I never went to prom.
My junior year, I was thwarted by the plot of a teen movie. My date’s popular girl friends said if I went with her, she couldn’t ride in their limo. She called me to cancel and went instead with a guy her friends deemed cool enough. My senior year, I was over it. I already had one foot out the proverbial door and chose to skip this monumental high school experience for another — getting high for the first time with my older friends. Everyone told me I’d regret it. I didn’t.
I did, however, think about this cultural lack in June of 2019 at Autostraddle’s A-Camp. Half artists retreat, half adult queer summer camp, my one and only A-Camp revealed its truest purpose to be time travel. Here was a chance for everyone who drowned in the heterosexual quicksand of high school to relive those experiences as ourselves. Here was a chance for all of us who didn’t go to prom — literally or metaphorically — to do just that.
The camp theme in 2019 was High School. That felt redundant.
Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s triptych of cinematic short stories, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, is about love and fate and coincidence. It’s also about the past.
The first story is about a young woman who realizes the romantic evening her best friend is describing occurred with her ex. This brings up a rush of feelings — regret, jealousy, and, ultimately, acceptance.
The second story is about a woman who decides to honey trap a professor at the urging of her vengeful lover upset about a bad grade. Ultimately, it becomes about the surprising connection she forms with the professor, but why she agrees to this plan holds equal importance. This woman is married and a mom. She is attending college much later than the other students. She feels isolated from her peers and even complains to her lover, “I’ll never have that campus life.wp_postsShe agrees to this plan that will ultimately change the course of her life, because her lover claims to be her only connection to the college experience she’s trying to attain. And, maybe, fucking a professor fits into that same fantasy.
But it’s the third story that finds its very magic in nostalgia. It exists in a world where our Coronavirus was instead replaced with a virtual calamity. Xeron, a computer virus, leaked everyone’s private information causing the world to go offline and return to postal mail and telegraphs. It’s a small bit of sci-fi to begin a story that’s ultimately an understated tale of connection.
After this title card of exposition, we meet Natsuko as she shows up for her twenty year high school reunion. She has short hair and looks out of place in this room of straight women drinking white wine. She’s looking for someone who’s not there and if she’s trying to hide her disappointment, she is not succeeding. Another classmate comes up to Natsuko and says she’s surprised Natsuko is wearing a skirt. They exchange awkward pleasantries and then Natsuko tries her best to slip away from the gathering unnoticed. She returns home and flops on her bed in despair.
Unsatisfied with this dalliance in nostalgia, Natsuko returns to a restaurant where she ate as a teen. She compliments the chef who doesn’t remember her and then she walks toward Sendai Station. As she rides up the escalator, she sees her — the woman she hoped to reconnect with at the reunion, the woman who was her first romantic partner.
She gasps with recognition. The woman tells her to wait at the top and she rushes down and up the escalator.
The past is never as far away as we imagine.
I’ve been told by people who are now my close friends that I seemed cool and aloof at A-Camp. It’d be more accurate to say that I was an anxious mess trapped in an aloof person’s body.
I’d only been out of the closet for two years and had only been single for a few months. I’d just been staffed at Autostraddle with only eleven articles to my name. I’d started developing nascent friendships with some people who would be at camp, but I still felt intimidated by all of them.
Mostly, I knew them enough to hear their A-Camp stories. From what they described, A-Camp was the ultimate place to experience my second adolescence. I didn’t have sex in high school but I would have sex here. I didn’t drink or do drugs in high school but I would drink and do drugs here. I wasn’t cool in high school but I’d be cool here.
I put so much pressure on this one week that I barely slept the month before. My OCD flared up. I was convinced I’d get sick and wouldn’t be able to go. By the time I arrived to meet the bus at the airport, my only sickness was from nerves.
When I was in high school, I sought validation from romance. I had very few make outs, but my crushes consumed my thoughts. It probably had to do with it being the primary way I was told I could connect with women as, ostensibly, a heterosexual male. It also probably had to do with all the movies and books I consumed.
At A-Camp, these habits returned. It was thrilling to be in a space that was entirely queer, but the comfort that brought was paired with discomfort. I’d failed at straight high school — what would it say about me if I failed at queer high school as well? The tales I’d heard from A-Camp weren’t about newfound friendships. They were love stories. Sex stories. I wanted in.
I spent high school desiring romance as a way to be included; now at 25 I was doing the same thing. I felt like I was on a queer community trial run — I had a week to prove I belonged. My very own A-Camp hook up story would be proof that this adolescence would be different from my first.
At the top of the escalators, Natsuko and the woman excitedly catch up. The woman says she didn’t get an invitation to their reunion — maybe because she now has her husband’s last name. She asks if Natsuko still lives in Tokyo and Natsuko says that she does.
The woman has to be home for a delivery and invites Natsuko back with her. As they walk to the woman’s home, they discuss the reunion and their lives. Natsuko mentions the one classmate who we saw take an interest in her. Apparently, she’s now an art teacher and wants Natsuko to model for her. The woman’s interest begins to feel queer in retrospect, but that’s not the story being told, because it’s not the story Natsuko cares about. She is focused entirely on this woman from her past. They look at each other like curious dogs, sniffing something both familiar and new.
