My boundary lines have been stepped on and crushed into oblivion so many times that I have built them into walls. The only way to get across how non-negotiable my boundaries are seems to be to let men run into them. Typically, they ignore my stating my boundaries, my warnings when I feel uncomfortable. They ignore every clear statement that they exist, seeming convinced that they alone hold some magic power that will force my boundaries to crumble before their greatness. They want to hold the key to my heart, so therefore in their addled mind my boundaries don’t apply to them.
Let’s take this example from a Tinder date I went on a while back:
I got home from a Tinder first date that involved watching our mutual childhood favorite musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, at his place, only to find text messages about how turned on he was and how hard his penis was. And I wasn’t happy about it.
Me: I mean, it was fun kissing you. Really fun. But trust me, if I wanted to know the current state of your penis I’d ask.
Him: Oh don’t be like that
Me: What, having boundaries?
Him: No, just don’t be so shy
Me: That’s not being shy
Him: Well sorry I’m so open thought you’d like it
So here he’s positioned the situation not as I have boundaries and he’s broaching them, but rather that he’s open and I’m by comparison closed. Open is deemed superior, and I’m somehow inhibited, and it’s up to him to open me up and get me to not “be like that.”
Let me make this very clear: The least inhibited thing you can do is to respect and name your own boundaries. That is the ultimate way to honor yourself as a sexual being.
When I say I don’t want to hear about your penis, I mean it. That doesn’t mean I’m shy or sexually inhibited. It means I don’t want to hear about your penis. I had had a nice evening. There was some hand holding, a little bit of kissing. I moved his hand a few times when it roved to places I didn’t want it to go. But all in all, a nice time.
However, I wasn’t at a place where I wanted to know about his arousal.
If I’m not at a place where I’m comfortable talking about intimate things with you, then pressing me to do so is only going to make me more uncomfortable. Attempting to manipulate me into doing so shows a total disregard for my feelings and my needs in light of your own desires and priorities. He did this several times, not seeming to realize that it wasn’t complimentary that he felt the need to tell me how turned on I make him but rather threatening that he cared so little about my boundaries in conversation. If he’s this dismissive via text, how bad did this have the potential to get in person if I went on a second date with him?
I should’ve realized this before this first date. When I had asked him if I should dress nicely or more casually, and he said t-shirt and panties.
I replied: You get that I’m not coming over to sleep with you right?
Him: Yes I know you’re not coming to spend the night or sleep with me if that’s what you meant
Him: I’m actually a good dude, you’ll see
Him: You mean seven brides for seven brothers isn’t a hint for sex? Lol
Me: You mean comments about my panties aren’t hints for sex?
Him: Was a joke! Sorry thought you saw it that way
Me: I get that you’re kidding, but when it’s someone you don’t know, it comes across as kind of like you have expectations or particular intentions but are trying to mitigate them with humor
Him: I get that and sorry, promise no expectations or intentions or plans other than watching a musical that I’ve known since I was like 7
I find it intimidating when someone assumes, or even implies, that I’m going to sleep with them. Suddenly a date is less about enjoying getting to know someone and seeing what happens and more about worrying if I’m sending the wrong signals, even if I’ve clearly spelled out my intentions for the evening, or how I’ll respond if and when he makes me uncomfortable again. I stop getting to function as a human being and become a sex object trying to regain her humanity.
If you care more about me as a sex object than you do about me as a person who needs to feel heard, to feel safe, then you’re not a good guy. Too often in my experience, when I call a guy out for objectifying me or making sexual jokes or comments that make me uncomfortable, the default comment is “but I’m a good guy.”
The “Good guy” identifier is an excuse to say whatever and then defend their delusions of what it means to be respectful using a self-applied label of who they think they “actually” are. “Good guy”-ness gets treated like a get out of jail free card. It’s a way of telling women that because I’m a good guy, I can lay claim to your body, objectify you, and make you uncomfortable, because I can’t envision myself as anything otherwise. Anything you confront me with that substantiates the opposite will fall on deaf ears, because I’ve decided I’m a Good Guy.
