It’s rainy—a Tuesday night in Alabama—and I’m supposed to be writing about dating in the Deep South. Instead, I lie on my bed and listen to cars race past my window, and hear splashes of water as each car passes. There’s a knock at my door; it’s a delivery man with the Mexican food I ordered an hour ago. He hands me the bag ever so carefully, holding its weight from the bottom. My face beams like it’s Christmas.
It was difficult to leave LA, where I had a large, diverse community of friends…
I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I’m wearing my favorite muumuu, the one I’ve had forever, with the faded pink rabbit and the word Friendship printed across the top. I unpack my order: green chile enchiladas, tortilla soup, an appetizer sampler, some churros drizzled in dulce de leche, and, finally, three plastic forks. Three forks.
It is only then that I realize that I ordered enough food for a small party. I laugh and push the extra forks out of my way.
Last August I moved from Los Angeles to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for graduate school. It was difficult to leave LA, where I had a large, diverse community of friends—people I’d met at shitty jobs, women in my recovery group, creative friends with whom I regularly shared my writing. I had never lived in the South and had only ever lived in big cities. There was also this: I was a bit afraid of going back to school at 30, having had a tough time attempting to assimilate back in my undergrad years. I attended a competitive private university and had spent all four years feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be there because I was from a low-income background, first in my family to graduate from high school, Latina, and extremely overweight.
I got through it, and in time I realized that I could surely handle immersing myself in a new environment. After I was admitted to my program last spring, they flew me out to Tuscaloosa for a visit. The Southern weather was beautiful, the faculty was welcoming, the locals were friendlier than anywhere I’d ever been, and, best of all, there were lots of places to eat delicious fried food.
Sure, the visit was going great, but I had priorities to consider before I made a decision to attend school in Tuscaloosa. I needed to know: could I see myself dating here? On the last day of my trip, I logged onto Tinder to see who was out here. By evening, I found myself chatting with a guy who was a little too young for me. He was an undergrad, a senior, and only a mile from my hotel. On the phone he made me laugh, and an hour later we were fooling around in my room. By the time I boarded my flight the next morning, I’d decided, yes, I can do this. I can move here. Sí, se puede.
I needed to know: could I see myself dating here? On the last day of my trip, I logged onto Tinder to see who was out here.
So let’s be real about online dating in the Deep South. For the most part, men here are like men everywhere: some send unsolicited dick pics and some don’t. Some pay for drinks and some don’t. And as usual, sex is mostly terrible, and when it isn’t you feel like you’ve hit bingo. But there is something that’s very different about dating here. There is this underlying (and, sometimes more obvious) tension (not the good kind) that I have with people for several reasons: 1) I am extremely liberal in the land of Jeff Sessions. 2) I am agnostic in the Bible Belt. 3) I am Latina during the rise of Trump.
So how did he know that Make America Great Again was my favorite opener? So sweet.
A few weeks before the election, “Build a Freaking Wall” was written in chalk, on campus in front of the Department of Gender and Race Studies. I didn’t see the graffiti in person (which also included “#FeminismIsCancer” and “Trump 2016”), but I had walked across the same courtyard that very morning and saw the photos go viral later that day. When I saw the pictures, I was angry that I had moved to such a conservative place to begin with, angry that I constantly had to drive behind cars with Trump/Pence stickers and Confederate flags stuck on their bumpers, angry that I somehow believed a university was immune to such overt bigotry.
After I shared the photos with my family and friends, they asked me to take care of myself. “Just be aware of your surroundings,” my mom urged. I have felt safe for the most part, despite the usual microaggressions that all people of color regularly face.
As political tensions heightened before the election, I kept living my regular-ass life. I kept going to class, writing my stories about poor Latinx kids, and going on terrible first dates, and I continued my awkward conversations with men on dating sites—business as usual.
On Election Day I showered, put on my biggest hoop earrings, and headed to the polls. It was intimidating to walk into the mall, into a sea of white men who I knew weren’t voting the way I was and who were, essentially, voting against people like my family and me.
But I left feeling grateful to have this right, and grateful that I got out the liberal Latinx vote in the Deep South. Later on campus, people told me I looked like Rosie the Riveter. It was accidental, this outfit; I was going for Hialeah girl—repping the barrio in Miami where I’m from. I embraced the misunderstanding.
Election Night devastated millions of people, even if it didn’t surprise many of us. But I will say that if a year ago someone had told me that I was going to be living in Alabama when Trump got elected, I would have cackled.
Not long after the election, I was at a gas station and was approached by a man. I posted about the experience on Facebook:
Tales of Natalie’s Loveless Alabama Life lol:
For the second time this week a guy asks me for my number while I’m out and about (and not at the club).
I walk into Starbucks and guy says, “Pretty dress.”
“Thanks,” I say.
A few minutes later, as I’m walking back to my car (um, if this weren’t a very busy spot, this would have been sort of creepy), he walks up to me, like he’s been waiting for me to come outside, and says, “Hey, is there any way I can have your number?”
I say, “You don’t want my number. I’m a mess.”
He says, “Oh, come on. Are you just trying to politely say no?”
I say, “Um, sort of.” Then I say, “Actually did you vote?”
“Tell me who you voted for,” I say.
He pauses. (He’s a young white guy in Alabama.)
“Just be honest,” I say.
“Trump,” he says, defeated.
“Yeah, that’s not gonna work for me.”
He says, “I knew you were gonna say that. I saw the California plates on your car.”
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “BYE.”
I jump into my car and drive away as fast as possible.
When I recalled the scene with the man at the gas station, I wrote it as comedy because dating can be incredibly funny.
But I remember so clearly that night, how after he’d confessed his vote for Trump and stood waiting for some understanding from me, for a shrug and an I guess you can still have my number, I’d kept thinking: Yo, fool, I know you see my big, ghetto earrings, I know you see my big, Caribbean curls.
But I hadn’t said any of that. I hadn’t said it because I knew that I didn’t owe him an explanation. Because I know these men. Men like that want to have sex with us, with women of color, but will vote against us and our interests—including our bodies, the irony!—every chance they get. I know that a man like that could never truly love me: me who is first generation; me with a refugee father currently on deportation status, due to a nonviolent crime he committed decades ago; me who would welcome all the refugees into the US with open arms if I were president.
Tonight it’s not raining, but it’s warmer out than normal. I open my window and hear the cicadas buzzing, like the noise from one of those sound machines that calms you down at night. I flip open my laptop to do some writing. No men tonight, I think as I scroll through music to play. And no dating apps, at least not for now.
Alabama has not been anywhere near a smorgasbord of the men of my dreams. And maybe these next few years here will be less about falling for someone and more about getting to know myself. Sure, I’ll keep putting myself out there and allow myself to have some terrible dates, because you never know. But I’ve learned not to take the negative encounters personally; there will be more, of course. Dating is unpredictable; we all know this. But, thankfully, there are some things in this world we can count on. Some things that consistently bring us joy.
A knock on my door: It’s your delivery.
All phone screenshots courtesy of Natalie Lima.