I was in love once, and it was amazing. I was young and stupid and angry at the world for not handing over the silver platter I’d been promised, but the sound of her laugh was enough to make me want to sing about birds and sunrises. She was my reason for getting up in the morning and for going to bed at night. She became my wife and the mother of my children.
Then she became the bane of my existence. A broken heart is the kind of thing that can change the color of the entire world over-night and never set it right again. Everyone you meet from that point on is just another potential enemy waiting to happen.
I’m proud to say that I’ve moved on in my life. I’ve traveled the world, met many fantastic people, and finally returned to my home town a new man and a better father. Since then I’ve had my share of ups and downs, but nothing seems to slow me down for very long. For all the good and the bad that I’ve been through, I can honestly say that I’ve benefited from all of it in one way or another, even if it takes me years to realize it.
And then I started dating again. I’d had relationships after my marriage, but they’d happened almost by accident and were known to have a limited shelf-life from the very beginning. It wasn’t until I’d returned home that I decided to really make a go at finding someone to call a “partner” again.
In the beginning, I was more than overly-cautious about the idea. Even though I’d passed the threshold of having been divorced for longer than I was married, I still carried with me a whole spectrum of trust issues and hang-ups that would eventually lead me to harshly judge any woman I met based on the slightest (possibly even imagined) hint that she would be anything like my ex-wife. And even then, any girl I decided I liked was kept at arms length and reminded consistently that “this is not a relationship” for as long as she would put up with it. Some put up with it longer than others.
Over the span of two years I juggled multiple simultaneous relationships. I made a point to always be honest about my intentions and what I was up to, since I had long ago swore to myself to never do to anyone what my ex and her lovers did to me, and over time I felt that I had forged several true and lasting friendships with many wonderful people whom I was coincidently having sex with sometimes.
Getting this kind of attention can be addictive. I imagine this is how stand-up comedians feel when they get their first TV spot. It’s a sudden wash of validation and narcotic joy that you never want to end. Whenever a performer steps onto the stage with the sound of applause pushing through their every pore and they shout out “I want to make love to ALL of you!” I think to myself, I know exactly how you feel, pal.
I’ve heard all manner of arguments for and against carrying on in this manner. There are those who say romantic love and sexual attraction can no more be limited to a single person than any other form of friendship or familiar relationship. And there are others still who would say that’s all well and good, but it’s only a matter of time before you realize that you have a “favorite,” and their favorite is not you. Even the scientific community, everyone from Anthropologists to Zoologists, have argued over this for the better part of a century.
So what do I do when the world refuses to play along with my specific version of the Reindeer Games? What do I do when, despite my best efforts, I really start to fall for a girl? What happens when I find myself feeling those hypocritical twinges of jealousy whenever she spends time with someone else, even though I want to continue seeing others as well? How do I juggle the competing desires of not wanting my life to revolve around one person while wishing she was here all the time?
It works for us, this arrangement. We both know that part of that longing comes from not overwhelming each other, not becoming dependent on each other. “Only Wanting, not needing” is the one rule we’ve held each other to. I want her to be with me, but I don’t want to need her. And I want her to be with me because she wants to be, not because she thinks I need her to be.
This doesn’t mean our relationship is easier than anyone else’s. It’s normal for that want to be confused for need when it grows and grows. And even with all of our talk about being with others we find it so much more appealing to settle into each other, as much as that scares us both.
Everyone is looking for that magic formula that makes for a perfect coupling (or grouping) of partners and companions. Some people think they have all the answers and others refuse to even try at all. But what I’m learning is that there is no magic formula. Every person is different, and every combination of two people (or three, or four, etc) is exponentially different. The only thing that seems to be true in all of the long-lasting romances, friendships, and family ties is the effort. The people who don’t get lazy, who don’t get too comfortable in taking others for granted, and who make sure they always let the people around them know that they care, are the ones that have the strongest bond with their friends and loved ones.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I think that’s what is saving me right now. The fact that I freely admit that I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m willing to try almost anything to keep this going is probably what’s keeping it going. The fact that I treat it as something that grows and changes, has moods and phases, and not a marble statue that must be chiseled into definition and never altered is why it continues to grow.
