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I Don't Care about Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Faux Sensitive Hipsters, Felons, and Other Guys I've Datedby Julie Klausner
Hey! Remember the '90s?
The Clintons were in office, everybody was using AOL, Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri did "The Cheerleaders" on SNL, and everybody thought Oasis was fantastic. In hindsight, we were all a bunch of potato-salad-eating jackasses. Sure, it was before 9/11, and optimism always looks like corn-shucking yokelry before planes hit buildings, but we were also marinating in the guava juices of our own naïveté, having collectively just hit our national stride of financial prosperity. And nothing lends itself more to navel-gazing than having a surplus of money and time on one's hands. Appropriately enough, it was in the mid-90s when I began my liberal arts college education.
I went to NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, a school I'd chosen because of my crippling fear of places that are not New York City and Gallatin's decidedly laissez-faire policy about what you actually had to learn. My self-designed concentration was in "Cultural Criticism," which afforded me the freedom to take classes in filmmaking, postmodern literature, abnormal sexual behavior, social psychology, dramatic writing, performance studies, and arts journalism. Gallatin called itself "The School Without Walls," and you know what it also didn't really have? A lot of practical requirements for graduation. You had to take one math or science credit, and social science counted as a science. It was sort of like the A-School: Part Two, only at Gallatin, nobody cared about you. I spent three evenings and two afternoons a week in three-hour classes, discussing whether gender was a construct, and I had the rest of my week to spend browsing Wet Seal and looking for guys to fall in love with.
The other defining memory I have of the mid-1990s was that everybody seemed to be talking about dating all the goddamn time.
The Rules, that shrill creed designed to make women feel bad about their own desires, was published in 1995. The First Wives Club came out the year after. Then, in 1998, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, and Sex and the City debuted. I think 1997 is the only respite of the zeitgeist chatter concerning the ins and outs of romance, and I blame that on Princess Diana's death. Clearly, a nation's vaginas were sitting shiva on the behalf of the People's Princess.
At this time, I, too, was eager, to paraphrase Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, playing (for a change) a wise old black man, to "get busy datin' or get busy dyin'." I bought into the Clintonian promise of a mouth for every dick, and I wanted in on the deal. The rest of the world seemed to buzz on the same frequency, and women everywhere in New York City seemed to crawl with dating desperation. Terminology that previously only lived between the covers of Cosmo now seemed to be inescapable: Get and keep a man! Commitment time! Pleasure zones! On the prowl!
I dressed the part, in animal prints and red lipstick. But I wasn't going for "cougar"—I wanted to do the B-movie, cateye- glasses, Bettie Page, fishnets, and Russ Meyer thing. You know, the look that people in the Pacific Northwest still think is really cutting-edge? But it didn't look cute on me. Instead, I looked like a woman with designs on men, and more Delta Burke than Annie Potts.
Predictably, my efforts were tempered by the fact that real life, thank God, is nothing like Cosmo magazine. Which is why nobody should wear makeup to the gym to meet men or learn how to perfect one's "Faux-O." I was like Carrie Bradshaw only in that I hung out downtown and wanted a boyfriend. My shoes were limited to a couple of comfortable options, I didn't drink, and you couldn't see my collarbone without an MRI. Also, the people I hung out with around that time were pretty un-fabulous.
There was Jodi, my roommate from New Jersey who was missing a set of knuckles, so her fingers could only go perpendicular. Candace, the only person I ever met to have actually grown up in the Orchard Beach section of the Bronx, who used to strip to Motley Crüe in Yonkers and blamed her small breasts on an eating disorder she developed during puberty. And Eve, a dumpster-diving punk-rocker wannabe whose identification of water as "wudder" screamed "Pennsylvania Mainline," but who wanted more than anything to live in a squat somewhere in 1982. Eve's whole life was scored by URGH! A Music War, but her bank account was padded with the wages of comfortable suburban parents. I was also friendly with a lot of gay girls who would never get sick of telling me how great Judith Butler's books are, and why it was important to see Boys Don't Cry more than once, "to catch the subtleties."
"I don't get it," said Lauryn, one of the aforementioned lesbians, after I made the mistake of asking her for advice about my sorry dating life. "How many times are you going to get screwed over by all those shitty guys before you move on?"
I just giggled in response, like she was fl irting with me—all gay people who share your gender want to have sex with you, you know—and thought, "Lauryn's so funny!" I knew sex with a girl was like the Master Cleanse: Maybe it changed other people's lives for the better, but it wasn't for me, and it sort of made my stomach hurt a little to think about diving into that particular collegiate cliché.
But Lauryn was right about the shitty guys. I dated them in college like it was my major.
MET all grades of awful men getting picked up in bars I got into with a fake Georgia driver's license. Under the guise of hailing from Savannah, I got to meet winners like Reginald Blankenship, a carrot-topped lanky Kentuckian who met me at Max Fish two hours before requesting oral sex with a mintfl avored condom, which is sort of like ordering a cheeseburger and drinking it through a straw. Reginald taught me two things: that I can't be intimate with a man with the same skin and hair coloring as me, because the minute a redheaded man lowers his drawers, I feel like I'm looking at myself with male genitalia; and also, that when you try to suck a guy off with a mint balloon on his penis, he will ask you to stop, and then he will tell you that he wants to take a bath.
