I’m out to dinner at a downtown bar with Micah and Sam. We’ve just come from work, and Sam, in her scrubs, hasn’t eaten and the kitchen is taking forever, so the pink-drink she’s drinking is going straight to her head. She’s a lightweight. Micah, who spent the afternoon reading the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (the entries on deconstruction — he swears, he’s gonna rip them out), is on his third. Not his final. He has capacity.
“If you saw these slides, you’d never have sex again,” says Sam. “You’d never touch anyone again. And forget about kissing.”
She’s talking about work, her class on infectious disease, which leads to the three of us discussing STDs and oral sex. Sam says she saw a Howard Stern show that featured a panel of prostitutes.
“All Howard Stern shows have prostitutes.” It’s Micah.
“Anyway, they were talking about–“
“When was this?” Micah, again.
“About ten years ago. Anyway, they say you can use Saran Wrap….”
“Really?” It’s me. I’m thinking about the size of molecules and barriers and the new guy I’ve been seeing.
“Yes. Saran Wrap!” Sam giggles as she starts to pantomime–
“Stop right there,” Micah interrupts. “Don’t come in here wearing your scrubs and looking all official and tell us that we can use plastic for oral sex based on a ten-year old episode of Howard Stern. Just don’t.”
Sam laughs. I laugh. We all laugh.
But for them, it’s academic. They’re both faithfully married for years. For the rest of us, well, who hasn’t been tempted to use kitchen supplies in the heat of the moment?
I don’t want to scare you, Brigham writes in chat. But what he means is scar. Oops, total typo, he says as he corrects himself.
Scare or scar, it’s the accidental truth.
Brigham has a job offer, one he knew about shortly after we met. It’s a really good offer, a job that will make him feel real again. It’s a startup doing something cool like inventing world peace or curing cancer. He’s been at his current job faithfully for ten years with no time off for good behavior or creative endeavors. Don’t misunderstand: His current job is great, with challenges and perks, but the new one would be like a mistress at midlife. (As one married man said in a pitch to me, after twenty years of faithful, it’s great to feel alive again. Men say shit like this. No kidding.)
The catch with Brigham’s job? It’s 3000 miles away. We both know this means the end. Or the beginning of the end. (What a fucking cliché.) But we go through the motions.
Brigham thinks leaving will scar me. (And I note here that he’s doing it anyway.)
I have to make this decision, he says (as though there’s really something to decide), based on what I’ll be doing with my life. I spend more time working in a given week than I do eating, exercising, driving, listening to music, or having sex.
How much time do you spend having sex in a week? I ask. I can’t resist the joke.
As much as you do, he says.
But we haven’t had this conversation.
Would you date someone just for the sex? What’s a fling?
Star and I are watching football at her house. I’ve been inculcating her to the pleasures of the game. Hey, that’s holding, she yells, or maybe, great pass!, as she is beginning to pay attention to the game in a meaningful way, while we both nosh on guac and lamb chops in an even more meaningful way. As usual, she is multitasking – on the sofa wrapping presents or sorting mail – while I am in the Barcalounger with my laptop surfing OkCupid.
And that’s when Coop writes. He’s just left New Orleans and is at a cool bar in St. Louis and is headed back to Massachusetts. Within minutes, I’m laughing.
What? Star wants to know.
This guy is funny. He’s smart, too. And good-looking.
It goes from there. By the time he gets back from his road trip – to buy a refurbished collectable car –– we have a date to meet.
And by the time we meet, I feel like I know him.
He is as advertised. With one exception: he’s not relationship guy. Despite all the wooing, all the focus on getting to know me, during the long evening of conversation, food, and drinks, at one point he says, I usually go on a few dates and then stop. It’s a toss-off comment but it can only mean one thing: he’s a casual sex guy.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but truth in advertising, ya know?
While I don’t always hear what you say, I listen to what you say. I’m trained in close-reading. As much as Coop liked me, and I liked him, Coop was Fling Guy, or would have been.
And when the wanting on both sides doesn’t match the having, hearts are hurt, or can be. In that I’m in charge of my heart, I had a decision to make with Coop: Was he fling-worthy?
Same with Parker. When Parker wrote me, nothing in particular stood out about him, but his profile matched what I look for demographically in terms of age, intelligence, attractiveness, and geography. (I know! It’s like I have a rubric or something.) I wrote back and we corresponded.
After I was pretty sure I would meet him, he revealed that he was in Boston from Australia for academic work, and would be leaving at the end of the semester. So I crossed him off my list. Nothing wrong with a fling, but as I told him later, I have a waiting list for casual sex. When he persisted in asking me to meet for the dammed, elusive drink, I figured there was no harm, and perhaps there could be some cross-cultural good will, in having a libation with a guy who can say with a straight face, I prefer down under.
I chose a place on my route home. One drink, I swore to myself, and then back on the T.
