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I was single, straight, and female. When I turned thirty, in 2011, I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center. I would disembark, find myself face-to-face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future.
I had not chosen to be single but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated. Without love I saw no reason to form a permanent attachment to any particular place. Love determined how humans arrayed themselves in space. Because it affixed people into their long-term arrangements, those around me viewed it as an eschatological event, messianic in its totality. My friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love were something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape.
I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Still, I nurtured my idea of the future, which I thought of as the default denouement of my sexuality, and a destiny rather than a choice. The vision remained suspended, jewel-like in my mind, impervious to the storms of my actual experience, a crystalline point of arrival. But I knew that it did not arrive for everyone, and as I got older I began to worry that it would not arrive for me.
A year or two might pass with a boyfriend, and then a year or two without. In between boyfriends I sometimes slept with friends. After a certain number of years many of my friends had slept with one another, too. Attractions would start and end in a flexible manner that occasionally imploded in displays of pain or temporary insanity, but which for the most part functioned peacefully. We were souls flitting through limbo, piling up against one another like dried leaves, awaiting the brass trumpets and wedding bells of the eschaton.
The language we used to describe these relationships did not serve the purpose of definition. Their salient characteristic was that you had them while remaining alone, but nobody was sure what to call that order of connection. “Hooking up” implied that our encounters had no ceremony or civility. “Lovers” was old-fashioned, and we were often just friends with the people we had sex with, if not “just friends.” Usually we called what we did “dating,” a word we used for everything from one-night stands to relationships of several years. People who dated were single, unless they were dating someone. “Single” had also lost specificity: it could mean unmarried, as it did on a tax form, but unmarried people were sometimes not single but rather “in a relationship,” a designation of provisional commitment for which we had no one-word adjectives. Boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner implied commitment and intention and therefore only served in certain instances. One friend referred to a “non-ex” with whom he had carried on a “nonrelationship” for a year.
Our relationships had changed but the language had not. In speaking as if nothing had changed, the words we used made us feel out of sync. Many of us longed for an arrangement we could name, as if it offered something better, instead of simply something more familiar. Some of us tried out neologisms. Most of us avoided them. We were here by accident, not intention. Whatever we were doing, nobody I knew referred to it as a “lifestyle choice.” Nobody described being single in New York and having sporadic sexual engagement with a range of acquaintances as a “sexual identity.” I thought of my situation as an interim state, one that would end with the arrival of love.
* * *
The year I turned thirty a relationship ended. I was very sad but my sadness bored everyone, including me. Having been through such dejection before, I thought I might get out of it quickly. I went on Internet dates but found it difficult to generate sexual desire for strangers. Instead I would run into friends at a party, or in a subway station, men I had thought about before. That fall and winter I had sex with three people, and kissed one or two more. The numbers seemed measured and reasonable to me. All of them were people I had known for some time.
I felt happier in the presence of unmediated humans, but sometimes a nonboyfriend brought with him a dark echo, which lived in my phone. It was a longing with no hope of satisfaction, without a clear object. I stared at rippling ellipses on screens. I forensically analyzed social media photographs. I expressed levity with exclamation points, spelled-out laughs, and emoticons. I artificially delayed my responses. There was a great posturing of busyness, of not having noticed your text until just now. It annoyed me that my phone could hold me hostage to its clichés. My goals were serenity and good humor. I went to all the Christmas parties.
The fiction that I was pleased with my circumstances lasted from fall into the new year. It was in March, the trees skeletal but thawing, when a man called to suggest that I get tested for a sexually transmitted infection. We’d had sex about a month before, a few days before Valentine’s Day. I had been at a bar near his house. I had called him and he met me there. We walked back through empty streets to his apartment. I hadn’t spent the night or spoken to him since.
He had noticed something a little off and had gotten tested, he was saying. The lab results weren’t back but the doctor suspected chlamydia. At the time we slept together he had been seeing another woman, who lived on the West Coast. He had gone to visit her for Valentine’s Day, and now she was furious with him. She accused him of betrayal and he felt like a scumbag chastised for his moral transgression with a disease. He’d been reading Joan Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect.” I laughed—it was her worst essay—but he was serious. I said the only thing I could say, which was that he was not a bad person, that we were not bad people. That night had been finite and uncomplicated. It did not merit so much attention. After we hung up I lay on the couch and looked at the white walls of my apartment. I had to move soon.
I thought the phone call would be all but then I received a recriminatory e-mail from a friend of the other woman. “I am surprised by you,” it said. “You knew he was going to see someone and didn’t let that bother you.” This was true. I had not been bothered. I had taken his “seeing someone” as reassurance of the limited nature of our meeting, not as a moral test. “I would advise that you examine what you did in some cold, adult daylight,” wrote my correspondent, who further advised me to “stop pantomiming thrills” and “starkly consider the real, human consequences of real-life actions.”
