This is my contribution to Witches Magazine, Issue #2: Bodies. Read the feminist literary magazine in full here.
On a Thursday night in the spring, I carve out two hours to get ready for a first date. This is typical for the occasion. I need time to shower, shave, moisturize, do my makeup, dry my hair, curl my hair, floss only the teeth that show, and chew a piece of gum but spit it out before I arrive. Femininity is oppressive, I groan to myself as I pluck a half-inch-long black hair out of my left nipple. Personally, I wouldn’t choose Wild Colonial, a try-hard dive bar on South Water Street in Providence, as a location for a first date. It is simple to say the bar’s harsh lighting and clientele of primarily middle-aged men don’t scream romantic, but more damning than the subpar atmosphere are my past experiences at Wild Colonial. To remember these prior visits is to watch former versions of myself stumble through my nascent romantic endeavors. These memories remain vivid a year later, and even two years later, because the scenes are raw, and my vulnerability is vast, as if I’m the protagonist in a heavy-handed indie coming of age film. The audience members cringe at my choices and circumstances, desperate but unable to pull their eyes away from the screen, as they hope I will escape unscathed. In one of these memories I am newly 22, disoriented by my recent move to the city, missing the confidence I had in college, and spilling my glass of Downeast Cider as I set it down across from my very first Tinder date. I jump to grab a thick stack of square, white napkins and plop them on the spill, wiping with nervous, shaking hands. All the while I am keeping up small talk, terrified of awkward silences, and regretting using so much hairspray, because I can tell my hair isn’t moving when I turn my head, and that must look strange, I figure. I am at Wild Colonial not because I genuinely want to meet this man, but because I believe that going on a Tinder date is the right thing for a normal person my age to do. I make a lot of choices I think I am supposed to make during this time, regardless of what I really want, which is precisely how I find myself pointing at the tattoos on the arms of this guy I was never attracted to, listening to him explain the significance of each image, and wishing my body would vanish into thin air. A year later I visit Wild Colonial a second time, for an after-work happy hour that I spend trying desperately to get the attention of a guy whose feelings for me are consistent only in their inconsistency. I go home with an emotional hangover and lie face down on my living room floor with my headphones in, while he heads to the airport, en route to a vacation in Mexico with his girlfriend. Despite a year passing and my meeting many more romantic prospects in the meantime, all of whom I’ve since lost feelings for, my memories do not feel distant. But this new guy seems promising, and different than the others, so when he suggests we meet up at Wild Colonial, I suppress my memories of melodrama and hope that this time, beneath the harsh lighting and between the groups of older men, I’ll find what I’ve been looking for. My hope is quickly justified when I learn that my date is sarcastic in the same way that I am. We laugh a lot, and he’s smart, and I agree with most of his very niche opinions about music and politics. He talks more than I do, so by default I resign to asking him a lot of questions. He doesn’t try to correct the disparity. Still, I start to form a crush on him as we talk about Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTIONalbum, about Cory Booker’s potential and flaws, about Simone de Beauvoir’s construction of gender. “This is the same thing I wore to work today,” he tells me, about halfway through the date, when I say I like his shirt. I suppress an eye roll and flash back to plucking out my nipple hair. “We have a pretty casual dress code in the office.” My elbows are planted on the high-top table between us, one on each side of my second Downeast, and I am talking with my hands, as I always do. He leans his face closer to mine, smirks, and starts imitating my expressions, copying my demonstrative tones and restless movements. I can tell he likes me more than I like him, which in turn makes me like him more. When he talks with his hands like me, our fingers tap together. “I swear I’m not making fun of you,” he says. “I’m just trying to be cute and flirty and I really want to hold your hand.” I smile and reach my hand across the table between us. He takes it and gently holds on. My hatred of Wild Colonial begins to soften easily, like turning down the smooth dial on the car radio down until the song fades to silence. This happens mostly because he holds my hand while we walk through the parking lot to my car. He keeps looking at me, trying to make eye contact, but I am too distracted to meet his gaze. A group of bikers is behind us, all of them smoking cigarettes and talking, and I can see the light above them flickering out of the corner of my eye. Its yellow hue comes and goes unpredictably, stark and saturated like a paint swatch, an artificial imitation of a color found in nature. A couple that looks a lot like us walks past comfortably and the woman smiles at me like we share a secret. I follow her eyes with mine but don’t smile back, convinced there is a difference between us. Untrusting and unsettled, I hesitate like I do in grocery stores in southern states, where strangers greet me like they know me. The cars on South Water Street zip by on my right, the drivers rushing to make the light before it changes back to red, so desperate to get to their destinations that they are quick to push and give up grace but not quite willing to break the law. “Hey,” he says to me, coyly, and stops walking. He puts his other hand on my waist and kisses me once. My brain finally dismisses its distractions when I am struck by how quickly and aggressively this man has stuck his tongue in my mouth. I drive him home, just around the corner, and put my car in park blocking the end of his driveway. Within a minute he kisses me again, and his tongue is down my throat again, and he is leaning over the console, his body above mine, his hand gripping my thigh and pulling me closer to him. My glasses get pressed against my face and fogged by his breath. He struggles to dodge my scarf and seatbelt as he tries to kiss my neck. My nose ring nearly falls out. I pull back. Immediately he asks, “Am I encroaching on your personal space? I’m sorry.” “No, it’s okay,” I say, unsure if I mean it. “You’re just very eager.” In a split second, I need to decide if I am enjoying this, and I'm torn. This is what you’re always craving, I think to myself, remembering many midnights I’ve spent staring up at my ceiling, swallowing melatonin and wishing it were Xanax, swiping through dating apps and wishing a man would prove he wanted me like this one is now. I tell myself I should be grateful for the attention. It's better than nothing, I think. Don’t be such a hypocrite. I do know for sure that he kisses with far too much tongue and I have to figure out a polite way to tell him this. I wonder what we must look like from the outside, and I think of the couples on TLC who kiss for the first time at their weddings, months of anticipation and sexual tension driving them toward each other’s faces with open mouths, starved bodies. “You can go a little easier.” He listens, so I park my car in a proper spot across the street and continue kissing him until he asks if I want to come inside. “I’m considering it,” I say, contemplating my options out loud. “But what are