In the fluorescent-lit spaces and dark corners of the barn, I sought my sexual fantasy. It was here, waiting for me among the circle of eight people on upturned flowerpot seats, flanked by two emptied flatbed crop-hauling trucks and a leaking water spigot. And I was nervous as all hell.
As I resumed my place upon a pot on the rim of the circle, I asked, “Alright, how does it start?”
This was just over a year ago, on my first Harvest trip. Now, as a new crop of freshmen arrive on campus, some still sunburned or poison-ivied from their own farms, they no doubt wonder if this Yale they are adjusting to will be the Yale that their Harvest trips prepared them to encounter. My trip had me picking tomatoes, swimming in a creek, shouting “Big booty!” and, of course, discussing my sexual fantasy. And, though the last was in some senses traumatic, it was perhaps the best preparation for Yale that the trip offered.
We were playing a game called Sexual Fantasy, a game in which one guesser leaves the group while the rest invents a story, somewhere between bawdy and absurd, vulgar and comic, though they vary widely. Past fantasies — now something of lore — have included: phosphorescent microbes as sexual partners; ritual sacrifice on Beinecke Plaza; and a horde of Lord of the Rings characters, orcs and hobbits alike, in an orgiastic bondage experience, which Tolkien would no doubt have considered violation of both copyright and character-integrity. Our leaders, Marcus and Ray, had selected me to be the guesser, and my only goal was to discover their invented plot. When I reentered the circle, unaware of the game’s legacy or the dilemma it would shortly put me in, I was to uncover their story relying only upon yes-or-no questions.
After being prompted to leave the barn, I exited to the sound of keyed-up chatter about this location and that person. I was flattered that Ray and Marcus had chosen me, and, under normal circumstances, I would have walked back, excited to uncover their undoubtedly hilarious sexual fantasy, painstakingly tailored to me personally. Harvest games — Contact, Ninja, Vegetable-Off — were “my thing,” in the most unhealthily competitive sense. But now, I knew, I would walk back into the barn reluctant to discover their story. My reservations were not prudish, but practical. I knew in advance that it would be all wrong.
The group would pick someone strikingly handsome: a rugged frontiersman given my outdoorsy interests, or some suspender-wearing ukulelist given my music tastes, or perhaps a sensitive intellectual bearded-type whom I would encounter in a dog park. To really shoot in the face a tired metaphor, all of these possibilities operated upon the false premise that I played for the Yankees, when it was more of an “A League of Their Own” situation. At this point, exiled to the misty fields outside the barn, it was too late to tell them I would probably like a girl in my sexual fantasy.
Now, I wasn’t without a sense of humor. I understood that incandescent bacteria weren’t that poor Harvester’s idea of a good time. But this boiled down to an essential test: should I let their mistaken assumption stand? If I proceeded with their story, I would confirm their assumption with my silence, and I would fail — in that large, symbolic way so intrinsic to being a scared, histrionic freshman — in the very first test of my newly instituted Will Tell, If Asked policy. No more silences at sleepovers; no more conversational acrobatics; and no more Escape-from-Guantanamo proms.
From the moment I met these people four days earlier, I was assumed to be straight, an assumption that occurs sometimes tragically, often hilariously, but almost universally for people even just skimming the Regina George side of gender-normative (and, trust me, I am just skimming). But every time I was confronted with a chance to come out, my stomach would clench, I would hedge, and the moment would pass. Two days earlier, when I was asked about my ideal date while weeding kale, I played a different game, entirely on my own. Certainly outside the approved Harvest game arsenal, though a gay fan-favorite, the Pronoun Game involves excising all gender-identifying pronouns — as in, “my date … and they think …” — often performing grammatical feats that would make an English teacher choke on his red ink pen. Though the scared middle schooler in me was sympathetic to my hesitancy to correct these new farm-mates, my liberal, post-gay side’s indulgence was wearing thin.
“And because of your pussyfooting around,” I said aloud, staring dispassionately over the fields of wildflowers while I waited to be called back into the barn, “this whole mess is your fault.”
I jumped when I heard my name being called. Too soon! I thought desperately. I was still without a course of action. If I tried to correct them, their whole story would be useless, with the group plunged into inextricable awkwardness. If I didn’t, my whole confidence would be shaken, with the ink already drying on my stamp of failure. I was cornered.
Walking in, dragging my whale-print rainboots under the gaze of the harsh industrial lighting, I shoved sweaty palms deeper into jeans. The group looked up at me in perfectly hysterical anticipation, but I had no idea where to start. Heart pounding painfully in my chest, I asked for guidance.
