things thanks to some ordinary guy. If she were going to have romantic feelings for someone, it would be because she had no other choice.
In truth, her emotional needs were met by her longtime best friend Hannah and her newer college friend Elizabeth. She wasn’t sure she had other needs. Between her emotionally abusive father and his slow descent into death, she had always been too messed up to pay attention to any guy in high school. As far as she could tell, attending to physical and emotion needs was the foundation and, perhaps, true purpose of a romantic relationship. It all sounded exhausting. Jenna didn’t know how Elizabeth did it.
“Why are you asking me?” Elizabeth said. “What, you have no doubts as to how Saint Hannah does it?”
Hannah had met Elliot the year before. He was her first boyfriend. If Hannah was the angel on Jenna’s shoulder then Elizabeth was the devil, and Elizabeth knew it. They were the only people Jenna could consult on such matters. They knew her best.
Jenna shrugged. “Hannah sort of disappeared into him. You don’t do that.”
Elizabeth laughed. “No, I certainly don’t. No one is worth losing yourself for.” She fiddled with the ketchup bottle and then turned her eyes up to Jenna. It was one of her calculating, mischievous looks. “Anyway, I give exactly as much as I want and when they ask for too much I break up with them. Simple as that.”
That kind of emotional real estate seemed expensive to Jenna. She didn’t form superficial bonds. “It doesn’t sound simple.”
“It is if you get enough practice,” Elizabeth said. She grinned with her whole face and looked like a warped Jack-O-Lantern. “Why are you asking?”
Jenna blushed. Asking had tipped her hand. She hated her need to ask. “There might be someone of interest.”
“Christ, you sound like a robot.” It was flippant enough to be meant as a joke, but Jenna didn’t like the way Elizabeth got so close to the point.
“Well, I feel like one.”
“I think you’re making this more complicated than it needs to be. Just get him alone and get familiar.”
“Is that what we’re calling it now?”
Elizabeth grinned. “If you like. So who is this guy who’s tempting you?”
Jenna raised her eyebrows. “I’m not exactly a saint,” she said. “No need to make this Biblical.”
“All right,” Elizabeth replied testily. “But if I have more information then I can help you.”
Jenna sighed. “He’s a writer.”
“Good god, why?” Elizabeth asked. “Writers are the worst. They write about you and then everybody reads about it and you can’t even give your side of the story unless you too become a writer and then you’re a parasitic leach just like them!”
Jenna raised her eyebrows. There was no way Elizabeth was over the twit from last year. The Bukowski moron. Jenna couldn’t remember his name. “You can’t write off an entire group of people because of one jackass. Every group of people has more than a few imbeciles.”
“He literally called my character Jezebel. It kind of stings.”
“That’s a little on the nose, but I’m kind of impressed by the reference,” Jenna said. Elizabeth glared at her. “Of course it’s an inexcusable offense.”
“Damn right, it is.”
“I think Kurt might be different.”
Elizabeth giggled and nodded. “Ah, yes, the battle cry of the love-struck,” she said. “Just remember that no one is really different. There’s just some shit you can tolerate better than others.”
That didn’t sound pleasant. Jenna couldn’t figure out why anybody got involved with all the nonsense. And then she remembered the pleasing way Kurt made her catch her breath and understood: masochism.
Kurt had muscles from time in the weight room of the college gym, where Jenna had first met him. She was surprised by a muscle-y writer. She pictured someone (male, really) with pasty skin and dark hair with sweaty palms hovering over a keyboard well past an acceptable hour to be awake. That might have been a picture of Kafka she was thinking of, minus the keyboard.
But his looks weren’t what Jenna liked about him. He said the kinds of things characters in books say. Jenna was curious about where that came from. Her major in psychology had kicked in halfway through her first year and now she was obsessive about parsing people out. If Jenna was being really honest with herself, she had to admit what she really wanted to know was why someone so conventionally attractive as Kurt was interested in her. She wasn’t pretty or especially smart and she couldn’t imagine anyone finding her sexy. His interest in her had made her interested in him.
He had invited her to his room to study, even though they had no classes in common. “For reading, then,” Kurt had replied.
Jenna compiled what she needed to read for her social cognition class and headed to Kurt’s room. She was shaky and unsure of herself. Crossing campus, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was walking right into a trap. She told herself it was her lack of experience that made her feel like her stomach was full of Jell-O. That if she were Elizabeth then this might be more enjoyable.
