I sat on my terrace the other night with a gigantic mug of Sleepytime herbal tea and tried in vain to ignore the incessant chirping of crickets who I’m convinced were somehow given microphones by Mother Nature before any of us got to vote on such a matter. Pressing my phone tightly to my ear, I pretended I didn’t hear the workings of the vocal cords of bugs and chatted instead with a friend of mine.
“Here’s what I’ve decided I find interesting about your writing,” she said. Her voice was steady just then, careful almost – as though she was still thinking through what she was about to say. “I love how you can write about something that could be construed as depressing, like the passage of time or hiding emotions from other people or from yourself or something like that, but the way you craft your words makes the whole thing come off as thoughtful and introspective but never full-on sad. I really respect that quality.”
“That’s probably the best thing I could hear,” I told her. “Because I do write about exploring conflicted emotions and about trudging through days where it always feels like the world is pitch-fucking-black, but it doesn’t mean that any of it just makes me sad. Sadness is obviously be a component, but it’s never the only component, and I’m really happy to hear that you’re responding the way I guess I hoped people would.”
(Here’s the actual truth: I never think about how anyone will respond to something I’ve written because I don’t allow myself to think about such a thing. If I did, I’d be way more inhibited about what I share and how I present the story and I don’t like to feel inhibited in anything – especially writing. I throw my stuff out there and as far as I’m concerned, the process for me is done the moment I hit “publish.” Will everybody respond to my writing in the same positive way as my friend did? No. Do I care about how someone I have never met views my prose? Not even a little bit. Like it or don’t; it really shouldn’t impact either of us all that much.)
But something I found very interesting in the conversation I had with my friend was the direction it moved next. She told me that a guy she’s known forever recently sent her a piece of writing. He’s been a songwriter for a gazillion years and he’s had some success and I have watched the guy play in dark bars and he and my friend have been close for a very long time now and this isn’t the first time he’s tried some lyrics out on her. It is, however, the first time that she told me that she has never really liked his writing.
“Why not?” I asked her.
“It’s not that it’s bad,” she explained. “It’s just so fucking generic. Like, he uses the kind of metaphors anyone would use. ‘Love feels like a roller coaster’ and shit like that. I just wish he would maybe be more original.”
“Did you ever tell him that?” I asked, and I asked the question knowing full well just how shitty it sometimes feels to get what the outside world decides to term “constructive criticism” that really just feels like you’re being kicked in the teeth by someone’s indelible red pen. I asked the question knowing that I’ve already made it clear to myself that caring about the reactions of others is a fool’s game.
“Nell,” she said patiently, “he is a tortured soul wandering around in the body of a musician whose songs should only appear on a compilation CD that’s sold at Starbucks. Hearing criticism will make him want to swan dive heart-first off the top of the metaphorical love roller coaster.”
“You’re funny,” I told her. (That right there is my favorite compliment to both give and receive.)
“I am,” she blurted back with a throaty laugh.
I got off the phone with her that night and I thought about the guy she was talking about and about how words can be so powerful and potent sometimes and then seem completely trite at other times and how it’s all about the sequencing of those words and the emphasis you put on some of them and the structure and the style that can change how someone reacts. I also started to really contemplate the ways in which I have discussed my own experiences and emotions and how hard it can be to not just go for a glide on the slick surface of a cliché to get my point across. Still, the reason a cliché becomes a cliché in the first place is because there’s something simple and easily relatable to it and maybe it’s not always such a bad thing to toss in a cliché if what you’re attempting to do is get someone out there to have a moment of pure catharsis through your work.
That musician guy Steve equated love to a roller coaster. Me? I’ll dive into the cliché pool too and I’m swimming right into the deep end where, instead of playing Marco Polo, I’m gonna go ahead and compare love to the ocean. Original, right? The sentences all but write themselves here and that ease makes me feel like a fraud, but here’s the other thing: just because I’m communicating via cliché doesn’t mean that any of what I’m saying isn’t true. After all, the feelings I sometimes have are often wave-like. There’s the sweeping of emotion. There’s the building of a peak. There’s the calmness after the break. And it’s during that stillness when I feel like I might be drowning.
