Several of you thought that Ugly Guy got off too easily last week, that he had problems new clothes couldn't solve, that he needed to fix his attitude, get more humble, be less irritating, gain some insight or something like that. That's probably true. A guy who finally realizes at age 38 that he's ugly probably has some things to learn in other areas of life, and buying new clothes is not going to solve all his problems.
But, as will be said often here, this column tries to respond to the question that was asked. The magic, if there is any, happens in addressing the details, the concrete, literal facts of life. I am not optimistic about the possibility of great, overnight change. I celebrate the little things, the buying of a tie, the regular shaving, the better-than-average haircut. I know many Salon readers find it hard to understand the difficulties others face in solving small practical problems. But I rather admire the courage it takes for someone to look in the mirror and admit his displeasure at what he finds there, and set out to see what he can do to improve it.
It's not that I don't believe in the possibility of deep emotional and spiritual change. I just don't think a letter from me is likely to make it happen. But if you like metaphors for self-improvement, be my guest: Having admitted that he's powerless over his own ugliness, he's undertaken steps to change what he can!
My smart, good, single male friend, with whom I have been friends since we both began working together two years ago, and I got drunk last Saturday and had some of the best sex I've ever had. We'd been crying in our numerous cocktails about loves that had never panned out, our single-folk loneliness, and then I grabbed his head and planted one on him -- something I'd considered doing long before. At first it was just bodies with a lot of pent up sexual energy going at it. And then, somewhere around Hour 4, I know I was sober enough to know exactly what I was doing. And to feel joy from it, and freedom, and release, and a great deal of gratitude.
And I told him so the next morning. And got that chilling little speech, the one I thought I'd heard for the last time in my 20s: I think we shouldn't do this again. We're going to risk the friendship. It's not wise. All true, true. And I of course was graceful, and nodded my head like the smart girl I am, and said he could have it his way. And it's been little stolen glances but civil conversation ever since.
So now I vacillate between feeling sorry for myself (Why do I always get cast as the chubby comic relief, the sage best friend; why can't I be the ingénue this fucking once?) and just being happy to feel alive again, sexually and emotionally: to be waylaid by sudden lust, to feel the rough place on my thumb where my skin rubbed off from holding on to his headboard for hours. And wondering if the reason we both keep coming to work so early is that neither of us is sleeping very well. Wondering how his own skin is fitting him at exactly this moment.
The truth is, I don't want to think in terms of What's to Come. I don't have big plans. I just want to kiss him sober, once, to see how it feels: to see if what lit the world up so brightly was us, or a bottle. Did I mention we're good citizens who rarely drink, who are responsible and respectable and whose idea of a hot evening usually consists of Scrabble? For fuck's sake, we started the evening playing Monopoly. And we were amazing and decadent and I don't want to stop. I really, really don't want to stop. And if I did what I want to do and ran over there and laid it all on the line like this, I would scare the living hell out of him. Dear him, whose polite, genuine total decency I never dreamed shared a body with someone who could talk so beautifully dirty and make a beggar out of me.
Am I doing the right thing, staying out of his way, letting his declaration that nothing should change stand? Am I wrong to be good? Or should I do what I want to do: tell him I don't care about where it leads us, but that I want him, and all that messy complication, right in my bed, right now?
Losing My Discretion
My wife and I went to see "Monster's Ball" and then ate at Fresca, a Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco's West Portal neighborhood, and we sat against the wall, and I had grilled salmon tacos and she had the marinated pork. The waiter tried to give her the fish tacos and me the pork because that's how they assume we eat but it's not like that with us, she likes the pork and I like the fish, and he switched the plates, and it was loud in the restaurant and I told her about your letter, and what a shame it seemed to me, and how I felt for you and thought you should just go for it, how I identified with your desire to be the ingénue for once, to be the babe, not the chubby friend, and how cruel guys can be when they haul out "the speech" if they really like you but you're not the proper babe type, because they care what their friends think, and they want the intimacy but not at the expense of their status in the guy group. And she said, oh yes, guys are cruel, they have the power of selection and they know it, and they don't mind hurting you. And I said, What? because it was loud in the restaurant, and she repeated it, and I said, Why does it always have to be about the friendship? Friends are a dime a dozen when you're young, but great sex! Now that's something! Fuck the friendship! For once why can't it just be about the sex? And people turned because maybe I was shouting but who cares? It's the truth! What a bullshit excuse!
