February 24, 2020

Why I Miss Flirting

In my 20s and 30s, while living in Manhattan, I worked as a journalist, and attended press events, art openings and parties every single night for 13 years. I flirted with everyone I met — older men, younger men, women, dogs.

I wasn’t even always conscious of doing it — smiling coyly, teasing, paying rapt attention, offering praise, withholding praise. It didn’t need a clear motive or direction. Flirting was more part of the background, the emotional soundtrack of those days. It was an attitude, a way of saying, “Let’s take the fun and supercharge it.”

It takes some charm to flirt, some confidence. I was aided by assuming that people wanted to talk to me, that I was, as my mother had insisted throughout my childhood, “like sunshine entering a room.”

I’m not saying I actually was all that attractive or sunny. But if you think you’re sunshine, you can bring in the warmth. As the study of emotional contagion shows, we pick up the body language, tone and enthusiasm of others, map it in our own brains, then bounce it back. If you make an effort to be interesting and engaged, you get a lot of attention back at you.

This flirting didn’t have a sinister underside. I did experience manipulation at work, but not sexual. People in power can bully and exploit younger employees in a variety of ways, it turns out.

My boyfriend was a big flirt, too, which was fine. We always were out, and every encounter was a possible story, a potential connection.

There was plenty to complain about in this lifestyle. Such as being unmarried, childless and living in a tiny apartment in a dirty, loud city of ever-escalating rents. My boyfriend began lamenting our “extended adolescence.” Wasn’t it time to grow up?

So we married. Moved to the country. Had a child. Then fled the country, split up, and moved to Los Angeles. I was 45 and single again.

I assumed I’d step out into the busy, buzzy social scene I’d known. Imagine my surprise — most people my age are married, it turns out. Or super-set in their single ways. And everyone is tired by 9 p.m.

Not that I could go out anyway. My son needs dinner and a bath. I’m in the comfy-fleece-pajamas stage of life, cuddling on the couch with my child and our dog. I’m happy to be here, truly. But for me, middle age and parenthood have dovetailed with a near-total lack of daily flirtation.

Perhaps it’s my age. My neck looks fine, but I feel bad about my chin. Of course, we should value ourselves — and others — by the content of our character, not the elasticity of our skin. We all age, if we’re lucky; the visible appearance of said good fortune is not a moral failure.

Maybe it isn’t about looks. Maybe it’s work. Newspapers and magazines have contracted, grown sober, disappeared. Even if I go to the nearby WeWork, or the WeWork down the street from that, I’m usually hunched over my laptop, alone, as are so many other solo-preneurs.

I could flirt with a man on an OKCupid date, or someone I meet at comedy club or at a theater. But most divorced men my age only want one thing: remarriage. Many older men who have been single for more than three months have had their fill of freedom and its handmaiden, loneliness.

I think there might be a new reticence among men, a prudishness, a fear of making a mistake.

I often don’t flirt these days for fear of being taken seriously. The men seem to worry about something similar. I think there might be a new reticence among men, a prudishness, a fear of making a mistake, being taken as a predator when they meant to add some spark.

Flirting has a real role in human relations, and I miss it. I miss the champagne-like fizz of possibility, the zing of recognition that you’re saying something without using your words. I also miss the innocence that relating comfortably in this way now seems to suggest.

I don’t want to lose the playfulness, the nuance. Constantly suspecting indecency can certainly expose it, but it also can go too far, create a culture of mistrust and fear, which is not decent or humanist or loving.

Eventually, my child will grow up. The sounds of his laughter and running — and of the dog skidding across the wooden floor after him — won’t fill my rooms. Whether I’m single or remarried, I hope the feeling in my life once again will be super-social and a little sexy, light and giddy and free.

Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”