Fiction and Drama
A straight flush of stable-pair-bonding qualities
If you ask him where he went to high school, he likes to boast that, actually, he went to an all-girls school. That was sort of true—he was one of five males at a progressive private school that had gone co-ed just before he’d enrolled. People always reply: Ooh la la, lucky guy! You must’ve had your pick. Which irritates him, because it implied women would only date him if there were no other options, and because he hadn’t dated anyone in high school. One classmate junior year had a crush on him, but he wasn’t attracted to her curvaceous body type so felt justified in rejecting her, just as he’d been rejected many times himself.
Still, the school ingrained in him, if not feminist values per se, the value of feminist values. It had been cool, or at least normal, to identify as asexual. And though he didn’t, he figured it was a better label than “virgin.” His friends, mostly female, told him he was refreshingly attentive and trustworthy for a boy. Meanwhile he is grateful for the knowledge that female was best used as an adjective, that sexism harms men too (though not nearly to the extent that it harms women), and that certain men pretend to be feminists just to get laid. After he graduated he started to feel slightly sheepish about never having even kissed anyone. Everyone knows, though, that real dating starts in college, where nobody will be aware of his track record.
But in college, he encounters the alien system of codes and manners that govern flirting, conveyed in subtextual cues no more perceptible to him than ultraviolet radiation. Learning in high school about body positivity and gender norms and the cultural construction of beauty led him to believe that adults aren’t obsessed with looks. This turns out to be untrue, even among his new female friends, who complain about how shallow men are. Now that he’s self-conscious, he realizes he can’t compete along conventional standards of height, weight, grip strength, whatever. How can he hope to attract anyone with his narrow shoulders?
The women he tries to date offer him friendship instead, so once again, most of his friends are women. This is fine: it’s their prerogative, and anyway, lots of relationships begin platonically—especially for guys with narrow shoulders. But soon a pattern emerges. The first time, as he is leaving his friend’s dorm room, he surprises himself by saying: Hey, this might be super random, and she can totally say no, but he’s attracted to her, so did she want to go on a “date” date, sometime? In a casual and normal voice. And she says, “Oh,” and filibusters—she had no idea he felt that way, and she doesn’t want to risk spoiling the good thing they have by making it a thing, she just wants to stay . . . and he rushes to assure her that it’s valid, no, totally valid, he knows friendship isn’t a downgrade, sorry for being weird. Ugh!
Right? she replies, dating’s so overrated and meaningless in college anyway, and she knows that he knows he’ll find someone who deserves him, because he’s great, really great, so thoughtful, so smart, not like these SAE sideways-hat-wearing dudebros, but of course he already knows that, and she really appreciates it. Then he thanks her for being honest, because it’s proof their friendship is real, and don’t worry about him, he gets it.
He does get it. It sort of kills him, but he knows his rejector was only trying to spare his feelings, since men often react badly to “hard rejection.” So he validates her condolences and communicates them back until she’s convinced he’ll be fine. “Grrr, friend-zoned again!” he says, shaking his fists toward the ceiling, and they laugh together and hug and he walks back to his dorm just before sunrise.
He gets into bed and sighs. While he’s confident he handled everything respectfully, the girl’s praise only reminds him that none of his ostensibly good qualities are attractive enough to even warrant him a chance, which makes them seem worthless. He also suspects that her flattery was . . . exaggerated, and a bit . . . patronizing? If she didn’t think friendship was a downgrade, she wouldn’t have said she “just wanted to stay friends.” By persuading him to reject himself, was she just offloading her guilt? He stews at the familiarity of the situation: once again, he’s got to be the one who accepts, forgives, tolerates, pretends not to be wounded, pretends he has stopped hoping—all this sapping emotional labor not just to preserve his dignity and assuage her guilt, but also because he doesn’t want to spoil his chances of dating her in the future, since it’s her prerogative, after all, to change her mind.
He’ll be fine, hopes everything’s cool—and if she ever changes her mind, he’ll be around!Tweet
Still, he respects her decision. He gets out of bed, feeling compelled to let her know where he stands, to check in, so he composes a long postmortem email, reconstructing everything that happened from the beginning, assuring her that he knew nobody was to blame for a lack of attraction, and that if it isn’t clear, yes, he is interested in her, but he’s not one of those fake-feminist guys who snubs any woman he can’t fuck, so, sorry if this is completely graceless and exhausting, by no means is he making his embarrassment her problem, he just wants to get everything out in the open. He hits send.
