The Feminist Works to Get a Boyfriend
Trying so hard not to be single made me feel like a terrible feminist.
On the eve of my 24th birthday, I sit in a restaurant in Little Italy drinking red wine from a carafe, sharing ravioli and tagliatelle with my college friends. I am not my usual self tonight. I am avoiding attention, keeping my stories to myself, because I have recently been broken up with, and I am trying not to cry.
By the time we get dessert, I am drunk enough that I no longer fear my own earnestness. I raise my elbow from the table, the stem of my wine glass planted loosely between my middle and ring fingers. The house red swirls like my speech, moving with me as I talk. I speak to my friends like I’m standing on a podium, making a toast to my sad, drunk, almost-mid-twenties self.
“My goal for 24 is to be more like I was at 21,” I say, and my friends are caught off guard by the dramatic shift in our conversation. “I don’t want to work so hard to be with someone anymore. I was never like this in college, was I?”
My very kind friends don’t answer my question directly. I blow out the candle in a piece of cheesecake I didn’t want, then press my fork into the slice over and over again, pressing lines into it until a busboy takes the small plate away from me. Outside the restaurant, I say goodbye to my friends in the middle of a crowded sidewalk on Mulberry Street. The late June humidity is sticky even after dark, but I hug my friend Megan close enough to wrap my ankles around her calves.
“I need to call you tomorrow,” I whisper, letting my vulnerability stumble into her arms. “I have more to tell you about what happened with him.”
“I know you do,” she says. Since we met at 19, Megan has been able to sense and simplify how I’m feeling. She saw me for the woman I would become long before I figured it out for myself.
“I’m sad,” I tell her, then I stop to take a single, shallow breath and hold it for longer than I should. Feeling the tears creep back again, I shoot my eyes up and concentrate on the restaurant’s awning that hangs above our heads, all the yellow and white pinstripes welcoming hungry tourists.
“I know you are.”
The work of holding back tears follows me throughout my birthday, my week visiting the city, and the rest of the summer. I spend the next day walking through Manhattan with my headphones in, listening to Regina Spektor’s entire discography and remembering how much I loved her music during college. I walk 90 blocks, trying to figure out when I started working so hard to be in a relationship or get over a past one. I don’t understand how I can feel so empowered in some parts of my life but so helpless in others. How can I teach fifty 18-year-olds about communication in intimate relationships every semester but not know how to make a good thing last? How can I publish a feminist literary magazine but forget how to get out of bed in the morning? I try to answer these questions as I glide through every neighborhood from the Upper East Side to Alphabet City with sweat soaking through my black crop top. I make my way to my favorite ramen restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall spot downtown. When I arrive, I walk straight to the bathroom, where the walls are covered in handwriting and stickers. I dig through my bag for a Sharpie I stole from the supply closet at school, and I leave my mark on the door frame: Walked 90 blocks listening to Regina Spektor to get here. 6/20/19. Happy 24th birthday to me!
That night, I see Regina Spektor in concert, alone, sitting in the last row of the theater. A birthday present to myself, I’d thought when I bought the ticket in March. During the show, I finally surrender to my sadness, and I cry throughout her set. I imagine my voice traveling down from the upper mezzanine to where she sits so gracefully at the grand piano: These melodies are a part of me, can’t you see that? I want to shout. Look at your red dress, like the ones I wore when I was a teenager. Can you help me heal the ridges of my broken heart?
On the Fourth of July, I visit my parents at their home on Long Island. We sit by a fire in the chiminea that stands on four square stones in the middle of the backyard. When I was growing up, this flat spot was the pitcher’s mound during every kickball and Wiffle ball game we played. Now, when I think about home, it’s details like these that come to mind, at least on the good days — I picture my dad fetching a foul ball out of a pine tree, a Hula Hoop for second base, my big sisters making fun of the way my knees knock together when I run. When we all visit home during the summer, these are the moments we are always trying to live up to in new, more adult ways. My dad tosses another log into the fire while my mom sits up on the deck drinking Bloody Marys and eating clams on the half shell with me.
I’m only home for two days — a fleeting gap in a hectic summer work schedule — but it’s enough time for my mother to realize something’s off. She’s aware of my recent heartbreak but dances around the pain all day. By the time the sun sets, her concern overcomes her restraint. She asks me what’s wrong as she pulls the burnt black shell off a roasted marshmallow, revealing the soft white still intact beneath it.
“I wish I could hit a reset button on my whole life,” I say, and my mom stays silent. “I feel like I’ve been sad about the same things for two years now. I keep working to fix them, but it’s not getting any easier.”
