The moment he took the camera away from his face, and I saw his eyes, I gasped.
He was so pretty, like a girl. But also not like a girl at all. In fact, given how much thought I’d put into the decision to only date women, his not-a-girl-ness felt shocking.
Later on, as we sat and talked, I waited. What would it be, I wondered. Would he interrupt or talk over me? Express unexamined privilege or uphold gender roles? What would disappoint me? What would bore or offend me? What red flag would say: this male-bodied person is probably not even worth the hookup?
As I waited to be given a reason to walk away, I thought about how impressive his vocabulary was, and admired how he enjoyed playing with words and language.
I told him (challenged him, really, as such statements have a way of drawing red flags to the surface) that I cared more about fighting oppression than anything else on earth. He seamlessly made a joke in which the punchline was that he, as a white man who took a women’s studies class in college, would first need to explain oppression to me.
It was funny, and I relaxed a little.
He knows who he is in this space.
He knows what I’m talking about.
I told him I was a writer, and he told me he was a photographer.
Days later I would look back on those first moments of us sitting together and realize that his body language was that of someone well-practiced at not spooking animals; at holding very still and appreciating wildness through his camera lens, without interference or influence.
That’s exactly how he made me feel.
I told my mother a few days later that he had the best vocabulary of anyone I’d ever met. I didn’t tell her that’s why I decided to kiss him. He told me later he was just trying not to sound stupid, a fact which I think really meant that he was trying not to ramble, because when he’s nervous he doesn’t make much sense.
He didn’t make sense for weeks.
I was very forward that night. Predatory, even. You should come over. Getting to know him would just ruin it. I don’t date men anymore, this isn’t going anywhere.
The first time we had sex, I told him he didn’t fuck like a guy, and was thrilled to see he was deeply touched by the compliment. The first time we had sex, he also
surprised me by letting me know that he wasn’t available for booty calls or hookups— if I wanted something with him, it was going to be something.
He surprised me a lot, actually.
I was surprised by how carefully and thoughtfully he considered my words, and engaged with me about my thoughts and feelings. I was even more surprised to see that he was actively doing growth work, mulling things over and learning about himself from one hangout to the next— not because I asked him too, but because this is what he does.
Early on we had a thing. He wanted to walk on the outside (the curbside) when we walked together. It was a ridiculous, archaic act of performative chivalry, I thought, annoyed that he wanted to criss-cross at every street corner, always sliding into the spot closer to the road. It was a sexist reinforcement of gender roles that I do not tolerate, and I told him so.
He started to explain himself, which I shut down immediately. It’s nothing personal, just a blanket policy, I told him. I don’t let men defend their sexism.
Days went by, and he brought it up again. He said that, in the moment of being dismissed and attacked (ouch, but… true), he hadn’t been able to come up with the right words, but could he share something now?
Fine, I said.
“I walk on the outside,” he said, “because if a car came flying off the road at us, the person on the outside’s body would act as a bit of a shield, protecting the person on the inside from the worst of it. If it’s between you and me, and one of us was going to die, I’d rather it be me. I’m working on what that means about my self-worth but it’s how I feel. It’s who I am. But if you’re saying that between the two of us, *you* would rather be the one who dies, then that’s no problem. You can walk on the outside.”
I was extremely touched by both the thoughtfulness with which he had considered the issue, and the fearless reveal of something so personal. I told him that since we were being honest, I would rather he die than me. That I am selfish; that’s who I am.
Quietly, he said “I know.”
His voice was full of nothing but warmth and admiration. He still walks on the outside.
It’s always like that with him. On the surface, he was acquiescing: I could walk on the outside. But I would first have to contend with him; I would first have to consider something new.
This kind of gentle strength is his trademark. He seems so mild, so easily dominated and easy-going. But right when I think I’m going to get my way in an unsatisfying shut-out (as I often have with partners who wanted to please me without engaging too deeply) I find myself challenged, curious, and deeply moved.
I realized recently that I’ve rarely been interested in my partner’s thoughts before. I mean, I was interested in the same way that I am interested in my four year old nephew’s thoughts— because love.
But I’ve often found the topics and capacity of my partners’ actual mental processing to be completely irrelevant and tedious, like a grown-up listening to the superficial musings of a child.
I’m fully aware of how condescending that is, yes. But I’ve put a lot of work and practice into being good at thinking, feeling, expressing, and communicating… and most men are notoriously bad at expressing complex relational thoughts and feelings.
I told this all to my therapist, and he said he imagined me walking around my partner’s thought museums, looking bored and unimpressed.
I said it was more like I walked around making lists for how they could be improved. I also reflected that my partners had historically never been able to walk very far into my thought museum without feeling totally overwhelmed and walking right back out again.
We laughed at this image, but it was also very sad.
I’ve spent a lot of time in relationships feeling lonely.
So far with him, it’s different. Each new exhibit in his thought-museum is more interesting than the last; more moving; more beautiful. I’m terrified it will stop, that I’ll suddenly realize I’ve already seen the whole thing and there’s no more.