An hour later he sends a second email: Just out of curiosity, could she say a little about why she rejected him? It’d be really helpful for him. Is it because he’s narrow-shouldered? Is that a deal breaker for her? Because he can’t help that, as she knows. Or is it a specific thing he did or said, because if so, they could discuss that, clear up any miscommunications. Anyway, he’ll be fine, hopes everything’s cool—and if she ever changes her mind, he’ll be around!
Considering his tremendous effort to be vulnerable, it seems unfair when a day passes with no reply. Fearing that he might not get one at all, he writes a third email clarifying that she’s by no means obliged to reply, though if she wants to, he’d love hearing her thoughts. He is somewhat annoyed when she again doesn’t reply, though he’s glad to have given her that option. At least nothing’s been left unsaid.
This exact scenario happens four or five more times. Later, when he relates these incidents, lightheartedly, to his other female friends, they assure him he’s interesting, smart, thoughtful, good-looking (though they never say hot), that nothing’s wrong with him. “It’s so bizarre that you’re single,” they say, trying to mollify him with optimism, as if experience has made them objective. But they have no experience of having no experience. He figures that even bad relationships are better than none, since they prepare you for future relationships, and heartbreak is romantic and dignified, whereas rejection just makes you a loser. Short of outright abuse, the worst case is to be in his position.
Anyway, he doesn’t want pity; he wants not to need it. He drops hints to his friends to set him up with their friends, but for some reason they never follow through.
Lacking other options, he decides there are other ways to stand out and be attractive. He cultivates academic achievement, surmising that income and status and intellect will enhance his appeal. And they do, but not for him: the same standards prevail in his field as everywhere else. The rich, beautiful, and broad-shouldered still get all the attention.
Then again, so do the terrible and ugly! His female friends keep dating men with cratered skin, awkward manners, poor hygiene; talentless schlubs identified by their hobbies and tastes; philandering worms; controlling, abusive dirtbags. Even his awkward gay college roommate had had a girlfriend in high school, before he’d come out. Maybe they all deserved love—but surely no more than him? At a house party, one friend talks about going home with a guy the night before who said he just wanted to sleep next to her, but around 1 AM she awoke to him grunting as he completed the process of jerking off on her leg. When she cussed him out, he claimed he was “overcome by raw animal passion” and “couldn’t help it,” and she still let him stay. “Whatever, we’ll probably be married in three years,” she says, rolling her eyes.
He’s just about to insist she shouldn’t devalue herself like that, that she’s just been violated and maybe shouldn’t be out tonight, should go home and practice self-care—and is astounded when everyone, including her, starts laughing. He joins in, figuring that this is all part of the cathartic process, even though it sounds to him like a clear case of SA. He’d asked her out once before; a literal rapist is more appealing than him? But he keeps silent as another female friend says, “Men are dogshit.” And sure, fair, he understands they mean the patriarchy and not him specifically—but why’d she say that with him standing right there, unless he didn’t count as a man? Not wanting to seem fragile or impugn their judgment or center the conversation on himself, he instead files this incident away in a thickening dossier of unfairness, privately reasoning that if they’re going to keep dating assholes, what do they expect.
He gut-checks himself to make sure his concern for his traumatized friend is legitimate before texting her later: “Hey, I’m around if you need to talk about what happened. or even just watch trashy TV :) whenever wherever!”
She doesn’t reply.
Dragging his virginity like a body bag into his midtwenties, he watches a certain amount of dom-oriented porn, probably due to internalized sexism, but he’s read that porn is a safe, healthy venue to explore kink, that sexuality is neither a choice nor shameful, especially if the studios follow good labor and aftercare practices. His female friends agree, though he does not mention that he seeks out actresses that look like them, which he deems acceptable as long as he consumes it critically, demarcating fantasy from reality.
He’s more worried about physical desensitization: he doesn’t use lubrication, because his roommates would overhear it. He comes to prefer the intensity of this “dry” method, but feels the friction is somehow eroding his psyche, and possibly dulling his penis nerves. He resolves to masturbate with a condom to wean himself. He wonders in what other ways touch, or the lack of it, has warped him. He’s read about that study of baby monkeys who were denied soft physical contact and grew up disturbed and sickly. It’s hard for him to believe chastity was ever associated with purity, when it feels like putrescence, his blood browning and saliva clouding with pus, each passing day rendering him more leprously foul to the senses. What about those venerable virgo intacta like Kant, Dickinson, Newton? Their virginity was a matter of will. They believed God loved them for it.
At lunch one day, two of his male coworkers offer unsolicited dating advice, relishing the chance to showboat their sexual proficiencies. He’s too honest and available, not aggressive enough—friend-zone shit, they say unironically. Just don’t be a fucking pussy is all! You gotta challenge them, be a puzzle for them to work out, that’s just how girls’ brains work, it’s evolution. They offer grotesquely specific advice about eye contact and hair touching. Learn palmistry, they say, bitches love getting their palms read.
