The following story is one chapter from a book about the year I lived with college students at 23 schools across the United States. 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. In this chapter, Dominic consults his large group of male friends for relationship advice as his new love interest shows increasingly confusing behavior.
Chapter 16: Middlebury College
Middlebury is a small school in Vermont with about 2,400 students. In spring and summer, the land around campus looks like those idyllic green rolling pastures pictured on milk cartons. Campus is so beautiful this time of year that going to class feels like a leisure activity. Like Furman University, the students here say that their school feels like a country club, and they accordingly call it “Club Midd.” Meal times were a highlight of each day. The cafeterias offer a buffet of healthy food, much of it sourced from an organic farm on campus. Students pay for their food as part of their tuition, so they are able to come and go from the cafeteria without paying. My host, Dominic, was the unofficial leader of a large group of male friends who would gather each day to eat together. Over lunch or dinner they would catch up on their personal lives, trade stories, and joke around.
Dominic was a model student. He was intelligent and spoke often in class, had a warm smile and commanding voice, and was involved in many activities and groups around campus. Middlebury tries to be very environmentally friendly, and Dominic went to great lengths to embody those values. He didn’t eat beef for environmental reasons, he was a stickler about recycling, and he would always take the stairs instead of the elevator to save electricity. If one of his friends took the elevator, he would tease him and call him “lazy.” (That teasing actually worked here; it was embarrassing for students to be caught wasting resources.) When Dominic spoke, his eyes were big and sympathetic like he was adoring some new puppy.
The night before I arrived, Dominic had run into an ex-girlfriend who he hadn’t spoken to for many months, and they ended up talking for a while. Dominic was telling his large group of friends the story over dinner.
“It was weird to be talking at first, but we were both surprisingly mature about the whole thing,” Dominic said, “and I was thinking maybe we could become friends again, because I still think she’s a really cool girl. We parted ways last night on good terms, so this morning I decided to text her. And I was like, ‘Hey, so I have this plan. I’m tired of us being awkward around each other, and I know you are too, so for the next two weeks, every time we pass each other, we should give each other a high five. We won’t even talk, just a high five to slowly get rid of all the tension that built up from not talking.’”
Everyone was smiling. “So did she respond?” someone asked.
“It’s horrible,” Dominic said. “After I wrote that super long text, all she writes back is, ‘Nah, I’ll pass.’”
Dominic gave us a look with his big, sympathetic eyes as we all laughed. The guys told Dominic that they thought his plan was pretty creative. Two of them patted Dominic on the back, and soon Dominic was able to laugh it off with us.
But Dominic wasn’t too upset over it, because he had a new love interest who he had just started to date. He told me about her the following morning over breakfast.
“She’s one of Middlebury’s leading voices of feminism,” said Dominic.
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, she’s been talking a lot about this event called ‘It Happens Here’ about rape and sexual assault. The event was extremely successful. There were over 500 students there to listen to the speakers. The whole theme of it was that sexual assault even happens at Middlebury.”
“What do you mean by ‘even happens’ at Middlebury?”
“Well, a lot of people think nothing bad can go on here because Middlebury’s just this perfect sort of community. So the event was saying that’s not necessarily true. Anyway, it’s been really interesting with her. Like when we hook up, she’s incredibly good at being vocal on her end.”
“What does she say?”
“Well, for example, when we first hooked up, she was like, ‘Can I take your pants off?’ and I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’”
I was amazed to hear that. “Dude, that’s awesome,” I said. “‘Can I take your pants off?’ Incredible.”
(Today it is fairly common for a woman to ask a man’s consent before removing his clothes, but five years ago it was revolutionary.)
“I know,” Dominic said. “She really lives by what she says. I think all girls should have that equal responsibility. If guys need to ask for consent whenever they make moves on girls, girls should be expected to do the same, even if it’s just a courtesy thing. Because of course I’m going to say yes.”
“That would solve a lot of problems,” I said.
“Yeah, it solves so much when both people are vocal about their intentions and know where the other person is coming from. You’re hooking up, and you can be sure she’s enjoying it. And not just that, you know that she wanted it beforehand and didn’t have any doubts.”
