Just as I’m falling into a delightful dreamlike state, passed out on my boyfriend’s couch with my legs draped over his, a hisssss sound wakes me up.
“Oh, my God,” I say, peekaboo-ing from behind my hands, “Did I just do what I think I did?”
“Yeahhh,” he says, trying hard not to laugh.
“I’m sorry!” I say, then hide again. “You must think I’m so gross.”
But he didn’t think I was gross. He smiled and told me this—yes, farts—was what being intimate was about. “It just means we’re closer now,” he said, while I stared at him, agog.
My boyfriend makes declarations like this all the time. He’ll twist the most embarrassing things I do into the unlikeliest romantic moments. When I came out of the bathroom with a shower cap still on, he told me I looked so beautiful in my “cute little hat.” I’d been hiding this “cute little hat” under the sink for months because I feel old when I wear it. When I burp, he congratulates me. “Good one!”
The man seems to live for these encounters. He claims it makes him feel special to see me so “human.” He’s touched that I’m so comfortable and relaxed around him.
There are a million reasons it’s surprising to me that a man would find these awkward-at-best behaviors cute. But the biggest is that as a woman, I never expected to be adored for the precise things I’d been told for decades make me “too much of a dude” or too “unfeminine” to be in a committed relationship. While I’ve never been tempted to tamp down these aspects of who I am, I have assumed for decades that I’d be undateable because of them.
Ages ago my big sister tried to explain it to me: “If you ever want a partner, Melanie, you’ve gotta stop being so…this….”
She meant: I had to stop insisting I wouldn’t wear socks in the dead of winter. I had to stop eating rice cakes and power bars as meal replacements because I couldn’t be bothered to cook. I had to stop being so resolutely self-reliant, so averse to nurturing myself or others. I had to stop being so much of a dude.
But then I met the man we’ll call Antoine. On our second date, he brought over socks. He’d already figured me out.
Despite the fact I’m a 42-year-old grown-ass woman who’s traveled the world solo, who’s kept tourists alive as a raft guide in tumultuous waters, and who thinks it’s fun to hang off 2,000-foot rock walls, I still can’t seem to take care of basic human needs like hot dinners and warm clothes. Like a lot of men, I take some sick pride in the discomfort. It makes me feel tough and self-sufficient. (I know, ridiculous.) I have never wanted to be treated like a precious prize. And I also didn’t want to be the person in a relationship who’s “thoughtful” or “sweet,” with the traits that romance novels seem to assume all women have coded into our DNA.
So for a long time, I didn’t date at all. I didn’t want to be held back in career or adventures. I loved having sex with whomever I felt like, and I didn’t want to change who I was to accommodate a man. On the rare occasion I did attempt dating, I emphasized sex over connection—I was the caricature of an unevolved man. Forever too proud to ask for help, too afraid to be vulnerable, and too immature to be tied down.
You know this character: It’s as much a fixture of rom-coms as the lovelorn, desperate-for-roses-and-champagne woman. It’s the man who can’t settle down.
It doesn’t shock me now that those flings didn’t work out. As my sister liked to tell me, “No dude wants to date himself.” The men I tried to date were just like me; we were two dudes just dude-ing around. We were two alphas competing over who was tougher and gave the fewest fucks. It never ended well.
I needed a man who wasn’t as afraid of love and relationships as I was. Someone who could teach me to be more thoughtful.
On our third date—after the prescient socks gift—my boyfriend and I watched Brené Brown’s special on Netflix. In it, she talks about the importance of vulnerability. He paused it every 10 minutes to discuss and share. At the end, he cried. He also cries when he sees old people holding hands and hears ballads on the radio: “I can’t help it. I love love!” When we watch movies together and there’s a sentimental moment, he’ll grab my knee and hug it close to him because he “wants to hold the person I love when I see love.” He’s so emotionally fearless; love comes easily for him. And that, in turn, has made me want to try harder to access those deeper parts of myself. As Brown says, being vulnerable in relationships is hard for some. It’s my “arena” to work in. To be honest, I still love hookups and think about one-night stands. I am admittedly reluctant to give up my bachelor habits. And yet, a cheap thrill on Tinder when I’m feeling insecure isn’t worth losing what I’m building toward.
I’d spent the last several years on a bit of a Tinder bender to make up for all the early years I’d been too scared or pessimistic to even hazard dating. Other than one long-distance boyfriend and one open relationship, it was mostly wild affairs, numerous sex friends, and regular one-night stands. Those were formative years for me, though, helping me to finally step into my power as a woman in her sexual prime, let go of my shame and fear around my sexuality, and fully embrace my inner “slut” and cougar. Those years taught me to stop doing shit I didn’t want to in bed, to ask for what I want, and to feel entitled to pleasure. I’m more confident than ever.
But after a while, it had all started to get boring. Just as when I’ve been traveling for too long, new experiences can stop feeling so exhilarating. I was tired. It was just then that I met Antoine and things changed.
After our first date, I thought, “I should probably bang as many dudes as possible before this gets serious!” But I never did. For once in my life, I prefer the depth of a close relationship to the thrill of a one-night stand.
In a real show of growth for me, I even said “I love you” first. I knew he’d been holding back, afraid that he’d scare me if he said it too soon. So I picked a special moment ( and not while we were screwing—ugh, I mean “making love”) and said it. He cried.
I’m also working hard on being more thoughtful, remembering the names of his friends, coworkers, and relatives and asking about them often. I tell him how much I love him even though that runs counter to just about everything in my nature, and I try to talk about the future too.
For the longest time, I thought there was something wrong with me because I’m not like most women. I didn’t want to settle down. I don’t care about Valentine’s Day or all the pink-heart bullshit that comes with it. I don’t believe we need to show love or be shown love with gifts. I have never wanted a box of chocolates. Instead I’m getting the one thing I’ve wanted out of a relationship and the one thing that the media and legions of plastic surgeons tell women we can’t get—the freedom to be a whole, unvarnished self.
Melanie Hamlett is a comedian, storyteller, and journalist from New York City who’s now based in Europe.
Originally Appeared on Glamour