I met a guy old enough to have known better than to dabble with a college freshman at the now-defunct Coney Island High on St. Mark's Place. We kissed until my hair caught fire from the candle on the bar, igniting instantly the helmet of White Rain hair spray I used to encase my ginger dome before a night on the town. After the bartender did me the favor of throwing a lager on my head, the dabbler and I had boring, missionary sex. I remember his apartment was on Park Avenue in the high 20s, and that he had photos of African children on his wall. I wore a garter belt and stockings under what I thought was a classy zebra-print skirt and V-neck top from Express, and I moaned appreciatively as he gently plowed my soft, eighteen-year-old body.
There was a boy at a hotel in Italy—a fellow American traveler—whom I met over breakfast during a summer abroad. I marveled at his chin-length Shirley Temple ringlets and tiny, round balls for the time it took for him to finish in one of Tuscany's finest lambskin condoms, only to run into him the next day on the steps of some beautiful ruin in Rome, where he told me he shouldn't meet up with me again, because he was in a relationship back at home. "Me too," I lied back, feeling so stupid about being dumped abroad that I forgot he was the one who transgressed. My wanting another night of what I thought was good sex with a cute guy who happened to have Bette Davis's hair from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was still less embarrassing than a guy thinking that just once, on vacation, wasn't cheating.
I didn't even like any of these guys, but I wanted so badly for them to want me. When nobody called, I turned to the annals of self-help and dating books, ubiquitous as they were at the time. But I read them with an ingenious filter: I wouldn't listen to anybody.
"DON'T CALL Him and Rarely Return His Calls," advised Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider in Rule Number 5 of their dating book about not pursuing men in order to trick them into marrying you. I think the only book that made me as mad as The Rules was The Atkins Bible. I lasted on a low-carb diet for thirty seconds before losing my mind, and I didn't even try to follow any of "The Rules," even the ones that made sense, like "Don't Try to Change Him." Not going after what I wanted more than anything seemed counterintuitive to everything else I knew about the way things worked. If I wanted an internship, I'd pester higher and lower-ups at the office until I got it. If I wanted to get into a class, I'd show up at the Registrar at seven a.m., bounding through pedestrian traffic to calls of "Run, Forrest, Run!" from passersby in order to make it to the top of the queue on time. And when I had a crush on a boy, I would raze fields of wheat with a torch if I had to, in hopes of getting touch. I would call frequently and obsessively return his calls. I would ask him out. I would bring him gifts. Pay for meals. I would never end a date first, or without some sort of action. And as for Rule Number 3, "Don't Stare at Men or Talk Too Much"? Well, I was a gaping, chatting, rushing-into-sex monster, and the idea of seeming unavailable, when in fact I was desperate and ripe, ran counter to every instinct I ever had: that doing something, not nothing, was the way to get what you wanted from the world.
Predictably, the men I met who liked being chased were will-o'-the-wisps and androgynous paupers. Boys who worked at bookstores, with no body hair or love handles; virgins and vegetarians, steampunk DIY'ers who peddled vintage and did Bikram Yoga. None of them could compete; none were formidable or compatible. Sex with that lot was lousy and awkward or never came to pass, and nobody was calling me, or calling me back. Merrily I devoured fuel for my one-woman war against mating protocol, reading book after book featuring variations on the economic principle of supply and demand. And then came He's Just Not That Into You, which provided women the tremendous relief of knowing that they were simply not terribly liked by the objects of their affections.
I took umbrage with the idea that if he didn't call, he wasn't "into you"—that any guy who was in his right mind would know, if he liked a girl, how to chase her down until she was his. But what about the guys who weren't in their right minds? The ones who were a little off or lost, or damaged from past experiences, or had no clue that they were supposed to chase a girl down like a hound on a scent? That book made the assumption that if a guy didn't do what he should, even if he liked you just fine, then you didn't want him anyway.
But what if there turns out to be a lot of guys who don't know what to do? And what if you meet one and you know he's screwed up—like he'd been messed up to the point where he seems like an abused stray, whether it's the kind that snaps at you or cowers—but you like him enough to take him home with you anyway? What if you thought you could change him or teach him how to treat you, or you just wanted to enjoy the good parts of him and ignore the bad ones until someone better came along?
THAT WAS where I was, making the best of the turkeys in my path. And never did hearing that the guys I dated didn't actually like me ever provide comfort. That book was a sneaky way of reminding women that they don't like the way they're treated by guys who may in fact be perfectly "into them," but are otherwise dysfunctional. Because if a guy who knows what to do isn't into you, you don't need a book to tell you that. You get dumped or blown off after he pursues you like a contender, and then it hurts like crazy, because you know you lost out on someone who knew what to do.
But when you're young, and you're habitually dating the damaged, and they don't come through, you have to make the conscious choice to separate the columns in your head that say "This is who I am" and "This is how I am being treated." And then you have to figure out how to let go of somebody who's gone, not because you're pacified in the realization that you're not liked, but because you figure out that maybe you're the one who doesn't like him. Not just how he acts, but who he is. And then you have to decide if you want to keep going out with guys you don't think are great, or if you like yourself enough to hang out for a while on your own.
In no way was I in that place yet. I didn't like myself that much, and I certainly didn't want to be alone. I needed to make my own mistakes to learn from, and I wanted to see more of what was out there—even if it was ugly.
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