Extreme heterozygotes are everywhere in this world. Everyone could be one.
I watched the two of them together, my eyes drawn to them like birds to a pome fruit. There was something impossibly sweet about the way they sometimes linked arms, or one of them tucked hair behind the ear of the other. Carolyn worked as a park ranger at Acadia National Park and looked the other way when we rode in on our bikes without paying the fee. She loved riding her bike too, and she and Cheryl went on long rides together. One morning in early spring she rode the park loop road with me, in that window of time after the snow melted and before it opened to cars.
I did not think it was strange to go cycling with my advisor’s partner. I was a senior and had spent the last four years growing more endemic to that rocky northern coast. It was common practice for professors and students to have potlucks at each other’s houses, go hiking, drink coffee or tea in their turret offices or in town.
That spring day with Carolyn, I watched her hair. It was as bushy and thick as Cheryl’s, but darker, tenticling out from underneath her helmet and down her bare arms, angled against the handlebars, choosing goosebumps in exchange for the new spring sunlight. She turned her face into the wind and breathed deeply.
“How did you and Cheryl meet?” I asked as we rounded a curve into a dip in the road, skirting a crescent of sandy shore. The sun lit every surface of rock and pine and calm ripple of water. I had to squint.
“I was her student,” Carolyn said, and she laughed with all her white teeth.
“Yeah, but I was older. A nontraditional student, like you. But older than you.”
My chest tightened at the thought that she might know why I was a “nontraditional student,” older than my peers. Could she see I had sprouted only from a withered rhizome? Could she see where I’d been cut? It didn’t matter; if she knew, she wasn’t bothered.
“I only took one class with her,” Carolyn went on. “Can’t even remember what it was. And we didn’t get together until years later. I did have a crush on her though.” She half smiled at her memory. It felt private.
“Cool,” I said, asking no more questions. I was cycling around mountains but I was also lying still under carefully laid topsoil—doing my best not to disrupt.
For my edible botany class, I wrote a long, embellished paper about the imperial history of vanilla and the improbable alchemy of its mass production. Vanilla is finicky, even more so than temperature-precise tomatoes or delicate, disease-prone herbs like basil, or soft berries that ripen at one specific moment in July and will be either too sour or too mealy if harvested one or two minutes on either side of that moment. A vanilla “bean” is the fruit of an orchid, and orchids are the biggest botanical divas. They do not adapt; they demand.
Vanilla is a hermaphroditic plant, but a membrane separating the anther and stigma prevents self-pollination. Bees do that job, but they need to be special bees, because vanilla has standards. The seeds of a vanilla orchid also need special mycorrhizal fungi in order to germinate. They don’t unfold for just anyone.
Bananas, on the other hand, reproduce asexually, which is something they have going for them. They became colonial America’s most-consumed fruit sometime in the early 1900s, but before that it was apples. Only crabapples are actually native to Turtle Island (also known as North America), but the range of cultivars (or varieties) and the fact that they are suited to a temperate climate are two reasons why I like apples better than bananas. (The matter of them tasting better goes without saying.) But commercial banana production, like so much commodity farming, relies on a single cultivar—Cavendish.
It is no surprise that the colonial history, and present, of banana production is particularly egregious. Exploitation and massacre of both people and land is a hallmark of all large-scale agriculture, and bananas carry an ugly part of that reality in their pale yellow bodies.
Apples are somewhere between vanilla and bananas. They put colonial roots in this soil, and they are prone to lots of diseases and pests, leading many orchardists to apply large amounts of toxic pesticides and fungicides to their trees. But apples can also take some shit. They can reproduce sexually, but apple seeds are extreme heterozygotes, which is also my gender. This means that an apple grown from seed can be so different from its parent fruit that you have no idea how it will look, smell, taste, or grow. I like to think that kind of possibility exists in my own body, that it exists in all of us. To defy predictability. Not to fall far from the tree, necessarily, but to be our own tree.
Every apple is a unicorn with thick skin and sweet insides, but not too sweet. They’ve got arsenic in their seeds but they won’t kill you, probably. This kind of diversity is the enemy of commercial agriculture and white-supremacist cis-hetero ableist patriarchy. That’s why growers—no matter their scale—use grafting to cultivate apples. Grafting eliminates the guesswork; the branch already has the kind of apple they want. Stick it on a trunk, and it will tap into the xylem and phloem. Because apples do adapt. They will grow there. They come from scarred heartwood; they will do what it takes.
I went to graduate school for agriculture in 2013. Like a seed on the bottom of someone’s dirt-caked boot, I found myself in an orchard outside of Copenhagen. Denmark is one of my homelands, the only one I can rightfully claim, to the extent land can be claimed. My entire maternal family lives there, except my mom. She lives in a house on an island in Maine, with two untamed crabapple trees in the yard.
The Danes love a sleek line. This is also true when it comes to nature. Trees in parks are made into boxy topiaries. In the university’s campus orchard, the apple trees barely looked like trees. They were planted in neat rows, their growth trained in a certain direction, their trunks at nearly ninety-degree angles, branches pruned, tied to their trellis. All were grafted, so as to be predictable and, better yet, marketable.
Sometimes after class, I walked the grassy rows, tracing my fingers along the curved spines of those trees. I thought about how almost all modern agriculture is like this. And it’s not without its logic. Efficiency and predictability are key to mass production, and even small-scale agriculture must operate under these principles for both corporeal and capitalist survival. I struggle with this, with knowing that the genetic mystery of an apple (for example) is its greatest possibility and its greatest threat. I’m not as genetically mysterious as an apple, but I am trellised to prescribed notions of identity, behavior, and survival under the empire that bend my spine too.
