Etiquette vs. Intimacy

As a writer, at a certain point you realize you will never, no matter how carefully you craft each word, successfully communicate your exact point to every reader. And that’s OK.

When I teach imagery and symbolism to my creative writing 101 classes, I use Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods. Usually, the students fall into one of two camps: they either believe the poem is about death, or about the individual’s relationship to society. These are, not coincidentally, the two most broadly accepted scholarly interpretations of the poem. This means Frost has done his job: conveyed his meaning with enough clarity such that most readers glean a similar understanding. However, there’s always that person who comes along and says, “Clearly it’s about Santa Claus!” And you sort of want to smack your head against a lectern because while yes, there’s snow (‘easy wind and downy flake’), yes, there are little tinkly bells on an animal (“My horse…gives his harness bells a shake”), and yes, there’s some dude who seems bearded (No textual example, he just seems that way.), there are absolutely no reindeer (NO REINDEER), the poem most likely takes place not on Christmas Eve, but on December 21st (‘The darkest evening of the year”) and Robert Frost was a stone-cold asshole, totally unconcerned with whether the tots get their toys on time.

But if someone is sufficiently invested in the poem to justify their Santa Claus interpretation, further, if that person benefits from what they’ve found, then Robert Frost was just as successful as if he’d gotten his true meaning across. (Just don’t try to tell me “Kubla Khan” is about Obamacare.) Fact is, once a writer has applied pen to paper or fingers to keys, once his work is printed or published or online, his words belong to the reader.

All of this is a convoluted way of saying that occasionally I read comments. They say you shouldn’t, yet once in a while I do. Truly, I don’t mind being disagreed with or even misinterpreted. On the contrary, I embrace any enthusiastic engagement with my writing. However, a while back I spotted a couple of comments that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I’d written an absurd piece about relationship timelines, the conceit: if only there were precise rules for every stage of a relationship, I would happily follow them and my gums wouldn’t bleed from worrying whether buying a Christmas present six months into a relationship signifies a suffocating level of commitment. (Stay tuned for my next piece for that riveting bit of navel-gazing.). Skimming comments I came across the following:

“Good Lord, what’s up w/ the burp, fart and bathroom rules? I thought only neurotic straight girls (in the example of Carrie Bradshaw, SATC) obsessed about that…”

And:

“Ya speaking about queer women, right? Cause for a sec there i thought i was reading a guide for straight women that will help them not to scare straight guys away ;-)

Women rarely operate this way (unless they have some serious commitment and intimacy issues). I hope for your sake you find someone who is willing…..”

(Willing to what, I’m not sure. The comment ended with the ellipses.)

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The general gist of both of the above seems to be that real lesbians fart with abandon. Which is interesting because my understanding was that real lesbians have sex with women. Apparently I’ve been doing something wrong. (That something, being performing oral sex rather than creating dutch ovens.) I’m not here to defend the piece itself (or to make friends, obv), but I do want to begin by pointing out that when I wrote, “At month seven you may fart within the same city block as your partner. But soundlessly,” I was being hyperbolic. From there, I’d like to note that claiming straight women behave one way and lesbians another, polarizes and essentializes and other words I learned in my women’s studies capstone seminar.

Now that’s out of the way, I gotta say that these comments concerned me. Both seem to imply that in a lesbian relationship, not only does closeness equal rampant bodily noises and open bathroom doors, but to feel reluctant to share these experiences means one has intimacy issues. When I date women, it’s not for relaxation or to avoid the pressure of seducing men. It’s because I’m legitimately attracted to a woman. If lesbians are equating acceptance with eschewing basic etiquette, I’m not sure that’s something to brag about. In fact, I’d like to respectfully suggest that it may instead be the origin of lesbian bed death—make that all bed death. Because contrary to the comments, plenty of straight couples think nothing of peeing in front of each other, burping the alphabet or farting up a storm. Probably many of these couples lead active, ecstatic sex lives.

Personally, however, I do not feel sexy when I’m expelling air. Further, I have no interest in merging so fully with another human being that I behave the same way in front of them as I might alone. Mystery creates allure. Difference is sexy, and if my borders overlap your borders where do our differences collect?

Leaving aside accusations of straightness, buried within those comments seems to be the idea that being yourself is the same as being your worst self. I want to feel comfortable with my partner. I want to feel accepted and understood. But I also want to be polite and considerate and separate and attractive.

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And no, I do not equate “attractive” with telling the love of my life to pull my finger. If we shield workmates, acquaintances, neighbors and strangers from the sound of air escaping from various bodily openings, why would we consciously visit all that upon the person we’ve vowed to treasure and protect above all others?

Obviously there’s a difference between choosing to close the bathroom door when I pee and leaving the house every time I hit a certain stage of digestion. Of course I want to trust my partner to think I’m beautiful after she’s held my hair back during a bout of stomach flu or watched me snot my way through the final episode of Six Feet Under. What I don’t want is to have burping contests or describe the contents of the toilet bowl. I guess I’m a just a fan of mystery, and if that makes me a neurotic straight woman, then so be it—at least I’ll have access to Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe collection.

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