Monday, July 7, 2008

Wrong number

Last night I went on a second date with someone.

The next morning at 6:45, I was sitting down to breakfast and had just finished a reprint of the NYT article about need for Orthodox Jews to be more open about sex, and the phone rings. I run to get it.

Guy, sounding a bit muffled for the entire conversation and at times inaudible: "Hi. How are you doing?"

Me, assuming it was my date: "Pretty good. You're up early."

We exchange the usual generic preliminaries. I had been in the kitchen preparing to put breakfast together, but went into my room and sat on my bed to avoid waking up my roommate.

Guy: "It sounds like you're still in bed."

Me: "I've been up for awhile. I was just preparing breakfast, but went back to my room to talk to you."

Guy: "I really wish I could be there with you and hold you. Are you dressed? What are you wearing?"

Me, thinking that this seemed pretty premature: "I'm not dressed yet. I'm thinking about going jogging, so dressed for that."

Guy, wistfully: "Do you want to run together? I'll come over."

Me, thinking doesn't he have to get to work?: "Well, I don't run very fast. I think you'd be disappointed."

Guy: "But we could run together holding hands... Say something sweet."

Me: "Chocolate. Popsicles."

Guy: "Something sweeter."

Me: "Um, .... I can't perform on cue. Aren't the sweetest things the things that come up spontaneously? Anyhow, I didn't peg you for being such an early riser."

Guy: "I just missed you."

Me, thinking it's been less than 8 hours and wondering whether I would hear from this guy every 8 hours from now on: "Um, I missed you too. So, shall we get together later this week?"

Guy: "Wait, is this Shira [not the name he used]?"

Me: "Shira?" My first thought was that my second date was seeing other people, which is totally reasonable, but how tacky after the conversation.

He gets embarrassed as we figure out it's a wrong number. He tells me his name, say Yonatan. I give my full name, first and last. I explain that I thought he was last night date, and somehow he asks me if I'm religious, and how religious. We establish that we're both observant Jews. In spite of the confusion somehow it was a comfortable conversation and this being a huge coincidence, it is the kind of thing which is always billed as fate (I've heard at least one wrong number story where they ended up getting married), so he feels the need to add, "But I have a girlfriend." Obviously. We exchange sociological affiliations, high school, synagogue, grew up where, which yeshiva in Israel, etc., and establish how this mistake happened. I'd never heard of his synagogue, high school, or Israel yeshiva, so I assume that they are black hat (yeshivish).

I'm ready to hang up, but somehow it feels momentous that we had this phone call, and maybe we should keep in touch, though that would be ridiculous, so I settled for saying that I'm sure we would see each other around given how small the world evidently is.

But he asks my advice what to get as a gift for his girlfriend for her birthday. She's just-out-of-college age from a very religious background, and he's a few years older, and they've been together 2 years. He remarks on the irony that she's from a much more religious background, but rebelled a lot more than he did, and I ask if it's really an irony.

I ask why they don't get married already: 2 years is a long time, and honestly I'm a bit afraid for her that the relationship will drag on and break up and she'll lose the time. Her family wants her to marry someone more religious, and continues to set her up with more religious guys. It's unclear whether her family knows about him, but she apparently isn't willing to go against them at this point, or maybe she doesn't feel that it's necessary to think about marriage yet. Around her family, she adheres to the standard dress code, but in other circumstances she wears pants (normally not worn except among the most liberal Orthodox), and her roommates think she is with relatives when she is staying over at his place. He says dreamily, "It's so nice just to spend the night together, just kissing and holding each other, nothing else."

We have a generic conversation about gift ideas, almost anything he gets her she'll love etc etc, somewhere in the middle of which he says she wants to be shocked and he wants to get her something "shocking, sexy and fun."

"Sexy" seemed like a funny word to use --- obviously he and his girlfriend were somewhat intimate, but I had no idea how much. I was thinking of recommending one of the women-owned sex shops in NY, but didn't want to make any assumptions, so I asked what he meant by "sexy."

He tells me that they're going upstate for her birthday, and I exclaimed what a wonderful birthday present that was, but apparently he has to get her something in addition. He says he's also worried about spending shabbat in the hotel because of electricity is prohibited on shabbat, and that brings questions about the TV (don't turn it on?) and electric beds (?!). I suggested he bring a timer for the lights (he joked maybe they should just have the lights off the whole time), and added that if he's really concerned about the electric locks, in a pinch he has what to rely on to use electric locks on shabbat, but obviously other key options are better. After we talk a bit about the keys, he adds, "Will this rabbi say it's okay to make as much love as we want?"

I said that I didn't think that was likely, but some rabbis are accommodating about premarital sex using the mikvah, following usual procedure of married couples.

He says, "The thing is, we've done everything and anything. Everything! But not the act itself. And now we're planning to do the act while we're away."

I ask about protection, and he responds immediately, "Birth control or condom. We haven't decided yet. She doesn't want to use a condom because she wants to feel [incomprehensible]." I get worried, but apparently she started the pill awhile ago in anticipation, so they're safe.