Ray answered, “Just get some generals. Where are you? Who are you with?”
“Alright, am I at Yale?” I asked, trying to swallow the knot in my throat.
“Yes,” the circle chorused.
Rolling my eyes, trying to seem above it all, I asked, “Do I meet someone at Yale?”
“Yesss,” the group replied. Ray leaned in as if to lead me on.
Here, I paused. I decided that until they said something to the contrary, I would play the Pronoun Game — and play it hard.
“Is this person a student at Yale?”
“Do I know … this student?”
“Are they a celebrity?”
To this, they responded divergently with a scattering of sort of’s and maybe’s. My narrative options were narrowing. Suddenly, and with a sense of glum certainty, I felt sure I had landed upon their chosen quasi-celebrity Yale student, whom we had discussed only that morning while washing carrots.
With nowhere to go but forward, I muttered resignedly:
“Is it James Franco?”
The group’s laughter exploded into an enthusiastic affirmative, and a tingling wave of relief washed over me. There would be no more Pronoun Game. The decision had once again been made for me.
A series of questions followed. Squirming in the throes of awkwardness, I whittled a marshmallow spear with my pocketknife, increasingly violently. I tried to steer their questions toward platonic activities. Through my questions, I found that Mr. Franco would reside in a Gothic castle in the center of Old Campus, in which his parents — who would give us snacks — would live. I would be there to film a movie in the lead role, apparently with Ellen Page in a supporting role (a question of wishful thinking on my part and surprisingly corroborating results on theirs). The movie, to be screened for all Yale students, would be “Pineapple Express II.” Ray pressed me to ask about the juicier details, and I asked if Mr. Franco and I would hook up on camera.
Exasperated, trying to reach the end to the game, I snapped, “I suppose it ends well?”
“No,” the group answered, among uproarious giggles.
Half-joking, I asked if he commits suicide: “Yes.”
“He … he kills himself after hooking up with me?”
The group laughed still harder. “Yes — yes!”
“That’s cruel, guys. That’s really just cruel. Is that it? Is that the game?”
Ray was clutching her sides. “Okay,” she gasps, “okay. That is one of the best ones I’ve ever heard. His parents gave them snacks!”
Numbly, I asked what she was talking about.
The group, all wearing knowing smiles, watched me intently as Ray looked up and said, “There was no story!”
I stared blankly at the ruts in the dirt floor that I had neurotically gouged with the butt of the stick, the wood shavings strewn around me, my own bitten fingernails.
“We answered ‘yes’ if your question ended in a vowel or the letter s, ‘no’ if it ended in a consonant, and ‘maybe’ for the letter y. You made the entire thing up yourself!”
“You see,” Marcus interjected, “the guesser is really making their own sexual fantasy without knowing it, so it’s shaped unconsciously by their own desires. It’s always really entertaining to see what comes out.”
While the group waited for me to laugh and cajole them on successfully-pulled eye wool, the fact that there had been no story, that everything I just went through was self-inflicted, began to hit me. In the heat of discovering the deception of the game, I began to feel resentful at the needless angst I had put myself through. Whittling even more intensely, though the marshmallow spear was now a fractured, inch-long twig, I was flushed, even angry. Marcus was, of course, wrong. It was not the guesser’s sexual fantasy that had been revealed but how she perceives herself to be perceived by the group. The questions I asked were based on the fantasy I expected them to create for me.
As I sat in the barn, the conversation drifted on to other topics — QR’s, frocos, frats — but I remained silent. I thought about the operative deception of the game, that the script was written, and the fate was real. The game, though uncomfortable, was familiar. It mimicked on a smaller scale how I had molded my behavior, my statements, my self-presentation to meet a standard I believed was unyielding. Sexual Fantasy fabricated the impression of those expectations only to reveal that they had never existed concretely.
My pocketknife slipped, and I cut my thumb, right where it meets the hand. I laughed aloud, bitterly, and then, looking up at the cluster of concerned faces, simply smiled. “Just a scratch,” I said, picking up another thin tomato stake to whittle to a point for s’mores later that night — when we would talk late into the night over a campfire. It took a shock like Sexual Fantasy to reveal that operative deception, which can seize hold and convince us, for a moment or for our whole lives, that we do not have the power to shape our own identities. Sexual Fantasy provided a realization that is the most freeing of all.
After all, I could simply have asked if it was Ellen Page filming the movie in her castle on Old Campus and not James Franco. The best part is, they still would have had to say yes.