Zebra and a Boy by Jahar Dasgupta
I write to you from a coffee shop in the middle of the day where I am thinking about my friendships with men. I have many close female friends and many close male friends, but the male friends all have a similar pattern for how they came to be in my life. One is an ex that broke up with me right before Covid hit. It didn’t make sense to stop going for hikes when we were thrown into isolation. We’ve stayed in touch despite him moving to a different city and despite me wondering whether we should get back together. After 10 fun days visiting him recently (and, unrelated, being shut down when I ever-so-casually mentioned that having sex would be fun) I sadly think it's unlikely to work. It's a long story, but I'm sure he doesn't want it to either, a fact that is...kind of important. While I know I’ll be extremely sad when he starts dating someone new, for now, the friendship is so special to me. An example: We have this silly joke together that we each have custody of one of two “blanket siblings” which we pretend are our children with complex lives — I sent him a book about a ghost who is a quilt yesterday and he called me before bed so we could read it aloud to our blanket children. It was hilarious and also adorable and I know this is dumb but how can I stand to lose that?
The next friend is actually a friend of his that I got to know well when we were all locked inside. We talk and hang out all the time, and make each other laugh like no one else can. While I’ve never been super attracted to him, I did tell him a few months ago that I was starting to develop feelings and wanted to kiss him one night. He told me he was flattered but didn’t think we were the right fit and was scared of ruining our friendship. I felt horrible but eventually got over it.
A third I met on a date a few years ago. He told me that he didn’t think we were a good match but wanted to be friends. In a mini-rage, I texted him immediately to say that I’d LOVE to be friends, mostly because I was so sure he would never take me up on it. He did, and he’s been one of my closest friends ever since, a real gem of a human.
Here’s the thing. Whether or not I have feelings for these guys is actually somewhat unrelated to the waves of insecurity I occasionally feel in their presence. I know they love me and would do anything for me. When I got in a car accident this summer, they were the first ones to drop everything and rush over. But sometimes when I’m sitting across from them at dinner and they’re lamenting the woes of trying to find a partner, I can’t help but think that I, indeed, match most of what they’re looking for. So, what the fuck? My mind goes to one of two places: Either they don’t find my attractive (I’m honestly pretty cute but am a size 10 compared to the size 2 women they’ve all dated in the past), or I’m too anxious and not enough of the laid-back-athletic-pixie-dream-girl they’re looking for.
If I were to cut any of these men out of my life, it would devastate me. But sometimes I fantasize about dramatically telling each of them that they’re insane for not seeing the magic in me and also to fuck right off forever.
I should mention that I am 33, and lost my brother tragically when I was in college. It wouldn’t be crazy to assume that losing him has made it harder to let go of close relationships with charismatic, funny, kind men who remind me of him and care for me deeply. And yes, I very much want to get married and have kids, and try my hardest to date, but mostly end up broken up with. That’s a whole ‘nother letter.
For now I wonder — do I need to get over myself and the idea that everyone should want to marry me or else be punished? Or do I need to stop allowing space in my life for people who have the potential to make me feel romantically insecure?
Dear The Friend,
Who are these strange men who only date a size 2? How did you find three of them in a row? Is it the ‘80s again? Is that why I’m wearing a bright purple and aqua Esprit sweatshirt and humming Hall and Oates lyrics? You’re out of touch, I’m out of time, but I’m out of my head when you’re not around.
I was boy crazy in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I took the ‘00s and ‘10s off so I could focus on other shit. Now it’s the ‘20s and I’m what’s best described as man crazy, since I don’t notice anyone under the age of 35. My current surge of love for men is almost nostalgic, though. I forgot their function for a solid decade and now I remember it. Sadly, no one wants to talk about my brain’s new hobby with me. It’s unseemly for a married woman to talk about how unexpectedly hot men can be. Everyone assumes I’m about to burn my life to the ground, just because my eyeballs enjoy old man candy.
