What's a girl gotta do?

I want a relationship but I hope that gender politics aren't really so crude that I have to act vulnerable, dumb and naive to attract a man.

Published January 13, 2003 8:29PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Since beginning university in August, I've been living a cliché: I pierced my tongue, learned to love Ani DiFranco, and spend my days bantering playfully with my rez-mates about the sorry state of the cafeteria food. For the most part, I'm loving the freedom, the intellectual challenge and the way that Vancouver bears absolutely no resemblance to the redneck prairie city where I spent my first 17 years.

I was enjoying how much my life resembles a bad teen movie, until I ran across a less amusing cliché: "You're a really nice girl and all, but I just don't think of you that way." Having been on the receiving end of this sentence from three consecutive boys, I can assure you that people never, ever think of an original way to drop the bomb.

So I'm sitting here, bingeing on chocolate and ignoring my looming French exam, trying to figure out exactly what's wrong with me. This is not a new situation. I keep thinking that I've learned from past boy debacles, and I keep ending up here. I could use the usual defense: I'm funny as hell, creative, self-aware, intelligent. I'm no supermodel, but neither are the guys I want to date. I'm an old soul who can hold my own in conversations with people twice my age. But while my personality has won me a great circle of friends, it has never snagged me so much as a single date. I'm thinking that maybe this time I should stop focusing on my good points, and start considering what needs to change.

I'm the kind of person who takes "elitist" as a compliment. I'm assertive -- all right, aggressive, and opinionated to a fault. Even though I can be warm, nurturing and almost embarrassingly sentimental, you need to slog through a shitload of sarcastic insults before you see that side of me. I don't know how to flirt. I don't know how to do hair or makeup. I don't know any of the typical boy/girl mind games. I don't know how to dance. And don't want to learn. To tell the truth, I see all of it as below me.

I guess the question is, how much is worth sacrificing to finally find a boyfriend? My loud mouth? My aversion to exercise? The more pretentious end of my vocabulary? I hope that gender politics aren't really so crude that I have to act vulnerable, dumb and naive to attract a man. Is everything my parents and mentors taught me wrong? By their standards, I've been doing everything right. I've been taking good care of myself, preserving my voice, keeping up my GPA, paying attention to personal and spiritual growth and acting as confident and independent as all get-out. I used to be proud of the strength of my convictions. Lately, it feels like I'm just another ignorant, difficult snob.

Please don't start trying to convince me that I shouldn't want a relationship. Everyone wants a relationship, especially teenagers living away from home for the first time. Don't tell me I'm too young to be worrying about this, don't tell me that you can't force this kind of thing, don't talk about the distant future at all. I've listened to all of those arguments, and all of that advice, and then sat back and watched as everyone around me -- my sister, my schoolmates, even my dysfunctional closet gay best friend -- managed to find (in)significant others before I'd so much as held hands. Some day, I'm sure I'll find a beautiful, cynical man and raise wonderfully neurotic children. The future doesn't worry me half as much as the present. I want a relationship. I deserve a relationship. I can't accept that it's a choice between being alone, and being miserable on meaningless dates. Other people seem pretty happy with them, and I should stop placing myself above them. At this point, the most immature high school fling seems like an unattainable Mecca to me. I'll take shallow! Bring on shallow! Seems like a pretty good alternative to loneliness.

Help me, and I swear I won't even think about you in a non-Platonic way.

Just a Friend

Dear Just a Friend,

You don't have to act "vulnerable, dumb and naive to attract a man." But you might have to do some things that feel awkward at first. And you might have to use a different kind of intelligence that doesn't involve critical reasoning or empirical argument.

Having a relationship means forming in your mind a picture of that other person's pattern of being, or that other person's soul if you will, so that you can imagine how that person feels, what motivates him, and what the world looks like to him.

Now, let's just say that the man you are interested in is, to take a far-fetched example, the quarterback of the football team. And say for some reason that you don't understand, you're attracted to him, even though it seems culturally strange. And say you know nothing about the movies he's seen, and he knows nothing about the books you've read. How would you two relate? What would you talk about? You could ask him what it feels like to win a big game, perhaps. And he could tell you that it feels "neat," let's say, or, like, "really good." And then you could ask him for some more specifics, like ask him at what point does it feel best: Right when he walks off the field, or in the locker room, or when he's lying in bed at home after the big party. You could ask him if there are ever times after a big game when even though he's won he suddenly feels deflated, like if he tells his brother and his brother doesn't seem impressed, or maybe the next day, if he's washing his car alone in the driveway and then suddenly it's like just another day, and it's a letdown. You could ask him if it's true that quarterbacks can pretty much get any girl they want. Or you could ask him anything at all that you're curious about.

And maybe you're not even specifically curious about these very things; but what you are doing is engaging him long enough to triangulate his position; you're sending sonar signals so you can plot the contour of his personality. See what I'm saying? Getting to know somebody you're attracted to is a process of feeling around, just trying to hold them in position long enough to get a fix on them. Like a blind person trying to understand the shape of a tape dispenser, or a dog gnawing at a bone, you're just working the object, trying to sense it, trying to know it. You're looking for the places where things connect. It's like you're kneading his flesh, looking for his bones. Well, actually, that part would come later; but figuratively, that's what you're doing.

So that means the things you are not doing, that you might have thought were the ways to get to know a boy, are: You are not trying to make him laugh. You are not trying to figure out if his politics agree with yours. You are not sprinkling your conversation with cynical wisecracks. You are not arguing about philosophy or aesthetics. You are trying to form a picture in your mind of the unique constellation of emotions and desires that is his spiritual signature. You're trying to picture what it feels like to be him.

This is a little different from batting your eyelashes and bringing him lemonade; it is not being submissive to him. It does involve, however, a kind of submissiveness in the scholarly sense: a submissiveness to the body of knowledge you seek. That is, you have to put your hopes and dreams aside in order to gather information and see clearly what the evidence tells you.

If you approach it in this careful way, you should be able to ascertain, through reflection on what you have observed, whether he wants to go out with you or not. And, of course, along the way, you will discover for yourself whether you are really interested in lying next to him at night listening to the sound of his breathing.

Take your time. Observe. Practice. See what works. Does he like it when you ask to feel his muscle or does it just embarrass him? Observe. Watch what happens. Keep watching. Move slowly. Don't scare him. When he kisses you, don't let go. Just keep kissing him until the phone rings. Then don't answer the phone.

And, assuming you like him and he likes you, as far as the kissing and making out and sex thing, if you're not sure what to do, you can always just say, "Is it OK if I take off all my clothes and lie down on the bed?" Then take off all your clothes.

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By Cary Tennis

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