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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The does-he/she-like-me lowdown

I must be doing something right with my “reform campaign” these last few months. After years of attracting, well, oversexed bar-mongers, Craigslisters and occasional intellectuals ... I’m finally drawing the Jesus freaks. (Pauses for a moment with self.) Well, at least among my readers, that is. And sometimes even at church, of all places — shocking, I know.

I just wish these new men came with a manual. Before the signs were so clear! Man likes you, within 20 minutes of opening conversation he’ll grab your hand (if he’s the Harvard Lickwit). Man reads your blog obsessively, a dinner invite is probably forthcoming and after you decline a second date, his ISP will suddenly vanish from the stats meter. Male “friend” buys you lunch, adoring praise of your low-cut blouse is to be expected (this from the chap who told me why the New York Public Library lions roar).

But with Jesus freaks, the signs are reduced to mush. Man reads your blog obsessively ... he could just be really bored at work. Male “friend” buys you dinner, he might just be taking pity on your poverty — or demonstrating that nearly vanished chivalry (though subway ads for Mitchum claim its customers still prize this). Man chats you up at church, he may just be applying the pastor’s injunction to greet another parishioner.

I’d like to think my confusion is unnecessary. But deprived of the freaked-by-Jesus physical cues, I find myself all at sea. What’s the line between friendly and flirty? What does it mean when a man becomes less attentive but doesn’t totally cut you off — has he lost interest or gone on vacation, or has he been abducted by internet hackers who replicate his web-viewing habits (albeit on a vastly reduced basis) as part of the ruse?

Part of this mystery, I’m convinced, owes to a process I’ll call romantic hermeneutics. Regular hermeneutics (for those of you who survived the ultra nerd-dom that is linguistic theory) is basically the process by which we interpret cues to arrive at meaning. For instance: people frantically dart past on the sidewalk outside your house, wilted papers and plastic bags held over their heads. You hear a strange percussion like the sizzle of grease in a pan. Assemble the clues, it’s probably raining.

But the hermeneutic spiral is such that you go back and forth between the clues or signs and the overall meaning assumed. Get enough signs that don’t quite jive with your hypothesis, and you have to change the operating assumption to match the signs. Take the crazy landlady from the sublet my roommate and I used to share. Her operating assumptions were evidently, a) Park Slope is a quiet neighborhood, and b) those girls upstairs are noisy. Thus one night when she heard a long and continuous noise coming from above her building — a noise like a very large fan or some sort of engine — she assumed it was our washing machine on the fritz.

Alas, her assumptions were inexact (and her hearing a little bad). The sound was a low-flying helicopter several neighbors even went outside to inspect. But that didn’t stop her calling upstairs to passively hassle us.

And so it is with relationships. Romantic hermeneutics is how you decide if someone likes you or thinks you like him. I first met the Harvard Lickwit at late-winter birthday hurrah for a friend. He plucked me out of the crowd as I floated past trying to look like I knew people there, and drew me into conversation. Twenty minutes later we were holding hands, and twenty minutes after that, he claimed to be overcome by the strength of my wit (specifically, my talk on “the cult of the orgasm”). I interpreted these signs to mean he was really interested in me, found my intelligence quite attractive, and was a more promising suitor than those one usually meets in bars.

However, I overlooked the fact I had ... yes, met him in a bar. And that I was talking rather freely about sex. But you see, because I assumed he was a “nice” guy (by dint of his face, education and vocabulary), I overlooked his eagerness to get to know my body. And because I fancied myself a rather fetching catch, it seemed only logical for such a smart man to be smitten right on the spot. Only later, with further evidence of a general predilection for women — ideally a new one ever few weeks or so — would I begin to revise my initially rose-hued interpretation. Here again there would be a challenge — to throw out all parts of the first assessment in favor of a much-more damning one based on hurtful things he did. But that’s not quite right either. All manner of facts exist; the trick is finding a theory that accounts for all of them.

So that’s why I need a Jesus freak dating manual — or at least a field guide to the flirtation of Christian men. Before the main dilemma was, is he a good guy or a bad guy? Does he want more than sex, or sex as basic relational minimum? Will he last one date or five before he hits the road? Now it’s a whole different set of hermeneutic challenges: is he a Mr. Flirty Pants, or deliberately flirting with me? Does he collect female friends like DVD buyer, or is he on a Netflix rotation where such friends are constantly swapped to meet his need for temporary attention?

As I realize this is all mostly one-sided, I’ll try to follow up next time with a field guide to women’s clues of interest — for both the freaked-by-Jesus and Jesus freak set.