To All the Final Girls
I loved everything about Happy Hour and have read it many times. But the storyline I keep returning to is Isa and Noel’s relationship. I think this is because, simply put, I have a Noel problem. I’m irresistibly attracted to men who are “very tall and sometimes sad” and extremely, extremely emotionally unavailable. It’s hard for me to even blame these men when they get surprised by my having needs and feelings and boundaries because I work so hard to suppress all of that when I’m dating. I want to be self-sufficient and independent and effortless and am terrified of being clingy.
But these men are never there for me when I need them, and it’s utterly exhausting trying to conform to other people’s whims. How do you end an entanglement like this—and break the habit for good? Learn to be demanding and “aggressive,” to relinquish the need for someone to be there to catch you when you fall?
Lover of The Unavailable
Thank you for your letter. I am sad to announce that these are my last words of advice at The Baffler. It has been so touching to have received all your letters, and I wish I could have answered them all. I have chosen your particular query because even I find myself walking down this ill-advised path. It’s a very bad habit that takes a concerted effort to quit. I have obsessed over many people who are unavailable over the last . . . fifteen or so years. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the most unavailable ones haunt my dreams well after romantic feelings have faded.
Many young women have written to me about Noel and Isa. I don’t pick up my own novel very often, but when I do I return to those few passages. They serve as a bit of a reminder to simply not engage with those kinds of men because even when I wrote that part—which was probably when I was twenty-four—I knew better. But you do too, and yet here we are! I think so much of the attraction is the challenge of getting someone to treat you like a human, always fighting tooth and nail for respect. How could someone not treat you like the sentient being that you are? Perhaps you’re in the mood for the challenge and have the energy, but you won’t always. The challenge is a trap.
I once wrote a lecture on how glamour and dating are incompatible, and some of the talk dealt with what my friend Melissa Pang coined as “heterosexual squalor,” which she considered “the carnival of indignity and inequity that tends to define the straight woman condition.” A portion of that talk is appropriate here:
I was in New York last week and I passed an old factory building that said, “Top dollar for scraps.” This is sadly, to me, an accurate description of modern dating. Dating often feels like an uphill saga that is convincing people you’re worth it. If not worth love, then at least dinner, or maybe respect. In the 1932 film One Way Passage, William Powell holds the glamorous Kay Francis in his arms and says, “You’re so lovely, it’s hard to be brutal to you.” Unblinkingly she responds, “Up to now men have always been brutal because I am lovely.”
Now, loving unavailable men is one thing, but shrinking yourself down is something I can neither condone nor understand. It is the principle of the thing. If not for yourself but for the girls that come after you. I never saw Gone Girl, but maybe what you describe is what people talk about when they refer to the “Cool Girl Monologue.” It is possible to contribute to making the dating ecology a little less hellish, and we all must lead by example. Do you really want to partake in setting a bad precedent—for yourself and others? These men will treat you the same no matter how small you make yourself, so if you’re going to continue clawing at the unavailable, at least give them something to remember. If someone is acting unseemly toward you or someone else, it is my belief to come right out and tell them. In my opinion, men go around acting a little too free these days. Be up front about how you would like to be treated, but keep in mind that many people cannot be trained (try as we might).
Most of the advice on this subject is well-worn, so I will not touch on things like knowing your value, respecting yourself, etc. etc. My advice is why not try being a little bit of a nightmare? I can’t recall the full names of lots of boys I’ve dated, but I’m almost certain they remember me. Maybe it’s because I picked them up at a bar without exchanging numbers or walked through a series of strangers’ gardens and scaled a wall on New Year’s Eve or broke into their house using their spare key. You must learn to set the tempo; how else will you lead an exciting life when you’re waiting on emotionally stunted men to surprise you? I want more for you. It is true that I fully subscribe to the philosophy of Happy Hour, where men only “punctuate” the story—for god’s sakes don’t make them the headline. I understand that it may seem a little scary, but it is time to be brave.