Discover more from Hugo Schwyzer
Life Just Happens to Me: A Note on Love and Passivity
Stephanie and I regard each other over across the table. We are at Barneys Beanery on Santa Monica Promenade. We met three hours ago for a coffee date. That coffee date turned into a long walk and talk. Enjoying the conversation, I asked Stephanie to have dinner with me. It’s only 5:15, but we’ve walked quite a bit. We’re both hungry.
Stephanie is 28. I am 32. She is not my student. We’ve met on Matchmaker, one of the earliest Internet dating sites. Six months from now, I will meet my third wife on that same site – but for now, I study the pretty olive-skinned brunette across from me. She studies me back.
And I know. I know we’re going to call it at friends. I am attracted to Stephanie– I like her scent, her jawline, the way she laughs. She’s bright and ambitious. I can tell she’s intrigued by me. I am no mind reader, but there’s something in her eye that suggests she’s, at the least, open to spending more time together.
I also know she wants me to take the lead. And I want her to be bold. And I can tell that neither one of us is going to be happy or comfortable taking the initiative. More precisely, I can tell that Stephanie is exactly like me: our wanting flares when we know we are wanted. We are reactors, not actors. I’ve temporarily sworn off sleeping with students, but I spent years waiting for bold girls with crushes to make the first move – both to insulate me against harassment charges, and because, to be honest, I love to know I’m wanted.
I would rather be chaste than chase. I don’t care if it’s unmanly or disappointing. It’s my identity, and I’m not going to surrender it now.
Dinner is good. Stephanie and I make each other laugh. I walk her to her car in the parking structure afterwards, and as we say goodbye, we each give each other an unspoken last chance, as if we’re both muttering,“If you’re gonna shift this dynamic, buster, now’s the time.” Neither of us step out of our comfort zones. The hug is friendly but devoid of any erotic charge. I do not claim to be an expert on women, but I know that my absence of assertiveness has snuffed out whatever small flame of interest she might have had earlier. I feel exactly the same way.
It's 1999, so we don’t text yet. I get home, and instead send Stephanie an email:
I get the feeling we don’t have a romantic connection. But I had a really great time. Would you like to hang out again, just as friends? We can compare notes on this crazy internet dating thing!
Even then, if Stephanie had written back, “Slow your roll, bud – why are you so sure we don’t have a connection?” I might reconsider. But I know how this goes and am content with it.
The reply comes the next day, and it is exactly what I expect: Hugo, I’m so glad you said that. I feel the same way. Yes, let’s hang out and share war stories! I could use a guy’s perspective!
And we do hang out, many more times, happily. There is no chemistry; we each waited for the other to flip a switch, and when that didn’t happen, we disconnected the very wiring that might have led to heat or a charge or a spark. Eventually, Stephanie does meet someone – before I meet wife #3 – and we talk less and less often.
I’ve been fairly clear on why I am this way, though the why isn’t important. I was a sex worker as a teen boy, and I got very used to older men pursuing me. I didn’t object to the sex or the money, but the payoff, of course, was feeling wanted. Years later, as a young professor, I found myself the object of many a crush. It was ever so much more satisfying to sit back and let it come to me.
A friend said, at one point, “You could sleep with a lot more women if you were more willing to make the first move.” I replied that it wouldn’t be worth it. He looked at me as if I was turning down winning lottery numbers. I shrugged.
I shared a version of this on my Facebook page yesterday, and a good friend wrote, Pursuing means validating yourself. It means having enough confidence to not require one-sided pursuit. It means not settling for whoever happens to have already recognized your value. It’s the confidence of deciding what someone is worth to you and then finding out if it’s reciprocated.
The bold emphasis is mine. For some reason, seeing it put that way was, as the evangelicals say, convicting. I mean, ouch! (And yes, in case you’re wondering, this also applies to how I set my fees for ghostwriting as much as it does for my romantic life.)
As I prepare to move into yet another new place, and start over yet again, I think the real task is to -- at last -- figure out what it is that I want, irrespective of what anyone sees in me.
But I’m not sorry that I didn’t chase Stephanie, or the others like her. I have so many platonic friends who might have been otherwise, and gosh, all things considered, I’ll take the friendship over anything else.