They were complaining about South Park when Emory decided to spend the rest of class rearranging his OneNote folders. Everyone in grad school took notes on their laptops anyway. He’d spent the first hour of the seminar admiring the beige walls and diminishing ray of sunlight that crept through the one window in the room. He faintly remembered the professor asking the students (all of whom were women except Emory) if they were familiar with “chaos theory.” Kara was the first to chime in by suggesting it meant that everything in life was random and chaotic. The professor (who begged everyone to call her Lisa instead of Professor/Doctor Fisher) nodded and said Kara was on the right track before asking if anyone else had any thoughts.
Hannah spoke up next to offer an even more watered-down definition than Kara’s. Lisa offered the same response before mentioning how it was similar to the butterfly effect. Emory mentally prided himself on knowing the answer without revealing it to the class. Lisa then abruptly transitioned to discussing the accusations against Aziz Ansari. She said the reason many people didn’t consider it assault was because society has conditioned us to believe that type of behavior is acceptable, and it’s those seemingly innocent beliefs that convince us to not believe survivors (as opposed to victims, a word that was strictly forbidden in the class). Emory continued to survey the architecture of the room during the speech.
The South Park reference caught his attention and almost made him an active member of the class, considering the communication course was called “Advanced Narrative Theory” and he wondered if they would discuss how the show’s satire derived primarily from its story structure rather than its jokes. But instead Lisa wanted to discuss its use of the N-word, C-word, R-word, and everything in between. She cited Derrida’s contributions to sociolinguistics to suggest that any use of such language left a toxic residue on the fabric of marginalized groups. Emory shrugged and continued organizing his files.
He looked up at Clarissa sitting across from him in the U-shaped mix of conference tables. She was the only one in class without a laptop. She owned one but chose to print out all the course readings and hole punch and store them in a 3-ring binder. She’d highlight so often and vigorously during class she barely had time to raise her hand. But she always found time. And somehow she also found time to talk to Emory for at least an hour each week after class and even agreed to go out with him Saturday to the Qdoba inside the student center.
It wasn’t the first time they’d met up. She invited him over to her studio apartment last weekend. They were going to study together, but Emory dazzled her with his stories of being a teaching assistant and applying theories of identity to social media and seeing John Malkovich at Arby’s. Even if she didn’t believe all of them, she moved closer toward him on the couch with each story. She would periodically rub her left foot against his and “accidentally” caress his hand whenever she adjusted her position on the couch. Eventually they started making out. Then she led him to her bed before giving him a handjob and letting him finish on her breasts. She complimented the size of his penis when she first unzipped his pants. He wasn’t sure if she was serious, considering it peaked at 5.2 inches. But it certainly helped him climax. That, and the fact that she said she wanted it inside her. He said he’d be happy to oblige, after which she said, “next time.” She added that he should wear basketball shorts next time to make it easier to remove his unit.
He was skeptical of the whole thing at first. She accused him of being ableist twice while they were watching Bob’s Burgers, a network show with heart and family-friendly humor that didn’t resort to the crass and irresponsible dialogue of South Park. An ad for a new superhero show played halfway through the first episode, and Clarissa was upset on behalf of people who couldn’t walk when he referred to the ad as “lame.” The second time occurred when he asked why she always left the subtitles on. She asked why he didn’t like them. He said it ruined the comedic timing when you could read the jokes faster than the characters said them. She said he needed to acknowledge his privilege, considering those who are hearing impaired don’t have that luxury. But he apologized and steered clear of any topics that could veer into offensive territory and convinced her to slide into third with him.
Now he watched her chew the end of her highlighter during class and wondered if his erection would be gone by the time class ended in 15 minutes.
“Really I just think white men in general are bad… sorry Emory,” Hannah said. Emory nodded in apparent approval, oblivious to the context. The rest of the class verbally agreed and spent the rest of class lamenting the oppressed status of women in their patriarchal society. Several stuck around after class to come to a mutual understanding about how no one would ever comprehend their day-to-day struggles.
She was coming over to his apartment first because he lived practically next door to the student center. He had about 10 minutes before she would arrive when he got out of the shower and stared at his jeans and white Nike shorts on the floor. He inhaled deeply and donned the shorts after considering the likelihood of this opportunity arising again. Then he walked downstairs.
Emory opened the door a minute and a half after Clarissa texted she was there to avoid appearing “thirsty.” She was wearing a black dress and carrying a Christian Dior handbag, and she eyed his shorts as he led her inside.
“Surprised?” Emory asked.
“I mean… it’s like 50 degrees outside.”
“I’ll change before we leave.”
Emory stared down at his shorts while Clarissa looked around at his kitchen like she was trying to give him some privacy. He asked if she wanted to hang out here first or go straight there. She said she didn’t care, so they decided to watch Family Feud at his place before going out.
