24 April, 2012

That could have gone better. (Part one.)

‘Why do you suppose it’s so difficult to tell a love story? For example, the story of your first love. Not the puppy dog kind, two kids on a teeter-totter or a swing-set sort of thing, but the Real Deal. The first time you said ‘I love you’ and meant it, and even though you’re still not sure what that really means to say – I love you – you knew at the time just that you wanted it to mean something enormously big, and it did. And you were thrilled and terrified from the moment the words left your lips and washed over the other person, who might have been only inches away from your face, lying on the couch in your parents’ front room, or on your bed in your college dorm, or maybe you were walking somewhere outside and holding hands; until the words came back but in another voice and now ending in ‘too’.


‘But now with a story like this what quickly starts to happen – what’s probably already happening – is that you begin to realize someone is actually proposing to talk without any irony whatsoever about two people falling in love – as in not a romantic comedy or a love story embedded in a more prominent narrative of action deceit suspense drama or intrigue – and you start to think something like big boring banal cliché. As in Love Story = . Maybe you even quickly turn over the book and check the top right corner of the back cover where the genre is sometimes indicated, to see whether it says Romance instead of just Fiction. Or the conversational equivalent of this – QED – that your eyes roll back in your head and your attention starts to dissolve.


‘In other words, the way most people nowadays react to the proposition of hearing about or watching or reading a straightforward love story, myself included, is to quickly lose interest and have trouble taking the story seriously. Which I submit to you is strange. Because the experience of falling and being in love is not only poignant, as in it feels searingly and indelibly real, but also formative, being one of the major ways we figure out what we care about in the world, and really just how we work as humans. And so you’d think, or at least a reasonable inference is that people should be hugely interested in hearing about how it went down for other people, as a way of understanding their own experiences of love more deeply and complexly; of refining and complicating their own impressions and feelings with those shared by others; and of reinforcing their understanding of themselves as part of some large subset of the broader human community, with shared cultural expectations and folklore.


Fenchurch Baume has a problem that most guys wish they had but almost no guys think they actually have, even if other guys think that they do. And maybe that’s part of the reason why it can work when it does, Fench thinks, instead of the thing feeling like it’s a problem.

Fench’s problem is that his girlfriend is a Showstopper: the kind of beautiful where if you showed your mother a picture and said ‘This is my girlfriend’, she (your mother) would call you a liar. Fench’s girlfriend is six feet tall and glides around the room on legs that end above his waist. She has very pronounced facial features, especially cheekbones. She is skinny but not even close to emaciated-looking, and her breasts, as it were, walk softly but carry a big stick. Her hair is long and blond and perfectly straight and soft and full and lustrous.

Fench’s girlfriend causes actual traffic accidents just by walking down the street, and more frequently drives men and even women to such distraction that they (the men and even women) trip over sidewalks or walk right into lamp posts. When Fench’s girlfriend walks into a room there is a collective intake of breath, a vacuum that she fills immediately with a bright sensuous tingling light.

Strictly speaking, the problem is not that Fench’s girlfriend is outrageously beautiful; the problem is this, plus the fact that Fench believes he is much less beautiful than she. As a physical specimen, Fench is ordinary in almost every way. A veritable Everyman: of average height and weight and shoulder width for a man in his early thirties; who is trim in the way that guys who mow their own lawn and shovel their own snow (but do not go to the gym or play even loosely organized sports), and eat and drink in moderate amounts a diet that is unintentionally close to balanced, are trim; who doesn’t smoke or usually stay-up past midnight; and who goes to about as many live sporting events (mostly baseball and hockey) as he watches from his couch in front of his average size flat screen television in his one bedroom house on a quiet suburban street. In short the kind of guy with a ‘John Smith’ sort of appearance, utterly and immediately forgettable, and which would be precisely this if it were not appended to a name like Fenchurch Baume.

One of the problems with Fench’s problem, which Fench definitely recognizes, is that male beauty and female beauty are basically incommensurable. Leaving aside your more exotic-type preferences for hyper articulated musculatures or extreme androgyny, the features that make a female beautiful, at least to males, are very different from the features that make a male beautiful (or, if you like, ‘attractive’), at least to females. [FN1] So it is difficult for Fench to even articulate what makes his girlfriend so much more beautiful or attractive than himself – it’s not as if Fench would feel better if he looked more like his girlfriend – or precisely how and to what degree his own appearance would have to change to balance the scales – and so he ends up falling-back on the proxy of how much attention each of them respectively attracts when walking down the street or entering any room, which as previously described is pretty outrageous for Fench’s girlfriend and as not previously described but should be fairly obvious is basically the inverse of this for Fench.

Under the circumstances, you might expect Fench’s real problem to be that he is some combination of insecure and jealous and so unable to reconcile his staggeringly beautiful girlfriend’s attraction to himself with her apparent indifference, at least romantically, to the legions of supremely attractive men that constantly approach her, in many cases apparently not even considering the possibility that the man she is arm-in-arm with (i.e., Fench) could be her boyfriend and not just her brother or friend or someone who made the winning bid in a charity bachelorette auction. In other words that Fench can’t figure out what she sees in him and so is unable, despite her repeated and genuine assurances, to accept that she really likes him or even loves him or that he really might be something like the luckiest man alive; all of which completely short-circuits what are indeed Fench’s real and truly beautiful feelings for his girlfriend until his self-pity and -doubt spiral out of control and he breaks-off the relationship before his girlfriend (he can just tell) breaks it off with him, first.

But that is not really Fench’s problem. [FN2]


[FN1] There's actually a lot of hard data, mostly from evolutionary biology, backing this up: females tend to go for narrow waists, V-shaped torsos, broad shoulders, and height (relative to their (the female’s) own), as well as prominent masculine facial dimorphism, basically guys with really guy faces rather than effeminate faces. Males, on the other hand, go for symmetrical faces, full and symmetrical breasts, and a low waist-to-hip ratio, in addition to an overall youthful appearance. In both cases the preferred features are rough proxies for skill or ability in producing and caring for offspring. In what remains something of a lacuna in the evolutionary biology literature, it turns out that gay men find the same sorts of men attractive as do straight women; which is no surprise to Fench, who, as a child of the early eighties living in the suburbs of a medium-sized East Coast city, has a half-dozen gay male friends none of whom find him physically attractive but all of whom have made no bones about the fact that if they were straight they would be all over Fench’s girlfriend.

[FN2] Be apprised of some annoying and confusing verisimilitude in Fench’s character, which is going to get described here and a few other places but never really satisfactorily resolved or tied-off because that’s life, really. To wit: like most men Fench is, on the one hand, discomfited in the extreme by the presence of beautiful women, while on the other hand he constantly fantasizes about being with just these sorts of women. In Fench’s case most of these fantasies are sexual in nature and involve either a stunning woman of indistinct visage or more frequently some woman in his life that he finds attractive: co-worker, neighbor, etc. The standard script is for one or more of these women to become desperately attracted to Fench and for this attraction to begin to play-out in some sort of public place: Fench’s date to a formal dinner is gorgeous and can’t keep her hands off him at the table; the female cashier at the grocery store reaches around the debit card machine to unzip Fench’s trousers while he’s punching in his PIN code. (It goes without saying, or should do, that these fantasies continue unabated even though Fench is currently in a relationship with, if anything, a woman even more beautiful than he had previously imagined.) The point is that Fench’s desires seem to be entirely schizophrenic: he imagines for himself and finds reliably pleasurable the kind of scenario that he knows in reality causes him significant and pleasure-ablating angst, and in fact continues to cause him such angst except in the case of his current scorching hot GF.