We worked and talked endlessly about things like balance.
The women’s magazines encouraged us to take initiative, to ask the guy out. Colleges were giving out condoms, not just to the men but to the women.
She had been trying to pass on her philosophies about dating for years, and to sum up her rules, they were this: Don’t. Here it is, presented in full, as I’m not even sure I understand it completely and perhaps you can help: It’s a story from her own youth, living in Rockaway, Queens, after she emigrated with her family from Israel. But I know by now she will only repeat the story because the lessons of it are obvious to her. She’d seen me through a lifetime of social interactions. J., wanting to know if I would be a good second wife for them, if I was “serious” about settling down, if I had a family history of infertility.
Whatever she was trying to convey to me, she had to know that I couldn’t pull it off, this subterfuge; I wasn’t her. I couldn’t stare contemptuously at a man and make him want me more. It was nothing like what I heard from a critical mass of my friends who were getting divorced.
It was a time when almost every single movie ended with a wedding, no iota of nuance to be found anywhere, even if the woman in the movie had just spent 83 minutes prior making a case as to why she didn’t want to be or shouldn’t be married.
It was a time when even subversive-seeming characters on “Sex and the City” could only be happy when they finally found husbands (except, of course, for Samantha, who was too much of a derelict to acquiesce and too old to have kids so what’s the point? It was a time when the Learning Annex featured seminars on how to find a husband in 30 days, and no kidding this seminar came with a CD to listen to while you slept.
The ’90s woman, confused by how her ambition was supposed to be compatible with her want for a family, nodded her head emphatically, her Rachel shimmering around her face.
We couldn’t make eye contact with a man, and to prevent too much eye contact, we had to walk around the room. In the sleeping-with-a-man rules, we had to work to not appear sex-crazed. The next morning, we had to go about our day and pretend we didn’t want to have brunch or spend the day together, lest we scare the poor bastard off.
There were “Rules” facilitators who were trained by programs run by the authors.
There was a dating journal (“Record your progress from first date to wedding date! “The Rules” took our two favorite vocations — our competitiveness and our common desire for a traditional home — and gave them room to intersect, as if they hadn’t already. Or even take the book’s authors’ somewhat squishy theories on feminism — which was what is more feministical than deciding who you want to marry and when and then being able to wrangle him with your wiles? But there were certain truths about men and women and no political movement, no matter how many waves, was going to change those things.
There were so many mixed messages, and the women I knew were at war to maintain their independence but also still traditional enough to think about the families they’d been engineered to want.
Had we alienated the men with all our independence?
He’s a goal object that has been studied for his trifling ways, analyzed and gamed. My mother loved the rules — each one of them except the ones concerning sleeping with a man. (She would not have considered a world in which a woman touched a man of her own volition.) Don’t call him. It didn’t occur to her that finding a husband was not the same thing as operating a successful marriage; that these things might actually be diametrically opposed. Her eyes are big and open and she is looking slightly upward. My mother sent her friend downstairs to the door with this message: That she say, “Yes? I’m here to pick up Daniella.” And the friend would look slightly bewildered and say, “Jerry? Still now she shudders with every personal essay I write. I couldn’t figure out how not to need, or to subvert my beta-need in order to get the alpha-need met. It’s about a man who is recently divorced and who, like every other divorcee who got married in the early aughts, is now dating for the first time through his phone.