Being an actual good guy is more than “well, I’m not going to try to rape you. I’m not going to kill you, hit you, or drug you.” It is respecting someone else’s boundaries. It is making the effort to clarify those boundaries if you don’t understand them. It is consensual conversation, not only consensual actions.
I frequently find myself with the burden of deescalating the situation, of convincing someone that sexualizing me isn’t ok. Genuinely good guys don’t do that.
Real good guys don’t need to tell you they’re good. They establish their credibility over time. They build trust and understand that that takes a while. They become good guys in your eyes because they have been good to you, without expecting anything other than respect in turn.
Honestly, this is one of the hardest lessons Tinder has taught me: in my relationships and interactions, no one can advocate for me but me. As much as I can moan to my roommates and friends about frustrating conversations and they may commiserate, it’s up to me to stand up for my boundaries and champion myself. And sometimes, there’s only so much I can do. Sometimes you just have to walk away and know your own happiness and well-being are more important than someone you barely know.
Here’s to the real good guys. I’m glad you’re out there.
Sometimes it takes us a while to tell a story. This story has taken me a long while to be able to find the right words. Bear with me. This is a little longer than usual. I promise, it gets back to Tinder and dating (and an amazingly bad date at that), and to how complicated it can be to balance little moments such as in dating with major stressors.
That said, let’s do this.
Everyone spoke in weirdly calm voices. In retrospect, I have no idea if the calm was only incongruous with my own thoughts, or if they were putting in particular effort into keeping their voices calm. Two minutes into my lying on the paper covered table in one of those blue open in the front nightgowns and staring at a poster of kittens on the ceiling, my doctor felt the lumpy spot I had found in my breast a few weeks before. She and the nurse put on their smiling-trying-to-keep-someone-from-panicking faces. “We’ll get you an appointment for a mammogram for tomorrow right across the street. They’ll take good care of you.”
TOMORROW, I thought. Damn. That’s SOON. Normally, if a doctor thinks I need a follow-up, I can manage to get by with a few weeks in between. I remember forcing myself to be chipper. The receptionist called the mammogram office for me, trying to be polite, describing the spot on my breast in terms of a clock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Will they find a lumpy spot. At this point, I felt like I was watching some bad Lifetime or ABC Family movie, even as I was trying to convince myself to not worry.
Somehow I drove to Target. Somehow I parked, got out of the car, and wandered past the Starbucks, the produce, the laundry baskets and into the baby section.
I stood in Target staring at baby toys, trying to pick the right one for my soon to arrive bonus-nephew. Rows upon rows of stuffed animals waited on the racks, just waiting for someone to slobber on them and throw them out of the playpen. I wandered up and down the aisle in a daze. Lions and tigers and cancer oh my. No no no, think about the cute fluffy animals. It’ll all be fine. No point in worrying until tomorrow. Bears? Yes, bears. Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my. Not “cancer oh my.” Keep it classic. WWJGS? (What would Judy Garland Say)?
My phone rang, startling me out of my plush fauna revelries. It was my mother, offering to come with me the next day. At which point, I descended into panic, staring down at the rough gray carpet under the fluorescent lighting and trying to calm my mind. Taking your mom with you on a doctors’ appointment when you’re in your 20’s feels like admitting your own mortality. She was there at the beginning; God forbid she not be there at what could possibly be the beginning of the end, or at least the start of a fight against my own body.
“Mmmhmm, mmhmm, um, sure it’d be great if you could get off work for a the morning to come with me, great, thanks mom, oh so you read today’s Tinder Buttons, no I don’t want to talk about it even if you do, no, no, this is about me not you, mhm, well I should go, because I don’t want to talk about this and I’m in Target, yeah I’m ok…bye mom.”
