Contemplating desire and sex appeal in a #metoo world


in Features


Asheville winter submerges us, weeks of unseasonable cold expanding January into multiples of its actual duration. My beer-loving colleague — let’s refer to him as “Jim” — is in town for a client meeting he celebrated as an excuse to visit my peak-brewery town, weather be damned. His old friend, whom we shall call Kurt — some of whose money I manage (well, if I do say so myself) — has tagged along for a sexagenarian Hangover. Both wives bowed out of the trip with a set of excuses as carefully crafted as a local IPA. Jim and I make plans to drink and dine after our wispy meeting and take leave of one another so that I can collect my son from kindergarten, and he can begin beer sampling with Kurt.

When I next encounter Jim, he and Kurt are hours into their tasting tour and have bellied up to the long communal table at the Wicked Weed brewery. I wedge myself into a space between Jim and a non-English-speaking couple (German I think —consonant-tinged beer terminology like hefeweizen seems easy on their tongues.) I shake hands with Kurt across the farmhouse table, take stock of his heavy lids and irrepressible — charming, I admit — smile, the kind of face that only alcohol can paint. Kurt’s hand doesn’t as much shake mine as allow mine to rest in it, with a tingle that surprises me.

I am 47, three years celibate. Post-sex, you could (I do) say. My interest in sex waned before my child-bearing relationship did, and its absence is barely noted, occasionally celebrated. My friend Ally, a decade my senior, warned me this would happen. At 35, I laughed at her. Libido-less Ally intoxicated men. What a waste, I thought at the time. Yet now I am aware of the difference between wanting sex and wanting to be found sexy. In my 47 years, I have mostly felt not sexy and basked in the warmth of boyfriends who looked past my un-flirty demeanor to find what one [French] lover called the tigresse within. I am still making up for my lost years of high school, when boys drooled over cheerleader Kathi Wilson (this odd spelling of Kathi with an ‘I’ somehow augmenting her appeal), ogling her long straight bright blond hair, perfect peach complexion, gravity-defiant grapefruit boobs, and wide lazy-smiling mouth suggestive of skilled blow jobs. 30 years after watching high school boys worship at the altar of Kathi, I still want men to want me. But these days, post-sex, I know better than to be the dog — make that, bitch — who catches the car.

My career has been largely untouched by the sexism and harassment you read about on Wall Street. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen; I watched a friend agonize over and finally leave her job when a male co-worker became dangerously lecherous, with behavior that escalated from slipping her a DVD of him having sex with his wife to showing up at her hotel room at a conference. But I personally don’t have the material to finger-pound furious #metoo vignettes. Instead, I wish I had the balls to write a rebuttal a la Catherine Deneuve. I settle for darkly giggling among like-minded friends, carefully identified with a non-committal overture such as “I think this #metoo thing might create a backlash,” about the movement we would like to start: #meneither, lamenting the lack of harassment by hot men with whom we have worked.

#meneither, Rick Moon!

#meneither, Glen Hooper!

#meneither, Jamie Dimon!

And on, and on . . . You don’t spend decades on Wall Street without encountering a whole lot of MILFs. In this case, the M is not for mother, but man.

I order a half-pint of an inoffensive pale ale as Kurt is urging Jim, “You have to go downstairs to check out the cellar.” Jim disappears into the dungeon of single-session double-digit ABV beers with names like barrel-aged Xibalba. (Translation: “place of fear” in ancient Mayan — sigh.) I am left to needle Kurt about not calling when he and his wife came to Asheville a few months ago. Boozy smile widening, he shrugs and fumbles with his heretofore invisible hearing aid, which is dangling from his ear cartilage.

Jim resurfaces during this awkward interlude, pronouncing the dungeon a miracle of microbrews. Clearly continuing an earlier conversation to which I was not privy, Kurt tugs off the tiny white device saying to Jim, “This is what it looks like. All it is.” The compact bundle of wire and plastic sits before us, a tale of two realities: one, Kurt can hear without the embarrassing apparatus of 20 years ago, and two, Kurt is old enough to require a hearing aid, likely other aids as well.

We don our winter layers and brace for the transition to dinner, having agreed to leave Jim’s car where it is, a few blocks from their hotel, until after dinner. We stumble onto the sidewalk, where, mom-like, I hold up both hands to prevent them from crossing until it’s safe. Kurt pauses and points back across the street. “Our car is literally raht thay-uh,” he drawls.