Then they ask him how he makes a move; he says he just asks. “Wait, you ask if you can kiss them? My man,” one says, laughing and slapping his back, “you don’t ask.” With jagged touchiness, he calls them out, insisting that consent is nonnegotiable, that even if they’re joking, it’s textbook rape culture.
“Well, what makes you think you can speak for them,” one says, smirking. “You’re a guy too. Why do you know better than us what women prefer? Especially considering they’re dating us.”
He’s not speaking for women, he says—unsure of how he’ll answer, but certain he has something to say—he’s . . . speaking against men who’re speaking against women.
“Go ahead then,” his coworker smirks, “ask your female friends what they think.”
Bristling, he calls his QPOC agender friend from his college co-op, whom he’s always gotten along well with, in part because he’s never been attracted to them. He repeats what his coworkers said, using a “dumb guy” voice. His friend says, “Well, that’s gross,” and makes him swear never to become a mind-gamey asshole. They say that the friend zone is obviously a sexist canard that lets losers (like who, he wonders) blame their own unattractiveness on women. He agrees; then asks if it isn’t true that some guys lack charisma or attractiveness, and are thus more prone to getting befriended? “Maybe,” they say. He asks his friend if mind games work. “Sometimes,” they say, “that’s why it’s so common. But it’s not good.” Never, he asks? “OK, yeah, shit’s complicated. Some people are old-fashioned, or mistake abuse for affection. Doesn’t mean we should encourage it.” He asks if it’s wrong to ask permission to kiss someone. “Depends more on how you ask.” He asks if they personally would prefer it. “No, but I’m not all women. I’m not even a woman.” He asks if they believe most women would prefer it. “Maybe, maybe not, but things are changing. Listen, I’m not sure what you’re trying to get out of me here. Again: I’m not a woman.” Of course he knows that, he replies, but it’s important to him, especially as a privileged white man, to avoid placing the burden of educating him about women’s experiences on a woman, which was why it’s so great to have friends of other genders. His friend says, “Yeah, I guess.” He thanks them for taking his call so late at night.
Despite the ambiguous advice, he decides that sheer experience and exposure will improve his odds. So he resorts to online dating, cropping out his narrow shoulders from his photos and carefully wording his bio:
He / him. Unshakably serious about consent. Loves books, Thai cooking, a glass (or three) of Vinho Verde on my balcony, endless conversation . . . did I mention books? ;) Trans women are women (duh). All body types very welcome!
He suspects some of it risks sounding tryhard, but he prefers clarity over fake mystique, and why wouldn’t women prefer a vocal ally? He sends brief but thoughtful, grammatical messages, like a link to a Psychology Today article about limerence, followed by: “Fascinating topic. I’m a total sucker for the intersections of psychology and romance. Would love to talk it over at the venue of your choosing!” The few dates this brings only yield more rejection: three postpone indefinitely, then ghost; three more are no-shows. One leaves while he’s in the bathroom.
Dating online, he realizes, one has to choose either fraudulence or honesty that can’t compete with fraudulence. But then he thinks: Isn’t the idea that women don’t know what’s best for them sexist, informed by his own petty resentment? Troubled by this paradox and unable to sleep, he texts his QPOC friend: Be honest: has he actually been a creep this whole time? Is that why he’s been single for thirty years? His friend texts back, “okay but can you really count the first 16 years,” then says that he should feel weird about his concerns, but that he hasn’t done anything, and a creep probably wouldn’t agonize so much over whether he was a creep, good night. He’s still unnerved, but relieved that someone who was once female-identified has given him a pass.
He withdraws into work. Whereas before he only went out in hopes of meeting someone, now he stays in so he won’t have to see the couples, the inaccessible women, the broad-shouldered men; even a passing whiff of plain aloe lotion on a woman’s skin makes him feel structurally unsound and shivery through his linings.
At age 32, he has sex. One day on social media he catches a photo of the girl—the woman—he rejected in high school. She’s cleaned up; her body type is no longer curvaceous, and he likes how she always wears a skirt and leggings, a thin dark cardigan over a blouse—a personal uniform suggesting fidelity to figured-out principles—but dislikes how her dyed red hair pinches off in a tiny bun that reminds him of the meaty tail-nubs on docked pit bulls, though that’s fixable. They live in the same city. He messages her and suggests they meet.
