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, February 24, 2006

My funny Valentine’s

It’s funny the things that memoir-writing compels you to admit, at last.

Last Tuesday, after my Valentine’s Bible study, I boarded the bus for home with the rest of an applesauce cake in my arms (I’ve been on a weird domestic kick these days; even Roomie II is impressed with just how “culinary” I am). As I scanned for a seat, I noticed a woman sitting by herself, a slightly hungry look on her face. Should I offer her some cake?

Not that it was food-hunger, really. More like hunger in a larger sense. I chose a seat behind her, from which vantage I noticed how she kept glancing over at a tabloid-reading, middle-aged man to our left. There wasn’t much to recommend him in my mind, but maybe he looked Italian. And as she would shortly tell me, that was the sort of man she hoped for in her third husband.

We got to talking, you see. The minute I praised the puffed sleeves on her coat, she brightened instantly, launching into conversation as if we were catching up over coffee. The coat had been a gift, she said. She was glad I found it flattering since she was currently searching for her third husband, for which an attractive physique was key (she was probably early 50s).

The first one had been older, and Jewish and rich. I’m not sure how they parted, but she must have been better off for it. The second one was younger, and German, and beat her. She commented twice how she had feared he’d cut her head off. Apparently she thought Italian men were milder, for she hoped to find one for her third husband. Did I know anyone like that?

As I fumbled for an answer, I found myself reminded of both the woman from the well (whose man-snaring came up with Jesus) ... and myself. It was galling, but I gulped it out anyway.

“Well ... I’ve been looking for a husband most of my life too,” I faltered. Oh, the shame. “I haven’t found one yet. But you know,” I rushed ahead, “I’m starting to think that maybe I need to seek God first — that only He can really satisfy me. And once I’m content with Him, maybe then He’ll finally bring a husband. Because you know, if I make a husband into an ultimate thing, the relationship probably couldn’t bear that pressure.”

It was almost like confession, really, but she found it more like advice. Unfortunately her stop had come. “I’d really like to talk to you more!” Then she rattled off her number, while heading for the door and instructing the driver not to leave yet. I’m sure he thought we both were crazy, harridan spinsters — well, except that harridans are old, and I’m not (much), yet.

A friend of mine says his greatest fear is dying alone; mine’s always been that someone would choose me then later have second thoughts. Either way, all three of share a longing for community that endures. The number I tried for the woman hasn’t worked, so I guess she’ll have to find it somewhere else. But the fact that I babysat for friends Monday night, then spent Tuesday talking and learning with friends offset the lack of a boyfriend on V-day; just two of you can really be somewhat lonely, anyhow. With friends, though — especially those who are married — I can “draft” off the security their commitment to each other provides.

When I first moved to the city almost four years ago, most of my friendships began as dyads. After about a year, those friends began to meet and like each other, resulting in a fledging sense of collective. Beneath it all, though, was always the slight anxiety of knowing that their connection to each other was somewhat dependent on each staying friends with me. Sure enough, though I’ve stayed in touch with most of them, their connections with each other — a sense of group that would meet with up even without me — has broken down.

Married friends are different — all the more so once they have children. Now our community is not just dependent on me for the social glue, but their commitment to each other. And, really, I think that’s what I wanted even more than a husband — a sense that some people in my life would only leave me when death prevailed.

Even though my family is close-knit, we’re quite far-flung. In my adulthood, that once-immediate community has largely broken down. Now that my sister’s off at war, the nearest sibling to me is three or four hours’ flight. We’ve stayed in fairly good touch despite the distance, but the longer I stay a spinster the more I think it’s time I moved back to a place where at least one rellie lives. Besides, as a recent grandparent accident has reminded, it’s not just that I need community, my community needs me. Which needs I’m somewhat better qualified to serve because I don’t have a husband to care for.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Week in preview

More guest-blogging for Radiant today, and several comments on Friday’s post — join the melee conversation, if you haven’t already. And if Anna’s take on friendship hasn’t put you off this blog entirely, don’t forget I’m always happy to take reader questions.

It’s that or a Spooning Fork for this week, I’m thinking. Check back Friday for more.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Emotional chastity

I realized after all the debate last Friday’s post produced that perhaps a statement on what I mean when I say “friendship” between men and women is called for — a definition of terms, as it were.

C.S. Lewis says that friendship has to be about something — that it’s a posture of two or more people standing side by side, discussing a truth they see in common (in contrast to lovers, who stand face to face). But what becomes clear upon closer reading is that an equally crucial distinction is between the pair of friends (what communication scholars call a dyad) and the group of friends (three or more). And if the number of friends matters, so too does the nature of their discussion.

