Here is a sampling of some of the criticisms I received from peers in my workshop last week:
“I’m still not sure what you’re looking for, Elizabeth.”
“It’s unclear to me what you want.”
“The narrator is looking for an ideal relationship–but what would that ideal relationship look like?”
You get the idea.
The funny thing is that I actually sat down, several times, in the few days since with the completely sincere intent of integrating this theme of “what I want” into my essay.
As often happens when I sit down to write or revise, I distracted myself with various, obvious, internet activity: mindless Facebook browsing, food blog checking, nytimes.com scanning.
I just figured it was the usual lack of motivation and discipline that was obstructing me from penetrating this clearly crucial theme. I thought I was just too unfocused to sit down and articulate my basic, evident desires.
And then, tonight, I spoke on the phone with my mother’s best friend D–a woman who actually features in the essay as the font of much life and relationship wisdom.
I told her about the critique: that I don’t sufficiently express what exactly I’m looking for in a relationship.
“The thing is,” I said, “I’m not sure I really know what I’m looking for.”
To which she replied: “Well, that’s been colosally clear to me for years.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right.”
It should, by now, be colosally clear to me too. Even more extraordinary than the fact that I have no idea what I’m looking for, it seems, is my ability to forget the fact that I have no idea what I’m looking for.
Because it’s plainly, painfully true: I don’t know what I want.
For a while I was actually quite concerned with this–this project of trying to articulate what I’d like to find in a man or in a partnership. I tried making mental checklists. Had I put on paper what I came up with in my mind, it would have looked something like this:
Tall (Is it that important? I’ve had crushes on short men…)
Smarter than me (In certain ways, but in certain ways not…)
Not Flakey (But what does flakey even mean? Who isn’t a little bit flakey? Am I ever attracted to anyone who isn’t a little bit flakey? Are nonflakey people always boring?)
Funny (Okay, but everyone says that. If I met a man who was profoundly kind and generous and intriguing, would I really not be interested because he wasn’t always cracking me up?)
Again, you catch my drift.
I mean, there are clearly certain basic expectations that I can sign onto: not an alcoholic, for example. Or, older than twenty and younger than fifty.
But when it gets more specific, I start to wonder if enumerating a phantom partner’s essential qualities is really something best done in hindsight.
Recently, I talked to my mother a bit about how she felt when she met my father. She said that on their first date, she recognized that he was “a grown up”–and that that was important to her. I asked if she knew that’s what she needed before she met him. She said no–but that once she did it was clear.
Perhaps finding a successful relationship isn’t actually all that different from going shopping at Bed Bath and Beyond, or Walgreens: you don’t really know what you desperately need–for your house, face or long-term relationship–until you see it.
So no, peers: I don’t know what I want. I only know that I want to figure it out.