Olivia and I are on my bed, all geared up to watch porn.
My laptop is between us. We split a pair of headphones, one bud slipped in the divot of her right ear, the other bud in my left, because my mom is in the next room and the walls of her house are thin. Olivia lives here now and has for the thicker half of the year. Last week, while splitting a bottle of Malbec on the railroad back from Manhattan, we decided that the reason we are perfect for each other is because we have never and will never have sex. Olivia says sex ruins everything. I’m twenty-seven and even though she’s four years younger, there’s a way in which she’s lived more. Her passport full of stamps, her wallet full of condoms, her bookshelf full of books on polyamory, BDSM. Olivia got punched in the face once, consensually. I make her tell me about it all of the time. We sit close enough to both get a good view of the action, but are diligent in ensuring that our thighs and pinkies don’t touch.
The fact is, I hate porn. We are trying to figure out why. Why the whole thing makes me cringe, or gag, or hold in a laugh like someone farted at a funeral. Why I squint my eyes the same way I do when someone in a movie is julienning celery or working with a buzzsaw. I watch like I am anticipating blood, amputation.
She’s my best friend, my business partner. Our business involves the color pink, tiaras, a selfie stick, and yelling our poetry at college students to teach them that rape is bad and often has nothing to do with a ski mask or an alleyway. In the videos we post of ourselves online, men’s rights activists refer to Olivia as The Skinny One and me as The Hippo. We read the comments at our performances. I couldn’t hear what the skinny one was saying, because the hippo kept talking over her. The audience winces. It’s part of our schtick. We’re making a difference. We live with my mother when we’re not on the road. Sometimes the men describe how they’d like to fuck or kill us. Never marry.
Let’s start here, Olivia says. She pulls up a virtual bordello that touts itself as award-winning, queer, feminist porn. The splash page promises that every on screen couple (or throuple, or whatever subsequent cutesy orgy term comes after that) has had sex before off-screen. I’ve heard of this site before. Its performers are famous for pausing forearm-deep inside the vault of their lover and asking, Is this okay? thus assuring the at-home-viewer that everyone they are watching wants to be there, is cool with whatever is inside their ass. (If you are a feminist and watching the free kind of porn, consent is a disbelief you must be willing to suspend.)
There’s a paywall, I point out, relieved, as if the wall is tangible, barbed, eleven feet high.
We can use the company card. Olivia has an answer for everything.
Usually we use the card for airfare, or coffee, or a single hotel room where Olivia tells the desk clerk, We’ll take two queens for two Queens. On our performance rider, a clear perk of booking us to perform at your college is that we’re two girls who don’t require two rooms. Our best friendship is on brand, but also, Olivia is terrified of hotels. Mostly because Ted Bundy did what he did there sometimes. And because of that girl found in the water tank after the guests complained about the faucet running brown.
What will you tell Josh? I ask, handing over the card and slipping back into bed. Josh is our accountant.
That he can file it under research tools. Olivia doesn’t know what Josh looks like, but flirts with him over the phone while we ask our first time girl-boss questions. She twirls her hair like it’s the tendril of a landline. He has a sexy voice! she defends. She doesn’t think about his wife.
Olivia flips the card to punch in the security code, then says, We’re in. I slip the earbud back and point to a thumbnail on screen of two women, pretty, long-haired. One is blonde, red lipped, pink tongued, connected to the ring at the end of the brunette’s pierced tit––who has words tattooed across her chest in a language I don’t understand. Olivia presses play and I turn the volume to barely perceptible.
Most of my partners admitted to watching porn and, to stay open, I had to tuck that fact away in my mind’s deepest filing cabinet. It’s a thing I like to pretend does not exist, like the knowledge they also wipe themselves and check the toilet paper to know when they are clean enough (or the fact that they have loved people before me). I try to act sex-positive, cool, a down girl, fun––but the truth is it made me love them all a little less.
The blonde squirts a dollop of lube into her palm, jerks it up and down the translucent purple phallus secured to her pale naked body by a pair of black underwear with a hole in it, designated for this exact purpose. The waistband of the underwear says, Rodeoh. Despite the lube, she spits into the crotch of the brunette who is laying in supta baddha konasana, smiling, waiting, ready. Above my head, a rust-colored scar of water damage threatens that the ceiling might one day collapse on me. I must have inched away from Olivia because my earbud fell out. I hit the spacebar to pause.