She arrives at their date forty minutes late, which he tolerates, knowing that women’s time is taxed by the pressures of female grooming. For about fifteen minutes their catch-up chat is small but promisingly pleasant. He insists on paying for drinks, joking that it’s not chivalry, it’s reparations for sexism. But he regrets it because, on her third whisky ginger (and his first), she starts rambling about a guy who dumped her years ago. Jokes about her eating disorder. Every few minutes her face scrunches like she’s about to cry, then reverts weirdly to normal. Her blouse untucks, and when a guy playing pool nearby positions his cue close to her face, she slaps it to the floor.
Lonely as he is, does he deserve someone unstable? He’ll have to reject her again, like in high school. What will he say? That he doesn’t want to waste her time, that he thinks she’s super great but isn’t feeling a vibe . . . whatever he says, he wants to make her reaction feel valid.
But hours later he has not figured out a compassionate enough way to phrase it, and at this point, as they’re leaving the bar, he decides he might as well kiss her good night for the sake of casual experience, and let her down over text message when he finds the right phrasing. So he asks if he can kiss her. She says, “Uhhhh, no.” He asks why not. “What do you mean why not?” she says. “Because I don’t want to. Who the fuck asks ‘why not’? Fucking asshole.”
He wonders if she is testing him. He asks if she is testing him. This time she gives him a two-armed shove, sending him to the ground, and instead of yelling, her mouth opens into a smile and she says, “Oh my god are you wearing shoulder pads?”
Getting up, he briefly considers shoving her back, which would only be fair. But she is doubled over and clutching her calves laughing, and then says, with unbelievable nonchalance, “OK, wait, I’m sorry dude, I didn’t mean to push you that hard. Come on, is this happening or what?”
The sex disappoints; her moans and arches feel contrived, and something—maybe his dulled nerves—keeps deferring his orgasm; she gets impatient and pushes him away. He acquiesces, not having finished, his embarrassing frustration mitigated only by the unburdening of his virginity, and the prospect of telling everyone about it. To reassure her that his sexual awkwardness was not her fault, he tells her he thinks she’s beautiful. She waits nearly ten seconds and replies, “Yeah, well, uh, you have a beautiful mind.”
After this incident, he develops thoughts of self-harm, which are curbed by his awareness that rejection, loneliness, and sexual frustration are nothing compared with institutional and historical oppression. He knows sadness is a symptom of his entitlement.
Being a thirtysomething, he feels too young to give up and too old to adapt. His self-reliance has ossified into a lifestyle of craved, defended solitude. He can’t imagine having to share a bed every night, not being able to read or stay in or leave parties when he wants. Solitude is fine, unwantedness is not. And as he’s aged, has his intimacy with his female friends deepened? Did these friends, who always maintained that romantic love is overrated, provide an alternative to monogamous romance? No. They’ve all found partners and moved on to mature, cohabit, fuck, get married, spawn. Even if they’re miserable, at least they’re living real lives, with partners who prioritize them. Lately he sees them once a month tops, even though he’s known them far longer than their partners. They’ve stopped inviting him to dinner parties because It was a couples thing and you would’ve hated it, which, while true, was still exclusionary, backed by the hegemonic, regressive institution of monogamy. He realizes that these female friends have, at last, completed their long-term rejections of him; that, without ever having had a girlfriend, his life is strewn with exes, friends without benefits. But he can’t complain about his friends to his friends. His male friends would roast him, or pretend to sympathize but secretly think he’s a pussy. His female friends might think he’s passive-aggressively implicating them, and also think he’s a pussy.
Since any rejection now paralyzes him with rage for weeks, he stops dating. He resents his married friends, his contently single friends, his unhappily single friends who nonetheless have casual sex, and his parents when they gently ask about his dating life. He also resents the grotesque fixations that have cropped up lately, like: If he’s only ever used condoms and the epidermis of his penis has never contacted the mucous membrane of a vagina, if he’s never ejaculated into a birth canal, does that technically make him a virgin? Was masturbation lowering his testosterone count, contributing to his narrow shoulders? And does that give women the impression that he has a small penis, which he objectively does not?
All he’s doing is sharing some of these gripes at a picnic one afternoon when his QPOC agender friend asks him why he doesn’t just call that girl from high school he went on that date with? He replies that just because he wants to be in a relationship doesn’t mean he has to settle for a sociopath.
“See, you’re moving the goal posts,” his QPOC friend replies. “It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself when you keep redefining rejection, because you won’t let go of it. You refuse pity but crave it so much that you won’t admit how strongly you invite it.”
He says they’re being facile, though he knows their point is rather nuanced and specific, he just hasn’t considered it before, but he can’t walk it back now.