Back at the woman’s house, they discuss her husband and two kids and continue discussing the impact of the computer virus on their lives and careers. Finally, as the woman sits down with tea and sweet bean jelly, Natsuko breaks through the small talk. “You keep avoiding what’s important,wp_postsshe says. “Are you happy right now?”
The woman says that she isn’t sure. “Objectively speaking, I must be very happy,wp_postsshe says. “I feel like I’d get scolded if I say I’m not happy.”
Natsuko says that she is not happy. She says it’s because she’s been regretting not fighting for her feelings. She continues a speech straight out of any tale of long past lesbian love.
But then the woman stops her. She says that she can’t remember Natsuko’s name. She responds to Natsuko’s offense by asking Natsuko if she knows hers. “Mika Yuki,wp_postsNatsuko blurts out.
No. That is not this woman’s name. That was never this woman’s name. She is Aya Kobayashi. In high school, she was Aya Nomura.
Natsuko wanted so badly to see this person from her past that she convinced herself she had. Aya, responding to the recognition, confused her for someone from her own past as well.
Natsuko and Aya are strangers. Even more than they already were.
The first night A-Camp’s makeshift club was open, I started by hiding in my room.
I had a handle of tequila I was chugging like Gatorade and a vape I was sucking like an inhaler. Days into camp, my nerves had barely subsided. This was the first big night, and the pressure was on.
I walked downstairs and bumped into a seasoned staffer. Drunk and high, I confessed my nerves. Since she was in a monogamous relationship, she was eager to get involved in some drama vicariously and play yenta. She asked who I had a crush on and after a lot of back and forth I told her. Wrong choice. That person was not available. Or, at least, it was complicated. She asked who else and I couldn’t risk getting the answer wrong again. “Look,wp_postsshe told me. “It’s A-Camp. Just go up to whoever and ask if they want to hook up. You’re hot. They will.”
Crossfaded enough to take this confidence boost, I made my way to the dance floor. A couple hours later, I put my own anxious spin on my mentor’s advice. Wrong choice. I was met with a rejection.
Soon after, a camper came up to me and asked if I wanted to go on a walk. One of the key A-Camp rules I’d been given was don’t hook up with campers. But any ethical issues seemed absent since this person was five years older than me and had been at A-Camp several times. I didn’t imagine any ethical issues in the other direction. I said, sure, and we walked away from the crowd. Wrong choice.
They led me up the hill to a secret spot they’d discovered the previous year. We got drunker. We got higher. It was so dark, we could barely see one another. A romantic moment we both experienced alone.
When I was in high school, my romantic moments were few, but they were few by my own choosing. I got fixated on one person and everyone else slipped away. And so the romantic moments I did have were genuine. They were intense. They meant something. Rather than doing things with one person while wishing I was with someone else, I chose to do nothing at all.
But my goal this week was to rewrite high school. And so we had sex under the stars and I dissociated through it all.
Embarrassed by her mistake, Natsuko rushes to leave. She’s stopped by fate: the awaited delivery person.
After signing for the package, Aya asks Natsuko to stay. She asks about Mika, and Natsuko fills her in on the details of her double’s life. They dated in high school and did long distance in college. But then Mika got a boyfriend and they never spoke again. The last Natsuko heard, Mika married this man.
Aya shares that when everyone’s data was leaked, she discovered that her husband had been emailing with his ex from high school. He never met back up with her, but the romance of his language surprised her. He still felt so much longing for the past.
Natsuko says she keeps seeing Mika in Aya, and Aya offers to role play so Natsuko can have a taste of her sought after closure. Natsuko says to “Mikawp_poststhat she could tell Mika had suffered enough so she didn’t fight for her. But she regrets it. She knows that Mika is her one and only love. She tells “Mikawp_poststhat like her, “You must have a hole that nothing can fill.wp_postsAya steps toward Natsuko in a trance. Then they’re interrupted by Aya’s son getting home and Natsuko says she should leave.
The first time I watched this scene I felt lost in the same trance. It felt like Aya had become Mika. But watching it again, the opposite occurred. Natsuko’s declaration felt less like romance and more like the misguided belief of a lonely woman. Aya’s movement toward her felt less like Mika moving through her and more like Aya responding as herself. Maybe Mika is with her husband longing for her high school lesbian days, but it’s just as likely she’s happy — or as happy as anyone can be.
Aya, however, is not happy. It’s Aya who also has a hole that nothing can fill. Or, maybe, nothing other than this new connection.
The day after our starlight hook up, the camper left me a note saying they hoped we could do it again. I felt a pit in my stomach.
At the pool, my crush waded over to me topless. She flirtatiously teased me about my night expressing her approval. She told me that last year she’d kissed this person too. The pit in my stomach disappeared.
I’d done it. I was a person who was gossiped about, who was desired and could feel desirable. I didn’t care that it felt empty. Besides, that night was the staff only party so I could ignore this person and move on with confidence. I could keep flirting with my crush — or talk more with any of my dozen other burgeoning crushes.
