On the subway platform sat two crumpled men in their fifties, unshaven but dressed in clean clothes. They were drinking beer, and they were not waiting for the train.
“She had perfect ankles,” said the heavyset man. “Just like the ankles of the woman I lost to the ballet.”
“The ballet?” said the man with the moustache.
“Yeah. You need good ankles to be in the ballet.”
He saw me look over and said, “Isn’t that right? You need good ankles to be a ballerina.”
“Oh, yes,” I answered. “For the ballet, good ankles are vital.”
They gaped at me and then laughed. “Vital,” said the man with the moustache. “I like that. Vital.”
“Hey, where are you from?” said the other. “Minnesota?”
“Poughkeepsie! Lotta snow up there.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“I know those cities upstate. Poughkeepsie, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo. You like Buffalo?”
“No, I prefer antelope.”
It took them a few seconds to catch on, and then they roared. My train arrived, and I said goodbye, marveling at how happy it makes people to flirt with a blonde.
New York, New York
Bobby Jacoby pulled my braid in the fifth grade and I punched him in the arm, right after I answered the questions on the Constitution. He punched me back at recess. My arms were black and blue that whole school year. Flirting begins as a game and varies only slightly with age and culture. A sock in the arm becomes playing hard-to-get, yes means no and no means yes.
On the island of Truk, young men carve wooden sticks with their own unique design. When they want to see a girl at night, it’s a real test to sneak up to the house without disturbing the rest of the family and the usual legion of dogs. The trick, then, is to get under the reed floor of the house and poke the love stick through the floor and, with a lucky guess, into the sleeping maiden’s hair. She will soon awaken and know by the carved pattern in the wood who is waiting outside.
Peacocks have a showy courtship dance, dogs just do it, loons mate for life, and ten-year-olds slug each other in the arm; but the girl in the thatched hut can either send the stick back through the reeds or return it to her suitor in person, whereupon the jungle becomes the stage for a more serious game.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Michael was an Apache from Arizona. He had come to Albuquerque with his dad, who was selling silver. He met and married Bertie and went to live at the Pueblo. The Pueblo did not readily accept outsiders. There were stories of Native American visitors from other tribes, who were forced to live in teepees until they had proven themselves.
Michael and I were magnetized at parties, drawn together on the back steps. While the ice cream on our plates melted and the cake grew soggy, we shared intense conversations about art and death, politics and exploitation. I loved every minute of it and wanted more.
“Don’t idealize me because I’m an Indian,” Michael warned. “Nobody anywhere is living the way he should be — not even at the Pueblo.”
Michael was a sculptor in wood and stone, a good one, though his works didn’t readily sell. I was tempted to buy the statue of the modern Native American, in his denim jacket and jeans, standing in front of his pickup truck, which probably wasn’t running. “I do eagles and horses, too,” Michael said, “but that guy there — that’s the way it really is.”
Michael was blessed with the classic Indian face, the one that Hollywood lusts after, and when that wistful smile crinkled the corners of his warm brown eyes, it was like the sun breaking through storm clouds across the snowy peaks. Who could resist such a smile?
I could, I thought. But I fell for Michael after all, at an anti-uranium rally. He was sitting on the riverbank braiding his long hair with those lithe brown hands, winding a red cloth around the braids with a practiced grace that startled and charmed me. Bertie was on the other side of the van. She was large and brown, the corn mother who suckled his many sturdy babies. I liked her. We were friends. But whenever Michael and I were in the same room, I couldn’t draw my eyes from his face. And I couldn’t hear enough of his eloquent, world-weary ruminations.
So followed a ludicrous scene in which I was trying to help him apply for a grant. Michael and I agreed to meet for drinks at the Savedra Inn to decide what he needed to do. He brought Bertie — and her sisters, Sage and Wenora. I was surprised, but we settled down at the table and ordered a pitcher of margaritas. Later, Bertie and the sisters disappeared into the bathroom and didn’t come out for eons. Michael and I were rolling in our mugs, having a brilliant conversation, I’m sure, about beauty and hunger and pain. He said nobody anywhere was doing what he should be — even at the Pueblo they were muddying the stream, building dams.
After a while the ladies rejoined us. We finished the pitcher of margaritas, and Michael ordered another. Suddenly they all stood up, smiled, and staggered out, leaving me fumbling with the check. I laughed when I realized that I was the grant, and walked my bicycle home.
There was one more scene, at the funeral of a mutual friend. I spotted Michael far across the room, in his denim jacket and jeans, leaning against the wall, arms crossed, solemnly listening to the eulogy. Then it was over and I was pressing through the crowd, eager to reach him; but before I could break through, I saw a tall, elegant woman saunter up to him. She spoke earnestly for a few moments, then paused and touched the back of her hair. I watched Michael’s solemn mask crack and slide away. His warm, tired smile shone down all over her. And I knew: I was just one more — or less. I wanted to leave, but I had to wait for a friend, so I just slipped out the door and stood by myself in the sun.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Flirting, for me, never was batting my eyelashes and looking softly over my left shoulder.