It’s not like I’m vanilla or prude in real life, I tell Olivia, who laughs with all of the gapped teeth she told the orthodontist were too cute to fix.
Bitch, I know! she says. You got rammed by that Israeli soldier. The story of the soldier and I on the back of the tour bus on my birthright trip to Jerusalem is one I wish I had not told Olivia, or better yet, wish I had not lived. I resume the video. Out come the fuzzy pink handcuffs.
Sometimes, men make entire videos dedicated to commenting on our videos. From their mother’s basements, they turn a three-minute poem into an hour-long assessment. Once, they circled the part of my body I hate the most––the pouch of fat I intended to conceal with my high-waisted jeans, but highlighted instead. Our poem was a feminist critique on Super Mario, with lines like, Oh, you thought princess was trapped by Bowser? Maybe Princess hired Bowser as a bouncer because she didn’t have time to reject you at the door. Apparently this was crossing the line. The commentator, with his red circle around my stomach, said, Is it me, or does this chick have the fattest cock in the universe?
Now there are two fat cocks and one is in the blonde’s throat, her lipstick undone on her face, like her mouth was slapped forever. Eyes full of vessels and water. Maybe fear. I move the cursor, click the X, try to breathe through my nose and ignore the feeling of a shadow hand on the back of my head.
I open another video, fast. Toes sucked like they’re melting. Click. Ass, the only thing on the menu. Click. An actual dental dam. Fascinating, but––click, click, click.
It’s weird, I tell Olivia. It’s not like I don’t like sex in movies.
When I was younger I would watch a dress unzip and expose the canvas of a back and it would be enough to send myself to my room, to be alone with my hands. To paint the night a little less lonely. Kate Winslet’s famous palm slapped and slid down the car window while Leo did what he did inside the cab, and I could feel that hand on me, as if my own spine were the glass.
Even now. The L Word, for instance. Jenny and Marina in the restaurant bathroom while an unwitting fiancé waits for a table. Jenny’s hand over Marina’s mouth to keep the sound of her pleasure in. Jenny’s other hand over the mouth in Marina’s jeans to pull the pleasure out.
Even The Notebook. That scene in the rain. Wet dress clinging to Allie’s body invents a new kind of naked. Noah carries her through the house he built with her in mind, as if she weighs nothing. He swims with her through the rooms like that, kissing her, pinning the butterfly of her body against the walls. She pulls off her clothes while he does this. She’d remove her own freckles if it would bring them closer. He lifts her up the stairs and brings her to bed, as if rescuing her from a fire in reverse. And then. When he lays her down. He rolls the stockings off her legs, slow. The way he might skin a deer who was still alive. So soft it would not even hurt.
But everyone in the movies admits they are actors. And everyone on the porn sites tries to pretend they are not.
I count how many knuckles I can crack even though I tended to them minutes earlier. Nineteen. A bad habit anyone close to me must learn to mute in their mind, especially when I move on to my neck. On screen, someone sniffs the crotch of someone else’s fishnets and licks their lips as if they just pressed their face to a cinnamon roll, or knot of garlic. Olivia clicks the X on my behalf. She scrolls through the clips. It’s getting late. Our nighttime ritual is that Olivia showers, and I bathe. She braids my hair, then twists her own up into something called a pineapple––a pile of curls at her crown. To unwind, she watches beauty vloggers on YouTube, and I eviscerate my pores in a magnifying mirror. Before sleep, we sit out on the roof and I tell her I wish she’d stop smoking while she sucks down what is always her last cigarette. I look at the stars, the same stars of my youth, the ones I used to wish on––begging the Little Dipper to rid food of its calories. (Calories. What was I? Nine? How did I even know that word?) Then we retire to our separate rooms. Me in my brother’s old quarters, and her in my girlhood bedroom. But not tonight. Tonight we’re doing research.