It’s not like I can’t discriminate! I’m picky! Every now and then my eyeballs focus on a man and maybe he reminds me of an ex. Maybe he has that certain blend of swagger and self-deprecation I always loved. Maybe he talks about his passions and it gets abstract and then it’s just vowels and syllables, scattering on the ground, but he’s still so pretty, so I keep listening! Maybe he’s extra simple but he just started lifting weights again, and it shows.
I’m shallow. It’s a brain hobby so I’m allowed to be. My imagination wants pretty things to play with.
This is my problem with where you are right now. It’s not the man friendships. I think those are healthy and natural and they teach you how to get along with and appreciate the peculiarities of men – and that includes how simple and repetitive men can be. It’s important to know what you’re getting into, as a man lover. If you might marry a man someday, you should know that they’re all unbelievably defensive, they all shut down when you tell them they’re wrong about something, and sometimes they’re even the most stubborn and dickish when they’re THE MOST WRONG! I mean how broken is that?
It’s important to know that most men (not all men, motherfuckers!) are a tiny bit simple, and the happier they are, the more simple they become. Complex men are often unhappy men. You can fight me on this, but I’ll win. Simple men are sometimes a better bet, because they’re happier and therefore less likely to make their complicated inner turmoil about you. A woman in turmoil might find sustenance and shelter in a man, but a man in turmoil tends to turn that turmoil against a woman. This is really about vulnerability, and how our crappy culture rejects fragility in men. Men know this so they get defensive when they’re tossed around by complicated emotions, and then they like to decide that you’re the problem instead.
Simple men are happier. And I think that’s what you already like: Simple, happy, hot men. If your brother was simple and happy (I’m sorry about your brother!), then that’s part of the reason why you associate joy with these men. But you need to understand that if these simple men get happier and happier, they’ll only get simpler and simpler from there, until all they can talk about is meat and car engines. Or baseball and David Lynch. Or surfing and seafaring novels. Or poetry and pot. It’s almost like you’re at an ice cream place that has the best flavors but you can only choose two. That said, this simplicity can come in handy when you need your man to do a simple thing that you deeply don’t want to do. Men sometimes do simple favors without making it difficult the way women do.
Sorry, I have to boil everything down to gender in this column. It’s the fucking ‘80s, remember?
But perhaps the most important thing you need to know about men, that you’re learning right now via your man friendships, is that if you try to convince them to feel something, THEY WILL FEEL THE OPPOSITE WAY IMMEDIATELY. For this reason, you can’t convince a man friend to sleep with you because it’ll be fun. A real man friend won’t go for that, because he already believes that he won’t enjoy it as much as he’s supposed to SINCE YOU WERE TRYING TO SAY HE WOULD ENJOY IT. The second you say, “I want this, you’ll like it, too!” he is thinking I WON’T LIKE IT ENOUGH. It’s not about hotness. It’s about how you present yourself and treat yourself in his presence, and also about how simple and defensive and paranoid men are about not feeling the things you want them to feel.
So when you say to one of your man friends “Hey, I have some feelings” or “Why not fool around?” they immediately imagine themselves sleeping with you (that sounds good, because sex!) and then not liking it enough (because she wants you to like it! scary!) and then avoiding you (because pressure!) and then feeling like dirtbags (because she was a real friend but now she realizes you’re empty inside, and you’re also an opportunistic dirtbag who fucked her for no reason at all!).
(Please note: Men are not inherently simple from day one. They become simple because they believe the shame-based lie that they’re empty and simple. They’re taught that survival necessitates ignoring their own complexity.)
It’s so important to know how man brains work. You only get this knowledge by being boy crazy or man crazy and also a tiny bit intense. But you also have to calm the fuck down and notice things. Because the most crucial thing about studying and also loving men is this: You cannot take their very simple brains and their bad math and their fear of feelings and pressure personally. You cannot INTERNALIZE their weird, flimsy reasons for only dating size 2s. You cannot witness their (apparent, not proven) void of attraction to you and assume that YOU’RE THE CAUSE OF THAT VOID - YOUR GROSSNESS, YOUR SCARY SIZE 10-NESS, YOUR PUSHINESS, YOUR FRAGILE FEELINGS!
