I never thought unsolicited advances from men could teach me so much about romance.
1. Don't skip courtship.
A man — we'll call him Vincent — turned to me in the Barnes & Noble on 54th Street. Late forties, a deep tan, silver hair greased straight back. He held out his iPhone and asked if I knew how to get to Greenwich, Connecticut, explaining that he was from Brazil and had a business meeting.
I helped him as best I could — which amounted to giving the cross streets for Grand Central Station — and then fell into the basic conversation one has with someone from out of town. After a few minutes, he asked my name, saying he wanted to read something I'd written.
A few days later, I saw him again at the same café. In intervals between reading the newspaper, we discussed soccer and the economy. After one of the lulls, he looked up from his work and asked if I'd like to spend a week with him at his home in São Paulo.
The question made me nervous. I thanked him, but explained that my recent marriage and honeymoon had taken all my vacation days. He returned to his stack of papers, and I returned to the headlines. Soon after, he left, but not before letting me know the offer stood.
There's no way I can know the extent of Vincent's intentions. Maybe in Brazil, straight men ask each other on international sleepovers all the time. But the ambiguity of his offer, and the leap from five-minute conversation to crashing at his place, struck me as strange — even though it's a frequent move men make. Enter a Manhattan bar in May and there's a good chance you'll witness some guy, some pinstriped financier playing game-show host to the world, invite a woman he just met to his share in the Hamptons. Your mind can jump-cut to the moment she boards the Jitney: sundress, Longchamp weekender, cell phone tucked between her shoulder and ear as she asks her friend, "Should I be doing this?"
The answer is no. Because a man should never make that kind of invitation in the first place.
The root of this behavior is cowardice. We don't like the vulnerability that comes with taking an explicit interest in someone. We don't like to offer ourselves up for rejection. And so we hedge our bets, hiding behind a vague gesture. Come visit me in Brazil. Come out to my share in the Hamptons. Come hear my band play. Regardless the size of the invite, the idea is to manufacture an ambiguous condition in which, with a few drinks and the inertia of the night, you can end up in bed without ever having to state your intentions or make any real investment. Often this works. But that's less a sign of its validity and more an explanation for why so many people are single.
Courtship exists so that two people can learn about each other over time and escalate their commitment through a set of gradual stages. Without these steps, without any tangible investment in the relationship, people are given the license to act irresponsibly. And when given the license, they often take it.
2. There’s no good reason to take a picture of your dick.
At one of the offices where I worked, I fell into a conversation with a colleague about magazines. It started with the obvious — GQ, Esquire — and then veered to artier fare: Monocle, V, Fantastic Man, Purple. He said he had some things he thought I'd like, and the next day, he handed me a small stack of magazines the size of literary quarterlies, all of them filled with guy-on-guy porn. Just handed them over in full view of the rest of the office. Even a mere shuffling of the covers provided a significant glimpse of stroked boners.
His message was obvious, but the way he delivered it revealed something more complex: Whether it’s a magazine passed between colleagues or a provocative self-portrait texted late at night, sexual imagery has become a common prop in our social interactions.
Perhaps the naked-picture phenomenon is a byproduct of how television and the internet have made us all more visual. But a more convincing explanation is that it gives people a way to talk without actually having to talk. Because, yeah, conversations can be awkward and uncomfortable. Expressing interest in someone involves submitting to their judgment. And when the response isn't favorable, it can be harsh. At worst, it can feel like they're saying, "As a person, you have no value to me. I'd rather watch reruns of Whitney than look at your face."
Sending someone a picture of yourself, however, while not a passive act by any means, creates enough distance for your ego to be safe. You're offering yourself as an object, a collection of lines and parts, rather than a complete individual. This is to say, being rejected sexually seems to have become easier to handle than being rejected as a person. And, yes, that's insane. Because telling someone you like them might be embarrassing, but it's nowhere near as embarrassing as having a picture of your penis forwarded around.
