Rock Hill, South Carolina, is a small university town about twenty minutes from Charlotte, North Carolina. It looks like most university towns. Fading strip malls and fast food joints give way to a verdant campus in a historic neighborhood replete with oak trees and gracefully aging houses. I ended up in Rock Hill because I chose to attend Winthrop University, a public liberal arts university, just like any other public liberal arts university (no matter what the website says). I could have gone to the liberal arts college just down the road from my house in Myrtle Beach. Instead I decided to go to this much more expensive school because it appeared to have better credentials and because it appeared somehow nicer, somehow more important than my hometown university. It also didn’t hurt that at the time the student population was seventy five percent female. For a lady inching her closet door open, it was a natural choice to go to a school that might increase my odds of finding a girl with which to share my hobbies of watching women’s tennis and choosing sensible shoes.
There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Rock Hill when I went there for college in 2002, and I’m not sure much has changed since then. On weekends, my classmates and I abandoned the school to drive to towns with more to do. This meant I spent my weekends three hours away from Winthrop in Myrtle Beach wondering if I shouldn’t have gone to school closer to home after all. To top it off, upstate South Carolina turned out to be much more conservative than the laid back beach town I had travelled from. If there were lesbians on campus they were just as clueless and closeted as I was. I considered transferring schools but for whatever reason, the idea of leaving made me feel like a quitter, like I couldn’t hack it at the “better” school. I felt lost.
If my friends and I couldn’t scrounge up enough money to leave Rock Hill, weekend activities included: drinking in someone’s dorm, driving around back roads smoking pot, going to house parties, and driving around back roads smoking pot. It sounds carefree and maybe, kind of fun, but I had been doing those things since high school. I was bored with college and ashamed that, having moved away from home to this over-priced institution, I wasn’t having the “time of my life.” I was only festering.
By the middle of fall semester sophomore year, I had gone through my summer job savings so I got a job at a coffee shop in the local mall. Dimly lit and dingy, the mall was anchored by a Sears and a store that sold Halloween costumes and Christmas ornaments depending on the season. Nobody went to the mall unless they needed cheap holiday decorations or knock off sneakers. The coffee shop was called Café Olé but because the local customers were so scornful of having to say foreign words when ordering their coffee (“Grand E? What the hell is Grand E? Listen, sweetie, I just want a medium”) I liked to think of it as Café Ole. Café Ole was owned by the same people who ran the pizza place in the food court—A father and twin sons of Italian descent who migrated from New Jersey seeking their fortune schilling pizza and coffee to small town South Carolina. They were also interested in breaking into bagel production, but that was a dream for the future. All three men sounded like characters from the TV show, The Sopranos, and they had a brisk manner that was a bit off-putting to the slow-paced Southerners they served. It was also a bit off-putting to me, their English major coffee shop employee.
The Father, a short man with a helmet of slick black hair, loved to barge into the café to find me idle behind the counter reading from an anthology and ignoring the one or two customers that may have wandered in.
“Hey, Erin, how we doin’, huh? How are we on Tiramisus? Have you even checked the fridge today?”
I always felt ashamed when The Father caught me sitting around doing nothing, even when there was absolutely nothing to do. My dad and mom, a carpenter and a house painter respectively, instilled in me a toil-until-you-die work ethic. I found myself clutching a dirty rag at all times just so I would have something to swipe across the counter in case The Father or one of his sons dropped by to check up on me.
I worked with another girl who had already earned an English degree from my university. She was still working at the coffee shop with no prospects of getting a “real” job. The local community college wouldn’t even hire her to teach Intro to Writing because they said the older students wouldn’t respect a twenty-something professor. This made the coffee job all the more depressing.
Like most English majors, I had no idea what I would be doing with my degree once I graduated. I wasn’t even sure I wanted an English degree anymore. Much of the assigned reading was from the canon of old dead white Englishman. There wasn’t much in the literature I recognized, no emotions or sentiments that made me know the world any better. I floated outside of the lectures watching people speak a language I didn’t understand. I was used to doing well in school but I was making C’s on my essays, which my professors knew were bullshit written by someone who had given up after the first paragraph. My creative writing classes were the only ones I cared about, but writing for fun didn’t seem like a career option. I would be selling coffee-flavored sugar water to mall walkers forever.
My status as a bad employee did not deter the twin sons from hanging out in the shop after it closed to watch me mop the floors. They were compact like their father and both had shiny bald heads and thick dark eyebrows. Vinnie was the nicer of the two brothers, though I would be hard pressed to call either of them nice. Joey just went more out of his way to be mean. He would narrow his eyes at me as I slid an ancient, diseased mop across the linoleum floor.
