Permission to be Tender

I propositioned a friend with a sleepover. He was the first person in a while who seemed to fit the bill, in terms of attraction and comfort. So I went for it.

All of my other friends told me it was a terrible idea. Each one had different advice on how I might play the situation better to get what I wanted. But I’d run out of patience. The way I saw it was that if it was taking up precious space in my mind, I needed to ask, to know, so I could deal with the fallout and move on with my thoughts.

I sent the text without much anxiety. More with humor, actually. I’d asked scary questions before. It hadn’t always gone well, and it had always been gut-wrenching. But I’d been through enough cycles to learn; better out than in. 

I’ve learned that the wretched fear I feel when I press send, as I wait for the response, is, in terms of Brene Brown, “vulnerability shame”. And so I’ve come to honor it as bravery. And realize that I don’t ask these questions for a result, I ask them to speak my mind, my truth, and gather facts so I can better gauge reality. 

This time I got denied. I think. The answer was complex. All about old wounds and not wanting to lose our cherished friendship. But fuzzy enough that I just decided the answer was no.

I had feelings about it, for sure. I didn’t feel rejected per se, but kind of…frustrated. Despairing maybe. 

It had been a long year. I’d been lonely. And I’m selective. And that is not a good combination. The kind of lonely I am is not soothed by strangers. Because I want to melt and relax and feel real, and I don’t do that with strangers.  

So this man seemed perfect. Because I am comfortable with him, because we are open with each other, and honestly – selfishly – because he is emotionally unavailable. Like he is just the right level of comfort without commitment.

That would wear in, though. Just as our friendship had worn in and then I wanted intimacy. Our intimacy would wear in and I would want commitment, I’m sure. And then, he would be standing there, just the same as when we started, and I would be wanting more, just further down the road, and more invested.

After nearly 36 years of male friendships, I am starting to wonder if they are actually possible without at least a little dabble into (or a talk about) intimacy. Truth is, I get tired. There’s only so much play and talk I can do before I want to relax and settle in a still, silent, intwined kind of way. Doesn’t everyone need that though? Comfort?

I felt discouraged that it isn’t easier for me to sink into that stillness, with myself and with others. 

I felt sad that it isn’t easier for humans to give each other comfort without confusion.  

And I felt trapped, with no one to melt with. No place to fall into soft arms and just…let go. 

I was back to feeling like there were no options in this little, one-track town. Not that he ever was an option, but that now even the idea of an option had gone. Now there were no options, and no fantasies. The idea of comfort seemed a long way away.

It was ok to have feelings, though. I had to remind myself of that. I slept poorly, and woke up ready to fight back my disappointment with coffee and activity. Then instead I let myself sink into it. I hadn’t allowed for feelings in a while.

To allow them felt kind…softer. It’s ok that I was bummed. 

Because then there was reality. There was an end to the questions. And in that there was power. Because clarity opened a space where something new could rush in.

The next day I lay on a friend’s round rug, in the middle of her small, square, one-room cement house, white and clean and softened by cushions and linens and wicker shelving from Marshalls. It felt good to be somewhere new, somewhere soft. We shared our emotional twists and turns of the last weeks, sifting through files and chapters to catch up on each others’ stories.

The man in question lived just down the hill. I peeked out the window and saw him mowing his lawn. Not that I was creeping, just that it is such a small town. I did not go say hello. Not because my proposition ended our friendship. And not because I was bitter, (I was feeling better already), but because that little studio bungalow was all I wanted in that moment. Filled with the smells of our dinner, and the tenderness of our talking. We just sat and lounged and melted on that rug.

The phone rang. I saw the name and thought to let it go to voicemail, but something tugged at me, some urgency. So I picked it up. Asked my dear friend how she was.

“Not very good,” she whimpered, thick with tears. She needed to take her partner to the emergency room, but they wouldn’t let her daughter in. Could I watch her?

“Of course!” I said. “I am at Alyka’s house. I will send you the pin.”

We ushered the bold little girl into the sacred little house. She was watchful for just a second, barely wary. Her reservation was paper thin. We welcomed her into the woman cave. The witchy womb.

“This is the sitting rug!” I told her, throwing myself to the floor once again, in a gesture of complete surrender. She grinned and plopped down too, then dumped her backpack of stuffed toys out beside me. She handed me a thin paperback book and ordered me to “read!”

Hours passed. We danced, and sang, and tormented the cat. For a quarter hour, I became a giant mosquito and she swatted me with the electric racquet as I tried to suck her blood by poking my fingers at her tickle spots. We shrieked and giggled and more than once I got zapped for real and checked to see that the racquet was turned off. This made her giggle even more. 

When it came time for sleep, the three of us snuggled into Alyka’s bed, the little girl between. We watched a cartoon and burrowed into the softness of blankets, the softness of bodies, the softness of company. Then Alyka told a story as I rubbed the girl’s back and we sank into the soft presence of a child sleeping, arms wrapped her stuffed elephant.

And just like that, my unmet desire was filled. Just one day later, out of nowhere, I found myself curled like a kitten with friends. And isn’t that what we crave, after all? 

In that fluffy bed, in the glow of soft nightlights, and the calm breath of sleeping bodies, I suddenly thought of my friend down the hill, and my heart broke for him. Because he is a grown man, and he doesn’t get to do this.

Women and sisters, mothers and daughters, we can do this. We can melt and be soft. Men and brothers, fathers and sons, they do not do this. For this level of surrender, a man needs a lover, a partner, or children. No wonder many men are so tough and calloused.

But before we were men or women, we were all children, and we all needed this. I remembered the more liberal of my friend groups, men and women piled together in comfort, and I smiled.

I sent love down the hill, wishing I could give my friend comfort without confusion. Wishing he could have uncomplicated tenderness to heal the wounds that keep him closed to tenderness. Wounds made by the loss of that very tenderness. A tenderness that usually only a woman can bring, and a woman can take away.

And I sighed, so grateful in for the ability to create softness within the bounds of my own body. And the cultural permission to share that softness with whoever would receive it.  

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