The following story is one chapter from a book about the year I lived with college students at 23 schools across the USA. Each chapter tells the true story of one week in the life of a random college student at one of the nation's most interesting colleges. The following chapter tells the story of Kevin, who was researching fish reproduction and applied what he was learning in the laboratory to dating and relationships on campus.
Chapter 2: Baylor University (full chapter)
I began my trip with incredible excitement, a ridiculous nervous energy. Somewhere in this excitement was the naive belief that all change would be good, that all obstacles would lead to growth. I was headed to Waco, Texas to meet my first host. I did not believe in my own project, but this guy did, and that made it real.
Kevin studied evolutionary biology and worked as an assistant researcher on an experiment designed to better understand the mate selection behaviors of social tropical fish. Within ten minutes of meeting, we were seated next to a fish tank in his apartment as he sketched for me a diagram of fish DNA on a yellow legal pad. The tank buzzed and bubbled while inside one male and one female fish hovered on opposite sides. The buzzing and bubbling filled in the silences between Kevin’s sentences, which were slow and deliberate so that I could follow along. To mate, he explained, a male fish will wait for a female to produce eggs. Then he will quiver and shake his tail, which attracts her to nibble on his tail. The male’s tail is where the fish sperm are stored, so when the female nibbles his tail, she gets the fish sperm in her mouth. As she’s nibbling his tail, the eggs she has produced eject out of her, and then she swims to pick up the eggs in her mouth, which causes the eggs to mix with the fish sperm and become fertilized. Once the eggs are fertilized, she has to hold them in her mouth for a four-week incubation period.
“What makes the female want to bite the male’s tail?” I asked.
“It’s like you wanna stick your P in a V,” Kevin said. “It just happens.”
Kevin’s fish tank was on the table next to the couch where I would be sleeping. For the remainder of the week, I would observe the fish courtship as I went to bed, then I would let the tank’s steady hum put me to sleep after I closed my eyes.
The fish tank we were looking at wasn’t where Kevin did his actual research. On the evening of my arrival, I joined Kevin on a trip to his laboratory where his real experiment was taking place. The lab was in a small warehouse to which Kevin had his own set of keys. Inside were a dozen rows of PVC shelves, each holding tanks of murky water with fish in them. The air in the lab was thick with warm humidity that moistened the walls like in a steam room. As soon as we arrived, Kevin began his work, which involved collecting and counting all the eggs that had dropped in the bottoms of the tanks, then logging the data into spreadsheets.
The goal of Kevin’s experiment was to determine the genetic factors that could predict a female’s mate choice. To do this, Kevin’s team took fish tanks and divided each tank into three sections using plastic grids. A male fish would be placed in each of the outside sections, and a female fish would be placed in the center section. The plastic grid dividing the three fish was sized such that the smaller females could swim through the grid, but the larger males could not. This meant that once the female had produced eggs and was ready to mate, she could choose which male she wanted to mate with by crossing into his section of the tank. (As you’ll recall, this is like the climax of the first Air Bud movie where the dog had to choose between the boy protagonist and his former abusive owner.) After doing hundreds of trials over many months, Kevin’s team hoped to be able to predict any given female’s mate choice based on the DNA of the males.
My first three days with Kevin were oddly formal. We went to his classes, spent a lot of time in his lab, and mostly talked about academics (Kevin was studying Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality in his philosophy class, and he was excited about it). Kevin was a junior, making him one year older than me. He was somewhat introverted. He had friends, but on weekdays he would spend most of his time alone in his lab or studying in his bedroom. Although we weren’t having a great deal of fun yet, I was taking pleasure in being on campus surrounded by college students. The college atmosphere at Baylor had a certain magic and vitality. I was sitting in on classes, meeting people my own age, and somehow it all felt terribly important. Then on my fourth day with Kevin, after he had finished his classes and lab work, we bought a six-pack of beer and drank it together, sitting side by side on his porch. I wasn’t sure at first if I should drink with Kevin. Was my role as a writer to stay sober and observe my hosts from afar, or should I participate with them? I decided to participate in this case, figuring that a few beers wouldn’t be a problem. During this conversation, Kevin began to speak openly for the first time, as if during the previous three days he had been suppressing everything he had wanted to say.
