Kirsten is not manly. She is feminine. Womanly is maybe not the best adjective to describe her, but it is not entirely misleading either. Feminine is a much better word. She exudes a silent yet unmistakable sense of not to be fucked with. She is generally liked by acquaintances and coworkers and friends, loved and appreciated rather than feared, accepted and more or less what people from the baby-boom generation—mellowed and soft now on the far side of fifty—like to call "a good kid." In these instances the word "kid" being asexual. Truly asexual.
So Kirsten is free of rough edges that have doomed several of my previous relationships. None of my friends dislike her, and all of hers are pleasant and thoughtful and agreeable. Truth be told, I think she has solidified some wavering alliances on my behalf. Particularly in the networking sense. She has a surplus of social grace.
What makes me uneasy, the reason I sometimes worry internally that she is too dudely is evident in her phone demeanor. When I call she is willing to talk only as long as is necessary. Kirsten picks up the phone and wants to know why it rang. She is not dependent on voice contact the way most (all the ones I have dated) women are. This is not to say she is confrontational or avoids phone calls, because she answers them with tremendous alacrity, but once she says hello it is very what do you need, let me get back to my life.
Often, this puts me on the defensive, makes me unsure of myself. I rarely call her for no reason, especially at work where she clearly does not wish to be bothered. But sometimes I want to hear her voice. Pick her brain maybe. Just remind myself that someone is there, who that someone is, sounds and thinks like. Kirsten is not really a willing participant in that stuff, so it kind of bums me out.
The phone example is not a very good one.
But this is a big one: she seldom needs something from me. She is glad to have me around, I know, but kind of in the way people acquire accessories. That sounds cold and inhuman but until I find a better way to put it I am just going to leave it at that. Her life is in order as much as someone our age could hope for, and with things settled and stable and happy, an internal mechanism in Kirsten signaled she could have a boyfriend, there was time and motivation and ability, and since she finds me appealing, we began dating.
Regretfully, I can't think of a single instance were she has needed me to be there. She's never cried in front of me. That is not entirely true. She has cried but not in the way tears waterfall down a girl's face and she wraps her arms around a guy hoping something only he is in possession of can stop them. Not like that. Romantic comedies, yes, though it's very easy to see this is mechanical and kind of enjoyable for both of us. Maybe for her a little bit more. Like the way your legs hurt after a long hike, you watch a movie like that and cry, because it is part of the experience.
She doesn't drive because she lives in the West Village and who wants a car when there are subways and cabs? That means I have never had to change a tire for her. She is way better than me with numbers and math and stuff and has never asked for help with taxes. Although we have only been together for one April 15th, so the sample size is insufficient.
Kirsten bet a thousand dollars on the Kentucky Derby and won after asking my advice, which was nice. Then she revealed she'd planned on betting on the horse anyway, the veracity of the claim confirmed by a crinkled up piece of notebook paper pulled from her pocket after we finally released from a long and joyful and exuberant hug in a Midtown sports bar. I asked her why she needed my opinion if she'd already made up her mind. She told me it would be cute if we picked the same horse, and she knew we would. That was sweet. Neither of us knew anything about horseracing and both made our decision based on the animal's name alone.
There are opposite examples, times when I have needed her. But this isn't about me.
Sometimes I begin to wonder why she is dating me. My mind rolls around exploring possibilities and scenarios, none of which are good. Probably the worst, I fear, is that she hasn't figured out I am more or less useless to her. And if this is true, when will she see it? Kirsten is way too smart to go on in darkness forever. This sends me into a panic. A panic so intense and directionless and consuming and terrifying it soon burns itself out and I am back to normal. But those few minutes, sitting in a coffeehouse or walking from the subway to my apartment or whatever are the most sickening moments of my day. So, to enumerate:
1, At times I imagine Kirsten is attracted to flawed men. I happily confess a self evaluation will not reveal terrible flaws, uncommon in detail or frequency, and it is fairly easy to disqualify myself from the category of fatally flawed. But, in this speculative scenario, she thrives on being able to provide stability. Being there in case something is needed. She has helped me more than I have her, that is certain, but I am not the type of guy that needs a babysitter. Sometimes I wonder what her dad is like. I have never met him. He lives in Scottsdale, where Kirsten grew up. He made an obscene amount of money in real estate, mostly in Arizona in the late 1990s. Before that, he made a healthy amount of money in real estate in California. I wonder if he has flaws, endearing and ultimately harmless. The kind of flaws a supportive and accepting family needs and deals with effectively.