Throughout the summer, I make a joke that no one laughs at, about how I am so desperate to find something new to consume me that I’m going to join the Air Force, or maybe the Peace Corps would be better, since I can’t even run a mile without stopping, and who in their right mind would trust me with a gun?
Although my summer sadness is sparked by the particular man who dumped me — I miss how he wore his watch facing inward and insisted that was the proper way, and the Joan Didion on his bookshelf, and the way he referred to celebrities and politicians by their first names like he knew them personally — really, my heartbreak is cumulative. My desire for a relationship is a wound that keeps splitting open like it’s been stitched wrong. And I have grown comfortable performing the emotional labor of trying to fill this void.
In the two years leading up to my 24th birthday, I take on certain practices in my role as a woman in pursuit of stable romantic partnership. Somewhere along the way, these practices become my new normal. Though I apply these rules to myself and no other woman on earth, I feel a responsibility to adhere to the following:
At all times, you must put in the necessary work to win over the man you want to be with, and then deal with your devastation when you are not successful in the endeavor. Pretend you are okay when you are not and exaggerate the length and exclusivity of your past relationships to make your pain more socially acceptable and understood. Feel embarrassed when you admit how heartbroken you are over someone you only dated for a few weeks or didn’t date at all. Feel like a terrible, hypocritical, pathetic feminist. Feel your loneliness sear as you remember how you used to judge other women for feeling this way — you used to call them weak. Feel like the type of woman your younger self would hate — you are the ultimate betrayal of all she thinks she knows right now as she retweets Lena Dunham from her college dorm room. Feel guilty for feeling so low when there are people all around you who are suffering so much more. When you get that sinking feeling during a holiday, leave your family to go to whatever bedroom you’re staying in — whether it’s the one you grew up in, or the one in the cabin in New Hampshire that you’re supposed to be enjoying — and lie face down on your borrowed bed and listen to “Ribs” by Lorde for as long as it takes you to be ready to rejoin the couples in the kitchen, or until a concerned sister comes looking for you. When you’re at your professor’s house on the last day of the fall semester, immediately flee to the bathroom when Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” comes on the Pandora station playing on the television — listening to that song in your current state should have been one of Hercules’ Twelve Labors. Spend a large percentage of your measly graduate student stipend on products that are supposed to make you more attractive to the person for whom you have feelings, then feel guilty for spending your paycheck on superficial things. Do not ever stop trying to attract someone new, even for a minute, even when you’re completely hung up on the last one, especially when you’re completely hung up on the last one, because you never know when it might happen! But also, don’t work too hard at it, because it always happens when you’re least expecting it! You should, however, always feel like Lizzo; be feminist enough to damn to hell any man who doesn’t want you, even in the moments when you think you want him more than you’ve ever wanted anything. And when you can’t feel like Lizzo, pretend to feel like Lizzo in front of other people. When you work six days a week at a restaurant in the summer, level up from holding back your tears to holding back your vomit and forget what it’s like to wake up without ajita. Try to figure out ways to piece yourself back together while simultaneously hating yourself for falling apart in the first place. Avoid any plotline in any movie/show/song/book about a woman who has the “burden” of choosing between two different men who love her. Get resentful when a friend talks about her significant other, but don’t be a bitch about it, except, of course, when you can’t help but be a bitch about it, and never apologize for that. Spend a considerable amount of time making sure you’re not attracted to women, then wonder if you would be attracted to women if you weren’t raised in an oppressive, heteronormative culture, then wonder if you’re actually perpetuating the fetishization of lesbian and bisexual women by considering dating women, then tell yourself that you’re the truly oppressive heteronormative figure after all because this whole time you’ve known, deep down, that you have never really had feelings for a woman, and you are very much a fan of having a man put his penis inside of you. Cry to all of the sad songs in the car.
When longing for someone who doesn’t want you back, you must work to make excuses for poor behavior carried out by the men for whom you have feelings. Like, he really does want to be with you, but he’s just not in the right headspace this fall. He’s just insecure — he doesn’t believe that he deserves you (he told you that himself), but maybe you can prove to him that he really does deserve you. He’s super smart — he works for NPR! — so he’s just overthinking your relationship; that’s one of the things you usually really like about him. He’s a year younger than you, so he needs a little time to mature. He’s just depressed right now. His job is really overwhelming and emotionally exhausting — way more than yours is, you suppose — and he’s a Virgo, so he works super hard at it, which is actually really admirable, if you think about it. He’s not like most people your age — he just doesn’t check his phone a lot, and that’s why he’s taking so many days to answer your messages. You just need to work on adjusting your expectations. You need to be more patient. If you say and do all of the right things all of the time, you’ll be able to prove to him that you’re the right partner for him. If you listen to him when he’s upset, and you really make the space for him to confide in you, he’ll see how much good you could do for him. Maybe you can help him. Maybe if you really work to maintain a friendship with him, eventually you’ll be able to convince him that no, really, my virginity isn’t a big deal to me, like, at all, but I totally get why you were so freaked out by it, I totally understand why you stopped seeing me after I told you, and we can work on this, we can work through this, we can work this out, don’t throw it all away over this, won’t you please forgive me for my inexperience, and, yes, please, won’t you please just have sex with me?
