I used to think I was getting away with something.
“Girls don’t count,” I’d say, running my fingers up her arm at the bar. “Don’t you know that?”
We both had boyfriends. Long-term boyfriends. Mine had introduced me to the concept.
“I wouldn’t feel threatened,” he’d say. “I know they could never compete.”
He meant that a woman, no matter how attached I got, could never “steal” me away from him. He meant that he’d only care about male penetration, about “sex” in the most typical terms. I was young and I didn’t value myself and I hadn’t been taught a lot about feminism or how relationships should work. I said nothing, because I wanted it to be true.
We went on a date, she and I. We saw a movie and then she came over and we drank wine and watched TV and hooked up on the couch and fell asleep. We were drunk and we laughed. I held her.
The next morning, he was angry.
“I thought girls didn’t count,” I said.
“Yeah, but you like, went on a date,” he said.
“We saw a movie,” I replied. “She has a boyfriend.”
“It was a date,” he said. He was irritated.
“How many people have you been with?,” they all ask, adding: “Girls don’t count.”
These girls. I remember them. They happened. They were there with me. They had red hair and bright red lipstick and they wore Boston Red Sox hoodies and they loved Russian literature and they had big, wily pet dogs and they spent the night.
I talked to them at parties or met them in the dorms freshman year or they were friends of friends who stroked my hair and said, “I just think everyone’s a little bit bisexual, don’t you?”
I loved them. They were real and they shared themselves with me and we spent time together at thrift shops and in classes and at bars and at friends’ dinner parties. We held hands while other couples passed around a joint. We buried our faces in each other’s soft necks under the covers. These were relationships. These were people I was with.
“I want us to be monogamous,” men say. “But you know, obviously girls don’t count.”
When did you first have sex?
It depends on what you mean. There was a girl in high school.
No, I mean your virginity. When did you lose it?
He is masturbating. I ask, “What do you want?” He says, “Tell me about when you were with your ex-girlfriend.”
Later, I say my ex-boyfriend’s name when telling a story about last year and he tells me, “You know, I could stand to hear less about him.”
“I just think you’ll end up with a man in the end,” he says when we’re walking to a bar.
“That’s presumptuous,” I reply.
“I just feel like you will.”
“Because you’re threatened?”
“Because it threatens you to know that I could one day not need a dick. That, god forbid, a woman who could end up with either actually chooses to disregard your precious penis.”
“Hey, take it easy. I was just giving you relationship advice.”
At the bar, our friends wonder why we aren’t speaking. Even he is confused by what happened. He doesn’t know what he did wrong.
For a long time, I said nothing. Because if they thought it wasn’t cheating, who was I to argue? I had freedom. I was getting one over on them. I was winning.
They were real. They were real and they counted. They’re not shadows among the men I saw. But I wanted them to be. I wanted to avoid the consequences, to avoid thinking, to avoid wondering what it meant. These men, they told me what it meant: it meant nothing.
And I told other women this fallacy. I moved in to kiss their necks and ears and said, “Girls don’t count, don’t you know?”
And later, they counted. And later, I knew.