The author as a college freshman

Why I Dated a Man Who Wore a Kilt

After twenty minutes spent coercing my ninth grade students into discussing Fahrenheit 451, I feel them wilt like fresh herbs in August heat — but I have a trick up my sleeve. Making a leap from Guy Montag’s battle against conformity in the novel, I reference my own rebellious past, “…like the time I dated a man who wore a kilt.”

I deliver this line with calculated carelessness and relish the aftermath. My students gape at me, transfixed.

“Your ex-boyfriend wore a skirt?” Then, incredulously: “why would you date a man who wore a skirt?”

The answer to this question is involved. It was, in fact, imperative that I date a man who wore a kilt. It starts with one inevitable truth about being young: sooner or later, you define yourself as an outsider. Whatever parent, church, group of friends, or ideology you identify with betrays you and leaves you feeling misunderstood.

My students are accustomed to this trope in the media they consume (though they are unlikely to spot it in Montag unless he is played by, say, Jennifer Lawrence). The protagonist, the hero, is different — he or she is an outcast, exceptional in some way. He or she must strike out against society, et al.

As the protagonist of my own life, I was no different. I spent my freshmen year of college beating my fists against the senselessness of my surroundings. I was a regular disaffected James Dean, if James Dean had not smoked or actually been cool.

I’d never felt so alienated. Roaming the streets of East Lansing with the wariness of a refugee, I was emotionally guarded and stone cold sober. In packs, my female peers tottered from bars and clubs, and I regarded their high heels with skepticism. They flooded into the road like so many oblivious deer, tripping on their naked, spindly legs. Everyone was loud, sloppy, insane.

In the midst of a crowd, I was alone.

Then I spotted Will* — a former high school acquaintance — busking with his band on the street between clots of college students.

“What is that you’re playing?”

“Washtub bass,” he answered with pride.

The inverted metal washtub, riddled with holes, sat on the ground and had a long rope attached to the middle that was pulled taut by a tree limb, which Will held against his shoulder. When plucked, it produced an indiscriminate thump (the holes, I learned later, had been added to “improve resonance,” courtesy of his friend’s vintage musket). His band’s old time twang was a taste of the rural invading the urban; they wore plaid and suspenders, to sell their image of 19th century nostalgia. They felt genuine to me in a sea of the artificial.

Will was as wiry as a banjo string; the joints at his elbows looked like massive knobs on his skinny arms (I do not recall if he was kilted at this particular meeting, and yes, to spare you time, “kilted” is an actual word). He was good-looking, with a scruffy jawline and bright blue triangle-shaped eyes framed by girly lashes. He dressed like a cross between a grandpa from County Cork (an accent he adopted when in high spirits) and a grad student. His cheeks were ruddy, as if he were suspended forever in the cheerful lull of an afternoon glass of wine.

I asked him why he thought women my age were inclined to wear stilts and traipse about in the streets, drunk.

“Because they’re hoors.

This satisfied me just fine.

That year, we never went more than two days without seeing each other. Will, I quickly found a subculture counterpart, someone else who looked upon clubs and collegiate sports with disdain. The girls on my dorm floor learned to recognize his presence by the massive maintenance van he drove, on which he’d spray-painted the Irish flag; inside the van he’d suspended a tire swing, which swayed dangerously as he wove through traffic.

Unable — or unwilling — to mingle with our peers, we lived a life of fantasy, insistent that life was somehow better elsewhere or in times past. Will exploited the romanticized idyll of Ireland and I, in turn, exploited him. I became his wannabe Irish lass for a year, taking up the penny whistle (if one can actually take up such an instrument, the design of which involves less engineering prowess than a mechanical pencil) so I could busk with his band.

He had a habit of peeking into my journal and leaving surprises. In ornate penmanship that would’ve been at home in an ancient illuminated manuscript, I opened my diary once to find a poem:

Of all the Lassies

There is just one

Who lights my horizon

And can stop the sun

She’s anything but your typical girl

She’s hoppy and jumpy

Like a small squirrel…

And so forth.

“I have the bardic gift,” he explained, eyes twinkling.

I didn’t especially savor being compared to a squirrel, but was impressed nonetheless.

I loved the kilt he wore, how special and weird and different it made him, and by association, me. We welcomed the stares and the eternal question from strangers: are you wearing underwear beneath that?

