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, March 03, 2006

Why the priceless can’t be consumed

Last Friday night, a friend came over to crash on my couch, unexpectedly staying almost a week. In partial thanks for our kindness, she offered to let us burn what music we liked from her iTunes. I felt a little strange, compiling the first set to burn. It was like buying an illusion — the idea I could somehow acquire the richness and greatness of all those songs without sacrificing all the time to hear them. That would take a while (instead of burning the songs inside iTunes, I copied the mp3s, which lets you store far more on just one CD).

I’d never buy that many records from a shop; I rarely get more than one or two. It takes too much to absorb the newness, the sequence, the feel of it all; to learn how to anticipate the song that comes after this one. I had the same trouble with books once, back in my days as a reading fiend. I’d check out the most you could on a library card, then sort them by author last name. Reading in alphabetical order was the only way I knew to cope with the surfeit of adventure and escape. Now that it costs me both time and money to savor a record, I buy them fairly sparingly. iTunes makes it even better: I buy just one or two songs at most, until their emotional weight is well-worn by my soul.

I haven’t touched my downloads, that slim blue CD. I think I might toss it out unheard. It troubles me to treat experience as if I could download it all, short-circuit the cost of enjoying all that pleasure. The greediness of ripping so much feels at first like you could finally beat the system by which we all trade something — in time or pain or uncertainty — for what we choose to take in. But you can’t. We can’t escape the opportunity cost of choice.

And getting to know people isn’t any less costly either. Oh, we’d like to think it could be — just look at how we meet people online. Endless variations on clever profiles designed to help you download as much possible background data on the other — as if by doing so you could avoid the cost and time and pain and uncertainty of getting to know that person, of finding out if things could really work between you.

My last almost-relationship was like this; maybe that’s what fooled me into thinking we had “something.” He had a blog as well, you see, whose archives I read in two or three breathless days. It made me feel like I knew him some. And then we started chatting, learned how to banter and make the other type “lol” (as if that’s laughing, but who knows?).

The question, I guess, is what it means to know someone or something. Is it knowing the odd bit of trivia, the music that he likes? Or is it the way someone’s laugh varies, given the type of joke that’s been told; the way his brow crinkles over his nose (the way my brother’s does when he smiles)?

There’s a difference between the knowledge of someone’s stories and passions (things you don’t always know about your own family), and the kind of knowing that happens when you live together. The shape of a roommate’s fingers, and how she taps the tips when she talks; the look of a sibling’s stride, seen from a distance, or how my boss used to rustle in pockets for his endless packets of Nicorette.

I’ve barely known most of the men I’ve liked, much less been alone with them (while the men I dated were at least attractive I rarely, truly, deeply liked them). No one has really known me that well either. I’ve often hoped that if I ever marry, it will be someone from my past — someone who knows at least a bit about me. In a year, I suppose, I could hand a curious stranger my book and let him read it to cram for our first date. But what kind of knowledge is that? It’s slippery, partial, ephemeral. Deep knowing can’t be bought or crammed or rushed — any more than love can be forced from a friendship or fevered illusion.

No, I don’t think I’ll be downloading my friend’s songs, after all. If I’m meant to hear and own those records, I’ll wait till the time is right, until I hear a song that I have to have, or am standing in a record shop and decide to pursue a whim. And if I’m meant to marry someday, perhaps I’ll know it precisely because we don’t know either each other’s mannerisms or stories, we know both.