“Brilliant,” I said.
“And it’s also nice if a girl is taking at least a bit of action. Instead of me taking my own pants off and just hoping she’s gonna be cool with it. I think it’s the right way to do things.”
“How did you two meet?”
“We were in this club, in a meeting. I didn’t know her yet, but she spoke up and said she didn’t support race-based affirmative action and thought it should be more socioeconomic. I didn’t completely agree with her, but I liked the way she shared her thoughts. That’s when I fell for her.”
I met Vivian, Dominic’s new romantic interest, that day. She was short and pretty.
“College has this glow,” she said over lunch. “When you’re young or when you go on college visits, there’s a glow around it. Once you’re inside though, it feels more like a grind. You don’t see the glow from the inside.”
The next day, Dominic bought Vivian chocolates and left them on her dresser with a note that said “D.” She texted him when she found it and said, “I don’t know if you are D, but whoever he is, he certainly knows the fastest way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach.”
Dominic replied, “This D sounds very mysterious and romantic.”
That evening, Dominic went to Vivian’s place for some alone time, and I hung out with Dominic’s roommates. His roommates were Ian, Michael, and Tyler.
“So is there a shared interest or something that connects your friends group?” I asked. Dominic had at least ten close friends who were always together.
“A lot of our friends don’t have much of a scent trail like a lot of people here,” said Ian. By ‘scent trail,’ he meant that they didn’t have a stereotype.
“What are those people like?” I asked. “The ones with scent trails.”
“Well, there’s a big mountaineering club,” said Ian. “Those people are kind of obsessed with outdoors and have their own social structure. Then there are the Febs, people who arrived here in February, it’s like this late arrival program. For some reason there’s a generally negative attitude toward Febs, so all the Febs stick together.”
They decided that instead of continuing to explain the stereotypes to me, they would just show me a music video called “Midd Kid” that covered all of it. Some Middlebury graduate had made a parody music video of what students are like at Middlebury. The stereotype is basically that people at Middlebury are flannel-wearing, Nalgene-bottle-carrying, granola-eating, mountaineering types. It made some sense—Ian, for instance, wore flannel, had a scruffy beard, had massive forearms from rock climbing, and always carried a Nalgene bottle. At some point he told me, “I get real restless staying here during the week, so on weekends I have to find an adventure of some kind. I get this urge to just go far away outside and sleep on the soggy ground.”
Dominic and his friends were all sophomores. Ian and Tyler were roommates freshman year, and Dominic and Michael were too. By sophomore year, all four of them lived together in a suite. Ian and Tyler told me that the first few nights of school freshman year, they didn’t really talk to each other.
“I didn’t know how I would relate to this guy from England and Beijing,” said Ian. “But after a few days of not talking, we were sitting next to each other, and he farted. We both chuckled, and after that we were all good.”
Later that night, while Dominic was still with Vivian, a group of guys and girls came over to their suite to play beer pong. Between games I got talking to one of Dominic’s friends, Max.
“Where’s Dominic tonight?” Max asked.
“I think he’s staying over at Vivian’s,” I said. “Do you know her?”
“Oh yeah, I know her,” he said with the particular tone of someone who has more to say.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Honestly man, Vivian is really hot, but she’s kind of lame. She just sucks.”
“Don’t tell Dominic this, but that girl is crazy. Actually, you can tell Dominic I said that. I already tried to warn him before. He didn’t want to listen.”
“Really? I met her and she seemed pretty cool.”
“Sure, she’s cool. But she’s also crazy. I dated her for like one week freshman year.”
“How is she crazy?”
“I couldn’t even begin to explain it. But I think Dominic really likes her. Maybe she’s changed, but I doubt it.”
