Sex with a stranger can be about desire, but it may say nothing about where one’s heart lies.
Romance is the mystery and excitement associated with sexual attraction. Or love, depending on where you get your definitions. Mine is based loosely on the one at Wikipedia. Yet whether we consider sexual love and bodily lust related or separate, when the word is “romance,” our thoughts turn to the courtship preceding a long and fruitful marriage, not to the riotous and liminal couplings of the one-night stand. But why not? What is more exciting and mysterious than the mutual desire for someone you hardly know?
A one-night stand doesn’t have to signal love, or even the spark that might ignite the flame. A small act can be small, after all. It could mean nothing, be forgettable, or it could be a cause for regret or reason to feel ashamed. It could be isolated, or part of a pattern of behavior. Sex with a stranger can be about desire, but it may say nothing about where one’s heart lies. A commenter on the site, Leroy Joseph, wrote this sad tale of love and one-night stands:
I was engaged to a woman once and every few months like clockwork, she would go out, have a few drinks and then sleep with another man, sometimes more than one at the same time. She was always remorseful and always truthful to me about it. I chose to stay with her even though I knew she would never be sexually exclusive with me. I did this because I loved her dearly and I knew I had a choice to accept her for who she was or I could leave. It was my choice. I never slept with anyone else all the time we were together. Why? Simply because I didn’t want to have sex with anyone but her. Again, that was my choice. We finally broke up a few years later, not because I wanted to but because she did.
I recently learned that she had been sexually abused and raped by 3 of her uncles starting at the age of 5. And a few years after we split up, she had a complete mental breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Last May, I flew 1000 miles to spend a week with her and our 27 year old daughter at a hospice where my ex was dying of cancer. It had been almost 30 years since we had split up, but I still loved her dearly and she died a few days after I had to go home to California. Yeah, she had sex with other men when we were together. I didn’t particularly like it at the time, but I accepted it because I loved her and chose to stay with her. Now knowing her past abuse and mental illness, was she really in control of her actions? Probably not. But I wouldn’t trade a second of the years I spent with her for anything. Monogamy doesn’t mean people are happy or even love each other.
This is a story of one-night stands as a pattern of self-injury, not the mystery of human souls connecting, or the excitement of physical desire. They are certainly not about love: love is what Joseph feels for her, not what his former fiancee feels for the men she remorsefully admits to having slept with.
One-night stands don’t have to be about love, to be about an important human connection. Once, in my mid-twenties, I went home with an older man who picked me up in a local gay bar. He complimented my legs, said I had soccer legs. On the stairs outside his house, I finally got up the nerve to tell him I was a trans man and he laughed, said he didn’t care. It was as if he had no preconceived notions of what our sex would be like: there was no script; he was open to anything. At some point late in the order of showering, sex, and pillow talk, he mentioned a recent separation after a long marriage, grown kids. He was late to come out and had only recently done so. I was in a position, early in my transition from female to male, to understand the grief that comes from losing one life, even if it’s the wrong life and the right thing to do to leave it behind. There is what other people thought you were, for example, and so you believed it too, and now that is over. Even when you know that you stand to gain something else better in due time, you grieve.
Eventually, both of us having come, it was very late and time for me to go, so I dressed and followed him downstairs to his kitchen. He made me espresso in his large, stainless steel kitchen and we stood and talked, waiting for the water to boil.
The counter was clean, the implements for brewing set out beside the range. He made Cuban coffee: old school strong, in a percolator, used a fine grind I recognized from the label. As he moved from range to refrigerator, I watched his shoulders beneath the dark blue robe he wore, and how he moved about as if he’d known his way around this fine kitchen for longer than he’d been living in it alone.
When the coffee was brewed, he put sweetened condensed milk in it and gave it to me to drink. None for him: he would return to bed after I left. I was twenty years younger than he was and was still in love with being out all night, the revolution of staying up far beyond bedtime. He made me Cuban coffee at two in the morning, so I could drive home alert and safe.
I knew we would not see one another again after I drank that cup.
Is a one-night stand with a man who made me coffee afterward, romantic? And if not, is it for the reason you think? It was a thoughtful gesture, romantic because it went above what was strictly necessary. He demonstrated kindness, class, and style, and for those small acts made me remember him all of these years later as a gentleman.
Leroy Joseph is also a gentleman, though his role in very different in his tale of one-night stands. The idea of happy monogamy that he must have expected from the outset, he let die, and grieved, for what was better: a life, for as long as he could have it, with a woman who he loved. Which brings me around again to the definition of the word, “romance,” and whether the origins of the word still hold any wisdom for us today, in a different kind of society. Old-school romance was born from a world of iniquity and thwarted desire. It allowed for sublimation, and also for genuine kindnesses and even sacrifice. In an ordinary one-night stand, the exchange is ideally and generally roughly equal: my sex for yours. The extra minutes that it took to boil water and brew coffee were a kindness, a sacrifice of time that he could have been falling asleep in, and gave to me for my safety and comfort. It was a small thing, a kindness possible where it was not sought.
Even the one-night stand demonstrates, with its ubiquity and allure, how much we need one another and how good it can feel when we connect, however briefly. It can be a drug, the thrill of romance. Or it can be manna, that miraculous bread that grew from the desert. The encounter with a stranger, being impersonal, can be the grounds on which we learn to give and receive a more universal loving kindness. It can teach us how to identify opportunities in which we may show love to our neighbor. Most of us look for something more certain and deeply nourishing, a daily bread of love, while others of us live our lives in reliance on the kindness of strangers. We may not value the chance connection of the one-night stand as satisfying or reliable, but these morsels feed us, too, and in times of trouble, can be all we have.
—Photo John Pastorello/Flickr