The threat goes two ways: The new apple, if it grew out of control, could topple the structures that tie it down. Or, the farmer could destroy the apple.
I sometimes rode my bike to that campus, an hour ride on flat road. No mountains here. There was a bus from the city, but on spring days, I didn’t want to take it. I needed to think, because something was budding in me. I had tried once again to date a boy, and I knew finally that I would never try again. He was sweet and kind, we went to the movies, he made me vegetarian lasagna, and the whole time I kept thinking, wrong wrong wrong. I walked the orchard and thought, maybe I just need to date a woman. I stared at those bent trees with their light green leaves as if they might have an answer. They did, but I couldn’t understand it.
I did try to date women and femmes too. I tried first while I was still in Copenhagen, met up with a dozen of them, and met one of my best friends that way. It felt better, but something still felt off. I thought, It must be the language barrier. I am conversant in Danish but English is the only language I feel like I know for real. I came back to the states and I tried dating women again. But that didn’t feel right either. What was wrong with me?
I have been drawn to women my whole life. Cheryl and Carolyn were magic to me. They were a wild orchard: Their bodies held resistant spirits; their hair was unpruned. I wanted to be like them, touch a kind of freedom they seemed to know.
The word dating is so loaded. What are the expectations of dating? Do people who date automatically expect sex? What is romance without sex? People talk about sex without romance all the time, but what about the other way around? What does dating mean if there’s no sex and no relationship hierarchy?
Language is an obstruction here. But people also use language to clear its own obstructions. Queer people can be especially good at this. Words are like genetic code. I like the term queer platonic for intimate queer relationships that don’t involve sex. I don’t like the way the word friendship is so watered down. It’s like a graft—boring predictability or vital shared resources, depending on the context. Friendship can be the most profound type of relationship there is, and for me it always has been. But it could also describe someone you met at a party one time three years ago, when there were parties, and still follow on Instagram.
Words are like genetic code.
The word crush is one I like. Crush like a wave, crush like velvet, crush like the gears of a machine, crush like grief and love and memory, crush like reaching for something. Not necessarily to actually touch it, but to stretch my arms.
For me, crush is connected to a kind of platonic desire, a longing that feels good. I want to keep pushing further into the lush forest of this word, because I am still trying to tease crush apart from desire apart from lust apart from sexual.
I have crushes all the time. There are so many people I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about or acting in response to. I’ve never wanted to have sex with any of them. Only a few have I wondered what it might be like to kiss them. But I have never made out with someone and been like, Wow, what an amazing feeling. It’s mostly been me thinking, Wow, this is slimy and weird. Not repulsive, but not something I would generally seek out. I used to think this made me as boring as a banana or as specifically demanding as an orchid. Either way, I felt rotten. But despite my rejection of the prefix hetero- in most contexts, in my seed-studded core, I embrace my arsenic and Brix factor together. With the people I love, hugging, sitting close, arms touching, heads on shoulders—that will light me up. Let me grow free.
On multiple occasions, I have asked my doctor, a young woman with bright brown eyes who is one of the kindest people I know, if she thinks the reason I don’t want sex is because I’ve been on hormones for so long, or if there’s something psychologically wrong with me. I ask her this because outside of her office, I would never admit out loud that I have internalized the narratives of compulsory sexuality in movies and books and commercials for libido medication and even from queer culture. That what I’m afraid of is being left out because of my body and its lacks. That I think my body lacks.
She just smiles at me and tilts her head. “Do you want to have sex?” She asks.
“No,” I say.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” she says. “There’s a vast spectrum of sexual desire. And that’s okay.”
To hear affirming words like this from a medical professional is a rare gift, even though it shouldn’t be. I’d be worse off if I had a doctor who tried to put me on medication to try and force me to want something I don’t want. I’ve already spent most of my life trying to do that to myself in one way or another. And anyway, just like heteronormativity, or binaries of all kinds, or patriarchy, compulsory sexuality harms everyone. Allosexual people feel pressured into sex too.
I grew up thinking that romance and sex were not only inseparable from each other but also ultimate achievements of maturity and personal growth. I was so focused on the idea of a monogamous romantic partner, and why I didn’t want one regardless of their gender, that I thought, Am I even queer? Am I even a real human? Those questions are a splintered length of twine bending my body into a shape it doesn’t like. My randomly combined alleles are screaming.They want to be an infinite universe.
Five years after my college graduation, on an October afternoon in 2014 in Ås, Norway, Cheryl and I reunited. Every few years, she takes a sabbatical from the college by the sea to teach at an agroecology master’s program at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. I was in my second year of grad school in Denmark. On one of our many school breaks, I flew to Oslo and took the train to Ås. Cheryl and I drank coffee in the train station café and she showed me around the campus. The weather was gray and cold, the leaves a dull yellow. She asked if I wouldn’t mind if she quickly got some groceries and stopped by the post office. We picked up potatoes, broccoli. Apples. Bananas.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was still trying to teach me something; no, that I had something more to learn from her. I didn’t ask if Carolyn was with her. I don’t think she was, but that’s just it: They made their choices around each other; they loved each other together and apart; they lived their lives in a thick unruly braid, but they had their own roots. Their magic wasn’t just about being together. It was also about the freedom they had to be their own trees.