It was Will and Mary versus the world. Motivated by spite, I answered the skintight dresses of my female classmates with frumpy T-shirts. (I still own an atrocious tie-dye hoodie which I feel would be socially reckless to either wear or unleash upon the world by donating. Hence, it stays in my closet.) My peers grinded on sticky dance floors while Will and I spun elegantly at Ceili dances at a local church. We combatted cars blasting Justin Timberlake with an earsplitting session of The Chieftains. Skirting past the Saturday night frat-party scene, Will and I headed to a bonfire where his friends roasted roadkill and yarrow. We tried so hard to conjure the spirits of another reality; we wanted to feel wild and pagan.

Once we kayaked down the Red Cedar River and I recall how surreal it felt to see my hometown like this. I hardly recognized it. I’d stood on the shore my whole life, and on the water I finally saw it from the other side. The river was rife with secrets and filth — a bloated raccoon carcass, a rusted bike on the bank, a muddy shirt discarded beside it. This is how we lived, as deliberate outsiders, walking behind buildings and seeing the dumpsters and the employees smoking outside on stoops.

The spontaneity and strangeness of our private world had its downsides. We endured long afternoons feeling hungry and listless, lacking direction. Any item I forgot at Will’s household was swallowed into an abyss. Climbing into his car meant sitting in dog hair and sometimes landing your elbow in something sticky.

In his frigid basement, I once curled up under a pilled quilt before spotting a raspberry-tinted stain.

“Will, what is that?” I pointed.

“Nothing.” Shifty eyes. My alarm increased tenfold.

“Will, what is that?”

“Well…Patrick was having sex with his girlfriend, and she — ”

I flung the quilt off with theatrics worthy of Cosmo Kramer: http://youtu.be/ZarrxOkhTpw.

While Will was always in the honeymoon phase of a new hobby, the hobbies rarely stuck around. His room bore the wreckage of the dilettante life — a dried-out aquarium, an expensive wet suit rumpled on the floor, a tenor banjo, a French dictionary. When would these dreams manifest into tangible achievements? I found myself asking — and lecturing –Will about his future. The prospect of avoiding our phony capitalistic society forever was untenable. What was he going to do with his life — how was he going to earn money? I was buzzkill Wendy to his never-grow-up Peter Pan. These conversations left him languid and sulky.

The following September, the beginning of my sophomore year, found us driving through the countryside on one of our jaunts. I watched yellowed corn stalks fly past. The gold sunlight of an autumn afternoon flooded the car, outlining Will’s profile like a kind of halo; we were trapped in amber. In the serenity of that moment, I realized our relationship was over. To quote Woody Allen, a relationship is like a shark; it must “constantly move forward, or it dies.” I had a dead shark on my hands.

We had nowhere left to go; we were a performance. The fantasy world we’d built was a movie set and the doorways opened to nowhere. I at last recognized the kilt as one charade replacing another.

Will caught something inside me and reflected it back as an exaggerated caricature: Mary as fringe, someone stubborn, smart, superior. Together, we’d played our part valiantly — partners in crime against this banal middle class life — yet the outsiders act had worn thin and tired. “Being different” for its own sake was a canned role. Even more important, I had my first inkling that I didn’t actually have to be on set at all. I did not have to play protagonist.

To answer my students’ question: I dated a man who wore a skirt for the same reason any of us might try on a strange outfit — it’s thrilling to see yourself in a new way. What I’d wanted wasn’t the love of my life; I’d wanted myself, echoed. I sought validation. At nineteen, I couldn’t yet negotiate a boyfriend without also needing to identify with him; I didn’t have the strength to grow close to someone deeply different from myself. Our young egos were perhaps not even capable of truly seeing each other past the filter of ourselves.

Yes, Will got me — but he got the part of me I didn’t want to nurture anymore. Somewhere along the way I’d grown curious enough about college sporting events to consider attending one. Having proven my point to death — I’m different — I walked off the set, crawled back on the shore, back to a Midwestern college town in 2006, with its pedestrian pleasures.

You’d be hard pressed to find a teen movie in which the hero’s release comes from embracing mass culture, but this was the next step I needed in my growth toward adulthood — to drop my self-assigned scarlet letter and accept that there was no alternate universe in which people like me were the ideal. The point was not really that I should drink cheap beer and sing along to that despicable song by Journey in order to “find myself,” but rather that I would no longer rest my identity on something so fragile as “I refuse to drink beer and sing that despicable song by Journey.” I learned to stop defining myself by what I am not— the day you commit the acts you’ve sworn against, you won’t have a clue who you are.

Years later, leaving the Lansing Lugnuts baseball stadium, I heard a familiar twang. I spied Will busking on a corner to passersby in his antiquated get-up. Like the fox and the hound, adulthood has cast our new roles apart from each other and the camaraderie we shared now lives only in memories. I walked past him on the other side of the road, a stranger on the shore.

*Name changed