Alice was a year older than I and was one of the more serious acting students in my high school. I knew her the way you know someone who’s friends with your friends but with whom you don’t hang out regularly. One day I found a letter from her tucked in my notebook. In it she said she thought I was a “beautiful man,” that she just wanted me to know that, that she didn’t expect me to feel the same way about her, but if I did feel the same way about her she’d love to go out with me sometime.
As complimentary as the letter was, I found it upsetting. I did not feel the same way about her, but I had had a few crushes in my young life that had not been reciprocated. It’s hard not to think, “What’s wrong with me?” when there’s no reciprocation, and I really didn’t want her to think this. Not only wasn’t there nothing wrong with her, she stood out to me from most of my classmates as conspicuously bright, kind, and creative. I could tell this about her the first time I saw her. Unfortunately, that’s not always enough to want to date someone.
I never talked to Alice about the letter. I was a bit ashamed of this because I liked her and felt she deserved some response, but I didn’t have the wherewithal for that conversation, and it didn’t occur to me to write her back. We stayed friendly, however, going to some of the same parties, acting in a play together, and then, a few years after high school, working in the same café for a while.
She had a boyfriend at this time, though I sensed it wasn’t going great. He was a few years older than she, and an actor, but I could feel the complications of their relationship the way you can feel an unfinished argument when you step into a room and conversation stops. One day we were standing on the café’s patio during a lunch shift. It was quiet after the rush and we were doing a little people-watching.
“Bill,” she asked, “what do men want?”
What a great question, I thought. I very much wanted to answer it truthfully and usefully. I wanted to answer it because it felt like a way to finally talk about her letter, which was still on my mind, and because it was the kind of philosophical, big-picture question that I found myself increasingly drawn to. But she’d caught me unprepared. I’d never thought about it, and the answer seemed both simple and inarticulable.
“We just want to be happy, I think.”
“Mmm,” she said, obviously unsatisfied.
How frustrating. I wanted to try again, but I doubted I’d do any better. I wanted to answer the question so that she’d never have to ask it again and could get on with the necessary business of finding out what Alice wanted. But the truth was I didn’t know what all men wanted; I barely understood what I wanted.
I think of Alice and her question sometimes when I notice the “Not All Men” debate currently bouncing around the Internet. If you’re not familiar: someone tweets or posts or writes an article about men’s (usually obnoxious) behavior, and someone else retorts, “But not all men do this!” In progressive circles, the Not All Men reply is generally seen as counter-productive and defensive. Of course, not all men do this thing, but a lot of them do, and that’s enough. We’re trying to make the world a better place. Quit nit-picking.
I’m going to nit-pick. Making the world a better place is an admirable goal, but impossible if you can’t make your own, little, private, unique, important world a better place–and the only way to do that is to know what you want, to know what makes you happy. What makes me happy will not make you happy, for the same mysterious but inescapable reasons I didn’t want to date Alice. One of the great challenges and pleasures of being human is that only I have lived what I’ve lived, and only I can know what I need, even if I get that wrong a lot of the times.
Not only am I not “all Men,” I’m not any man but me. Sometimes I wish this weren’t the case, that I could follow some formula, some predetermined path to happiness, that I didn’t have to figure it out for myself, the way I used to wish I could love a woman simply because I thought she was beautiful. Yet wishing for this is like wishing I didn’t have to create, to grow, to discover–like wishing my singular life, that has never happened before and will never happen again, doesn’t matter.
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