Taking a man’s feelings for you personally is like walking around the zoo feeling snubbed by all the animals who won’t talk to you in English, about Nietzsche. When you sit down with a man friend and you start to feel like you’re not hot enough for him, you need to say to yourself: This zebra has not read Nietzsche and does not speak English.
Once you realize you’re trying to hold a graduate-level seminar on Nietzsche for a bunch of zebras, you’ll stop taking these guys and their very simple feelings so seriously. And when that happens, WATCH OUT BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL GOING TO WANT A PIECE OF YOUR ACTION IMMEDIATELY.
Sorry that was a spoiler, please forget I said that.
I have a friend who has no idea how men work. (Ha ha, that’s like not knowing how a cup works!) She should know how men work by now. But she’s not the kind of person who sits around listening to men say words like I do. Men are mysterious to her. (Ha ha, that’s like finding a coffee mug mysterious!) So at one point I had to say to her, “Dude, all men are a tiny bit avoidant. Even when they’re also anxious and needy and need reassurance! They can be following you around, whining about how much they love you, and if you turn and say, ‘Okay, wow, I’m in! Let’s do this!’ they’re going to panic a tiny bit. They’re going to wonder if they made a mistake almost immediately.”
YOU CAN’T TAKE THAT PART PERSONALLY. You have to bite your tongue and sit on your hands and say to yourself, These animals don’t live in the same emotional habitat as me.
It’s not because men are evil. Most men are not evil. They’re just under constant pressure to feel things they can’t feel. They were trained not to feel things. They were formed into a simple mug that holds water. Now everyone wants the mug to dance the tango. IT’S NO FAIR!
This might be a good time to urge you to date women if that’s an option. But if that’s not an option, if you’re as straight as the day is long, then here’s the key to dating men: 1) Understand how flinchy they are about love and feelings, accept it, and don’t take it personally, and 2) Love the living shit out of yourself first, last, and always.
I am not saying PRETEND TO LOVE YOURSELF. I am not saying NEVER BE ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT A MAN. I’m not saying LECTURE HIM ON HOW GREAT YOU ARE AND HOW YOU CAN DO WAY BETTER THAN HIM. I’m saying truly love yourself. I’m saying never try to convince a man that you’re attractive. I’m saying KNOW that you can do better at any time. When you know that, you *can*.
So, listen. Enjoy your little ranch filled with zebras all you want. But recognize that they’re zebras. You are not allowed to stand around in the corral, reading Nietzsche out loud. Love and respect the zebra for what it is. Observe its limits and irritations. Be a realist.
Remember how I said that my imagination wants pretty things to play with? That’s how you are, too. You’re choosing to befriend extremely pretty, slightly avoidant men who are working with a rigid view of hotness they picked up from what, old issues of Playboy? Porn? I mean, size 2? Are we sure that’s their thing or is it your fixation?
Either way, these are reasonably good guys who are sure that having sex with you will hurt your feelings, because you signal to them that you are very, very invested in what they think of you. Why do you do this? It’s not just because you falsely believe that you’re not beautiful enough as a size 10. It’s also because YOUR IMAGINATION WANTS PRETTY THINGS TO PLAY WITH. You collect attractive, confident men. That’s your hobby. Then you like to imagine that they might fall in love with you. That’s your brain’s hobby.
That’s fine! Brains need hobbies! Passion is good for you! Fantasy is fun! But if you want to attract men and seduce them (Yes, it’s a real thing! Legitimate activity! People hate seduction so much these days, because they’re boring and stupid!), you need a new fantasy, a fantasy where you’re the star and the man is just some double-scoop ice cream cone, and as hungry as you are, eventually what you’ll get is soccer and Murakami novels, or video games and horticulture, all day long. You can’t build a whole life around that shit! You need more!
So instead of believing, “I am too insecure and too large to be loved!” it’s time to believe this: “Some man will be eating straight out of my hot hands sooner than I can possibly imagine, because I’m funny and endlessly interesting and enthusiastic and fun and I’m luminous, full stop.”