“Jim, why don’t you drive it back to the hotel, and I’ll pick you up there?” I suggest, preferring earlier-evening odds on his few-block drive. Jim obediently starts for his car, calling to Kurt, “You wanna just go with her?”

Kurt’s hand hovers over my door handle, and although I cannot see his face, I read his struggle to navigate this decision point. He steps away from my car, mumbles no into his scarf just loudly enough for me to hear, and follows Jim back across the street.

I am mildly offended, mildly relieved.

Jane, another colleague, tells me our client Frank won’t have a drink with her alone. “He just has a rule of not doing that,” Jane explains before my first meeting with him. This was years before Mike Pence became a liberal laughingstock for his “no dinner with women who are not Mother” (his term of, um, endearment for his wife) rule, a directive descended directly from Billy Graham, at whose eponymous resort we had our earlier meeting. I have duly ridiculed Pence’s fear that his libido might get the best of him, and yet here on frigid Biltmore Avenue in Asheville, watching Kurt throw himself into Jim’s vehicle like it’s a getaway car, I see another interpretation of the Pence principle. Can I fault the men who invoke it for setting up guardrails around human nature?

Jim and Kurt climb into my car at the appointed hotel, and we make our way to Table (the antecedent “Farm-To” implicit), where I end up across from Jim and beside Kurt. The latter has not sobered up, nor is he as buzzed as earlier. He stares at the menu then pulls out his phone to illuminate it.

“I don’t want to embarrass you,” Kurt tells me as if Jim were not at the table. I smile with a quick headshake. Is dining with a man 15 years older than I who refuses to deny his age by, say, letting the waitress choose rather than reveal his failing eyes, de facto embarrassing? The girl who never felt cute still resurfaces from time to time, and tonight she wonders if this once-hot gentleman is out of her league, if Kurt would have dated Kathi Wilson in high school.

I really got #metoo for the first time a couple of years ago. I had made the acquaintance of Roy, another man 15 years my senior, someone I liked on paper, a keen intellect, an ultra-marathoner, an artist, a money-manager with clients in Asheville who brought him through town frequently. He flirted with me obtusely; perhaps not explicitly enough, I told him that I enjoyed his company, but was not interested in a relationship because he was married, and I was happy alone. (Third, omitted for the sake of sparing feelings, reason: I was not attracted to him.) Still, we engaged non-romantically. I visited his office in Boulder when I was there on vacation and met his team. One of them, a young buck named Ethan, had exchanged emails with me about developing a new product for Roy’s firm. On that visit, Roy pulled me alone into his office.

“I’m going to have Ethan come in here to talk about your idea. I’d like to see how well he does questioning you, and, also, I’d like to have an excuse for us to continue to talk to each other without arousing suspicion.” Roy’s wife was a part-time employee of the firm. Random non-client women drifting through to hang out with the boss were to be explained to her satisfaction. I twinged, but it wasn’t until the next time he was in town that a text from Roy made clear what he wanted from me.

If you are still awake this evening when I get done with my last meeting, around 8:30, I could stop by for an hour or so. We could sit in the rain in the hot tub . . . What do you think?

Eww is what I thought first.

And then: Did I lead him on?

And then: He was never interested in my product idea.

Sitting alone in my hot tub that night I began to wonder: How many of my male co-workers and mentors and bosses and subordinates and clients have been like Roy, pretending to listen to my meticulously researched investment idea or much-rehearsed sales pitch or agonized-over sell recommendation or constructive critiques of their models? Were they looking at my work, or were they looking at me? Or is it less black and white than this; are men capable of parallel tracks, with one eye on my work and the other on my body? Can I hold their hormonal inclination to see me as fuckable against them? Isn’t it belittling to assume they cannot hold both thoughts at once, particle and wave, good at work and good in bed? Am I violating some feminist code by accepting their fallibility?

As dinner winds down, Jim and Kurt decide to check out Five Walnut, a nearby bar, in lieu of dessert. We scurry back to my car, and I pull over to the wrong side of Walnut to drop them off, despite oncoming traffic. Safely home, I kick myself for this arrogance, the entitlement of the SUV-driving white woman who believes in her ability to convince a cop that traffic rules (not to mention a DUI) are beneath her.

