Loveless at 21

Why am I always the bridesmaid and never the bride? Men like me but don't want to kiss me.

By Cary Tennis

Published October 15, 2002 7:24PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I just turned 21, and I've never been kissed. I've never even gone out on a date. I have a happy life otherwise: I'm doing well at a good college, I have a close group of smart, funny, caring friends, I seem to have the respect of most of my professors and both my parents, and animals and small children like me. I wear clean clothes, I'm decent-looking (have been told occasionally that I'm pretty), I have a nice haircut and wear makeup occasionally, I take a shower every day, I smile a lot. I've been told often that I'm funny and a good listener and good company in general; I'm a happy person, and I laugh often, and it's not one of those honking, braying laughs that scare people.

I think my problem is the way people see me. If life were a sitcom, I'd be the willowy blonde's best friend. I'm the chubby brunette who always cracks jokes and helps the ingénue get the guy but who never ends up with him herself. I've been in that situation with several friends I've had over the years -- with the friend always getting the male attention, although I was the one to make him laugh. It's always someone else the guy's pining over, even while I'm pining over him. I'm still insecure from my middle school days, when the nasty boys would make fun of my awkward, painfully shy self; I have guy friends now, but that kind of thing is hard to shake.

Twenty-one sounds young -- sure, you could say I have all the time in the world -- but when everyone you know has been in at least one relationship, and many have kissed countless partners, it becomes pathetic. At some point, people start pitying you, and at another point they assume there must be something wrong with you, to have never even had a kiss.

I want a romance. I want desperately to know what it feels like to kiss someone. I want to be held and loved and trusted, and to hold and love and trust, to not just get that slightly sick, altogether lovely feeling at unexpectedly running into your crush, but to be able to act on those feelings. I'm not asking for a swarm of suitors; I'm just asking for one guy, a sweet, nerdy, funny guy -- it doesn't even matter what he looks like -- one of those guys who's cynical on the outside but mush inside, who understands why Jon Stewart is the funniest man on the planet (hell, Jon Stewart would be perfect), whose eyes light up to see me, who thinks I'm special and worth being with, who would pick me over the ingénue because he sees that I have something different and maybe even better. That doesn't seem like too much to ask, does it? Where the hell is this guy?


Dear Loveless,

What a touching letter that is. I know what you're talking about, having had tall and handsome Italian friends into whose boudoirs eligible women would disappear for hours or days at a time, only to emerge to ask, How do I look? and, Do you think he likes me?

The crux of the matter is that you have to strike out on your own. Literally put some space between you and your girlfriends, and try to meet guys when they are alone as well, not when they are with groups of friends. One way to do that might be through personal ads. Another might be simply to talk to guys in classes or at other functions, but not while you and they are surrounded by friends. You have to get to know a guy one-on-one and keep him away from your girlfriends.

There is also the question of why you do this -- why you attach yourself to pretty girlfriends, why you play the role of the funny sidekick. Are you a middle child? I ask because I am a middle child, and I tend to play the sidekick as well. I tend to think of group harmony and the welfare of others before I think of capturing something for myself. It's just a guess, but did you ever notice how the top dog operates? The top dog is all about making decisions and moving, and the rest of us are all about accommodating and executing the plan. So you have to come up with a plan of your own. You have to break away from the pack and hook up with somebody else who has broken away from the pack.

Then close your eyes and don't let go.

Dear Cary,

I like to think of myself as a moral guy. I'm a 23-year-old journalist who once wanted to right all the wrongs in the world and is just now becoming content with the thought of merely waking people up to their existence. But in my personal life, I like to do all I can to make life easier on the ones I love, including my girlfriend of 4-1/2 years.

Recently this has become hard. Why? Two reasons: First, I'm in love with my best friend, a wonderful, crazy, sexy traveler whom I've known since I was about 11. There was always something there; then one night we got drunk and kissed. That was a year ago, and it's become a fairly regular occurrence since then, though I have never cheated on my girlfriend (in a strictly physical sense). My guilt over this caused us to break up early last year, but we ended up back together after about two months because she is beautiful, dependable, sweet, caring, worships the ground I walk on, and takes all my shit. Also, she's the kind of girl who would make a wonderful wife. (My mother tells me she has birthing hips, all that jazz.)

I feel that I must give a relationship with my best friend a go, however, as she is quite possibly everything that I really need. She doesn't take my shit, makes her points known, laughs with me, and doesn't take everything quite so seriously. So, I would leave my girlfriend and honestly apologize and give this a go, except for reason two.