3. If you don't want to be friends, don't pretend you want to be friends.
A fellow writer once got in touch, complimented my work, and asked to get a drink. He was older, accomplished, at a stage in which his encouragement meant something. Over the course of the year, we met several times to drink bourbon and discuss books. Each time he would bring me things to read. He introduced me to the work of Barry Hannah and Don DeLillo. It seemed like I'd stumbled upon a much-needed mentor.
But over time, silences emerged in which he assumed the posture of someone waiting — someone whose patience was on the wane. Resentment began to work its way into his tone. And after a couple more meetings, I realized his generosity came with the expectation that I would reciprocate in a specific way. I ignored it, hoping he still considered our conversations worth something.
Then one night he called me, sounding slurry, and suggested a trip out to Lake George. When I refused, he called me ungrateful. The curtain was pulled back. I would need to do more than just write, he said, if I ever wanted to get anywhere.
The sense of betrayal was acute. A friendship I'd valued had turned out to be nothing more than a slow-played manipulation, and in the following days I reviewed the signs I should have never overlooked. I felt weak and foolish and angry at my obliviousness, and then angry at how much I let it bother me. Women deal with this stuff on a daily basis, year after year, as they move forward in a landscape of leering elders. But it was new to me.
4. Accept the reality of the situation.
During a late night at the bar, after a hug that lingered too long, a friend of a friend asked, "Are you sure you're not gay?" I assured him I wasn't, but a few minutes later, he stopped me mid-sentence to ask again, "Really, though. Are you sure?"
"How do you know?"
"I just… I know."
"If you gave me, like, five minutes with your asshole, I'm sure you'd like it."
Although requesting a one-on-one with someone's rectum might be an extreme example, his gambit actually struck me as pretty common. When your interest is rebuffed, you invent ways to rationalize it. Rather than lacking interest in you, this person must be confused about their sexuality, or shy. There must be some other issue. Some game being played. Some reason beyond the most apparent truth. And so the pursuit continues, and everyone's time gets wasted.
Ask a person out once. If they say no, just let it go. Move on. Because even though life is confusing, the average person has a much better idea of who they are and what they want than you do. It's important to respect that.
5. Be funny.
My wife and I were walking home from a party and passed a gay bar on Fifty-Eighth Street. At the foot of its steps stood a well-dressed black man smoking a cigarette. When we got within range, he fondled his crotch and said, "Party favors." We smiled. There was something playful, friendly, about the way he said it. As we passed him, he continued, "And I make deliveries."
Over the course of the next block, the elevator ride to our floor, the following week, my wife and I took turns repeating the line, trying to recreate the jabbing paw that began the first word — paw-tay — and the drawl of the last, which, if spelled phonetically, would have at least seven S's. Duh-liv-ah-raysssssss. The guy's line was less of a come-on and more of an expression of who he was. There was no desperation, no fear, no hidden trick — just a here-I-am quality that we both admired. Even now, a year later, one of us will smile and repeat the line.
6. We're all in this together.
My father tells a story about the first time a man hit on him. It was the late '60s, and he was backpacking. Sometimes the details change. Sometimes it was '66, other times '67. Sometimes he was hitchhiking, other times traveling by train. But the ending is always the same: "I punched him square between the eyes and ran like hell."
Forty-five years ago, my father lived with a simpler set of expectations about a man's role, and any situation that deviated from how he was supposed to interact with the world was considered a threat. But now, on any given night, we might volley from one role to another based on who we're with and what purpose they believe we can serve. That can be awkward and sometimes upsetting, but it also makes us more sophisticated in our understanding. Each of the occasions I've mentioned left me with a chance to ask, "Is this what women deal with? Is this what we all deal with?"
More than ever before, our expectations about genders and orientations and races are blurring and leveling. Ignoring that — imagining that other people don't have to deal with the same things you do — is ignoring the chance to expand your understanding and compassion and the chance to be more decent to others. And I've heard that being a decent person can actually yield some pretty serious party favors.