It’s the beginning of May. There are fans blowing on either side of me, and the newly hung curtains move when the breeze blows. Lilacs are blooming and curling clouds sneak over the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, down into the valley where I am nestled. The robins are hopping from branch to branch and church bells echo on the hour, so thoroughly calming that I almost miss the clock tower in North Carolina.
This morning, I woke up to a hand on my shoulder, a kiss on my forehead, and my boyfriend Mike saying, “I love you. I’ll see you at lunch.” Then I lounged around, did three hundred crunches, fifty squats, fifty arm lifts. Then I dropped off Mike’s rent check to the realty place and climbed the hills with the most beautiful historic houses in Franklin, Pennsylvania. Afterward, my thighs were burning, I was out of breath and not used to the thin air of such a high altitude, and I came home. Home. My new home, with my boyfriend, where my devoutly Catholic grandfather will tell you that I live in sin in Franklin, Pennsylvania.
And it was ridiculous how excited I was to do Mike’s dishes. Well, our dishes. Even as I type, my pruned fingertips smell like Dawn detergent and a wash rag rests over my shoulder. And I feel more like a woman than I ever have before.
Just a week ago, I finished my graduate program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I taught my last writing class as a TA, turned in my thesis, and spent four glorious days at Carolina Beach with my family and my boyfriend. But I’ve been stuck on this one paper from a student, this one idea that I’ve always suppressed within myself. This student, Corey, wrote about how he is slowly forcing himself to drink black coffee, and by writing about that, he explored what he thought it meant to be a man. What should men do? What skills should they have? What is expected of them in certain situations?
As I graded this paper, I found myself absolutely sure that this Corey would be a wonderful man, and that he would receive an A in my course. It was fine writing after all. But I also found myself agreeing with everything that he said. Men should drink black coffee. They should hold doors and lift the heavy things. They should hang the pictures and light the gas stove when the pilot lights to out. And they should shake you awake in the morning, kiss you on the forehead, and tell you they love you.
Corey even found a website about the art of being a man. Which made me think about the art of being a woman. I know this is controversial, because for the past three years, I’ve lived in a very liberal coastal town with very liberal ideas and very equal views that I thought I shared before I moved there from Ohio. But Wilmington, North Carolina has a strange effect on people. My friend Scott, for instance, hated organized religion before he moved to Wilmington with his fiance, now wife. Being there, in the South only intensified his belief that organized religion is useless. Wilmington had a similar effect on me, but opposite; in the scheme of things at my undergraduate college in Ashland, Ohio and in my hometown of Fremont, I was on the left side of things. When I got to Wilmington, I realized that compared to most of the people there, and in my writing program at UNCW, I was incredibly conservative. And I began to take pride in it, telling ultra-feminists to go bake a pie or to darn a sock, and telling poetic men to act like real men and to quit driving Priuses and to go buy a truck. And it didn’t stop there. I began blatantly preaching my conspiracy theories about hand sanitizer and sunscreen.
In one of the graduate writing classes I was taking, I was reprimanded twice in one day. One of the women in the class was pregnant, and we were all excited because we hadn’t seen her all summer.
Among the greetings and the catching ups, someone asked, “What’s the gender of your baby?”
Becky was going to respond, but another student stepped in. “You can’t ask that. You have to ask the sex. We determine our own gender, and babies can’t do that yet.”
“What?” I asked.
“The gender is something we choose for ourselves,” responded the student. “Sex is just the physical manifestation.”
“Oh shut it. Becky, what’s the gender?” I asked.
“It’s a boy,” she said, “And we’re naming him Luke.” Her eyes moved nervously between me and the other student, and I sat down and cracked open a can of Diet Pepsi and kept my mouth shut until class started.
Do we really choose our genders? I mean, I know there are people out there who are physically men, but feel more like women. And vice versa, and I’m okay with that. But the majority of people’s genders match their sexes, right? It was such a foreign concept to me. And then when Corey wrote his essay, I somehow felt validated to believe what I do, what most Northerners do.
I said I was reprimanded twice that class. The second one was because I said I had gotten gypped at the grocery store because something was overpriced. The bearded mouth of another student circled into a shocked O and he said, “You can’t say gypped! It’s racist!”
“How is it racist?”
“It’s offensive to the gypsies,” he said.
“They’re fucking gypsies,” I said. “They steal. Who cares?”
The man with the beard closed his eyes, shook his head, and I smirked a little.
But now I am out of the South, up here in Franklin living with Mike. And I can say gypped, and expect that a man will act like a man and preach about sunscreen and no one will think it strange. And I like that.
But it also gave me an idea. I have an opportunity now to refine what I believe a woman should be. What should a woman in my position know? What should I do? I am no longer in school, and no longer a student. I am officially an adult. So what should an adult woman know?
I’ve already dropped off the rent check, cleaned the dishes from the dinner I made last night, and I’m going to clean the house and make the bed before Mike gets home from lunch. That’s a good start, right? Womanly duties. The revival of the 50s housewife. Housegirlfriend? I’ll figure this out. But right now, I need to go make the bed.