Cooties

Looking back, one of the great disappointments of my youth was my inability to have a fully functional romantic relationship with any of the number of intelligent, charming, vivacious young women I had the good fortune to get to know and who were interested in me romantically. Oh the first, second and third base, and who knows what other shared adventures I could have had with this wonderful coterie of female companions! I try not to have regrets, but I still do from time to time.

My model for a relationship with a female person, or for that matter, for a relationship with anyone, male or female actually, was mine with Molly, (See “What Molly Has and Has Not”). Even though Molly and I got naked together, we were five years old and it was a whole different thing. But that buddy thing, that partnership of equals, was the way I approached all my relationships with my peers of both genders. Being essentially heterosexual from puberty on, I had perfectly realized platonic buddy relationships with my male friends. But that same sort of perfectly platonic buddy relationship with my female friends was on a number of memorable occasions thrown out of kilter by my hormones or theirs. I wanted to hold their hands, kiss them, touch their bodies, make love, but I was desperately afraid to do so. They wanted to do the same with me, and were disappointed (sometimes even desperately) when I fled from the brink.

I still wrestle with trying to rationalize what it was that interfered with my amorous possibilities. It seems I was so shy and had such low self-esteem that I could not abide by the taunts I imagined I would get from my male comrades that I had somehow surrendered to the world of women. I saw a parallel kind of thing later with my daughter when she was little. Neither of us was comfortable with people looking at us and judging us. I was convinced somehow that if I showed any romantic interest in one of my female buddies that I would be badly judged by the world. The young women that I jilted did not understand this nuanced issue, they just felt rejected by me when I fled.

My first such truncated romance was in eighth grade when I was in 1967 when I was twelve years old. The young woman I had a crush on, I will call her Vicki (a convention I will follow here for consideration of privacy), and I remember we were both at the “sock hop” at my junior high gymnasium. A band of high school kids were playing covers of Steppenwolf and Who songs. I wanted to ask Vicki to dance but was way too shy to do so and ended up following her and her friend around for the first two thirds of the event, finally screwing up the courage, when the thing would soon be over, to ask her to dance to which she happily said yes, later admitting to me that she was beginning to think I had been stalking her earlier. The last half-hour of the event I danced with her was absolute heaven for me. At the end of the event I floated home on a cloud of bliss.

Vicki was in my homeroom and the next day, in homeroom, the unfeeling glare of the public spotlight was upon me. I could not even bring myself to acknowledge her at all. Her friend came over to me and asked me why I wasn’t talking to Vicki. Like Vicki had somehow become my “girlfriend”. I could not deal with having a girlfriend, so I could not even talk to Vicki.

Well somehow time passed and on Valentines Day, lo and behold, Vicki gave me a valentine, probably delivered to me by her impertinent friend who had no sympathy for my reticence. I took that enveloped card home, opened it, and maybe it was my mom who intervened and suggested that I ought to give her one in return. I fretted over this for a couple hours and finally decided that Vicki would think I did not like her if I did not give her a valentine in response. My mom was nice enough to take me to the store to buy the card and then drove me cross town to Vicki’s house where I put it in the mail slot of her front door, to shy to even knock and hand it to her. And, as you can probably guess, I totally snubbed Vicki again in homeroom the next school day.

After Vicki I remember a number of such truncated relationships, including:

1. Aileen – Another “girl across the street” I knew when I was 14. We basically just talked to each other and sometimes walk home from school together. We never even held hands that I could recall. I cringe when I recall an incident one day when I was sitting talking to her in my front yard. When I saw one of my male friends coming across the park towards our house, I became concerned that he would see me “talking to a girl” and share this bit of news with my other male friends who would then start pestering me that I “had a girlfriend”, which I felt I could not handle. To keep this situation from happening, I brusquely told Aileen that I had to go, and I headed into the park towards my male friend and away from Aileen so he would not know I had been talking to her.

2. Jenn – A friend of Aileen’s that I got to know when I was 15 and was smitten by at a group sleepover at Aileen’s house. I somehow managed to be boyfriend/girlfriend with her for almost six months, a real breakthrough for me. We would hug and cuddle when we were alone at her house but I was too uncomfortable to kiss her, though she seemed comfortable with the parameters I was setting for our physical intimacy.

3. Jocelyn – A friend of Jenn. I met Jocelyn at age 16 at one of Jenn’s parties, while I was still Jenn’s boyfriend. I had such an instant crush on Jocelyn that I ended the evening kissing her on Jenn’s couch, doubly galling to Jenn I’m sure. Later, back in high school, I was embarrassed, feeling I had betrayed Jenn, and I avoided Jocelyn and Jenn did not want to have anything to do with me.

4. Louisa – A buddy from my high school theater department. One late evening, me age 16 still, in her living room a romance started to bloom and we were cuddling and kissing on the couch, with no end to the encounter in sight, when I got uncomfortable and bailed out, saying all of a sudden that I had to get home. Luckily I continued my friendship with Louisa though I don’t recall ever talking about that evening with her subsequently.

5. Kari – Another buddy from my theater days, who had a crush on me at age 17 more than I for her. I kept it purely on a friend basis.

6. Marta – I was still 17, away for my first year of college at Western Michigan University, and we were dance partners in the chorus of the musical “Most Happy Fella”. I thought she was cool but too cool for me (plus being a couple years older and seemingly much worldlier) and we never hooked up romantically. Later an ironic comment by her indicated that she had had a thing for me and thought I had not had one for her…ugh!

7. Candace – Another theater buddy at Western who got kind of drunk at the cast party for one of the plays and asked me if I wanted to go upstairs with her and presumably make out. Despite her pleading, I said no.

It is painful for me to share all these anecdotes, highlighting my fear, timidity, and resulting rudeness, and which then leads me to ponder the “what ifs” of all the fun romantic adventures I might have had. Despite (or maybe because of) all this I did find, many years later, my true soul mate and life partner, she herself also had struggled with her romantic relationships and the whole Mars/Venus thing as well when she was younger.

How much of this is just my own timidity and how much is the nature of the whole Mars/Venus mythology of patriarchal culture I can’t really say for sure. I mean… why can’t we all just be people who like each other, and sometimes love each other and want to be intimate with each other? Why do people have to make it such a big deal and build all these expectations around romantic intimacy?

To the extent that it may be a patriarchal thing, I believe that the “power over” paradigm of patriarchy (as opposed to the “power with” associated with the opposite partnership paradigm) demands that women for one, and male sexual behavior be carefully controlled. As a young (shy) heterosexual male in our culture, I think I unconsciously internalized the shaming of my peers (or convinced myself that I would be shamed) for possibly being “whipped” and not playing out my part of the Mars/Venus dance. And yet my own discomfort with the patriarchal paradigm probably pales to the experience of my gay and lesbian peers, who had no socially acceptable way in the 1970s, even in a progressive university town, to reveal intimacy with a same-sex person.

In college at Western I took a “Status of Women” general studies class. I was one of only two or three males in a class of forty some. For my class project I did a comic book (using stick figures, the extent of my drawing ability) called, “Lessons in Survival: Male Feminist Tales”. My main character, an avatar for myself, was followed around by fearsome apparition, a large ghostly head with no body, that called himself “Captain Patriarch”, who verbally harassed and occasionally read the riot act to every female friend my protagonist encountered.

It was not until 1978, at age 23, and in the company of a group of my dear friends who I knew would not judge me badly, that I had another breakthrough, and was able to have a short but fully consummated romantic “fling” with a young woman

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