I've been gorging on hours of television every night for a while now. Don't be too hard on me. I'm going through some challenging times. The lovable geniuses of The Big Bang Theory make life palatable. It's a lot nicer to end the day by chuckling at their journeys than by ruminating on my own.
In one of last night's episodes, lovable genius-serious Asperger's-mild autist Sheldon Cooper has yet another run-in with his erstwhile girlfriend, lovable genius-hapless nerd Amy Farrah Fowler. They're about to go to a prom together. Sheldon's friends tell him that coitus is a traditional part of the prom experience. Amy appears, looking pretty. Sheldon takes one look and runs and hides.
Eventually, because you can get away with suspending the audience's disbelief when you're a lighthearted comedy, Amy convinces Sheldon to open his bedroom door and talk. He admits that he panicked. Because he wanted to say that she does look pretty. Amy says she wants to tell him something but doesn't want him to feel like he has to say it back, because she knows he's not ready, and doesn't want social pressure to... “I love you too,” he says, before she finishes her preamble.
Fiction. But sometimes fiction, the lie that tells the truth, suggests plausible explanations for behaviours that are otherwise opaque.
This morning I had a long dream about a guy with whom I had once hoped to have a romantic relationship. He too is a lovable genius (and would probably fit right in with the Big Bang crowd). We had started things off in a seemingly quite smouldering and exciting way and I was looking forward to getting to know him much, much better. And then...? —He disappeared as fast as Sheldon did. I finally pinned him down and asked him WTF, and I don't recall what he said. I just remember him leaving with tears in his eyes, staggering a bit, collapsing against a garden wall and punching it with his fist, clearly devastated about...something. But what, I would never know. Sad to have hurt my feelings, sad to have led me on, sad to have been misunderstood? These were all my assumptions at the time. Since then, we have had an on-again-off-again fraternal kind of friendship, without the merest whiff of romance, and that is for the best.
But the dream this morning, so vivid, so clear until I dropped my kid off at school and realized I had forgotten the whole thing. The emotional handprint of the dream was that this particular lovable genius was over there, and I needed a key, and he came over here and literally gave me the key I had been looking for (aha), and he was standing with me in a most surprising and intimate way, and we were just about to kiss when....
….My son woke me up.
But I had the key I needed. Because in the instant between sleeping and waking, I overlay the dialogue from the show onto my lovable genius, and I knew that had been the truth. He had panicked. Just like Sheldon. And if he had panicked, that must mean I...had looked pretty, just like Amy!
So he had liked me after all.
Nothing says “I like you” quite like the back of someone's rapidly disappearing vapor trails.
It's a common sight.
I was disappointed to have been woken up just before we got to the juicy part, but I realized, my lovable genius hadn't just given me the key, he was the key. He was a representative sampling of a much broader population, all of whom had exhibited similarly opaque and mysterious behaviour.
This was the same panic as I saw in the guy who couldn't be seen in public with me because he didn't know how to handle his feelings for me when other people were around. What I had taken at the time for boorish arrogance was actually panic (kudos to him for eventually being able to articulate such a concept). A useful takeaway from that exchange was the idea that it was not I who caused the panic so much as it was the feelings inside him that caused the panic: it's not who we are, it's what we set loose in other people, that is the cause for concern.
I realized this was the same issue I had run into with many other men, played out to greater and lesser extents. Since the dawn of my hormones, I had known an endless string of boys and men who had adored me, delighted in a moment of wonderful intimacy, and then bolted for the high grounds as fast as their hind legs could run. The more intimate, the faster they ran...but it also played out in more modest situations, like the teacher with whom I had had what I thought was an easy, warm, and trusting camaraderie as long as we just worked on exercises, but then the day we actually danced together, I got very confused, because I thought we had a mutually enjoyable dance, but I guess not, because forever after that, he was like someone else, taciturn and aloof. Or the other guy who couldn't be seen in public with me, and who got as far as verbalizing, “it's not that, it's...” —And then there was a struggling silence where I could feel him thinking what the other guy had said.