Think of friendship like classic jazz structure. Almost all tracks you hear start by laying down the theme — what distinguishes one tune from any other (it’s not always the chord changes). This is usually followed by a solo section, where various musicians take turns improvising over so many bars of the song, which the rhythm section repeats in spare accompaniment for each solo. Finally the full band returns to close out the song in a recapitulation of the theme, sometimes with greater harmonic elaboration on the main melody.

In the opening section, the most important thing is not the individual musicians themselves, but the theme itself — the truth Lewis says bonds friends. In friendship, this “theme” could be the squash game that brings men together, the homework classmates meet to complete, and so on. Or it’s the sort of conversation I’ve heard spring up between strangers at coffee shops when they’re too unlikely to meet again to learn personal details from each other’s lives, but chat avidly on the greatness of the Mac platform, or the history of Catholicism. Topic-focused interactions happen equally in pairs and groups.

In jazz the theme is so important it’s sometimes introduced in unison. On John Coltrane’s epic “Blue Train,” for instance, he and trumpeter Lee Morgan open by playing the main theme together. A few bars in, however, they’re joined by Curtis Fuller on trombone and the three break into a repetition of the theme in tight, three-part harmony — a chord. Suddenly the focus has slightly shifted from the starkly haunting theme itself to the wealth of community there when those three articulate the theme together. This is akin to what I call the “interaction-focused” exchange in friendship.

While it can be the gateway to one-on-one, person-focused bonding (where you are ultimately committed to the relationship because you value/enjoy/care about the person aside from what he/she adds to your life), interaction-focused exchange tends to happen in groups. You often see it in families who enjoy each other, when humor plays off dynamics between personalities within the group, or between old groups of friends with a long shared history.

But no joke lasts forever; shortly after the trio repeats the theme, Coltrane breaks away to open the solo section that entails the heart of the song. Everyone steps back, except for the rhythm section, for here the focus is neither on the theme or the group’s potential but on one person — the soloist and his voice. As the soloists take turns, they sometimes “talk” back and forth in responses and echoes, even jokes, that draw on the call-and-response tradition of gospel music and other forms. This is most like the one-on-one interactions I have in mind when I talk about “male-female friendship”; the solo is most like the talk such friendships tend to foster.

Sure, two people coming together could just discuss or repeat a shared theme, but my experience is that dyads’ inherent intimacy tends to foster more person-focused than topic- or interaction-focused exchanges. By “person-focused,” I mean the sort of talking when girlfriends or siblings catch up: you describe the latest drama in your life, share about a recent hurt, even sketch your hopes for the future. Which can lead to more broad-ranging discussions about issues or art or love or politics, sure, but usually as framed in terms of the speakers’ lives.

By their nature, neither topic- nor interaction-focus talkers tend to guard the privacy of their community but rather invite new voices and thoughts. Adding more to our circle may actually improve what we’ve already started. But person-focused conversations are different. While the intrusion of another may not entirely disrupt things, it tends to drive a wedge into the bonding that would otherwise occur between the two. That’s most of the reason I want to get alone with someone, after all! To say private things I wouldn’t share as freely with the group.

And this is what I’m getting at when I say “male-female friendship.” I don’t mean the way four or five of us trade laughs and stories, I mean how a man and woman interact just one-on-one. Though we may not admit it, our friendships tend to become a kind of emotional dating. Tellingly, people in relationships usually have fewer other-sex friends they meet with one-on-one that often. Once one of the two friends pairs off, time together shifts from the one-on-one hangs of their single days to one-plus-couple, even couple-couple hang-outs. No matter what, the talk becomes less intimate.

How many single men and women have more than one or maybe two very close friends of the other sex? We might have numerous friends we see in groups, but there probably aren’t as many we seek out one-on-one — whether for drinks at the bar or midday chats on IM. Men and women in intimate friendship tend to want to give themselves deeply to each other — in other words, tend instinctively toward emotional monogamy in our deepest, most intimate — albeit platonic — friendships.

So when I say men and women can’t be friends, I don’t mean that we can never get past a certain antipathy. Rather, that a friendship heavy on dyadic interactions tends to build the kind of emotional intimacy one will presumably later share with a main squeeze or spouse — except without the commitment. Why do we think it’s less of a big deal than sexual involvement? Perhaps it’s just as sticky, something worth weighing just as thoughtfully.

Me, I’m leaning more and more toward a kind of emotional chastity until or unless I have a husband I can give myself to whole-heartedly as a friend. Maybe that’s how I’ll know him, in fact — that I want to join his “band,” hear his solos (and share my own), make music with him not just for a season or two, but the rest of my days on earth. Anything that falls short of that would be far more half-hearted friendship than what I give to all my best girlfriends. And that ain’t right.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Don’t forget to vote!