“I just want something to consume me,” I tell my mom, swatting away an ember floating toward the face of my parents’ Labrador. The dog lies undisturbed, sound asleep in the damp grass next to my lawn chair. I lean down to pet her ears. “I don’t want to live inside my own head anymore.”
With the end of the season comes the end of my Great Summer Depression, and I’m finally burnt out from two years of these expectations. There is a liberation that comes with hitting rock bottom. There is a liberation that comes with the end of a depressing season. I decide I’m ready to get back to dating once I’m able to make small talk again without feeling like there are cinder blocks tied to my limbs.
Before a first date in September, my therapist tells me I have to force myself not to think beyond the present moment. She calls this extreme mindfulness.
“Don’t think about what you hope this becomes long term,” she says as I chip flakes of my navy blue nail polish onto her white couch. “Just concentrate on a realistic goal for enjoying your first date. What do you hope to get out of this? Perhaps a pleasant conversation over a decent cocktail?”
“If someone doesn’t kiss my neck soon I’m gonna drop dead,” I say. “Does that count as a realistic goal?”
This man doesn’t kiss my neck that first night, but we do have a pleasant conversation over a decent cocktail — several of them, actually. As the weeks pass, I realize I have finally met someone who wants to be with me, too. Meeting him isn’t a direct result of all my years of work toward this, nor is it some fated event that came true because I finally stopped searching for someone. Some intangible, immeasurable combination of my past and present mindsets makes way for our relationship. Mostly, though, the secret is this: he is someone who reads my writing and answers my text messages in a reasonable amount of time, who can sense when I’m overthinking something he’s said, who doesn’t run away as soon as something is less than perfect, who meets me in my favorite cafe every Monday on his way home from work just so he can spend a few minutes talking to me from across a cramped table. He is someone who makes everything feel easy.
It’s no wonder, then, that it takes me some time to realize I have feelings for him. Without the work that has characterized all of my past relationships, my brain doesn’t initially recognize him as a potential romantic prospect. But where’s the crazy rush? I ask myself after our third date. How come I don’t feel anxious about this?
On our fourth date, we visit an observatory, where we each walk up a concrete ladder to peer out an old telescope. The white paint on the rungs nicks the palm of one of my hands as I hold down the back of my skirt with my other.
“That right there,” says a proud undergraduate getting class credit for interning at the observatory, “is the one and only Saturn.”
Saturn is tiny and matte, a pasty white sliver of sphere and ring at the opposite end of this bulky, immovable telescope. It looks like a little kid cut the shape out of construction paper and the undergrad taped it to the lens of the telescope just to fool us. I think of a song about a paper moon that I learned in elementary school chorus — Mrs. Violeta’s gaudy bracelets used to bounce on her wrists, jingling as she pointed to each row of students on the bleachers, inviting us to sing along with Ella Fitzgerald as she asks the one she loves to believe in her.
He and I step outside, onto the balcony of the observatory, where we get a subpar view of our city, a place we both agree is too small. We’re silent for a moment, looking over the unremarkable intersection below us. He slips his arm around my waist, warming me up in the October chill. I want to kiss him but resist.
“Is it just me,” he whispers, “or did that view of Saturn look totally fake?”
I laugh, relieved that he’s willing to say what I was holding back to be polite.
“It was fake, wasn’t it? I’m convinced they were lying to us,” I say, and we make cynical comments all the way home.
Early the next morning, in his apartment, he turns to me and says, “Being with you is too easy.”
I freeze, clench my teeth and straighten my spine at the claim he’s made. I worry that he is about to confirm my fear: There is no heavy labor in this burgeoning thing we have here, so there must be something wrong with it. This must be fake. There must be something missing, right? I ask him what he means.
“I feel like I could spend forever just lying in bed and talking to you.”