And then the next day we went up to Point Reyes with the dogs and I was still thinking about your letter and I said to my wife, Tell me what was that you said yesterday about that letter and she said she didn't remember, but it was something about guys, and how they want to dump you before you dump them, because they're scared of what the other guys think, and she said she couldn't believe how much people care about status and I said, What? Like you don't care about status? And then she gave me a look and said she didn't, and we had an argument about the distinction between just wanting to be really, really good at something for its own sake and caring about status, and then I admitted I care about status somewhat and I admitted it pleases me when people tell me my wife is beautiful, which they do, no they don't, she said, oh yes they do, I said, and I like that except the way they say it when people tell me my wife is so beautiful they always say it like they're surprised. Which I could do without the note of surprise but that's how people are. They look at me, they look at her, they figure whatever.
So come on, please, just for me, do it again, jump this guy, don't let him weasel out, and don't make a big scene with him like you've got some complicated program he has to sign up for, like I was saying in the restaurant, just get him drunk again and screw him!
Over and over I hear the same thing from friends and family: When it's over, it is over, end of story. So, having been dumped, I rallied myself to move forward in step with life, that thing I see everyone else doing.
My ex called me once a month for the first four months post-breakup. My interpretation? She wanted to come back. But, as she patiently explained to me at Christmas, that will never happen. Fine, to hell with it, I thought, at least I know where I stand.
Recently, to put lingering hopes to rest, I gave her permission (through channels) to come to a birthday celebration at my house for a mutual friend. I said she could even bring her boyfriend. She shows up without him and wearing the necklace I gave her just before we broke up. Before she left, we spoke briefly and she hugged and kissed my cheek affectionately with an "It was good to see you again."
My question, inspired by this melodrama, is what can we, the dumpees, expect of the dumpers' attempts to reconcile? It seems to be a minefield that is best avoided by those with even the toughest armor and good compass skills (I am still building them).
Friends say respond to a dumper's "friendly" overtures with indifference. A few say to invite a hot date or ask a sexy friend to pose as my date to make the dumper jealous (this time I chose not to). What if, for the sake of argument, the dumper finds that they're still in love and starts taking steps to get back together? How does the dumpee respond?
Caught in the Headlights
You seem to be asking for a rule of etiquette here, but what's required is something more subtle and adult. This is not a routine social ritual but an actual relationship. Your language is somewhat imperious (you "gave her permission" to attend a party at your house?), which may mean you are young or privileged or perhaps both; perhaps you are wealthy and accustomed to making rules for others, and now you are looking for a rule to govern the chaos of your own heart.
Welcome to the level playing field. It's quite possible that the woman in question is more adult than you, and she simply wants to maintain an adultlike friendship. She may not realize how much time you are spending trying to figure out what she's up to, because she may be up to nothing.
Less charitable readers might think she's toying with you or trying to get back together, but it's possible that she is simply trying to signify that, while she doesn't want to be your girlfriend, she still values your friendship.
This would be a good time for you to begin to learn how to have a relationship. Discuss your feelings and expectations with her. If she hurt you, if you no longer trust her, if it's over for you, tell her that. Tell her the truth. Ask her for the truth in turn. And don't try to control the outcome.
I'm a 25-year-old graduate student leading a very happy life. School's going well, I have a super group of friends and (being a graduate student) I never have to be at work before 10 a.m. I've been blessed with a lot of luck.
The one fly in the ointment is (of course) a girl. We met two summers ago and had a very brief and intense courtship period, but she was on her way to postgraduate work on the West Coast. We've kept in touch and visited. We write e-mail and call. And our relationship has been a special one for both of us: We have a strong intellectual connection, we communicate well and we share some strongly held and important beliefs. It's as close to "true love" as I could imagine feeling.
Our reaction to the long-distance problem has varied wildly. Whereas I would be happy to pursue a long-distance relationship, she thinks it's better for us to live our lives separately for now (she even has a boyfriend) and take our chance at a relationship when she comes back East at the end of her schooling. Which is still about two years away.
Which leaves me somewhat confused about how to proceed. I've dated a few other women, but I can't say as I've felt very serious about any of them, and this other girl is the reason. I've felt insincere dating at all, given my strong feelings for someone else. But, at the same time, two years is a long time and there are no guarantees. I feel foolish "waiting" all that time, especially if things don't work out in the end.
What do you think? Try to forget and live like a single man? Or concentrate on work and friends and wait for the ship to come in?
