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.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Beer baths vs. babysitting

A few weeks back, a reader directed me to an article lauding the joys of singleness. You know, those things like unmitigated self-indulgence, sloppy hygiene, reckless spending, poor nutrition and — oh yes — “living like a rock star when you can.”

Which apparently involves things like leaving puddles of water in the bathroom un-mopped up and letting your alarm go off in snooze mode for two hours. I don’t know about the author, but most “rock stars” I know still live in community. And — while I’m just speculating here — I’m fairly sure their roommates/wives/neighbors/pets still care about things like treacherous floors and two hours of noise.

Some people I know like to live alone if they can afford it (harder to do in this city, but it happens). I’ve been alone for weeks at a time when my roommate was on a trip, but never have I been inclined to hole up in some pad all by myself. I need someone to approve that new pair of cords I’m reluctant to cut the tags (and all return options) from. The other night my roommate needed someone she could wake at 5 a.m. when the downpouring flood outside our bathroom woke her up (the upstairs neighbors left a toilet running). Without a roommate I would have had no one to swap my beers with for some of her fresh pasta-salad supper Tuesday night. No one to help me drink a voluminous pitcher of sangria or appreciatively devour the molasses cookies I like to make sometimes. No one to question the wisdom of wearing some favorite fishnets to “impress” a boy with you-can’t-hurt-me toughness. No one to laugh loudly with at the late-night reruns of Seinfeld.

Relevant’s author doesn’t seem to see this. Instead of writing a piece on reasons to be grateful while you’re single but want to be married, she winds up advocating a life that’s dangerously independent and suspiciously close to isolationist. That’s missing the whole point. From the Christian perspective, the benefit of singleness is not your freedom from community (or responsibility), but your freedom to serve that community in different ways than you could as a married person. Especially at the beginning of the column, single life strongly resembles the immature early adulthood of late adolescence, against which married life is contrasted as a staid existence full of other lives to care for (ugh!).

No doubt this disparaging portrait is partly that foxy attempt to disparage the grapes which persist in eluding you. “Yeah, I don’t know why everyone is so hot over grapes anyway. They’re totally lame. What a boring thing to eat!” Yet the underlying loneliness must out itself, resulting in this strange advice:
Be totally in love with your future mate, even if you haven’t met them yet. Write them letters when you miss them so badly that you are doubled over on the floor from the ache. Date them, seal them and lock them away in a safe place. They will make a great wedding gift.
So, the family that will probably result from marriage = boring, often not-fun existence in which you finally have to be a real adult (“One day you’ll have to get a sensible vehicle to tow the whole family, but until then you can totally pull off that speed racer you’ve been test driving.”). But singleness — and pre-children marriage = fun, exciting time you should enjoy or anticipate now when you’re lonely. Is this so far from the desperate bachelor who sees a stripper the night before his wedding?

I know this might sound strange for me to be saying — in that I’m a reformed “chaste party girl” and all — but frankly I think all this talk is a measure of how poorly we assess our real needs and deepest desires. Privileging the free, independent life of disconnection from a community that could oblige us to be there for them is much like the way one looks at water who’s sating thirst with alcohol. Water sounds so damn boring and un-barlike when you’re out and about the town, but it’s often what you need most.

A woman who used to mentor me once described how her small son used to get when very hungry. She might be cooking him a nice cheese sandwich on the stove, but he was so hungry he’d start sucking her shoe because it was something he could put in his mouth and seemed better than the “nothing” she was providing. She might be pulling him away from the substitute food in order to put him in the highchair for his real meal, but as fractious toddlers are wont to do, he’d throw a fit because she was denying him what seemed to be his one source of nourishment. Hunger, coupled with a very distorted perspective, made him protest the very delay and detachment that was required to fill his belly.

Looking back on my love life and the hunger for companionship, I can’t say I’ve handled it much better than a 2-year-old. I’ve dated my share of shoes. I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time imagining the fabulous steak dinner and luscious cheesecake that would surely fill me up. But now that I’m an adult I recognize that sometimes what I need more than anything else is to eat my fill of vegetables and find ways I can serve the cook. I now value things like spiritual leadership and passion for God above most other qualification (though friends of mine are convinced this dooms me all the more to spinsterhood). And I can prepare for what sort of intimate community is or is not in my future by maintaining family-like relationships in the present — learning to treat my roommate with consideration, promptly cleaning up after myself. And helping friends who have families care for their children.

The other afternoon I babysat my friends’ young daughter. I had hoped to do the prep work for my class that night while I watched her, but she proved too active for much multitasking. Adjusting to her needs and changes in mood was in some ways better and worse than being an executive assistant. It certainly took the focus off myself! But when we finally settled in a rocking chair so I could feed her, I felt weeks of tension easing from my shoulders. When she nodded off against my chest at the end of her feed, I was suddenly reluctant to return to my affairs. Her mother came home soon after and tried to pay me for my time, but I refused. Who would take money for the gift and peace this chance to serve provided me?

There was a time when I could scarcely bear to see a Friday night pass without “going out” and doing “something fun.” Tonight I’ll be doing the sort of thing I once thought would fit the bill: going out to a bar to meet up with friends for a party. But give me a chance to go chill at my married friends’ house and help them watch their baby and I guarantee I’d have a better and much-less-lonely night.

Community is not the enemy. Very often it’s the answer, though it better answers the question, How can I serve you? than What can you do for me? Indeed, it is by gently forcing you to change from one question to the other that community does much of the healing and the wrinkles in your life and shoulders start to iron themselves out.

Anna visits the West Coast next week, so my usual blogging schedule may be disrupted. Don’t forget to enter the contest! Entries accepted until midnight tonight ... PCT, what the heck. Hint to the stumped: a DTR is a define-the-relationship talk.