When Kurt opened the door, Jenna was struck by just how Scandinavian he was. The blond coloring, the build of his torso. She hoped he had a proper Nordic sweater come winter. He would look like a goddamn postcard with it. “Hey,” he said. It sounded suggestive in his mouth. Practically pornographic.
“He-ey,” she replied.
He eyed the papers in her arms strangely and she realized that he had no intention of getting any work done. “Studying” was code for what? Sex? Getting familiar? This was part of the vernacular she simply didn’t know. It’s not like there were charts stapled around campus. This was the shit people learned from each other. Hannah didn’t “study” with strangers, or with anyone who wasn’t Elliot. Elizabeth just called it “hanging out” and really, if Kurt had said that Jenna would have understood. She was studious, so when he said studying she just assumed that it was a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone type situation. They got to work and to know each other better. It was ideal.
“You brought tons of work,” he said, letting her in.
“Yeah, I’m a psych student. If I want to go to grad school I have to work my ass off,” Jenna said and forced a laugh. The door closed behind her. “I don’t want to end up a barista or something.”
She knew not to acknowledge their misunderstanding. If she did then she would end up in the kind of situation she wanted to avoid: the one where she got cornered into doing something she didn’t want to. Years of emotional and verbal abuse from her father had given her some coping mechanisms that served her well in the world at large. Being cagey was awkward but it worked.
Kurt scratched the back of his head. “Or something.”
“Did you know that psych grad schools are some of the most competitive to get into? They take, like, less than four percent of over a thousand applicants.”
It had been nagging her since she made her choice. She knew she couldn’t be a therapist or social worker. She didn’t think she could get into medical school, so psychiatry was out. What she really wanted to do was conduct studies in a lab with no distractions. She wanted to know how people functioned when separated from everything that reminded them of who they were. To get to the essence of their humanity. It was a lofty goal, but her advisor seemed to think it was within her reach.
“Yeah,” she said. She didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t seem interested in hearing her whole future spiel. But of course he wasn’t. He wanted to hook up, but in what variation?
They sat side-by-side on his bed. Jenna greedily eyed the page on top. She had heard about Rosenhan’s “On Being Sane in Insane Places” before. The legendary experiment was conducted in the 1970s when a group of pseudopatients posed as schizophrenics to get admitted to different mental institutions. Once admitted they had a hell of a time getting out and even though they had stopped displaying symptoms they couldn’t get rid of the schizophrenic label. They were considered “in remission.” Only the other patients could tell that the pseudopatients were faking. The implications to Jenna were astounding. You couldn’t get rid of what happened to you, you could only add to it.
Kurt casually picked up a white book with a black and white photo through the center. “Drown,” he said. “Have you ever read it?”
Jenna tore her eyes away from the already over-highlighted packet in front of her. She shook her head.
“Figures. You’ve probably only read white writers, huh?”
She thought back to her high school syllabi. They were mostly dead and white. But she was willing to bet a free ride to grad school that Kurt only read male writers. A quick scan of his proudly displayed bookshelf, with a half-drunk bottle of Jack Daniels as a bookend, confirmed her guess: Hemingway, Joyce, DeLillo, Salinger, Kerouac, Palahniuk, Pynchon, McCarthy, Roth and Franzen, framing the Infinite Jest centerpiece.
“Junot Diaz is real, you know?” Kurt said. “Dirt poor.”
Looking around Kurt’s dorm room with its Pottery Barn furnishings, presumably picked out by his mother, and his simple but expensive clothing made Jenna think that Kurt wasn’t real the way Junot Diaz was. She decided not to call him on his fetishization of poor Dominicans.
“Like he lived this stuff.”
Jenna could only nod in understanding.
“Have you ever taken a workshop?” he asked.
She sighed and snapped the cap back on her highlighter. “No, I’m not sure I have any stories that would interest anyone.”
“I’d be interested.”
She blushed. “You know what I mean, though, right? Who am I to take someone’s time?”
He looked at her seriously. “You’re a person, you deserve it.”
Of course he thought that. It was how she ended up in his room to begin with. He thought he deserved it so he made it happen. She was a girl. The prerequisites for telling a story were so steep she couldn’t begin to summon the energy to check them off. She would have to sound intelligent but not smarter than the reader. She would have to tell the kind of story that would interest a man or risk being called frivolous or only of interest to people who looked like her. She would need to be humble but commanding enough to keep attention. Just the right amount of sexual and sexual in the right way, which no one could agree on. On and on until she was left with the story of someone like Kurt and not her. Then she could be taken at her value.