I am grateful for my relative sobriety and the lack of awkward interactions with either of the men at my table. A decade ago — pre-post-sex — this sort of evening with colleagues and clients might have ended differently. I think back to Mike, a married colleague at whom I threw myself a couple of times. Happily for both of us, Mike deftly deflected my clumsy come-ons with the right mix of mirth and appreciation to avoid humiliating me.

#youtoo, Mike. I am sorry.

(If I offended you, but if I didn’t then please accept my attraction to you as a compliment.)

How are these new, sharp lines drawn over the blurred ones supposed to help us with consent, and socializing, and attraction? They do not answer the question of whether I have harassed more than I have suffered. Perhaps they are working because I now think to ask.

I release the babysitter into the frigid night with the warmth of a $20/hour check in her hand and bear-hug my child, who pronounces my breath tewwible but nestles into my arms all the same. How will my kindergarten son, whose teacher embraces him when he steps into her classroom, who doesn’t give hugs but tolerates them endlessly, who is so small for his age that the girls in his class delight in physically picking him up — how will he act at dinner with his female colleagues in 30 years? Are his #metoo’s being composed right now, to be dragged out of him in a couple of decades in therapy? He often mentions his “girlfriends,” a different meaning than when he refers to his boyfriends. His dad tells him that he can only have one girlfriend, but he is adept at milking the girlfriend talk with older kids and adults, who delight in his responses.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Oh, I have more than ONE girlfriend.”

“How many?”

“TONS.” Palms raised to the sky, a weary tone as if these girls will be the death of him by virtue of their mere volume.

Will my son one day exhibit that strain of entitlement Roy turned on me, a belief that he has been cheated out of the rightful spoil of one of his girlfriends’ virginity when she chooses a football player and self-demotes from his “girlfriend” to “just friends”? My son is a terror during playdates at our home when the unfortunate date chooses against his game of choice. He tantrums awesomely, leading me to cajole and yell at him while apologizing to our guest. How do I teach him that consent is not his due, when people don’t ask for permission to give him hugs or kisses, to grab his waist and spin him around?

His dad, my ex, is no hypocrite. He has only ever had one girlfriend at a time, and I never questioned his fidelity. He even told me that sex wasn’t important to him when we met. I devoured him with the intensity of my desire, and we laughed about how in this, as in so many ways, we role-reversed. The uncharted territory of my passion in the early days of our relationship (that is, the four months before I conceived our oops-baby) convinced me of its longevity.

Although I have loved men before my ex, I didn’t have enough relationship-pattern recognition to call out the early warning signs: the cold shoulder when I tracked mud into the house, the exasperation when I was five minutes late, the frustration when I ate a meal he had carefully prepared without adequate appreciation. They say it’s the little things, the quotidian conflicts that destine lovers to uncouple. I see it differently now; these were our fevers, our rashes, the symptoms of a terminal illness that might have been a mere cold when it started killing us. I said I wanted the world from our relationship when all I wanted was a man who didn’t need much from me. He said he liked my success, but the elusiveness of his own eclipsed his good intention.

Today we are better to each other than when we were pretending to be a family. And my ex is a good father for this age of verbal consent, with his careful enumeration of the number of girlfriends permitted, housekeeping, cooking, and receiving child support. That, alongside Jeep repair, landscaping, construction, chainsawing, soccer-coaching. . . My ex does it all, and I bread-win, and so we unwind a jumble of gendered behaviors for our son.

“Mama, I don’t think I’m going to have kids,” my son announced to me one morning as we were making pancakes.

“Why not?”

“Because I’ll be too busy working in my bakery.” My son had recently decided on baker (despite my best efforts to mishear him saying banker) as his career choice. I did a mental fist-pump at this statement and the induction behind it; being a parent, regardless of gender, impacts your career. Maybe his generation of friends, which includes a buddy who sometimes wears girls’ clothing and applies sparkles to his face, will continue this progress, setting the stage for a healthy, vibrant iGen dating scene in 2039.

For now, in 2019, post-sex, post-metoo, pre-grandkids (possibly a permanent state), I imagine a different ending for the night, in my hot tub with Kurt. For now, this is enough, his alcoholic smile in my mind’s eye, a safe sterile substitute for the sex which has only ever ended in complication for me, even if the intervening time between first and last encounters had moments of transcendence.

Not that Kurt asked. And not that I know what my answer would have been. Let’s leave this frigid, almost-hot night in Asheville at #mesomething. •

Images created by Barbara Chernyavsky.