Jules liked to play football in a sports bra and shorts.
Two weeks ago, this hadn’t been a problem. Two weeks ago, it had been simply a logical response to the weather, to the blazing sun overhead and the ever-present humidity, to the physical demands of the game they both loved. After all, half the girls on the team showed up to training in bras and shorts, in deference to the early fall weather. And Jules had always practiced with only a sports bra on, even back in their Harriers days. Two weeks ago, Jess had thought that she’d long since gotten over her initial shock at seeing so many other girls revealing so much skin, even if she didn’t choose to strip down herself (a decision at least slightly motivated by the creeping paranoia that somehow, her mother would find out and recall her to England within hours if she went running around with no shirt on).
But two weeks ago, Jess’s eyes hadn’t been drawn magnetically to Jules’s bare skin, to the defined lines of her abs and sharp collarbones, to the way her sports bra wasn’t quite snug enough to prevent her chest from bouncing when she ran, and – and hell. Trains of thought like this were what had gotten her into trouble in the first place, and she needed to get her head screwed back on straight, or she was royally screwed.
She felt like it wasn’t fair to Jules – Jules who had no idea, who flipped the V sign at boys who catcalled their training while Jess laughed, who had absolutely no reservations about stripping down to her underwear and changing in front of Jess, in the locker rooms and in their shared dorm room, all the time. Jess felt horribly like she was one of those leering boys. And besides, sooner or later, Jules would notice the way Jess kept darting glances at her and confront her about it. She needed to figure out a way to get over it, but as the days dragged into weeks and stretched out into a month and a half, Jess still found herself unable to avoid noticing the curve of Jules’s spine, the hard muscles of her bare biceps, the swell of her breasts over the top of her sports bra.
So she told Jules she was going to office hours for her intro psych class and then went to Spectrum, Santa Clara’s confidential support and discussion group for queer students, instead. She sat in the corner of the room, introduced herself as Jess and tripped over her “preferred pronouns”, and didn’t speak for most of the meeting, listening to students talk about everything from homophobic roommates to the college’s failure to provide dental dams with increasing alarm.
She didn’t go back for two weeks, until she found herself noticing the curve of a teammate’s lower back – and not even Jules’s, for which she felt doubly guilty, with the vague sense that maybe she was being disloyal to Jules as well as shame at her perceived betrayal of the sanctity of the girls’ locker room – in the showers after a game. After that, though, she forced herself to go to Spectrum again, using the office hours excuse once more.
She sat in silence for the first half hour, but finally, when there was a lull in the conversation, forced herself to speak up, pinching herself hard to expel her nerves. “Are any of you – do any of you play sport?” she asked.
At first, no one spoke up, and she suddenly found herself the object of over a dozen other students’ scrutiny in the silence. After a moment, one other girl raised her hand and mumbled, “I play club field hockey, if that counts.”
Jess nodded. “Yeah, I play – anyways, I play on one of the teams here, and I just – I mean – doesn’t it seem wrong to you, if gay students are noticing other girls in the locker room?” The words were coming out too fast, in the wrong order, but she pushed on, “You know, as if you were violating their trust. How do you deal with that? I can imagine trying to look away, but if everyone’s changing, don’t you sometimes – sometimes notice things?” She trailed off, the weight of all those stares feeling like a physical burden.
The silence that followed was arctic.
Finally, one other group member – the moderator that evening, a tall, dark-haired boy named Mike – spoke up, his voice practically frosty. “So you think that queer students shouldn’t be allowed in the locker rooms?”
The girl who’d said she played field hockey said, “Hey, now – that’s not quite what she said, is it?”
A snub-nosed student who’d introduced themselves as “Kim, junior, they, them, theirs, from Massachusetts” shook their head. “Yeah, but he can read between the lines, can’t he?”
“That’s the kind of thing straight students say all the time,” Mike said, “and it’s just as much bullshit when it’s said by someone in Spectrum as it is when someone says it at a party. There’s nothing wrong with being queer and using the same locker room as everyone else. Jesus Christ, it’s not like we’re going there to cruise for dates or whatever.”
“I don’t think it’s wrong,” Jess said quickly. “Or – well – not really wrong. But just – doesn’t something about it feel wrong? People say they’re afraid of lesbians and gays in locker rooms because of things like that, right?”
“Did you come here to badger the students in this group with questions like that, then?” Mike asked. “Is this funny to you?”
