Like most things, this starts with a story. It starts with a moustache.
On New Year’s Eve, I (like many people) was strangely preoccupied with having someone to kiss at midnight. We’re culturally conditioned to want to have someone to make out with as the ball drops — to signal that you’re kicking a new year off right. This is going to be your year. When 2013 came to Chicago, I was lip-lockless, but shortly after, I met a guy while illicitly smoking on the porch. (Resolutions didn’t have to start ‘til the morning, right?) We’ll call him Jules, and all I could do was stare at his beautiful face handlebars while he held my cigarette in his hands in the cold, trying in vain to light it for me.
He was a film student at my old college, and we talked about Godard and Resnais. He had just watched Last Year at Marienbad in one of his classes and asked me if I knew what it was about. I was going to pretend I understood it, but then I fessed up and said it was probably about nothing. (It is.) Jules lit me a cigarette and confessed he’d never seen a Woody Allen movie, my favorite director. I asked him if he wanted to watch some. Manhattan was on Netflix Instant.
When we got back to my place, Jules did that thing that guys do: he immediately started talking about how much he liked me, how I was special, how he was so glad he met me, etc., etc. He told me that he was okay with going slow, and he wanted to only do what I was okay with. Seriously, this man seemed like a feminist wet dream. Had he been assembled by Gloria Steinem in a factory? Because he talked about going slow, I — gullible being that I am — took him at his word. We cuddled and watched Woody Allen and Diane Keaton verbally spar about modern art in black and white, the perfect start to 2013.
But to paraphrase the film, the only thing that had any “negative capability” was his power to be honest about his feelings.
Before he left in the morning, we planned on meeting up again on Thursday and going out to dinner. But I never heard from him again. When I asked one of my best friends about it, unsure of how I had misread the signs (he liked me, remember?), she put it bluntly, in that way best friends are great for: “He just wanted to fuck you, but he was being nice about it.” I was confused: if he wanted to have a one-night stand, why couldn’t he just say it? I’m not a Brady or a Palin. You don’t have to trick me into having sex with you. Always the Captain Obvious, I asked, “Isn’t it easier to tell someone you want to have sex with them? You don’t shop for a vacuum cleaner when you really want a dildo.”
Born to be sage, she replied, “Of course. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean people do it.”
I’m the type of person who has always been attracted to directness. Irish blood runs through my veins. We broadcast our feelings like a Super Bowl advertisement, so I didn’t understand the logic. But very shortly after Jules, I started dating this guy I thought was everything. He was unusually sweet, studying Political Science and had a bod like Jesus, Madonna’s ex-boyfriend. He even agreed to double date to a two-and-a-half hour foreign film about French people slowly dying. Clearly I’d found a keeper. We’ll call him Jim.
One of the many reasons I liked Jim is that he was into all of the same things I’m into, one of the major ones being that he was relationship-focused. (Catnip, my friend.) He confessed to me that he tends to have sex with people too early or move too quickly, so I proposed a solution: we should wait until we’re official to explore the ways of the secular flesh. He agreed, telling me that he was in no rush. Like Jules, Jim said that he didn’t want to screw things up. Jim then dumped me a little over a week after this conversation. He said that he didn’t want to be in a relationship. If that was the case, I asked him why he continued to date me — why he led me on like I was the media and he was Manti Te’o. Jim told me it’s because he was so attracted to me.
When we were dating, Jim brought me a bouquet of roses one night before dinner, as a token of his interest in me. To reward his confession, I cut off all of the heads and put them in a wine glass near the window, just so I could watch them wither and die. I was feeling very melodramatic that day.
After I finished eating my feelings and binging on Fiona Apple — who always turns out to be right about everything — I thought about Jim, the epitome of the nice guy, the one you imagine when you imagine the guy you want to introduce to your mother. Although we’re always quick to brand our exes as jerks or douches (which they are sometimes), I quickly realized that Jim didn’t break up with me because he was an asshole. He was just too nice to be honest with me about what he wanted. Just like Jules, he didn’t want to hurt me with the truth. Jim thought he was sparing me by keeping his feelings to himself and giving me what he thought would make me happy instead — a temporary boyfriend.
The problem is that, in both cases, the lack of honesty made things worse than they ever needed to be. Rather than enjoying their presence for exactly what it was and having expectations that matched reality, I was set up to fail. I was expecting them both to be someone that they weren’t, and I couldn’t blame them for not being The Dating Guy, but I could blame them for not being up front with me about their intentions. I wasn’t a father on a porch with a shotgun, waiting to grill them about hanging out with my daughter. I was just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him not to be a total liar.
Why is it so hard to be honest with ourselves about what we want and who we want it with? Why is it so hard to communicate to others about what we need from them? Doesn’t the saying go, “Ask and you shall receive” not “Ask for another thing and get the thing you really wanted anyway?” But we do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, our entire dating lives are predicated on it. You can’t say this on the first date. You can’t do that on the second date. You can’t be that type of person. You have to pretend to be this. You can’t call too often or too little. You can’t be unemployed, but oh no, don’t be too successful! Guys hate it when you’re too successful.
During a particularly rough stretch of my dating life, one of those times where all you can ask is “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME??”, a well-meaning friend advised me to start playing dumber on dates. I could be myself, but I should be a less literate, reference-y version of myself. No talking about obscure Russian literature, poets no one has heard of or the delightful inscrutability of Gayatiri Spivak. (Not that the latter has ever been a hot dinner conversation topic.) But I asked what the point would be. Why should I hide who I am? If a guy plans on sticking around, it’ll likely be because of the Spivak, not despite it.
And that’s the thing: no one is made happier or more fulfilled by our dating culture of structured dishonesty, where we lie until we feel like we can tell the truth. When we hide our feelings from those around us and don’t go after what we really want, we ensure that the person we’re dating can’t have what they want: a simple connection with us. Finding that connection in others, even a fleeting one, is one of the reasons we exist, and you can’t do that if you aren’t being yourself. They aren’t getting to know you, just whatever version you allow them. That’s not romance. That’s the TV show Revenge.
From now on, let’s start being honest with the people we spend time with. Rather than telling them what we think they want to hear, let’s start telling them what we really want. If we do, we might finally get it.