I love you, mom, but I don’t know if I was ever so glad to hang up a phone. My brain didn’t have enough words to talk about anything of substance, let alone my freshly posted piece The In Between Place, which had already taken a considerable amount of energy to share. I went back to bears, relieved that their little sewn mouths wouldn’t try to talk to me and that their brains were full of fluff.
Which bear was it I wanted? Brown. Fluffy. Ag his mouth is a funny color. This is stressful, there are too many bears, no just buy this super cute bear so you don’t have to stand here anymore and be surrounded by fluorescent lighting and happy people who probably aren’t thinking about strange growths in their bodies or their mortality. They just want to buy frozen peas and fabric softener and maybe to pick up a pack of gum as a minor indulgence in the checkout line to remind themselves that they love themselves enough to spend that extra $1.29. I was stricken by hypothetical envy. I want to have my biggest issue to be if I want double mint or bubble mint gum. Gosh, this bear is cute. Cute is good. Cute. C-U-T-E. Two letters that are in “cancer” are in “cute.” How weird. Wait, that’s not weird. That’s just the alphabet. Maybe if I have cancer it can be cute cancer? Wait, what? That’s not a thing. You probably don’t even have cancer, let alone cute cancer. Cancer isn’t cute. Bear. Just hold the bear and carry it to the checkout line. One step at a time. Bear.
At the checkout counter, I fidgeted nervously and made too much eye contact in a vain attempt to convince the cashier that the vague glazed over look of panic in my eyes was actually good old fashioned over enthusiastic friendliness. Instead, I just came across as a super creepy smiling woman buying a teddy bear and sneaking pointed looks at the many gum options near the register.
I went home, zoned out, and then somehow magically the next day came. Fortunately, my mom happens to be not only a totally hilarious and all around fabulous lady, but she has already had breast cancer and spends a lot of her life contending with pills and things that will keep it from returning. So she knew the ropes.
A few hours into my appointment, including some time dressed in a surprisingly comfortable clinic robe and sitting in a waiting room that was vaguely spa-esque, I had a mammogram (Which, contrary to what everyone had hold me, was not at all painful and in fact oddly comfortable). Then I had an ultrasound in which I got to see the inside of my breasts. I chatted to the tech, asking about what I was seeing and the process of training to be a tech and did she like it and how many of these did they do a day. I attempted mindless conversation to keep myself from wondering about what the machine would tell me about my own body. And then suddenly there on the screen were my breasts. The inside of a breast looks like the most beautiful ocean waves or hills. There’s a whole landscape in there, a world unto myself, and it was fascinating. And in my case, it was not just fascinating-it was lump-free.
It turns out I had an agitated lymph node, but that it was all a-ok. I walked out of the clinic, passing on my way women who wouldn’t be getting such happy news, who were already fighting the good fight, or who would find themselves suddenly drafted accordingly within a matter of hours.
All I could feel was overwhelmingly lucky.
It was at that point that all the little bits of panic, the ones I had managed to keep at bay excepting for that moment of crisis in the Target baby aisle, converged. I was overcome with joy and relief and terror for what could have been, finally giving myself permission to feel all the things and to think the darkest thoughts that only optimism coupled with all of my willpower could keep at bay. My subconscious was tired from holding back as it tried to keep my consciousness sane and functional. I was exhausted in every sense.
But I, in my infinite wisdom, still kept a lunch date I had made for the afternoon after my appointment, having made the date far before I knew this would all be going down.
I stirred my iced tea and kicked my heel against my chair leg, zoning out as he talked about the book he wanted to write and his kids.