your expectations if I do?” “No, no, no—none! Never. I would never have any expectations. My expectations are so low—I mean, not low like bad, but low like nonexistent. I think it’s always wrong to have any sort of expectations because you never know if…” He trails off. I’ve asked him to recognize his ethics and express them earnestly, and he is trying to do so while also trying to win me over. I love watching him negotiate this. He, like other feminist men I’ve dated, knows that our culture has shifted since the Me Too movement, and he is trying to adapt appropriately. I let him ramble for a minute before I cut him off. I feel powerful, and I agree to come inside. His roommates sit talking at their kitchen table, and I say a brief and awkward hello to them, but they aren’t friendly to me. They immediately disperse into their respective bedrooms and I feel like an inconvenience. This makes me anxious. I wonder how often they do this—how often he does this. I glance around his bedroom at the dirty clothes scattered on the floor, at the cluttered nightstand with a copy of Infinite Jest on it. I pick up a vinyl from a stack of records in a dusty milk crate at the foot of his bed. As I skim the liner notes of Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTIONalbum, he apologizes for the mess and tosses clothes from his bed into a hamper. “She really wrote the definition of ‘emotion’ right there on the cover,” I say, running my fingertips along the album art. “I love that so much.” I keep my eyes locked securely on the album, surveying it, because focusing on one thing while he flits around me makes me feel in control. I glance at my hands and realize that they’re shaking. I’m nervous. I want to appear calm but my body is betraying me. I can’t feel the movement, can only see it from the outside, and I hope he doesn’t notice. He doesn't. He takes the record from me and places it indiscriminately on his dresser. I take a deep breath. He pulls me from the edge of his bed closer to where he's sitting, gentle but swift, and I let myself fall into him, because I want to, because it feels good. I take off my glasses and place them carefully on his nightstand. I can see nothing beyond his face. “Now I can dissociate from this entire thing,” I joke, based on experience. We both laugh. As the night progresses, he doesn’t hesitate to move things forward, and I don’t hesitate to slow him down, move his hands to a different place, or tell him he’s skipping a step. He checks in with me each time before initiating anything. “We have time,” I tell him eventually, when he asks if I’m okay. “You don’t need to rush. I’m already here, aren’t I?” I am still talking with my hands, this time flipping them tersely, gesturing toward my naked body lying in his bed on our first date. “I’m sorry.” The words tumble out of his mouth, knee jerk. He says, “I guess I’m used to doing more than this.” My anxiety arrives in the bedroom from the kitchen; I remember how cold his roommates were, how they left the room on cue, how it all seemed routine. A phrase enters my head, the same one I screamed at myself after my last visit to Wild Colonial: you’re one of many. I clench my teeth. “You mean you just really, really like me, right?” I say, providing one of my many suggestions from the night. He says yes. Later, I lie next to him for a little while and run my fingertips along his chest, feigning companionship, perhaps practicing for a future lover. I am silent, uncharacteristically unable to voice what I’m thinking, and it dawns on me that I barely know the man I’m lying in bed with. I kiss him just to fill the silence. After he gets out of bed, I reach my hand out to grab my glasses. I let the details of his bedroom come back into focus, beginning with an open box of condoms on his nightstand. We didn’t have sex. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” he says to me, with a single lighthearted laugh, as I’m putting my bra back on. “Don’t say that,” I snap, noting that I like his sense of humor but not in this moment. “You’re going to make me feel guilty.” “Why would you feel guilty?” “Like I did too much too soon,” I say, uncovering something I didn’t know I was worried about. His eyebrows come together in confusion. “You definitely didn’t do too much.” A chill sneaks through the glass of his front door as I reach for my car keys in the hall, slowly guiding a long keychain from my college bookstore out of my tiny going-out bag. He puts his hands on my hips as he asks when he can see me again. “You said you’re free on Wednesday, right?” “Thursday’s better, actually,” I tell him. “I don’t teach on Fridays.” “I’m going to text you… probably tomorrow. Is that too soon? Will I seem too desperate if I text you tomorrow?” I like that he’s being clear, being sweet. He kisses me well, hugs me better. Providence is desolate after midnight, so I fill up both sides of the narrow road between the rich, old houses on Benefit Street as I drive home. The neighborhood is picturesque even after dark. Colonial style lamp posts punctuate tree-lined streets like a Hollywood movie set, providing just enough light to remind me that I am passing through a place I can’t afford to live. The houses’ primary colors, Doric columns, and white front porches engulf me in the promise of domesticity. Like always, I curse the city for being too small, wishing my drive home were longer—I need time to think, to make sense of my cacophony of thoughts, and to listen to EMOTION, which sits comfortably in my CD drive like it’s paid rent to be there. On my way to Wild Colonial I was hopeful, so track two had sounded perfect to me, and I sang along to it as if I held the power to curate the soundtrack to my own life. I exhale for what feels like the first time all night, releasing the tension in my shoulders but feeling it grow in my chest.That could’ve been better, I think first. If I knew him better. I try to process my uneasiness: I know I’m not feeling sad, or regretful, or violated in any way. I know I did exactly what I wanted to do, I know I listened to my body, I know I communicated well. I know he responded to my requests without questioning me. Yet I leave this man’s house feeling deeply disappointed upon realizing that none of my sexual experiences are happening the way I always imagined them happening. Even though I am now making the choices I intuitively want to make, I am making them in conditions that are not ideal—namely, outside of a relationship, and almost always lacking anything resembling intimacy. I park in the street as close to my front door as possible, risking a parking ticket, and stay awake until 4, tossing and turning in my empty apartment alone. A few days later, I meet up with my sister, Melanie, for lunch at a poké restaurant on the east side of the city. We get lunch because I am desperate to talk through the details of this date. We get lunch because this is what we do. She chooses a table by the window, where the direct sunlight invites us to enjoy the warmth while protected from the late-March cold for a little while. As we talk, I remember that we sat at the exact same table on New Year's Day, the last time we went in search of a place to talk about an experience with a different guy that left me feeling equally conflicted. I start to tell Melanie about the date, about our drinks going well, about his kissing with too much tongue, about my leaving with agita. I go on to explain to her that in order to have the sexual experiences that I genuinely want to have for my own enjoyment, my own growth, my own stories, while still looking for someone who is worth being in a committed relationship