“I’m facile?” his friend says. “Nah, I’m tired. That’s what it is, I’m tired,” they say from behind their sunglasses, waving their mimosa. “I know you identify as a reject, I know that’s, like, your ‘brand,’ like it’s some unprecedented form of suffering that gives you secret wisdom. All this nonstop high-frequency whining, that’s what’s facile.”
He presses his lips shut while his brain feels like a swirling case of lottery balls, as his friend, pausing to hit a spliff, continues: “I mean, what the fuck do you want? Somehow you got a shit deal. Nobody knows why. Maybe it’s like you never really grappled with this shit because you thought you were exempt. But you refuse to change and are shocked when nothing changes. It’s not like you enjoy it, but you do enjoy pushing other people’s faces in it, that’s your main consolation. Weird how you’re always right about rejection, since nobody’s ever had it worse, nobody’s as pure and as wronged as you. Yo everyone! Check out the Woman Respecter! Last principled man right here! And that’s why you need it, because you get to convince yourself you’re being rejected for your virtue, not cause you’re a bummer. You’ve turned your loneliness into this, like, fetish necklace of martyrdom. And all of us,” they gesture around to other picnickers, “have to sit here and rubber-stamp your feminism. If we don’t indulge your wallowing, we’re being callous and, like, complicit with some diabolical global conspiracy that’s keeping you from getting laid. But if we do, then we’re ‘disingenuous’ because none of us will fuck you ourselves. Right? Am I right, everyone? Hands up, who agrees?”
Three women’s hands shoot up, followed more slowly by the rest.
His QPOC friend gestures at them like, Behold. “I just, like . . . I’nno what to say man, except, motherfucking cishets! I for one am bored of your scab collection. I’m sorry your dick is sad or whatever. Suck it up, you bitter little boy, and move on.”
Oh, fantastic. That’s fucking great. The clearest example yet of how even his friends dismiss him with straw-man arguments. Because he refuses easy consolation, they’d rather call him self-sabotaging, instead of thinking critically for one second about the bullshit social biases narrow-shouldered men suffer under, which originate in the same toxic masculinity they supposedly abhor. He doesn’t have the luxury of having fun fresh relationship drama like theirs, so they got bored of him, even though listening to his problems is far easier than living through them.
Maintaining friendships costs his female and agender friends nothing, but it costs him a daily toll of endless triggeringTweet
Vitrified with outrage, he replies to his friend that they were minimizing his problems just because rejection wasn’t on some Official Registry of Politicized Traumas. He can’t address his feelings just because worse things happen? By that logic, he could say that their stupid anxieties about dating bi women aren’t important because they’re not being rounded up and pushed off rooftops like queer people in Syria. But he wouldn’t say that to a QPOC friend! He would listen!
“Wo-ow-ow. You really don’t want to press this,” his friend warns, removing their sunglasses. “And BTdubs, I’m not your ‘QPOC friend.’”
Are you fucking kidding me, he shouts, unsure if his exasperation is mock or real, you took it there, you made it about identity, all I’m doing is reflecting literally the same exact sentiment as you, so don’t evade the point, and don’t get the idea that framing it as a callout puts you in the right! And I brought those mimosas, by the way!
He grabs at his friend’s drink. Everyone scrambles. His QPOC friend’s friend, a much larger man, gets up and tells him, “OK, my guy, time to move along.” It defies all reason that he’s getting ejected from a picnic just for airing opinions in good faith, by this swollen alpha dickhead flaunting his gallantry. This was the male ally they preferred: not the intellectual who challenged them as equals in an open dialogue, but this muscle-confused fucking silverback gorilla. They’re all happy to hide behind patriarchy when it suits them. He snatches up his read more women tote bag and leaves.
On his way home, with jittering fingers, he gets on his phone to block his drunk QPOC friend on social media and sees they’ve posted: “smh @ ‘woke’ men who squawk abt their feminism but rly hang out with women bc of the gendered power advantage fooooooooh.”
One of the women who was at the picnic replied “omg deadassssss,” which got thirty-six likes. The thought of thirty-six people reading this petty, unsubstantiated accusation, siding with the QPOC, and spreading gossip leads him to mass-block everyone who did nothing to help him at the picnic.
He counterposts, “smh @ performative ‘woke’ ‘queer’ ppl who pretend to care abt equality but rly just get off on humiliating strong male allies who are trying to help and consequently punishing and alienating them for fervently upholding the basic tenets of contemporary feminism fooooooooh,” but deletes it because he can’t figure out how to make it sound good, which is unfair, because the point is valid.