“You call that a mop job? Look at all tha spots ya missing girl. Ya gotta pull tha tables out ta get ta all tha cornas.”
Vinnie would always come to my defense.
“Leave her alone, Joey. She’s a college girl. She don’t know nothin’ ‘bout workin’.”
That made me cringe. I hated to be stereotyped as some privileged college student. I was going into debt for this damned degree. My parents were back at home, working sixty hours a week, living in a double wide, and putting a hundred bucks in my bank account when they could. I was blue collar and had been working since I was old enough to use a broom with proper dexterity. I didn’t feel like proving that to these guys though. I might be blue collar, but as a college student, I was also kind of lazy. I didn’t want to have to work any harder at this job than necessary. When the boys would start in with the privileged college student crap, I would smile enigmatically and plan what kind of beer I would buy with my pay check.
I figured the boys just hung out to make fun of their employees, but my married co-worker, Amy, insisted it was because they had a crush on me: “They never came in here when it was just me closing the shop.” I didn’t believe her, because at that point in my life I was made of self-loathing and Cheeto dust. But then, one day during a lull in customers, Vinnie sauntered over from the pizza shop and requested a cup of coffee and a date. At nineteen and so unsure of myself in every way, I was unable to turn people down, no matter how bleak the request. So, rather than think up an excuse to brush him off, or offer an assertive but kind “no, thank you,” I stuttered out, “Oh. Really? Me? Uh. Okay?” And thus, the date was set.
It’s worth mentioning that despite subconsciously knowing I was gayer than a Cher concert, I was still sort of trying to lie to myself about my sexuality. The intense and, yes, entirely stereotypical crush I developed for my straight roommate Jess was especially disconcerting for me. I would fantasize about making out with her and then chastise myself in the same thought. I would tell myself I was simply confused, or hadn’t met the right guy yet, or was bi-sexual, or something. I knew Vinnie would not be the right guy, but I also knew that I needed to start dating a little bit more, lest all the girls—who were supposed to be my friends, but with whom I flirted constantly—started to suspect I was, “A Gay.” As if they didn’t already know. Jess was very excited to hear I had a date, probably because I was starting to get a bit clingy with her. Especially when her long distance boyfriend would come into town and I would sulk until he left and I could have her all to myself again.
Jess asked me what I planned to wear.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure where we’re going.”
“Well, you have to dress nice,” Jess insisted.
“What do you mean, nice?” I asked. “Can’t I wear jeans and a nice T-shirt?”
Jess sighed and went to get our suitemates. “Erin has a date. Do you guys have any clothes she could fit in? She’s thinking about wearing jeans and a T-shirt.”
“A nice T-shirt,” I mumbled.
“I don’t even know where he plans on taking me. He just said we would ‘hang out’ whatever that means. What if he ends up taking me to Jack in the Box, or worse, to Café Ole? I’m going to feel silly all dressed up.”
“Then that’s his fault for being an ass. You won’t feel silly,” Jess said, ending the argument.
My suitemates were both a bit smaller than me, but they insisted I could wear their clothes. They put me in a shirt that was too snug for my liking and showed off way more cleavage than I was comfortable with. It was mermaid blue and made of some sort of sparkly spandex/polyester/toxic chemical combination. Then they fitted me in stretchy black pants and told me I couldn’t wear flip flops with them. Thankfully, my big lesbian feet wouldn’t fit into any of their dainty little shoes and the flip flops won out. Through snapping gum the girls scolded me to quit pulling at my shirt and to suck in my gut. I tried to feel comfortable in the outfit. I wanted a normal date.
Vinnie picked me up in front of my dorm, and as I walked to the passenger seat of his car, I saw his eyes through the windshield widen. I hoped it was just because my outfit was so different from the jeans and espresso-stained polo shirt I wore at the coffee shop. As I climbed into his Geo Tracker, he said, “You look nice, I feel bad. We’re just going to my house to watch some wrestling with the family. You’re overdressed.” Heat flushed my face, but I sort of giggled and hoped he would think maybe I always dressed like a sausage in flip flops when I wasn’t at work. Watching wrestling while wearing clubbin’ clothes (as my suitemates called them) was not exactly the “normal date” scenario I had imagined
Because of my weekend activities, I was used to driving the back roads of Rock Hill, but after a few minutes with Vinnie at the wheel, I started to get nervous. We were travelling further than I ever had before and making turns on roads I didn’t even know existed.
“So where do you live?” I asked, realizing I didn’t know all that much about this guy either.