with, I have been required to lend my body to near strangers who often don’t know what to do with it. “Sex isn’t like the movies, you know,” Melanie counters, candid and kind at the same time—her specialty. “It’s normal for it to be awkward and uncomfortable sometimes.” “I know that,” I say, and I mean it. “I definitely like him, and I don’t regret anything I chose to do. But I guess when I was younger I always thought I’d only make these choices within the safety of some wonderful relationship with someone I loved, and that’s not happening for me.” Melanie replies with yet another stinging memory of my former self. “But when you were younger, you also pictured yourself growing up to be a Disney Channel star.” I drop my head down to the table, rest it on my forearm next to an açai bowl. “But you know that almost nothing in life happens the way you imagine it will. Why would sex be any different?” Melanie talks like I do—she is all dramatic narratives and pithy commentary and ostentatious vocabulary. She offers me a story from when she was my age—about hooking up with a firefighter, being horrified by it, then being glad she did it—and by the end, tears glide out the sides of my eyes as I try to suppress my loud laughter in the small restaurant. I never imagined I’d spend my twenties laughing over poké in Providence with my older sister, but I feel no need to mourn my failed dream of becoming a Disney Channel star. My next few days are consumed by my analyzing this one date. As he texts me to chat and to confirm our plans for Thursday, I remind myself that my disappointment isn’t about him in particular, but about the general dissatisfaction that comes with being an adult woman living a real life with real nuances. This is not a reason to settle for subpar relationships—or even subpar dive bars, I’d argue—but it is a reason to let go of the disappointment deriving not from a particular negative experience, but from the lack of an idealized experience. Like I’ve done in all other areas of my life, when deciding how to use my body, all I can do is continue to make the choices that make me as happy as possible given my real life in the moment. But my body does not exist within a vacuum, so the choices I make surrounding it do not automatically feel empowering just because I chose them myself. I am still susceptible to guilt, and shame, and social standards, and disappointment, and expectations influenced by pop culture. Being liberated enough to have choices does not mean the given options will fulfill me; making feminist choices does not guarantee that I won’t leave his house with a lump in my throat. Living in a body full of emotion is inherently difficult. I think back to Carly Rae Jepsen, to Cory Booker, to Simone de Beauvoir, and I feel more confident in my feelings for this man, more sure that this has the potential to be something good, more willing to let myself enjoy a new crush and see where it leads. It is the first time in months that I’ve felt this optimistic about someone. On Wednesday, he cancels our second date without an explanation.
In early September I receive an email that reads, “On 30th November The 1975 will release their third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships.” Immediately, I text a screenshot of the announcement to my friend Amelia and write, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Because she knows my stories and knows me, Amelia understands that my caustic text is a reference to my recent attempts to become A Young Woman Who Successfully Dates Men In The Modern Age. These recent attempts—a plight, if you will—have been documented in great detail in the neurotic text messages I’ve sent to Amelia throughout the last year. She handles my neuroses with patience, empathy, and an extremely prompt response time, and I try to do the same for her. The men we’ve been texting each other about this year have come into our lives in a variety of ways: on dating apps, through set-ups, via Instagram DMs, as coworkers and classmates. Regardless of how these romantic relationships begin, all of them are influenced in some way by the online, by our use of digital technology to communicate. Matty Healy, the frontman of The 1975, explains this inevitable link in interviews about the new album. “If you make a record about any kind of relationship,” he says, “you’re making a record about the internet.”
Amelia and I rarely admit the names of the men we’re referring to in our conversations. Committing them to (virtual) ink feels permanent and serious, and the men we tell each other about are rarely more than fleeting fascinations. Without ever discussing it, we assign them all pseudonyms based on some niche characteristic that typically the other one notices. We talk at length about men like Tank Top, Irish guy, hot dad, the Australian, the socialist, The Arrogant Kisser, neck tattoo, International Fuckboy, Android, boring guy, sex guy. (Sometimes one man will receive more than one pseudonym; for example, boring guy and sex guy are the same guy, which is, of course, problematic.)
Sometimes I worry we’re objectifying or dehumanizing these men by refusing to let their real names slip through our lips. Sometimes I think we are simply implementing a strategy to keep track of each other’s personal lives, which is difficult because Amelia lives in New York and I live in Providence, and most of our communication happens over text. Sometimes it feels like a defense mechanism, as if obscuring their whole identities will prevent these men from gaining the power to hurt us. Whatever the reason, these pseudonyms punctuate our conversations as we provide each other with brief inquiries into our online relationships nearly every day.
I delete the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat apps from my phone immediately after I get semi-broken up with in a Facebook message in October. Disappointed by yet another lost hope, I am desperate to feel in control of some part of my life, and I can’t think of any other way to regain my grip. The following morning, a Wednesday, my alarm blares, and I wake up with the familiar feeling of an emotional hangover. On this first day, I don’t search for my deleted apps like I will every morning for the next month. I glance at my phone immediately but briefly, and when I see that there are no messages waiting for me, I slide the phone right back under my pillow.
Mindlessly, I walk to my bathroom, sit down on the toilet, and begin to cry for the first time since April. There is nothing glamorous about it, or even endearing. There is only me, my unwashed hair, 1970s bathroom decor, and a small handful of deep sobs that feel like medicine.
The app deletion isn’t revelational, but I grow to like it, so it lasts longer than my sadness over this particular man does. It doesn’t make me feel any more connected to the “real” world, or present in the moment, or mentally balanced like the op-eds say it will. Instead, I become ignorant to much of what’s happening in the world as I disconnect from the news and other people, and without a distraction available to me at all times, I am forced to face the ruminating thoughts racing around my head, which are particularly cruel to me after I’ve been semi-broken up with in a Facebook message. I picture these thoughts slamming against the walls of my brain, ricocheting and circling and bouncing like wrestlers getting flung against the ropes during a match. To distract myself and fill my new free time, I begin reading more, but not by much. I read Abbi Jacobson’s memoir quickly, but it isn’t as good as I want it to be. Much of it is about getting broken up with.
