Three years ago, I found myself on the roof of a frat house in the freezing cold making out with a friend for a couple of hours straight. The romance began where all great college romances begin: at a fraternity formal. The prince picked me up at my palace — aka High Rise 5 — and we walked together to his kingdom — a lofty stone house on campus whereupon we took some awkward pictures, guzzled alcohol, ate some grub and evidently, kissed a lot. When my mouth began to throb and the chill became too much, I suggested we leave: “We can’t do this all night!”
We walked back to North, me with my arm around his neck, him with his arm around my waist, because the heels I borrowed were pinching my feet and made it difficult to walk. “Watch out, this road is bumpy and I don’t want you to trip in your shoes,” he said. It was all typical formal jargon, but to my naïve freshman year self, it was solicitous and sweet — signs of a burgeoning relationship. But as we walked next to the bridge on Thurston, I could see the spindling spiders and their tangled webs in the glaring fluorescent lights, and I started remembering all the other times I’d grown disenchanted with college boys that year. I thought to myself: “I’ll be happy if nothing further comes of this because it was a good experience in itself.”
Except it was a lie, akin to convincing yourself that you’ll just close your eyes for five minutes only to end up napping for four hours. I liked him. I liked the fact that I could tease him mercilessly and he was secure enough to take it, and when I didn’t hear from him immediately, I was crestfallen, especially since — at the time — I was always quick to blame myself when any minute situation went awry, never considering that maybe a guy’s lack of follow through had nothing to do with me, but his own reluctance about commitment. It was always my fault, I clearly wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t worth it; the way I spoke to myself was warped and toxic — something I didn’t realize needed to be addressed before I could even consider having meaningful relationships.
Flash forward to last Friday night. It’s the same boy, same girl, same non-commitment, lying together in a different bed. A lot has happened in the past few years. We’ve both been with different people – him with girls from my sorority, my a cappella group and even the freshman year roommate I didn’t get along with (Ouch).
“You think I don’t care about you? I care about you. You’re different.” It was dark, and I couldn’t see his face, wouldn’t lift my head off the pillow to get a closer look in his eyes, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have believed him. His confirmation was almost irrelevant; I had long accepted that his approach to relationships was different from mine. Namely, that he didn’t believe in them, whereas in the past, I always needed to attribute some grander meaning to the people I was involved with; we always had to be moving away from the transience. I was so focused on a traditional paradigm, on committed and exclusive relationships as the end goal, but it was in this moment that I realized our more-than-platonic, less-than-romantic friendship was sufficient. He pulls me close to him, there’s no room between us, and I can’t breathe, but I don’t want to move from this position because I don’t want him to let go of me. And I don’t ask what is this or what are we? Because I know the answer to both questions, and it is enough.
Sometimes this gray area can be a little tricky to navigate. How affectionate can we get before it turns uncomfortable? I can’t help acting distant in the morning, rushing to put on my shoes, sprinting to zip up my dress, because I know the illusion is broken, and that the last few hours of me gripping his arms and him stroking my hair and us pretending to sleep, but not being able to because we’re so close to one another, are over.
But what is awkwardness if when I’m burrowed in his arms, I feel uncharacteristically safe? Or if I finally found a worthy opponent who actually whoops me in 2 AM matches of Words with Friends, dethroning me from my five year championship? Or if I feel like I can be myself with him — morning breath, messy hair, melancholy mascara that has traveled under my eyes, looming under them like dark clouds, vomit on my dress from the night I got sick? There’s no putting on a fake face, going through the phony steps of trying to appear impeccable to the other person like there is when you’re dating someone new.
He reminds me that not everything has to be so serious, that there is a middle ground between superficial interactions and the most meaningful of connections, that I’m young, that it’s time for me to have fun and stop fixing everything.
A popular argument leveraged about our generation revolves around “hook-up culture.” Apparently, because of damn technology, we have a multitude of options for partners that we take for granted and have forgotten how to truly connect with others. We’ve become sex-crazed, app-swiping monsters, professional f*ck boys and f*ck girls, numb from emotion.
I used to agree. What happened to our ability to fight for the things we want and take a chance on others, to lay it down, to say I give a shit and even if this leaves me broken on the floor I’m willing to try? Isn’t love the only thing that matters, the only thing we have to live for? Technology depersonalizes intimacy; it can happen anywhere with anyone at any time.
But even if technology is somewhat responsible for an uptick in emotional duplicity, it is not the sole cause. F*ck boys/girls have always existed — just because we’re not resigned to marrying our second cousins anymore for lack of options, doesn’t mean that there weren’t always promiscuous partners (Donald and Bill did just fine without Tinder and Don Draper never once relied on Bumble). All that’s changed is that the technology has provided players with an alternate platform to conduct their prurience. It may also be worth knowing that just because someone is non-committal, he or she is not automatically a f*ck boy/girl. Many people want to cultivate meaningful and committed relationships, but they’re the kind of thing you can’t force — especially not when you’re twenty-one and haven’t even figured out what the hell you’re doing with your life. It’s not impossible to develop these relationships, but they require a kind of maturity and self-awareness most college students don’t possess yet.
That said, hook-up culture exists on a spectrum and it’s up to you to figure out what kinds of hook-ups — if any — you’re most comfortable with. The hook-ups that often get the bad rep are the ones in which people meet at bars and jump into bed right after, the ones rooted in instant gratification versus actual intimacy. Steady hookups, friends-with-benefits style, also has the potential to go awry, leaving one person silently suffering, caring more than his/her partner. But one might do well to remember that there is risk involved in any kind of relationship — no matter the level of commitment.
In serious, monogamous relationships, there’s the pressure of having to consider a whole other person. You have the ability to hurt this person, to invariably disappoint them. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, but it might also be healthier to consider enjoying people and the moments as they come — to not try and hold them to wholly unrealistic expectations or chase a relationship.
Sometimes in trying to catch the rabbit, you make it hop away, and sometimes in trying to make what’s abstract concrete, it dissipates. The things that are nebulously defined don’t ever dim or fade or vanish; they are engraved in your heart with a perfection untainted by time. There are never any guarantees: affections change, resentments build; relationship or not, all that’s left in the end are singular moments, falling, one autumn leaf at a time, urging us to enjoy the season while we have it.