He told me the story of one of his roommates. Kevin lived with three other guys in an off-campus apartment. One of the roommates, Andrew, was a dick, according to Kevin. He’s mean to people, messy, doesn’t take out the trash, doesn’t lock the door, keeps the freezer full of fish he never eats, and uses Kevin’s dishes without washing them. A few years earlier, Andrew met a girl at Baylor and they started dating. After some time, her family became unable to afford the cost of Baylor, so she was going to have to drop out of school and move back home. But Andrew’s parents are very wealthy, so they offered to pay the girlfriend’s tuition to keep her at Baylor, and she accepted their offer, which allowed her to continue to date Andrew. This story could have been viewed as a story about love, but Kevin didn’t describe their relationship in terms of love; instead, he described it in terms of an economic transaction. “I guess she’ll have to keep sucking his dick to keep that tuition,” Kevin said. He said that Andrew was chemically addicted to his girlfriend, and that the chemical addiction would wear off in a few years.
“I’ve heard them fucking in there,” Kevin said, “and she usually makes noise; sometimes he does. But she sounds like she’s in pain, not like she’s enjoying it, which makes me think he doesn’t really spend any time on foreplay to get the juices flowing—he just sticks it right in and it’s more of a power thing.” According to Kevin, Andrew had no need to satisfy his girlfriend sexually because he had her financially trapped. Similarly, Kevin believed that Andrew was making a poor decision to invest his time and money into this particular girl, because she was likely to break up with him as soon as she graduated—after she had used up all the money and no longer needed him. Kevin’s theory was that all relationships operate by similar principles. He told me this theory and others as if he were a wise elder teaching a naive pupil.
One of Kevin’s more controversial theories was that men and women in relationships were almost always willing to cheat on one another. One night he told me that the only way to guarantee that your girlfriend wouldn’t cheat on you is to give her powerful orgasms by using a dominant sexual technique. Later in the week, he even pulled out his laptop and showed me a porn clip of the specific technique he was talking about. (This was a bit more than I needed to see, but I went along with it.) Kevin didn’t necessarily want this to be true, he just believed it to be true.
In the 1950s, Baylor began a tradition called Dr Pepper Hour. The tradition is effectively a marketing event for the soda company, which is headquartered in Waco, but nevertheless it became embedded in the culture of the school. Once a week, Baylor hosts an event where students can receive free Dr Pepper ice cream floats. When the tradition began, Baylor had a men’s-only dorm and a women’s-only dorm. Dr Pepper Hour was held in the ballroom of the Student Union building, so it mostly served as an excuse for the sexes to intermingle. Dr Pepper Hour was supposed to be an old-fashioned sort of event where young men and women could socialize, meet each other, and potentially begin dating. Most of the dorms at Baylor have since become co-ed, but the tradition of Dr Pepper Hour persists.
Kevin and I stopped by Dr Pepper Hour the following day. The ballroom appeared mostly as it must have 60 years ago—no furniture, just open polished floors for standing, and ice cream floats served from huge brass bowls at the far end of the room with a line of students stretched to the opposite door—except now, shortly after receiving their ice cream, the students would leave the ballroom to head somewhere else.
“Well, this is it,” Kevin said with a hint of cynicism as we waited in line. He had built up the event to sound like something that was a little bit romantic or at least fun and social, but today the tradition seemed to be mostly about the ice cream.