As a graduate student, I spend these weeks teaching college freshmen during the day and taking my own classes at night. As I transition between these two identities—which is quite disorienting in October—I sit in my car for about an hour each evening, listening to The 1975 and repeatedly locking and unlocking my phone as I work to break the habits I’ve had for six years. As I eat some shitty takeout and see the sun set a little earlier each day, I let myself sulk in sadness in campus parking lots. I listen to the promotional singles from A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, along with the band’s last two albums, which I’ve loved for years but have never before needed quite like this. During a season when I am particularly pessimistic about my romantic relationships, the four members of The 1975 remind me that heterosexual men can have passionate and complicated feelings for the women they date. Lately I have been doubting this, or at least forgetting it. For a few fleeting but important moments each day, Matty Healy’s words allow me to imagine that maybe the man who has disappointed me is sulking in sadness over losing me as well.
When A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is finally released, I add it to my (metaphorical) list of art that reminds me why life is worth living. What this means is that when I listen to the album during my long commute every day, I want to scream and cry and write and sing and dance all at the same time. What this means is that the album proves to me that my experiences and emotions, the euphoric and the enervating, are worthy of being immortalized in writing that can outlive me. What this means is that consuming these experiences and emotions proves to be my favorite thrill of all.
Earlier in the year, I go on one of my best first dates ever with a man who makes nearly every decision for me. He chooses the restaurant and the time and the bottle of wine for us to have with dinner. He pays for everything and initiates conversations—which includes asking me a question about what constitutes neoliberal feminism before we even order—and he is so charming that it worries me. He comes prepared with options, and asks for my approval, but he seems to have an ideal plan for the night already in his head, and I come to find that his Plan A is quite nice.
After dinner, he leads me up the block to a bar he likes, where the Friday night crowd conveniently forces us to isolate ourselves at a small table in the back corner. We spend an hour or two trading sarcastic comments, each of us trying to top the other’s wit. A string of colored lights traces the perimeter of the patio, and I am pressing my thumb on the straw in my drink, folding and bending it until it’s sharp with centimeter-long creases—my nervous tic. He grabs my straw, tosses it on the table, and replaces it with his own.
As we’re leaving, I tell him I’m not going back to his house tonight, because I’ve just met him. But he insists that we go for a walk around the neighborhood—his neighborhood—and I know that he is leading me home. I walk to his house carefully, aware that my heels, my nerves, the dilapidated Providence sidewalks, and the bottle of wine I’ve finished are all working against me.
Later in the night, while I am kissing him, I notice that my arms feel heavy from the alcohol, and I try to actively stop them from falling down, from being as lazy as they want to be. My hands slide off his back and plop down next to me over and over again, and each time it reminds me how leaden my body feels. So we lie on our sides with our legs entwined and his hand on my hip, and I tell him,“I’m not going to have sex with you tonight.”
I hear the words fall out of my mouth blunt and brazen and I am surprised at my own willingness to be completely uninhibited—a benefit of the wine. He makes it clear that he would like if I changed my mind, but he doesn’t try to change my mind, so I feel both safe and desired.
In hindsight, I realize this situation was risky, and on paper, I wouldn’t recommend it to any of my women friends. But he listens to me, and he reacts to my body, to the things I say and the things I do, so nothing bad happens to me. I enjoy this date particularly because I am surrendering to not being in control, to not taking care of myself, and this is a stark contrast from my everyday life. As he orders another drink for me at the bar, I stand behind him envisioning the massive dichotomy between the image I have of myself as a feminist woman who deserves full control, and simply being a woman on a first date who is letting someone else lead for once and loving it.
I don’t see this man again after this date because we have a miscommunication over text. He gets lazy and fresh, and I lose my patience quickly so I cut him off. Three weeks later I am still thinking about him, so I decide to swallow my pride and call him to ask if he wants to go out again. I’m sitting in a restaurant in Lower Manhattan with Amelia, practicing what to say if he picks up, when I stop and ask her if she thinks this is a terrible idea.
“Probably,” she says. “He’s a total fuckboy. But I really want to see what happens.”
I run to the bathroom and call him from there; he picks up while he’s on his way to the airport for a business trip. The sound of the restaurant leaks beneath the bathroom door and I mishear a joke he tells, but I know he says he’ll call me when he’s back in town. He never does, though, and for several weeks after, I am left longing for closure and wondering if I’ll ever hear from him again.
Four months later, a friend who lives nearby sends me a screenshot of this man’s Tinder profile. “Look who I found!” she says, and my stomach drops when I see his photo show up on my phone. “Don’t worry, I’m not swiping right. I know he was an asshole to you,” she says, and I thank her for the loyalty.
But it is a Saturday night and I am bored and lonely and 23 years old and living in a relatively small city. I download Tinder for the first time in a year, set my age and location preferences strategically, and swipe left on every guy until I find his profile. This whole process takes less than four minutes. Ironically, chasing down this man makes me feel powerful.
“I moved to Boston right after that,” he tells me the next day, when we have inevitably begun texting again. “That’s why I never called you back.”
I don’t know if he is telling the truth about why he didn’t call, but I am happy to have some answer, to have something to blame other than myself. He tells me to let him know the next time I’m in Boston, and I don’t, but I'm satisfied by the invitation. Immediately after, I delete Tinder and text Amelia to confess my sins. I tell her that I burn too many bridges to live in a city this small.
The day after my one date with this man, I start reading Aziz Ansari’s 2015 book, Modern Romance, in an attempt to make sense of the online dating world I'm trying to enter. I buy the ebook on my phone because I don’t want to be seen in public reading relationship advice from someone who most recently made headlines for his controversial sex scandal in the height of the #MeToo movement. I sit out in the summer sun on a ferry from Connecticut to Long Island and back again devouring its virtual pages in secret, vaguely ashamed to be finding the comfort and insight I was craving in the facts and anecdotes he shares.
Throughout the year, Aziz Ansari’s scandal lingers over my personal life, because the men I date have watched it unfold and are now reacting to it. “These woke boys today have no idea what to do,” I theorize to Amelia in a series of half thought-out texts. “They know everything they’ve been taught about sex is wrong, but they have no idea what to do instead.”
