When I saw her, as she headed to work on the train early one morning, her hair was still damp and she looked slightly worn and only half awake. Nonetheless, she was quite beautiful. Not beautiful in the dewy, fresh-faced way she probably looked when she arrived in Washington a few years earlier, but very attractive all the same. In spite of her still hard-body figure and smart, slightly provocative clothes, there was a hint of vulnerability in her body language — a certain tentativeness. She was obviously “with” the young man she sat beside, but there was something missing. And it was not just the wedding rings that neither of them was wearing. It was something else.
There was, for instance, a notable absence of any of the little instinctive non-verbal gestures of connectedness on his part that two people in love can’t help but exude. There were no hints of affection or any warmth toward her coming from him. Certainly nothing you would mistake for tenderness. From the looks of him, you might have guessed that they were strangers. And in many respects, they probably are.
She, however, was another matter. Several times, she seemed about to reach out and touch his arm, but she didn’t. She didn’t seem confident about doing so, even though they were pretty obviously “friends with benefits,” as they call it these days. They looked to be about 30, though it was hard to be certain. What they obviously were not was anything like we were at that age: married and so madly in love with each other we couldn’t stop making contact and being together. Watching them exit the train, it was pathetic to see him stride off leaving her to catch up and come along side . . . but not touch. Can’t act possessive, you know. Don’t want to scare him off.
Why would she settle for this? Why would she be party to such a lousy deal?
In Washington, like in most places these days, it works something like this. The young women – fresh out of college, where many of them have experimented sexually to one degree or another – arrive full of ambition and energy. They have expectations of an interesting job and . . . and what? Certainly not marriage. The majority of them definitely want the attention of the men they interact with, and they aggressively compete in their dress and behavior to get it. One night stands and moving in with some guy –– on their own terms they like to think –– are no big deal for many of them after their indoctrination at college.
It’s the moving out and moving on, time and again, that eventually take their toll. This calls for more aggressive partying. With enough alcohol to dull the senses (as it lowers the inhibitions and eases the memories), the young woman may manage to ignore the slide at first. There are still a lot of guys who are interested, to a degree. Maybe not the most desirable ones; they are migrating to the next crop of young things. But guys are guys, and they can be counted on to enjoy the “benefits” they get for little or no expense. These are, after all, post-modern women who pay their own way.
But when a girl hits 30-ish, she begins to sense things slipping away from her. If she’s not stupid, she sees that not as many men notice her as once did, and she becomes aware that her biological clock is ticking. If she is not blind, she takes stock of the 40-ish women who arrived before her and likely isn’t happy at the thought of ending up like so many of them. Oh, these 40-ish women are talented, experienced and respected for the professional way they can get the job done on the Hill, in the government agencies or in corporations or non-governmental organizations. In many instances, they are absolutely indispensable. But. Big “but.” But these professional women are never going to have the big romance that girls dream about. If and when they marry, it is often to some man whose first, and quite possibly second, marriage has gone up in smoke, and he is looking for something comfortable, something that “works.” If she is really, really lucky, this man –– whose first wife didn’t appreciate him –– may be a very wonderful, accomplished fellow and may even have kids he really adores (when he sees them every other weekend): a real ready-made family for her.
But that’s certainly not the dream –– however ill-defined the dream was –– that she brought with her to Washington.
Cities have always provided the anonymity for prodigals to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. But today is different. Prodigals are passé. Much of society, including many religious leaders, has squashed the notion that sex outside of marriage is immoral. It’s possible in this day and time, that no one ever told the attractive young woman on the train that it was “wrong” –– whatever that quaint concept might mean –– to move in with a guy to “test out their possibilities.” And it’s equally likely that no one ever told her just how scarred up and used up she was going to get playing the Washington game, the one where the guys win and the girls are left with little to show for the “benefits” they thought were paving the way to somewhere, wherever it was they thought they were going.
The newly arrived haven’t got a clue about what they are up against, and in their youthful confidence they wouldn’t believe you if you tried to explain it to them. You have to feel sorry for the older ones who played the game and lost; they’ve made their beds and now they lie in them, alone. It’s the ones in the middle, like the lovely 30-ish young woman on the train, who are still hoping against hope, who really tear my heart out.
She can feel the lack of commitment of the young man sitting beside her, and she doesn’t know how to break through. The sex, great as she tries to make it, isn’t working for her like she’s seen on the screen. He isn’t bonding with her. She can sense it. But she doesn’t want to face it. She is in emotional limbo, trapped with nothing left with which to close the deal.
It’s for sure; she is not hoping to join the ranks of the women who are only indispensable to their boss at work; that’s not the kind of indispensability most women dream of, unless, of course, they’re having an affair in hopes of morphing a professional relationship into a personal one.
If she stopped and faced reality, she would have to acknowledge that traditional values aren’t so foolish after all. What is foolish is the lousy deal that today’s women are choosing when they miss the fact that sex belongs within the bonds of marriage where it was intended to be and where, as many women and men attest, it can make its magic.