DREAM BIG, BABY: PART 6
THE FRONT END
Niall visited me a few weeks after my surgery, knowing full well that I was capable of no more than consuming dinner and codeine, limping around my apartment lamely, and reclining to watch movies. I entered the platonic hang under suspicion that our communication troubles were a shield for fundamental physiological incompatibility. One can talk about sexual “differences” all his precious, idealistic heart desires; either the boning works or it doesn’t.
Pressed up next to him on my loveseat devoid of expectations, he smelled like sex; his pheromones already imprinted upon me. Whereas our first time together may have been a little bit rushed, there was something so tantalizing about smelling and not getting to touch. Suppose my nose can spot and summon a sexual partner past, but knows not how to discriminate a good fuck from a comical disaster waiting to happen. Maybe it knows what I don’t: that sexytimes aren’t monolithic and static; they’re both context-dependent and subject to practice. It’s sort of silly to presume otherwise considering how varied even masturbating can be, and it isn’t as if at certain times I’m more compatible with myself, nor have I improved steadily as I’ve learned my preferences. Of course, the last time I ignored history, took Toucan Sam’s advice and followed my nose, it resulted in my current crippledom. “JUST THE TIP!” I had whispered, intrepidly, into my own ear. Often times we can trail a whiff, chase a whim, take flight; other times reason must reign supreme, or so I remind myself, not convincingly enough.
Historically speaking, sex hasn’t always been instant-gratification button-pushing amazing. But this year I have luxuriated in a few experiences that were immaculate immediately. And I’ve fetishized the effortlessness, adhering to its superiority almost superstitiously. As if sex is a polarizing sphere in which people are compatible or clash, oil and water immiscible, any misstep means it wasn’t meant to be. Bodies are supposed to fit together naturally. Sex is so deeply embedded it can’t be dislodged. Compromise ultimately results in dissatisfaction for both parties. Are the axioms with which I cast off imperfect partners. And yes, all of these platitudes have some truth: There are some things that are dealbreakers to me, e.g., semen phobia. I could never be satisfied in a relationship if the sex wasn’t copacetic, consuming, and consistent. But where I’m fooling myself is in accepting society’s story that first times with new people are diagnostic and deterministic, as if we’re automatically able to intuit how to please each other, pre-programmed. How Harlequin of me. Think of all the fumbles.
A previous sexual partner (Neil) posted this year’s pre-Valentine’s Day Modern Love column on facebook. I explain how I came across it to highlight in pink ink and squiggly hearts that I do not, on my own accord, seek out trite meet-cute stories. Daniel Jones’ summative insights on finding and sustaining love apply to my superstitions about sex.
In writing about love, the story of how we met looms large because a lot of us believe, validly or not, that a good meeting story bodes well for the relationship.
What do we consider to be a good meeting story? When it involves chance more than effort. You get bonus points if the chance encounter suggests compatibility, like mistakenly wheeling off with each other’s shopping carts at Whole Foods because your items had so much overlap, you got the carts mixed up… It seems the harder we work at finding love, the more prone we are to second-guessing the results… The fear is we may force things or compromise after pushing so hard for so long. We may admire hard work in most endeavors, but we admire laziness when it comes to finding love. (If you manage to stay together over the long haul, however, it will be because of effort, not chance.)
—Daniel Jones, Modern Love, February 5th 2015: How We Write About Love
Totally true that continuing anything on a long-term basis requires effort—if not to improve the sex itself, then to prevent yourselves from annoying each other such that you grow too weary to fuck. I’ve been in sad situations where stellar sex stopped working because the guy was incapable of communicating about basic, logistical things, like timing and location, that aren’t pertinent to sexual satisfaction if worked out but become unnecessary obstacles if not attended to. For example, “Can we try to reschedule things so next time we have sex before we go out, instead of once we’re back home and exhausted?” once elicited an outburst of, “You can’t complain about the sex; I’m not your boyfriend.” Ummm, I didn’t claim that you were. I would like to be a little less horny and impatient when we socialize. I would like to be a little more lively when we fuck. It’s Dan Savage’s #fuckfirst campaign. A shame some people cannot handle even the most fortunate of confrontations, ones about how to make the fucking work even better.
So here we are, Niall and I, loading effort into the front end. After all, I was ‘asking for it’ with all that ‘second time’s the charm’ business. His suggestion that we try again despite initial failure is almost verbatim what I proposed on December 23rd, two days before our initial okcupid conversation.
I want so badly to say to the next guy: Even if it isn’t that good and even if nothing will come of this, I want to continue having sex with you. For the constancy. Which is not nothing. In a sexual landscape where I’ve gone missing—suspended in space between guys—it is the narrative thread that will hold my broken body together.