For now I remain addicted to the affection and validation I get from anyone who will give me the time of day, and I don’t begrudge her for feeling the same way. But as the days go by, we spend more and more time escaping from the world with each other. Perhaps the day will come when we decided to take a vacation from the exhaustion of dating and courting and flirting with others, and let ourselves be lazy and cozy with each other for a little while. Maybe that vacation will never come, and maybe if it does it will never end. I’ve come to accept that I don’t know and I don’t really care.
That seems to be how this works. I can honestly say I don’t know, and it doesn’t scare me.
Looking back on what I’ve written here, I can see I rather lost my own point. I started out wanting to make a case for unconventional relationships of any kind, but I seem to have devolved into a ranting of how hopelessly yet happily lost I am in the relationship I have.
Maybe that is the point, I was making. I don’t know what to call what we are right now. Polyamorists? Swingers? In an Open Relationship? And maybe not having such a defined label to work with is just what is making this work so well. Conventionality and labeling failed me, as it’s failed so many and is not even an option for some. Now I’m in a relationship that has no predetermined set of standards or rules, just two people sharing their lives. This lack of dictation means a more attentive approach.
It’s gone on like this for over a year now, and it’s just as strong as it ever was. I have no intention of giving it up, but I’m looking forward to sharing it.
I will have to do it when there’s no one else in the house. I’ll probably have to get someone to take my son out for ice cream in order to have this private and uncomfortable chat with my eldest. I may try to ease the discomfort we will both undoubtedly be feeling by serving cookies or hot chocolate. But no matter how I try to frame it or phrase it, the message will have to be clearly communicated to my offspring in no uncertain terms. “Daughter,” I will say to her, because I actually do call her that. “It is essential…nay, it is imperative that you never, ever put a naked picture of yourself on the internet. Because, if you do, it is very, very likely that your daddy will see it. Neither of us wants that, do we?”
There was a time when the idea of taking a dirty picture of yourself was something that only the truly outrageous and wild at heart would ever dream of doing, and even then it was an intimate and private moment between you, your lover, and the one-hour photo booth guy.
I remember years ago seeing the in-depth 60 Minutes report that blew the lid off the scandalous practices of photobooth guys across the nation who actually had the power and the audacity to make a copy of your naked picture for himself! Oh the shock and horror! Such an unprecedented betrayal of a sacred trust, photobooth guy!
My daughter would never know that world, however. That all changed when she was still an infant, with the advent of the digital camera. Finally we no longer had to deal with the hassle of loading film or standing in line at the photomat in order to see our own genitalia from every possible angle.
That was the start if it. Those were the first snowflakes that began the long, slow drift down the mountain. It was mere months, not years, months before the inevitable evolution of this remarkable trend began to grow into the unstoppable juggernaut that it has become.
The first stampede came with the camera phones. It wasn’t enough that you could take a picture and have it appear on your computer, ready to be printed and relieved within seconds of the original occurrence. Now these magical image capturing devices were free! You didn’t need to be wealthy or a professional photographer to get your hands on these marvels of modern boudoir technology. All you needed was to sign a two-year contract, whatever that means.
Next came the social networking, where a picture of yourself became more than just a memory of a delighted moment. Now it was you. A picture of you became your identity. Your sigil. In the minds of many, your profile picture is more you than you are. And for some reason, a snapshot from your free camera phone, under dim fluorescent lights, in the bathroom mirror, was a perfectly acceptable alternative to finding a friend with a scanner.
From there the practice went viral. Millions upon millions of people the world over snapped photo after photo after photo of themselves. Bathroom mirrors. Bedroom mirrors. Dining room mirrors. Vanities, credenzas, rear-view mirrors, and even kitchen appliances. Whole websites were born, flourished, and crumbled under the weight of collecting, showcasing, and even critiquing your camera phone mirror pictures. It was a trend that had burst from the chest of the Internet with such fervor and tenacity that for a few years the bathroom mirror became the unofficial mascot if the Internet.