My girlfriend's parents just broke up, and her dog died, then her grandmother, and now her (now single) dad kicked her out of the house. She is not in a position to handle this at the moment. But my best friend returns from her latest voyage in a couple of weeks, I have about two months off, and I want to go to Mexico with her (the friend) in December, but I'm racked with guilt over deserting someone as special as my girlfriend at a time like this. So, what do you think ... some help here would be nice.

Feeling Like Archie

Dear Archie,

You say you're a moral guy who likes to make life easier on the ones you love, yet you're thinking of dumping your girlfriend at a vulnerable time in her life and running off to Mexico for two months with your "best friend." That, as a journalist might say politely, seems to call for some clarification.

Here is something I have learned that may be of use to you: Life is not about what you get, but how you get it. Life's quality is told in tales, not tallied in prizes. So what's important here is not which girl you end up with, but how you conduct yourself through this conflict.

What you appear to be contemplating is an exploratory expedition to Mexico, a test drive, after which you can decide, based on the evidence, which purchase contract to sign. I would say that in this story you do not get to test-drive the woman. The test drive makes for a bad story because it elevates the object above the narrative; it makes you a consumer, not a man on a quest. And, as I said, narrative provides the structure that reveals the moral life; narrative is the double helix of your spiritual DNA.

But how can you know which woman to consume without testing her? Ah, love. You must love her before you pursue her. Love is independent of the Underwriters Laboratories; it defies the ratings in Consumer Reports. In a sense, love exists independently even of our desires; it chooses us rather than the other way around. And it is what distinguishes a heroic quest from an erotic experiment, makes of the man a quester rather than a wanderer.

I suspect you are not really sure whom you love. Think deep and hard and do not allow yourself to hide or equivocate. Discover whom you love and pursue her.

If your decision is to pursue your best friend, make a clean break with your girlfriend first. Make yourself available to help her in the ways a good friend would help, but end the romantic relationship. Then let six months pass.

All this time, of course, you run the risk of losing your best friend to some other guy. But a life lived well is full of such risks. When you do the right thing, you take a chance on not getting what you want. That's what makes for a good story.

Dear Cary,

What's a girl to do when the love of her life refuses to do the one intimate act that drives her wild? After about six months of dating my boyfriend, I asked him one day in bed why he never goes down on me. He became very quiet and would not say anything for a while, and then explained that he is really bothered by the way I smell. I have never been told this before and am having a very hard time with it. I took it very personally and got quite upset, and he naturally felt bad and then said he was sorry, but he thought he should be honest with me but because I got so upset, feels now that he can't tell me how he feels about things because I will become so upset. He told me that he loves doing that, just not to me, because I smell bad. It bothers him while we do other things too, but he is able to deal with it because it is not in his face. He said it doesn't stop him from loving me and being attracted to me and wanting to be with me sexually or otherwise. He doesn't understand why this upsets me so much. But any woman reading this is sure to understand how this is very personal.

I scheduled an appointment with my gynecologist. I talked candidly with her and explained exactly why I was there. She concluded that there was not anything wrong with me and even said that she didn't detect an odor hardly at all, less than most women.

I am a clean person and shower and wash normally and, until this situation, never felt the need to douche and know that it is not all that healthy to do frequently. My boyfriend claims that he feels I am his soul mate and wants to spend the rest of his life with me, and I am having a hard time getting past this and feeling sexually desirable to him or comfortable in bed, because all I am worrying about now is if I smell bad and if he is turned off by it. I also feel that if we really were soul mates or meant to be together, he wouldn't feel this way about how I naturally smell. If it was just a matter of him not wanting to go down on me, I might be able to deal with that, but he says it always bothers him and he is trying to get past it. I will add that we have been dating for 13 months and been having sex for 12.

How can I deal with the sexual incompatibility we are experiencing and still stay together and have a satisfying relationship where I don't have to feel self-conscious about the part of me he doesn't like but claims he can "deal with"? Or should we find other people to be with, so we wouldn't have this issue?

Feeling Stinky in Bed

Dear Stinky,

I think you should forget about this guy and find someone else. You can't change the way you smell, and he can't change the way he responds to it. At least I don't think you can. I've never heard of it happening, have you? Except perhaps if he were to get a blow to the head or suffer some neurological disorder; but then he might mistake the smell of dog doo for the smell of coffee and toast -- like the man who mistook his wife for a hat, you know? He might think you smelled like smoke and ring the fire alarm. Smell, in my experience, is so primal that you can't fight it. If you find a man who loves the way you smell -- I mean all over, not just for purposes of oral sex -- I think you'll be much happier.

By the way, have you ever wondered whether there's an inner nose? And what about those elusive pheromones? While not directly relevant to your situation, learning something about the aquatic sex pheromone from a male tree frog might be useful. After all, knowledge is power. And power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Cary Tennis

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