That night there was a girl visiting Middlebury from Washington University. She was drunk, and she was flirting with a lot of Dominic’s friends. She also had a boyfriend back at Washington University. The guys all discreetly spread the news that she was in a relationship, and the subtext of this news was, “Therefore, don’t hit on her.” For the remainder of the night, all the guys treated her as if she were off limits, and nothing more happened with her. This was refreshing for me to witness. At LIU Post, I had taken a group vote about the ethics of sleeping with someone who had a boyfriend, and the group said it was ethical. If I had taken the same group vote here, they would have said it was unethical.
All week I slept on a giant beanbag in their kitchen. When I woke up the following morning, Dominic was back from Vivian’s and was sleeping in his own bed. After breakfast, Dominic’s group of friends met up to play basketball. Afterward we sat around on the court.
“I got my penis touched last night,” said one of the guys. “Broke a two-month cold streak.”
“Good job,” someone said.
“Congrats,” said another.
“The thing I love about Middlebury,” said Dominic after a minute, “is that we learn how to work really hard. And we do. But we have like two days a week where we chill really, really hard. We have a really high quality of life. We play sports and hang out and drink and smoke and hook up. Even though it’s artificially constructed—the whole ‘college on a hill’ thing.”
“I don’t think it’s artificial,” said Michael. “Maybe it’s an environment that’s been created, but I think there’s something real. It’s the people. The people are here.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Dominic. “I honestly feel like Middlebury has 1,800 people with my exact value system.”
“Some time in my life, I want to just move to Vermont and live this exact sort of life again for two more years,” said Michael.
“It’s not the same though,” said Dominic. “It’s not just Vermont that’s good, it’s the people, like you said.”
Someone changed the subject and asked, “Dominic, what were you doing last night?”
“I was hanging out with Vivian,” said Dominic.
“Did you fuck?”
“No. I saw her boobies though.”
“It’s weird, though. She wanted to have a talk.”
“A talk already? You’ve been hooking up for like a week.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what to think, because she told me that she wants to be non-exclusive.”
“Yeah, it should be good, right?” Dominic said. “It seems like that’s supposed to be my dream. But is it?”
“Non-exclusive,” I said. “So you’re together, but you can still see other people?”
“Right,” said Dominic.
“That sounds ideal to me,” someone said.
“And I always thought that would be ideal, too,” said Dominic. “But something is weird about it. I can hook up with Vivian and other girls if I want, which should be awesome. But I feel like it’s weird that she’s the one who’s so adamant about it.”
“As long as you’re hooking up with her as much as you want, you’re good to go, right?” someone asked.
“I think so,” said Dominic. “I think so.”
That afternoon, Dominic, his roommates, and I went on a long walk. Middlebury is so beautiful that it is common for students to go on long hikes or walks between classes. We brought one small joint to share between the five of us. Our hike took us across rolling pastures and through dark woods. The day was so lovely that we kept extending the walk farther and farther. Eventually we sat in a gazebo overlooking Middlebury’s solar farm, which provides much of the power for campus. The school’s long-term goal is to become self-sufficient.
“I grew up in a house in the woods,” said Ian. “But when I was ten or so, we moved to the suburbs, and then I started spending all my time inside. I played a lot of video games and stuff. But then I went camping with my dad, and he was about 50 at the time, and he told me I had to do adventurous things while I was young, because I’ll never be in as good of shape. So I started to love the outdoors, and now I can’t get enough.”
“It’s almost a necessary part of resetting,” said Dominic. “When you’re camping, your only motivation is to exist. You aren’t worried about your job or relationships or trying to impress people. It’s invigorating.”
On our walk back, Dominic said, “Let me ask you guys this—what about sleeping over at a girl’s place? Vivian told me last night I couldn’t stay over, but it was already 4am. That’s almost morning.”
“Weird,” I said.
“She had me over, we hung out and talked about how we wouldn’t be exclusive, and then at 4am she asked me to leave.”
“You hooked up, right?” Michael asked.
“Handjob,” said Dominic.
“Hm, that’s an interesting question then. Do you sleep over after a handjob?”
“It depends on the handjob,” Ian said with a smirk.
“Yeah,” said Michael. “There’s a huge range of handjobs. But the gist is you thought you should stay over, and she kicked you out?”