We were all so sure that this was a fad that would burn out as fast as it had begun. But no, it lives. It continues to be the go-to way to show off your new hairdo, party outfit, or successful efforts at weight loss. The years of asking our friends to take a picture for us is long gone, for the image of the photographic subject awkwardly holding the camera on their own hands has long since rid itself of it’s classless stigma.
What came next, of course, may not have actually come next. For all we know it may have been first, even if we’re only talking a matter of hours. It may be the next chicken or egg question to haunt the next thousand generations of deep thinkers. Which came first; the mirror shot, or the naked mirror shot?
We may never know which gave way to which, but we do know that the phenomenon of the naked mirror shot went from shameful deviance to mainstream act of empowerment faster than talking shit about celebrities in a dog grooming forum.
The question isn’t how this became so popular, that’s an easy and simple answer; because we liked it. We reacted to it, we rejoiced in it, we begged for more, and as our demand grew greater, so did the willingness to fill that demand.
The question is why? Why does this simple little image appeal to us so. Why does a clumsy snapshot under bad lighting with stained wallpaper in the background make the 13-year-old boy in my head squeal with glee?
Is it that same appeal that attracts us to the “girl next door,” that assumption that the girl in the mirror is more real than the girl in the magazine? Is it the raw sexuality of a girl who’s dropped all pretense and just wants to be seen as a sexual being? Is it that ever-so-slight hint of fantasy that this is a girl who might have just the right set of poor decision making skills to be attracted to a guy like me?
While all of these things are true, and probably helping to further the cause, I think the real reason is her smile. It’s only there for a moment, but it’s captured for an eternity in that picture. It isn’t the same “smile for the camera” smile that she’s used for every other picture taken of her before. It is a smile says something entirely different. It is a smile that says that for one breif moment, she looked at herself and liked what she saw. So few of us are allowed the privilege of that moment, and fewer still to see it happen in others.
It doesn’t matter what the origin is behind that picture. Maybe she took the picture and put it online herself in order to get attention from the huddled, unwashed masses that is the internet. Maybe it was at the request of an untrustworthy lover who wasted no time in copying the picture to everyone he knew in a gorilla-like act of chest-thumping pride. Or maybe she just needed to know if she had the nerve to go through with it. There’s no telling what brought her to that moment of carrying out this premeditated act of defiant self-adoration, but the undeniable fact is that for a singular moment in time and space she was smiling the most honest smile of her life. It’s a smile that says “Right now, I like me.”
A woman that looks in the mirror and likes what she sees is perhaps the rarest thing in the world these days, and it is the one thing in the world that we are all aching to see. We all like to talk about the details we think are important, like hair color, eye color, body type, bust size, sense of humor, creative aspirations, career path, agreeability, independence, affection, respect, or cheek bones, but these things are as changeable and negotiable as the weather. The truth is that what we find attractive in a woman are the very things that she finds attractive in herself. It is her own self-love that we want to be close to, to touch, to love. We love women exactly as much as they love themselves and for the briefest of moments that girl in the mirror is wholly in love with herself.
No amount of makeup can cover, fake, or fix that. No amount of lighting can enhance or detract from that. No backdrop can compare to it, no props can translate it. When she looks at her own naked body and smiles, that smile is the sexiest thing any of us will ever set eyes upon.
So what do I say to my daughter? How do I tell my baby girl that she is beautiful and she should never be ashamed of her body, but for the love of Batman don’t upload it?
Like I said, it is a message that must be clearly communicated to her but I have no idea how I’m going to get through it. And worst part is, even after I’ve worked through that obstacle, my daughter and I have come to an understanding, and we agree to never speak of this again; then comes the next, even more uncomfortable part of the conversation, when I ask her to pass the message on to her friends.