Point is, although there are not many genius theoretical physicists out there, there are lots of Sheldon Coopers. The question is, who wants to be Amy Farrah Fowler? Being Sheldon's “girlfriend” has meant, for her, years of pining and looking pathetic and having none of her needs met. While this is the fodder for heartwarming giggles on television, in real life it's exhausting. It's a tragic drain of scarce emotional resources. Amy throws away huge amounts of energy on Sheldon, who is constitutionally incapable of providing her with what she really wants. Amy is a genius neuroscientist. What if she used even a gram of that energy to...create something worthwhile, instead of destroying herself a little bit every day?
I knew so many Sheldon Coopers, and so many Amy Farrah Fowlers (and had been her myself so many times), I started to wonder if there were any other possible relationship archetypes out there.
I realized I knew of one other...and it too was on The Big Bang Theory!
Once in a while you meet a man who does not bolt for the high grounds like the running figure on tsunami warning posters. A man who is not terrified by the fact that you exist, and you have a vagina. But then he wants you to be his mother. While I hadn't known quite as many Howard Wolowitzes as I had Sheldon Coopers, they made up for their slightly smaller population by causing far more headaches. Howard, a child in a grown man's body (true too of Sheldon in a different way), spoon-fed by his mother, meets a lovable genius microbiologist whom the screenwriters allow to be both smart and sexy, by which they mean, she can be blonde and high-voiced with large breasts and perky floral dresses. Bernadette starts out as a beta character so she's less threatening, and the emphasis is on her waitressing job while she's in school. But eventually she becomes a PhD who makes, as she says, “a buttload of money,” far more than Howard will ever make. As soon as that happens, he turns her into his mother. She does all the work, runs everything, runs him, and he expects her to treat him like a baby. And while that's the butt of many jokes on tv, in real life it's...totally exhausting! It's a tragic waste of resources. Why is she wasting her life nursing a grown man like a baby? Why is she hemorrhaging her precious life's blood so this vampire can thrive? And why do we do it in real life?
That's it, I thought, there are no other archetypes out there. Those are the only two kinds of relationships I have ever known, and they both suck.
Then I realized there was a third kind of relationship out there, albeit one I had not personally experienced. But I saw it happening, and it always made me grit my teeth because it reduced the number of available men on the market. And yes, this third archetype is also on prominent display in The Big Bang Theory.
Leonard Hofstadter (whom I always like for being named after one of my favourite real-life geniuses) is the lovable genius with the best luck with women, the one closest to being an alpha stud. He is also the first-billed actor in the credits and the one who drives the fanciest car in real life. Not that life imitates art or anything. Leonard is the most normal and most socially healthy of our merry band of pirates. And he's the one who wins The Girl. Penny, unlike everyone else on the show, is not a genius. She is so pointedly not a genius, there are endless gentle jokes about how not-very-smart she is. When the series begins, she's literally the girl next door, a wholesome Midwestern blonde who came to LA to make it big in show biz and is waitressing until her lucky break. Brains are for guys. The only thing Penny's cranium is good for is holding up those lovely golden tresses. Penny has a lovely body, she's young and healthy, she's highly promiscuous, and she has a nonthreatening fondness for masculine things like sports.
That's all. And that's enough for Leonard, who idolizes her like Mario's princess, and woos her with dogged fidelity. They get together and she dumps him a plurality of times before they get together and seem like they're going to stay together. After several false starts, they get engaged. Shortly after that happens, Penny's character gets an overhaul, because Leonard's character can date a waitress whose career is going nowhere, but he can't possibly be married to one—so Penny gets a chic haircut and an elegant new wardrobe and an appropriate new job as a pharmaceutical representative. But the fundamental issue remains unchanged. As a guest character says in one episode, “what in God's name do you guys talk about?”
I've known a fair number of Leonard Hofstadters, but never had the chance to get to know them Much Better, because the handwriting is on the wall: I've been Amy and I've been Bernadette, but I can't be Penny. And I see the Leonards of the world waltzing by with their Pennies on their arms, cute and uninteresting, and I'm jealous, and I think...God, that must be so boring, for both of them. They have nothing in common other than the urge to reproduce, which gets old fast.