I didn’t know I was so hungry for this, to explore someone. Perhaps I told myself I just wasn’t a museum person because I didn’t think there were any museums worth visiting.
And… he doesn’t just walk into my thought museum, he feasts on it.
He runs through the hallways, sometimes taking notes, and sometimes shouting with delight, and sometimes sitting quietly and letting an exhibit move him.
It is truly thrilling, and alarming, to be explored in this way… and likewise to be actively reconstructing old exhibits, and creating new ones, with each new conversation together.
“Where will this go?” I wonder. What will happen if he stays long enough that my entire museum becomes shaped by him? Is this what partnership is supposed to feel like? It’s terrifying.
The strangest thing to me is that these conversations, the endless stream of unpacking, processing, growing, and exploring, genuinely excite him. Like a person who has been starving, he binges on them, his body responding to my thoughts like some men respond to a strip tease.
I didn’t know boys could do this, I told my therapist. I didn’t know they could think and feel and talk and self-examine like this. Like a girl. Like a friend.
More to the point, I didn’t know I could talk like this to the same person I slept with.
Don’t get me wrong, I talked to my past partners. Of course. They listened and validated, they were kind and respectful. But I’ve always understood that this part of my brain, my absolute favorite part of myself, was something I could only share in small doses. It was exhausting for others to hear about, I knew. “Overthinking,” they called it, but they listened as an act of love for me anyway. Such a touching gesture. Such good men.
Sometimes I wondered what was wrong with me that that wasn’t enough.
Sometimes I decided that a person’s most private thoughts were simply best shared with twenty thousand strangers on the internet.
I was surprised by how sex and conversation could be so deeply entwined, that a great discussion would lead to great sex and great sex would lead to a great discussion, and all of it would just continue to get better and better.
I was surprised to discover that I didn’t want to write about the sex. I write to understand and organize things, and I’ve often written to spare my male partner all my thoughts and words. But each moment with him is already whole; we processed it out loud already, together, so there’s nothing to understand. Even if it didn’t feel so deeply private– a new feeling for me– there would simply be nothing to write about.
I was surprised most when we had our first real fight though. It was gritty, and rough, a minefield of triggers and a dawning awareness that I couldn’t hide from this person. The way he listened made me feel naked and vulnerable. His thoughtfulness, curiosity, and rapt attention were too much for me.
I wanted it to fail. I wanted to be right that boys can’t do better.
I was waiting for it to end, waiting for him to mess up, hoping for it even. He’ll eventually do what men do. He’ll shut down; all the words and warmth and sex and curiosity will stop and he’ll turn cold and disappear.
I’ll be alone again, but I’ll be right.
That’s just what men do, said a deep old hurt part of me. They disappear into themselves, leaving us to do the work to either bring them back, or clean up the mess.
But he stayed.
In the room, in his body, and in the fight. He was angry, scared, and hurt, and he told me so. He made it clear that he was on my side and willing to do the work, but also that I needed to be willing too. He reflected that he could feel the part of me waiting for him to fail, and that because I am on a mission in this world, I would always be “ahead” of him in some ways, so if my litmus test was whether or not he could “catch up,” I would get my wish.
“When someone is singularly dedicated to their craft, they will by definition have huge gaps in other areas of their life,” he said. I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. “I want a partnership where we don’t have to be dedicated to the same thing, but instead help fill in the gaps for the other person.”
In that moment, although still very angry, I stopped wanting it to fail. In place of hoping for him to mess up, a very scary and fragile new hope arose. A hope so tender and new that I haven’t wanted to write about it until now, a hope for the kind of partnership that would be possible if we truly felt like equals.
I could feel demolition work happening in my thought museum, walls being exploded and rearranged deeply inside me. One exhibit was my ego screaming “no way is some stupid white boy gonna tell you about yourself,” while my higher self sat nearby, weeping with gratitude that someone had finally come in, and seen what was going on.
I told him about a feeling I experience with him sometimes.
It’s a feeling like we’re children, genderless and pure, giggly and free, best friends exploring all the joy and pleasure in the world together, each psyched that the other wants to hang out with us. It’s as if one of us showed up at the other’s
doorstep to ask if they could come out and play because we had an idea for a game, and the other went running to get their things without question, every time we hang out.
This feeling is, without a doubt, the thing I’ve been looking for; the thing I thought could only exist with a woman, with an equal. But for now, while it’s new and terrifying, I am giving myself permission to revel in it with this person, this pretty not-a-girl who continues to surprise and challenge me in ways I hadn’t dared hope for.
Who knows what our museums will look like when we’re done with each other? Perhaps this will change the course of our history. Perhaps not.
I didn’t know if I wanted to share this yet, torn between wanting to shout it from the rooftops, and to keep it secret; safe; mine.
But then COVID happened, and now he and I are trapped across the country from each other, stressed and anxious, and unsure of what the future holds. So I figured now was a good time to say that, quite simply, there is still love in this world. There is beauty, and hope, and joy.
And it is good.
Sending you all a slice of normalcy and new love.