By Saira Khan
Not quite a response to, but inspired by, Becca Rothfeld’s essay “Ladies in Waiting.”
I’m a thirty-year-old heterosexual woman and I am not looking for love. When it comes to dating, my style is now firmly casual. A serial monogamist for most of my adult life, two years ago I decided to stop wasting time in relationships with men I saw no future with. Since then, I’ve met some remarkable and kind men, none of whom I wanted to date long-term.
Because I am a woman, some consider this unconventional. “What do you mean you don’t want to be in a relationship with him? He likes you!” is an exclamation I’ve heard many times, indicating the man’s willingness is all that’s required. The equivalences that follow include “You date like a man!” and the requisite “Sex and the City” reference, “You’re such a Samantha.”
To be fair, I’m not complaining.
I don’t like holding hands, I don’t like sharing my bed, I don’t like cuddling. I get my emotional fulfillment from my female friendships. For most of the last two years, I’ve been the one who makes first contact, I haven’t anguished over text messages and surely haven’t waited for someone to ask me out. In her essay “Ladies in Waiting,” Becca Rothfeld examines why women have traditionally been the ones who wait and why they often find themselves in a “state of involuntary idleness.” It is precisely this historical norm that I believed I had broken free from.
I was wrong.
One thing I have overlooked, and that you, the reader, may have missed as well, is that I hadn’t met anyone in nearly two years who I truly liked. So naturally I didn’t care if they were in my life or not. On the rare occasion when a text went unanswered, I was unmoved. Then last year I met a man who I will call Kyle, and all of my seemingly unconventional feminist wisdom was lost. It seemed that, when it came to someone I liked, I fell victim to the same “lady in waiting” trope I thought I was immune to, proving Rothfeld’s point that waiting is perpetuated by women who self-police. As someone who is candid about her feelings (or lack thereof), it was jarring to fall into a pit of self-doubt and, yes, constant waiting.
“The lover waits, speaks, entreats, but the beloved is constitutionally silent.” – Becca Rothfeld
The Day After Text
The day after text, as we’ve been told, is of crucial importance. It’s a ritual that serves as an acknowledgement of a potential future—and, in a heterosexual relationship, it is never supposed to come from the woman. This is a dating convention that I have, and gladly will, continue to ignore.
I first met Kyle in October, over drinks at a nearby bar. I knew I liked him when I didn’t give him my standard “I’m not looking for commitment” spiel, used previously to temper any misplaced expectations. A few hours later, after we drunkenly parted ways, we continued our conversation, through texts, into the next morning. Achievement unlocked.
Waiting is the Rule
I saw Kyle again about two weeks later. It was after this second date that I walked away feeling things I hadn’t felt in years. I was nervous. I cared about what he thought of me and, more frighteningly, how he felt about me. Three weeks later, after Thanksgiving, we went on our third date. By then, I found that in his presence I would stumble on my words and the pitch of my voice would falter. The more I liked him the more I retreated into the habits from my pre-enlightenment days; sometimes, I’d wait methodically to answer texts so as to not seem too eager, and allow him to reach out for our next date. I was no longer the pursuer. I waited.
Rothfeld notes that the concept of feminine waiting is ingrained in us by well-meaning female friends whose advice is always the same: wait, wait, wait. Indeed, even the most well-intentioned counsel I have received falls into the same pattern.
When Kyle would go a week without initiating contact, I’d swear he was “ghosting” on me; that it was the last I’d heard from him and the connection had been in my head. Just as I’d get to the point of writing him off, his name would flash across my phone’s screen. A constant battle raged in my head: was he a fuckboi or just really busy? I didn’t know but I sure as hell was happy that he messaged. “Romantic waiting is, like certain shades of pain, delicate enough to hint teasingly at future gratification but never disagreeable enough to preclude it,” Rothfeld writes. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
The funny thing is, neither of Kyle or I text much. When we first matched on Tinder, this was our conversation:
Although I was, and still am, seeing other people, I found myself in despair in the weeks I didn’t hear from him. Had he lost interest? We were dating casually but in person it felt like more. We did all the things I thought I hated doing. I obsessed over the details: We held hands, slept in the same bed, often broke bread together, and talked, and talked, and talked. Surely I wasn’t crazy in thinking he felt something more? Right? RIGHT?
When hesitating to reach out to Kyle, I was, like Rothfeld, trying to prove my affection, my true feelings, through “mute endurance,” that is, wait him out. Or was I trying to prolong the inevitable demise of our relationship under this shroud of constant waiting? “Waiting, which renders everything provisional, which suspends progress or conclusion of any kind, is worse than clarity,” Rothfeld writes. While being in a constant state of will he? or won’t he? is excruciating in its own right, was I buying myself time and hoping he’d like me more through the act of self-policing?
Jolted Out of the Self
Indeed, if love is feminine and waiting is a sign of that femininity, as Rothfeld observes, then I subconsciously began acting traditionally feminine in order to gain affection. “The alternative to dejected waiting, then, is patience, the art of elective waiting: a capitulation that women author, a passivity over which we assert ownership and which we might come to more comfortably inhabit,” Rothfeld writes. Even I can admit that I quickly went from being compared to Samantha to comparing myself to Carrie, inviting friends over to analyze a voicemail from Big for some hidden meaning that, likely, wasn’t there. In other words: I was losing my damn mind.
What made me feel even crazier was thinking I was crazy: What if this is all in my head? How much of what we agonize over is a narrative that we have constructed? Has our constant need for communication turned into a constant need of validation– in this case a validation of my feelings? Is my new found state of waiting a manifestation of my own insecurities about liking someone after so long? Have we, women, self-policed ourselves into this modern romantic norm? And what would happen if we stopped? I decided to find out.
In working on this story, I went back to the beginning of my communication with Kyle and noticed something: although there are moments when we went days without texting, there were times when I was the one who trailed off, leaving him waiting. These casual exchanges, to me, felt like the natural end of a conversation, but could easily have been perceived by him as me making him wait. Had I done to him what I thought he was doing to me?
With this new lens and impassioned clarity, I did the unthinkable: I texted Kyle the afternoon he was leaving town for a few weeks.
“at the risk of sounding trite, i think i’m gonna miss you while you’re gone. hope your trip is phenomenal. see you when you’re back.”
His response? He thanked me for missing him.
Welp. Han Solo would be proud, and I am a lady in waiting once more.
“I mustn’t. I mustn’t do this. Suppose he’s a little late calling me up—that’s nothing to get hysterical about. Maybe he isn’t going to call—maybe he’s coming straight up here without telephoning. He’ll be cross if he sees I have been crying. They don’t like you to cry. He doesn’t cry. I wish to God I could make him cry. I wish I could make him cry and tread the floor and feel his heart heavy and big and festering in him. I wish I could hurt him like hell.” -Dorothy Parker, “A Telephone Call,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker.