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.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Makeout avoidance 101

A strange thing happened that night in the bar in Canada. After the guest-room speedblog about my French-Canadian flirting, I made my way back to the building where French-Can. Divorcé was running his late-night show. It was not impressive. Compared to the Guinness-glass guitar-work of 40-Something Cover Artist, his half-karaoke, half-cover show was nearly pathetic. It was such an act where you instinctively understand that if the performer let his energy slip for even a break between measures he’d be letting not just you but himself recognize how faintly tragic it all is, a man of his age jumping around before a half-filled room, playing guitar along with a karaoke track and begging the brunette from Brooklyn to come sing Tracy Chapman with him. Which I did.

I am an occasional sucker for these things, after all. Or maybe it was simply that traveling with a children’s choir for days on end softened me up despite my better judgment.

You see, the strange thing that happened that night was that as I slouched in my nondescript corner seat, covertly tapping my foot along from time to time, a voice echoed in my head. Just don’t make out with him. Words not mine, but Poster Boy’s. Who’d not been even advising me on this flirtation, but another possible date with a man from church (which, considering that I’ve sworn off dating, produced a fair dilemma — hence my consultation).

In retrospect, it was more than a little cheeky, him thinking to tell me what to do. Cheeky in that way that makes a girl want to put out her tongue and snap back all cocky-like, “Well, why do you care? What business of yours is it whom I kiss?”

Except that he merely voiced the sentiments of my own heart. A heart grown rather weary after too many ill-advised dates and barely successful escapes from embrace. Those of you who’ve read my interview in Rolling Stone know about my date with Ad Weasel. I don’t know which is worse — that things actually got that far, or that his mediocre technique (which, as a frank-spoken Broadway, I had gently tried to critique — hence his offer of other, er, implements) helped me finally call a halt.

The Coffee Pal whose uncertain invitation provoked my conversation with Poster Boy said an interesting thing during our eventual afternoon chat. He criticized my no-dating policy on the grounds that people today take light things too seriously — like dating — and serious things too lightly — like our hearts.

But I find that dating has meant just that — taking my heart too lightly.

I used to have this notion, you see, that “physicality” should be commensurate with the other levels of intimacy in a relationship. You hug a good friend unselfconsciously because of your affection. Likewise slugging a guy friend in the arm, or reaching out to touch someone’s shoulder mid-conversation. Conversely, think of how hard one tries to avoid touching the other’s body when squeezing past a heavy person on a crowded bus. Physicality at its most natural instinctively communicates what’s in the heart.

Thus, when I first started dating toward the end of grad school, I naively hoped for a first date with little more than hand-holding, followed by a gradual progression to kissing (this, Sgt. Ex-sessories informed me, amounted to “high-school dating,” alas). Thus, when I agreed to my first kiss, midway through my first semester of college, I was expecting not the sloppy French kiss I got but a simple peck. Why would you be more intimate with a near-stranger?

Clearly I had not read my Harlequins closely enough. Indeed, for me there have been literally no dates without physicality. And because such premature intimacies have always come at the expense of a heart put into hiding, there has been nothing sufficiently serious to such dates.

Nor, in truth, did I want to take such dates seriously. Make no mistake, I wanted to test my libido some — find out if certain “oh-so-explosive” things would really excite me that much. But the only men who gave me any time of day at all were clearly the farthest thing from men I’d like to marry. Because I wanted not a string of casual romances, but the deep, all-encompassing love of marriage, dating them left out my heart entirely. Pursuing my short-term desires meant denying how badly I wanted some things in the long term.

Oh, I’d had standards once — rigid laws established in my view of my long-term dream of marriage. But sometime in the middle of junior high I decided telling a guy who asked me out that I wouldn’t let him hold hands with me might slightly cramp my romantic success. After all, the heroines in my romance novels never said no. Why should I throw roadblocks up so early? There’d be time enough to say the big “no” to sex.

The problem with this mentality was, it denied the fluid, communicative nature of the intimate. Either sex is divided into Dobson’s Code Yellow, Code Red zones, or “the act” itself is treated as some gate where you can say “no” although you’ve blithely traveled the whole road there.

The thing that Poster Boy’s joking, slightly provocative advice reminded me was that if you don’t want to wind up at the gate, you better not get on the road at all. In fact, 5% Man’s all-or-nothing approach starts to make an awful lot of sense. When I went out with Francophile Filmmaker last summer, I hoped for a casual dinner and drinks, free of kissing and all that other stuff. He knew I wouldn’t sleep with him, so why would he push for foreplay?

Only he did. And because I merely hoped we would not make out but had no plan for truly avoiding that, I wound up lip-to-lip with him (for the record, kissing has never produced great fireworks – maybe that’s a mercy). Such has been my fate with most men who’ve pursued me much.

Except for scattered Jesus Freaks — well I hope they’ve been pursuing me; with them it’s hard to tell. And except with French-Can. Divorcé. For with PB’s words ringing in my head, Just don’t make out with him, I knew I had to be more guarded in my responses to his flirtation. I couldn’t dance as avidly, be too eager to chat him up. Sometimes I have carelessly done such things because I simply like others’ company and disregard how they’re likely to read my openness. But plenty of times I’ve just played along because I wanted male attention.

Well, I tell you what I’m finally figuring out. The attention of someone who cares enough to seek your best interest and remind you of the things you really stand for — when you’re clearly weak and prone to compromise — matters far more than the cheap, two-bit attention of a guy who hopes to get to know your thighs more than the woman they belong to. The former might actually help you grow as a person; the latter just leaves you emptier when it’s gone than before you got it.