That evening we went to a burger and beer place with a group of accounting majors, friends of Kevin’s roommate Darren. One of the guys in the group had just graduated from Baylor and was apparently working 80 hours a week at a Big Four accounting firm. He wore a large work phone unfashionably on his waist, and he excused himself multiple times over dinner to take calls. Since he had received the best job that any of the accountants could hope for, his new lifestyle was both the envy and the fear of his younger accountant friends. The talk of the evening was the big party the following night, which would be the first big party of the new semester. The party’s host, who was sitting with us, said that he wanted it to be the gold standard of parties. Kevin and I were the only people in the three booths of accounting students who weren’t dressed in semi-formal attire. The accountants, who were mostly juniors, had all attended a recruitment fair that day. “Only two and a half years of college and it’s already almost over,” someone said. Tomorrow’s party, at least, was something for them to look forward to.
Kevin and I continued drinking at his apartment, just the two of us, and as the night wore on, Kevin seemingly lost the ability to monitor his speech. Of all the students I wrote about, Kevin was the most loose-lipped while drunk. To make matters worse, on this night we unintentionally occupied the physical choreography of Freudian talk therapy—Kevin lying down on a couch facing the ceiling as I sat upright behind him taking notes. As he talked to me, he alternated between sipping whiskey, texting some girl he hadn’t yet mentioned, and, for some reason, sharpening a pocket knife.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the romance of college and forget your duties,” he told me. “I’ve tried the dating thing. It takes too much time. Even if it’s just a hookup thing, it takes at least an hour, you know?”
“Right,” I said.
“And of course the girl wants more, even if she says she doesn’t. Most girls at Baylor are looking for husbands. They’re trying to find a guy with some success and go off with him. Girls love it when you act like you don’t give a fuck until they find out you really don’t give a fuck.”
“What about you?”
“I wish there was a girl I could give a fuck about. Girls in college are like little girls. At 16, girls are more mature than guys, but then guys go out and get in trouble and mature. So girls are just idiots in college and spread their legs for anyone. This past year, all I’ve had to do is sit them down and talk about my research. I’ll sit them by the fish and turn the lights off. That’s all I need. Girls are so dumb.”
It occurred to me that Kevin used the same seduction technique on me when we first met, but I didn’t mention it.
“What about the girl you’re texting right now?” I asked.
“Ah, we’re actually starting to form a bit of a relationship. Some mutual respect is forming.”
“I think you can form sexual attachment to anyone you fuck on the regular, which is different from that attachment when you have an actual crush. Sometimes you forget you don’t like them. You can’t trust how you feel about it. I don’t know, love seems like it might be a reason why people get together, but not why they stay together.”
“What makes them stay together?”
“It depends on the people. You can really grow into affection for somebody by having lots of sex with them. Over time you get accustomed to the softness of her back or the smell of her hair. You get used to them and the bond forms, but it goes away the same way. I think most relationships can’t stay past six years. As it comes to an end, it’s funny how you can be having sex and it’s not that exciting anymore. But you don’t believe it. It’s amazing how you can just not believe some things. We choose to love people as much as we choose to hate people.”
“How do you choose who to love?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin said, holding his pocket knife still for a moment. “But at some point you’re going to meet that girl, and you’re going to realize every other girl was just practice until that girl. Just pray you don’t meet that girl too early. How unlucky.”
“Have you had that?” I asked.
He sighed. “Who the fuck knows? I know I thought I had that.”
Kevin told me the story of his last girlfriend. He loved her, but they had an extremely hostile breakup when they went to separate colleges. She now has a new boyfriend and studies Women and Gender Studies. I wondered if their opposing academic pursuits—her gender studies and his evolutionary biology—were somehow formed in contrast to one another.
“Sometimes girls just inspire that in guys,” Kevin continued, referring to feelings of love. “And I’m sure whoever she’s fucking right now is feeling the same way. But at least she’s only with one guy. It sounds kinda primal, but I’d prefer one person fool around with my property rather than 12 guys playing with my toys.”
I thought Kevin was joking. I was bad at playing the therapist, because when he said this, I let out a loud snort of laughter. He wasn’t joking, though, and he didn’t even smile.