In my mind, the conversation went a lot like this: “oh, you did time? What for? Oh, drug dealing?” Jeeze this guy’s too intense for me. Oh, Tinder. Oh fuck yes no cancer for me, thank you boobs thank you. You’re the best breasts in the whole wide world. Good job, guys. I’m going to put on the extra cute bra when I get home. Y’all earned it. “Oh, and you have five children? What are their names?” Shoes on a monkey, I could’ve died. Hello, mortality. “Wait, FIVE? Oh, and you have grandchildren? Whom you don’t care about at all? And you’re already talking about getting new furniture for your apartment in light of my existence?” Wow, at this point there are so many red flags about this guy that the room looks like the inside of a matador’s cape. He’s so young to have that many grandchildren. Huh. Yeah, I shouldn’t have come on this date. Fuck. This is why we meet in public places, and don’t tell men our last names. Also why we insist on longer conversations before agreeing to a date. Oh my God cancer. I don’t have cancer. “Yes, the lamb is very good here.” Oh, do I want more iced tea? “No, thank you.”
What I actually wanted was to run home and bake a cake for my cancer-less breasts and dance and sing a song and cry in my closet, not necessarily in that order.
What this boils down to is how on earth are we supposed to reconcile how complicated, bizarre, and painful real life can be with the friendly small talk of a first date? Or even with the ordinary moments of daily life? The dishwasher keeps needing to be filled. People buy gum. People have babies, stop at red lights, bake cookies, and sit in waiting rooms. Life goes on, even when our minds are continually grinding to a screeching halt.
Sometimes I find it incredibly offensive that life keeps going even when I’m struggling, in a way that’s wholly illogical. I remember being really depressed one day in high school, sitting in a corner of the library, and being absolutely annoyed at all the people being happy because it was exhausting to listen to other people be joyful. It left me frustrated. I felt I’d somehow failed myself in that I couldn’t just hop back on the happy train. At the same time, I wanted somehow the world to match my mood, to validate it so I wouldn’t feel quite so out of sync or so alone in that moment. Even when we reach out to a friend, that process of externalizing our emotions can be so hard. Try as you might you can’t get the contents of your mind out, let alone explain your feelings (especially when said feelings are exacerbated by teenage hormones). It makes that loneliness all the more isolating.
But we exist in a world full of other people. Our moments of struggle inevitably will not always align with the world around us or with what our schedule holds. Life can be terribly inconvenient like that sometimes, and it’s so tempting to try to not only not acknowledge that, but to not even reveal that to other people. As if that’s somehow weak to mention our struggles, or that it’s a cheap way to get at someone’s feelings, or it might be too inconvenient to other people if we burdened them with our woes.
In my last post I focused on not hiding my personality. But what about our lives? How on earth do we hide that? Should we hide that? Gradually reveal them? How quickly?
To what extent do we owe it to ourselves, our friends, and even relative strangers to keep our private life private? Is the idea of private life whatever one makes of it? Does it make it easier to have secrets, or does it make it harder? Or, perhaps, there are benefits and drawbacks to each. How long do we have to hide our most precious and powerful stories? The stories of our bodies? The lions and tigers and bears? Oh my.
I treasure all my stories, but the stories that are written on my body, that my flesh remembers, are the most precious to me because they are the hardest to tell. The ones that hurt. The ones that scared me or left me confused. The ones where the telling leaves you every bit as vulnerable as you felt in that moment, the memory of physical pain matched by the stress of capturing what that tale means to you. The ones that remind you that being alive is precious.
So this is one of those stories. I don’t come off as particularly sane, optimistic, or pulled together. Nor do I come off as having judgment when I picked that guy to go on a first date with (sorry, mom. I promise, he doesn’t know my last name AND I ordered dessert AND I made much stricter first date rules for myself). But I hope, if you’ve managed to make it this far in this piece, that you find comfort regarding your own body’s stories. It’s okay that they’re complicated. It’s okay that the weight of memory matters. It’s okay that double mint gum will never taste the same to me after standing in that Target aisle.
Or at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
In other news, celebrate every single healthy bit of your body today, and any parts that aren’t so healthy and need extra love, send that love their way, be they tiny or major ailments. It’s beautiful to be alive and have the opportunity to have moments of crisis. Every bit of sadness and struggle is only possible because we’ve been happy, and because we’re gloriously, tenuously, ridiculously alive.