Don’t say that out loud. Don’t walk around telling your friends, HE’S AN IDIOT IF HE DOESN’T LOVE ME! He’s not an idiot, he’s just a zebra. He might love you once you scrape his pretty face out of your imagination enough to treat him like the zebra he is. That doesn’t mean condescendingly. It means realistically.
When you treat a zebra like a zebra, the zebra feels understood and loved. Finally, he’s free to be himself. You accept his limits. Or you don’t. Maybe he’s too limited! Zebras love it when you walk away, thinking they’re too limited! It makes them want to learn English and read Nietzsche, just to impress you!
But forget that part.
You need to live in the moment, this moment, in reality. In order to do that, you need (SOMEWHAT PARADOXICALLY!) to turn yourself into the new pretty thing inside your own imagination! That’s not delusional, either. It’s you reprogramming yourself, cleansing your brain of all the shame and insecurity our culture installed there. Your new fantasy is also reality. Because you already deserve love and affection. You don’t have to fix anything. You just need to see reality through clear eyes. You need to stop telling yourself you don’t really understand Nietzsche just because your zebras don’t like lectures.
You’re the one who decides what you are. Men go along with whatever you decide.
So befriend whoever you want, but stop filling your imagination with fantasies where you’re not the protagonist. And if you’re the perfect, welcoming listener to a few self-involved dudes, notice that. If you’re just a cheerleader to them, pay attention. Enjoy them for who they are, but notice how you act around them.
Consider how you want to live, long-term. What sort of zebra will make you happy? Are zebras really the main event in this picture? If not, why are they the main event inside your brain? Who are you, without your zebras? What do you love? Do your zebras even know what you love? Do you?
Sometimes surrounding yourself with hot men who won’t fuck you is just another way of procrastinating what you really want to do with your life. You’ve created a compelling distraction for yourself. Maybe you’re afraid of the future. There’s something you want much more than a man, but the stakes are too high. Maybe you love the escape of filling your head with hotness at the exact moment in your life when you should be herding your truest desires in some worthwhile direction.
It’s nice to have a good, secure, affectionate man in your life, don’t get me wrong. But they tend to show up when you’re busy with something slightly more important than that. When they show up and they know what makes you special, and you’re busy with something else that’s important to you, guess what? You don’t doubt their feelings. You don’t worry a lot or try to convince them of things. You just take their love and enjoy it. You’ve already decided who you are. They are more than happy to go along with it. More than happy. As in THRILLED.
Men need strong, gentle leaders. Be a leader and you’ll get a man. Or many men. Size has nothing to do with it. Oh, except for this part: Find a bigger dream.
Thank you for being here! Ask Polly publishes twice a week for subscribers, so:
Heather you just performed the Double-Triple Havrilesky Spin Flip---you leapt between decades, genders, personas and landed on you feet at the end. A marvel!
Well, this gave me a visceral flashback to my most painfully single days when I tried it on with many of my (hot, funny, intelligent!) male friends. Hey, we get on great and I'm horny/afraid I'll be alone forever so obviously we should fool around! So casual, no problems, what's the big deal?? Hahaha. Ha.
Thank God they all awkwardly turned me down. We would never have made each other happy long-term or even short-term. Yeesh. That became pretty obvious when I met more suitable dating partners, but it's still a lot of hindsight talking there. Dating sucks!
As an inveterate lover of dudes I don't think it's easy to stop taking every whiff of attraction you feel seriously, but you can definitely stop taking men's opinions of female attractiveness seriously. I'm also reminded of an old Ask Polly where she compares men to a bichon frise instead of zebras but the analogy holds - who cares about the opinions of men you don't actually want to get with? That's like caring about the opinions of zebras/livestock/passing dogs. There will always be more hot men because men are hot and they're all over the place, being hot, doing hot things. Sometimes they just take their shirts off for no fucking reason! How are you supposed take that seriously? I love my collection of hot sexy male friends very much, but if I needed them to find me equally sexy out loud we'd never be able to co-exist in peace.
(Watching every Tina-centric episode of Bob's burgers has been very validating btw)