The next day, sitting in the packed waiting room of a public health clinic in Brooklyn, I watched a clinician lecture her captive, half-asleep audience on how to put on a condom. We waited for our numbers to be called. In this cold, adult daylight, I examined what I had done. A single person’s need for human contact should not be underestimated. Surrounded on all sides by my imperfect fellow New Yorkers, I thought many were also probably here for having broken some rules about prudent behavior. At the very least, I figured, most people in the room knew how to use condoms.
The clinician responded with equanimity to the occasional jeers from the crowd. She respectfully said “no” when a young woman asked if a female condom could be used “in the butt.” After her lecture, while we continued to wait, public health videos played on a loop on monitors mounted on the wall. They dated from the 1990s, and dramatized people with lives as disorderly as mine, made worse by the outdated blue jeans they wore. The brows of these imperfect people furrowed as they accepted diagnoses, admitted to affairs, and made confessional phone calls on giant cordless phones. Men picked each other up in stage-set bars with one or two extras in fake conversation over glass tumblers while generic music played in the background to signify a party-like atmosphere, like porn that never gets to the sex. They later reflected on events in reality-television-style confessional interviews. From our chairs, all facing forward in the same direction, awaiting our swabbing and blood drawing, we witnessed the narrative consequences. (One of the men at the gay bar had a girlfriend at home … and gonorrhea. We watched him tell his girlfriend that he had sex with men and that he had gonorrhea.) The videos did not propose long-term committed relationships as a necessary condition of adulthood, just honesty. They did not recriminate. The New York City government had a technocratic view of sexuality.
The federal government had different expectations. Following the phone call I had looked up chlamydia on Google, which led me to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The government suggested that the best way to avoid chlamydia was “to abstain from vaginal, anal, and oral sex or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.” It was a fantasy that defied interpretation, two cliffs without a bridge. The suggestion of abstinence came with a more realistic reminder to use condoms. I usually used condoms, but this time I had not used a condom, so now I used antibiotics. When the lab results came back days after my visit to the Brooklyn clinic it turned out I did not have chlamydia. None of us had chlamydia.
Like the federal government, I wanted nothing more than “a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.” I had wanted it for a very long time, and it had not arrived. Who knew if it would one day happen? For now I was a person in the world, a person who had sexual relationships that I could not describe in language and that failed my moral ideals. Apprehensiveness set in: that this was my future.
* * *
On a Monday in April 2012, I stood in line at JFK Airport to board a plane to San Francisco. Before me stood a silver-headed West Coast businessman. His skin had the exfoliated, burnished sheen of the extremely healthy; his glasses were of an advanced polymer; he had dark jeans. He wore the recycled ethylene-vinyl acetate shoes that are said never to smell. His fleece coat was of an extraordinary thickness and quality, with a lissome external layer that would not pill. He seemed like the sort of man who would pronounce himself a minimalist and say that everything he bought was selected for its extraordinary craftsmanship and beautiful design. But the silver fox’s computer bag was a cheap thing with netting and buckles that said GOOGLE on it. The person in front of him in line wore a Google doodle T-shirt with Bert and Ernie where the Os would be. In front of him was a Google backpack.
Until I left San Francisco it never went away. It was embroidered on breast pockets, illustrated with themes of America’s cities, emblazoned on stainless-steel water bottles, on fleece jackets, on baseball caps, but not on the private buses that transported workers to their campus in Mountain View, where they ate raw goji-berry discs from their snack room and walked about swathed, priestlike, in Google mantles, with Google wimples and Google mitres, seeking orientation on Google Maps, googling strangers and Google-chatting with friends, as I did with mine, dozens of times a day, which made the recurrence of the logo feel like a monopolist taunt.
My first day in the city I sat in a sunlit café in the Mission, drank a cappuccino, and read a paper copy of the San Francisco Chronicle that lay anachronistically on the counter. The front page reported a gun massacre at an unaccredited Christian college in the East Bay and, below the fold, a federal crackdown on medical marijuana. I overheard someone talking about his lunch at the Googleplex. “Quinoa cranberry pilaf,” I wrote down. And then, “coregasm.” Because that was the subsequent topic of discussion: women who have spontaneous orgasms during yoga. The barista was saying how wonderful it was that the issue was receiving attention, coregasms being something a lot of women experienced and were frightened to talk about. Those days were over.