Later in the night, Kevin received a phone call from a Baylor student who had graduated and now lived in California. She was presently drunk and was trying to convince Kevin not to hook up with other girls. This was a different girl from the one Kevin had been texting earlier. Kevin didn’t seem to mind that I was still in the room taking notes. I could only hear Kevin’s side of the conversation.
“You shouldn’t obsess over me,” he said.
“…Listen, I have no fuck buddy. I’m busy, I have a job, I can’t whore around…”
“…My job is to get an education…”
“…How can you not think I’m an asshole? All I say are asshole things, and you hear them, and I don’t know…”
“…I assure you, I’m not talking to anyone...”
“…That would feel amazing…”
I raised a brow and wondered if I should leave the room.
“…You’re just teasing me because there’s nothing I can do…” Kevin continued.
“…No, I’m not coming to San Francisco...”
“…You’re asking my GPA because you want to know my potential value...”
“…No, I’m not labeling you as a typical Baylor girl…”
“…I’m not going to say it…”
“…Do my grades make you horny?...”
“…I like that my grades make you horny…”
“…Come May and we’re both single and you want the shit fucked out of you, you know where I am…”
When Kevin hung up the phone, he turned to face me—the first time he’d seen me in his visual field in about an hour—and laughed. “Thinking about my research is a lot easier than thinking about girls,” he said.
Later that night, when Kevin thought I was asleep, he snuck out the front door of the apartment and didn’t return until the morning. The first girl, the one he had been texting, lived down the hall.
When Kevin wasn’t drunk, he was often contemplative and philosophical. The following day, he brought me on a tour of campus, which included a visit to a museum dedicated to the works of poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Kevin hadn’t been since he was a freshman, but he said he remembered it as being quite beautiful. The museum had a calming effect on both of us, and we began to talk much less. After circling the inside a few times, we found ourselves standing before Elizabeth’s most famous poem, “How Do I Love Thee?” which was etched in gold on a polished granite wall. In the poem, Browning lists the small, subtle aspects of love that add up to form her full love.
I didn’t think Kevin would like the poem, considering that his worldview of biological motives and economic calculation didn’t have any room for abstract, true love. But something about the poem caught his eye, and we stood transfixed before it for a long while without speaking. Other visitors to the museum would shuffle past us, stopping to look briefly at the poem before moving on, but we stayed put. I never learned what Kevin was thinking about during that time; I didn’t think it was right to ask.
The philosophically minded adolescent frequently acts in accordance with whatever he has most recently read or studied. One day he reads a convincing essay on the existence of love and then finds himself writing love letters and composing poetry; the next day he reads an equally convincing essay claiming that love isn’t real and then finds himself cringing with shame over what he believed just one day prior. As such, someone in the throes of a philosophically minded adolescence may seem mercurial and enigmatic to the people around him as he tests out new philosophies of life. In Kevin’s case, his education was leading him toward a worldview of pure biological determinism, an amoral world where humans were only trying to combine DNA with the best possible mates and were willing to do anything necessary in order to do so. Although Kevin seemed to believe this, he also seemed to be wrestling against it. Beneath his dispassionate exterior, he seemed to be sensitive and hurting.
It was the final full day of my stay at Baylor, which happened to coincide with the first big party of the semester—the party thrown by the accountants who were longing to set the gold standard for parties. As we left the final class of the day, Kevin whistled, “Working for the Weekend,” the song that goes, “Everybody’s working for the weekend. Everybody wants a new romance.”
“What do you think is the point of partying?” I asked. It was a dumb question, but I wanted to hear how Kevin would answer.
“I think it’s an opportunity for people who have been pent up and involved with themselves all week to be themselves to the community,” Kevin said. “Or be a fool and have nobody notice.”
“It’s a Friday night, and they feel they can nurse some of their vices. College students probably have a higher sex drive. You’re just around each other all the time, and it’s pretty well known that college girls are the biggest sluts. Afterward they restrict themselves more.”