It would be pathetic now to keep seeing those friends. Maintaining friendships costs his female and agender friends nothing, but it costs him a daily toll of endless triggering, which they’ve never once acknowledged. They liked having him around to benefit from his insight and generosity, but the moment he had genuine feelings for them as equals, it’s like his attraction was some morsel of filth he’d tried to trick them into swallowing. Yet, free-falling into his late thirties, it’s harder to make new friends. Whenever he stays in, he feels anxious about not meeting new people, but whenever he goes out, he spends the whole night scanning some depressing bar or art space for potential mates, then goes home alone, weary and dark-minded, to face the sight of his empty bed, which is even emptier after he gets in it, lying awake with pangs of loneliness that feel like getting stabbed through a very soft pillow. He lost his virginity so long ago it’s grown back.
On one of these long nights, an ugly curtain lifts in his head: he’s old enough to know that relationships don’t guarantee happiness, that the source of his pain is an illusion agonizingly elaborated over decades. His mental habits are so ingrained that even if he got a girlfriend, he’d still feel rejected. Around this time he starts to feel breathless, a constant compression garment around his lungs. His stomach is tense and swollen as a basketball, he urinates frequently, his heart skitters and rushes, he has trouble swallowing. He can seldom achieve full erection even while masturbating: he’s finally managed to sexually bore even himself. One day at work, while he’s waiting for the microwave to finish heating up a cheese-and-mushroom tartlet, a quantity of urine dribbles out unbidden.
His PCP refers him to a blood lab and a urologist, who conducts an ultrasound and diagnoses him with a levator spasm, probably stress related. In his own online research, he reads that loneliness can indeed manifest psychosomatically, and even shorten your life span. He also reads that children bear trace amounts of the DNA of all their mother’s sex partners in their own DNA—so it was true, confirming suspicions he didn’t even know he had, that sex partners matter biologically; they leave a mark.
The findings send him into action. He takes zinc sulfate, lysine, and arginine to increase seminal volume, horny goat weed and pumpkin-seed extract for libido. The goal is to get his ejaculate to “arc” again. When after three months he sees no enhancements except for a longer post-JO cleanup, he begins using a penis pump, no matter the vascular damage. If it’s going to be numb and useless it may as well be big.
He knows he is sick and must find relief. He wants so badly to believe that his life isn’t broken and can still bring satisfaction. He eats healthy, exercises, takes improv classes, and consolidates his reputation at work, though he’d long since lost his relish for it when he realized it didn’t magically improve his dating odds. None of it does.
At work, when he isn’t thinking This is all I’m good for, he thinks I should kill myself. But he imagines his female ex-friends hearing of his death and not caring, or even laughing; it wouldn’t be tragic. This maddening thought keeps him dismally alive. In each second is the slow fizz of cell death, telomeres shedding their base pairs two by two like an ignited fuse.
He tries paying for sex, hoping more experience will give him confidence, and while he is strongly pro–sex workers’ rights, he still resents having to pay for something that someone, somewhere, ought to offer enthusiastically. Even while having sex, it comes freighted with so many expectations, such intense anticipation of disappointment, that he doesn’t enjoy it much. To finish he silently imagines the woman is pregnant and that his more potent semen is killing off the other man’s embryo and displacing it with his own. He tips well.
Sometime after turning 35, he makes a rare excursion from his apartment to visit his old favorite tapas restaurant in a hip neighborhood he lived in a decade ago. The foyer is crammed and it’s a forty-minute wait. This place never used to be crowded, it had been a quiet place to read without feeling lonely; now it is massed with couples and their offspring colonizing yet another space, basking in the triumphalism of love, instead of confronting the real ugliness of their prejudice and superiority and, yes, the privilege that they profit from.
He waits out on the muggy sidewalk until his name is called, and at the entrance, a fleet of strollers exits the restaurant through the narrow vestibule. He flattens against the plastic wall to let three, four strollers pass, then tries to enter the restaurant when a fifth woman approaches, pushing an enormous three-wheeler with BMX tires and a crusty-eyed baby scrunched inside it. He expects her to let him through, but instead she pushes the vestibule door open and he feels and hears a crack, looks down at his leather sandals and sees his big toenail folded up at an astonishing angle, says, Ow ow ow. Instead of apologizing, she trades an eyeroll with her husband, who says, “Buddy, she can’t get through if you don’t move back.”
Your convenience doesn’t outweigh mine, he asserts to the father; instead of replying, the father pushes him by the shoulder out onto the sidewalk, violating his bodily autonomy.