I went on forest walks with some friends while I was recently on an absolutely superb trip to the island of Acadia in Maine. I had to stop and look at things and ask so many questions. How many beavers would live in this dam? What made that white line in the water? To what extent are trails created by nature versus being crafted by man? What killed these trees? How do you keep rot from killing more trees? Do you want to? Is rot useful the same way forest fires can be, or is it more detrimental than useful long term? Do you think the spider that spun this web within this log, catching sparkles in the sunlight, has already managed to find a tasty treat for her breakfast?
Even on dates, I can’t keep my mind from wandering.
I once went on a date with a very nice man who had an appreciation for Mr. Rogers which rivaled my own. He was playing a show at the local botanical gardens, so I was amusing myself with dancing and nature and wonderings. When he managed a break from performing, I eagerly showed him the spider web I’d been intently watching, as if I’d found the grail or a treasure chest or a giant crate of glitter. “LOOK! I found a spider spinning its web!” I cried, utterly enthused.
My enthusiasm quickly paled, leaving an embarrassment-fueled self-consciousness in its place. How silly I sounded! I’m twenty-four years old, not a small child. And this guy was singing nuanced, poetic songs, as I swayed on pathways and fixated on arachnids like a kid who’d just learned about them on a Kratt brothers’ tv show.
I’ve been thinking about this for weeks. In the moment I was stricken with embarrassment, but weeks later, I’m actually more embarrassed that I was embarrassed.
There’s a part of me that’s akin to a small child. Frequently I convince myself that I have to keep that part of myself hidden away in order to impress people, as if it’s somehow counter-intuitive to be an educated, ambitious person who also has a sense of child-like wonder.
I feel I’ve pieced together a vision of myself, the way I want people to see me, that often overlooks the things I actually love most about myself. Yes, there’s something to be said for letting people get to know you over time, for slowly revealing your particular crazinesses and idiosyncracies. But there’s also something to be said for not being embarrassed to be our genuine selves.
Hiding who I am exhausts me. I can’t keep running tabs on my wonderings and my impulses. They are too plentiful. My cup runneth over, if you will.
I will always stick dandelions in my hair. I will insist on turning household chores into games. I will sing off-key while I cook. I will dive into piles of warm laundry. I will color with crayons should a restaurant provide them. I will make up songs about sea creatures, or pots and pans, or oral hygiene. I will doodle on napkins, flop onto hotel beds to see how bouncy they are, and insist you hold my hand during the scary parts of movies, including every wolf related scene of Beauty and the Beast. I will cry in art exhibitions when they speak to my soul (or if the exhibition labels are particularly well done, or if it’s clear they paid mind to issues of accessibility in the physical design). If you take me in a really nice book store or a library, I will run around like a kid in a candy store, and then insist on finding a book of my favorite poetry just to make sure someone else could buy it if they wanted it. That’s me. That’s what you get.
And it’s not something I want to hide. Not on my first date, second date, third date, or umpteenth date.
After all, we all have things like that. We have a zillion quirky little things that make us ourselves. That’s what makes us wonderful, not the carefully crafted facades designed to make us look good to strangers. We’ve all got spiders we’d love to point out, but we worry we’ll scare other people away if we do so. The act of acknowledging what interests us is a small but precious moment of saying this is who I am, and if you don’t like it, you can go away. It draws a line in the sand, but more importantly, it draws a line that rounds out our own picture of who we are and what we celebrate in ourselves. It is an act of bravery to like our own weirdness. It makes us vulnerable to the world, and to ourselves. It is hard, and it is messy, and I can’t help but believe it’s worth it.
The more I have moments like this, the more I realize my priorities. I want someone who can love me for me, but more importantly, who doesn’t just tolerate my weirdness but revels in it right alongside me. I want to be unabashedly myself.
The only way to do that is to practice: to be myself, to live earnestly, and to let myself prioritize these things without feeling ashamed or embarrassed. Because that’s far more important to me than impressing someone I’ve just met.
I have to love me more than I love the possibility of someone else loving me.
