Stories and Culture

Missed Connection

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I had a conversation with myself the other day. I’ve been trying these few years to watch my own back. I’m too interested in self-help, but it’s been a good thing. Sure, first I had to accept that help is a good thing. But it’s easier when you’re doing it for yourself. Nobody else has to know, until you want them to. The point is that you’ll want them to, eventually. You’re trying to look inwards, you’ve got the goal to improve. I’ve got the goal to improve, or at least to learn to deal. So I was asking why I let things get to me for so long. Like, what is it that keeps me obsessed? What is it that keeps me stuck in my head, out of control? I swear, the shit that goes on up there…

I’m an emotional guy. No shame in putting it out there. I don’t have any problem telling people I’ve got a lot going on inside. There can be judgement, sure, but it’s worse to deny it. Believe me, I’ve tried. And I try to keep up with what people are saying, what people are thinking about these things, and I’m pretty confident this generation is headed in the right direction. That is, there are conversations about emotion now, people aren’t so uptight about a man who cries. My feminist friend, she gives me shit sometimes because I’m still a dude, I’m still a bro, but she talks to me about things like double standards, and how our culture can be just as hard on guys – in terms of expectations, I’ve got to clarify because she’d hate me if I didn’t – as it is on women. She throws around the term “toxic masculinity” a lot. I’ll take it. It’s been a big thing for me to know some people stand behind the sensitive guys out there.

Did you know that you can apply behavioral economics to yourself? Track yourself, there’s an app for that. Okay, I’m kidding. But my buddy – he’s been through the racket with therapy and drugs – but he said his therapist told him he could practice CBT on himself. Okay, so the shrink actually kicked him out – the sessions were coming to an end because there wasn’t much more he could do for my friend, the guy said – but he’d given him these tools to monitor his thoughts, and his emotions. Yeah, emotions. CBT was one of them. That’s shorthand for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s about the connections you make – when you think, when you feel – and redirecting some of the unhealthy ones. So you can do it for yourself, anywhere, any time. You can change the way you act. I thought it was interesting. Malpractice on the part of the shrink, maybe, but promising.

That being said – I guess I’ve put out some fancy sentiments – I don’t have it together all the time. It’s one thing to be aware of all this, another to work with what you’ve got. You know, I think it boils down to deciding to work with those sentiments. I like pretty words. I like ideas. I guess I’m a romantic guy. So I’m trying to work with myself, and work with those things. It’s helped me understand how I relate to others. If you can put words to it, no bluffing, you’re a hell of a lot closer to seeing your situations and your relationships clearly.

I think one of the hardest things for guys right now is to figure out how to just be around women. I grew up in a small town, and my buddies and I were experts in “locker room” talk. That’s just what it was like when we were kids. We don’t know much outside of our families and our town, and so we go with the times. I’d like to blame the hormones, too. Kids aren’t just bad because they’re caught up in a herd sentiment. They’re not just learning from their parents. They’re struggling to grow and learn on their own. I look back and see that I was a non-person, and the guys propped me up. And we all wanted someone to touch.

You know, locker room talk is more about guys bragging about what we’ve done, and there are times when we’re just lying. Point-blank. It’s not about imagining scenarios – you do that on your own time. The conversations we did have about women would go something like, “What’s going on with your new girlfriend? Have you boned yet?” Knowing full well the guys probably hadn’t. There wasn’t any respect for intimacy. We’d lie, and most of the time the other guys knew it, too. We’d exaggerate. And we’d laugh at our developing bodies, and fucking pick on each other. And in a way, we’d comfort each other. We didn’t really understand. We were young, we were dumb, we just didn’t know what was going on. Sure, some of us stay in that mentality – go the way of the douchebag. And that kind of guy peaks in high school. Those might be the womanizers. But a guy these days saying something stupid might make a whole group of guys nervous, you’ll probably just get a nervous laugh. Even in the South – a lot of guys will see that you take things too far. But we might not acknowledge it. There’s a lot of pressure, like there was when we were kids.

And when we’re out of it, that adolescent place, we get into a lot of “thinking.” Guys don’t just go to anyone to talk about their shit. We’ll be honest with the people we’re close to, sure, but it’s pretty much always to talk about the situation. It’s a lot more about the situation. We just don’t talk about our feelings. When I’m having trouble with someone I like, or my girlfriend, I don’t express “She did this, she made me angry and confused…” No. I’ll say, “She did this, and this is what I think.” I said this before – we don’t hash it out. Or it’s rare to hash it out. You have to be close, you have to trust the guy. Usually, my buddy gives me his opinion, and maybe he’ll tell me to think things through in a different way.