We click new seeds of videos, watch them bloom full screen, and when my interest wilts we repeat the process. We’re answerless. We try on kinks like prom dresses. I am afraid of going home empty-handed, nothing to wear to the ball of my own desire. We search it all. Femmes, bois, leather, trans. We search strap-on, school girl, softcore, 69. Shame casts its shadow over my body, but we keep looking. Like maybe I just haven’t found the right corner of the internet to roll my own stockings down in.
Am I broken? I ask Olivia.
Let’s keep looking, she says. She exits one window, opens another.
It’s not like I have never watched people have sex before. I spent years doing it, back when my body was such a stranger to me that I thought it wanted men. I would leave my body to watch my body, analyze the angles of myself, conduct my back to arch, fix my hair to appear bohemian but never unhoused. I’d whisper, When in doubt, remember how the body flattens while on your back. Whenever I think back to the men, I never see their faces above mine––huffing, twisting, or contorting at the state line between ecstasy and agony––while they searched for something lost inside of me. I always see them in profile. The memories come as if I was sitting on a loveseat in the corner, my elbow on my knee, my chin in my hand, head cocking side to side like a dog who hears a distant siren, trying to understand. Maybe because I’ve had so much sex that I was not in, I do not like watching sex that I am not in now.
Maybe it’s because the camera adds ten pounds.
Someone on screen bites their lip, and it’s a lip bite I recognize. One I have practiced in the mirror. Someone lets out a moan too perfectly pitched to not have first been sung in the shower. There is choreography to their lust. Every ooh and baby and oh fuckfuckfuck sounds derivative. As if they studied the greats. As if everyone is auditioning to play the part of the desired. I’ve lined up for that casting before, eyeing the girls around me, knowing who would get called back.
I am too embarrassed to ask Olivia, What happens if you search, ‘love’?
But then I see it.
Wait, go back, I say to her.
What? she scrolls up.
I pull the laptop closer, jerk the earbud out of Olivia’s ear, and shove my nose to the screen to get a closer look.
Olivia! I say, I fucking know her.
There she is, smiling in her square like a postage stamp. I move the cursor and hover over her, my arrow on her chin––the closest I can get to touching her face. I double click and she expands to the corners of my screen. She comes alive to me again, a decade and a half older, and I can only guess what’s happened since I saw her last, and what’s brought her here––to this shamelessness in her body.
Hello, I say, to Destiny Smith. To my old friend. My first bunkmate. From Fat Camp.
Reader, I am afraid to tell this story. I am afraid to tell you about finding my former fat camp friend on a feminist queer porn site. I am afraid you will ask what everyone always asks. The question our culture revolves around. The question I revolve around: What does she look like now?
I want to give you the literal answer, which is: Super wet. Pussy throbbing like a discotheque. Latex lady fist fully-inside. Definitely enjoying herself. But is that what you want to hear? Or are you really asking what it always comes down to: Did she put the weight back on?
As if there is only one way to survive this story.
What happens next is a metaphor. Fiction. But it is also the truth:
It’s the year 2000 and Destiny and I are girls again. Together we have a plan. It’s been eleven days in the making, which in sleepaway camp time is a month, and in fat camp time is about two years. We memorized the calendar of which counselors are on nightwatch in July and waited for a pairing that like us above the rest: Brooke and Charlie, who both put a little spandex in the waistband of the rules.
When the last flashlight is out and the breathing pattern of every last one of our bunkmates has altered, Destiny and I slip out of our beds and tiptoe through our cabin. We free the metal hook from the eye of the lock––the flimsiest security system in the world to protect the girls of Bunk 9.
We know which street lamps are blown out. Which trees cast the most darkness. We walk the shadow path to get to Charlie and Brooke, who sit in folding chairs on the pavement, tonight’s guardians of the camp’s locked gate.
We bring them our spare diet Cokes stashed from last Sunday’s snack, carbonated collateral until we can deliver on the promise that our parents will leave them big end-of-summer tips if they let us hang. I crack open the cans right there, the exhale of their pressurized mouths parting. It’s not like the counselors can have food on campus either. It’s not like the counselors aren’t thirsty, too.