You Put Your Left Foot In, You Put Your Left Foot Out
Dear Graduate Student in the Hokey Pokey,
It's clear that you've put some thought into this, but your thinking may have been clouded a little by your affection and your hopes. The more I consider this, the more it looks as though to spend two years waiting for this woman would be to risk a great deal of heartache. She seems to have dangled only the thinnest of hints that she might still be around, but apparently, given your feelings for her, that has been enough to keep your attention.
I think what you need to do is pursue your life, enjoy the company of women, attend to your studies and maintain a cordial communication with her, without promises, without commitments. There's nothing unethical about your dating women while still somewhat in the throes of an intense attachment. It's simply your emotional state; you don't have much control over it.
However much you feel attached to this woman, I would not, however, talk about her with women you are dating. Not at first, at any rate. It will only prevent you from finding another woman; some might even feel the spectral presence of this faraway love as a subtle insult. At the very least, it seems only fair that if you're going to date, you should bring all of you with you. There's nothing more irritating than a body whose heart and mind are elsewhere.
It doesn't sound as though you are in the vicious grip of an overwhelming obsession, but rather that you had a marvelous experience that could have lasted quite a while if distance and time were not conspiring to cut it short.
And who knows. Stranger things have happened. Maybe she will show up at your doorstep one day ... as you are leaving to take your orals.
I have met the man I would die for. Why is he so wonderful? To put it briefly, we are on exactly the same wavelength. We like all the same things and never get bored talking with one another. We have similar backgrounds, similar interests and similar senses of humor. His idiosyncrasies are mine too.
Here's the rub. Is it good to be so similar? Having had many relationships with the "opposites attract" thing going (and they all failed) I seem to believe so. But in the end, will it just get to being a giant bore-fest?
The danger, it seems to me, is that relying on this magical confluence of tastes and attitudes leaves you unprepared to negotiate later when, inevitably, your interests come into conflict. If your relationship is built only on being on "exactly the same wavelength," you may not be ready when static arises out of nowhere, so you can't even hear each other, and when sudden dead air requires you to improvise. When that marvelous lightness seems to disappear, as it will from time to time, you may think he's changed; he may think you've changed. Both of you may be upset and distrustful. At that point you will have to learn a new style of communicating, under duress, which is a little more work.
There is also the possibility that one or both of you is not being completely genuine, because it's so tempting to enter into the intoxicating spirit of a new and shiny alliance. What happens if later he learns that you did not really think that "Memento" was the world's best movie, but only one of the world's best movies? You were agreeing, yes, but you didn't mean it quite like that ... you just didn't want to be boring.
But what did you really mean then? You just meant that "Memento" was one of the world's best movies? But that's totally different!
Why are you acting so strange?
I thought you agreed that "Memento" was the world's best movie, but apparently you were just saying that. Why? To humor me?
Humor you? Why would I humor you? I think you said that just because you wanted to sleep with me!
Sleep with you? Don't give me that! You made the first move!
I did not!
See where that can end up?
I am a 24-year-old single mother who's done way too much too early. Examples: I had my kid at 18, I graduated from a great liberal arts college at 20, got divorced a month later (Oh, yeah, I also got married at 18), then got an M.A. when I was 22 (oh, so many years ago!). Now, I'm writing a novel full-time, and this is because an established female writer is funding me for two years, just because she rocks, and because she thinks my writing rocks (and no, there aren't any sexual paybacks -- she's just a good mentor). Here's my problem: I'm lonely. I haven't had a boyfriend in two years. I go out, but with my slacker friends who've had sex with every guy we go out with. Also, the guys are all young, under 30 (read emotionally retarded), and I'm not interested. When I do something healthy, like go out by myself to an art exhibit, or a bookstore, or a poetry reading, or a special screening, I don't meet anyone. I'm starting to feel unattractive, but I'm cute and buxom and I speak foreign languages. Why can't I find a man?
Writer in Texas
Dear Lone Star in the Lone Star State,
Since you did so much so early, perhaps this is a gentle but firm reminder that you need a break.
Look at any natural process -- a tide log, a chart of rainfall, a graph of the availability of taxicabs in Manhattan, of the fluctuations in the bond market, in the phases of the moon or the phases of a manic depressive, at the surface of the water in the bathtub. Everywhere you look there are waves; undulations; peaks and valleys; pluses and minuses; ups and downs. You seem to have been on the plus side for years now. Take a breath and enjoy the quiet. If you don't, when the next wave hits, you won't be rested.
Things are going to rev up again whether you want them to or not. Take advantage of the lull.