1a, The reason I think this is because my last girlfriend, Heather, was an ardent supporter of the theory that all women look for similarities to their father in their love interests. She dwelled on this at maddening length, enough so that it pops into my head at random times, two years later, and not in a helpful way. There was nothing really wrong with Heather and the few times I met her dad he seemed fine. So this isn't much help.
Okay, and here is one thing that really pissed me off about Heather and the ridiculous father recognition theory of dating. Heather was a devotee of what some people call urban female experience literature. Those who are not fond of euphemism refer to it as chick lit, but this term is found offensive by Heather. The term's use in conversation would elicit eye rolls and bring a souring of mood. Certain writers of the genre in particular had special places in her heart, and although I am not going to name her, there was one writer who Heather was borderline obsessed with and I found especially annoying and egregious and worthless. Anyway, in her writing, this woman, I was told repeatedly by Heather, created female protagonists who dated men that resembled their fathers in ways that just make sense to Heather.
2, And then here is a thought that in a way supports the theory I am superfluous to Kirsten and more a luxury than a boyfriend. She looks upon cuddling as a treat. The cuddle position we do most is the classic spoon. I like it quite a bit and being that she naturally falls into it, I assume she does as well. The problem, if you want to call it that, is never, not even once, has she slumped into it with even a hint of necessity, or desiring consolation and comfort. It always seems like fun to her, like a treat. I wonder if she knows how much I look forward to holding her. When we contort our bodies into that position and I bring a hand around to her stomach she usually giggles or laughs, like I am tickling her. It doesn't bother me because Kirsten has a charming laugh and is pretty much awesome to be around, look at, touch, etc. But she never pouts or coos or whatever it is other girls do to let you know they feel warm and safe and assured because you are there. Kirsten does no such thing.
3, Something else that might be of relevance, although I admit it might be, and am not sure if it actually is. And if yes, again, I don't know how exactly. Kirsten works only with/for women. Not in the technical sense. In the technical sense she is one of many, many employees—my guess is in the thousands—at a mid-size investment bank. Taken on total size and scope of business and that kind of thing, they are probably too big to be in the boutique category but they aren't one of the behemoths like Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers (haha) or Citi Group or Bear Stearns (again, haha, financial destruction!). So I can safely say they are a mid-size investment bank, and simultaneously I confess to being unable to name another similar institution. Anyway, the thing is, Kirsten works on a line of financial products exclusively geared toward women. They invest and manage and do all kinds of financial services for companies that are either run by women, produce women's products, or appeal to female investors. From what I know there aren't any ironclad gender barriers to working in this department but I do know it is entirely female aside from one guy, who is a homosexual, and he is only there to provide a sort of voice from the other side. So the point is that all the stuff she is surrounded by, all the coworkers and bosses and underlings and clients (mostly, because some companies they do business with aren't strictly female only) are women. What does this mean? I don't know, but if that is something you knew about your girlfriend, wouldn't you think maybe there is something there? Also, consider that this is in the investment banking industry. Not as male heavy as say commercial fishing in Alaska or smoke jumping, but a field where dudes outnumber chicks pretty much all the time. And a third thing to possibly consider is that none of the people Kirsten works with are like butch-y types (they could be lesbians, I guess, but they don't flaunt it and how would I really know?) and they don't do the "assume male traits in a male dominated field" thing that has been crammed down my throat since I first started even vaguely considering the way people interact. So what does this mean? That in this field they have successfully carved out a space where they can thrive and retain their identities? Has this bred some kind of uber-independence in Kirsten? A feature of which she is kind of unaware and by extension immune to the disaster it might have on a romantic relationship (with me), but still in possession of it so that its very existence worries me as a sort of silently ticking time bomb? This would be a good place to clarify and go on record saying this independence and dynamism and general have-my-shit-together is unbearably sexy in Kirsten. I am far from certain any of this is the case, but like I already mentioned, if you knew this about your girlfriend, and knew how much more stable and strong she is than even she herself has come to realize, wouldn't it get around to nagging you at times?