It was always more robust and confrontational. In grade school, I cooed, “Hey, Fatso, wanna cut out paper dolls with me?” In junior high, I said, “You don’t know me but I think you’ll like me.” Some of the boys gave me things — jewelry and poems and fruit. All through adolescence and early adulthood, I flirted with much abandon and little subtlety; this kind of flirting works best for very pretty, very young girls.
When I was older and thought I was fat and ugly, I stopped flirting, but I still paid attention.
After my divorce, one Sunday morning with strangers, in a stranger’s kitchen, I said, “I want to be. . . .” I paused and an old man finished my sentence. “Cherished,” he said. “You want to be cherished.” I looked into his eyes. He was flirting with me. It knocked me dead.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The question comes up often enough, and is not easily answered. Ration versus passion: which to choose?
This has to do with high school.
You pound your fists against a wall of words without poetry and want out. To fight the boredom, you decide to fall in love. You choose someone unlikely, untested, someone smarter than anyone, someone who doesn’t know you. You choose Dale.
You borrow a pencil from him during history.
After you do this ten times, he notices you. Remembers your name. After you do this twenty times, he actually has a conversation with you. About Kierkegaard.
You babysit after school for a wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid named Jimmy. Jimmy is brutal, tough, with a cruel father and a large dog. Jimmy throws pebbles at your feet if you don’t walk fast enough. If you tell on him, his father beats him.
After school, Dale wants to talk to you, but Jimmy throws rocks so you will hurry.
Your friend Jill drums her fingernails against the desk when you mumble about love.
“What is taking you so long, honey?” she says. Should a real woman have to borrow more than one pencil, she implies. Jill has ratted hair, blue eye makeup, and real breasts. Her mother dates and so does Jill.
“You need some perfume,” she says.
Jill gives you a bottle of Ambush, which she probably stole from the drugstore. You wear it the next day. Is it your imagination, or does Dale stand closer?
When you get to Jimmy’s house, the huge dog leaps all over you, crashes against your chest, crazy for your Ambush. You try washing off the perfume in Jimmy’s kitchen sink, but the dog knows, and comes after you.
Every day, the dog hurls himself onto you, and Dale inches closer.
This is ration versus passion in one of its simpler forms: leave off the perfume and save yourself from being mauled by a beast, or wear the perfume for the sake of love and take the canine consequences?
Eventually, you will quit the babysitting job. Eventually, Dale will ask you out and reveal he really doesn’t like the smell of perfume.
If you wait long enough, all will be resolved.
A friend blames MTV for teaching the neighbor girl to dance sexily, but I notice the younger pre-pubescent kids, equally entranced by MTV, don’t make those erotic moves. I look at the animals, who never watch MTV, and notice plenty of erotic moves: the cock’s circle dance with wing outstretched, around the expectantly crouched hen; the cats’ mutual calling and extended hanging-out; the billy goat’s formal and insistent gestures. They’re like teenagers in the parking lot or in the mall, with big eyes, come-hither looks, the stop, the primp, the pose. We get nervous seeing ourselves as animals, so we call it flirting, a trivializing word meant to sound unimportant to the business of life; but inside we know that this flirting, which all means “Have my baby,” “Make me pregnant,” is the essence, the very continuance, of life.
I think flirting brings substantial joy, amusement, and excitement into life, even though I don’t flirt much myself these days. I used to flirt all the time, until it gradually dawned on me that I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it.
Generally, flirting conveys intimations of sexual desire (or at least attraction), and it’s playful rather than serious. It’s a game, presumably as enjoyable as the object itself, if indeed there is an object. It’s very different from the mating behavior of animals.
My problem with flirting is that I’ve spent so much time hiding behind it. It’s been an easy cop-out for me when I didn’t know what I wanted, or wasn’t admitting to myself that I wanted anything. Flirting involves a certain pose: you are light, in control, having fun. It’s like riding a wave. Sometimes this is absolutely true.
But for me, flirting with almost everyone used to be a way to disguise the different degrees of attraction I felt for different people, a way to cover up insecurity, to feel on top of things. However, it never got me anywhere. Very rarely in my life has flirting led to physical intimacy. The few times it has, there was always an abrupt switch to frankness and plain talk, which seemed, in contrast to all the flirting, almost flat. It was like hitting the ground; apparently, while the flirting was going on, we weren’t as carefree as we had pretended.
I wonder how often it really happens that flirting proceeds smoothly into sex. I’ve seen it happen on television a few times: the characters assess each other with intuitive ease and self-confidence, the flashing eyes grow brighter, the insinuating little smiles never waver, and all the gracefulness of the approach is followed through to the climax, like an impeccable martial arts maneuver performed in slow motion. I don’t doubt it happens now and again for some people in real life, too.
Of course, flirting does not have to culminate in sex. More often than not, I think, it’s carried on for its own sake, and that’s what makes it so human. Almost by definition, flirting should be un-self-conscious; yet, even in the realm of flirting, a little consciousness might be a good thing. It isn’t nice to give people the impression you’re attracted to them if you’re not. Or, if you are attracted, there may be other pertinent things to communicate as well.
