An Open Letter

Thursday night, an uncomfortable flirtation, and how it all could have been different

Adora Svitak


Dear J,

You were the boy behind me on that bus to my friend’s sorority invite in a San Francisco club, standing up as we lurched across the Bay Bridge. It was your birthday, said your fraternity brother, the one with the glasses and affinity for Broad City that made my feminist heart of hearts leap. It was your birthday, and he wanted to “show you a good time.”

Right then would have been the perfect time to say it. “Sorry, I have a boyfriend, but happy birthday!” I could have said casually. And I’d wink, to coolly acknowledge exactly what your frat bro is implying. Flawless, right? Except I can’t wink without moving half my face. More importantly: why would I say “sorry” about a relationship I am happy to be in? So I didn’t say it, because acknowledging your frat bro’s unspoken implication and your unspoken desires would be too blunt, and we have known each other for ten minutes. Ten minutes: apparently, time enough to know a person sufficiently for the light touch on the forearm, shoulder, small of their back, yet not time enough to be able to openly confront the age-old reason for your flirtation. I just wait for the conversation to turn.

I let my inner fourteen-year-old self convince me that this, all of it, is okay. At that age, I didn’t know what flirting was or know enough boys who were good at it to recognize it. I thought that every boy who came close to me saw me either as a little sister or one of the bros. So I think, it’s okay when you let your hand run down my arm, too casual to be a caress. It’s okay when you sit so close that I think I can feel your breath on my face when you exclaim about the Seahawks recruiting the Saints’ tight end. It’s okay when I make you laugh hard enough that you fall to the side until you’re leaning on me and your head is resting on my shoulder, and the beads of sweat that have risen to the tips of your hair lean into the curve of my neck.

That’s when I snap out of it. I gesture to my friend and ask her if she wants to come to the bathroom with me. I’ve never spoken in Girl Code before, never needed to, but enough of my sister’s guilty pleasure “chick flicks” have instilled in me the suddenly deeply useful knowledge that going to the bathroom together is a convenient way to talk, and I blurt to her in the comforting silence away from the relentless baseline of the rest of the club, “This is really awkward but I think one of those guys is hitting on me. What I should I do?”

She gives a little gasp and finally says, “Just act cold, maybe? Ignore him.” I hate myself for entertaining the thought. But he’s a nice guy, I say, again and again and again, he’s sweet, he doesn’t know I have a boyfriend because I didn’t know how to say it. He’s a nice guy. He’s a nice guy. This is the thought that sticks with me, that you don’t deserve my sudden cold shoulder, my studious avoidance of eye contact, the way I look everywhere in the room but at your lip-syncing face when Taylor Swift croons “I got a blank space baby — and I’ll write your name,” because even though my lips moving and my eyes looking at you don’t mean “I’m interested,” I am jaded enough now to realize that everything the both of us have been taught tells us that it does.

A friend from another fraternity comes into the club. We haven’t seen each other in a long while, so we see each other and wave excitedly in recognition. He’s the kind of person to give those hugs you want to live in, and drunken him is even more affectionate. He guides me in one direction with an arm around my shoulder just as you make eye contact with me. I tell him about you, vaguely — “there’s this guy hitting on me” — and he gallantly offers, “I’ll dance with you all night if I need to,” with an expansive wave of his hand. I laugh a little uncomfortably, because even dehydrated and tired me thinks about what this statement says about our society — that the only acceptable way to say no to a boy is to demonstrate that you are already actively occupied by someone else.

A moment later someone — one of your fraternity brothers, I think — passes by closely, and I feel him run his hand over my ass. A flash of shock makes me whip around, as if I could catch him — and what would I even say, if he stayed? I look at my friend and say, “That guy just grabbed my ass!” He shrugs with a laugh and says, “You’re okay, Adora.” You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay — the same line my fourteen-year-old self uses, and maybe that’s why I know it’s so untrue. So I chuckle, but I silently disagree. It is not okay to palm someone’s butt as you’re walking past them, in any universe; his dismissal just reminded me that somehow, he thought of it as normal.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about normal. The way I talk to friends and strangers alike feels normal, but my roommates once told me, “You flirt with everyone.” Everyone? I’m sorry if you were one of those innocents entrapped in a web of teasing insults and generous laughter, a web I never meant to spin. Am I sorry? Is it my fault that friendliness is often equated to flirtiness? Every day, girls walk a tightrope thin as spider-silk, fearing “bitchy resting face” as much as we fear the messages telling us our smiles are yeses. Meanwhile, young men are exposed to damaging ideas like “pickup artistry” techniques that see women as objects to be attained; manuals on the topic advise weakening the “target’s” self-confidence through subtle negative remarks, closing the distance between you and her, and getting her alone — make sure you separate her from the herd.

In a different world, we wouldn’t be predator and prey, all hopeful eyes meeting cold shoulders. I would have sung those Blank Space lyrics right back at you the way I would for any of my girlfriends. I wouldn’t have subconsciously feared that I would lose value to you as someone worth talking to the moment I said I wasn’t single. In a different world, our roles would not be clearly delineated from the moment we stepped onto that bus and faced each other, me craning my neck back to see you, you and your frat brother towering above us and perching your unsteady hands on the tops of our seats. Let’s create that world, because in a different world, J, last night we could have been friends.