Playing with the boys (daring to date)
The blinking cursor on my laptop screen dared me. My friend Rosa begged, bargained and threatened, insisting that I do it. It was the boldest, bravest thing I’d done—and this comes from a woman who once jumped into a grave and gathered skulls in a sac. This present adventure was scarier and riskier.
It was called, online dating.
Recently divorced, I’d forced myself to socialize in small groups. Rosa had taken me under her wing to teach me the secrets of Single Life and kept putting pressure on me to sign up for match.com.
But I was terrified.
Forget about the traditional fears of online dating—“Is he a married man posing as single? A con artist? A serial killer?” My fears went far beyond that.
Did I ever mention that I’d married the first and only man I’d ever kissed? I knew nothing about dating. But most of all, I knew nothing about men.
Thank God for my male happy-hour friends, who helped me in my desensitization process! Those guys have no idea of the good karma they accrued every time they flirted with me. How to put it mildly? Peter Pans in arrested development, they were fiercely commitment-phobic and so, non-threatening. They offered the safety net of knowing that I could practice flirting skills, but things would never—ever—progress beyond that.
“I can make a joke and make a man laugh. Hey! I touched a guy’s arm to emphasize a comment and the Earth didn’t open and swallow me for being a ‘puta.’” (Like I was made believed it would happen when I was growing up.) Unknowingly, they planted in me the seed of the new meme that changed my vision of the world: “Hey! Maybe men are not as terrifying as I thought!”
I confess; men used to scare me and puzzle me. Growing up, I had no brothers. Among three sisters, and with mostly female cousins, my childhood was as girlish childhood.
I must’ve been six years old the first time I witnessed a baby boy’s diaper change. I gaped at the baby’s crotch, thinking, “Look at that! He has a tiny Vienna sausage there!” (Don’t worry. I didn’t take a bite—though it did cross my mind). That’s how isolated I had been from the world of maleness.
My only male cousins, Lito and Cesar, were strange specimens I couldn’t comprehend. They did weird stuff, such as hunting lizards, making fart-jokes and making my dolls karate-fight. Long before I had a concept of testosterone, I sensed they were intrinsically different from me—and not in a good way. “What’s wrong with these guys? They’re so violent!”
For a blessed, innocent time in my childhood, I remember thinking, “We girls are the lucky ones. Boys can’t wear their hair long, wear skirts and dresses or paint their nails. And when they grow up they don’t get to wear make up!” At the innocent age of five, all important double-standards were in my favor.
No surprise: that bliss didn’t last long.
Awareness that I may’ve drawn the shorter straw started when I realized people who learned my dad had fathered girls and no boys rushed to express their sympathy.
Sometimes, friends wanted to tease and torture my father (in revenge because he was the biggest joker in the world). They reminded him that he got ‘cheated by the universe’; that he was ‘punished for being a player in his youth’; that he’d been doomed. Because all three of his kids were hembras.
It fascinates me how, for me, words can carry a bigger emotional load in one language than the other. The English words “man” and “woman” sound blander to me than their Spanish equivalents “hombre” y “mujer.” The plain English words “male” and “female” are nothing compared to those words deeply engraved in my psyche: “Hembra” and “Varón” and the worst of all, “Macho.”
There’s a different word in Spanish for a male animal, “Macho” and male human, “Varón,” while the word Hembra applies to both human and non-human species. (That always bothered me).
What did it mean to know at age seven that I’d been born “hembra”? The word is still associated in my mind with “being a disappointment for a father, who now would be working as your watch dog until he finally got you married and passed the torch to another man.”
What images and feelings does the word “varón” evoke for me? “An annoying boy interrupting class, running and siding down the hallways, shocking the girls by cussing or trying to touch them. Don’t let them near your dolls or they’ll launch them to the roof. And whatever you do, keep your distance. Their intention is always looking under your skirt”.
When you grow up hearing that “a perfect little lady doesn’t play with the boys,” (“los varones”) it’s hard to undo the message.
And by now I’m still only eight. I haven’t tasted the sour flavor of puberty. Sometime before the curse of the period (What the heck? God, are you kidding me?!), you get a taste of breasts and hips. What’s even worse: the boys and men around you start noticing you have breasts and hips. Welcome to the Third-World trauma of men yelling inappropriate compliments to girls walking down the street—And I’m now only eleven.
No wonder I buried my nose in books and dragged my feet until age nineteen, before I dated that one only boy I’d ever kissed.
And I had it easy compared to many of my peers. I’d had a great Dad. I can’t imagine how much harder it was for my girlfriends who had the average Dominican father: abusive, chronically cheating, or absent. But our personal and family history is only the tip of the iceberg. I have the theory that all women carry in our collective unconscious the scars of millions of years of oppressed sisters. From the first time a caveman thought it was cool to drag his woman by the hair, to the last time a Hollywood producer or a politician decided to be inappropriate with a woman on behalf of showing a power display—there’s a little place in all of us that cries silently.
And now, two decades and few thousand miles later, the thirty-something year old woman I was (who inside was still an eleven-year-old scared of the attention her new body got) had to date men. I almost wished I were a lesbian—but unfortunately I wasn’t. So my female collective unconscious better extended a peace offering to the Male Gender. I had to make a conscious decision not to judge all men by the sins of their ancestors.
The Universe is intelligent and also considerate. If you say you want something, but deep inside you don’t, It will respectfully back off and not give it to you. So many of us claim that we want a man, yet immediately add, “well, as long as he doesn’t make any mess, doesn’t change anything in my decoration, and doesn’t take too much space in the closet.” We might as well admit, “I may say I want a man, but the truth is that I want my space even more.”
And the past two years of my life had been all about that. I was the happiest woman in the world for being alone. I enjoyed reading and writing all night without fearing my light would bother someone next to me in bed. I didn’t have to share my limited free time with someone else. I used to tell myself I didn’t need a romantic partner in my life, because my children, my patients and my friends could fill all my needs for love (and according to Rosa, a vibrator could take care of the rest).
But after a while I had to admit I was making excuses to cover for my wounds and fears. If I was honest, there was a little corner of my heart that still longed for something else. Call it a cellular genetic imprint that craved the same testosterone I used to scorn at. Call it my ying energy missing the yang. Call it a need for Eros that could not be fulfilled only wit Agape.
Or more. Call it a memory of the future. Call it an instinctive knowledge that there had to be something better than I’d known until then. That there was another soul walking the Earth, with whom I’d made a covenant before birth to meet. Someone who was summoning my love in his life with the same intensity I was summoning his.
So, maybe it was time for the next step. If I could sit with a bunch of guy friends mixed with my girlfriends, and chat for a couple of hours in a restaurant, I certainly could sit in a coffee shop and chat with a man during a one-in-one coffee date.
So I pulled the trigger.
And I’ll never forget that first online date. That successful and rich Realtor who, during our email communications, had intimidate me a little with his apparent self-confidence. That lunch break when we met just a few blocks away from my work, he got up from his table to shake my hand and the relief and apprehension mixed on his face were moving. “Oh thank, God! What a relief!” he exclaimed with a higher-pitched voice than I expected. “You do look like your profile picture! You have no idea how many times I show up to a date and the woman is twenty years older than the picture she posted!”
I smiled at his openness. I’ll be all right. Maybe men were less threatening than I thought.
I never saw Rich-Realtor again. I’ll always be thankful to him for being my first practice in saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to an offer for a second date. And thanks to practicing that skill quite a few more times, I eventually did find my last first date.
But that’s another story.