Then, when you do find that person you’re interested in… it’s a constellation of thought, and feelings come in like the tide.

I met someone about a year ago. It was exciting, for a while. I’d say most of the excitement in this sort of thing lays in never exactly knowing when you’ll cross paths with your person. You see connections for sure – you fabricate them. The frequency illusion. It happens that every encounter takes some cosmic weight, and suddenly you’re caught up in fate. You can communicate, you’ve convinced yourself; you’re both vibrating, and hope there isn’t some divine frequency that will bring the two of you shattering down. You don’t want the situation to become that fatal, you tell yourself; you know it’s in your head but the phantom of that idea you’ve taken such interest in becomes corporeal. You lie in bed at night, and the image provokes the warmth of a blush, and the hands of your phantom glance your skin. You know the tension in your spine is your nerves, you know the pressure in your chest comes at your thought’s insistence, but your phantom has gained the right to slip through space-time and caress you. A smooth stroke down the back, heavy pressure, you’re linked.

You spend a lot of your time thinking of ways to get to her during the day. Is there a way to influence this? you ask yourself. If you show up at the right time, can you convince that person there’s something real there? There’s so much conversation about this idea that romancing means “playing the game.” There are books for guys who want to attract women – okay, there are podcasts, websites, YouTube channels, blogs, Apps, advertisements for it, you’re trapped – whether it’s a conquest or a connection. Men know we’re supposed to be on the hunt. My feminist friend’s really going to kill me. But there is something to all of this scheming and gaming, and it’s not just the guys who are trying to add another tick mark to their black books of hookups.

It’s something more about infatuation – you’re falling in lust or in love, whatever it is, and you have a goal. The goal is getting the attention of your object of desire. Maybe it’s better if you pretend I didn’t say “object.” But we’ve got to put ourselves out there – the onus is still on us. And I’ll throw this up for consideration: there’s a lot of pressure.

I’ll admit that these encounters – they serve me, too. Sometimes it’s calculated. I’d take the tactic of being around every place I knew she might be. I knew where she’d usually have lunch, so I set myself up there – but in a corner, where she wouldn’t see me when she passed. That way, I could control my entrance, and she’d notice me like it was by chance. I’m making myself out to be a creep, so I’ll say I didn’t do it so often. But at other times, she controlled me – I knew I had somewhere else to be, but I’d take a longer route, slowed in pace, and only half admitted I was doing it just to see her. Her phantom pulled me to places she might have been.

It’s natural, though. You begin to plan to see things through – you’d like to think you have control over the situation. And you’d like to think you have a chance. And when you realize what you’re doing to have that chance, you realize you don’t need a friend to tell you you’re being a dumbass. You get to the point where you feel like you’re being ripped in different directions, but it’s not even the situation – it’s you. You’re ashamed. You lost control, you can’t think straight, you’ve let the crests of those intense feelings sweep you along like you’re some cast-off plastic crap, caught in the surf. Following her? Waiting for her? What if she thinks you’re some fucking stalker?

But you’re not even attached to a person, and you know it. When you’re living to feel, you couple with those emotional surges. You even begin to find that pain is pleasant. It’s a common-sense idea in our culture that to love means to hurt, and though I’ve come to a place where I disagree, there’s a visceral truth to the savor of those deep feelings. It’s something you can’t find almost anywhere else. I’d liken it to the high you get after a good session at the gym, or the relief after you’ve pried a stiff hand from some farmer’s electric fence. The intensity, and then the reprieve, are what you’re after. Or maybe it’s just that there’s something there where there wasn’t anything before.

There was a girl before the one who came a year ago, and she was my first. Love, I guess you could say, though I wouldn’t call it that now. Now, I’d say the bitch took advantage of me. I shouldn’t use the word bitch, but she was a bad one. I did go to my friend for advice. Even before he knew her, it wasn’t a good thing. It’s like that song by that band MSTRKRFT – Heartbreaker, it’s called – “I wish I knew right from the start, all my friends said you’d break my heart, a heartbreaker right from the start.”

You know, guys look to others for guidance on what to do to woo someone else. We’re not just born romancing and we’ve got to figure it out. We do talk to each other. When you have a conversation between two guys, and one guy’s like “I went out with this chick, I really like her, I think this might be the real thing, man,” the other guy might respond, “You think so?” That’s a good reply. It might sound like they’re brushing it off, but they’re not. There’s a subtext. “Oh yeah?” means you’re a little skeptical. But you get it. The way you talk about women is indirect, and you don’t really get into the weeds of the relationship – at least not at first. This is only really between friends, though. Otherwise… “Yeah man, do your thing.”