One drink turned into two, two into a third at a second place followed by food, which turned into specialty cocktails at a five star bar, which turned into whiskey and pool at a dive. By the time we got to the hotel bar, we we’re having such a good time that I almost forgot to catch the last T home. When the clocks tolled for midnight, I ran in my pea coat and black boots like a citified Cinderella down the steps into the station.
The next Tuesday, when he suggested drinks at a bar near where I work, I knew I had a decision to make.
Listen up, I said to him. I got two things to tell you, in no particular order. One, you’re a fling, by definition. I gotta decide if I want to fling with you.
And he made it sound good. Over the sofa, the dorm bed, tossed around the room with pleasure, a man who knew what he was doing both in the details and the grand sweeping drama of sex and satisfaction, not to mention food and drink and fun. He wasn’t, he assured me, a novice.
But he’d be a guy who’s in town and then out, never to return. Not that that’s much different than dating a local guy, but at least with the local guy, if I like him, and he me, there’s the possibility of something longer term, even if longer term is just sex. Or just friends. Or total sworn enemies.
And therein lies the hope. And the quandary. Knowing it would end before it began fueled my hesitation. Call me a fucking romantic.
Two, I said to him, I already have a Regular Guy, and Regular Guy and I have an agreement. If I find someone new, I’ll let him know. It’s only reasonable to communicate openly and honestly about these things. If Regular Guy wants to double up, that’s a possibility. There are risks involved, real risks. And he has a right to know that he’s doing so. I shouldn’t be making the decisions for him.
Just as Parker and Coop shouldn’t be making the decision for me of whether or not to have a fling. I’m capable of flinging if that’s what I want.
Coop swept me off my feet. Well, not literally, but certainly verbally.
Parker did, too.
Brigham, on the other hand, just fucked me. Literally. Not metaphorically, although there’s still time.
In order to fuck a woman, some men tell her whatever they think she wants to hear. They’ll couch whatever it is they say so that if she says she wants long term, they’ll make it sound like they do, too, like they’ve been searching god’s green earth for a soul mate, even if, like Coop and Parker, they have no intention or ability to be long term. They’ll say whatever they have to say in order to fuck her.
(To guys like this I say, fuck you.)
(Or I would have, until I met Brigham.)
Brigham means bridge. He kissed me on a Tuesday evening while we were standing on a bridge in Boston. And in order to get to his house, or he to mine, we both have to cross several bridges because he lives two hours away.
We met on line. He wrote me a long funny smart modest opening salvo. I don’t know how I found your profile, he said.
But I know. He found it because I found him. Using the search function on the dating site, I input my super-secret super-select parameters and set the distance at “anywhere.” Because the site is run by robots, every so often I try different sorts of searches in order to reset the algorithms. Sorta like closing all the windows and opening them back up. Or clearing the cache.
And once I looked at his profile, he looked back. And then he wrote to me. And we did a truncated version of the pen-pal dance, which I let languish because he still lived two hours away, but it was good anyway, or at least fine, because in dating as in life every interaction doesn’t need to accomplish something. There’s the guy in Iceland. And the guys in D.C., Canada, North Carolina, Arizona. They’re all over, hungry, thoughtful, funny, smart, sexy. Sometimes a word across the universe is just the thing.
But no matter what, Brigham still lives two hours away. I stopped writing.
But he wasn’t done.
Where’d you go? He pursued.
Dude, I said, you live two hours away.
I work once a week in Cambridge, he said, before the job offer, or so he says.
I’m not easily swayed, or wasn’t going to be. I’m idiosyncratic. Sometimes I’ll write, sometimes I won’t. But I distrust when a man (or woman) dangles the prospect of a date in order to maintain the flow of conversation. Either meet me or don’t but don’t use the prospect of meeting as a means to sate your needs at my expense.
It makes me wonder, is he lonely? In prison? Married? Five hundred pounds? An axe murderer? (If the latter, at least he’d want to see me in person, right?)
Don’t string me along.
When? I wrote a one-word email to Brigham, unwilling to participate in anything further that didn’t lead to a date, and just like that, we were sitting across from each other at a funky little Japanese place.
They say there’s a moment when you decide you want to fuck someone. Brigham said it was ten minutes into that dinner.
For me, it took longer. I didn’t know I wanted to fuck him until we were fucking.
Would you date someone just for the sex? Yes.
But there’s a qualifier. Your answer isn’t allowed to be yes. You have to date me for my sparkling personality. It’s a double standard, I know.
Brigham and I have been dating, or as I like to say so as to resist the classification, “going on dates.” It feels like a whirlwind, food, books, museums, pool, sex. We touch each other with newness, like a sprout of crocus after the winter or an orchid in the kitchen window. It’s fragrant and satisfying, an ordinary miracle.
When I ask him how much sex he has in a week – a joke — he says, as much as you do.
But we haven’t had this conversation. The exclusive one. Brigham hasn’t asked. And I haven’t said. What I don’t say is that I’m not asking for it. I’m not sure I want it. Maybe I am scared.
