We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. We didn’t even really date. To be cheeky, after our disaster, I used to call him my “ex-nothing.”
First I saw him around, and then we drank and slept together, and then we talked and went out to dinner, then we slept together, and then one night he slept in my bed but wouldn’t touch me, then I wrote him a long letter, then we didn’t talk, then we talked and slept together, then we didn’t talk, then we talked and kissed, then we didn’t talk. The time, adult-years of it, melts into one long string of silences and noise. I was a mess and utterly invested in him from the get-go. I would have called it love at first sight, if it had worked out at all.
Ben is an extraordinarily perceptive, well-spoken person. He is also a 26-year-old virgin who was recently interviewed by Jia Tolentino at The Hairpin. Ben was diagnosed as a young child with PDD, which stands for Pervasive Developmental Disorder. In Ben’s words, it “encompasses a nonspecific group of disorders on the autism spectrum. What I have is characterized by ‘stimming’ — repetitive movements — and difficulty in terms of socializing and communicating.” Jill Filipovic of Feministe linked to the piece to highlight Ben’s reaction to his first crush and how he perceived his own “creepiness.” The whole interview is fascinating, but I was really taken with how Ben describes how he methodically adapted his social skills through mimicking media scripts and negotiating online spaces:
Do you have any siblings?
I do have a sibling, a little brother eight years younger than me, but I wasn’t close to him growing up. Back then I interacted with people by following certain scripts, and I did the same with him. Like, I’d seen on TV that siblings should always be teasing each other, so I’d tease him, needle him. Only later did I wonder why I was acting that way. Plus, like all teenagers, I tended to be solipsistic and pigheaded. During adolescence, I closed myself off to everyone.
So, I know your ideas of friendship began to change in college. Why was that?
I guess I just met people who really seemed to want to be around me. They sort of put me back together, and gradually I started to feel like a new person. I started questioning all these assumptions I’d made about myself. With them I started trying to see myself as a normal, happy person who was a little peculiar, but not objectionable…
Still, my college friends — these people who didn’t flinch when I loved them, and actually loved me back — made me feel like I could take the next step, which was to think about tackling romantic relationships. I moved to New York, because that’s what you do when you’re 25 and you’re not sure that something is possible but you want to make a go of it anyway.
(Yes!) What was your first step?
The OKCupid thing. It was good for me, because I’d learned how to be sociable on the Internet. I’d been a part of Internet communities for twelve years, and through that, I think I got really good at moving through online spaces.
I recommend that you read the whole thing, with a trigger warning for childhood sexual abuse.
Also, Ben has a gift for metaphors.
Cliff Pervocacy at the amazing advice website Captain Awkward — the comment section will (likely) give you hope for humanity — delivers a personal response to a letter writer who is ready to have sex with her boyfriend, but (she says) for all the wrong reasons. Here’s a portion of Cliff’s response:
I woke up the next morning and it turned out I was the same person. My only transformation was from “shy and nerdy” to “shy and nerdy and had PIV.” On some subconscious level, I had expected PIV to be my “nerd takes her hair down and her glasses off” moment, my debut as a sexual being. And of course it wasn’t. Nobody treated me any differently, because nobody could even tell. I didn’t feel any different, because I wasn’t any different.
I’m sure none of this is a big surprise to you on an intellectual level. But… here’s two pictures of me.
This is me a couple years before I first had PIV. (Also, a baby alligator.)
And this is me a year after. Of course you can only tell so much from a photo, but do I look a little more confident, a little more comfortable in my body, a little more like an adult and less like a child? Does it seem like any of my earnest dorkiness has turned to cool worldliness?
I don’t know. Maybe it does. Maybe there is a difference people can see, or something that did change inside myself. But here’s something you should know: I lied. Those photos are in reverse order.