What We Can’t Have

Tonight I had drinks with a colleague and friend who is especially supportive of my romantic pursuits.

At one point, he spoke–in radically hypothetical terms–about the prospect of setting me up with a poet who lives in northern Europe and may or may not be gay.

I told him that, regardless of location or sexual preference, it was a bad idea.

“Poets are not datable,” I said. (Honestly, nothing reveals my hypocrisy more than that term: as you may have noticed I regularly rant about the pandemic of men describing themselves that way–specifically, men who try and date me–and the fact that it isn’t really a word, and then I use it all the time. I wish it were not so, but it happens to be very, if you will, usable.)

He told me it was the smartest thing he’d ever heard me say.

“Really?” I said, feeling vaguely insulted that this short and rather cliched sentence demonstrated more intellect than I’d previously conveyed.

“It’s good to hear you dismiss entire groups of people,” he encouraged. “You need to do that more often. You need to say no more often.”

At which point I realized where he was going with his–and my–mildly offensive proclamation. Last semester, when things–not unpredictably–went horribly wrong with that tall pale guy, this friend was among the first to lend a shoulder. He did, however, insert some careful pragmatism into his sympathies.

“I mean, Elizabeth,” he’d said over beers. “You take one look at that guy, and the word ‘boyfriend’ is not the first that springs to mind.” He added, and has reminded me on more than one occasion since, that most people might, as he put it, “filter” their love interests a bit more thoughtfully.

He’s right. Most people would have known that this person, along with others who I’ve outright pursued, was not–no apologies–datable. For God’s sake I knew it. I definitely knew it. And yes: maybe this awareness would have stopped someone more sensible.

But I don’t think I’m the only one who finds unavailability attractive. We all do. To borrow another horrible (but less offensive) cliche: it’s what we can’t have that we all want.

My friend went on to proselytize about the phrase “perceived value” and the fact that people pay more for coffee when it costs more and that men and women are all more appealing when they act aloof. I told him that–despite no shortage of behavior to the contrary–I agreed, and reminded him about my first Golden Rule of dating: act like people find you attractive, and they do.

Feeling that I had already covered this territory on my blog, and knowing I needed a new post, I steered the conversation in what I thought was a different direction.

I told him I’d been wanting to write about the fact that it seems everyone’s always saying you shouldn’t date people you work with or, as a teacher, your students–and yet, it also seems to me as though people always wind up dating their colleagues and I’m pretty sure that ninety percent of the faculty in our department is married to a former student or former teacher.

“What’s the deal?” I asked him, hoping he’d provide the insight on which I’d yet to strike. “I mean, I know it’s power dynamics. But what’s so alluring about the dynamic between students and teachers?”

He nodded prophetically as he listened, and then responded, also prophetically: “That we’re not supposed to act on it.”

That quickly, we’d arrived back at the same idea: all of us long to attain the unattainable.

This caused me to, first, breathe a heavy sigh of relief that I had perhaps arrived at a somewhat coherent post. And, next, to wonder why we–or, I–try and come up with any other philosophies about love or life when it all seems to come back to that one, maddeningly persistent principle.

For the record, I’ve never dated a colleague, or a professor, and certainly not any of my students: I have a strict rule against Facebook friendship and cross my fingers that they don’t Google me. I have no intention of violating that code.

But it’s nice to recognize the reason that it might, at times, be a little bit hard.

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