I know that he’s leaving. Not like “everything comes to an end” leaving, but “getting on a plane, his household goods to follow” leaving.
We haven’t had this conversation, I say to Brigham.
I’m exclusive with you, he says, but I don’t expect you to be exclusive with me.
He thinks you’re a slut, Micah says. I’m not even finished telling the story, but it’s what I thought, too. Bingham thinks I’m a slut.
They both might be right. But there’s the problem of words used to pejoratize women where there aren’t equal words for men. Why is slut feminine?
Or maybe Brigham is naive, a pure soul who wants a woman besides his ex-wife to love him, if she ever did, or at least to provide sexual favors that can be construed as love, that elusive thing.
There’s Kai, a guy who makes it clear that he’s not monogamous. He likes women. He doesn’t couch it in neologisms such as poly or open. He’s too simple and straightforward for that. He plays in a band, hangs at his local bar, participates in a local sports league, and fucks women he finds attractive. He finds many women attractive. He likes to hang with them, too, especially in hot tubs or on sailboats or beaches, but he’s clear that the sex is the same as the hanging, neither more or less than it is.
When Kai propositioned me – and I mean that in the nicest possible way – I declined. No hard feelings, of course, on either side, but I wasn’t in the mood to be as memorable as the cheeseburger or the beer, which is to say, not very.
And then one day, he declared himself monogamous, madly in love, meeting the mother of a woman he’d just met a few weeks before. What happened to Ladies Like Lunch? Or Suzie for Supper? It turns out, he was biding his time, waiting for the right woman, wanting love. It wasn’t philosophical, and in fact, he probably didn’t even know that he had it in him.
Or maybe he did?
And there is Hot Guy, with whom I formed a longstanding long distance friendship based on mutual respect and attraction. When we finally met in person years ago, the mutual respect and attraction were affirmed. We liked each other. Nothing happened that night – I was staying with family – but we still talk about that missed opportunity. But I admit I wasn’t interested in a one-night long-distance stand, which is what it would have been. I also knew that he was – and never would be – the monogamous relationship guy. Over the years we have talked about all his lovers, his flings, his FWBs, past and ongoing, and many of mine, but every so often one of us would drop out of email with the business of real life. And so when he moved – even further away from me – I wasn’t surprised that we had another lull, what with his new job, finding a new home, all of that. But I was surprised when he eventually wrote to say I’ve fallen madly in love, head over heels – not with me, of course. And that he was commuting long distances to see her, a distance that makes me look local.
I wonder if I’m biding my time, waiting for love. I wonder if love is real. Kai eventually stopped dating the Love of His Life. He went back to drinking beer and eating cheeseburgers and pursuing women with the same urgency and thoughtfulness as he does a meal. Which, you know, isn’t such a bad thing, if everybody knows what’s what. But when Kai and I had a catch-up dinner – real food, not metaphor – he talked about what she wasn’t, what he wanted, and I wonder, do we really know what we want? Is this thing an illusion?
With Hot Guy, the jury is out, just like he’s three states away, sucking the succor out of this thing he’s discovered, intrigue, affection, love, whatever we call it, all of it mutual.
Hot Guy’s dating profile is still active, though, so I’m not deleting his email address just yet.
I tell Brigham what Micah says.
Micha says you think I’m a slut. It’s what I thought, too. You’re exclusive but I’m not equals slut.
No, no, no, he says,
“That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
That’s T.S. Eliot, not Brigham, but it would have been cool if Brigham had denied thinking me a slut in the words of a poet, but he didn’t. He did, however, deny it.
I’m leaving, he said, and it might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, leaving a woman who… blah, blah, blah, insert nice things about me. He went on to say I wouldn’t blame you for lining up my replacement, if you haven’t already.
It’s a quandary, love while you have it, let the future take care of itself.
Brigham’s pragmatism suggests that people are replaceable, interchangeable, much the way every year the Red Sox have a new center fielder, the class is full of new freshmen, someone is being born. And in one sense, they are. We lose a sister, we gain a friend. We fall out of love, we fall in again.
I am at a traffic light, the coldest motherfucking day in spring, but sunny like mad. I glance at the car to my right, and there she is, an octogenarian, white hair, a tiny granny wearing tweed, slumped lower than the steering wheel, and licking the living daylights out of a soft serve vanilla swirl ice cream cone. Licking it like mad, big strong happy strokes with her tongue. And I’m thinking, she’s probably lost husbands, lovers, siblings, children, friends. She’s probably lost jobs, games, jewelry, sunglasses, houses, continents, and keys. But she’s happy.
I can’t take my eyes off her, and then, as if she knows, she turns to me, her eyes dazzling, a big smile on her face, and tips the cone to me, as if in salute, like love and happiness, a shared thing.
It’s a sign: the universe has a crush on me. It’s not unrequited.