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Hey! Remember the '90s?
The Clintons were in office, everybody was usingAOL, Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri did "The Cheerleaders"on SNL, and everybody thought Oasis was fantastic.In hindsight, we were all a bunch of potato–salad–eatingjackasses. Sure, it was before 9/11, and optimism always lookslike corn–shucking yokelry before planes hit buildings, but wewere also marinating in the guava juices of our own naïveté,having collectively just hit our national stride of financial prosperity.And nothing lends itself more to navel–gazing than havinga surplus of money and time on one's hands. Appropriatelyenough, it was in the mid–90s when I began my liberal artscollege education.
I went to NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, aschool I'd chosen because of my crippling fear of places that are not New York City and Gallatin's decidedly laissez–faire policyabout what you actually had to learn. My self–designed concentrationwas in "Cultural Criticism," which afforded me thefreedom to take classes in filmmaking, postmodern literature,abnormal sexual behavior, social psychology, dramatic writing,performance studies, and arts journalism. Gallatin calleditself "The School Without Walls," and you know what it alsodidn't really have? A lot of practical requirements for graduation.You had to take one math or science credit, and social sciencecounted as a science. It was sort of like the A–School: PartTwo, only at Gallatin, nobody cared about you. I spent threeevenings and two afternoons a week in three–hour classes, discussingwhether gender was a construct, and I had the rest ofmy week to spend browsing Wet Seal and looking for guys tofall in love with.
The other defining memory I have of the mid–1990s wasthat everybody seemed to be talking about dating all the goddamntime.
The Rules, that shrill creed designed to make women feelbad about their own desires, was published in 1995. The FirstWives Club came out the year after. Then, in 1998, the MonicaLewinsky scandal broke, and Sex and the City debuted. I think1997 is the only respite of the zeitgeist chatter concerning theins and outs of romance, and I blame that on Princess Diana'sdeath. Clearly, a nation's vaginas were sitting shiva on the behalfof the People's Princess.
At this time, I, too, was eager, to paraphrase Morgan Freemanin The Shawshank Redemption, playing (for a change) awise old black man, to "get busy datin' or get busy dyin'." Ibought into the Clintonian promise of a mouth for every dick, and I wanted in on the deal. The rest of the world seemed tobuzz on the same frequency, and women everywhere in NewYork City seemed to crawl with dating desperation. Terminologythat previously only lived between the covers of Cosmonow seemed to be inescapable: Get and keep a man! Commitmenttime! Pleasure zones! On the prowl!
I dressed the part, in animal prints and red lipstick. But Iwasn't going for "cougar"—I wanted to do the B–movie, cateye–glasses, Bettie Page, fishnets, and Russ Meyer thing. Youknow, the look that people in the Pacific Northwest still thinkis really cutting–edge? But it didn't look cute on me. Instead,I looked like a woman with designs on men, and more DeltaBurke than Annie Potts.
Predictably, my efforts were tempered by the fact that reallife, thank God, is nothing like Cosmo magazine. Which is whynobody should wear makeup to the gym to meet men or learnhow to perfect one's "Faux–O." I was like Carrie Bradshawonly in that I hung out downtown and wanted a boyfriend.My shoes were limited to a couple of comfortable options, Ididn't drink, and you couldn't see my collarbone without anMRI. Also, the people I hung out with around that time werepretty un–fabulous.
There was Jodi, my roommate from New Jersey who wasmissing a set of knuckles, so her fingers could only go perpendicular.Candace, the only person I ever met to have actuallygrown up in the Orchard Beach section of the Bronx, who usedto strip to Motley Crüe in Yonkers and blamed her small breastson an eating disorder she developed during puberty. And Eve,a dumpster–diving punk–rocker wannabe whose identificationof water as "wudder" screamed "Pennsylvania Mainline," butwho wanted more than anything to live in a squat somewhere in 1982. Eve's whole life was scored by URGH! A Music War,but her bank account was padded with the wages of comfortablesuburban parents. I was also friendly with a lot of gay girlswho would never get sick of telling me how great Judith Butler'sbooks are, and why it was important to see Boys Don't Crymore than once, "to catch the subtleties."
"I don't get it," said Lauryn, one of the aforementionedlesbians, after I made the mistake of asking her for adviceabout my sorry dating life. "How many times are you goingto get screwed over by all those shitty guys before you moveon?"
I just giggled in response, like she was fl irting with me—allgay people who share your gender want to have sex with you,you know—and thought, "Lauryn's so funny!" I knew sex witha girl was like the Master Cleanse: Maybe it changed otherpeople's lives for the better, but it wasn't for me, and it sort ofmade my stomach hurt a little to think about diving into thatparticular collegiate cliché.
But Lauryn was right about the shitty guys. I dated themin college like it was my major.
MET all grades of awful men getting picked up in bars I gotinto with a fake Georgia driver's license. Under the guise ofhailing from Savannah, I got to meet winners like ReginaldBlankenship, a carrot–topped lanky Kentuckian who met meat Max Fish two hours before requesting oral sex with a mintflavored condom, which is sort of like ordering a cheeseburgerand drinking it through a straw. Reginald taught me two things:that I can't be intimate with a man with the same skin and haircoloring as me, because the minute a redheaded man lowers hisdrawers, I feel like I'm looking at myself with male genitalia; and also, that when you try to suck a guy off with a mint balloonon his penis, he will ask you to stop, and then he will tellyou that he wants to take a bath.
