All I could think about was the lock on my girlfriend’s door.
It was a Saturday night during my junior year at Amherst College. I stood in front of my dorm room mirror, getting ready to go to a party with my ice hockey team and the men’s lacrosse team. My blonde hair was ironed straight; the acrid scent of the burnt ends hovered around my head. My red dress clung to my body; I tugged it down. The sticky-sweet taste of Swedish Fish vodka lingered on my tongue. Already, I felt sick.
But I thought only about Alex: the moment she’d slip me her key so I could sneak back to her room, lock the door, and wait for her.
I had come out as gay in high school. Alex was the captain of the women’s lacrosse team and hadn’t been with a girl until two months before. Until me. On the field, Alex had a lethal shot. Off it, she had wild dark hair and a smirk that projected a shield of nonchalance for which her teammates seemed to revere her.
But when we were alone, she allowed that shield to drop.
Alex did not want to explain our relationship to anyone, especially her teammates. She wanted to hide us. And I complied.
When I left high school, I swore I would never again date someone who wasn’t out. In college, I went back on my word. I was surrounded by familiar faces, but real connections felt rare. It was not cool to be lonely. It was also not cool to care.
Yet, behind closed doors, I felt Alex saw me. So I started lying. And soon, it felt almost natural.
Like a side effect of a pill I had to swallow to survive.
When we arrived at the men’s lacrosse party, my teammates and I gathered around a table and ripped shots. Soon, cloaked by the chaos, I escaped to the women’s lacrosse party a few suites over.
There, Alex stood in a corner, eyes narrowed into catlike slits. I wanted to put my arms around her. Instead, I reassured myself: I know a side of her no one else does.
The first time we had kissed — after Bar Night in town — she’d imitated how boys kissed her, jamming her tongue in my mouth like an insistent snake, snorting with laughter. She’d then brought her lips to my forehead. Later, she would tell me the intimacy of this gesture surprised her.
From then on, when I’d come over, she’d make jasmine tea in glass cups — she didn’t have a mug — and carefully spoon sugar into mine. Between classes, we’d lay on her American flag pillow, listening to Lana Del Rey: The prettiest in-crowd that you have ever seen / Ribbons in our hair and our eyes gleamed mean / A freshman generation of degenerate beauty queens.
At my home games, she’d be perched alone in the stands, wrapped in a dark downy coat. And she’d never stayed after. But I’d known that when I was fighting for the puck in the corners, she was watching.
I thought this was enough.
So, at that women’s lacrosse party, I craved the version of Alex I loved. But when I touched her shoulder, she shrugged me off. I whirled away, willing her to stop me.
But someone else did: Paige, Alex’s teammate. Paige was tall and blonde, and I cared what she thought because Alex did.
“Stop messing with my friends,” Paige said. “You look like us, but none of us are like you.”
I said nothing and turned away. At the door, I looked back and locked eyes with Alex.
She didn’t seem to recognize me.
I darted downstairs to the basement, where Alex and I often met. I hurried through the sallow hallways — the cracked ceilings shook with bass blasting from upstairs — and into the laundry room.
Minutes later, Alex appeared. She stumbled toward me and pressed me against a washing machine. I kissed her, then stepped back. Her shoulders slumped.
“You’re so good at pretending you don’t like me,” I said. “Sometimes, I believe you.”
Alex took her key from her pocket and held it in her palm. I closed my fingers around hers and around the cold metal. She held my eyes for an instant, then looked down at the floor.
“I know,” she said quietly.
Leaving the dorm, I saw Emily, another lacrosse player. Emily was tall and blonde, like Paige, but she carried herself with less confidence.
“What’s going on with Alex?” Emily said suddenly, sharply.
“You should have told me,” she said. “She’s my teammate.”
“I can do whatever I want.”
Emily and I were once close; I knew she wasn’t sure she was straight. And I knew that was a secret.
So that was where I hit her.
“You’re the one who’s not brave enough to be yourself,” I told her. “You liar.”
Emily’s eyes filled with tears.
Mine did, too. But I turned away before she saw.
I ran back to Alex’s dorm as if someone were chasing me. Inside, I flew up the stairs, tripped, skinned my kneecap, wiped the blood with my palm, fumbled to unlock her door, set her key on top of her bulletin board so she’d find it, edged inside, and pressed the lock down.
Later, I felt her climb in bed next to me, her breath on my neck.
I thought: This is why it’s worth it.
I left Alex’s room early the next morning. Back in my dorm, I took a long shower, scrubbing the sweat and smudged makeup off my face. I crawled into bed.
When I woke, the previous night felt distant. I met my teammates at the dining hall. We laughed: You guys, what even happened last night? I looked up and saw Alex watching me from across the room.
My phone lit up: Starbucks later?
At that time, I would have done anything — hide, lie, hurt other lonely people — to feel close to Alex. To feel close to anyone.
So I looked down and started typing: I’m in.
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