I don’t do well with stillness, at least not with the stillness of others. I need a back and forth momentum, a swell that feels unrehearsed. I crave the surprise of an undertow, the exhilaration of the tide coming in and going back out again. Like being caught inside of an undulating current, I sometimes want to be turned upside down.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy consistency too. I spoke to a guy from work recently who I don’t see all that often. He just started seeing someone and I told him to make sure that he was staying in contact with her now that his days were no longer filled with leisure like they had been all summer. “Even just an ‘I’m thinking of you’ text will reassure her,” I told him. “When you care about someone and it’s new, sometimes a change in that person’s schedule feels almost scary since you don’t yet know how the person will react to the changes. Make her realize that nothing has changed.”
“Are you saying things should always be like they are in the beginning?” he asked. There was almost an edge to his voice; there was certainly an inflection of surprise.
“No, I’m not saying that,” I responded. “Nobody can constantly keep up the highs of those initial days and newness wears off. But what I am saying is that you should always make her realize that you’re thinking about her.”
To that comment, he sort of nodded and I could tell that he felt uncomfortable talking about any of it, even though he brought it up in the first place. I like this guy, though. He’s smart and I’m just starting to realize that he’s kind of funny and I didn’t want to look like I was intruding in his life. I just wanted to look out for some girl I don’t know, but knowing her or not, I’d bet she craves calmness mixed with some excitement, the kind of feelings that make something inside of her flutter.
There have been two times in my life where, before a first date, I thought I was actually going to be sick. The flutters went from exciting to nausea-inducing quicker than I could shove down some Saltines. I’m not talking hyperbolically here; I literally thought I was going to vomit both times. Once I was in a car and driving through Queens to get to the city and a drenching of anxiety-created sweat spread through me like a flash and I started to shake and knew that I could tip over the contents of my purse – which would mean makeup and gum and hair bands and chargers would go spilling onto my front seat – and throw up in there or I could do some of the deep breathing exercises that I usually only do to get through the hardest parts of my workouts when my muscles begin to burn in ways that just feels wrong. I chose the breathing option instead of the ruin-my-purse option and I got through that episode okay and I really thought I would never experience something like that ever again, but then it happened this summer too.
“You’re just nervous,” I whispered to myself. “You will not get sick right now. You will sip seltzer through a straw so you will not ruin your lip-gloss. You have just cleaned your bathroom and your makeup is perfect and you will not fuck any of that up.” And so I didn’t.
The strange thing is, I think I enjoy the frantic feelings of those moments more than I enjoy the serene calmness of the days that follow. I’m not and have never been someone who enjoys sheer chaos, but I really respond to constant motion. I used to actually like the feeling of spinning I’d have when I was really drunk, and though I haven’t had the spins for years, I remember them almost fondly. It meant the night involved excitement and probably a little bit of delusional thinking and that was fun for a while. It was obviously way less fun the next day, but then again, so many things are way less fun after they have already happened.
I suppose that part of growing up and finally and fully growing into yourself is figuring out what it is that you want and who you want to get those things from. With my friends, I crave something steady. I want loyalty and some much-required tough love heaved my way by someone hilarious. (Back in the day, I also gravitated towards friends who were my size so we could share clothing, but that kind of benefit no longer matters when you’re not living in a house together and the likelihood of me driving across town to borrow a sweater or the perfect strapless bra – which I’m convinced does not actually exist – is rather slim.) From my family, all I really want is support and empathy and love and some space. They know me well enough to know that sometimes I just want to be alone and they can go ahead and take such a need personally, but they shouldn’t because it’s not about them at all. I’m just a girl with some flaws and one of them is the pressing need I have to want to hibernate every now and again. But from the men I’m interested in? Well, then I want it all. And yes, saying such a thing does make me feel like Veruka Salt, like I’m a coddled child stuck inside the maze of a candy factory demanding shit like a goose made out of platinum, but at least I’m wearing a better dress than she wore during her tantrum.
What do I want? I want what everybody wants. Are these cravings not clichés?
I want a man who can quote Tarantino movies, knows that Leonardo DiCaprio has yet to win an Oscar, forgives me for loving slasher films, and believes that having Netflix is more essential than having oxygen.
I want somebody who has some respect for my work as a teacher and champions my desire to keep writing.
I want somebody who actually reads my writing.
I want someone who looks very similar to either an animal or a rock star so I can describe him easily to others without always having to yank out a picture because I can never find my phone when I need it.
