or, Aquarium-based Fishboyfriend Schematics and Other Implausibly Romantic Musings: A Meditation In Ten Parts. With Subheadings. And Sharks.
I. In which I preface the long-awaited description of my decision with a few disclaimers.
1. This post is visible only to those tagged to it. (With few exceptions, that means those who took part in the original boyfriend v. aquarium debate on Facebook. Based on past conversations about romance/acknowledged attractions/romantic involvements, a few other interested parties may have found their way into the tag list as well.) For that reason, it’s quite a bit more candid than most of my other posts—even some of those which give the reader interesting close-ups of various scars. It is, in other words, not meant for general consumption. Thus, if I find people recopying bits of it—other than into correspondence with me—they will be hunted down like a dog in…er, a place where people hunt dogs.
2. As you may have deduced from the (sub)title(s), some of the thoughts here will be serious; others…not. Forgive me the more outrageous cracks; I can’t really help the way my weird sense of humor overpowers me. (And my romantic escapades have been more than outrageous enough to justify almost any crack I make about them.)
3. If you have absolutely no interest in reading about this stuff—for the love of Pete, let me know! I have no desire to bother people with tags to pieces they don’t find interesting, and in fact have stopped tagging several friends because they told me they only occasionally read things I write.
4. Comments, as with the original fishboyfriend debate, are welcomed. However, a little of my heart is out in the open here. Whatever your thoughts, please at least try to be tactful in expressing them.
II. In which I describe an 18-way conversation.
The original question: Aquarium or boyfriend?
The discussion went on for 95 comments, with 18+ participants. It was revealing on several different planes. Many people came out of the woodwork to participate. And the level of concern expressed—especially by my guy friends, and especially by those privy to the magnitude of the disaster that was my last ex—gave me all kindas warms n’fuzzies.
On the other hand, the unparalleled amount of cynicism displayed by my male friends—gay and straight—about the possibilities of finding a man who’d be able to treat me well was disturbing. When challenged, they bluntly stated that they didn’t think I realized what guys were like (!), and then gave me a rendition of the male psyche that forced me to apologize to female friends whom I’d accused of sexism when they said the same things.
Not very encouraging…but not totally discouraging either. And more importantly, the process of engaging in the debate clarified some things that I’d (carefully) avoided realizing.
III. In which I begin my blatant Abuse Of Capitalization.
When I posted the question (no, it wasn’t a joke), I was under the impression that I wasn’t dating because I had Other Schtuff To Do than search for that One Special Person I wanted to annoy. (Not for the Rest Of My Life, but On An Exclusive Basis.)
And perhaps secondarily because I was in An Awkward Position when it came to finding Men Of A Suitable Age. (As in, they’re probably my professors. Eeeek.)
And possibly tertiarily because I am Unfortunately Incompatible With The Majority Of Straight Men. (No, really.)
Like so much else in life, the truth was both simpler and more complex than that. And realizing it made me take a long look at that list of six men I was attracted to and considering asking out.
And shred it.
I still find them attractive. But the thing that made it impossible for me to ask any of them out was realizing (finally!) the way attraction works for me.
IV. In which I (re)discover that my brain Controls My Emotions to an Often Unsavory Extent.
It’s long been a truism amongst me and my friends that the only way to my heart is through my brain.
The only way. There may be a few bypasses to other things (most of them via a dance floor), but for my heart that’s the only way. (Though artists and musicians have a bypass too, of sorts—I find certain forms of artistic talent as intriguing as I find certain forms of intellect.)
This has a number of unfortunate side-effects. In the past I’ve been blind to other considerations when caught in the thrall of a truly unique intellect—other considerations that have a tendency to come whiplashing back later on, sometimes traumatically. Witness my panicked call to Dave two years ago when I realized I was attracted to a man 11 years younger than I. My side of it began with: “Oh my god, Dave, I’m a perv!” (To Dave’s everlasting credit, his responding “What?” was laced with laughter rather than wariness. There are very good reasons he & I are friends.)
Other considerations had (thankfully) supervened at the time, preventing me from acting on the attraction, but I hadn’t even thought about the man’s age until almost two days later…when I was appalled.
It took Dave a while to convince me I wasn’t a perv. And I still have problems with the idea of dating a person substantially younger than I am—hence the Men Of A Suitable Age dilemma: I have no wish to hurt or take advantage of a person less romantically experienced than I. (Many of my male friends have told me emphatically that this concern is nonsensical. However, a fair bit of my moral code is considered nonsense in this day and age; that doesn’t stop me from formulating or adhering to it.) My friends did, however, manage to convince me that age is not the primary quality that must be considered when weighing romantic experience.
Fine. Good. Great. But that’s not the only problem. In fact, it’s not even the main problem.
V. In which I realize that Heterosexuality is the Least Of My Problems.
Nor is the Unfortunately Incompatible With The Majority Of Straight Men issue.
Which is surprising. Because since I’m straight (“intractably straight,” as I generally say, which to those paying attention implies—correctly—that I’ve attempted to rectify the matter often enough to realize that such attempts are doomed to failure), you’d think Incompatibility With The Majority Of Straight Men would be a rather large stumbling block.
See, that one faded into insignificance when I realized that I’m incompatible with the majority of people. Neat solution, right? [Insert violent interaction of my head with my desk here.]
Once again, it comes down to the way attraction works for me. And since I haven’t clarified that, let me do so now: In order to make me want a man enough to ask him out, he has to fascinate me.
VI. In which I rediscover Fascination as both Vice And Privilege.
There are several layers to that—including all the layers that make me want to be friends with a person: High intelligence, ethical code, verbal wit, humor, interest in the world, a sense of adventure.