Being civil and slow to anger, he says nothing, even as fury chain-reacts down through his chest. The pack of parents recedes down the block, spanning the sidewalk’s whole width, and now, first limping then sprinting, he catches up to them and (carelessly, with his injured foot) delivers a solid righteous side-stomp to the stroller’s chassis, which the mother catches just before it tips over, and he gives another wild kick before he shoots off through traffic across the street. Their shouts degrade into noise as he rounds the corner at a hobbled gallop, and he makes sure they hear him laughing.
At home, legs trembling full of acid, grimacing, he peels off the bloody broken half toenail and dabs the wound with alcohol, and the pain pierces an opening inside him through which more tearful laughter escapes. Naturally he feels somewhat guilty about what he did, yet he will not deny that it felt good to ruin the evenings of the tyrannical assholes who loved dehumanizing innocent single men. Just a quick startle, no harm done. He was the one hurting. The only thing that bothers him is that he knows no one would condone what he did.
Years pass, all alike. Something goes wrong in the bathroom: it was not a levator spasm after all. His doctor repeatedly assures him it is not a death sentence but will require significant immediate changes to his lifestyle. The diagnosis clears his head like a window continuously opening. Finally it’s happened: they’ve killed him. He might as well be dead already. It is now certain he’ll never get the one thing he’s ever wanted. All because he internalized and accepted his unwantedness, languished too long in mealy-mouthed consolations, let himself be deceived into pitying those who would never pity him. Nothing can be done.
How, after decades of relentless refusal, can they ever recompense this silent androcide?Tweet
He’s never wanted to admit it, but with his hard-won lived experience and the stark authority of his disprivilege, he can declare that women in aggregate are just—wrong. That either they have failed feminism, or feminism has failed them. Yes, it’s complicated, and no, no woman in particular is to blame, but it’s irrefutable that in general, a preponderance of women harbor the very double standards feminism sought to eliminate and a narcissistic victim complex by which they tolerate and even solicit aggro misogyny in romantic partners, while relying on men of conscience to handle the emotional scut work. In his newfound online communities of narrow-shouldered men he finds life stories that align near unanimously with his, in the comments of blogs like The Empirical Agnate and Seneca’s Revenge, on message boards like Rationally Rude and NSOM (Narrow Shoulders / Open Minds), and while he disagrees with them about many things, they confirm that it isn’t just him: the problem is systemic.
Now that he is mostly confined to his bed, in one late-night tour of the NSOM forums, which he now moderates, he notices one thread attracting dozens of replies. Some outsider has discovered NSOM and has been admonishing the entire community. This has happened before, but never at such length:
Rep Power: 0
just found this board and I’m fucking obsessed yall. not even just by the misogyny, or the term-paper talk yall use to hide it. no, what’s mesmerizing is, no lie, I’m *one of you*. I’m 23 and a virgin, never had a gf or even a date, mostly just solo queue League and work at Staples. I stumbled across this place because I have real narrow shoulders, hell I’m built like a closed umbrella, and I’ve always wondered if other guys feel insecure about it too. I work out sometimes but I’m not crazy fit or anything and wish I were bigger. I think racist/sexist jokes are funny but I feel bad about it. so, probably like you.
then I come here and WOW. what happened, boys? I can’t lie that it isn’t nice to find other NS guys, but this place is like staring into a fucked up cursed mirror where the longer you stare at it the uglier you get, but it’s so fascinating you keep staring. go head and call me white knight / betafag / lib or whatever weak shit you got called in gym class in sixth grade. I’d rather die a sane virgin than fall for this mess.
maybe it’s more about what happened to me. maybe it’s bc I’m talking to a therapist and figured out some meds that work for me, or bc I have female friends (grew up with four sisters) or haven’t had my brain bleached by the internet as much. I’m not saying I’m better than any of yall, if I did I’d be the same as yall. so women either reject you or they don’t act 100% the way you want them to (the term for that is “slavery”). bottom line is nobody’s hurting or stealing anything from you. yall just hitched your psychosexual angst to your self-worth and it’s women’s fault somehow. however unfair you think it all is, you’re MAKING IT WORSE. hope yall logoff and find peace.
He scrolls down through the ensuing dogpile, watches seehawk1488 post memes of skinny guys labeled “OP” lifting two-pound weights, reads michaelJ_fux’s post “obvious radfem psy op piss off.” By the end of the thread, sweat is crawling through his hair. He feels that same flushed, hangdog supervisibility, that cleansing shame he would feel when being scolded by his QPOC friend or reading feminist literature that diagnosed his privileges and corrected his gaffes. He used to think, If a stranger can so accurately describe what I’ve thought without even knowing me, they must be right, and I should listen to them. Now he wants to do likewise for this online stranger, whose familiar and bracing conviction, uncompromised by experience, floods him with nostalgia. It’s painful seeing this poor chump misled, as he himself was, like a running dog about to hit the end of its leash. He feels a responsibility to awaken him to reality even if it’s too late for himself. Words appear as if pushed onto the screen from his eyes.