I’m going to defer to Clarisse Thorne on her discussion of building chemistry and managing incentives so you aren’t distracted by fleeting romance or put off by the effort it can take to build something with long-term potential. Once upon a time in college I dated someone I now fully believe to be gay. In spite of our best efforts, mine at least, we never gained chemistry or comfort; everything was a pained intellectual exposition. Almost a meta-relationship, like we related about the relationship we didn’t quite have. With Niall it’s weird: the personality chemistry and physical attraction are both solid, they galvanize me and buzz in the air between us. What is lacking is the telepathy about the mechanics, stimulation and response. Seems like that is an issue of building common vocabulary, practicing, and not getting discouraged. Low-hanging fruit.
I have dated men where the chemistry was so intense, so obvious, that it hung in the air between us like smoke. I’ve had sex that felt like telepathy. It’s pretty awesome when it works…
And then I’ve dated guys where the learning curve — both sexually and temperamentally — was much longer. It was less instinctive. But it was not impossible. So I know for a fact that people can build chemistry. Sometimes it’s just there, but sometimes you can create it.
My relationship with Mr. Ambition… I decided I was really into him … and I started managing my incentives. There was another guy I saw occasionally, with whom I had stronger instinctive chemistry. This other guy agreed with me that we didn’t want a Big Important Relationship. This other guy will screw up my incentives if I hang out with him too much, I thought, and I limited my time with him.
—Clarisse Thorn, [Storytime] Chemistry
I also resonate with SnowdropExplodes‘s comments on Clarisse’s post.
On OkCupid in one of my question explanations, I said that dedication is more important than passion in a relationship, because while passion [can] wax and wane, dedication will get you through the patches where the passion has faded.
I tend to agree that dedication is a stronger foundation than passion for a relationship. Sex is a fleeting and flighty sensation, cheap and expendable, while commitment provides the thread to string it together, the impetus to make it work even if you don’t always want the sex and could dispense with the person in an individual instance. Stability is ultimately what we are looking for in our old age, isn’t it, instead of a collection of disparate experiences? I mean, once you’ve accumulated enough experiences you realize most of them are shit, and my toilet overfloweth. For sure I’ve shaken much of my FOMO instinct because thus far I’ve been so greedy. And it hasn’t left me with much that is lasting. Not even any good diseases!
Mostly my urge to experience it all has given me only shallow experiences, barren stretches intermittent with explosion, not much nuance or gradation. Passion flares sizzling down to scorched earth in the wink of a session or two. Now, built up again, I’m ready for a slow burn. Seems like we as a society have internalized the dichotomy that a man is either sweet and available or exhilarating and self-absorbed. But in this regard I think we can have it all. Someone doesn’t have to be inconsistent and ambiguous about where you stand and what they are willing to offer you to keep it fresh and exciting; they can be dedicated to pushing boundaries and taking risks with you.
Except I have my reservations about no sexual chemistry immediately. Clarisse makes a point in the comments of I’m Not Sure Why I Want To Have Children, But I Do, in response to a thoughtful suggestions that she might consider a polyamorous situation where she raises kids with a platonic friend and has sex with separate partners.
I’ve thought before that I’d be fine with straightforwardly treating a marriage like an LLC for kids. Yet chemistry seems to be one of the aspects that helps people have patience with each other and through the tough times.
True, sex is integral to maintaining a complicated relationship because it can be used as a tool to iron out the kinks. Stay together for the sex: an unpopular but realistic incentive. And I think this is why I’ve always asserted that sex is The Most important thing to me. Not because I’m some dolt who cares more about my fleeting pleasure than how someone treats me, but because without satisfying and steady sex, I’m not convinced the other stuff can work. In relationships where I haven’t been sexually satisfied, resentments have built quickly. Make-up sex might be no more than a chemical bandaid, downing a Tylenol to treat symptoms, but it alleviates a headache for long enough for you to work around it and focus on fortifying other aspects of your relationship.
Which brings us to the final point: It’s easier to work on sex than liking one another. Physical routines are subject to revision but character flaws are pretty much forever. The flipside is that positive, relationship-building traits also tend to persist. Niall has already been patient and infinitely understanding with me. He entered into the situation knowing that I’d be somewhat physically incapacitated for a while and would need rehab thereafter, that my illness has persisted to wear on me emotionally. Nevertheless, he was intrigued and remained engaged in the face of setbacks.
So much less crash and burn than all the situations I’ve been in recently: despite our initial sexual debacle, I feel calm, not keyed up about him. After his post-surgery visit, I didn’t hear from him for over two weeks and I didn’t freak out even one bit. Rightfully so; he turned up. Wonder whether my lack of anxiety or angst is because I’m in a good place for once, every little slight isn’t one more piece of shit piled up in a toilet about to overflow. Or whether it’s because he has little physical claim over me thus far, I cannot yet feel him in my body. At least insofar as his disappearance would not register as a built-in being snatched away violently.
I’ve already done the hard work of pitching myself as repulsive in every way, giving Niall every opportunity out. Attempting to cast him off. If we can recover from “I just wanted you to unfib or consistently fib to make your nose-peen stop growing then shrinking,” we aren’t in such bad shape,” right? I almost wonder: What did I do right?
Then I posit: Maybe Niall is exactly the resilience I need. Reliance. Resilience.
Working on sex. I guess this is growing up?