Monday, July 27, 2020

Gentlemen Callers

This isn't the first variation I've seen on this theme, posted on Facebook by a gay male friend around 40 years old.  I have to remind myself that if social media had been around when I was 40, I probably would have posted such things myself. So let's imagine that I'm writing this to my younger self.

Actually, though, 40 was roughly when I realized that I wasn't really interested in a long-term committed relationship.  I already knew that the trouble (if it was trouble) lay with me, not with the men I met and dated.  I wanted someone to be there for me, but not all the time, just when I wanted him to be there, and that wasn't fair to him.  I knew some men who I wanted to be with more often, but not all the time, and probably not permanently.  It began to occur to me that I would be content if I had two or three occasional but ongoing partners -- the term Friends With Benefits hadn't been coined yet; "fuck buddies" had.  The trouble was that FWBs are hard to schedule: when I found several such a decade later, either I wouldn't see any of them for a month or more at a time, or they'd all come calling at the same time: feast or famine.  I also found that they had to be the ones who decided when to show up; if I invited them over, they'd get nervous.  But I realized I could live with that.

Sometimes one of the men I knew would drift away altogether.  He might move to another town, or get into a committed relationship, or just lose interest.  But before long someone else would find his way into my life.  I began to trust that I wasn't likely to be without willing partners for the foreseeable future.  Some of those FWB relationships went on for years, certainly longer than any attempted commitment I'd tried.  In some of them, the word "love" wasn't out of place, though it might have been if we'd moved in together.

Often I've encountered people who chided me, "What's going to happen to you when you're old and you're still alone?"  I pointed out that plenty of people get divorced or widowed: marriage, or even commitment is no guarantee over the long haul.  I didn't like the idea of someone staying with me out of guilt or fear; I didn't want to do it myself, so why would I inflict myself on someone else?  Admittedly, I have a greater tolerance for being alone than many other people, and conversely less tolerance for having company when I'd rather be alone, so the prospect of being solitary never terrified me the way it does other people.  I eventually realized that committed couples work out ways of getting time to themselves, they aren't joined at the hip 24/7.  For me, the amount of solo time I need is great enough that I preferred that it be the default: that I would rather be alone when I might have preferred company, than have company when I preferred to be alone.

But perhaps my chief objection to this meme is about the word "real," used as the opposite of "temporary."  I think my FWBs and one-night stands were "real."  Not only that, but I've had many nonsexual friendships that enriched my life wonderfully.  It was always a gamble, living in a college town with its transient population, whether I'd always find enough company to keep me going, but I did.  The words of Allen Ginsberg's psychoanalyst reassured me: "Oh, you're a nice person, there will always be people who'll like you."  I didn't believe that when I was 20, or 25 (me? nice?), but at about 30 I began to trust that I was likable enough: not to be smug about it, but to believe that I'd get by.  And so I have, though admittedly the current pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works.  Still, I know that it's not about me, and I'm doing all right, with enough friendly human interaction to warm my heart.

And anyway, we are all temporary.  Few long-term couples manage to die at the same time, which would be the best you could hope for if you demand that neither you nor your partner checks out ahead of the other.  And what does it mean to say that one shouldn't "entertain temporary people"?  How do you know that the person you've met will last for the rest of their life?  I've challenged some people on this point, and never got a convincing answer. "You just know" is the best they come up with, but I've learned as I observe their romantic careers over time that they don't know.  It seems to me that to find a serious partner you often have to audition many others who turn out not to be serious -- or you aren't serious about them; there's something very egoistic about this meme, as though one's own feelings are the only ones that matter.  Besides, the need to entertain people whose seriousness is unknown is proverbial: think of memes like "In order to find a prince you have to kiss a lot of frogs."

The only remedy I can think of is arranged marriage.  It works for some people, apparently, but I'll pass.  And I don't consider the men I've kissed over the past half-century to be frogs -- well, one or two, but in general they were perfectly fine people I just didn't want to spend the rest of my life with, or vice versa.  But that doesn't mean they were worthless, and the dismissive attitude toward ordinary humanity in this meme is disturbing.  If you aren't permanent, you're unreal, a waste of time.  The person who made this meme might just be projecting.