I start solidifying this theory in the fall, after hooking up with a very woke guy who is extremely hesitant to initiate any physical contact beyond our first kiss, as if he is afraid of doing too much, or doing the wrong thing. In the moment, I begin spiraling in my own insecurities. He isn’t being as forward as I am, or as aggressive (like Aziz Ansari) as I expect all men to be. So I start to worry—even with his tongue down my throat—that he doesn’t like me, that he’s not attracted to me, that I’ve done something wrong. Instead of communicating this effectively, or asking him how he feels, I become resentful and quiet and cold. He notices this shift and worries that he’s done something wrong. He asks if I’m okay. I lie and say I’m fine.
Implementing my own theory, before her second date with a Woke Boy Of 2019, I warn Amelia, “I think you’re going to have to tell him directly to kiss you.” Her response, in classic Amelia fashion, is, “I thought so, too, but he’s a Leo.”
This theorizing is a reaction to my encountering a double-edged sword: I want this man (and all of them) to continue being overtly respectful and communicative and hesitant, to continue checking in with me and never overstep. But at the same time, I do not want to have to ask this man to touch me. I want to feel wanted, and it is difficult to feel secure in a sexual partner’s attraction to you when he is too afraid to take initiative, and when you are insecure in your own ability to attract someone or to lead a sexual encounter forward. This is directly related to the fact that my entire life I’ve been taught to expect men to act like Aziz Ansari did; I’ve been taught that male sexual desire is uncontrollable and indiscriminate, that straight men will always be willing and trying to have sex with women, and that it is therefore a woman’s responsibility to be the one who draws the line and makes the decision of how far they’ll go. Because we are learning how harmful this expectation is for both men and women, and because men are more complex than this brute, one-dimensional version of (hegemonic) masculinity, I find this narrative to be false in real life, which is a good thing, but it leaves me feeling frustrated, confused, and insecure.
In moments like these I feel like a terrible feminist, a huge hypocrite full of constant contradictions, for expecting men to consistently ask for consent but getting disappointed when they are too afraid to follow a situation as it progresses naturally, for not holding myself to the same standard of effective communication and explicit consent to which I hold men, and for still revering that one first date when I gave up so much control.
Amelia and I grapple with balancing the past and present as we crave a more progressive dating experience but aren't sure how to obtain one. We find that many of the old adages our mothers warned us about endure, even when dating the wokest of modern men. When a guy gets what he wants from me and never texts me again, I am unsurprised and unbothered by it, except that I wish it were a more interesting storyline. (There is no plot more predictable than “man finally convinces woman to go back to his apartment then promptly moves onto the next.”) Playing hard to get is still effective, but the game feels more like a war when there are so many different communication channels to strike from. (I’ve also learned that playing hard to get is different than actually being hard to get, and the latter is much more effective but much more difficult to obtain.) We can sense that modern rules are being rewritten as we go, but we can’t figure out if we’re the ones writing them or if we’re still following somebody else’s.
To navigate, we always try to be our Best Feminist Selves when dating the Woke Boys Of 2019. We think about what this means when deciding whether or not we “should” be the one to send the first text, or officially ask him out, or split the bill, and so on. Most of the time, we don’t hesitate to follow our instincts, take initiative, and ask for what we want, but that doesn’t mean it’s uncomplicated, or consistent for each individual situation, or that we don’t run our decisions by each other first.
For us, part of figuring out what it means to be our Best Feminist Selves is negotiating the pressure young women face to be a very particular brand of sexually empowered. In pop culture, we repeatedly see feminists represented as women who are empowered by their ability to attract men and have a casual and uninhibited sex life. (See my last blogpost for more about how this figure hurts women, or read my undergrad thesis, or just, like, have a casual conversation with me on any given day.) One of the trickle-down effects of this image on real-life women is the pressure to be able to have sex without prioritizing or desiring intimacy and companionship. According to this image, if a woman can’t make these sexually liberated decisions—without too many feelings, without second thoughts, without meaning—then she isn’t independent, isn’t sexually empowered, and therefore isn’t truly feminist.
In some ways this struggle is at least as old as the first episode of Sex and the City, back when Carrie couldn’t help but wonder if she could have emotionless sex “like a man.” But twenty years later, as countless women in pop culture represent sexual empowerment in this particular way, emotionless sex is expected not only from men, but from feminist women as well. Plus, as she tried to have sex “like a man,” I don’t think Carrie Bradshaw was questioning whether or not she was making feminist choices, so her success in this venture probably did not feel nearly as political or central to her identity as it does for me and the young women feminists I know. I will say without hesitation that being a feminist makes my life better (sit down, chauvinists), but it does not necessarily make it simpler.
I see the effects of this image of sexual empowerment manifest when my former coworker, who is 19, worries that she’s being too clingy when she asks the guy she’s seeing to hang out with her for a while after they have sex for the first time. She is clever and smart and feminist enough that as she tells me her stories, she makes jokes with punchlines like, “Virginity is a social construct, anyway, so what does it matter?” But as she tells me more about her relationship with this man, I can tell that she knows what she wants from him, but asking him for it makes her worry that she’s too emotional, too attached, too dependent. I am not immune to this pressure either, despite my being cognizant of its flaws. I realize how susceptible I am after trying to figure out if I can separate my desires for physical and emotional intimacy. Sick of being disappointed by first dates that don’t lead to second dates, and feeling every bit as jaded as Carrie Bradshaw was in her mid-30s, I start to think that I “should” be able to fill each of these intimacies with different men, with different experiences, when I can’t find one to fulfill both of them. I am convinced that my desire for sex should be distinct from my desire for companionship, or that I should be able to empower myself enough to make this true. When I spend a few weeks dating a man who never touches me unless he’s already kissing me, I realize that although I can separate them, I don’t want to.
The 1975’s Matty Healy is one of these Woke Boys Of 2019, we are sure of it. He recently sobered up during a stint in rehab, and now he is back to the band and trying to do the right thing for the modern age. We watch him navigate this new ground on A Brief Inquiry and in the press surrounding it.
“I’m making pop records,” Healy insists when he is characterized as a rock star. “When I say we’re a pop band, what I’m really saying is we’re not a rock band. Please stop calling us a rock band.” It’s often assumed that a 4-piece all-male band making very good music must be something other, something better than pop, otherwise their entire fanbase would be young female fans. Healy challenges this assumption, and in doing so, he challenges one of pop music’s negative connotations—a connotation rooted in the idea that only young girls and the mindless, tasteless masses like pop and therefore the quality of all pop music can be automatically discredited.