“Oh way out here in the middle of nowhere,” he said. Then he turned his stereo up real loud. He had installed a light show which flashed neon red, green, and purple lights on the dash and floor boards in sync with some noise-music that sounded like machines fucking and then hacking each other to bits. I texted my roommate. Going to the middle of nowhere, listening to techno music, will probably lose signal soon. Call police. She texted back, shut up and have a good time. Then I lost signal. Twenty minutes of dark roads later, Vinnie interrupted my complex fantasy plans of escape and abruptly hooked a right into a dark driveway. He turned the music down as we pulled in front of a double-wide trailer with an old above-ground pool hunched in front of it. “We have a lot of fun in that pool in tha summa, man. You’ll have to come out and party with us.”
“That sounds like fun.” I mumbled. I didn’t think I’d actually have enough high strung Italian moxie to fit in with Vinnie and his family. But the pool party part sounded nice.
Vinnie shared the house with Joey and their older brother Christopher. Christopher struggled out of his easy chair as we walked in and introduced himself. He gave me a firm handshake and lingering eye contact which always made me feel a little uncomfortable. But what made me really uncomfortable about Christopher was the fact that his balls were centimeters from peeking from the bottom of his very short athletic shorts and waving hello. His upper body was also freakishly larger than his lower body. I’m going to go ahead and guess the man was no stranger to the business end of a syringe full of steroids. He was a greasy gorilla in short shorts is what he was. But I don’t want to judge the man based solely on his appearance. He also giggled after I shook his hand and said, “Jesus, Vinnie, didn’t ya tell tha girl we was just watching wrestling? She’s dressed to go shake her booty in a club or sumpin.”
“I’m guessing you don’t want a beer darling,” Christopher said. I suppose he was trying to be hospitable by non-offering me a beer.
“I’d love one,” I snapped, glancing around the trailer which was decorated a la 1980’s cokehead bachelor: all black leather, glass, and gold-rimmed mirrors.
“Well all right then, how about a Smirnoff Ice? We got raspberry or apple.”
I was about to ask if they had regular beer to drink but then I noticed that Christopher and Joey were both drinking the Smirnoff version. I told myself that this was a new life experience. That sitting in a trailer drinking sweet malted beverages with the low-rent cast of The Sopranos was what college was all about. “Raspberry, sounds great.”
I sat at one end of the couch with Vinnie beside me and Joey at the other end. The wrestling was turned on and we all stared at the TV as sweaty be-spandexed men commenced mugging for the camera.
“I didn’t think you drank.” Joey spoke for the first time from his place on the couch.
“Yeah,” I smiled, “I like to drink.” They all laughed at this. I wasn’t sure why.
Then Joey looked to Vinnie and chastised him once again, “Didn’t ya tell Erin we was just going to watch wrestling?”
Vinnie laughed, “Dude, I know. I feel bad. I thought I made it clear we were just going to be hanging out. She’s overdressed right? ”
Had I known it would be short athletic shorts night, I would have adjusted my attire appropriately. I blushed as the three of them looked over at me expecting an explanation for my odd appearance. “Oh, I wasn’t sure what we would be doing,” I sputtered. And then, “My roommates dressed me.”
Silence. On the screen, a man shining with sweat and lube, dressed in tight red Speedos with knee high boots, leapt from the ropes on top of another man equally lubed and spandexed. When a third wrestler flew into the ring with a folding chair, Christopher added to the nonversation, “You don’t talk much, do you, Erin?”
“Ah, I guess not,” I said, then offered a giggle. I felt bad for not being more entertaining. I considered what a normal girl, a more assertive-type girl, might do in this situation. A normal girl wouldn’t be here in the first place because she would have been able to say no to the very idea of a date with Vinnie. I felt weak, and annoyed with myself. I noticed that Joey and Christopher watched Vinnie’s every move, probably so they could make fun of him later. On screen, the spotlights dimmed. A man feigned fear, with bulging eyes and a creased forehead as another man with black hair and a white painted face strode out of a dark tunnel. The “scared” dude tried to run but was too slow and the Goth dude got him with a blow to the head.
Twenty minutes and three Smirnoffs later I was still just as uncomfortable as when I walked in the door. My bladder had started to ache, but I knew as soon as I stood up all three of them would stare at me as I walked to the bathroom. I waited until the dark-haired wrestler lifted the fairer wrestler into a pile driver, then I stood hoping the boys would be distracted by the fight between good and evil. “Bathroom’s down the hall, darling.” Christopher commented. I felt all three sets of eyes burning into my ass as I walked to the hall. I could smell the testosterone in the house. I was always uncomfortable in social situations, so I wondered if I was having typical awkward Erin feelings, or if maybe I should be concerned about being in a trailer with three men I didn’t know, and where no one knew my whereabouts. It seemed likely this was a time for concern.
