The Rulez Part Deux
In 1929, Bronislaw Malinowski published The Sexual Life of Savages. Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist, was an early pioneer of ethnographic field work. He (or perhaps his publisher) also knew how to title a book to move it off the shelves, but that's neither here nor there. Malinowski's Trobriand islanders are gone now. Even in 1929, you could have legitimately asked how closely Malinowski's analysis corresponded to reality -- ethnographer bias, and all that lot. Nowadays, his work lies somewhere between history and fantasy. I mention this because I'm about to do a mini-Malinowski: report on the sexual mores of a culture as described to me by one informant (yes, I'm sure M had several) regarding a people long since transformed by time and history: the French, circa 1955. Furthermore, I'm remembering this conversation twenty-two years later. How accurate is this? The sexual proclivities of Tolkien's elves may have a firmer basis in reality. My informant: Jean Verdi, whom I introduced you to yesterday. Jean couldn't score with New York City women. He couldn't make up his mind whether American women followed different rules, or perhaps no rules at all. (That's my vote.) Here's how things used to work -- and work well -- for Jean. I'll invoke dramatic license here and concoct a bit of dialog. I'll spare you my attempt to convey a French accent. Imagine Peter Sellers doing Clouseau.JV: You would find everywhere the game, the interaction. At market, in the park, at a bookstore; wherever men and women came together, always you would find assessment. A look, a meeting of eyes: that's how it began. DH: That first look meant a lot? JV: It meant nothing. The second look, that meant a lot. Would her gaze linger? Would she risk a half-smile? Would she look at you at all? The second look meant everything and nothing. DH: I don't get it. JV: Nothing, because the woman could abandon it at any time -- or the man. Everything, because without that second look, nothing else could follow. DH: I see. So when do they go out? JV: Not yet! Imagine that they are in a bookstore. Perhaps the man tries for a third look; or perhaps, emboldened by her smile, he chances a word or two. "Excuse me," he might say, "do you know where I could find the poetry* section?" Do you see? She can cut things off in a flash with a simple No. DH: Wait. What if she's interested in him, but she doesn't know where to find the poetry? JV (grinning broadly, since now he sees me for the dumbass I truly am): Simple. She would say, "I don't know, but I'm looking for it, too." So then they would talk -- DH: And he asks her out to dinner? JV: No! That would be assuming far too much. DH: Uh huh . . . JV: They would talk first about anything but dating. All the while, they ask themselves: is the other intelligent? Witty? A buffoon? And at any moment, either one can end things immediately. "I'm sorry, I have a bus to catch." DH: I'm still waiting for him to ask her out. JV: There are many meetings first, and these meetings need not be arranged as a 'date'. He might mention in passing that he's at this bookstore, at this time, every Thursday. "I like to come here on my lunch hour on Thursdays," he might say. "That's when they put up the new displays." Then it's up to her to show up next week . . . if she chooses. DH: And then he asks her out to dinner? JV: No! Then he asks her whether she'd like to go to the cafe -- DH: For dinner? JV: For coffee. Many, many coffees before dinner. They are getting to know each other. More conversation, more sharing of experience. It need never go past coffee, but it could proceed to -- DH: Dinner? JV: Lunch. And if lunch goes well, then he might ask her to dinner; and, if she says yes, then he knows that afterwards, he will fuck her for certain.Okay, so maybe Jean didn't phrase it exactly that way. The point is, at each step of the way, both the man and woman knew where they stood. "Things are coming along nicely" meant something. There were rules. If there are any rules here in the US, no one clued me in. Well, that's not quite true. When I was nine, my sixteen-year-old brother informed me that if I could put my hand on a girl's naked ass, she would let me ball her -- that's what they used to call it back then. (I later found out this wasn't true, but that's another story.) Not long after, this same brother told his high school girlfriend they were getting too serious -- after they'd been having sex for a long time. So you can imagine what a reliable source of information he was. Have I given you the impression this is all about sex? Probably, because from a guy point of view it's more fun that way. But I suspect that if Jean's world really existed, some guys (and probably some gals) played the game with sex as the endpoint, while others sought love. I also suspect both types of players got very good at figuring out who was who. The French rules left little room for misunderstanding (assuming no psychos, naturally). Your turn. Think back to your courting days. Did you have any idea what you were doing? Did anyone give you guidance (however misguided)? Or did you, like me, pull the rules out of your ass as you went along? D. *These were Frenchmen, after all.