When I was a painfully shy teenager, some wag decided to inject a little humor into the annual “who’s who” list in the school paper by putting my name opposite “Biggest Flirt.” I remember walking the halls, head down, books pulled to my chest, as laughter mingled with slamming locker doors, and boys called out, “Betty, come flirt with me!” On graduation day someone wrote in my yearbook, “You have such a pretty face — let your equally nice personality show.”
Slowly, I began the painful process of peeling off the protective layers of shyness. Today, although I am still a quiet, reflective person, I also know how to have a good time. I never did learn how to flirt.
My daughter had a pretty face and a nice personality that showed. Watching television, where the girls flirt and the handsome guys respond, she was a quick study. She became a master of batting her eyelashes and sending long looks. Her joyful laugh promised great moments to follow, and her intelligence and curiosity made her a great listener — slight smile, hands under her chin.
When she was killed in an auto accident at the age of sixteen, my world crashed around me. The pieces fall more gently now. I can walk through a shopping center and remember her walking beside me. She is laughing as two boys coming from the opposite direction nudge each other. Selecting the one she likes, she makes eye contact and, as they pass, tosses her hair and, slowly turning her head, gives him a look that would stop a train. Smitten, he jumps into the air, clacks the heels of his sneakers together, and almost clobbers a little old lady. Now, that girl knew how to flirt!
Last night there was flirting — a lot of flirting — at Anique’s reading. Take that spike-haired blonde who sat next to us (slid down the wall, actually; we were on the floor, by the fireplace). She was a blonde, but how much was inborn and how much a matter of will is a question for philosophers. The point is she had the soul of a blonde, and a ring in her nose (but a very delicate ring — and nose), and she was, oh, twenty-one, wore boots, and did not speak, in the manner of twenty-one-year-olds at poetry readings who know without training that professors will stop lusting for them as soon as they say, “I just get the Cramps’ second album.”
I was with Violet, my love; I’d just made dinner and things were right with us. Violet’s no mean blonde herself, but a married blonde, not one who just woke to the earth.
So at the break (this is horribly indicting) the Fawn Girl said, “I’m going to the bathroom. Can you watch my bag?” and I said, “I’ll try to watch it. And if I get up, I ’ll carry it with me.” Just for the smile under that nose ring.
(Violet, I know you have a subscription — believe me, I’d boil my hands before I’d leave you.)
The Lexington Avenue Express
Do we flirt with a person, or do we flirt with excitement? Can flirting be sincere, or is there inevitably something cheap about it — something sneaky, even cowardly? When you flirt, do you take some little dying (but not quite dead) part inside of you, squeeze it up, and send it out to someone as if this were your real essence? (“I am sexually wild and available, even though I live in a dead marriage, have unhappy children and a meaningless job that drains my strength, owe money everywhere, watch television five nights a week, have become fascinated with food, am dreaming of my next possession. . . .”)
Flirting is often false, a projection of a deceptive image of oneself intended to fascinate someone with a similarly deceptive image of himself or herself. However, is it possible that there is a higher kind of flirting, too — an overflow of freedom in some people because freedom genuinely prospers in their relationships and their lives?
I can imagine, though can’t often generate, a kind of flirting that is quite sincere. The message is not, “Hey baby, I’m a good lay!” but rather, “Hey person, I’m a good person. Not worked out, but alive: working, thinking, feeling, sometimes even brave. It isn’t going to be easy, but you may find me worth knowing.”
Petersburg, West Virginia
After I get my morning coffee, I sit down at my desk and begin to open the mail. L. is reading the newspaper. From across the room she says, “Kathleen, here is a course for you on how to flirt.” She mimics a very flirtatious look, which makes me laugh. “It tells all about what will make men attracted to you,” she says. “You have to let a man know if you are interested.” L. blushes, brushing her hair back from her face demurely. She should teach her own course.
At Sister’s anniversary of her vows of celibacy, Father says to her, “Aren’t you glad you never had to make love to anyone?” He gives her a big hug and spins her around. A priest for forty years, he says he never wanted to get married. His friend D. says, “When I first became a priest, I thought it was a great loss to women, because I would have been such a wonderful lover; but now that I am older, I know that some woman was lucky to be rid of me.” His bald head shines as he chuckles brightly into the candlelight, flirting with the past. Flirting with his younger and less wise self, with what might have been.
At home in my apartment, falling asleep, I remember a long-ago summer vacation on the southern coast of Spain. Early in the morning, a well-tanned fisherman throws a cork at me, as I float lazily close to the shore. From his boat, against the dawn, he waves, as if to say, “If I weren’t working, I’d like to play with you.” And the silent sea heaves a sigh. Against the blue Mediterranean sky, life appears in its true simplicity: sun and ocean and the silhouette of a man with his hand raised like a salute to a finite world of infinite possibilities.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina