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 EMOTION album, 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 EMOTION album, 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.