Guide My Head With Your Hands
As if sixth grade weren’t awkward enough, there were dances in the gym. Girls’ arms hung limp around boys’ necks, whose hands, in turn, grazed waists. Both rested limbs as if the slightest pressure would snap heads or break hip bones. But not so for Tracy Mead and the fervor with which she grabbed Rich Fasano, after I asked him to dance and he turned me down. Appearing out of nowhere, she threw her arms around Rich’s neck. Rich Fasano of fourth period art class. Rich Fasano with the brown, feathered hair, green eyes, and the father who regularly broke his sons’ bones.
Nothing made sense to me that night. Not the three-four waltz my father had taught me before I left for the dance. Not the poofy, pink dress my mother had bought for me to wear. Because when I got to the gym, couples were just hanging on each other, swaying in the dark. No one was waltzing. And most of the girls, like Tracy Mead, were wearing tight jeans, halter-tops, and sequined belts. Her halter-top was cobalt blue, setting off her blond hair and fair complexion. The sequins on her belt were gold.
And her arms were around Rich’s neck in the split second after he rejected me. Tracy Mead’s tan, slender arms were wrapped tightly around Rich Fasano’s neck.
I’ve often thought of that dance in the years since sixth grade. And I’m not sure I’ve learned the lesson hiding between the pink tulle layers of the night. It took me hours to work up the courage to ask Rich to dance, and he said no. No because his father was waiting for him in the parking lot, a father who was often responsible for the casts Rich wore: an arm, a wrist, a collarbone. He had to leave. And then Tracy Mead swooped in and simply threw her arms around his neck. Without asking. And she starting dancing. And he danced, too. To the song that should have been my dance with him. When that song was over, I tried to do what she had done. I ran up to him and threw my arms around his neck. He shrugged me off and yelled, “I told you I have to go,” and then left the gymnasium.
Is this story merely a lesson in dealing with rejection? That would make it any sixth grader’s story and also, on the scale of my life’s rejections, an easily forgettable moment. The scene seems to me to be more complex, more sinister. Because looking back on that night, I’ve often asked myself how I could be more like Tracy Mead. How I could have made my attempted neck grab work like hers did. How I could have been more successful in forcing a man to do what I wanted. And I think those are deeply troubling, selfish questions to ask.
The first time I ever had to reflect on how I’d bullied a grown man was after I broke off a two-year engagement. Frank hadn’t seemed all that interested in getting married again. (His first wife left him because he didn’t want kids). But we had started living together, and this was a problem for my extremely Catholic parents. I was young, in my early-twenties, and had not yet learned what I would by my early-forties about setting proper boundaries with my folks. Feeling pressure from them, I pressured him.
And when I say pressure, I mean full-court offense. I was a straight-“A” scholarship student who finished a triple major in college before winning a Fulbright Fellowship. When I set my mind on a goal, I did anything within the bounds of the law to achieve it. I left wedding magazines open on the tables around our apartment. I turned up the television when jewelry store commercials came on. I worked into conversation the engagement stories of every married couple we knew: how one guy had dropped the ring into the bottom of a glass of champagne, how another guy had proposed on a starry night while on a hotel room balcony overlooking a river valley. I was relentless.
Dutifully, on my birthday, he presented me with a tiny box and put an engagement ring on my finger. I should have felt ecstatic. I’d gotten exactly what I wanted, what I had worked to make happen. Instead, I felt empty. The smile on his face was the kind of smile you make when you are relieved of some duty, some burden. It was not the kind of smile you make if you’d just gotten something you deeply desired. An important distinction in desire started emerging in my thinking: what I wanted was not for him to do what I wanted. What I wanted was for him to want to do it. For him to want me the way I wanted him.
After the engagement, as I watched our relationship fall apart, I remembered the times I’d pressured him—my Tracy Mead moments, when I’d thrown my arms around his neck and forced him to dance with me. While pressuring a guy into proposing marriage isn’t illegal, it’s ethically questionable. Even though Americans laugh at this scenario in popular culture, as if it is a woman’s prerogative to be a little “crazy” when trying to land a husband, as if it is part of what defines her as “feminine,” I decided that I would never again force a guy into a relationship with me because I would never know whether or not he really wanted to be there.