“That’s not really how it works,” she said.
“I’m a workshop veteran,” he said, bridging the gap between them. “I’m sure you have an interesting story.”
“Of course I do,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean it has value, that doesn’t mean anyone wants to hear it.”
“I want to hear it.”
Jenna ignored him ignoring her comment about her value and decided that maybe it was time to get back to Rosenhan. But then he closed his eyes and pressed his lips against hers. She wasn’t surprised by the act⎯though there was something strange about it. She tried to place the sensation. It wasn’t something she’d felt but something she’d seen. And then she knew: he felt like a gasping goldfish. Blip, blip, blip. Once she pictured that she couldn’t take him seriously.
He got proprietary about her body, adjusting her to face him and stroking her upper thigh and lower back. Her back arched away in protest. His fish mouth broke into a smile before greedily returning to her lips. He started biting and using his teeth to pull at her lower lip. A fish with teeth. She was afraid he would take a chunk off her face. She shivered at how animalistic it was and worried about what other parts he would go after. He grinned again and stuck his forearm under her thighs to maneuver her into a lying down position. Her limbs flailed for a grip as she pulled away from his toothy fish mouth.
“What?” he said.
Jenna was a little out of breath and nervous about her precarious position. Growing up she hadn’t easily developed crushes: they were almost nonexistent, and the sex drive that she’d witnessed among her classmates was a foreign concept. Being different was dangerous, so she had to be extra careful. She couldn’t reveal her differences or risk having things taken from her. She had to handle Kurt just right. “I thought we were going to study.” Couldn’t he have at least asked her about Rosenhan first?
“Come on,” he said, teasingly. “Does anybody actually do that?”
She shoved him back and sat upright. “I sure as hell do,” Jenna said. “I can’t afford to do this right now.” Maybe she could hold him off until he lost interest. Elizabeth did that. Jenna could get some pointers.
“Sorry, I thought you got it.”
“I don’t get much,” Jenna said before she could stop herself. She winced. She tried to save herself by saying, “I’m psych student, after all.” She gave a little laugh and stood to gather her papers.
“Too much too fast,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender. “I get it. You’ve been hurt before.”
Her head snapped to him. She couldn’t be more of a virgin and her relationship status was permanently single. Hurt implied caring and she just hadn’t cared yet. But then again, no guy ever seemed interested in talking to her.
Kurt had at least opened his mouth to speak before he shoved his lips to hers. Though she hadn’t liked the condescending way he’d talked to her. He got up and hugged her from behind. The kisses on her neck felt more like gnawing. She had to admit that his body was attractive to her, but that was when she thought of him as someone who liked and respected her. That was a nice thought. For a moment, she let it happen.
She imagined he was someone she liked. Someone who thought her dreams made her who she was and supported them. That sometimes he just attended to her needs. After a horrible day he might run her a bath and let her soak out the bad. Maybe his lips on her neck as she read in bed…
Then she remembered it was Kurt who had a hold on her. She didn’t understand how she could want him to touch her while aware she didn’t like it when he did. Classic cognitive dissonance, so her papers said. “Kurt.”
Hearing his name made him more enthusiastic. He licked her.
“Kurt.” She removed his wandering hands from her abdomen and faced him. “Really, I have to go.”
She picked up her papers, passed the threshold and turned back with half a smile. He moaned and crumpled like a disappointed child. “See you around,” she said, more cheerfully than she meant.
After Jenna related the story, Elizabeth burst into laughter. “Fish lips,” she chuckled. “Perfect. You’ll have to point him out some time. I’d hate to accidentally pick him.”
Jenna frowned. “What happened to that theater guy?”
“Hamlet?” Elizabeth asked. “I sent him off to go find his Ophelia.” Her voice was missing some of the amusement Jenna expected. She clearly liked him more than she let on. “I’m more of a Beatrice anyway.”
“I hope that doesn’t make me Hero.”
Elizabeth’s head tilted. “That’s not bad casting.”
Jenna didn’t like the play that was forming before her eyes. Even she preferred acid Benedick to weak Claudio. “Well I’m sure Kurt will show up eventually,” she said warily. Paranoid, she glanced around them. The coffee shop was mostly empty and she didn’t recognize anyone from their school.
