I Thought I Could Only Say No, Until I Was Asked To Say Yes

I’ve grown so practiced in the skill of blocking people out, I’ve nearly forgotten how to let anyone in.

“No?”

“No.” I squeezed my legs together and rolled across the bed the way a child rolls down a hill, said “no” the way that child does when she doesn’t want to go to school.

“It’s okay. It wasn’t working anyway.”

“What?”

“The condom . . . last night.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.”

I had a bleary memory of the sound of a condom wrapper tearing in the middle of the night. I was still half-asleep when he got up all of a sudden. Then I heard a plastic tearing sound, and I thought, “no, it can’t be that. We’ve never talked about that.” I pulled the sheets back over me. He took them down and turned me around, hovering over me, poking at me. I pretended to be asleep and closed my legs and rolled to the other side. “Later,” he said, as if this were just not the best timing.

I’d met Paul* six months earlier at a New York City singles event I’d gotten into with a press pass. “I’m just here for work,” I insisted as I stuffed my face with chocolate mint cupcakes. I’d been sitting alone by the mini Baked By Melissa all night, pretending I was just grabbing one to take back to my imaginary circle of suitors when people looked my way. When a decent-looking guy came to get one, I was relieved.

I had a bleary memory of the sound of a condom wrapper tearing in the middle of the night.

Paul played guitar or some other instrument you play in a rock band and wrote software for a company that personalizes ads or does some other thing companies do with data. We went on two dates after that, Indian food in Murray Hill and karaoke in Kips Bay. He only sang with me once, on “Tonight Tonight” by The Smashing Pumpkins. He wanted to see me again at a ping pong bar and a cat cafe but I was bored and barely attracted to him, so I said I was busy.

Six months later, I drunkenly texted him from a Metric concert, again alone with a press pass and hoping to make something (anything, really) of my night. His obsession with Metric was one of the few things I remembered about him.

We watched the show together, exchanging excited glances as they played our favorite songs, and he invited me to join him at a tapas bar afterward. There, he asked if I was looking for a relationship.

“I think so. But I’m wary of my motives.”

“What about the affection?” He was from Greece and didn’t speak perfect English, but I understood.

“I miss it.”

He walked me home and we hugged for 10 minutes outside my building, running our hands over each other’s backs. “I could hug you all day,” he said, suggesting we go inside where it would be warmer. “No expectations. We can take things slow.”

And we did. We made out a bit and I decided to go to sleep.

So, when he got the condom in the middle of the night, I figured it must have been a misunderstanding. I was safe with him. He listened to Sleater Kinney and had “no expectations.”

But that morning, as he said “never mind” and fingered me determinedly, I felt I’d lost something I couldn’t pinpoint. I faked an orgasm and said I had to go.

Back at my apartment, I googled “depression after hookup.” The internet told me that 47% of women had “post-coital depression.” Maybe this was just hormones. Maybe this was just how casual hookups were for me (I rarely had them, though I wasn’t a stranger to this feeling). Maybe my brain was allergic to all things sexual. Maybe I was only capable of saying “no.”

I had, for a while, been saying the word a lot —

A hand on my bra hook. “No.”

A plea for my number. “No.”

A creepy OKCupid message. “No.”

Did my lexicon reflect some inability to feel desire? My mind swirled and spiraled as I wondered if I was doomed to a future of nixing any and all sexual opportunities.

But then I remembered my experience at The Dove’s Tail a year before — and how that time, I’d said “yes.”

George* had a pink streak in his bleached hair and purple sparkly nails that he said made him feel pretty. On our first OKCupid date, he told me about the matchmaking service he ran at Burning Man and asked me, “What’s something you’ve been struggling with lately?”

Since he was polyamorous and I wasn’t, I didn’t know if I wanted more than a friendship — but I knew I at least wanted that. “It was great to meet you. Let’s hang out again,” I texted him afterward. “Totally, Suzy,” he responded.

After that, he spent two months texting me sporadic photos of campsites, then invited me to watch Star Trek the movie in the “arts space” he shared with nine roommates, three hula hoops, two aerial silks, and four bean bag chairs in San Francisco’s SoMa district. I told myself we could just do this as friends, but part of me — an excited part — wondered if it could evolve into more. Maybe the limits I’d placed on my relationships weren’t necessary . . . He was cute.

A woman named Chipmunk with a jeweled nose who served as Director of Happiness at the biotechnology startup where George worked greeted me when I arrived at the art space.

“Hi, I’m Suzy — George invited me?”

“Excellent! And now, we go up!” the Happiness Director squealed as she dashed up the stairwell.

“Welcome to the Dove’s Tail,” George announced as I handed him a bag of Christmas chocolates I’d bought for 10 cents at CVS. He offered me wine in a rounded metal goblet, popcorn garnished with rosemary, and a seat on my own bean bag.

“Do you like to cuddle?” he asked from the chair beside me as the film’s protagonist met a blue woman.

“Yes.”

I hopped to the adjacent bean bag and buried my head in his cushiony chest. Chipmunk and another roommate darted around the room doing stretches.

George told me everyone at the Dove’s Tail was a science nerd and that bound them together, that they were closer than his family, especially since his father had committed suicide. He squeezed my hand as I said “sorry” so I could feel good about myself for saying it.

He said his polyamorous girlfriend knew I was there and then asked if I’d like to sleep over.

“Yes,” I told him. “But I just want to cuddle.”

“Whatever will make you feel safe and comfortable,” he said. He texted her goodnight, and she told him to have fun.

That’s when he disclosed the impetus behind his nail color. “What makes you feel pretty?” he asked.

“Pretty’s not a feeling.”

“I’m sure you have something.”

“I try not to make things about my looks. That mentality has hurt me.” He held me closer.

He told me he preferred to be the little spoon, but so did I.

“I can compromise,” he said. “There’s a pretty person in my bed, after all.”

I didn’t mind “pretty” that time, though it was “person” that made me beam.

“Can I take my shirt off?” He said he was getting too hot.

“Yes,” I answered. Then I took mine off too just because I could. It was rare to be alone with a man in his room and feel comfortable taking off my shirt with no presumptions on his part.

“Can I kiss you?” he asked.

“Yes.”

The next morning I hopped giddily down Market Street, my fingers jittery as they fumbled for change to get iced coffee at a gas station. I didn’t go home and research depression.

Maybe that was because I’d said “yes” to the night before. And when I could say “yes,” I surprised myself. I was comfortable, it turned out, with more than a cuddle.

If I had the chance, I’d say “yes” to everything out there. But all I usually get to do is close my legs and roll over or keep them open and then leave.

I’ve been so busy keeping my legs shut that I’ve become mute to the desires between them. Every time I start to feel desire, I wonder how it looks on me. How can my being turn him on? Should I put my mouth like this? Should I make some sort of noise?

What will make me feel pretty? How can I make my feelings pretty?

I’ve grown so practiced in the skill of blocking people out, I’ve nearly forgotten how to let anyone in.

But at least I know I can let someone in if I’m given the chance — even just one chance.

It’s a lesson I learned that one January night in a fantastical place called the Dove’s Tail, where men have purple nails and pink hair, people hop to one another on bean bag chairs, wine is served in metal chalices with Santa chocolates, and I get to say “yes.”

*Names have been changed

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