You may think you get me, he posts, but I’ve been you far longer than you have. I want to tell you about the reality of having lived four decades of silent virtuous pain and never asking to have your humanity and desirability recognized, he posts. It’s not that I haven’t done the intellectual labor to empathize with a broad spectrum of female perspectives, I’ve read Sanger and Friedan and MacKinnon and Dworkin and Firestone and Faludi and Winterson and Butler and Solanas and Schulman and hooks and Greer. I understand them, and they understand the viewpoint of the patriarchy—but what have they read to understand us? My entire life I’ve been nothing but useful to everyone else, especially women, so selfless that my entire self will evaporate without residue, with no one left to know what I’ve had to endure absolutely by myself. Think of all the times you’ve been ill, with no one to bring you soup. Those nights you wake up with no one to talk to. Every unshared apartment. Every expired condom. The couples laughing together and going home and fucking in every conceivable position: it will never be you. It will never be you. This is why you are wrong that they haven’t stolen from us: they’ve stolen our lives. Our future and the people in it. You will never have a woman, and you will never have a son. Women’s fucked-up preferences may have been ingrained there by the patriarchy, but women, as moral agents fully equal to men, are no less accountable for them. Me, I’ve done more than my part: I’ve combated misogyny both in the world and within myself, donated monthly to Planned Parenthood, marched and canvassed and forwarded emails for women’s rights, am commitment friendly, wealthy and successful, not ugly, in fact a solid eight from the neck up and nipples down, six-inch penis from base of shaft, high seminal motility, veritably a straight flush of stable-pair-bonding qualities, AND I have never ONCE catcalled, gaslit, interrupted, microaggressed, or mansplained, taking every single rejection in stride without any of the social support, shared costs, mutual care, inside jokes, pet names, intimate confessions, indeed any fond romantic memories whatsoever, none of the bliss of puppy love unspoiled by bitterness, nor the naive love that knows no betrayal, the trusting companionship that weathers hate and temptation, nobody waking up nestled in your elbow, no one to try new restaurants or take selfies or travel with, to say nothing of the conveniences, stability, or tax breaks enjoyed by the conjugal, on top of enduring the taboo stigma of bachelorhood; I’ve never complained, objected, or harassed anyone all these years no matter how cruel or senseless the rejection, if anything I enabled their rejections, and even kept a sense of humor about it, he posts. What’s worse is they want to pretend it’s not happening, or doesn’t matter, that’s right, they’re gaslighting YOU, just to absolve themselves of guilt, at the cost of our lives. By now my bachelorhood, and yours, cannot be ascribed to circumstance or indifference—only injustice. We can’t accept it anymore. Like my many female friends always used to say, nothing’s wrong with me, I’ve only asked for the same modest redamancy that everyone else, including chauvinists, liars, abusers, rapists, and low-IQ men, enjoy everywhere. I’d be the last to demand any special treatment for my still impeccable feminism, and to be sure, no specific woman is required to be attracted to us . . . but the fact that not one has been, out of billions, is proof of a categorical failure, a mass abrogation of the social contract by the legions of treacherous, evasive, giggling yeastbuckets, he posts. I have always, always been there for women; when have they ever been there for us? How, after decades of relentless refusal, can they ever recompense this silent androcide, the calamity of our suffocation?
He receives no reply. The stranger probably didn’t read his post. Examining what he’d written, scouring it with an unsparing eye toward logic and tone, he finds no error. He closes his laptop, surveys his dimmed room: humidifier, prescription bottles, weights he can no longer lift, bedside wastebasket full of phlegm-wadded tissues. It can’t happen again—all this nothing. The nothing that was made of words, the reading and discussing and journaling and posting he’s defined himself by, just wasted effort composing a wasted life. Words were only ever meant to underscore acts; they have no substance. Being correct is its own reward and no reward at all. He must commit himself to action, pull out the serrated knife that’s been in his chest for decades. Before he dies he must stop nothing from happening.
Weeks later, after some false starts, he is standing in the vestibule of his former favorite restaurant when a woman enters behind him, a short young twentysomething in a yellow smock with little pin-tucked ruffles, her collarbones lightly pied by sunburn. He stands aside to hold the door for her, and she thanks him. In spite of his resolution he smiles back and nods courteously at this small final vindication, before pulling on his mask, shrugging the backpack from his narrow shoulders, and following her in.