My Girlfriend Went Straight and Left Me for My Brother
Good taste runs in the family, I guess.
By Alex Greene
My sophomore year of college, I found my first girlfriend. We met at a film society meeting and soon struck up a friendship. She was a physics PhD student who enjoyed warehouse parties and making origami Klingon Birds of Prey. Her lifestyle – studying stars by day and wearing glow sticks by night – fascinated me.
My college’s lesbian population was sparse. Up until the physicist, I had only dated hippie, straight girls I’d met in a drunken stupor at parties. They test drove me as a lesbian then discovered that their bi-curiosity was simply curiosity and indicative of no actual physical attraction to women or, more pointedly, me. After being dumped by a girl who wasn’t “really gay” three times, I was tired of feeling like the Kryptonite of Sapphic love. I needed to find someone who wanted to be with women, and more specifically, with me.
When the physicist came around, I was hopeful. For the first time, I felt I had a mutual connection with a female. We could talk for hours about Xena: Warrior Princess or our obsession with Star Trek’s Natasha Yarr. When we were intimate, she never awkwardly paused and said, “I’m not quite sure what to do,” while staring perturbed at my naked form. Soon we went to dinner after sex. Then, to movies after dinner. Then, we snuggled. I finally found it, a real girlfriend into women, a real girlfriend into me.
One night I took her off campus to my family’s house in Palo Alto. I introduced the physicist to my mother as my “friend” but when she left for the bathroom, I grazed her hand and squeezed it. We were WASPs, so my girlfriend couldn’t be openly discussed but mom’s startled expression told me that my gesture was noticed. Mom took me aside after the door to the bathroom closed. “She has a red streak in her hair,” she whispered. “It’s too alternative.”
“Are you sure you think her hair’s too alternative, Mom?” I said. I was daring her to talk about it. But Mom didn’t take the bait.
“No, it’s the hair,” she said curtly, sipping from her martini.
Unlike every other family in the Bay Area, my relatives were Republican and all things queer fell under the category of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” When I came out to my mother at 18, she actually said, “Honey, Hilary Clinton’s a lesbian and she has a husband and a daughter.” My father stayed reticent. My brother was the only member of the family who discussed my sexual orientation with me.
A month later, my physicist said she was busy two Saturdays in a row. I was worried. Not knowing what else to do, I went to her door unannounced, deciding to surprise visit her. She was watching an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, her hands covered her face and she peaked through her splayed fingers. I sat on the couch, placing a reassuring hand on her thigh.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
She shifted in her seat while examining her cuticles. “I was at a party the other week and I sort of hooked up with a guy,” she said.
I examined my cuticles. It was okay, I told myself. She had just hooked up with one guy. This could be salvaged. She covered her face with her hands, protecting herself from my reaction. “I didn’t know it then but it turns out — he’s your brother.”
Clearly this could not be salvaged.
I was shocked. Disgusted. I started yelling. How could she have done this? She was a horrible girlfriend, a horrible human being.
She apologized but said that when push came to shove, she liked guys. Not only had I sent another questioning girl into the arms of a man, I had sent her into the arms of my brother. After kissing him, she had discovered his last name was Greene, and replied, “Oh, I know an Alex Greene.” “That’s my sister,” he told her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you already knew it wasn’t working — ” she trailed off.
I stared at her symmetrical features in a catatonic haze. I hadn’t known at all. My only point of reference for passion had been other women who were equally – if not more – physically disinterested in me. How was I to know? I pressed my hands to my hot cheeks to cool them down. I turned away. I didn’t want her to see me cry.
I left and went back to my dorm. I untagged every Facebook photo of us; threw everything she had ever given me into the trash. Yet I knew wiping my life clean of her wouldn’t make me feel better.