They sat on the couch, where she naturally took up her position as “little spoon.” He reached for her hand once the episode began. She kept it firmly on her own leg, forcing him to lightly pat her knee before placing his hand back on her shoulder. Then she continued to caress her leg the way she touched his the first time they met up.
The first question of the episode was “Name something you wish was bigger.” Emory chuckled. The first family got the top two answers of “car” and “house.” That was when Clarissa put her coat back on before sitting down again.
“I can adjust the thermostat,” Emory said, but Clarissa declined the offer.
Neither family got the lowest answer on the board, which was written as “microwang.” Emory chuckled again. Clarissa said nothing. Then she got up and said she was ready to go to dinner. Emory went upstairs to put his jeans on before they left.
“I’m glad you went with jeans,” Clarissa said as they got their food and sat down.
“Like you said, it’s cold out.”
“No, like, as opposed to khakis.”
“What’s wrong with khakis.”
“Guys shouldn’t wear khakis.”
“Just… it’s not a good look.”
Emory shrugged and started cutting up his burrito. They made small talk about work and school, most of which exited Emory’s short-term memory before he was halfway finished eating.
“So do you want to come back over after?” Emory asked.
“It’s been a long day. I think I need some comfort.”
“So… does that mean…”
“It means the new season of GLOW is on Netflix and I’m in a bingeing mood. I also miss my roomie.”
Emory smiled and leaned back in his chair as he finished his cup of water. “So why are khakis a bad look for guys?”
Clarissa looked up from her plate that was still half full. “What do you mean?”
“I’m just curious. I’d wanna know for the future, right? Like I’d hate to start my first day at a new job with a business casual dress code where they specifically said khakis were okay, encouraged even, and then send me home during lunch to change.”
Clarissa leaned back as well and crossed her arms while wearing a devious smile. “I don’t follow. You’ll have to be more specific.”
“How’s this? I wanna make sure I’m prepared for the real world, where I should let the Supreme Court on all things male fashion guide my outfit decisions.”
Clarissa smiled and put her phone back in her purse. “I see. I felt bad for a second, but now that I know you’re just salty I was actually interested in getting to know you—”
“Ah yes, getting to know me. I believe your exact words were ‘your cock is so big and I want it inside me, so you should wear basketball shorts next time.’ Silly me for assuming you actually wanted me to wear them.”
“I meant that in more of a sexual context than a let’s-go-to-dinner one.”
“Well thank God that was spelled out so clearly.”
Emory continued rearranging his files during class next week. He periodically looked at Clarissa, who remained as focused and engaged as ever with her frantic highlighting and aggressive hand raising. Emory didn’t do the readings, but he could always use the excuse that he’d rather step back and donate his platform to more marginalized voices.
“Which article do y’all want to discuss next?” Lisa asked. She wasn’t from the South, but she avoided misogynistic phrases like “you guys,” which was even more forbidden in class than the word “victim.”
“How about the one by McAdams and… McHenry, was it?”
“It was Mc-something.”
“The Micks!” Clarissa said. Everyone in class laughed. Emory looked up from his laptop for the first time since class began. Once everyone started discussing the article he’d neglected to read he began typing furiously in a new document. He started to wonder if the class was on to him, but they were too busy discussing how one’s truth trumps evidence and data.
Emory walked quickly to his desk in the graduate office downstairs as soon as class ended because no one else was ever there after 9 p.m. He reopened the document and read his work. The first item on the list was Clarissa’s comment about “Micks.” Emory wrote next to it that he was one-eighth Irish and found the slur greatly offensive. Below it was Hannah’s white male comment and Clarissa’s disdain for men in khakis and as many other instances he could remember throughout the semester. The document totaled two pages double spaced. Next to each item he then listed a hypothetical scenario in which the roles were reversed. He rhetorically asked about their reaction if he said he wasn’t fond of white women in general or if he said women shouldn’t wear short skirts because it looks unprofessional.
He printed one copy to revise more thoroughly. He marked a few typos in red ink before correcting them on his computer and printing 20 copies, all of which he planned to distribute the next day of class. His smile widened each time he read through the list and fantasized about their faces wrinkled and their brows furrowed and their sheer inability to process how they weren’t victims/survivors for once.
Emory’s phone rang. It was Clarissa. She called to apologize for sending mixed signals and making him feel like a creep for doing what she asked… and of course for wasting his time tonight by calling after two glasses of red wine. She’d decided not to stay late and discuss gender norms with the class because she could sense their microaggressions all evening. And now she was slightly drunk at home and feeling completely alone and not even GLOW could fill that void.
Emory removed the phone from his ear without hanging up and looked down at the floor. He sighed as he shifted his gaze over to the stack of papers he just printed. Then he closed his eyes and grit his teeth and put the phone back up to his ear.