And then along came Justin. A four-year relationship whose painful intricacies I have only begun to sift through. Justin and I weren’t exactly lovers (not in person), but we weren’t simply friends, either. I met him when he and his wife were undergoing marriage counseling after she’d had an affair. It was clear that the marriage was already over—Justin was looking up ex-girlfriends from his past and vacationing by himself. Still, I hadn’t planned to fall in love with him. But the kind of connection we shared was rare. Our communication quickly turned into an emotional affair through emails, text messages, and phone calls. While we never did anything physically, we talked about and imagined sexual situations between us. At one point, discussing oral sex, he wrote to me and said, “Just put both hands on my head and guide me. Arch your back a little.”
It’s incredibly painful to remember times like these when he was so forthcoming, so present. Back when I mattered to him. Back when he was grateful for my attentions, which he credited with patching up his “shattered identity” and for undoing much of the hurt caused by his wife’s infidelity. But ultimately, he was still married. As new suitors came into my life and I tried to do what was right—pursue the available men—he chose to recommit to his marriage and we tried to settle into a friendship.
For the last couple years, and through some major life crises, he was my best friend. We talked via email or text message almost daily, and about once every two weeks on the phone. And while he told me that I was the person he talked to most often in his life, I never saw him in person, despite numerous requests on my part. And that began to take its toll. It felt like constant rejection. He got together with all of his other friends except me, even more often once his wife moved out of the house and they began moving toward divorce. Why was he afraid to see me? When I asked him about it, he said that he thought my desire to get together in person was “unusual.” This accusation made me angry. Who doesn’t get together with a best friend? He would have never said that to any of his other friends, his guy buddies or the colleagues he got together with. He had already refused so many of my invitations to get together, that when he told me he went out for a drink with a woman who invited him—that he was starting to date again already—I lost it. He had overlooked me so many times, that I couldn’t handle him giving his in-person time to someone brand new to his life. That’s when I went Tracy Mead on him, throwing my arms around his neck and trying to force a dance. I wrote him and told him that if he didn’t try dating me, that if he couldn’t at least take me out on one date, that we couldn’t be friends anymore. My self-esteem couldn’t handle him offering his in-person time to someone new when he’d never offered it to me.
My Tracy Mead moment did not go over well. He wrote me back and asked me to consider how I would feel if our genders were reversed. Would I approve if it were a guy trying to force a woman to date him by using emotional blackmail? And then I thought back to the night of the sixth grade dance, of Tracy Mead’s actions. What if the gender roles had been reversed then? What if Rich had run up after Tracy said she had to leave, grabbed her roughly around the waist, and forced her to dance?
Justin turned down my request, saying that he didn’t have feelings for me and he wasn’t going to lead me on. I told him that things had become so bad in our friendship, with his constant rejections in the form of refusing to see me, that I couldn’t stand by and watch as he said yes to invitations from strangers. We broke off contact for a few months. During that time, all I could think about was how things had been so good in the beginning when we were romantic, and how painful our friendship had become for me. After a few months of therapy, I contacted him and let him know that I thought we didn’t work well as friends. I renewed my request for him to take me on a date, saying that we never really got to explore the potential between us.
Even communicating with him about this feels like a Tracy Mead move. He wants me to just go away. And yet I send him pages and pages of solid arguments to consider, with specifics supporting my points, hounding him. It is taking him weeks to write back. In the meanwhile, he keeps sending me little notes about how he’s processing everything and isn’t ignoring me. He promises a response soon. Knowing him as I do, how emotionally twisted up he is inside, how he resents me now, especially when I call him out on his inconsistencies, I know the answer is going to be no. And that’s going to be the final straw for me, the inevitable end of any interaction with him.
In the meanwhile, I marvel at his selfishness and mine. He no longer cares about me or my life. We are incapable even of having a civil conversation (and yet he is friends with the woman who cheated on him). So why is he sending me little notes to make sure I know he isn’t ignoring my question? Because he doesn’t want to be seen as the bad guy here. It’s a completely selfish move. As are my requests that he give in and date me. We are both Tracy Mead-style wringing each other’s necks.