Destiny distracts them by showing off her belly button. Last week, she pierced it herself in the bunk bathroom. It took three safety pins we sterilized with contact solution––a placeholder until she can find a real ring. She bit down on a sock to keep from screaming. While she distracts them, I drop a sleeping pill into the twin open colas, which I swiped from the infirmary on Thursday, faking a migraine whose symptoms I learned by watching my mother. I pretended the light hurt. Here you go, I say, thrusting the crux of our plan toward Brooke and Charlie. They’re not cold, I shrug, But still. I fix my face something akin to casual. As if my jitters come from hanging out with eighteen-year-olds when I am just one month shy of thirteen. As if I’m bending the rules, and not about to break the laws of the universe.
We make conversation and we are good at it, but really we are just waiting. We feel bad for drugging two of our favorite counselors, but not bad enough not to. The funniest punchline of fat camp is that you can actually see the golden arches of McDonalds from the camp’s locked gate, shooting up into the sky on the highway, a moon whose tides tug on only the kids of Camp Shane.
Brooke’s eyelids heavy first, and then Charlie’s head lolls to the side. Destiny lets me be the one to slip the key off from around Charlie’s neck because I’ve never touched a boy before and still think I want to. I move with the silence of a mother becoming Santa Claus for her poor-sleeper children. I hold the key like I’ve smuggled a diamond. It feels hot enough to burn my hands.
When I press the key into the gate’s padlock and see that it fits, my body opens like a book. Like there is a really great story inside. A story of a girl who does not wear her t-shirt into the ocean, who knows the only thing that could ever weigh her down is shame. A story of a girl with so much space freed up in her brain where the words ketogenic, paleo, intermittent fasting used to be. A girl with so much time no longer spent researching how to get the low-tide smell out of shirataki noodles or the forgiveness of black and vertical stripes. A girl not concerned with shrinking and so she does something huge. A girl not concerned with being pretty and so she does something actually beautiful.
I push the door open slow, try not to make it creak, but it’s okay––the nightwatch is out cold. We open the gate just wide enough for our bodies to fit through, and are stunned when we realize how much we overestimated our own width.
Destiny bends down to re-lace her sneakers, because we are going to run. We are going to run through the dark, with that glowing capital M in the sky as our North Star. Our legs are strong from hiking the hill three times a day, the hill that the camp strategically placed the dining hall at the bottom of. Our legs are strong from hours of soccer and circuit and basketball, strong from dance, tae-bo, step aerobics. Our legs are strong from kicking. From running suicides.
Ready? she asks, but a bolt latches inside me. Destiny can hear the click.
She gives me those brown eyes, like two worry stones. She hopes they will ground me in purpose. That I will feel the weight of them and remember what we came here to do. Come on, she says, We’ve been planning this––but I am taking steps in reverse, backing myself out, retreating into my cage. I can tell that what I am doing is sad because of how Destiny looks at me. I am a shelter dog, weary and shivering away from her outstretched hand. She isn’t reaching out to strike, but to rescue.
Her eyes say, You can do this.
An owl asks the night, Who? Who?
Destiny’s eyes say, I will do this with or without you, and loan me another generous moment. I look over my shoulder and back at camp, back at the world I know––the first place I could ever laugh with my belly out. The place that spits me back home at the end of summer in a body that makes everyone love me more.
Her eyes say, I guess the answer is without you.
Brooke and Charlie sleep, wax figures of themselves, but still I say, I’ll keep watch until you get back. I offer this like a consolation prize. Even though I am the one who is losing.
Okay. She nods, pressing her lips together in the shape that lips make when one person wordlessly acknowledges to another person that whatever this is, it is goodbye.
We both know she’s not coming back. She is running as far as she can, toward the phosphorescence of those arches, yes, but past them, too, she is running away from this place, this prison, from its narrow definition of beauty. She is running from the scales and the measuring tape and the calculations, the numbers that do not know the poetry of the body. She is running for her life. And I am staying. I am upholding the lie. As long as I corner myself behind this gate, I am safe. I am a mime behind my own perceived glass. Destiny is taking her chances. Destiny is running. The sound of her shoes slapping the pavement replaces my heartbeat, but the sound moves farther and farther away.