Kevin thought to himself for a minute, then offered a closing remark: “At the end of the day, dude, it’s only the last dick that matters.”
I again let out a snort of laughter at something that Kevin hadn’t meant as a joke. He had just shared, in a rather crude way, a sentiment that is actually somewhat romantic: a woman may be with many men in her life, but it’s the man who she ends up with—the last dick—who really counts. I took the remark to mean that Kevin still hoped he could someday end up with his ex-girlfriend.
Some of the accounting students—maybe 12 of them—came to Kevin and Darren’s apartment to start drinking before the party. As we stood around the kitchen mixing drinks, one of the girls in the group, April, was standing very close to Kevin, smiling up at him, and laughing at all of his jokes.
“You make funny faces,” April said to Kevin. There was a group conversation underway, but April and Kevin had started to talk between themselves.
Kevin sipped his whiskey. “I always make funny faces,” he said.
Their conversation became quieter and more private, and during a few separate moments, April touched and held onto Kevin’s arm for a little longer than what could be considered merely friendly. I was told later that April wasn’t single; she had a boyfriend, and he was one of the other guys in the room with us. But he wasn’t watching April and Kevin’s flirting—he had gotten drunk early in the night and was sitting half-asleep on the couch. I made sure to keep my eye on Kevin and April to see what would develop.
(If you feel bad for the boyfriend, think again. While sitting half-asleep on the couch, he kept repeating, “Gay sex is icky… gay sex is icky…” for some unknown reason. That’s all I ever heard him say.)
A little later, the accountants began plotting something that I didn’t expect.
“We should get Drew laid,” one of the girls said.
“Oh shit, let’s do it. Yeah, we’re gonna get you laid, dude,” said one of the guys.
Everyone in the room agreed with this plan, and then they looked to me for my reaction. As soon as this happened, I felt a pleasant mixture of excitement and fear.
The reason for my excitement was simple and obvious: I was a 20-year-old dude and there was nothing at all extraordinary about me. Of course I wanted a roomful of strangers to try to help me have sex.
The reason for my fear was more complicated.
When I began this project, I was completely convinced that my book would be a work of anthropology. As far as I knew, anthropologists weren’t supposed to try to sleep with anyone while on the job. But why had I chosen to write something anthropological? I had no publisher, no editor, no authority figure guiding my project in any way. Theoretically I was free to write whatever I wanted. I think I wanted to write something purely anthropological for two reasons.
First, I could not under any circumstance admit to myself that I made a mistake by choosing not to go to college. If I tried to have too much fun, if I let loose and tried to participate as an equal, as a peer, it would mean that college had something that I wanted, something that I was missing. I could not admit this to myself. By writing something anthropological, I could tell myself that I was only trying to research college students, not hang out with them. And yet, I was now doing exactly that. I had concocted a massive plan that would throw me right into the action of college life, but I still wanted to believe that I didn’t want or need to be a part of it.
The second reason was perhaps the stronger of the two. I had been reasonably confident with girls when I was in high school, but in the two intervening years my self-esteem had plummeted and I had started to feel more like a Charlie Kaufman protagonist. Every time I met someone new, the inevitable question of where I went to college would arise. I didn’t personally think it should matter that I didn’t go to college, but it seemed to matter a whole lot to everybody else. You would think that with time I would have become better at answering the question, “Where do you go to college?”, but instead my answers became worse with time. I had been rejected so many times at that exact moment in conversation that the question of where I went to college had become a huge insecurity for me. I had no identity, no way to explain who I was. The only thing a young man has to offer a woman is his enthusiasm, but after he’s had his spirits crushed enough times he can’t even offer her that. By writing something anthropological, it meant that I didn’t have to participate at parties. I didn’t have to face rejection. I could just stand in the corner and watch.
