Previously, Mikaella Clements terrified Toast readers with If Gwyneth Paltrow Were Your Girlfriend.
Most of the time I don’t even think about it. It comes out, surprising me as much as it doesn’t surprise my audience. I’ll be rattling along, cheerfully enjoying myself and talking too much about The Iliad or Taylor Swift or how much I hate the British Problems meme, and then the conversation turns and suddenly my girlfriend, the prettiest girl in the world, is a boy.
More often than not, I don’t fake straight to protect myself. This isn’t the same as when I carefully cultivated a crush on an inaccessible boy in high school so I could point to him if anyone asked who I liked, nor is it like all the times I was firmly and fix-lippedly silent about my sexuality when my cranky grandfather explained how gay marriage would inevitably destroy the Catholic Church. I don’t even do it to prevent the double-take from others, in which I usually take a sort of savage pride.
If it sometimes falls into the category of attempting to make casual conversation a little smoother, more often it is because I’ve decided to try another life on for size. Not through any dissatisfaction with my own, but from an indefinable curiosity, a sudden urge. It always just happens — I’ll be having a normal conversation, and then, all of a sudden, I’m someone else.
At the beauty salon
I am astonished at how blithely and rapidly I will lie when I’m getting a leg and bikini wax. I’m already paying for something I’m not entirely comfortable with — no, I shouldn’t feel the need to remove all my body hair; yes, I do it anyway, and then sit and listen to fair-haired friends announce they would never wax, showing off the very faint, almost invisible down on their legs that is nothing like the angry black spikes I get only hours after shaving mine.
Something about laying down on the weird padded bench with a towel over my lap and my teeth gritted makes me begin to change, swiftly and unthinkingly, certain key aspects of myself. During a wax, I’ve been known to agree with things I have fought vehemently against: “Yes, I agree, Taylor Swift is a better role model than any pop star who wears a very short skirt. Oh, isn’t Stephen Fry darling.” Afterward, I’m never able to remember why I did it. Perhaps it was to keep conversation moving easily in a place where conversation is the only distraction from the hot wax being ripped away from tender skin. More likely, I think, it stemmed from a strange and undeniable desire to impress the women who work there; I don’t know why — perhaps they would be just as impressed if I disagreed with their views. But still I try, compulsively, to please them.
And sometimes this means that my girlfriend becomes my boyfriend. Usually I change only her gender, and keep everything else about her exactly the same. Once I even kept her name mostly the same, changing the -i ending to an -o and trying very hard to keep my face straight in the near-incomprehensible aftermath. Occasionally I have changed everything: once, to my own astonishment, I found myself talking fondly about my builder boyfriend Ben, who was the strong, silent type but who loved me terribly and was a surprisingly good cook. Afterwards, I walked out of the salon feeling as though I were walking out of a dream.
I am quite confident that if I were honest about being gay and having a girlfriend, it would not present any issue at the salon. I’m confident because I’ve done it, maybe 50% of the time. Last week I told the woman waxing my bikini line about my girlfriend, and she beamed and asked if I thought she was “the one.” I’ve never met anyone at a beauty salon who wasn’t perfectly lovely, apart from the pain I’d asked them to inflict on me. But still, I sometimes lie, watching the beautician with my lonely high-school heart and wondering if she’d like to be my friend and gossip about boys.
At a lingerie store
There is a chain of lingerie stores in the UK that straddles the line between “pricey enough to make you feel special” and “utterly unaffordable.” I have only two sets from this store, both bought for special occasions, but I go in there at least once a month to see if there’s anything nice and to use the dressing rooms. The dressing rooms are the best thing about the place. They have three light settings: day, night, and dusk. What does that mean? I can’t tell. All the light patterns seem equally random, but I am easily influenced, terribly persuaded by all advertising, and I love them with all my tiny capitalist heart. The walls are a pale pink. The doors have little golden handles. And there is a phone on the wall, which you can use to call an attendant who will tell you how the bra fits. The women working at the lingerie store have helped me find some that are more comfortable than others. They are always utterly professional and toe the line between vaguely maternal and cheekily flattering: sort of a naughty older cousin vibe in my life.
The second set I bought from this store was acquired the weekend before Valentine’s Day. “Is this just for fun, or for something special next weekend?” the woman helping me asked, leaning against the perfect dressing room door, practically grinning.
“Oh, something special,” I said vaguely — it did coincide with a planned visit for my at-the-time-long-distance girlfriend.
“He’s a lucky guy,” she said.
“Yes, he is,” I said without hesitation.
When the attendant left, I felt guilty for a moment, thinking about my girlfriend’s gleeful expression when I wear new lingerie, her perfect mix of appreciation and fashion advice when it comes to shopping for it. But I cheered up quickly in my fake dusk: if I had confessed my queerness, the attendant would probably have tried to talk me into buying a matching pair.
At a new house
This one, I am pleased to say, was not my fault. There is something about British landlords — their undeniable eccentricity, their mad wealth, their bewilderment over having tenants, as though they became landlords through no actual effort of their own. They are also absolutely incapable of understanding queerness. It doesn’t matter how often I mention my girlfriend; that inescapable space slips between the compounds, and suddenly I’m being told that oh yes, it’s lovely to have good friends.
My newest landlord, upon learning that three girls and one boy were moving into his three-bedroom house — two of whom were a couple — became almost helplessly confused. He texted me: will you and your boyfriend be moving in first and I had to reply me and my male friend will move in first, yes. my girlfriend will be here in July. There was no possible way for it to break through his brain; when at last he came around to find me and my boy friend (space intended) Jamie pottering around the place, he clearly gave up, and we gave up, too.
“Hasn’t he noticed we’re clearly moved into different bedrooms?” Jamie asked the other day, while we lounged in our unfurnished kitchen.
“I hope he thinks we’re having a fight,” I said. “Maybe I’ll start leaving you passive-aggressive notes around the place.”
Jamie started plotting the best way to stage a scene of domestic unrest.
At a bar
I’ve had the same conversation with any number of men, on the days when I bother talking to men. It doesn’t matter how far along the spectrum from avid misogynist to “so feminist they won’t identify as feminist” a man is; at some point, he’ll offer up a grin meant either maliciously or as self-acknowledged sympathy and say, “At least there’s always getting free drinks though, huh? That’s where being a girl is good.”
I could count on probably one hand how many times a guy has actually bought me a free drink; not nearly as many times, anyway, as a girl has. But yes, of course, any time the chance has seemed likely I have happily and cheerfully played straight for just as long as it takes to get the drink in my poor graduate hand. Sometimes longer, if it seems like there’ll be a chance for another one and if he’s not too incredibly boring.
Once my girlfriend and I sat opposite each other in a booth in a bar in Germany and consciously detached our hands when we noticed some men watching, though I kept her ankle between both of my feet, tapping gently at her, watching her smile back. When the men inevitably approached, we exchanged a mutual shrug and took one each for the team, embarking on a drunken and boring conversation made more boring by our limited communication abilities over the language divide, and in exchange were given some truly awful melon-flavoured shots and — success! — a couple of cool beers. At last, though, their company lost any vague appeal it once had, and the drinks were no longer worthy recompense. My girlfriend looked over at me and said, “Uh, by the way, guys, we’re together.” She gestured. I smirked.
The men actually took a step away from the booth to huddle together and whisper back and forth. Then they slid back in and said grandly, “Ah, it doesn’t matter, that’s okay.” They bought us another round, but I don’t think we finished it. It was late, and we were bored. We slipped out into the German cold, hand-in-hand.
Mikaella is an Australian writer based in the UK. When she remembers, she makes shy jokes on Twitter.