I will return to the facts now.
I will return to that camp for many more years, long enough to collect an award called The Fatty Five. A half decade of birthdays where my cake was an apple with a candle in it and all I ever wished for was to be small and to be loved. I thought those were the same wish.
By my last summer at Camp Shane, you can count my ribs, which are not unlike the bars of a cell.
To answer your question, Reader: Destiny decided to grow. She’s a redwood forest, tall and wide. She is something to pull your car over for, to drink in the bragging of god. I try to keep myself more like a bonsai tree. Clipped. Something sold in a mall kiosk. I would like to fit in a gift box. Not Destiny. She could punch a ceiling through a mall. She is my favorite after picture.
Olivia, I say, my eyes still fixed on the laptop’s portal to another world, This is the only porn I have ever loved.
I try to keep tabs on the girls of my summers. For a while, I assumed I knew how they were without asking, just based on the photos they posted. Just based on their size. But we all grew in different ways. One of us became a pornstar. One of us became a butcher. One of us is a murderer. Some of us wives. Some of us exercise gurus, our faces on cookbooks. Some of us models. Some of us laid under the promise of scalpels––our excess skin labeled toxic waste and carried to a dumpster outside. Some of us were contestants on weight-loss TV shows. Some of us became mothers so we could eat for two. Some of us raised fat kids who we will send to fat camp because those were the best summers of our lives. Some of us became drunks. Some of us stayed in touch. Some of us returned to camp as counselors, the new guards of the gate. Some of us still cry in dressing rooms and miss the hard lines of camp, dream of a world without options, temptations, cake. I became a writer. I write about my body while wearing sweatpants. I write without waistbands, bra straps, without anything that reminds me that I have a body at all. Details have been tailored, names changed. Some of us will keep the secret of fat camp with us to our graves. Some of us are still pretending we were on vacation in Florida. Some of our spouses don’t know how completely we belonged to each other. We were each other’s first loves. No one knew us better or ever would. We were fluent in each other’s wounds, could speak the hurt perfectly. Those summers were a bible, written in disappearing ink. Some of us are healing. Some of us are happy. But as far as I can tell, Destiny is the only one who got free. Open.
My favorite stories, essays, and poems to write are the ones where I have no idea where they will end up when I start them. When some force wiser than I grabs me by the hand or the collar and pulls me through the tale that particular work wishes to tell. Where I can take a seat back in the process and let the consciousness of the idea drive me. I knew I wanted to tell the story of watching porn with my best friend and finding someone I recognized on screen, but I never knew it would lead me into a speculative escape, a third person plural narrative, or a very detailed description from a sex scene in The Notebook. Robert Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”, and this piece absolutely surprised me. I hope it carries you somewhere unexpected, too.
Megan Falley [she/her] is a queer femme writer who has been living as a full-time touring spoken word poet, author, and teaching artist since her first of three full-length poetry collection was published in 2012. Her most recent collection, “Drive Here and Devastate Me” [Write Bloody Publishing, 2018] was heralded by Autostraddle as “a love letter to the queer community.” In 2019 Falley co-wrote “How Poetry Can Change Your Heart” with her partner, poet Andrea Gibson, as part of Chronicle Book’s acclaimed how-to series. Her chapbook, “Bad Girls, Honey [Poems About Lana Del Rey] was the winner of the 2015 Tired Hearts Chapbook Prize. Though Falley cut her teeth as a competitive slam poet and is both a National Poetry Slam and Women of the World Poetry Slam Finalist, she recently began kicking free of the confines of stanza and running wild in the meadows of prose. Since transitioning to memoir, Falley was selected as the first place winner for the So To Speak Creative Nonfiction Prize , the first place winner for the Tom Howard/John H Reid essay prize , and the runner-up for Phoebe Journal’s 50th Anniversary Prize in nonfiction . Her essays have been shortlisted for The Disquiet International Prize  and the Malahat Review Open Season Awards . Throughout the pandemic, Falley has taught over seven hundred students online in her virtual workshop, “Poems That Don’t Suck.” She lives in Colorado with the loves of her life [her partner, and three tiny rescue dogs.] She’s rooting for you.