Sexless in the City

Sometimes reading romance novels doesn’t quite prepare you for a love life...

For this 30-year-old urbanite, love is always a misadventure: The Harvard Lickwit, Hippie the Groper, the 5% Man, and the Ad Weasel. These and many other men wander in and out of her life — but never her bed.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Beauty makes him beat

There are times when I feel rather guilty about being a woman. Last night, for example, I’m sitting at a friend’s going-away party describing my ongoing search for employment. When I mention something about “doing a lot of networking” lately, the friend interjects (without malice): “Yeah, but you’re a cute young woman!” His point: I have an advantage.

And I have to admit, when you’re dealing with men, looks certainly don’t hurt. Lately I’ve even taken to leaving my glasses at home a lot of the time. While their “geek chic” generated plenty of sexy-librarian mojo during grad school days and lately in bars around the city, I’m starting to think this unframed Broadway face is strong enough to stand on its own.

I pride myself on being the sort of woman who’s generally upfront, non-manipulative and straight-forward with men, but the fact of the matter is, my looks do factor into the interaction equation. At a cocktail party not long ago, I was catching up with the Harvard Lickwit, to whom I confessed a fear that my snug-fitting fuchsia pants were not in keeping with a dress policy that mandated ties for men and frowned upon “wardrobe malfunctions.”

Dress-code exemptions
“Since we’re being honest with each other,” he replied (referencing an earlier conversation about the nature of our phase as friends-who-don’t-kiss), “as long as you’ve got a body like that you don’t need to worry about the dress code.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Was it a statement about dress codes in general? I’m not sure how I feel about such an exemption. More likely, it derived from gossip that later made its way to my ears: supposedly the party’s organizer has the hots for the me.

And indeed, at a later meeting of the same group I experienced some confirmation of this tidbit. The host is a slightly gruff Tim Robbins type whose evident chainsmoking gives his voice the rasp that made newspapermen hot in the 70s. Of course Woodward and Bernstein talked like that! It was because they used their voices so much — prying important secrets out of sources over the whiskey and smokes necessary to create a relaxed rapport. Or, because with the more shifty-eyed, it was necessary to engage in low-talking, furtive conversations. Strain on your voice, all of it. Hot stuff. The Tim Robbins type is clearly experiencing some 70s nostalgia or undergoing an identity crisis because lately he’s been cultivating a serious ’fro. A gray ’fro. As Best Friend pondered: “Is he gray down there?”

At any rate, the Tim Robbins type is a flitter — he pops into conversations for like two minutes to make sure people are happy, then drifts away before things get too serious or boring. With any luck he’ll catch only the wittiest moments and be convinced our chats are the stuff of a screenwriter’s dream — and these gatherings the mark of a canny host’s success.

But he wouldn’t be entirely wrong to think so. These gatherings draw a smattering of Ivy-league grads and other word nerds, so the small talk is sometimes clever. The sad thing, though, is when an evening of steady drinking starts to catch up with your wit. Later that evening (the post-fuchsia pants evening) a covert romantic I’d been introduced to popped back into the conversation. Like the Tim Robbins type, Covert Romantic is a flitter. But whatever interest he had in me was evidently more powerful, as he’d stick around much longer. Invariably, though, he’d drift away for a while before returning to my side.

When smart men vie for women ...
One of these returns interrupted my conversation with a quick-witted, good-looking Yale alum who was gamely indulging my rant about the decorative use of turkeys in a Thanksgiving spread at a newspaper I once worked for. Apropos of nothing, Covert Romantic reappears and starts recounting a Sept. 11 story he’d just heard with all the grace of shifting from 4th to 2nd gear without 3rd. I wince on his behalf, but the gathering crowd is generous.

Later, however, back on light conversational ground, he and the Yale Hotpot debate the aesthetic merits of a particular phrase that one of us had used. Yale Hotpot and I then return to our conversation while Covert Romantic listens and attempts to re-insert himself with a heavy-handed quip he has to work for. When Yale Hotpot points this out, it dawns on me that quite possibly this exchange is largely for my benefit. A breeze from the open door stirs the hem of my semi-transparent vintage dress, and I struggle not to grin. So this is what it looks like when intellectual egos duke it out. Unfortunately for Covert Romantic, the wine has wilted his wit over the course of the evening, and Yale Hotpot is both sober and of the profession where verbal quickness is encouraged.

But the lumps and the male sparring don’t end there. At the end of the night, I find myself walking uptown with the Tim Robbins type, who wastes no time in mentioning that Covert Romantic looks like a child molester, from which comparison I can insinuate anything I’d like.

Clearly my presence at these gatherings is similar to taking photographs in India. There’s no such thing as unobserved observation, or innocent participation. As luck would have it, I’m probably one of the more attractive women in a crowd that sometimes borders on sausage fest. And that makes a difference. It always makes a difference. If it weren’t hard enough learning to gracefully manage the social impact of my smarts, I also have to learn to manage the impact of my looks, such as they are.

What’s a girl to do?
While men may not take notice at the way I lick my dessert spoon (as romance novels would have it), they do notice when I start to dance (one time, in fact, I think I was propositioned to act in a porn film!). It’s a power that all women have. I recognize it in my father’s reluctance to tell me or my sister that we’re beautiful, although he will praise our character and call us lovely. And I see it in a friend who worries about marrying a pretty girl who later gets fat, but doesn’t seem to care about his growing belly.

I can’t somehow abdicate that power (nor would my vanity permit me to do so), but I still want to try to find that line between putting my best foot forward and being exploitive. Without tossing all my cutest clothes, of course …

Movies ♣ All the President’s Men

Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty
Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty

Independent Nation: How the Vital Center Is Changing American Politics
Independent Nation: How the Vital Center Is Changing American Politics