“No! No, I – I’m – I think I might be gay.” Jess’s hands flew to her mouth, almost involuntarily, because she hadn’t said that out loud yet, and oh, God. “I just – the other girls in the locker room – I’m sorry, I think I should leave.” And before anyone could say anything else, she grabbed her bag and scurried out of the room, practically sprinting down the hallway before anyone could follow her. But the elevator took forever to reach the right floor, and at least Jess heard the approaching footsteps long enough in advance to force the tears that had been threatening to fall away.
It was one of the girls from the group, a tall student with dreadlocks whose name Jess couldn’t remember to save her life. “Hey,” she said, just as the elevator dinged, and Jess almost screamed at the timing. “Do you want to talk for a bit?”
She sighed, but nodded, and they made their way into the elevator together. “What’s your name again?” the other girl asked as the doors slid closed.
“Jess,” she said. “And yes, before you ask, I am from England.”
She grinned. “I figured. I’m Elle – I’m one of the senior coordinators at Spectrum. Good to meet you. I hope you’ve been enjoying your time on this side of the Atlantic?” And she let her talk about the States and ignore the elephant in the room for the entire elevator ride and for the next ten minutes as they wandered across the cool, late night campus. Finally, they settled down on a bench a few minutes away from Jess’s dorm.
“I’m sorry about Mike,” she said, at last. “He’s very defensive of the group. And you know, it’s not that common – it’s a great safe space – but sometimes you do get straight students coming down there, saying things just to get a response. But he shouldn’t have assumed you were straight. And he shouldn’t have jumped down your throat like that.”
Jess shrugged, wrapped her arms around herself. “Yeah. It’s all right.”
“Did you want to talk?”
“I mean, I should’ve known better than to go to Spectrum, when I’m still figuring things out myself.”
“Hey, no, it’s all good,” Elle said. “Spectrum’s supposed to be the place for that. God, I’m sorry Mike was such an asshole to you.”
“It’s just that I’m on the football team – soccer, sorry, you call it soccer over here, right? I’m on the soccer team, and there’s this girl –” and her mind flashed to an image of Jules running across the field, skin glistening with sweat, hair pushed back by a headband and shot through with highlights from the sun – “well, sometimes I’ll notice her, and I’ll feel bad about it. Like I shouldn’t be noticing her.”
Elle sighed. “That’s really tough – I’m sorry. Like Mike said, there’s nothing wrong about being gay and needing to use a locker room, but people say such ridiculous bullshit, you know? There’s just – all that stuff society feeds us about gay people being predatory and all that – you think your worst enemy’s the outside world, and then you turn around and realize that you’ve absorbed enough of the outside world that there’s a voice in your own head telling you you’re doing it wrong, right?”
Jess swallowed and nodded.
“Yeah. But that’s not you, you know? That’s just what people who have their heads so far up their asses that they’re wearing their asses as hats say.”
The descriptiveness of the expression startled a surprised laugh out of her. “Is that a thing Americans say? Wearing your ass as a hat?”
Elle chuckled. “You Brits call it – what – an ‘arse,’ right? Never heard good, wholesome American swearing before?”
“It’s certainly colorful.”
“Well, you need some pretty colorful invective when you’re describing people who poison your brain like that,” Elle said, sobering up. “Listen, if you want to come to Spectrum again to talk more about this kind of thing, we also hold another meeting on Wednesdays, at nine. I’m one of the moderators for that one.”
To her surprise, Jess found herself nodding. “Yes, actually. Yes. I’d like that. I’ll be there.”
“Great. I’ve got to run – problem set due in the morning – but I’ll see you then.” And she clapped her on the shoulder in a friendly way and then left. Jess sat on the bench for a few minutes longer, staring off into the distance, her thoughts miles and miles away, before she at last called herself back to the present and got up, hoisted her bag onto her back, and walked herself back to her dorm room. The halls of her dorm were mostly deserted, this late on a Monday night, but she caught sight of a sign for Spectrum pinned to the cork announcement board on the ground floor and caught herself smiling in response.
“You doing all right, Jess?” Jules called, when she walked into their room. “You were stuck in office hours for a while – have an exam coming up?”
“No, not for a few more weeks,” Jess said. She took off her shoes, placed them up in their usual station next to the door. Her voice was strong when she added, “And I think I’m doing just fine.”