“But who are our peers?” Healy asks. “Because it’s not Imagine Dragons...It’s more like Ariana Grande. I feel more aligned with those kind of artists.”
During track seven, “Sincerity Is Scary,” Matty Healy sings, “I’m sure that you’re not just another girl / I’m sure that you’re gonna say that was sexist.” During track seven, “Sincerity Is Scary,” I scream, “I’m sure that you’re not just another girl / I’m sure that you’re gonna say that was sexist.” This is my favorite line on the album, so I mention it to The Arrogant Kisser during our third date, sitting next to his meddlesome Pitbull on an indigo couch in his overpriced studio apartment downtown, but he doesn’t get it.
Amelia is in town visiting me and we are in the bathroom of Tortilla Flats, a Providence restaurant I use to replace Cowgirl Seahorse, my staple New York restaurant. We and two more of my best friends came to Tortilla Flats to swap stories and eat quesadillas and drink pitchers of pomegranate margaritas. Amelia and I have to pee, because Amelia and I always have to pee, and as we stand at the bathroom sinks, I begin to gush about the guy I spent the weekend before with. We are drunk, and the bathroom is tiny, with uneven floors and a woman who walks in and hits me with the swinging door, which I deserve for standing at the sinks blubbering for so long. This has become a routine for me and Amelia: each time we are in the same city, we inevitably find ourselves drunk in a public bathroom and spilling our guts to each other on cue.
To confide all of the details I don’t tell anyone else, I talk a mile a minute, determined to express all of my feelings as quickly as possible while I have Amelia’s undivided attention. Both of us are swooning as I tell her, “He was so thoughtful and sweet and kind and I could tell he wasn’t just faking it to win me over, you know?”
We even use a real name for this one.
“I went to grab my cup of tea and he stopped me before I picked it up because it was too hot—like, who does that?!”
Amelia leans back, grips the edge of the sink with both of her hands, shoots her chin up toward the ceiling, and lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Nobody does that, Jac,” she assures me.
“But I don’t know why he’s taking so long to answer my texts!”
I kiss a friend of a friend briefly and when he texts me the following week to ask me out, I realize I'm not interested in dating him. I tell him this very directly, in a text, and say that I don’t want to lead him on. The next day, I get trampled by a stomach virus, or maybe food poisoning—we can never really know which. I pull over and puke on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant called Little Chopsticks. It is violent and dramatic and carries on for twelve hours, during which I ask my sister if I’m going to die. Although I’m shell-shocked for about a week after, I’m healthy again and mostly back to my normal self by the following morning.
I’m lying in bed watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and trying to finish a bowl of chicken soup when this friend of a friend finally texts me back, stating simply, “Ok I hope to see you around some time.” When I read his reply, I cannot believe that in the same 48 hours it took him craft a one-sentence text, I found the time to involuntarily purge the contents of my entire gastrointestinal system. I roll my eyes and toss my phone to the opposite end of my bed.
Several (healthy) months later, I fall for a guy who lives a couple of hours away from me in bumblefuck New England with terrible cell phone service and limited Wi-Fi. I know he lives far away and is mostly unreachable before our mutual friend sets us up, but I dive in anyway, stubbornly ignoring the very clear inhibitors standing between us. To make the best of the circumstances, I try to convince him to send me a handwritten love letter. I give him my address and tell him I’ll be checking the mail religiously.
For a few days after we go out, I am convinced we can outsmart all modern standards of communication. I’m different than the average 23-year-old, I tell myself. I don’t need constant communication like most millennials do. When a week passes and I’ve received neither a love letter nor a text message, I get restless and impatient. While sitting in my car in the Whole Foods parking lot, eating lunch out of a plastic container and staring mindlessly through my windshield, I decide I have to call my mom.
“Ma, I need you to tell me what you did in the olden days,” I say, my tone imperative, as soon as she picks up the phone. My mom is always happy when I disclose information about my romantic life, so she doesn’t react to the fact that I’ve just aged her about a century. She tells me something I’ve heard echoed in romantic comedies, something about if he doesn’t call by Wednesday for Saturday then he’s missed his chance. “But it entirely depends on the situation,” she adds as a disclaimer (mostly because she is rooting for this flakey, off-the-grid guy). “You’ll know in your gut when you’ve been waiting too long.”
In this situation, I try so hard to prove that I can be old fashioned and patient and therefore better than “those” young people who want instant gratification. I want to be flexible and cool and liberated and detached and lighthearted and chill. I’m the kind of woman who can delete her social media apps, I remind myself. As I distance myself from the flaws of modern communication technology, I try to mask this relationship as classic and romantic. In doing so, I start to expect less than my mom would’ve at my age. It takes me nearly three months to realize how much my standards have dropped.
At noon on a Friday I get a text from a guy I’m supposed to meet for the first time over drinks that night, and he’s asking me to “come cuddle” with him. I am immediately nauseated and send a screenshot to Amelia (and several other friends, too, because I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried). I’m about to teach a class of college freshmen a lesson on effective communication in intimate relationships, and this 25-year-old man I’ve never met has just asked me to come to his apartment in the middle of a weekday and “cuddle” with him.
Driving back to Providence after this day’s class takes an hour and a half in Friday afternoon traffic. Because the commute feels particularly taxing, I reroute my GPS halfway home and make my destination my sister and brother-in-law’s living room. I drop my bags on the floor, sit directly in front of their TV, pet their dog, and begin talking immediately.
In one breath I tell them, “I’m supposed to go out with this dude from the Hinge app tonight and I really don’t want to go at all and he’s already annoying me and I don’t know why I agreed to this or why I’m making any of the decisions I’ve been making lately and I think I’m just doing things to say I did them or to get a good story out of them and it doesn’t feel right at all and I don’t know what to do about any of this.”
My older, wiser sources of support and stability read through my texts with this potential date and see why I’m no longer interested in him. “But how can I cancel now?” I ask. “I’m supposed to meet up with him in two hours.”
My sister takes my phone and crafts a text for me—some story about getting back together with an ex—and asks for my approval before hitting send. The only change I make is adding the word “really” before “sorry.”