I am fortunate to have found a field of work that a) I find pleasant, b) provides generous remuneration, and c) is not very difficult. I will say it up front, Kirsten makes more money than I, and only a cataclysmic reorganizing of the world and/or our specific lives will ever change that, but I do pretty okay. Probably ahead of the curve for someone in their late twenties. I work for a political consulting firm, so you could say I am a consultant. The field has a very loose sense of rank. You could say I am beyond a first timer but if I were to appear on television (which I have, although never on one of the big three cable channels) talking about a race, the ribbon beneath my face would not read "senior strategist" or "senior consultant." Beneath my name would likely be the catch-all descriptor that is so popular these days: "Democratic strategist." This is someone who votes for Democrats (the same is true for the other side, just switch the D to an R) and constantly thinks about elections and how they can be won. There is no such thing as strategist school, or a strategist's license, or anything like that. Georgetown has a School of Political Management, but I dare you to list a dozen luminaries of the field that hold degrees from it. Off the top of your head.
I think I might be particularly sensitive to gender roles and how women portray themselves in public, and how they act and think, but more importantly how they want other people to think they think. I might be more sensitive about these things than your average guy in my position. That position being male, of upper-middle class suburban pedigree, graduate of a sub-Ivy League institution in the late Clinton/early Bush years, dating a strong, independent, yet self-unaware woman of similar background. The reason is that over the last twenty years elective office has become a truly bi-gender game. In most states (Mississippi and, weirdly, Iowa being recalcitrant exceptions) women seek and win office all the time. All kinds of offices: Mayors, council seats, Attorneys General, Congress(wo)men, Senators, Lt. Governors, Secretaries of State. And often I play a role in this happening. For an arena with such a high percentage of women, electoral politics still makes certain awkward demands of female candidates only perceptible to those who work in the field day to day. Some of my colleagues are of the opinion these demands and subtleties are not entirely incongruous and male candidates are handed an equally unrealistic and artificial list of expectations for the duration of the campaign (and this being already 2010 the campaign never really stops and goes all year- and all cycle-round). But still, I think it is a little bit different.
Examples include the Hawkess theory. Women must always take tough stands on matters of national security to avoid being seen as weak. This means tough talk that exceeds the realities of a given situation, a lot of military base photo ops, wheeling out family members who have served (and even better, we have recently had a lot of veteran women themselves running as Democrats) in the military, never saying no to any kind of defense spending regardless of how ludicrous and profligate and at odds with the Pentagon itself the item might be. There is more but I am sure you get the point.
Unexpectedly, I have found the challenge of making a woman look strong easy because of two things. The first is the natural image of the woman as mother, mother as protector. Only the thickest observers would fail to see the suggestion that America is the child of a woman who aspires for high office, and she will stop at nothing to protect and defend it. So that is pretty easy and the image actually creeps into people's brains without much work on our part.
The second thing is a product of the post 9/11 world. It turns out a lot of the countries who hate/are at war with us are run by total assholes and have cultural customs not at all pleasant for their women or appealing to ours. So it is a lay-up (but it is the right thing to do too) for a female candidate and/or elected official to grandstand about women's rights and how cruel and barbaric the Taliban and the Islamic Courts in Sudan and the Iranian Revolution and a whole host of other backward and foreign (and believe me there is way more of them out there than you thought) peoples are. And how dare they do that, and I see my sisters' suffering over there, and all that. It goes over pretty well. It speaks to the jingoist faction, the feminists (who without it might be turned off by the gotta-sound-like-a-man-to-get-elected hawk-talk), the "liberal interventionists" (by the way, a term which who the fuck really knows what it means but for practical purposes they are middle of the road people, usually Democrats, that think we can and should use force for noble aims. Kosovo is big with this crowd. Iraq was until about late summer of 2003), and also people who pay little attention to the details of politics but hear something like that and think to themselves you know, she has got a point. Why should those assholes get away with it? Good for her.
