Me: a wit too clever for the state school where I wound up. I have pretensions toward the poetic life but am too much in awe of it to bestow upon myself the honorific title of "poet." Him: a political genius-in-training who is just neurotic enough to appreciate my sense of humor.
Our talks are never dull, even when they are about boring subjects, because we bounce off of each other so well. Unlike 99 percent of the guys on campus, he enjoys intelligence in a woman and even revels in mine. He gives my zippy thought patterns the structure they need, and I lull him out of his stolid seriousness enough to combine intellectual debate with laughter. Even when we disagree, which is quite a lot, we accept each other as works in progress as we push and shove our way toward the truth, hoping to teach each other and learn from each other.
But there is a problem that keeps us from taking this connection deeper. He is not ready. He breaks into a spontaneous smile when he sees me, but I know that to a certain extent I scare him by provoking feelings in him that he doesn't understand. When he talks to me, he alternates looking straight at me and looking away, as though he's struggling to cope with the contradictions I inspire. I know by looking at him and talking to him that he is not ready for the type of relationship I need.
He's popular, and there is always some dopey girl who sleeps with him in the background. She asks nearly nothing of him, and he cannot even give her that. He doesn't promise her anything, so he's not manipulative or cold. He simply isn't ready for a woman to need him, and there is nothing I can do to make him ready.
So here we are, both of us longing for something he can't do, and I'm unwilling to accept anything less. Our friendship is unsteady. We talk every day until the lack we both feel due to this limitation becomes too hard to ignore, and then we cut off contact for a few weeks until we forget the pain of desire deferred. I pretend not to care when his girl of the hour comes around in my presence, but he gets even more uneasy than I do. As time goes on, the weight of this unspoken love and rage becomes increasingly heavier and the joy of our friendship dissolves into pain, frustration and mourning as he becomes a symbol of needlessly thwarted erotic yearnings.
He will be ready someday, but I just found him too early. When that day comes, the woman in the right place at the right time will probably not be me, and that is my greatest sorrow. Can this story have a happy ending? Is there a way to resolve this so I don't become bitter toward him? I know it's not fair to blame him because we met too early, but maybe I can't help it. And if I'm perfectly honest, I'm afraid that he will forget me too easily. I'm afraid that he'll graduate and not remember what I look like in two years. I'm afraid that whatever longing he has for me can be mollified by ambition and cheap sex, and I'm angry that neither of those will drown my desire for him.
The One Who Got Away
Dear One Who Got Away,
I would love to see Donald Rumsfeld's face wrinkle up after a question like that. My face has gone a little crinkly too, but I don't have a helicopter to catch. Nor do I have any aides to turn to for background, nor can I say, "I have not seen the report you are referring to, so I cannot comment on those allegations."
I am stuck with a couple of sentences that have question marks at the end but do not seem to be anchored in any meaningful way to the information that precedes them. I have no idea whether this story can have a happy ending because I don't know what a happy ending would be. (In fact, I'm beginning to sound like Donald Rumsfeld.) Nor do I know whether you will become bitter toward him because I have no idea how you operate. Have you been bitter toward someone before? What caused the bitterness? Are you often bitter?
Perhaps you needed to put your feelings down on paper, and that in and of itself has been useful. But I'm not sure your feelings are sufficiently specific yet. I have an idea. Since we're here anyway, why don't I, instead of trying to predict the future, just give you my general impression of what is going on in your life right now? We've got the time. Like I said, I'm not Donald Rumsfeld and there's no helicopter waiting for me.
You started off by indicating your superiority to others at your state school. Already you and I were on the wrong track. It is not uncommon for bright young people to believe they are superior to others, but is a self-destructive delusion and it makes me nervous. If we were at a party I'd be feeling insecure already. If you believe you are superior to others, you may feel that you are superior to me as well, that I may bore you as the others do, that you will probably not be interested in me unless I perform some amusing tricks for you.
Then you told a tale of your romantic and social life that seemed largely fictional -- not that you were making things up, exactly, but it was so full of off-the-shelf emotional units such as "longing" and "connection" and his being "not ready" that its connection to your actual life seemed tenuous and vague. You seem to be narrating your life like a novel or play. That indicates to me that you are not looking closely enough at what is actually occurring in your own life. If you look closely enough, you will begin to see details that are not found in Henry James or somebody like that. I would urge you to stop pretending you're a member of the Bloomsbury group and instead undertake to catalog the particulars of your own true desires and your own true failures. I know how boring and disappointing actual life is compared to the lives of poets and novelists that you can read about. But pretending to be in a Virginia Woolf novel does not help. Those people were from another world. You and I don't live in that world. For one thing, they didn't have to work for a living.
So let me urge you to strip away the romance from your situation and try to see your life as it really is. Do you want to sleep with this man? Yes or no? If yes, take him. If he's not up for it, stay away from him. You don't need the aggravation. Seriously. It will only be harmful. On the other hand, if you don't really want to sleep with him, but you like him as a friend, treat him as a friend. That means honestly working for his happiness, not secretly pretending you're his girlfriend.
- - - - - - - - - -
Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.