I sigh with relief and stay in with my sister and brother-in-law all night. We sit on their teal couch and eat frozen pizza and macaroni and cheese as we gush about wanting to be kids again while watching The Indian In The Cupboard and making cynical comments for 90 minutes straight.
After this, I decide to delete all the dating apps from my phone for a few weeks. I call it a dating sabbatical. I stop shaving my legs. It is excellent until it isn’t anymore. I am in a constant cycle, a constant ricocheting between downloading and deleting dating apps. Every time I quit, the same knowledge creeps back into mind eventually: there is a world of opportunities—for attention, for entertainment, for love—only a click away, and it would be stupid not to dive in. This is overly simplistic, of course, because constantly swiping and scrolling and self-monitoring and texting and grabbing drinks is so emotionally taxing that even a very good first date can feel like a pyrrhic victory. But each time I delete them, I remember that sometimes the apps can be good, and I am tempted by the promise of what could be. Like a siren song, I remember making out with a guy during my first-ever Hinge date, when he paused to ask me, “You’re only going to use Hinge now, right?” And I laughed and said, “We could be in a commercial for it!”
But more convincing than the potential for more moments like these is the constant pressure I feel to be taking advantage of this technology. How can I complain about being single, or heartbroken, or lonely, or bored on a Saturday night when the internet has cultivated a seemingly endless database of potential suitors for me, and swiping left and right through them is so easy? The feeling that I’m not trying hard enough sits with me as often as I have my phone on me.
Eventually I catch myself trying to collect horror stories from dating apps, like some sort of skewed political commentator grasping select evidence for a biased argument. This is why I agree to go out with a guy who writes in his Tinder bio that he’s “ethically non-monogamous,” even though non-monogamy is exactly what I’ve spent the last year trying to escape. I cancel the date once I realize that I want to go only so I can add it to my list of negative evidence—a terrible ending would give me tangible proof of “how bad it is out there,” of why Tinder is a terrible place to find yourself, so that the next time I delete the app, maybe I’ll be able to do so without the guilt that always accompanies this choice. Look how hard I tried and I still ended up getting hurt, I picture myself saying, shoving my phone screen in the face of some indistinguishable figure. Why does the whole world keep telling me to do this?
“He definitely listens to this song and thinks of me,” I tell Amelia—and only Amelia—about track six, fully aware that the man I’m referring to is not actually listening to this album. “Be My Mistake” is the guitar ballad of A Brief Inquiry, and I am playing it on repeat during my drive to school in the morning, projecting my own stories onto its lyrics and relishing the validation.
“I’m dedicating it to myself from him. I’m the one he really loves, though,” I clarify to Amelia, almost disrespectful in my decision to explain the metaphor, as if there’s any chance she doesn’t get it at this point. “I’m not the one Matty was sleeping with in rehab. I’m the one who’s not the mistake, obviously.”
There is bravado in statements like these, in this willingness to claim someone else’s stories as your own, but this is what good music—especially good pop music—allows us to do. Good music fills our egocentric desire to see our feelings reflected in writing. In these moments, when I am convinced a song was written just for me, I feel like I’m in middle school again, taping handwritten lyrics to my bedroom walls, grateful to finally feel understood. The feeling is singular and superlative.
A woman tweets at The 1975 saying that A Brief Inquiry has taken her mind and put it into lyrics and music. She says it is “incomprehensible” and “scary” how much the band understands her. Matty Healy replies to her tweet, saying, “The Barnum effect is a common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them, that are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.”
Brooklyn dog walker, rehab boy, the 19-year-old, Vermont boy, New Hampshire boy, Long Island boy (all three of these belong to me, and I live in none of these three places, you may note), very cute but very dumb, Lady Bird guy, my young Bernie Sanders, the bassist (who later gets demoted to bASSist), floppy hair, “ethically non-monogamous,” normal guy.
During the last week of the fall semester, I assign my students an article called “The IRL Fetish.” In it, the author critiques the idea that our online and offline lives are two separate things, instead arguing that the online is a part of the offline and vice versa. He says the separation between the two, which he calls “digital dualism,” is an inaccurate way to describe our relationships with the internet. What we experience in person and what we experience online are intertwined and overlapping, and when we try to distance them, we fetishize the “real” world as something rare, as if it isn’t all around us.
I was a senior in college the first time I read this article, taking a class about changes in communication technology. I’ve had it bookmarked since then, and I’ve occasionally sent it to friends when a related topic comes up in conversation; more hopefully, I’ve saved it for a day when I could teach like this. As we discuss the article in class, my teaching is being observed by my professor, and my students recognize this and excel. They are the most engaged and participatory and thoughtful and articulate that they have been all semester. They have my back. They are looking out for me.
Most of my students disagree with the author. They feel a distinct and debilitating dichotomy between what they experience in real life and what they post online. They already know that the online personas they and their peers uphold can be completely false, and they are anxious to discuss this in class, outsmarting the original discussion questions I had planned. I can tell they have already spent time thinking critically about their use of digital technology, and when given the space to discuss it, they are eager. There is so much panic about young people needing to be media literate, needing to recognize the dishonesty that fuels the content constructed for social media, but my students are so literate already. This is the last thing they need.
“This whole thing is exhausting. Not only the grand ideas of life, just the drudge of the day to day. It’s fucking exhausting,” Matty Healy says in an interview with Genius.com. He is giving insight into the lyrics of A Brief Inquiry, and saying things like, "I care, because what about all my feelings?” and I am sitting in a café in Providence watching every interview and reading through every lyric of every song on the album, enthralled by its sentiment and quality, analyzing metaphors like I’m studying for a literature exam. Mocking my own hyper-focused tendencies, I text Amelia, “Matty Healy analyzing his own writing is my kink.”
Later that night, I read my sister some text messages from a guy who, at a New Year's Eve party a month later, I will drunkenly complain, takes everything too seriously! I’m not there yet, though, and we are still on good terms at this point.
“He’s very dramatic,” my sister says after I read her the texts. “He was definitely an emo kid in high school.”
“I know, right?!” I say, feeling validated. “But I think I love it. I mean, who else writes about their feelings so explicitly like this?”
“Well, you do,” she says.