First-quarter voting for the Love > Revenge Fund ends today, so help decide where our money goes! Then check out my first column for Godspy (no, I’m not converting), and a little guest-blogging over at Radiant.

Coming Friday: a thesis on friendship, in which Anna clarifies just what she means by male-female friendship and its (im)possibility or not.

Happy Valentine’s Day! I’m off to “celebrate” with the folks from my weekly Bible study. Because, really, the community you have with three or more can eclipse what just two people share. As I’m reminded from watching a friend’s nearly year-old daughter last night (even though she cried a lot), that’s why children add so much to a marriage. Two can’t play games or tell stories and talk and laugh together the way their family of three — or more — will someday be able to. If love is so great it gets its very own holiday (not to mention most of the songs out there), how could two be content not sharing it so it expands their circle of joy?

Friday, February 10, 2006

When geometry bedevils

A reader writes, in search of advice on those classic romantic dilemmas: friendship and triangles. The email was a bit long, so I’ll try to summarize:
Friend likes Guy. Reader meets Guy through Friend. Now Reader likes Guy. Reader tells Friend, promises to do nothing about it. Friend freaks out, tries to end Reader-Guy relations. Reader backs off, Guy pursues friendship. Reader and Friend barely speak, Reader and Guy speak more often than Friend and Guy. What to do?!!
Well, dahling, it’s a pickle, fo’ sho’. You can’t change your friend’s neuroses, you don’t really want to submit to her every wish ... and you can’t make the guy like you. In fact, I would go so far as to say you can’t — or shouldn’t — push him for more than what he’s giving you. I hear from, er, my sources (coughs delicately and fans self briefly) ... that such things rarely go well.

More than anything, that’s probably driving most of your frustration in this situation — what feels like an almost total lack of control. So what can you change or control? As you noted, you briefly tried to change your behavior — to something that wasn’t you, wasn’t very natural. You felt like a fraud, and the guy just got puzzled looks on his face more often, then kept on calling you, “friendly-like.” (Does Anna Broadway believe men ever want friendship? Hmph!) No luck there.

You might think he wants more — might hope he does — but he just seems to be the passive type. Lord knows you wouldn’t want to scare him off by turning aggressive female — becoming a woman who knows what she wants!! ... Well, at least I never did. Because what is always the thing you fear most, in a fix like this? It’s losing the guy! And it seems like any sort of honesty is bound to send him charging off the playground as if he’s just discovered cooties thanks to you ... unless he figures out he likes you first (but they rarely do that).

So, really, it’s by your own choice you stay trapped with the guy. You don’t like the fragility of the relationship, but partial truth seems to be the only way you can have any kind of contact with him. Even if you sometimes feel a bit led on by his pursuit of you — oops, friendship with you. Love isn’t like law; you can’t present him with a list of his relational indiscretions and find him guilty of liking you. Then where’s all that mystery? That thrill of pursuit we secretly long to experience? As much as we may dislike it, things tend to work better when we cede some control to the man. But there’s a difference between doing that in an unhealthy way, and one that liberates. You can’t force any admissions from him, and badgering for his intent is quite unlikely to succeed. But you can make an admission of your own.

Telling him you have more than friendly feelings is horribly galling for one’s pride — no question there. (In fact, to diminish some of the shame, I recommend finding roundabout but otherwise clear ways of couching it. It helps if you’ve somehow established a code word or phrase for liking [say, “nuts,” for instance] that you can simply use to describe your own sad state. Or if you’ve bigger balls than mine, just simply say, “I like you. You should know that.”) But however you do it, tell him.

He may not acknowledge his role in your feelings — say, in wielding good genes to his own advantage — but he now is responsible for what his actions are doing to you. To keep on calling, when he knows you like him, is either cruelly selfish (and proof to you both that he’s been using you all along) ... or an indication he’s willing to mix your friendship with romance. Either way, you’re free, things are out in the open, and you can be honest not just in the way you act, but what you say or don’t say to him.

Personally, I’ve seen such talks go two ways. When (now-former) Roommate did this, the guy at first just said he saw many admirable things about her, but didn’t want more than friendship. But he kept seeking her out to do stuff. Eventually it became clear he did, in fact, like her. Now they’re dating.

When I came clean, things were a little messier, and didn’t turn out exactly as I hoped. But ultimately I think I’m more healed of deeper issues than I would have been any other way. Sometimes it takes further pain for the larger problem to be resolved. Think about if you’ve ever broken a bone, for instance. That probably hurt pretty bad, right? The only thing you wanted was probably to have the pain end. But depending on how the break occurred, it might require surgery — new pain on top of old. In the short term (and especially if you’re too young to know what surgery does), this seems like the worst thing possible. But actually it’s the best.