The real problem wasn’t losing the physicist — the latest glittery girl I’d mythologized in my head. The real problem was that the hope that anybody would be able to love me was drifting further away. Had all these girls not been interested in my gender or simply not been interested in me? No matter how hard I tried, I felt destined to live on a lesbian island of one, actively repelling women away from me and my entire sex.
And then there was my brother. Just thinking about the situation made me want to scrub myself down in the shower with steel wool. I felt dirty, as if through some transitive property of sex, I had hooked up with my own sibling. Was there a transitive property of sex? If so, who invented such a sick rule? I would never have hooked up with a girl my brother had so much as breathed near. How could he have done this to me?
I was about to call him and yell but then realized: my brother never knew the physicist was my girlfriend. I’d always withheld information about my romantic rendezvous from him out of sensitivity – because I was under the mistaken impression that he had no romantic life of his own.
More shocking than my girlfriend hooking up with my brother was my brother hooking up with anyone at all.
My 25-year-old bro was, in most ways, a Silicon Valley nerd. Growing up, he was always programming his Legos or playing Magic: The Gathering in our basement. I had always thought of him as a geek with absolutely no acumen for interfacing with the opposite sex. That vision of him was thrown out the window now. Probability dictated that he was hooking up with so many random women that one of them eventually turned out to be my girlfriend.
It shouldn’t have shocked me. My brother was like a CIA agent when it came to his personal life. Sometimes he took calls while we had dinner. If I asked who it was, he said “nobody.” Were all these random phone calls from women?
I realized that perhaps I didn’t know my brother at all, and, in a way, this hurt much more than my girlfriend’s betrayal.
Even if he didn’t share much, I thought my brother and I were close. We electively slept in the same room till I was 11. When I had to get shots as a kid, bro distracted me from the pain by singing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. He showed me how to ride a bike when I was four and he taught me the Pythagorean theorem when I was 14. He was the first person I came out to. He accepted me immediately and attempted to reassure me. “You’ll be in college soon, it’s fine. There are gay people everywhere in college!” Whenever I made a mess, he was there to pick me up and set me right. Looking back, I felt as if I was just a black hole of need that bro was always filling, never asking for anything in return.
A month later, the physicist and I had coffee and she said that she was dating my brother seriously. He didn’t say a word to me but I could tell something was different. He wore a bemused expression on his face. The drink holder in his car was filled with restaurant receipts, presumably from dates and dinners.
When I asked him if anything was new, he simply said, “Nothing.”
The physicist and my brother dated for a few months. I didn’t tell him that we had been together. She didn’t either. Two months into their relationship, they turned up at a family event. Upon meeting the physicist as my brother’s girlfriend, my mother ignored her former association with me, and commented on how she thought the red streak in her hair was “spunky.”
The following Christmas, my brother and I did end up talking about the physicist. We were wrapping presents at the family homestead when she came up in conversation. Though they’d broken up, they remained on friendly terms.
I stared at my brother’s precisely wrapped presents and then at my balls of crumpled wrapping paper. He had always been the good one. No wonder she’d wanted him. A pang of jealousy shot through me.
“You know,” I said, pausing to clear my throat. “She and I had a thing — we dated — before you dated.”
I waited for a response but all I heard was the sound of his scissors cutting one immaculate line. I had made him too uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have said anything at all. Did I really care about staking some previous claim to a girl or did I care about him?
I was about to leave the room when I heard him laughing. But it was the forced laugh of avoidance common to many members of my family. It could mean anything: embarrassment, anger, apathy. There was no way to tell.
“That’s sorta funny,” he said, finally.
“That’s all you have to say,” I said.
Looking down at him, I wanted to pry his head open and find out what he was thinking. I wanted to unload, tell him about the first make-out, the red streak and Mom knowing the whole time. Then maybe, just maybe, I’d get a real reaction.
But I couldn’t. Some force field between us had been erected — or perhaps it had always been there. After all, we were WASPs. There was a distance that had to be respected. I just hadn’t realized that rule applied to my brother and me.
Image via gavinzac