So I was perusing the books in the downstairs bathroom at the boy’s parent’s house. Every time I’m there I find something I want to read. This time it was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and I was very surprised. I never thought I was someone who wanted to read Jeanette Winterson.
I’ve tried, you see.
It goes like this: I first heard of Jeanette Winterson through a girl I spent a month living with, at a summer school for the arts in a hot, horrible inland place. Her name was Caitlin and she looked as if she had never spent more than five minutes in the sun, despite living all her life in sunny Santa Monica. She had thick, dark hair that she straightened every morning, though I could never tell why, as it seemed to fall straight to begin with. She used to spend actual hours in the shared bathroom applying stage makeup, which she’d gotten after a school production, to enhance the pale moon glow of her face.
She woke up at 5 a.m. no matter what, and because she did, I did too, and I would go for slow runs around the campus in half-darkness until I became too tired, and then I would lie back down in bed and go to sleep until the bathroom was free and I could have a shower. Because I was leaving the building so early, I had to lodge a water bottle in the front door so that I wouldn’t be locked out. Once, the door shut anyway, so I had to sneak around to the back of the building and tap helplessly on the glass until my other roommate, who rather pragmatically had not tried to wake up at such an ungodly time, came and rescued me.
Caitlin appealed to me for reasons I could never place. She was mysterious, though whether or not this was an act I never quite discovered. She liked to shut herself away; she had a fickle appetite, and a fragile look about her: on hot walks to the strip mall where we would rent DVDs and buy groceries, she used to breathe heavily, as if her tiny physique was not used to such strenuous activity.
We spent a lot of time in the campus café, where we befriended a pair of 26-year-old music students. One was a composer with shocking blonde hair and a slightly dark edge. The other was cheerier. I was 16, so I had a crush on everyone, but especially these two. I drank more coffee than any 16-year-old should just to be close to them. And to her. My favorite thing was to watch her talking to them about God and philosophy; she stumbling charmingly, them enchanted, me sipping a hot latté, sweating into the cup.
My favorite way to pass an evening was to order Thai food and sit with a cold Thai iced tea while watching episodes of Queer as Folk, much of which I think I enjoyed because of its softer pornographic aspects, with my two roommates. I ate a lot of ice cream, too. I spent a lot of time forgetting that we were meant to be there studying, and suddenly it would be midnight and I would have to write a poem. I was nursing a longstanding crush on a boy back home, so I thought a lot about him, too, and knew I would never have the courage to act on it.
Caitlin was trying to decide if she was gay or not. She never said this outright, but she let it stand between us as a barrier: I’m having an identity crisis, how about you? I had never thought about thinking about being gay or not, but suddenly I wondered if it was the sort of thing that might just appear, out of the ether: borne of a single doubt. One day we were exploring the darkened rooms and theaters of the campus together; we had the sense that we weren’t supposed to, which made it a thrill. We stood backstage, cramped by boxes and curtains. She said, “this would be such a romantic place to make out with somebody.”
I thought of what it would be like to reach across the darkness for her lips, which were, as always, painted redder than their natural shade; and in that moment discovered my own essential straightness: if it had been the boy from back home, or even one of our café men, I might have gotten a thrill of sexual pleasure from the thought, but as it was, all I felt was blank.
I think I wanted to fall in love with her, for poetry’s sake, but I never could, quite.
I was just emerging from the awkward throes of a particularly uncomfortable few teenage years, and vestiges of the clumsiness remained. I wore the same Belle & Sebastian t-shirt every other day, with huge dangly earrings and khaki shorts. I hadn’t yet learned to cut my hair in a flattering way, so it just hung limply on my shoulders, thick and sun-bleached brown. I didn’t really know how to converse with people, so mostly I just admired from afar. The first time I had to read a story out loud to a workshop group, I burst into hideous, childlike tears midway through, and I didn’t even know why.
“Every writer could stand to read a lot more Virginia Woolf,” said Zay Amsbury, the impossibly hip teacher with the black glasses, the shiny bald head, the twenty-something slouch. He wrote a story in lilting singsong rhythm once and read it to us and we all fell helplessly in love with it. “It was a beautiful love affair…” is how it started.
So when I got home, I bought Virginia Woolf, but it would be three years before I would pick it up (and then another three years before I would be able to struggle through the first sentence). And I bought Sexing the Cherry, because Caitlin said that Jeanette Winterson was a genius. I’ve still never read Sexing the Cherry.