Guys don’t confront each other a lot. What happens when a guy says “I think you’re being dumb” – things get heated, you get in a fight. So instead, there’s a way you tiptoe around things. You have to be subtle. Otherwise, the guy’s pride is going to get hurt, and you know you don’t want that. You communicate more through subtext and body language. My buddy never told me directly I was a jerk.

Still, the end with the first girl was fast – we had maybe four months to see it through. And good thing, because I’d never seen myself so low. She really ran me over. The whole pull you through the ringer, sleep with another guy and you find out about it but you don’t want to let go, yet. I’ll just throw this one out there – nobody talks about how men can cum without pleasure. And I never really intended anything with her, I told myself. She was my distraction. In the hard moments, now, it’s still a refrain. You just don’t forget those things, sometimes you’re down on yourself. I’m an emotional guy, like I said, and I can’t always handle the truth.

So when I met you, girl of last year – I’ll say it to you, for you now – I felt these things I couldn’t deal with. I’ll try, for you, to put words to it… I’m trying for me, too.

I remember the first time I saw you, and it wasn’t much of anything special. I thought you were cute – pretty, even. I was so distracted, though, in a crowd of others that I remember almost nothing else. Just that you were there. But later that week, man, the rush. It was one of recognition, like something I felt with that girl that came before, more than that even. It wasn’t something I could figure at first, just tension – but then it was shock, and primitive fear. It was attraction and it was repulsion. I felt like a laser of all that energy shot right out of my chest and up toward you and in you and stuck there, though you didn’t see me. I wasn’t walking so quickly, but you never once looked. You just rested, staring somewhere.

Another time, you sat across from me, distracted. I tried to look at you, but the shifting doubt in my stomach then plugged there, humming humility. There was the thought: “I don’t have a chance.” And then I knew what I wanted. That first time you put words to it, that first time you accept it – it’s not like you’ve won the lottery, you’re not running to tell all your friends, you kind of loathe yourself for it. Come on, man! You’re getting down on yourself? Over this shit? You don’t know this person, they’ve just knocked on life’s door but it doesn’t mean anything beyond that. You don’t have to open it. It’s not like she’s perfect. You don’t have to open the door… but you keep thinking about what it would mean to open it.

It all happened pretty fast, I’ll admit. How does it happen that you become attached to someone you don’t even know? Of course there’s that lust – yeah, you have to have the physical attraction. But you can lust after anybody, and it’s rarely the debilitating kind. I mean, I realized after the first girl that I’d been around her long enough to fall in lust with her. On top of that was confusion – I didn’t really know what I was feeling, and I didn’t deal with the feeling I didn’t really know I was feeling. It was so intense, and I called it love – but it was the attraction, and sure, I genuinely enjoyed her time and her company.

So maybe I’ll say I don’t even know what love is. That buddy I mentioned earlier – the one dumped by the shrink – he did have some good shit to throw out there. He told me love is more a decision. All that stuff turns into love when you decide it to… okay, you think, either this is going to be another fling, or I decide to stay with this person longer and let it turn to love. You just don’t know what you want until you let it happen. The actual love only starts when you realize the other person influences you in a positive way.

You never had a chance to influence me directly, I’ll say that too. But you were always there. With you, just seeing you, I wanted to push myself to be great. There was something about your voice… and your phantom, your phantom reached out across space. I imagined, as we got close, that you could hear me think. I imagined we could talk without tongues. We’d be in the same room, I wouldn’t even be thinking about you, but then – flux in my chest – somehow, you’d sent me your love. I could almost hear the words in it.

But you never looked at me. Not beyond normal, I think. That was pretty much it for us. You never saw me, and so I stopped looking for you. So I guess that’s where we stand. Things haven’t changed much, girl of a year ago. I watched you, and I watch you still, but knowing I won’t talk to you if I don’t have to. I can admit this to myself, now – I know it’s the fear. I feel it every time right before I avoid you. And I understand why I avoid you. I said, before, that I’m working to be aware. I know I’m young, and I know I’m afraid. I know I’m ambitious, and I know I’m soft. I know that I don’t want to make a mistake right now. I’ll act in a way so I can’t – not a mistake with you, at least. I didn’t talk to any friends for this one. It’s all me.

It’s fine this way, too, because things won’t last as they stand forever. I won’t always be around you. Things change quickly, and something else will whip you away if that thing doesn’t take me far first.

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