“I guess so,” said Dominic. “I’m just not used to that, I wasn’t sure what to think.”
We didn’t know either. We talked it over but couldn’t make sense of it.
Dominic’s friends made for a great support system. Any time a conflict arose with Vivian, Dominic had a large group of guys to consult for feedback. Throughout the week, as complications escalated—the non-exclusivity, the kicking Dominic out at 4am, and some other small things—all of Dominic’s friends would put their heads together to try to make sense of it and to offer advice and encouragement. Ian told me that when Dominic was anxious, everybody else would become anxious too. Dominic had somehow become the moral center of the group, and it was in everybody’s interest to make sure that he was doing well.
Near the end of the week, something would happen between Dominic and Vivian that would lead to the strangest conflict he and his friends had yet encountered.
It happened on the night of Middlebury’s biggest party of the year. Somewhere on the edge of campus is a group of modified trailers that students live in known as The Mods. Once a year, the students who live there throw a collective party called Modopolooza. It’s a big dance party where electronic dance music is played and most of the student body is present. Before we left for Modopolooza, Dominic’s friends all came over and we played some drinking games in the dorm room. I asked Dominic about how he got himself involved in so many different organizations on campus.
“I started kind of being on my own early, so that’s probably why I take initiative here. It’s interesting how for so long you think your family is going to love you unconditionally, but you realize that’s not really the truth. It’s really just chance who you’re born with. My parents are both alcoholics, and they’re paying for me to be here, but they’re not really where my support is. Like we were talking about yesterday, the support group, mine isn’t my parents. I get all my support here at Middlebury.”
“Does their alcoholism play a part in your life, you think?”
“Well, of course I still drink and stuff. I don’t think a firm pro-alcohol or anti-alcohol stance is a very good way to be. But I’m conscious of it. I like to always put that last drink down, to always drink a little less than others to show myself I’m in control.”
Their pregame was more ambitious than usual. Since the guys were preparing for the biggest party of the year, there was a lot of beer to consume. Once all the beer was gone, Dominic and his friends took off on a path through the woods to Modopolooza. Everyone was hammered. They climbed trees, screamed, and fought each other along the way. We passed by some large houses in the woods where the guys would all be living the following year. These houses were like the cabins that a family would pay good money to rent for a week’s vacation. I imagined that living there would make Middlebury feel even more like a resort.
The party was outside in front of the trailer homes. When we arrived, a huge group of tightly packed students was dancing together. In the middle of the students, there were two large speakers on raised platforms. Aggressive trance music was playing, and it had everybody either grinding or, if alone, air-thrusting. The students who weren’t dancing were inside the trailer homes drinking beer and liquor. Most of Dominic’s friends disappeared into the sea of students as soon as we walked up, so I spent the next few hours walking in circles around the party, occasionally wandering inside to grab a new drink. (I prefer partner dancing—like swing or salsa—to grinding; there are rules for me to follow, the sexuality is more sublimated, and after enough lessons I might even look elegant while doing it.)
While I was walking around inside the trailer, I passed two guys who were trading long chugs from a bottle of vodka. I joined them and tried to show off by chugging the vodka for a long time, then I immediately blacked out and fell asleep on the couch. The party’s hosts had to wake me up once the party was over and everybody was gone, and they had to call Dominic from my phone so he could come pick me up. This actually wasn’t embarrassing—the next day on campus, lots of students would come up and pat me on the back while saying things like, “Hey dude, I heard you passed out at Modopolooza! Awesome!” Middlebury was small enough that my emails looking for a host had reached a large number of students, and a lot of people knew that I was the visiting writer. The students seemed proud that their party had made me pass out.
While I was inside asleep on the couch, Dominic and Vivian were outside dancing together in the middle of the students. This is when the strange event occurred. I didn’t witness it happen myself—Dominic had to tell me about it later. He told me the story late that night, then again the following morning, and then he told the story to all of his roommates. We spent the following two days trying to understand it, but after two days of discussion, we still came to no conclusion. Here’s what happened:
Dominic and Vivian were dancing together at Modopolooza. Both of them had been drinking. As the party became more intense, they decided to step up onto the platform that was holding one of the speakers in the middle of the students. So now they were elevated above the crowd, grinding, and highly visible to everybody else. For a few minutes, everything seemed fine. But eventually Vivian leaned back and told Dominic, “Quit being so nice. Be mean to me.”