So why hide? Why not point out the spiders? Why not ask the questions that loom in the back of our minds? Why not be ourselves? Why keep those sweetest, most genuine parts of ourselves hidden?
Here’s to the spiders and to the little things that remind us who we are. Here’s to wondering and to not stopping.
Sometimes you meet someone and the connection is immediate. There’s instant chemistry. You have heaps of things in common, and you don’t want to stop talking to each other. Everything about them enchants you. You’re drawn to each other. It’s electrifying (10,000 life points if you heard John Travolta as Danny Zuko’s voice in your head when you read that).
This was not one of those dates.
Let’s call this gentleman Catfish, not in the sense of the internet dating phenomenon of “catfishing” which inspired the vaguely tedious MTV show, but in the sense of the impetus for this date was a quest to find the best catfish in Memphis.
At first it felt like we were oil and water. He’s into sciences; I’m into humanities. He’s into athletics; I’m into art. He likes to party; I like to drink vodka in my pajamas. We live on completely opposite sides of Memphis. I was intimidated. There was a brief awkward silence in which I inwardly panicked.
Then my Southern took over, and I started asking questions. They breed charm and poise into us young. Thanks grandma for the Cotillion lessons and infinite manners books!
I forget that sometimes it’s important to talk to someone completely different from you. As I asked about the nuances of pharmacy work and learned about the roles pharmacists play, about the culture of his graduate school, about his family, I found myself absolutely fascinated to learn about a world and a life so different from my own.
And then, at long last, we stumbled upon the common ground: Harry Potter and Cosmopolitan.
We compared favorite Harry Potter books and which Hogwarts houses we’d be sorted into (me: Prisoner of Azkaban and Gryffindor or Hufflepuff, Catfish: Goblet of Fire and Slytherin or Ravenclaw). Plus, it turns out we both spent our undergrad years indulgently laughing at the weird sex positions and stories of strange lady woes in Cosmo. We had, at least in my opinion, a really nice time. He’s a terrific guy, and it was a pleasure to spend an evening in his company.
As we said goodnight in the parking lot, still having not touched each other, I found myself feeling grateful. It’s so easy to go through life and not practice the art of conversation with strangers. It’s easy to write someone off as too different from us, as having nothing in common with us. We put up walls before we even look for where there might be windows.
Since when does having relatively little in common mean you can’t genuinely enjoy some time with someone? Since when does not having an immediate spark on a date mean you can’t have a lovely time?
Just being present with someone is a gift. Being in the moment, being focused on them, caring about their stories and their experiences, and really hearing what someone has to say is a wonderful thing, and frankly a very rare thing. Having someone voluntarily devote their evening to you is an act of faith, of generosity, of confidence that you’re someone who is worthy of their time and energy, and perhaps most preciously, of their stories and thoughts. Yet we’re willing to do this on a first date with virtual strangers, even if we won’t with the people we care about most?
That I can manage to be so genuinely attentive to people I’ve just met in person but that I so often can’t manage to put down my phone when spending time with dear friends embarrasses me. I’m calling myself out. I owe it to the people in my life to be as actively present with them as I am on first dates, if not more so. Yes, there’s something to be said for the comfort factor in that we’re not trying to impress our friends and that we can respect each other’s penchants for texting and social media as means of keeping other friendships going so that we can afford some glances at our phones and some distracted Facebook fiddling. However, I want to be focused enough on you as individuals to absorb your stories, your adventures, your wonders, your fears. I want to listen without thinking about what I’m going to say next, which is actually a piece of sage wisdom passed on to me by Jesus, who tries to live this way.
After all, what if we treated everyone in our lives with the respect with which we treat a first date? What if we brought that attentiveness, the willingness to listen, the sense that this could be something wonderful to each conversation? What if we treated each other as if each person could profoundly change our lives for the better? What if we kept talking until we found the common ground, the laughter, the Hogwarts-Cosmo factor? Would our relationships become more intimate, more genuine, more powerful?