The Straight Woman’s Guide to Feminism
by Deborah A. Miller-Collins
You arrive, glowing. Then Dina introduces you to her lover. A moment’s hesitation—you hadn’t known she was gay. But then you think, all the better—these chicks don’t need a man for, well, anything. But her girlfriend’s “hello” is too soft, her lip-gloss too pink, her curled blonde hair too cute. You wince at her delicate steps, decide “Girlfriend” has nothing you need. You push past her and sprint down the path to the dock to catch up with Dina.
She’s boarding when you reach her: one foot on the boat’s side, she drops down onto the deck, the vessel dipping in response. She tosses the ball of towels she carried under one arm onto a seat along with a white, plastic shopping bag heavy with apples. The sun highlights the reds and blondes in her short, brown hair as she moves from one end of the boat to the other, checking the motor and pulling in fenders. Her confident strides atop the shifting boat confirm your first impression, the one that got you here. You were right: she’s captain of her ship.
“You wanna get that line.” It’s an order, not a question, made without eye contact. You’re not sure at first what she means, but then you see a rope tied to a large cleat on the dock and bend to unwind it with unsteady hands. A chilled line of sweat encircles your hairline and trickles from your armpits. You can smell your own body odor. Water, boats—they’re not your thing. And you barely know these women. Your mind flashes to an image of Dina, two days prior, confronting a young man who had cut ahead in line at the office cafeteria. You’d joined her table, struck up a conversation, and before lunch ended she had invited you here. Now, the line freed, you exhale deeply and toss your bag in before stumbling aboard just as Girlfriend climbs in, too.
The small motorboat nears the center of the lake, which is busy with boats trailing skiers. Dina cuts the engine. Greenish water laps at the boat’s side, foaming where it makes contact. The back and forth of the boat, rocking to the greater forces surrounding it, makes you uneasy. You peer over the side, ponder the mysterious depths, but see nothing save your own pale face staring back, looking unfamiliar.
Dina whips off her shirt and stretches out, sunny-side up, on the boat’s prow. You feign acceptance. No, you’re not too hot, you say. You affect a casual slouch in your seat by the motor. You explain your concerns about UV rays, throw in a family history of skin cancer. Girlfriend, lying face down on the boat’s side bench, her face buried in her arms, lifts her blonde head enough to peer over her elbow at you. “Oh God,” she groans, putting her head back down, “she’s got her top off, doesn’t she.” You don’t like her derisive tone, though somehow you feel reassured.
“Hey, you can make fun all you want, Sally,” Dina says, “but the reason we have to wear shirts is because men made up laws that say we have to. Just because they have issues about breasts doesn’t mean I have to go along with it.”
“Here we go.” Girlfriend flips onto her back, gazes up at the cloudless sky.
“The problem with patriarchy is that as men try to be all-powerful, they can’t be honest with themselves. Instead of dealing with their own issues, they blame someone else, usually a woman.”
You sit up. You ignore her didactic tone because you’re reminded of boyfriends, past and present. Your father, your brothers. You wish you could take notes.
“It’s just another example of the inequities in our society. These laws, these men’s laws, that say women have to wear shirts and men don’t.” She grabs an apple from the bag beside her, takes a huge bite and continues. “Why shouldn’t I enjoy the sun on my skin as much as any of those guys out there?” She gestures with the apple toward the lake beyond. “They’re so centered on themselves they don’t even consider what someone else might want or need.”
“But there’s laws about how men dress, too.” You feel self-conscious, doubtful of your ability to participate. “They have to wear pants.”
“Hey, my pants are on,” says Dina. “But breasts are not a sexual organ.”
They’re not? You wonder.
“They’re not?” Girlfriend giggles.
“Not everything is a joke, Sally,” Dina says.
“Lighten up.” Girlfriend stretches and sits up.
A boat speeds by pulling a skier—a man, 40ish, with a sagging potbelly and frizzy dark hair covering more of his back and chest than his head. “Well, I don’t know,” you laugh, “maybe it’d be a better idea to make men have to wear shirts, too. Then at least we wouldn’t have to look at that.”
Girlfriend, arms stretched out on the boat’s side, shakes her head in reproof. “Not nice.” She frowns at you.
Screw her, you think, and turn to Dina, who’s propped up on an elbow, chuckling. “But it’s really about choice,” she says, “that’s the issue. Who are they to tell us what we can and can’t wear? It’s up to us to stand up and not let them dominate us with their demands, not let them just use us for whatever is convenient for them.”
She sounds right, but her preaching compels you to differ. “You sound like my mother. They fought that battle in the seventies. Women are equal now.”
Dina laughs. “Really? Tell me, then—who does most of the housework where you live?” She finishes off her apple, chewing the core, swallowing the seeds and stem.
Girlfriend breaks the silence that follows. “Apple?” she offers and passes you the bag. You leave it on the seat next to you.
“Listen to the way men talk to women,” Dina continues. “The language and their tone are so different from the way they talk to each other. You can hear their arrogance.” She sits up, dons her shirt. “Hey, I don’t have to tell you that,” she laughs, walking toward the stern of the boat, “you live with one. You straight chicks are all a mess if you ask me. Ski?” She pulls skis and a life vest from a locker.
A large wave broadsides the boat and you’re knocked off balance. You give your head a quick shake to clear it; Dina mistakes this as your response. “Suit yourself,” she says and tosses the skis into the water. “We needed a third, someone to watch the line and skier.”
Another wave knocks the boat. “No problem,” you lie and watch her jump in after the skis. When she surfaces, her wet, short-cropped hair gleams like a helmet in the sun’s crystalline light. You barely hear the directions she gives you as you realize why you’ve been invited.
“Pay attention this time,” Dina calls to Sally. “Remember, fast and steady.”
Girlfriend, one knee perched on the driver seat, white-knuckles the accelerator.
You stand just front of the boat’s center and lean on the windshield, facing both women.
“Did you hear me?” Dina shouts from the water.
“Oh, please,” Girlfriend sighs and rolls her eyes.
The engine sputters, the boat pulls away. Dina grows smaller.
“She’s ready,” you say when Dina gives the thumbs up. The boat gathers speed. You watch Dina crouch, straighten her knees, then crash to the water. “She’s down,” you say.
You’re pretty sure you hear Girlfriend mutter “damn” as she circles back. “This would be so much easier,” she confides, “if Dina were a half-way decent skier.”
“What the hell is wrong with you!” Dina treads water and struggles the skis back on.
It happens twice more. The boat pitches, idling in its own wake, when Dina, angry, throws the skis on deck. The vessel takes a furious dip as Dina hauls herself aboard. You widen your stance to keep your balance but stumble on one of the skis. Before you can recover you find yourself plunging, choking on water.
A hand grips your arm, guides your hand to the ladder beside the motor. You breathe air again. “Thanks,” you say to the dark figure silhouetted against the sun.
The angle changes as you reach the top of the ladder. You’re surprised to see that it wasn’t Dina who led you to safety. Instead, eyes soft with concern look into yours. Dina stands at the driver’s seat, one hand on her hip, the fingers of the other drumming the steering wheel. The rigid impatience of her stance reminds you of boyfriends, past and present. Your father, your brothers. You don’t need to take notes.
“Thanks, Sally,” you say as soon as you can breathe again.
Deborah Miller-Collins lives and writes in upstate New York with her husband and two daughters where she also teaches high school English. You can read more of her work in Spark Anthology; her short story, “Call, Talk, Lock” is availble in their October/November 2013 issue.