That did not occur. Everyone on staff just knew each other too well. I felt more awkward that night than I had the whole trip. The next night was the big dance — our prom, if you will — and my best chance at a date was the camper.
I went to the dance with my options open. But once again crossfaded and once again uncomfortable, I felt a disappointed relief when the camper approached me. They asked if I wanted to go with them to their cabin to get drugs and my decision was made.
At their cabin, they offered me acid and I took it without thinking. In high school, I only said no. Now, I would only say yes.
The rest of the night is a blur. I know we had sex in my room and outside. I know the whole night I watched myself with embarrassment. I know I let them touch me in ways I don’t like. I know the next day I rode on the bus back with them. I know that I texted with them for a few days. I know that I made it clear I didn’t want to continue anything romantic or sexual. And I know that it took several telephone calls and blocking them on multiple social media platforms six months later to get that message across.
But what actually happened wasn’t as important to me as the story I could tell. Or, at least, that’s what I told myself at the time. I had rewritten my high school narrative to tell a story where I fit in, where I was desired. My time travel had worked.
Maybe a little too well.
As they get ready to part at Sendai Station, Natsuko asks Aya about the person she’d mistaken her for. Aya says she was a boyish girl she played piano with. They weren’t friends in class or outside of school but during lunch they met in the music room and switched off playing. This connection was meaningful to Aya — it’s unclear the exact nature of why. And yet Aya cannot remember her name.
Natsuko suggests they do another role play. This time she’ll be the pianist. Aya tells the pianist that even though she was antisocial everyone wanted to know her better, everyone admired her — no, she admired her. Natsuko says that she felt like people only observed her from afar — except Aya, except Mika. “You were the only light for me,wp_postsshe says. “I could find you anywhere you were.”
They say goodbye — Natsuko and Aya — and how glad they are to have met each other. Then Natsuko walks away. Then Aya walks away. Halfway down the escalator, Aya is struck by something. She runs down the escalator and up the other side and all the way to Natsuko. She runs like she’s in a romcom but her realization wasn’t love — it was the pianist’s first name: Nozomi. Only Natsuko could understand the significance of that memory. This moment could only be theirs. They hug in giddy delight. Natsuko then asks Nozomi’s last name and Aya says the last line of the movie: I don’t remember.
This girl’s first name only mattered for this point of connection. The past only matters for these points of connection. The true power of this moment is in their embrace.
Natsuko Higuchi and Aya Kobayashi. They didn’t know each other in high school but they know each other now — they know each other better than if they had.
When I tell the story of my prom date’s betrayal, I leave out her experience. It’s not fun being a closeted queer trans girl in high school, but it’s often not fun being a cis straight girl either.
The post-prom rumor was her date wanted her to “put out,wp_postsand when she refused, he abandoned her to spend the rest of the night with someone who would. She hadn’t gone to prom with the person she wanted. She’d made a decision for her popular friends’ approval — she’d still failed to receive it.
The magic to this story — as there is magic in most stories — is what happened after prom, after me who she hurt, after this guy who hurt her. She went on a date with another guy not in the popular group, but cool in his own way — big curly hair, drummer in a local band. Then they went on another date. And another. Then they got married. They’re still together to this day.
I went to A-Camp desperate to rewrite my high school experience. I wanted to be cool and have sex — as if coolness is something to be desired, as if desperate sex isn’t usually bad. I found out after the fact that the camper I hooked up with arrived having read my eleven articles. They wanted to hook up with someone on staff and, since I was new and young, they picked me as an easy target. So I did it. I went to prom with a manipulative jerk trying to get in my pants. I had the high school experience I’d missed out on. Congrats to me?
When queer people long for a different adolescence, what we’re really longing for is a youth with less homophobia and transphobia, a youth with more community. When Natsuko fixates on her high school romance, she’s yearning for the sense of belonging this one individual provided. It’s not a romantic betrayal that Natsuko can’t get over but Mika’s decision to live a heteronormative life. Maybe it wasn’t even about her queerness — maybe Mika really fell in love with this other guy. But Natsuko is telling herself a story about who she is and who she’s become and how she’s viewed by the world. It’s a story based in truth but it’s not a true story.
Going back to our high school relationships can feel like the answer. Trying to have experiences we didn’t have as teens can feel like the answer. They’re not. My adolescence was not challenging because I was a virgin who didn’t go to prom. My adolescence was challenging because I was forced to live in a gender that felt uncomfortable, isolated by my secret from those around me who felt the same.
That’s the real wound that A-Camp helped to heal. I went into that week desperate for a hook up — instead I got to know some of my closest friends. I found the community I needed as a teen and need as an adult.
Maybe a romance will develop between Natsuko and Aya, but for now what they’ve found is friendship. And there’s as much magic in that encounter as the one they imagined. There’s always magic in queer people finding each other — on the street, at an adult summer camp. We survived our teenhoods in our separate little cities and now here we are together.
It’s destiny. It’s fate. It’s better than any romance under the stars.
Slow Takes is a series of “belatedwp_postsreviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.