BY KATHY PERUTZ
“Qu’il est beau!” exclaimed the chambermaid at the small hotel on the left bank of Paris. How handsome he is!
“N’est-ce pas?” I said. It was early summer, 2004. We were looking at the photograph on the dust jacket of My Life, Bill Clinton’s autobiography just out in the U.S. and already for sale at The Village Voice, a small Anglo-American bookstore on the rue Princesse, where I’d bought the last copy.
A beautiful man, we agreed. She and I were generations apart, cultures apart (she, French North-African, in her 20’s; me, New Yorker by way of Central Europe, already past 60) but we each felt the attraction, saw the humor playing on his features, responded to the startle of intimacy that made it seem we knew each other in a way having nothing at all to do with his wild celebrity.
A few months later back home, walking east along 53rd Street after my hairdresser appointment, I noticed a small crowd outside Chase Manhattan on Park Avenue and asked the closest bystander what was happening. “Bill Clinton’s in there,” he said. “A meeting. They say he’s coming out soon.”
I had the time, nothing much on for that balmy Fall afternoon and even as I moved to join the throng, people started drifting away, their lunch hour over, the siren call of work thrumming in their ears. Within a few minutes I was in the front row behind a white barrier and a moment later, he came out. smiling, striding towards me. We shook hands. In his astonishingly blue eyes the heavens opened. I blushed, he held my gaze for another beat and then he was reaching past me to the right, toward the outstretched arm of the man behind me. My abandoned hand brushed against the sleeve of his jacket, a soft wool sleeve that I found myself stroking as I whispered to him, “Take me with you. . . take me with you,.”
Of course he didn’t, and of course I wouldn’t have. . . .(?) In any case, it was over in seconds, he somehow dematerialized and I tripped home, still on air when I came into the lobby of our building and told everyone there that I had met, and actually touched the hand of Bill.
A slide captured in memory, a bit of fluff, a few seconds of flirting. Of course his fame added to it, but the nut of the encounter was that split second of recognition, true or imagined, when my heart went out to him taking the rest of me with it. The spice of life, the playfulness of desire, the lightness of being (thank you, Milan Kundera) that provide pleasure, optimism, energy. In other words, sex. Not mating, not dating, certainly not procreating. Flirting is the added accessory, a gift of the gods to make us forget we are mortals and will die, forget how old we are or sick or lonely or how many bills we have to pay. Simply a frivolous bit of excitement or arousal, with no past and no future, just a crowing NOW of pleasure.
I bring this up because in the spate of stories about sexual assault, campus rape, date rape, rape by politicians, child molestation and the terrifying rest of it (mostly brought on by a torrent of violence from the man in the orange dishrag who seems to equate sex with the violent appropriation of anything he wants, with “thing” expanded to mean humans, especially female), and since he is followed by hordes of angry citizens who also feel dispossessed and entitled to pillage anything they see, sex has become, in this election campaign and particularly in the last weeks, something that I fear young people may never again know as the loveliest thing on earth, along with babies, sunsets and chocolate soufflé.
Friends much younger than I tell me about their co-workers, employees and children who complain if they get whistled at (“It scared me”) or if road workers throw compliments at their feet as they pass. This is without any contact at all, the kind of bouquet I used to relish as a young woman (and even more as I grew older), or a kind of dance, a form of play in a world too regulated and predictable, the sudden compliment that tells you someone thinks you’re pretty, or cute, or simply nice, and that there’s laughter on the breeze, sex is in the air and in the mind, and you move on to your meeting or your difficult times with a family member with a sense of leavening, legerity, lightness.
Flirting was, and still is part of the grand scheme of sex, which includes but is not limited to, love and friendship and desire. Sex that has nothing whatever to do with issues of feminism or “women’s rights” (which is and should be recognized as a redundancy since women are humans and more humans are women than anything else) or with all the just causes (that should have been resolved a long time ago) like equal pay for equal work, which is so obvious I can’t understand how anyone could argue it. You pay for the product or service and not according to the type of genitalia the producer or service person may or may not possess.
And of course I am not talking about criminal sexual behavior. The violation of one person by another is against every moral precept in the world. And the orange dishrag and his mob of thugs should never be mentioned again in print, ether, air, or any other element; and trauma specialists around the world should be working day and night on a way to erase him & his violators from the minds and memories of anyone who has ever had to think about him and them for even a minute.
Years ago I spent a summer month writing a novel in an Austrian farmhouse near a glacial lake where I took breaks on a small deck owned by a family I knew. There was always a medley of generations on those gray wooden planks, lowering themselves into the icy waters and then scrambling back for more sunning, more tanning lotion and the small barbequed fish on skewers brought around by local fishermen. A boy of maybe twelve or thirteen bantered with a woman who could have been his grandmother. They laughed and teased each other, obviously enjoying themselves, the boy perhaps feeling what it was like to be a man, the woman happy to be regarded not only as a person, a grown up, but also as the woman she was. I was about 23 then, raised in America, and it took me several minutes to puzzle out what was going on. Finally I realized that what they were doing was flirting: amusing themselves a while along the journey through the human comedy of life. Everyone did it here, age no factor in that little country of snow-capped mountains and pastries heaped with whipped cream.
The French did it too, always have. The Parisian or Lyonnais bus conductor reaches out his arm to give a pretty women a lift up onto the bus and is not thinking of grabbing her purse (double-entendre intended). The woman smiles. She likes knowing that people find her pretty. It’s all part of the culture, of enjoying each moment. And it is no more related to sexual assault than a glass of Burgundy at dinner is to the sort of binges that regularly kill high school and college kids, or to the all-day drinking nurtured in gormless suburbs by desperate housewives hoping to kill the hours before night comes to blanket memory.
Sex is within us and part of us and makes up a strong portion of our interconnectedness. We notice if our friends are good-looking and respond to that, and just as we depend on the exchange of ideas with others in order to more clearly define our own and be stimulated to new thoughts, so too we need the interchange (or call it intercourse) of appreciation, of being seen anew, becoming (if only for a moment) the object of someone else’s interest and desire, all of which is part of flirting and can lift us out of despair or impatience or the rut we’re stuck in. A light touch, compliments, the evocation of laughter – all these are a part of it too, of feeling that you are a surprising and delightful person after all. When men whistle at women, it doesn’t mean they want to hurt them or take them by force (except when those men are pathologically unable to think of anything in the world except as an object to be possessed), and I hope that for this new generation of women, if whistles or compliments are thrown in their direction, that what they hear in those sounds are angelic trumpets announcing that Beauty is passing by.
The orange menace threatens, and has already wrought, hatred, fear, suspiciousness, violence and every form of racist and misogynistic bigotry ever known. He has taken away our innocence and beliefs and joy, as well as our personhood, whoever we are, of whatever sex or inclination. Whatever happens in the election and its aftermath, we must apply ourselves to regaining our health individually and as a nation. And before we can return to respect, morality, sexuality, kindness, humor and appreciation of each other, we must rid ourselves of the man and the movement that have made destruction prevail, turned spontaneity into violence and twisted self-love into shame.