I definitely cannot be with someone who is very religious – even if it’s my religion – but I will cook and bake for every single one of his holidays because I respect both him and dessert equally.
I refuse to be with someone who thinks that Seinfeld wasn’t funny, that Lost was a waste of time, and that Lisa Vanderpump from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills shouldn’t start her very own religion where I will serve as her head altar girl and worship at her pedicured feet.
If he texts to ask me if I’ve seen a movie, I want it to either be something I have never seen that piques my interest or a movie that makes me smile upon seeing its title because what that tells me is this guy has taste similar to mine and I have already spent far too many years watching shitty movies out of a misguided notion I believed was love. In the last month or so, I’ve gotten two of those movie texts. One guy asked me if I have seen Brian’s Song. I have. It’s a great movie. It’s kind of the ideal male weepy and it didn’t shock me in the slightest that this guy has seen and loved it and wanted to know if I’ve seen it too. A different guy texted to ask me if I’ve ever seen Apocalypse Now and I saw that text and that time I smiled instead of just nodded because that’s a film that I’ve thought about so deeply that it all but owns real estate in my mind and I’ve read about six books on the making of that film. That movie challenged me. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I need a guy to challenge me too, one who actually really wants me to challenge him right back. A lot of guys think they want to be challenged – and many of them are lying to themselves.
I want a guy who, when asked how old he was when he lost his virginity, doesn’t respond with “I don’t remember,” because bullshit, you remember, and more than pretending that you don’t remember is the oddity that you think that you should pretend to forget such a thing.
I want a guy who never tries to get me to wear flats but still commiserates with the pain my feet go through as I willingly shove them into heels for hours at a time. I also think I should find me a guy with a foot fetish because at least then he’ll rub those throbbing toes of mine. And if he needs to be in a leather suit with a ball gag in his mouth while it’s happening, I won’t judge and try to get him to wear a more breathable fabric instead.
I want a guy who likes his family but can admit when they’re acting like crazy people. I was with someone for a long time who always maintained that it was totally normal that his parents slept in separate bedrooms. I get that snoring is an issue – I have seriously contemplated in the darkness of the night whether or not I should suffocate a few men I have truly loved for the very same offense – but I always hoped that my boyfriend would see the two bedroom thing as weird and he never did. As a result, he and I now sleep in two separate bedrooms – and in two separate houses.
I want someone I can trust, someone I can say anything to and not worry that any part of me will feel violated. I second-guess people; there is a part of me that is and will probably always remain cynical about the motives of others, but there is still maybe nothing more intimate than knowing you can say to someone, “I’m only telling this to you.”
I need to be with someone who has had a bit of a tawdry past but is looking to live a calmer present. I should be clear here, lest someone think that I only adore men who spent their twenties splayed out across bathroom floors or someone once crowned the King of Debauchery on a way-too-prototypical Spring Break excursion to Cabo. I’m not interested in a crazy person, but I am also never interested in someone who hasn’t sowed some oats and then all but turned those oats into a fucking muffin before eating it in one perfect gulp. The oat sowing doesn’t necessarily have to involve any of the standard stuff (women, drugs, whatever), but I want to know the guy has lived and wants to keep living a modified life of adventure. I fear that I will never be able to remove from my memory the moment when someone I thought I might really like told me he had never seen a concert in his entire life. The guy was in his early thirties and had never seen a band play live in a stadium. He had never once raised a lighter or a phone so he could contribute to the place’s illumination. He had never tried to sneak backstage or thrown his phone down in disgust after trying unsuccessfully to get tickets to a show. I knew in that moment that he would never sell a kidney to try to get me Springsteen tickets and I knew in the next moment that I wouldn’t so much as let him hold my hand.
I want a man who loves to go out for dinner and likes cuddling up in bed and binge-watching TV shows. I want a man who knows damn well I can lift something myself but wants to do it for me. I want someone who never inquires about how many black dresses I own and whether or not I need another. I want a man who can veer in a conversation from cerebral to ultra-flirty at the drop of a thong.
I want someone who makes me feel like I am intoxicating.
I want someone who thrills me like a roller coaster and envelopes me like the ocean.
I want someone who is not at all a fucking cliché.
Nell Kalter is the author of the books Student and That Year, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.