But it’s something more as well. An added spice. A twist to the language or ideas or playing field. A level of contest in the decoding. An impression that this man may be playing chess while everyone else at the table is playing checkers.
A sense that he might just be playing a few levels above me, and would I like to step to the table to find out? A sense that I’m dealing with a man whose mind has many levels, and that he’s capable of operating on more than one at a time. A sense that I have to actively try to keep up.
A sense that he’s an equal—who can challenge me.
And it’s not the traditional bad-boy fixation (though I admit to one in terms of fictional characters, both written and read): I’m not challenged by emotional disturbances. All mature adults carry some emotional baggage, and I don’t discriminate on that basis; but anger issues or mommy issues or daddy issues, or many of the varied flavors of emotional incapacitation are, at this point in my life, easily identifiable. They may not prevent me from being interested by a man’s mind, but they’ll back me from romantic to friendly interest faster than you can say “chess.”
And please don’t think that all of this has to be in play for me to say yes if I’m being asked out, rather than asking a man out. To say yes, I have to be interested and entertained; I have to enjoy his company. Most of my friends meet those criteria—they’re not terribly demanding. All that’s necessary past that baseline is the potential for fascination. I’ve had fulfilling relationships with men with whom, before we dated, it would never’ve occurred to me I was compatible. (I am, as several of you reading this know—yes, Joanna, I’m talking to you—rather slow on the uptake in that and several other regards.)
Which brings me to the matter of physical attraction.
VII. In which I address a topic that is Generally Awkward with my Usual Tact And Grace.
There’s a reason I left this till last, or almost-last. And that’s that to me, until that fascination is in place, the physical stuff’s irrelevant. (There’ve been exceptions to that; but I was younger and dumber—and, sad to say, so were the exceptions.) I’ve heard many women say that the physical characteristics come second, but on exploring further I’ve found that this isn’t true for them in the same sense that it is for me. Female friends whose judgment I trust (Marie being the most recent) have also told me that I’m the exception to the rule when it comes to my responses in this area.
Most women have physical characteristics that they prefer, and I’m no exception: Men who catch my eye in a “Wow, check him out” sense tend to be tall, dark-haired, and dark-eyed, with wide shoulders.
But I don’t really look at men on the street in terms of attraction. I look at them as aesthetic specimens—the way I’d look at a piece of sculpture. I look at women the same way; if you’re good-looking, graceful, exceptional in some way, you’ll catch my eye. I’ll appreciate you. But I won’t be attracted to you.
Attraction takes something else. It takes knowledge of the brain behind the mouth, eyes, smile, jawline, shoulders. And once I’m attracted to that, everything else about you will be attractive to me as well.
Which is why the list of men I’ve dated includes tall green-eyed blond reprobates and short half-Korean honors students, Italian-American basketball players and African-American chemistry nerds, blue-eyed saxophonists and brown-eyed business majors, redheaded models and brown-haired poets. All brilliant. All men I was desperately attracted to, both body and mind.
The former is impossible for me without the latter.
And that’s the problem.
VIII. In which I describe the Method by which I normally Proposition A Man.
I can’t ask out any of the men I had on that list—because if I were attracted enough to them to ask them out, I would’ve done it already.
When I’m attracted enough to a man to ask him out—or rather, to make my interest clear, which as often involves me asking to kiss someone as it does me asking him out—if there’re no intervening factors (significant others, sexual preference, age, etc.), I’ll do it as soon as possible.
As in, “You know, I find you really attractive. Would you like to have dinner/coffee/a drink tonight/right now?” Or, “I’d really like to kiss you. Would you mind?” (Several of the people tagged to this Note have experienced some version of this from me. I don’t expect you to attest to it—in fact I’d prefer you didn’t—but the rest of you should bear in mind that most of the people with whom I’ve done this aren’t one-offs. This is how I’ve started several relationships.)
And in the absence of that kind of attraction, I don’t want to pursue anybody.
IX. In which Sublimation collides with the Reason Why I’m Single.
I don’t want to date someone just because I’m single, or because I’m lonely. I’m single because I haven’t yet met anyone eligible whom I truly wanted to date. (As implied above, if I had and he hadn’t made a move, I would’ve.)
And everyone gets lonely. There are several answers to the physical side of that—if you, like me, aren’t into casual sex—and one of them is sublimation. Weightlifting, swimming, a heavy bag…yeah, you get the idea. The emotional side—well, I have wonderful friends; it’s not often I feel lonely. And dealing with the occasional bout of loneliness is part of being a grownup—and sadly, not exclusive to being single.
So the limiting factor isn’t compatibility, or age, or any of those things. The thing lacking for me to take the initiative is, quite simply, interest.
As someone else recently pointed out to me, I clearly need to meet more people I find intriguing.
X. In which lurk possible Members Of Class Chondrichthyes, with no other End In Sight.
I agreed with him. Clearly I do. But neither of us had any idea of how to resolve the problem. After all, twisty, multilayered, perpendicular thinking isn’t a characteristic of a whole lot of people in medical school—or, surprisingly, law school (at least not the one I attended). And medical school—and residency—is where I’ll be for quite some time.
Which is why, all things considered—and absent any serendipitous dropping of intriguing available males in my lap—I’ll be going with the aquarium.
So Stacy, I hope you’re still working on that aquarium-based fishboyfriend schematic.
Maybe eventually I’ll upgrade to a shark tank.
*This phrase is not original. To see a long list including that and other utterly delicious analogies, see “It’s Like This” in Style Invitational, a Washington Post contest which has been endlessly pirated (including here, although unlike the others I at least had the decency to attribute the source correctly).