As we spend our first few months entangled in each other’s lives, in each other’s beds, my doubts start to fade, and I eventually embrace the ease with which he has become a central part of my life. On the morning of Thanksgiving, when I am back at my parents’ house, I start to worry that during our week in separate states he will forget about me. I worry that our entire relationship has been in my head after all, that his feelings for me aren’t real or sustainable. I tell him this but add a disclaimer: I know I sound crazy, I type in a text, terrified of his response, but can you tell me that everything is fine between us? He immediately calls me and talks me out of it, which isn’t difficult to do. He reassures me that he likes me, that he doesn’t think I’m crazy, that we’re good together, that he’s attracted to me, that he can’t wait to see me when we’re both back in town. It feels simple with him. It feels the way I’ve always known being wanted was supposed to feel, but it never has before. A new normal begins.
This doesn’t mean that our relationship is perfect, or that my anxieties and insecurities have vanished, or that it will remain this easy forever. But it does mean that I don’t feel like I have to compartmentalize pieces of myself around him — I no longer have to pack up my anxieties and insecurities, snap on lids to suffocate them in containers in a storage unit across town. He doesn’t require the labor of pretending I’m okay when I’m not. He doesn’t put me in a position to decode his every move. He is willing to make himself vulnerable around me, but he doesn’t ask me to unpack his emotional baggage to an extent that should be reserved for someone with a private office and a copay and a graduate degree in mental health counseling. I am no longer planning out every text message, thinking I need to always say the perfect thing at the perfect time lest he disappear. For the first time, I can make myself at home in his apartment, in his everyday life. I take out my earrings and bobby pins, and I stack them in a tiny pile on his coffee table.
With this happiness, though, comes its own loss. I feel a piece of my identity start to dissipate. How many years have I done the work of being single and unhappy about it? What do I do now that this part of my life has been simplified? Does this mean I’m not going to cry in the car to my sad songs anymore? This lack of distress is what initially stopped me from recognizing my feelings for him. I wasn’t sure I could feel gratified without the familiar rush of pain, without the self-indulgent satisfaction of feeling sorry for myself. Have I finally been granted permission to stop working so hard to win over the guy with the beard and the glasses, the one who sits behind me in class, or serves me coffee, or steps onto my subway car, or catches my eye from across the party? When did I start feeling a responsibility to work toward not being single anymore — at 22 it became all-consuming, but didn’t it really start when I was 15? What will my clever Instagram persona be if not that of Sad Single Girl? When I walk into a bar, what will I do with my time and energy if I’m not scanning the room for someone to sloppily kiss on the dance floor later? Can it really be that simple — that he likes me back and tells me so, that he is upfront about his feelings, that we are going to continue spending time together for as long as it feels good to do so? Does this mean I’ve become one of them? I know this is what I wanted, but I don’t feel like myself.
Then I think of a much younger version of me — she is 6 years old, or maybe 9; the difference is negligible, as my neuroses have been consistent for as long as I can remember. She wakes up on Christmas morning, unwraps all the things she longed for, all the things she mentioned in her lists and countdowns and prayers for months. She worked hard to get these things, or so she thinks, because she behaved as well as she possibly could in order to ensure the things she thinks she deserves. She has not yet learned that whether or not one “deserves” something is a meaningless concept. Then, in the blink of an eye, she’s sitting on her living room floor surrounded by ripped paper and empty boxes and a dark feeling of disappointment upon returning to the reality of her everyday life, back to normal. But her life is different now. She has the things she wanted, and that is, objectively, better than not having them. What more can she ask for? What more can she do? She helps her mom stuff the wrapping paper into black garbage bags, she asks her dad to cut the twist ties restraining her Barbie Doll in its box. She carries on, a little more prepared for next year.
It’s unfortunate, and at times it feels unfeminist, to admit how much my boyfriend has lessened my labor lately. I wish I could say that I freed myself of my longing on my own, that I figured out a way to live forever in that single bliss I felt at age 21. But I was in pursuit of something I genuinely wanted — clear to my friend Megan on my birthday, and my mom on the Fourth of July, as well as my Instagram followers, most people I’ve had casual conversations with in the last two years, and anyone who has read my recent essays. And I was exhausted by the labor of unfulfilled longing. Certainly this is a new relationship, and it may or may not one day be subject to the labor that I see long-term relationships endure. But for the last two years, I experienced so much of the labor of relationships without any of the benefits — there is no payoff when the labor is only on one side. If or when this ends, I will have learned to avoid relationships that ask me to do the work of convincing and begging, of strategizing and decoding. And I will leave him with a trail of bobby pins scattered throughout his apartment, coloring his coffee table, his windowsill, and his nightstand.