I met a guy old enough to have known better than todabble with a college freshman at the now–defunct Coney IslandHigh on St. Mark's Place. We kissed until my hair caughtfire from the candle on the bar, igniting instantly the helmet ofWhite Rain hair spray I used to encase my ginger dome beforea night on the town. After the bartender did me the favor ofthrowing a lager on my head, the dabbler and I had boring,missionary sex. I remember his apartment was on Park Avenuein the high 20s, and that he had photos of African childrenon his wall. I wore a garter belt and stockings under what Ithought was a classy zebra–print skirt and V–neck top fromExpress, and I moaned appreciatively as he gently plowed mysoft, eighteen–year–old body.
There was a boy at a hotel in Italy—a fellow Americantraveler—whom I met over breakfast during a summer abroad.I marveled at his chin–length Shirley Temple ringlets and tiny,round balls for the time it took for him to finish in one ofTuscany's finest lambskin condoms, only to run into him thenext day on the steps of some beautiful ruin in Rome, wherehe told me he shouldn't meet up with me again, because hewas in a relationship back at home. "Me too," I lied back, feelingso stupid about being dumped abroad that I forgot he wasthe one who transgressed. My wanting another night of what Ithought was good sex with a cute guy who happened to haveBette Davis's hair from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was stillless embarrassing than a guy thinking that just once, on vacation,wasn't cheating.
I didn't even like any of these guys, but I wanted so badly for them to want me. When nobody called, I turned to the annalsof self–help and dating books, ubiquitous as they were atthe time. But I read them with an ingenious filter: I wouldn'tlisten to anybody.
"DON'T CALL Him and Rarely Return His Calls," advisedEllen Fein and Sherrie Schneider in Rule Number 5 of theirdating book about not pursuing men in order to trick theminto marrying you. I think the only book that made me as madas The Rules was The Atkins Bible. I lasted on a low–carb diet forthirty seconds before losing my mind, and I didn't even try tofollow any of "The Rules," even the ones that made sense, like"Don't Try to Change Him." Not going after what I wantedmore than anything seemed counterintuitive to everything elseI knew about the way things worked. If I wanted an internship,I'd pester higher and lower–ups at the office until I gotit. If I wanted to get into a class, I'd show up at the Registrarat seven a.m., bounding through pedestrian traffic to calls of"Run, Forrest, Run!" from passersby in order to make it to thetop of the queue on time. And when I had a crush on a boy,I would raze fields of wheat with a torch if I had to, in hopesof getting touch. I would call frequently and obsessively returnhis calls. I would ask him out. I would bring him gifts. Pay formeals. I would never end a date first, or without some sort ofaction. And as for Rule Number 3, "Don't Stare at Men or TalkToo Much"? Well, I was a gaping, chatting, rushing–into–sexmonster, and the idea of seeming unavailable, when in fact Iwas desperate and ripe, ran counter to every instinct I ever had:that doing something, not nothing, was the way to get whatyou wanted from the world.
Predictably, the men I met who liked being chased were will–o'–the–wisps and androgynous paupers. Boys who worked atbookstores, with no body hair or love handles; virgins and vegetarians,steampunk DIY'ers who peddled vintage and did BikramYoga. None of them could compete; none were formidable orcompatible. Sex with that lot was lousy and awkward or nevercame to pass, and nobody was calling me, or calling me back.Merrily I devoured fuel for my one–woman war againstmating protocol, reading book after book featuring variationson the economic principle of supply and demand. And thencame He's Just Not That Into You, which provided women thetremendous relief of knowing that they were simply not terriblyliked by the objects of their affections.
I took umbrage with the idea that if he didn't call, hewasn't "into you"—that any guy who was in his right mindwould know, if he liked a girl, how to chase her down untilshe was his. But what about the guys who weren't in theirright minds? The ones who were a little off or lost, or damagedfrom past experiences, or had no clue that they weresupposed to chase a girl down like a hound on a scent? Thatbook made the assumption that if a guy didn't do what heshould, even if he liked you just fine, then you didn't wanthim anyway.
But what if there turns out to be a lot of guys who don'tknow what to do? And what if you meet one and you knowhe's screwed up—like he'd been messed up to the point wherehe seems like an abused stray, whether it's the kind that snapsat you or cowers—but you like him enough to take him homewith you anyway? What if you thought you could change himor teach him how to treat you, or you just wanted to enjoy thegood parts of him and ignore the bad ones until someone bettercame along?
THAT WAS where I was, making the best of the turkeys in mypath. And never did hearing that the guys I dated didn't actuallylike me ever provide comfort. That book was a sneakyway of reminding women that they don't like the way they'retreated by guys who may in fact be perfectly "into them," butare otherwise dysfunctional. Because if a guy who knows whatto do isn't into you, you don't need a book to tell you that. Youget dumped or blown off after he pursues you like a contender,and then it hurts like crazy, because you know you lost out onsomeone who knew what to do.
But when you're young, and you're habitually dating thedamaged, and they don't come through, you have to make theconscious choice to separate the columns in your head that say "This is who I am" and "This is how I am being treated." Andthen you have to figure out how to let go of somebody who'sgone, not because you're pacified in the realization that you'renot liked, but because you figure out that maybe you're the onewho doesn't like him. Not just how he acts, but who he is. Andthen you have to decide if you want to keep going out withguys you don't think are great, or if you like yourself enough tohang out for a while on your own.
In no way was I in that place yet. I didn't like myself thatmuch, and I certainly didn't want to be alone. I needed to makemy own mistakes to learn from, and I wanted to see more ofwhat was out there—even if it was ugly.