In the bathroom I checked to see if I had signal on my phone. I had one bar so I tried to text Jess again. Help. In the middle of nowhere with three boys. Ones balls are close to hanging out. The message wouldn’t go through. On the way back to the living room, I grabbed another round of Smirnoffs from the fridge for everybody. I returned to my place next to Vinnie and tried to gauge how much longer this never ending fake fight would last. Didn’t these things sometimes take hours?
That’s when Christopher decided to speak. He asked the question every English major hates.
“So you go to school, huh, Erin? What you gonna do when you graduate?”
“Eh, I don’t know,” I shrugged.
“Degrees are a dime a dozen nowadays. No point in going to college anymore. It’s just a waste of money if you ask me.”
I didn’t argue. I could have been back at home working for my parents. I could study English on my own. I didn’t need to be in this awful town with these awful people. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“You know, he said, narrowing his eyes at me, a slight smile curving up from his lips, “Vinnie here used to be a cockslinger.”
Here is where my English education came in handy. I might not know exactly what a cockslinger was, but I could certainly get a good visual in my head by combining cock (Slang, vulgar, noun: Penis) with Slinger (one who slings. Sling-to throw cast, or hurl.) He was a penis thrower is what he was. I looked over at Vinnie, making eye contact with him for probably the first time all night. He laughed surprised. “Thanks a lot, Christopher.”
Christopher laughed the laugh you hear old men at a bar give when they’ve just said something dirty to the waitress. “Yeah, I used to sling the cock around too. We made good money. Spent it all on blow though.”
Vinnie shook his head and stared at his lap. At his unslung cock. “Shut up would ya Christopher; she doesn’t want to hear all this.”
Actually, I did. “So um, what exactly does a cock slinger, um, do?”
Now Joey laughed, “Hahaha she thinks y’all were gigolos. They were strippas, sweetheart.”
I thought only gay men did that. I didn’t say it out loud.
“Oh, that’s funny,” is what I did say, without laughing or indicating that it was funny in any real way. I was too distracted with planning how I would tell this story to my roommates when I got back to the dorm. Would I drop the cockslinger bomb as soon as I walked in? No, I should let it build. The scary road, the light show in the car, the trailer, the balls, the Smirnoff Ice, the wrestling, the cockslinging. “Worst Date Ever,” I could proclaim.
Despite the weirdness of this night, of these people, something about the cockslinger story had put me at ease. Was there a profession that was more of a façade of manliness? Male strippers were play-acting sexuality and virility. These guys were just regular dudes who were clueless how to impress a woman. I’m sure once I admitted to myself I liked the ladies I might also be as clueless. They weren’t drinking Smirnoff to get me drunk, they were drinking it because they though it’s what nice girls drank (okay, and yes probably also to get me drunk). They seemed less menacing than the fraternity boys back on campus. They weren’t offering me shots and trying to get me to play truth or dare. They were trying to treat me with some class on this wrestling date. They wanted me to see their machismo, their cockiness if you will, but I wasn’t worried about actual cocks coming out.
When the wrestling was finally over, Vinnie took me home. He didn’t try to make small talk with me as we wound our way toward town, instead he let the light show do its magic the whole way. At the dorm parking lot I thanked him for a fun night. He apologized for the wardrobe confusion once again. I told him not to worry about it, gave him a goofy grin, and leapt from the car before he could lean over for a kiss. Jess was already asleep when I got to the room and I didn’t bother waking her up.
Without the lights on, I peeled off the mermaid shirt and black pants and pulled on a pair of flannel pajama pants and a roomy threadbare shirt, exhaling with comfort once redressed. I pulled a beer from the mini fridge and drank it in the dark on my bed, letting it wash away the lingering malted sugar taste of the Smirnoff Ice. I wondered if Jess was just pretending to be asleep. I complained to Jessica a lot. Depended on her to listen to my constant worries, and woes. What should I do with my degree? Am I absolutely the ugliest person on the planet? Am I normal enough? Why do I always feel uncomfortable and out of place? Jessica was probably growing weary of being a counselor to someone with such broad, existential questions, without collecting a hundred-dollar-an-hour fee.
I wanted to drop out of school and go home. I wanted to know what the hell I was doing. What my purpose was and all that crap. I wanted to go to her bed. I wanted to kiss her and have her kiss me back. Sitting in the dark drinking alone wasn’t the ideal college experience. I grabbed my laptop and went into the hallway, slumping down against the cool brick wall. The flashing cursor made its way across the screen, and the night and my feelings went into a file to be saved for later. Months later I would move, I would come out, I would not worry about pretending to find a boy to be anything other than what he was. I would start saying no the wrong people and right to the yes. I would start to figure myself out. Not in college, not in the books and essays that weren’t written with me in mind. But in my own words, which I wrote first, and then forced myself to say out loud.