On the night of January 11, 2013, just a few weeks after Justin’s wife moved out, I met a professional guide for night ice fishing in the Berkshires. Just the week before, I had paid him to take me out for my first time on the ice. We had such a good time that he invited me back for what was supposed to be a large fishing party with a bunch of his friends on the night of the new moon, during which we attached glow sticks to the tip-ups to simulate moonlight and entice the fish to feed. Since this professional guide was offering his services for free, I asked if I could bring a couple of 6-packs of his favorite beer. Founder’s Backwoods Bastard, he told me. This particular beer had a 10.2% ABV, which I was unaware of at the time. The guide told me not to bring any food, that he would take care of it as his parents owned a grocery store.
Ultimately, the “large party” of people he said were coming never showed, and the food he promised was also slow in materializing, so that by the time he put a few ribs on the grill, I was a handful of beers into the evening. The rest of the story is easy to imagine—too much alcohol, no food, alone in the woods with a guy I’d only just met the week before. When I went in to the ice shanty to lie down for a few minutes, I was fully clothed. When I woke up, I wasn’t, and I was lying in a puddle of my own puke. He had taken my clothes off and was having sex with me. I asked him to stop, and he said no.
When I told Justin about it the next week, I couldn’t bear to tell him the truth of what had actually happened—and it’s still hard for me to say it even after years of therapy—so I told him that I got drunk and fucked this married ice fishing guide, as if I’d had some agency in what happened. Meanwhile, I couldn’t comfortably wear clothing for a week because of the bite marks and bruises he’d left before going back home to his wife and two young girls. Justin told me that he forgave me, and that I needed to forgive myself.
Two and a half years later, I would tell Justin that he had to take me on a date or I wouldn’t speak to him anymore, and he would ask me what such an ultimatum would look like if the gender roles were reversed, if it was a guy trying to “force” a woman to date him by threating to end the friendship. When he said that, all I could think about were the numerous times that guys had indeed been successful in forcing me to do things I hadn’t wanted to or that I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Even one of Justin’s friends from college, Doug, got it in his head that he wanted to date me. He was so persistent in pursuing me that, despite my better judgment, I tried it for a few months before breaking it off. He wasn’t a bad guy; we just weren’t well suited to each other, and I knew that from the start. At the time, I thought it was big-hearted of me to give the poor guy a chance, but it sounds more troubling to me now. What I’ve witnessed is that it’s okay for guys to pressure me in so many more ways than I have available to me to exercise force over them. We can giggle about the time I pressured Frank into giving me a cheap engagement ring, but I’ve given up months, years of my life acquiescing to guys because they have aggressively pursued me. And after waking up to someone having sex with me in an ice shanty, I can tell you that nonconsensual situations—whether physical or emotional—do terrible damage to someone’s psyche.
The Sex & The City phenomenon produced some uncomfortable moments for feminism. It advanced the notion that women should be having sex “like men,” casual sex without any feelings attached to the act or to the other person involved. This approach may be retaliation for all the times a woman has felt used after a sexual encounter—women can take back a kind of power by “getting even” and now tossing guys aside and making them feel used—but maybe it’s not a good idea for anyone to be having this kind of sex. Maybe it’s not a good idea for either gender to make the other feel used.
And this is the problem with the Tracy Mead move that I admired for so many years: it does not take a man seriously when he says no. As this generation advances our understanding of rape culture, we have to admit that any “strong-arming” in a relationship represents non-consent, even when it’s done by the woman.
I think back to when times were good with Justin, when they were just beginning. And I remember that really hot exchange we’d had about oral sex. “Guide my head with your hands,” he’d written me. I imagine palming his temples gently, bringing his willing head close. That’s the kind of mutual consent that will always be missing from the Tracy Mead move.
But for now, I’ve got my arms latched firmly around his unwilling neck, forcing him to dance. It’s probably the last time I ever attempt such an aggressive move. His final letter is going to come any day now, telling me what I already know. But I don’t know what happens when the song ends.