“Basically, we were dancing,” Dominic told me, “and she kept insisting that I, like, objectify her, and like, feel her up.”
“She used those words, ‘Objectify me’?” I asked.
“She kept insisting that I act like an asshole. The words she kept using were, ‘Be an asshole for ten minutes. Just be an asshole!’ And whatever I was doing just didn’t feel like enough.”
Dominic’s response to Vivian’s request was to grind with her more aggressively. He would rub his hands all over her body and grind into her harder and harder. And yet, whatever he was doing didn’t seem to satisfy Vivian. Then, as he was rubbing his hands across her thigh, something happened.
“So at one point, I was feeling her up,” Dominic said, “and my hand caught on her skirt and lifted it up, and she flashed people. I wasn’t even aware of this in the moment, but she was infuriated. And fair enough. If someone did that to me, I would be super pissed.”
Dominic accidentally lifted up Vivian’s skirt, exposing her ass to the students below. He said she was wearing underwear, so she wasn’t completely exposed. Nevertheless, as soon as it happened, Vivian jumped down off the platform and took off running away. Dominic ran after her out of concern.
“Where are you going?” Dominic yelled.
Vivian didn’t respond, she just kept running, so Dominic kept following her. When Dominic was about to catch up to her, she turned around, made a big X symbol with her forearms, and screamed, “Stay back!”
Dominic quit running and put his hands up in surrender. “Whoa, what happened?” he asked.
“I said, ‘Stay back!’” she repeated.
Vivian turned and kept running, presumably toward her dorm, and didn’t speak with Dominic again until the following morning.
In the morning, Dominic and Vivian texted a little bit, and that’s when she told him about her skirt being lifted up. After Dominic explained that he didn’t mean to lift her skirt, Vivian still maintained that his behavior had been inappropriate. They made plans to meet up and talk about it later that day.
In the meantime, Dominic and his roommates spent the morning trying to make sense of what had happened. We were a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds deliberating over Vivian’s possible motivation like members of a jury deliberating over the details of a crime. One person would make a long speech while pacing around the room, then the next person would go. Our main question was, why did Vivian, a vocal feminist, want Dominic to be an asshole to her? And what exactly was Dominic supposed to do in that situation to satisfy her request?
“My ex was somewhat feminist,” said Michael. “When we were in a relationship, we were on equal terms. But when we were in the bed, we were not on equal terms. Like, she was not a feminist in bed. You know what I mean?”
“How did she change?” I asked.
“She wanted to be dominated. And I feel like that’s a thing, like, this happens. People who are feminists on the outside—I’m all for that—but I feel like there are times when they want to be dominated. There’s just this thing, where in bed, for some of them, it changes. So my theory with Vivian all along was that that’s the case with her. She gives very strong hints of that, and gives many glimpses of that. And if you go one step too far, you get what happened with Dominic. You said she lives very intentionally. So this is a case where something that she feels sexually doesn’t jive with the way she thinks theoretically, rationally, intelligently. And she hasn’t come to terms with that yet. And I don’t know if she will. She may want to suppress it.”
“I think the other explanation is that she’s self aware,” Dominic said. “I’m not defending her, and shit’s bizarre, and there’s totally the possibility that it doesn’t work out between us. But the other explanation for her behavior is that she wants to tap into the primal satisfaction of those things—partially for the fact that you want what you can’t have, kind of like how being a criminal is so exciting to people, because you’re breaking some rule or whatever. She wants that rush without actually undermining her self-respect. So the idea is that you get someone close who you can trust, and then you do those things, instead of the other way around. So her self-empowerment is the defining characteristic in the dynamic between her pleasure-seeking self and her empowered self.”
“You are the human form of her internal struggles,” Ian said. “You’re the battleground.”