But as they say, everything in moderation, so the same week I receive these emo texts, I am back on Hinge and for whatever shitty algorithmic reason, I match with a guy who lives several hours away in New Hampshire. I’m annoyed and angry about the distance between us, and I’m mumbling profanities to myself about dating apps and “the nature of the medium” when he messages me. We end up texting for three days, knowing it will lead to nothing and nowhere, which allows us both to be careless with what we say. Every time I see his name show up on my phone, I realize how intoxicating attention can be. He tells me about getting cheated on, I tell him about the emo guy, and the lack of foreseeable consequences is liberating. Writing to a romantic prospect without critically strategizing first is starkly different than what I’ve been doing all year, and despite how arbitrary our few conversations are, this is a welcome and important relief.
Before he semi-breaks up with me in a Facebook message, I get coffee with a guy one weekend while he is passing through town for a wedding, and I am wearing his suit jacket and crossing an item off my bucket list.
“I’m a really good person to have a crush on,” I say to him, sitting outside a cafe on Thayer Street as the sun sets. I notice that when I catch him off guard with something charming, his smile consumes his normally stoic face without his permission, like an uninvited guest arriving at a dinner party.
“I tend to write about my feelings, so I’m an open book on the internet.” I wouldn’t normally admit this, not if I didn’t trust him.
“You should read my blog.”
I hear these words slip out of my mouth and immediately regret them, so I follow up with, “God, I’m sorry, I hate every single person who has a blog.”
I’ve made this statement before, and it feels true each time, but of course it isn’t really accurate. Both because of and in spite of its blazing honesty, I often think my online writing is the most authentic and the best version of myself that I can provide to anyone. Writing publicly about myself allows me to feel in control of my own narrative. For years I’ve been spilling my secrets here, yes, but if someone wants to know these secrets, they have to toil through all of the sentences I’ve crafted for them; they have to dig deep into my metaphors and lyrics and ethics and anecdotes. In other words, I’m willing to let people in if it happens on my own terms.
Confiding in other people doesn’t feel like it’s happening on my own terms when I can’t keep my mouth shut. I always confide in extremes: I tell people the whole story or none at all. Throughout the fall, I can feel myself ricocheting between these two extremes as my sadness tries to escape my heart through my conversations. Genuine to a fault, all season I avoid people I have half-hearted relationships with, lest I make myself too vulnerable and regret it later. By the end of the semester, I am grateful to have deleted my social media apps. If I hadn’t, I would have tweeted sad lyrics by The 1975 at least a dozen times a day. None of the men in this brief inquiry share their feelings on the internet, and this begins to feel unfair after a while.
In response, this man says to me, “You live in Providence. I was three questions away from asking you for a link to your blog.”
“Shouldn’t we be having more fun?” Amelia and I ask each other sometimes. “Isn’t this the most attractive we’ll ever be? It’s still not working.”
We have many men with pseudonyms to talk about, many feelings and stories to share with each other, but we end most days feeling frustrated and uneasy. We are morally righteous about it, too. We have very clear ideas about what these men should be doing, how they should feel and treat us, as if we both have already discovered the very simple secrets of contentment and are just searching for men who also know these secrets. It has yet to go smoothly for either of us.
Most recently, I befriend a woman while standing on line for the bathroom in a bar, as one does. Twenty minutes later, I am talking to her boyfriend’s best friend on the dance floor, our faces close and my forearms resting on his shoulders. He laces his fingers in the belt loops of my jeans, pulls my hips against his, and kisses me well. When he texts me the next day saying he wants to take me to dinner, I swear to Amelia that from now on I will let things happen to me, that I am done putting effort into romantic relationships, that I’ll never actively pursue a crush again. My logic is this: casual dating is so stressful and disappointing, but kissing British boys in bars on the Upper East Side is all fun, all light and sexy and good and easy, so why would I ever do anything else?
But I know this feeling isn’t sustainable. What I’m referring to is a thrill, it’s not satisfaction, and a thrill isn’t someone who can help you shoulder your sadness in the fall.
It is no secret that I am lonely, but a lot of the men we date seem lonely, too. In Providence, many of them live alone and adopt cats and dogs as soon as they move into their studio apartments. In New York, Amelia finds that men on dating apps often want to text regularly without making an effort to meet up in person. (In both cities, a lot of them are software engineers, which is unrelated, but just a general turn off I’d like to address.)
But I imagine that my loneliness would be overwhelming if I didn’t have Amelia. If I were a straight man and had primarily male friends, what would those friendships and conversations look like compared to mine with Amelia? What would I be seeking out from the women I’d theoretically be dating? And how would I navigate my romantic relationships if I didn’t have Amelia to send screenshots to? To answer my texts so quickly? To vent to when a relationship unravels, and to think up dreams with when a new crush is forming? To call me at 1 am during her walk to the Q train after a perfect date? To catch my emotions in her palms in the bathrooms of bars and restaurants? To answer my phone call from the Lyft ride home when I am trying to figure out why The Arrogant Kisser refused to hold my hand? To let me rest my head in her lap, lying on her futon, on a night in December when we are both too drunk to keep it together—which I’ll regret deeply during my bus ride back to Providence the next morning, but not in the long run—my eyes brimming with tears, the music video for “Sincerity Is Scary” playing on the TV, as I confess to her and only her how much I’m still hung up on the one who stopped me from picking up my cup of tea?
What would our lives look like without our very own online relationship?
In November, I decide to retire my blog once and for all. Almost four years of writing publicly—first music reviews as (very bad) writing samples for unpaid editorial jobs, then more personal monthly stories about my life as a college student, then a few essays about the albums I clung to as a postgrad trying desperately to find my way back to who I was in college and in New York—has left me unsure of where to go next, of what kinds of stories are worthy of my readers’ attention. I believe I always will write honestly about music, about my feelings, about being a feminist, but it has become increasingly difficult to do so without incriminating the people with whom I have relationships. When visiting my friends in New York during my Thanksgiving break, I tell them I am done with blogging, done with Jac’s Review—extremely aware and annoyed that the URL I purchased in 2015 hasn’t related to my content for several years now. But then, on 30th November, The 1975 release their third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, and it proves to me that my experiences and emotions, the euphoric and the enervating, are worthy of being immortalized in writing that can outlive me.
We took these pictures the night I cried in her lap. We also took photos of us posing as Simon & Garfunkel. Do with this information what you wish.
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