Flirting is an invitation. But not necessarily to sex. In fact, more often than not, sex is neither the real nor desired outcome. Flirting need not be the means to an end. It can be, and often is, an end in and of itself.
Any meeting of two people births a third, if not more. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin call this the Third Mind: there is me, there is you, and then there is the space — the force, the identity — created in our interaction.
We all know this. When we hang out with a friend, another creature is formed — a two-headed monster. This monster is often a beautiful beast. But, sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, for a calculus of reasons, the creature formed by the two of you is grotesque. Hang out with a different friend and a different monster is born. There is an energy, a force, that extends into both of you, through both of you, born of each of you and yet taking you outside of yourselves. Extend this to larger groups and you get the madness of the mob.
This is the very condition of the social: to interact with others is to be taken astray of yourself. I am not suggesting that when you’re alone, you’re truly oneself and that the social sends you off path — as if there were a path. No, what I’m trying to say is that when alone, there is little to nudge us — which is why books, films, music, meditation, solo trips are important. But in the social, one is confronted with forces that inflect and shape and massage one’s way of going. The social is an event of distributing identity.
Flirting, to me, is one of the great challenges and delights of the social. Conversation is another. So is Dionysian bliss, as at a rave or concert or during sex. There are many modes of going with this third mind, ways to negotiate it, different architectures that can be forged. But I want to talk about flirtation.
Flirtation is an invitation, an invitation to the third mind. But what makes it different than a conversation or any number of other modes? Well, while flirtation is not necessarily a means to sex, it participates in the sexual economy. What makes flirtation so exciting, amongst other things, is that there is the risk and potential rewards of physical intimacy. This is evident when strangers begin talking and think to themselves: Are we conversing? Or does this dude want to boff me? When my friends and I converse, we have been known to work ourselves into a frenzy. But screwing each other doesn’t enter the equation (perhaps it should but it doesn’t and this makes our conversations different than flirtations).
Now, our culture tends to suggest that getting some, as they say, is good in and of itself. But of course the reality is that physical intimacy — not just fucking but fucking, too — is an incredibly pleated and, at times, quite nerve wracking encounter. The fear of the body in general; the fear of this person’s body; the loathing and shame of one’s own body; the inundation of foreign smells and touches and sounds and germs; the fluctuation of desire: all these things and more define the novel sexual encounter.
So while sex is not the end state of flirtation, unlike a conversation, sex is an implied possibility — along with all its attending delights and anxieties. Even if it’s a passing elevator flirtation, what distinguishes the casual flirtation from the casual conversation is the possibility — even if impossible! — of consummation.
And what’s truly amazing about flirtation is that this sensuality is presentin the flirting itself. There doesn’t need to be a touch, grope, or kiss. The flirting is itself a sensual act, even if no bodies dare touch.
This is testament to the palpability of not just words but of the invisible state of bodies. When we flirt, we extend our words and invisible selves into a third space and invite the other to extend his or hers. In this space between the two — this emergent and impossible space, this miraculous space — a kind of (al)chemical reaction takes place.
When it goes well — and you know what I mean — there is a surging, a frenzy of forces thoroughly erotic and exquisitely disorienting and reorienting as, together, you nudge and prod each other on, massaging this amassing energy, stroking this third mind into delirium. You literally enter an emerging space in which the terms of engagement — including those of your very identity — are up for grabs.
It’s hard to sustain. Sometimes, the wrong energy — in the form of a word, burp, look — enters the equation and the whole thing dissolves, vanishing in one swift woosh. Sometimes, it just peters out and then you’re left standing there, a tad awkward. Sometimes, it builds and builds and finds itself leaving the realm of flirtation as the bodies become ensconced in the flesh of consummation. And still, other times, it simply winds down, awaiting another opportunity.
Flirtation is a delicate art. There is no contract signed out of the gate setting the terms, assuring both parties what the limits are. No, what makes flirtation so exhilarating is that the contract is written on the fly, jointly and silently. Both parties — I suppose there can be more than two but, lord, that gets complicated — both parties have to feel their way through the encounter without pre-defined terms. And when you beckon the third mind, anything (or nearly anything) is possible.
There are encounters that look and sound like flirting. This is when two bodies enter cocksure of themselves, each maintaining his or her distance but giving all the signs of engagement. These can be fine experiences and might mark an opportunity for a future flirt. But it is just an exchange of social protocol — “Where do you work? Oh, that’s interesting.” Little new is happening. There is no collaboration. Neither party leaves the preworn path. Nobody goes astray.
Of course, different people have different tastes for flirtation, different comfort zones, different ways they’re willing to risk the flirtation delirium (this applies to lots of things, such as drugs: each of us has a different appetite for delirium). On a date, there is — hopefully — a moment when things turn. When it is longer a matter of exchange and becomes a collaborative forging of a new space: an inflection point as water boils and becomes steam.
Ah, yes, when both of you are in full flirtation mode, giving and taking generously, when the third mind is flourishing, there is a distinctive energy as that delirium begins, carrying both of you along, fueling and driving and titillating and prodding until neither remains intact, until both of you have have left the room and are dwelling in this other space.
Oh, this is an incredible moment! You enter this new space together but not as one. You are not a married couple acting in unison. There is no contract. Anything is possible. I want to say it’s a bewildering act of faith but that’s not right: it’s not faith that drives you but the empirical experience of an invisible event. Everyone around knows it, senses it, sees it, even though it’s invisible. It is an incredible space, one that crackles with energy (we are electric beings, after all — what is that great Whitman line? “I sing the body electric.” Perfect).
From one angle, flirtation is liminal, existing between indifference and intimacy, chastity and consummation, friend and lover, stranger and intimate. But to read flirtation as solely a phase on the way to somewhere else is to miss its power and possibilities. Flirting, even when fast and slight as between barista and customer, creates a sumptuous, if temporary, site of delirium.