Let me put it another way. Last night I had an epiphany about a painful season nearly seven years ago. I’d had a difficult year in which my friendships disappointed, things with the Winner went quite well then suddenly tanked, and my much-beloved younger-brother roommate decided to move after one year together. At the end of this, I headed up north to Berkeley for a summer that only compounded my pain and confusion — I fell once again, that crush tanked even sooner, and things with God got bad. When I headed home at the end of summer, I just wanted things to get better. Instead they got worse. So bad, in fact, it made the woes of ’99 look pretty mild.

Not until last night did I finally start to realize how essential that was. I believed in a God who didn’t really exist as I thought He did — but I needed to learn the difference. That took the destruction of the badly skewed picture I’d made. And I had a tendency to escape pain — by numbing the grief of this broken world through pining and dancing and shopping. So of course my crisis couldn’t just end with Berkeley — if it had, it would have been simply meaningless loss that taught me nothing and made no difference in my sinful way of living. But God was actively working on me, so He didn’t step in to stop things. Instead He let the pain continue — even increase — until it began to smelt away some of my sin and immaturity.

To see that now, how could I presume that things working out with some boy would truly be in my best interest? It comes down to a question of your commitments and what you trust in — if you want friendship more than honesty, if you trust your wisdom more than God’s. Either way, the best way you can fix things with your friend is to work on what you’ve not been willing to fix with the guy. Once you do what it’s in your power to change, I think you’ll start to see this mess resolve a little.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Ogling not quite unwelcome

Trying to return to my Friday blog schedule, dahlings, so today’s post will be a little shorter. (No, I’m not recovering from any parties last night — just a general pity party over losing Ad Co. as client. Sniff. Darn budgets ...) In the meantime, if you like the newer, more-earnest Anna Broadway, this will be a temporary relapse to the days of Sidewalk Tawk and all such insubstantial levity. What can I say? Schizophrenia’s harder to kick* than you might think.

At times I even wonder if I should still wear the latest of my “Chaste Party Girl” shirts. But I do — including to a Super Bowl party I dropped by last night (after church, though, so I missed the Rolling Stones half-time show; anyone know where you can find the footage online??). While the first edition (see MySpace profile) has nicely distressed lettering, the second comes in a striking red one chap had the taste to compliment last night. He was sure he was not alone in admiring the most unusual shade of my shirt — was that not its most remarkable feature?

Surprisingly the red T was not remarked upon ... in the ogling incident ... for either its color or its slogan, but its shortness. I had gone downstairs to depart the party, and briefly lingered in the foyer to cover all my extremities. The uniformed doorman inquired if it was really that cold outside.

“It was sposed to get below freezing tonight. I think they said 24.” (By this winter’s standards, that’s cold, though last winter it might have been the high on our bleakest days!)

I finished tucking the scarf ends into my much-loved red suede jacket (bought for $18.50 in Austin, thanks very much), donned the stocking hat my grandmother made, and tugged on my less-storied gloves. As I was preparing to go, the doorman helpfully noted that I needed to pull my shirt down. Kind of him to think of my midriff. I tugged at the sweater remade from a Lands End cardigan I shrank years ago.

“And the shirt underneath,” he instructed, referring to Chaste Party Girl. But just as I was thinking how observant and considerate he was, the doorman revealed a different motive. “Don’t let anyone see that; it’s mine, now,” he joked. My friend’s doorman was getting proprietary about his brief glimpse of belly? A glimpse far less than the skin I flashed on New Year’s Eve when showing why I could not serve tequila shots from my navel?

I guess I’d make a very bad feminist, for his words did not affront me as they should have. Instead they stayed with me all the home like a pleasant little warmth between the toes of one foot. I don’t know if it is indeed my madness or withdrawals from male attention, but there was something nice about a man staking claim to me — however much presumption this betrayed. Perhaps I should have run back there to follow up: “Do you love Jesus? Is heaven your greatest hope?”

Later on the subway platform, I pondered this tragic irony — that men are most attracted when you’re trying for nothing at all. And that all those times I tried to provoke some jealousy or protectiveness — evidence of more interest than just ambiguous, offhand flirtation — I got nowhere. Just joking warnings about other dates — “Don’t make out with him” — that said almost nothing at all. I guess it’s just more evidence that manipulation isn’t just wrong, it’s ineffective. You can’t compel attraction; it’s either there or it isn’t.

More on why I’m trying to quit manipulating, coming shortly. Ta for now! Don’t forget to cast your vote at the Love > Revenge Fund if you haven’t yet. Eight days left.

*The illness I’ve been told afflicts my writing. Considering the “doc” in question once diagnosed me as merely nuts, I’d say we’re making progress. Then again, it took him nearly seven years to pin down the ailment more clearly. Will it take seven more for his prescription?