Have you seen the streaming series I Love Dick? It’s a dark comedy (based on a 1997 cult novel) about husband-and-wife artists at a residency in Marfa, Texas. The wife, Chris, falls fast and hard for Dick, the macho artist who runs the institute. Dick is totally uninterested in Chris, which doesn’t stop her from writing him scores of increasingly unhinged letters.
“Dear Dick: Every letter is a love letter,” the first one starts, because Chris’s goal is to seduce. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) Later letters are defiant: “Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” (Spoiler: it’s not.) Then they move into stranger, richer territory: a celebration of Chris’s by-now rampaging, catastrophic desire. “Dear Dick: Desire isn’t lack. It’s excess energy. A claustrophobia inside your skin.”
“Desire isn’t lack.” Were you raised to think that desire can be additive? I wasn’t. I don’t blame my parents. I blame the entire fucking world for raising me with advice like be happy with what you have and some people would be thrilled to live your life and a hundred years ago women couldn’t do x, y, or z at all, so be glad you at least get a chance.
Don’t get me wrong: gratitude is good. And people mean well, mostly (I guess). But it all comes down to: your wants are wrong. Both genders get this message, but it’s hardly news that female desire is especially apt to be viewed as unsettling, even monstrous, if it’s not contained. (When’s the last time you heard anyone say “Well, girls will be girls” over a failure of impulse control resulting in harm to someone else?)
Intellectually, I’ve known for decades that there was nothing wrong with my desires, my female desires. I went to college in the era of so-called “sex-positive feminism.” Like any bold young woman of the time, I flounced from bed to bed (to floor, to beach, plus one tree this one time), up for anything, without demanding those letters and sodas soon to be immortalized by Liz Phair. (Well, plus I was already kind of a junior drunk–who wanted sodas?)
In fact, I didn’t demand much of anything, because my only real desire, or at least the one that drowned out most others, was to be wanted. To fill that gaping need from my childhood with men’s approval. To be worthy of the male gaze, which I was learning to challenge in my literature and film classes even as I pursued it outside the classroom, or sometimes from a guy right across the seminar table.
I got really good at being wanted. It’s not that hard. It’s more or less performance art, albeit not the kind that wins you a residency in Marfa. Even in my egalitarian marriage I couldn’t help but try to make myself into the perfect blank slate for however my husband might want to see me in the moment. How could I stop, when I didn’t even know I was doing it? And the harder I worked at being wantable and lovable, the more my own wants faded away, because I hadn’t saved any energy for them. Certainly in my last decade of Big Drinking, which roughly coincided with my 30s, I was far too preoccupied with making my life seem Totally Fine and Normal to want much of anything. By the end, I would have told you that what I wanted didn’t matter anyway.
Then I stopped drinking. Some months afterward I started to like myself (so weird), and some months after that I started to notice that I had the ability to want stuff, all kinds of stuff: to write, to run alone in the woods, to make eye contact with people. And some months after that I realized with a small shock that it’s not just male eyes that have a gaze–that I have one, too, and it’s not necessarily always trained on the exact person I am married to. Which is where I got on the road to realizing that desire can be blissful and mystifying and awkward and a major pain in the ass, but one thing it isn’t is a lack. It’s more. It makes life bigger, or maybe just more crowded. Denser in the margins.
Oh, and desire–both projected and received– is fun. Well, at least it is as a parlor game, or a flexing of muscle. I guess I should have known that at some point I would meet my match. That I’d stumble onto desire with, you know, meaning and that the combination would knock me on my smug, female-gaze-y ass.
(I should acknowledge at this point in the story that there is a fine line between discretion and irritating coyness, and that you might not think I’m landing on the right side of it.)
I landed not so long ago in a case of highly inconvenient, non-parlor-game desire, of a severity known as “lovishness.” Maybe “landed” is too passive a word, given that the road in took many months, scores of conversation hours, was the product of hundreds of small decisions made by both parties. And yet in retrospect we recalled a moment of mutual, literal dizziness, as if we had been dropped from a great height into a new territory and were still a little airsick. So: yes. Landed it is. I landed. He landed. And we stared at each other in a woozy mix of swoon and friendship and fear.
I had not planned to experience a desire bigger than my ability to philosophize about it. Lovishness seriously freaked me out. “I know this is supposed to mean I need to work on my marriage,” I told a wise girlfriend. “But I like my marriage! We’re happy. I just kind of want this other thing too. Maybe I just need to work on myself. Maybe my lunacy is so deep that I can’t even see the problems this is a symptom of.”
My friend waited patiently for my shame-spiral monologue to end. Then she said: “When married women have feelings for other men, we always get told it’s because we’re not working hard enough. Maybe you don’t need to work on anything. Maybe you’re just having a human experience.”
“I guess I thought I’d had all my human experiences by now,” I joked. Well, I tried to make it sound like a joke. even though on some level I wasn’t. But I’m a different kind of human than I was 1,439 days ago. I’m, like, here. I see and feel stuff.
“You’re just so awake,” said the man whose emotional landscape had become layered with mine. This was months ago, before we’d talked about the thing we already should have been talking about. At the time I thought to myself: well, yeah, duh, because I’m sitting within arm’s reach of you. But I knew that wasn’t the whole reason–that I wasn’t some blank-eyed doll who only came to life under the gaze of the right man. I knew he’d seen it in me because it was already there to be seen, because I am. I’m awake. And being awake is even harder and scarier and more tiring than I would have expected. It demands courage and skill at pushing on impulses to test and question them. Which is a fancy way of saying that you can honor and respect even your fiercest desires without necessarily storming off to fulfill them right that minute. You can let them settle in a bit. Get used to them. Talk about them (uh, this part is especially important in situations like mine, and may you be as pleasantly shocked as I was by the security, open-mindedness, and sheer modernity of your spouse. It’s kinda hot.)
A newly sober woman I know was struggling one night not to rush out and buy a bottle of wine or six. A mutual friend, also sober, said “Look, the alcohol will be there later if you still need it. What’s the big hurry?” That’s how I’ve started to think about inconvenient desires. Okay, fine: it’s how I’m trying to start to think about inconvenient desires: that the big ones (which, oh God, this one was) don’t just up and vanish. There’s no need for a panicked, reactive rush, because the desire will still be there when I figure out what to do about it.
“Do you feel like you could control this?” the man said during a particularly fraught post-landing conversation. “Because I have no illusions that I could control this.” Of course I can! I wanted to say. The emotions, the narrative, the damage mitigation–leave it all to me, babe, and we’ll have ourselves a harmless little fling and part as the best of friends.
I looked into his eyes for a long time while I tried to convince myself of these things. “No,” I said finally. “I don’t think I could control this.” Which was one (utterly miserable, deeply resented) step away from reactivity and towards the rational, non-destructive, but still heartbreaking decision that had to be made. Because as he was brave enough to recognize before I did, we were no longer in fling territory. This was a letters-and-sodas situation, the kind that can ruin good lives.
I’m still too much in the middle of it to know a lot, but I do know this: there’s bound to be another inconvenient desire some day, and then another and another (assuming that life is long, e.g. I’m not suggesting a constant parade of sexual rapacity), each one carrying its own sparkle and trouble, decisions and accountabilities. Because humans have human experiences. And I have become fond, most days–though not so much lately–of being a human. The kind who gazes back, and pays attention to what she wants, because what she wants matters, too.
“Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” It’s not pretty. But it’s beautiful.