The great Maria Gellhorn once said that she never enjoyed sex, particularly not with Hemingway, and that it was something she put up with in order to get a few moments of what she really wanted: intimacy. There was something so wistful in her looking back on her retinue of famous, powerful, dynamic, exciting lovers, all of them disappointing, wishing for, “tenderness, never enough.” A lifetime of hoping, and she never got it. She dared verbalize what I am probably not the only woman to notice: that what she really wants is the relaxed tenderness a man exudes right after sex, but that's the only time he allows himself to feel that way, and it's gone so fast. Blink and you'll miss it.
I recently read an article in The Atlantic Monthly that said that what all men want out of sex is the hardest and most violent and degrading of hard-core porn fantasies. What men want out of sex, the article says, is violence, pain, aggression, and dominance. They want anal fisting and harshness and screaming and rape and that is all and, the article went on, everything else that they ever do in the bedroom is not for their own pleasure, it's something they have to put up with for women. The article said men, all men, find no pleasure in tenderness, intimacy, or anything a woman would consider love-making. Since The Atlantic Monthly is a learned and respected magazine, I assume that everything printed in it must be true. Let me point out that this article was written by a woman. Women are fabulous, therefore everything all women say must be true. Right?
Unfortunately it certainly rang true with all the sex I'd had in the last long number of years. I don't know what happened to the kind of sex that existed back when I was young. I guess porn happened. Nowadays it's all about hitting women and shoving body parts up their asses. I was brought up to believe sex could be about tenderness, intimacy, sensuality, eroticism, excitement, thrills, chills, daring adventures, joy, discovery, sharing, playfulness, passion, caring, sweetness, vulnerability, depth, desire, growth, and...God forbid...orgasms.
Maybe on another planet. Yes, I would very much like to party like it's 1999. But the internet happened, and now nobody seems to care about any of those things any more, and I miss them bitterly.
What a wonderful world this would be, if human beings would make love again!
What a wonderful world this would be, if men did not run in terror of women!
What a wonderful world this would be, if men did not want women to be their mothers!
But the world is as it is. I don't want to believe that the archetypes are universal. I don't want to believe that these are the only kinds of men out there, and therefore, these are the only kinds of relationships that are available. But...I've never met any other kind of man, and I've known a lot of men by now. I've been all over the world. I've travelled in all kinds of social circles. Hope springs eternal, but sometimes the healthier and more productive thing is to stop hoping for something that doesn't exist, and to start figuring out how best to be happy with what does exist.
I recently became friendly acquaintances with a woman who, a few years ago, became a mini-celebrity for coming up with a supposedly-audacious “new” way of thinking about being single. Wonderful, I thought, finally someone else who will join me in the land of autosexuality. But then I read some of the high-profile giddy national media coverage of this “revolutionary” woman and it turns out...she's a total cop-out. Her shocking “new” approach is that she...is unhappy being single and wants to be in a relationship and is waiting around for one to come along, because being with someone is good and being alone is bad, but in the meantime she's working hard at not being unhappy, because she doesn't want to be in a relationship just for the sake of not being alone.
In what world is this new, revolutionary, or shocking? Sure, this woman made up a cutesy new word for her way of being. But I was hoping I had found a sister who realized that her scarce and precious energy needed to be directed toward something productive and creative, rather than throwing it away on sprinters and vampires. I was hoping I had found someone who, like me, was not adverse to socializing in a general and public way but was absolutely sick and tired to death of living for others and wanted her private life to be for her, and for her needs, and for her desires.
Turns out I did find that someone, but it wasn't she. It was the fabulous red-haired Lyft driver of a few weeks ago, who, like I, felt like, she had already done the mother thing when her kid was little (“and I wasn't that great at it even then, just ask my kid, I could have used some improvement,” she said), and was done with that shit and wanted to live life for herself now and enjoy. She said her young niece was about to get married and we both recoiled in terror. “She hasn't lived at all, and now she's about to throw her life away attached to this guy,” she said. I cringed in recognition. We agreed that with luck, maybe some day the niece would get divorced, and then we could all go to Venice together and live and be happy.
Someday One Will Do. Holly Near.