I feel like I am getting off track a little. The point is that putting aside how you can game the unspoken rules, we package and prep and present female candidates that are not what women in every day life are like. And yes, I know, men in Congress and the Senate and stuff are not real people either, I get it. But the thing is, if you took an ideal woman, a universally appealing character in a movie, which no real woman is like, if you took that woman and placed her in politics she would get slaughtered. But if you took her idealized male counterpart and plopped him in a race he would be fine. And the reason I think of this, as it relates to Kirsten (although I am starting to think it doesn't and I am barking up the wrong tree here) is because both genders have unfair and unrealistic iconic expectations but only the female version needs to be radically reconfigured to be trusted in a leadership role.
And let me point out that I am talking about candidates that are running nationally, statewide (excluding Vermont, possibly, which elects a socialist and a Republican on the same ballot, like, all the time), or in districts with a moderate electorate. I know you can run as a real woman, or as a feminist, or as a lesbian, or a transparent vehicle for NARAL or whatever, but even those people would admit the rules change when you are talking about a swing district/state/etc.
So I guess maybe I am a little confused because on the one hand I know a competitive field like politics alters a woman, and I also know Kirsten works in a feminine niche of a male dominated field, and she is still not a dude but curiously tough and edgy in a totally hot way but also at the same time not tweaked the way I see our clients all the time. And really, what this all adds up to is that I am extremely confused. Because it is starting to feel like I am onto something, in a do-it-yourself amateur sociologist kind of way, about gender roles. And this happened because I am wigging out about what seems like the inevitable collapse of my relationship. I have all these observations and theories and ideas that will be very useful in a professional sense, but I am still, like, zero percent closer to understanding the dynamic between Kirsten and me, and right now—the Wednesday before Memorial Day, which we plan to spend with her college roommate and her husband in Burlington, Vermont—I am terrified out of my mind that she is on the brink of realizing certain things that will trigger our demise.
In the cycle of thinking and analyzing and observing and thinking some more, I considered many different theories. There is something so attractive, impressive, and sexy about how Kirsten operates, retains feminine qualities but abandons others yet still has the essence of a woman. I wonder if she knows how scared she makes me.
During what was really a pleasant and invigorating make you want to shout and tell the world you are alive moment in bed in Kirsten's friends' guest room in the first section of quiet homes just south of downtown Burlington, I had one of those duh moments that makes you feel inept and hopeless but casually light-hearted at the same time. It was revealed to me, embarrassingly late, that gender roles and the weird sub-alcove of femininity Kirsten exists in have nothing to do with how nervous I get around her. What really bothers me, what pries its way into my head and stirs up all this mischief, is the fact that I am falling totally and defenselessly in love with her and am unable to arrest it. It provides her with frightening leverage and we are at the point where only a miracle would prevent her from realizing it. She probably already knows. And her very unique but somewhat intimidating efficiency (doesn't that name, Kirsten, conjure images of a precise piece of German machinery? Her heritage is Dutch and Irish, FYI) is a big part of what made me fall for her. In that incredible moment in Sunday's early morning hours when she was pressed against me, essentially the full length of her from ankle to head, talking softly about something trivial but funny from dinner that night on the open terrace of a restaurant overlooking Lake Champlain, and giggling as a bottle and a half of Trapiche kept the rigidity at bay and allowed her silly side free reign, a picture began to emerge from the enigma I had been chipping away at: I am in over my head and everything is out of my hands.
Title graphic: "Scrutiny" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.