Elizabeth shook her head in amazement. “This is so fucking great. Finally you have some guy you’re trying to avoid. You’re growing up.”
Jenna’s nose wrinkled. This was not the part of growing up she was looking forward to. She preferred her actual autonomy to the idea of sex. “It was like he was trying to eat me.”
Elizabeth waggled her eyebrows. “Maybe he was.”
“Eliza,” Jenna said impatiently, “try to be serious.”
“Oh, I am,” she said with a smirk and then with a sigh, “but you’re right, it’s unlikely.” She tapped the table.
Jenna began to whisper so no one could potentially report back to Kurt. “I was a little concerned he would take a chunk out of my neck or arm or something.”
Elizabeth examined Jenna’s face. “That’s because he wanted you more than you wanted him. It’s less creepy when you’re both trying to eat each other.”
Jenna’s upper lip rose. Why hadn’t anyone conducted an experiment on this? As far as she knew, the study of human sexual response was mostly of the physical, biochemical response. Biting was considered a relatively normal aspect of sex. She tried picturing sex scenes from movies but with more biting. It didn’t seem appealing. “Well that’s straight-up cannibalism.”
Elizabeth nodded. “The need for flesh is pretty primal.”
And yet it didn’t seem to stop anyone. Jenna turned over a couple of troubling thoughts in her head. As a girl, she was very aware that men were her natural predator. The fact that any woman ever got involved with any man just showed how urgent the sex drive was. “Is this how everyone feels?”
“Probably. Boy or girl, it doesn’t matter. That shit is basic. If you’re human, you want someone else’s flesh, one way or another. You take chunks out of the thighs, chest and neck. Sharing is caring.”
“Yeah, I imagine reciprocity is an issue,” Jenna said.
Elizabeth leaned back. “That’s the part I have trouble with,” she said. “It’s hard to offer up your arm like you’re willing to lose it.”
She really was sadder about Hamlet than she’d admitted. She missed that by admitting her unwillingness to Jenna she was engaging in voluntary cannibalism with her. Girls were different, Jenna reasoned. They didn’t demand as much. They offered and if they were shut out, they moved on. It was safer, cleaner and probably rooted in early childhood friendships, unfettered by toxic masculinity.
Jenna shook her head. “I don’t think I’m built for this.”
“Everyone thinks that,” Elizabeth said. “Almost no one is right.”
If anyone would be right about this, Jenna thought, it would be her. She had always been a subtle freak, one who could blend but not get it quite right when she was the subject of focus. She knew how vulnerable this made her. How everyone’s ideas of who she was played out when she wasn’t who they thought she was. Elizabeth would just shift slightly until she was someone else. Jenna panicked and stayed as she was.
The adult addition of sex complicated everything further. Verbal consent wasn’t considered necessary. So Elizabeth made sure she was always in control of what was happening. Jenna didn’t know how to do that so she fumbled and worried about what message she was sending. “The weird thing is,” Jenna said, “I sort of wanted it but not him.”
Elizabeth grinned. “That’s my girl. When you get good at this, it won’t bother you.”
Jenna tried to imagine herself as someone who would bite a sexual partner. It was ludicrous. She couldn’t consume someone. There was no way she could change that drastically and even if she could, it would be an objectionable development. She liked who she was. “Pass. It would’ve felt like assault.”
Elizabeth face came to halt like she’d bumped into something. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t think I’m waiting for someone exactly,” Jenna said. “But I’m going to need a guy to be more than male and available.”
“It’ll happen one day,” Elizabeth said. “You know, the whole sex thing is really about what you’re willing to settle for.”
Putting her body in another person’s hands seemed like a shady proposition when the other person was just someone she settled for. How could she have confidence in a second or third choice? She needed someone she believed in. “I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.”
Empirically, the whole concept was fascinating: the mating rituals of the American college student. For a second Jenna considered studying it. She saw the title in her mind, “The Cannibalism Hypothesis,” by Dr. Jenna Davies. Then she realized that she would have to rely heavily on surveys, which were historically dodgy. People lied about what they experienced and wanted all the time, especially when it saved them from an embarrassing explanation. Deviating from the norm was considered embarrassing. Surely there had to be other people like her. If there was one thing she understood from the piles of assigned studies, it was that no one was truly unique. Everyone was a plot point on a graph surrounded by other points. People only felt alone.
Chelsea Stickle identifies on the aromantic and asexual spectrums. Follow on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.