There is a psychological tool called the Johari Window that says that everyone has four selves: the public self, which is the part of you that everyone sees; the private self, the part of you that only you see; the unknown self, the part of you that nobody can see; and the blind self, the part of you that everyone but you can see. If everyone knows that Tommy is an asshole, but Tommy has no idea, then the part of him that is an asshole would be his blind self.
My blind self was the part of me that didn’t want to stand in the corner and simply watch. I did want to participate. I did want to have a good time. To my hosts, this was completely obvious, but for me, this fact about myself was hidden beneath many layers of repression and denial.
And there was new hope for me as well, because I would be testing out a new identity. I was no longer “Drew, the guy who didn’t go to college.” I was now “Drew, the guy who’s writing a book.” If someone asked me where I went to college, I could say, “I don’t go to college, but I am writing a book about college.” Would that stupid trick work, or would women accurately detect that I was a phony? I was not sure.
So here it was, already, one week into the trip. “Let’s get Drew laid.” The accountants were all looking at me for my response. I blushed and then told them that I’d do my best.
Kevin wanted to buy some weed before the party, so we left with the fourth roommate, TJ, toward a house where a group of weed-dealing Baylor football players lived. (I am not breaking any news here. Some former Baylor football players have already told the press that they used to deal weed while at college. As far as I know, we might have bought weed from one of those guys.) We walked up the stairs of the apartment and waited in the bedroom of one of the players. He came in a few minutes later with a shoebox where he kept his weed and bong. He held up his bong.
“Say, how would I clean this piece?” the football player asked Kevin.
“Isopropyl alcohol and salt,” said Kevin.
“If I just put it in the dishwasher, will that break it?”
“I wouldn’t,” said Kevin. He pointed to the bong. “Hey, mind if I load this?”
“Yeah, do your thing.”
Kevin brought the bong to the bathroom to rinse it out. From behind the door, he whistled, “Working for the Weekend” again. The football player asked, “Is that Kevin whistlin’? Ain’t nobody else be whistlin’ classical shit like that.”
I nodded, not having the guts to tell him that it was a popular song from the ’80s.
Once Kevin cleaned out the bong, the three of them smoked (weed makes me paranoid, so I declined). As we left, Kevin assured us that he was ok to drive.
“I’m not as belligerent as I seem,” he said. “I would usually just chill on a night like this, but I want to go see April.”
“What’s the deal with that?” I asked. “She seemed into you.”
“She looks at me with these eyes! I don’t know what she’s doing!”
“Would you do it?” asked TJ.
“I’m pretty fond of her,” said Kevin. “I don’t think Darren likes to hear that, because he’s close with her boyfriend. But I think he knows.”
“So yes or no?” asked TJ.
“I’m not sure yet,” said Kevin.
Kevin was faced with a moral quandary: if April was willing to cheat on her boyfriend with Kevin, how much of this wrongdoing was Kevin’s responsibility?
A light rain began to fall. We ran from Kevin’s parked car toward the party and into the house, where students’ faces glowed red in the light cast by strings of red party bulbs, the only source of illumination. About 50 students, many of them the accountants from the other night, were spread around the large apartment. Rap music blared loud enough that we could barely hear anyone talking. The entryway to the apartment was in shadow, so nobody turned to look as we first arrived, but as Kevin entered into the pool of red light, the accountants one by one saw him and yelled to him or gave him high fives, although Kevin didn’t stop long enough to talk to any of them, and instead he continued to the far side of the room where he found April standing alone. She hugged him, and he hugged her. Neither of them let go for a long while—it was strange. I turned around, expecting to see TJ behind me also watching Kevin and April’s intimate hug, but he had gone off somewhere else. I looked around the room to see if April’s boyfriend was nearby, but I didn’t see him. Eventually Kevin and April dropped their arms to let go of the hug, but their bodies stayed close. April looked up at Kevin, not by tilting her head back, but by lifting her eyes up. Those must have been the eyes that Kevin mentioned.