The people of San Francisco were once famous for their refusal of deodorant and unnecessary shearing. Sometimes, walking down the street, past gay construction workers and vibrator stores, I was reminded that this was the place where Harvey Milk was elected (and assassinated), where the bathhouses had flourished (and closed). But most of the time I noticed only that the people of San Francisco appeared to have been suffused with unguents and botanical salves, polished with salts, and scented with the aromatherapeutics sold in the shops that lined Valencia Street. The air smelled of beeswax, lavender, and verbena, when it didn’t smell like raw sewage, and the sidewalks in the Mission glittered on sunny days. The food was exquisite. There was a place in Hayes Valley that made liquid-nitrogen ice cream to order. I watched my ice cream magically pressured into existence with a burst of vapor and a pneumatic hiss. This miracle, as the world around me continued apace: moms with Google travel coffee mugs waiting patiently in line, talking about lactation consultants. Online, people had diverted the fear of sin away from coregasms and toward their battles against sugar and flour. “Raw, organic honey, local ghee, and millet chia bread taming my gluten lust,” a friend from college announced on social media. “Thank goodness for ancient grains.”
At night I was alone, and I would walk down the street hearing sermons in Spanish from the storefront churches and the electronic hum of the BART train below. The city was a dreamworld of glowing screens and analog fetishism, of sex shops and stone fruits. I listened to deranged speeches on buses and street corners by paranoids who connected ancient conspiracies to modern technology. I began to see conspiracies myself. I walked down the sidewalks of the Mission and noted their glittery resemblance to my sparkly powdered blush in its makeup compact. “This sidewalk looks like Super Orgasm,” I would think, Super Orgasm being the name of the particular shade of blush I owned. My makeup reveled in contemporary sexual politics: FOR HIM & HER read the sticker on the back of my paraben-free foundation, as if we were all living lives of spontaneity and adventure instead of conformity and punishment. I ran to Golden Gate Park, where giant birds of prey gazed hungrily upon glossy dachshunds. The cyclists passed in shoals, dressed in Google bicycle jerseys.
The idea of free love had a long American tradition of communal experiments, wild-eyed prophets, and jailed heretics. Free love had once meant the right to have sex without procreation; to have sex before marriage; to avoid marriage altogether. It meant freedom of sexual expression for women and gays, and freedom to love across races, genders, and religions. In the twentieth century, post-Freudian idealists believed free love would result in a new politics, even the end of war, and when I heard the phrase “free love” I would helplessly think of 1967, of young people listening to acid rock in this park.
In science fiction, free love had been the future. The new millennium had promised space exploration, fail-safe contraception, cyborg prostitutes, and unrestricted sexuality. But the future had arrived, along with many new freedoms, and free love, as an ideal, had gone out of fashion. We were free to have coregasms, but the hippies had been naive; the science fiction wasn’t real. The expansion of sexuality outside of marriage had brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, the time limits of fertility, the delicacy of feelings. Even as I settled for freedom as an interim state, I planned for my monogamous destiny. My sense of its rightness, after the failed experiments of earlier generations, was like the reconstruction of a baroque national monument that has been destroyed by a bomb. I noticed that it was familiar but not that it was ersatz, or that another kind of freedom had arrived: a blinking cursor in empty space.
The friendly blandness of Google’s interface bestowed blessing on the words that passed through its sieve. On Google, all words were created equal, as all ways of choosing to live one’s life were equal. Google blurred the distinction between normal and abnormal. The answers its algorithms harvested assured each person of the presence of the like-minded: no one need be alone with her aberrant desires, and no desires were aberrant. The only sexual expectation left to conform to was that love would guide us toward the life we want to live.
What if love failed us? Sexual freedom had now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I had not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I was unhappy.
I decided to visit San Francisco that spring because my desires and my reality had diverged beyond the point of reconciliation. I wanted to picture a different future, one aligned with the freedom of my present, and in those years, San Francisco was where the future was going to be figured out, or at least it was the city America had designated for people who still believed in free love. They sought to unlink the family from a sexual foundation of two people. They believed in intentional communities that could successfully disrupt the monogamous heterosexual tradition. They gave their choices names and they conceived of their actions as social movements. They saw in new technology an opportunity to refashion society, including ideas about sexuality. I understood that the San Franciscans’ focus on intention marked the difference between my pessimism and their optimism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.
I could have found these communities in New York or almost any American city. I would not be the first person to use California as an excuse. I used the West Coast and journalism as alibis and I began to consider my options. Eventually I reached the point where the thought of not having examined the possibilities filled me with dread. But if in my early thirties the future would have simply arrived as I had always imagined, I would have abandoned my inquiry. I would have embraced the project of wifeliness, monogamy, and child-rearing and posted them as triumphs for collective celebration on digital feeds. When I first began to explore the possibilities of free love, I still half-expected that destiny would meet me halfway, that in the middle of all the uncertainty I would come across an exit ramp that would lead me back to all the comfortable expectations and recognizable names.
I was so disingenuous. “But what is your personal journey?” the freethinkers would ask, and I would joke about this later with my friends.
Copyright © 2016 by Emily Witt