We couldn’t agree, and our discussion came to no good conclusion. I was curious to hear what Aisleen from Harvard, who, like Vivian, also identified as a feminist, would say about the story. I texted her and gave her a super vague outline of what had happened. Aisleen wrote back and disagreed with Vivian’s approach. Aisleen believed that even sex was political. Her theory was that if a woman wanted a man to be an asshole or be dominant toward her during sex, or if a man wanted to do that to a woman, that they were roleplaying existing power structures within a patriarchal society. Aisleen believed that people should maintain an equal balance of power, even during sex. I found their differing perspectives interesting. A lot of people who disagree with feminism don’t understand that there is a huge range of thought and a great diversity of perspective within feminism.
A few hours later, Dominic left to go talk things over with Vivian. They spent a few hours together, and then I met up with Dominic over lunch so he could give me the new details. I would be leaving for Dartmouth later that afternoon, so this was our final conversation.
“I think I’ve managed to salvage it,” Dominic told me. “She was mad, and she’s no longer that mad. We sort of talked through what happened, and we realized that stuff went awry, but she believed me that it wasn’t intentional or whatever. So we talked about the context and sort of realized that, ok, there was probably some communication that should have gone on before she asked me to be an asshole, so I’d have some idea of what that meant. Now that she’s explained it to me, basically she wanted to feel wanted. Which is totally fair enough.”
“Interesting,” I said.
“And we got talking about other things, and she explicitly said, ‘I want our relationship to be centered on the fact that I think you’re hot, and you think I’m hot, and not on the fact that we are kindred spirits. That’s not the side of things I want to explore.’ So I was like, ‘So are you down for a Tuesday afternoon booty call?’ and she was like, ‘Yes, exactly.’ And there’s clearly a big learning curve in acting like that towards someone, because that’s never how I’ve acted toward someone. And she keeps saying how ‘sweet boys’ don’t understand this stuff. She keeps describing me as a ‘sweet boy.’”
“She’s saying you’re sweet, meaning you don’t understand it?”
“Yeah,” Dominic said. “She kept insisting last night that I was being too sweet and too nice. And so now I realize what I should have done—and I came to this conclusion myself—I should have been like, ‘Pause, I’m not comfortable with what you’re asking me to do right now.’ So in some twisted way, I realize that I fucked up, in not doing that.”
“Calling you a sweet boy is a pretty condescending way of saying that you’re respectful,” I said.
“It’s weird, but at the same time, partially out of the fact that I still have a crush on her, and partially out of the fact that I’ve never had that kind of relationship with someone, and partially out of the fact that sex is fun, I’m gonna try to do this whole, you know, physically based relationship with her. The question is, is it a net good? Maybe it ends badly, but if it’s good for a while, then I think it’s a net good.”
“The only way it would be a net bad, I think, is if you change—like if you eventually modify yourself to fit this weird mold that only pleases her, and it pleases nobody else.”
“And I think I’m ok,” Dominic said, “like I think I can toe that line pretty well. I’m very confident that I’ll be ok.”
There was a strange, almost sad irony to Dominic’s situation. In some sense, Dominic had a quality to him that would make him the ideal boyfriend for a large number of women. And yet, he was now dating someone who wanted to rid him of that exact quality. But at the same time, lots of women want a man who’s full of sexual desire, who’s assertive about what he wants, and who is capable of being a bit of an asshole at times. So another way of looking at it might be that Dominic was lucky to be with a woman who was willing to so patiently teach him how to be sexy. Whatever was happening, I agreed with Dominic—I was very confident that he’d be ok, mostly because he had so much support from his friends.
We finished our lunch while talking about other things. Then on the walk back to Dominic’s dorm, he brought up Vivian again.
“The thing about it, like, if we were having sex, and she were to be like, ‘I want you to just dominate me and not care about me at all,’ I’d respond to that being like, ‘Ok, maybe I can do that.’ But you know, I might not be that comfortable with the idea of doing that to someone. Especially not someone that I kinda have a crush on. Oh well, that’ll be a bridge to cross, when it comes.”