I repeat the textbook line about condoms always being a good idea just in case and to get into the habit, although in this case, it seems unlikely that they're likely to have sex with other people --- it's already a big deal with each other after 2 years of dating. I think about mentioning UTI risk, but don't.

We talk about mikvah and premarital sex, and what different people do. He's been resigned that premarital sex was wrong, ans they decided they were going to break the law, and there was nothing to do about it. He knew that it was better for his girlfriend to go to the mikvah, but the force of the social stigma against premarital sex was so strong that he was willing to do a huge sin rather than violate the social norms. This is unusual, so I'm going to repeat it: he clearly cares about the religion, but he was willing to pick the worse option religiously rather than violate a social norm.

When we think about other religions that ban premarital sex, they can't mitigate it. In Judaism, everyone agrees sex without following the ritual laws involving mikvah is a huge sin, at least as bad as eating on Yom Kippur; premarital sex following the mikvah laws is more murky, but almost everyone will agree that using the mikvah for premarital sex is better than not using the mikvah for premarital sex, and there's a substantial opinion that it's negligibly wrong compared with the alternative.

He was amazed that people talk about religiously reasonable ways to have premarital sex, and I gave him some tips on ways to get around the social issues (i.e., not going to a formal mikvah, but instead using a body of natural water, even with a bathing suit (, but ultimately it's a matter of conscience how much to keep the laws.

He seemed happy to bring his actions a bit closer to Jewish law since that's the usual framework he's working in, but then he realizes that if they're going to have sex for the first time, and follow the Jewish law, they can't have sex again for 7 days, which uses up the time that they have upstate. He really wants the first time to be special. I break the news that of course the first time is special for being the first time, but it tends to last 30 or maybe 90 seconds, and it's only on the second time that couples start to figure everything out. That seems to sober him: if he's going to think about keeping the laws, having sex for the first time will last a very short time and then they won't be able to have sex again for the rest of the vacation, so the vacation can't be so momentous.

He tells me how much he loves her, and from his tone at the beginning of the conversation, it was clear, so again I asked about marriage. We talk some more about the possibilities, and the fact that sometimes people keep the laws and sometimes not. He says he'd like to be more religious; as excited at the prospect of having sex he sounded, he even sounds a little relieved about the idea of marriage, but he's not sure she would be for it. (He didn't say why: liberals would say it's because he doesn't want to sneak around anymore and this is the only way he saw not to sneak around; religious would say that he want to do the right thing; my guess is a bit of both.)

In the end, it sounds like he decided not to have sex and maybe to think more about marriage. It's not clear.

"I have one final question. But I'm too embarrassed."

"It's okay." We go back and forth a bit, with lots of silence on my end to give him space to ask the question before I add, "If you have any further questions, please feel free to call, or I can give you my email address. You can send a question by email if you prefer." It was probably a bit much for him to anchor the conversation more in the real world, so he asked me to hold on and the line went dead.

The conversation lasted half an hour. Presumably he has my number, but I'm sure that's the last I'll ever hear from him. So many times he said, "I can't believe we're having this conversation." Neither could I.

My reactions:

1. What a coincidence that out of all the phone numbers in my city, he reaches someone who speaks a religious language he recognizes, who had personal circumstances such that the first few minutes of the conversation were able to turn into a longer conversation, who at that very moment had just been reading the next page of the newspaper which was about premarital sex among Orthodox Jews, and who was open to having a balanced discussion about the big problem weighing on his mind.

2. Her family likely has no idea how little control they have anymore. They think that they can constrain her marriage choices, but in fact they're just delegitmizing marriage and making it more likely that their daughter is going to have substantial not-leading-to-marriage relationships.

Religious groups lament decline of marriage, and wonder why. In this case, it seems pretty clear. Here the family probably feels more religious pressure than they would have felt in the past to adhere strongly to ever-stricter social norms, so they pressure their daughter, probably about trivial issues. The daughter lives in a different city than her family and has enough autonomy to pursue this relationship, but it takes a real act of courage to stand up to them for a more public issue like marriage, especially given that she doesn't feel any real pressure to get married right then.

3. This guy so clearly wants to do the religiously acceptable thing, but he is also feeling constrained by social norms . He of course wants to have sex, and he was quite proud emphasizing the Everything! they had done prior to this, but he is not too impatient to wait for marriage. I was saying pretty radical things about how it's not unreasonable to have premarital sex with mikvah, so I probably did not prompt his self-presentation instinct to kick in. I think he really did seem to be reconsidering having sex with his girlfriend, and proposing instead.

4. I'm really not primed for early morning counseling. I was groggy and spoke way too much and told him things he already knows. Now that it's afterwards I have so many questions. Perhaps better under the circumstances that I didn't get to ask them.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Very interesting read. Good to know what's out there. I congratulate your therapeutic skills. Wow, you posted this at 5:30 AM.

Integrator said...

Wow!! That sounds like fate to me.

Anonymous said...

The end of that Jerusalem Post article you refer to is a bit silly. Unless you view it from the view of the Rambam (and perhaps others) that people who aren't shomer negiah are choshed on arayot.