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On Not Learning to Flirt

On Valentine’s Day, reflecting on the limits and boundlessness of a father’s love

Daphne Merkin
February 12, 2010
(father and daughter in silhouette by The Q; some rights reserved.)
(father and daughter in silhouette by The Q; some rights reserved.)

It begins with your father, the First Man in your life, this primal love affair—not sexual in nature, but with the faintest erotic undertone—that will lead on to other, more fleshed-out romances. At some moment in time you start to take in the Otherness of him, the ways in which he is different from you, from the muscles in his arms to the scratchiness of his cheeks. It might be one day when you are rushing past him in your corduroy overalls to rescue your favorite stuffed panda that has gotten stuck behind a bookcase and he swoops down and picks you up, unable to resist your allure. You in turn giggle happily and throw your arms around his neck, lay your head on his reliable shoulder, the two of you basking in mutual adoration. Or it might be on a summer afternoon when he carries you in your striped bathing suit with the sweet ruffles into the ocean, tall and strong, stronger than the waves, and coaxes you into the water, the first step toward learning how to swim. “Don’t be afraid, Princess,” he says. “I’m here.”

Years later, you begin to realize that the power is more two-way than you had once thought, with his being in the position of knowing how to do everything, from science experiments to driving a car, and you in the position of willing acolyte. You begin to realize, that is, that you actually have some power over him, can get him to override your mother’s refusal to let you meet up with some friends on a school night. Somewhere in adolescence or just before, when boys come into your life bearing their weirdness and their desirability, you try out some of your father-proven feminine wiles on them, smile and play with your hair and talk in that soft, slightly unsure-of-itself voice that your father always responds to. And so the pattern is set, encoded early on before you are aware of it, to be called upon later in earnest when the dance of the sexes heats up.

Or so, at least, is how I imagine it happens: how one learns to flirt. Your father sees you through the rapt gaze of paternal love and you in turn borrow from that gaze, envision yourself as covetable, expect the males who come in contact with you to share this point of view. Admittedly, I base this developmental scenario on secondary rather than primary sources—on observation and induction rather than my own experience, seeing as how my father never called me Princess, although I conceived a desire to be addressed like a royal when a friend in sleep-away camp received a postcard addressed thusly. Nor do I remember ever catching the moonlight in his eye. My father’s interest lay firmly elsewhere, in his work, in the life of the synagogue, in my mother. I recall trying to inveigle him into focusing on me, clambering on his lap when I was little, where I languished, writing him a poem when I was older, which I was the only one to be moved by.

So no, it never clicked for me the way it’s supposed to, this first of all love affairs. This maladaption is something I think about from time to time, but especially around this time of year, with Valentine’s Day hovering round the corner, wrapped up in red roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, gooey with official sentiment. The holiday itself leaves me cold, but I’m not sure whether this is a critique of consumer culture or an ingrained defensive posture on my part about a lack of real sentiment early on.

I was, for all intents and purposes, a fatherless girl, looking for a male presence that was mostly an absence. And whereas this lack might have caused one to redouble her efforts, might have created an ever-stronger wish to coax forth an engagement with or at the very least a minimal awareness of her, things didn’t happen that way for me. By the time I was an adolescent, I pretty much gave up the fight. I decided to ignore my father’s relevance to me, if only to minimize the impact of my irrelevance to him. I pretended that we were passing ships in the night, two people who just happened to be related and could both be found peering into the same near-bare fridge at the midnight hour only because of proximity.

More importantly, I refused to woo the attention of my male peers the way I saw other girls doing: playing dumb, playing with their hair, acting all admiring. I told myself that I didn’t see the point: what were boys, after all, but posturing members of the opposite sex, unknowable (despite the fact that I had three brothers), unpredictable, insatiable in their need for admiration? Looking back, it would be more truthful to say that I never learned how to stoop to conquer, how to stroke the male ego and get my own stroked in return. And so I decided to reject before I could be rejected.

Oh, there were the occasional boys who got through my armamentarium beginning in high school, who saw through my defenses and stirred my interest. There was Victor, who was intense and moral to the point of self-righteousness; David, who made me bootlegged tapes of Bob Dylan and tried to get me to like smoking pot as much as he did by making me enormous roaches which I, in turn, would let rot in my desk drawer. And then there was Alan, whom I found immensely sexy—sexy enough to kiss in the presence of some ancient stone-carved onlookers in a room at the Met when I was 16—even though I didn’t agree with his reverent feelings about Ayn Rand. More than 30 years later I still think of all three of them, gone off into the vast recesses of adult life, wonder if they ever think of me.

But those were the exceptions, the boys who may have appreciated my looks—for all my radiating hostility, I had long, straight hair, large breasts and almond-shaped “bedroom” eyes—and were willing to overlook the tensions that marked my interchanges with the opposite sex in favor of my barbed wit and diverting if melancholic line of thinking. In the main, I remained resistant, refusing to flirt with the gorgeous Israeli who taught us Hebrew and whom all my friends vied for in my junior year of high school, then acting hesitant several years later with the brainy Shakespeare professor at Columbia who clearly warmed to me. (And I to him, truth be told.) The problem was that I could never figure out a way to indicate the attraction the male sex held for me, so busy was I being caught up in self-protective measures lest I be made a fool of, imagine myself the apple of an eye that had barely noticed me to begin with.

The apotheosis of that attitude—its defining moment, so to speak, after which things began to thaw—came in my early 20s. I was invited one summer to spend a weekend in New Hampshire with the writer Saul Bellow at the behest of his agent, who had recently taken me on as a client. Bellow was his larger-than-life, oxygen-eating self, as charming a host as you could wish for, discoursing on everything from Bach to his secret recipe for tuna fish that called for a tablespoon of ketchup. He was solicitous of me, praised what writing of mine he had read, and in general conspired to make me a happy guest. But his very assumption of masculine irresistibility, which his agent had succumbed to long ago, put my teeth on edge and I spent a good deal of time taking walks by myself so as not to have to be an audience to his sweltering ego.

Towards the end of the stay, Bellow and I were talking outside, just the two of us, while he tilled his bounteous garden. I could swear he did an imitation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather by cutting an opening into a piece orange skin, sliding it over his teeth and then smiling at me ghoulishly, but whether I am inventing this in retrospect or it really happened, I know I suddenly felt tender-hearted toward him. As Bellow was seeing us off, I leaned over to give him a hug and after we had said our goodbyes, he added, in a quiet voice, “Be kinder to the male gender.” This suggestion, in the simplicity of its appeal and the vulnerability that lay behind that appeal, broke through my already-wobbly defenses, opening up vistas of affection withheld and received that I mostly shied away from. I cried all the way to the airport and then throughout the plane ride, feeling that I had been seen and understood, that the once-ignored little girl was now an adult woman whose feelings and responses left their mark on the male beholder.

And yet, even that is not the whole story. My father may not have known the names of any of my friends or bothered to attend my college graduation, but he did keep copies of everything I wrote—the extent of which I only discovered after both my parents had died. Although it was not his style to make encouraging noises, I knew he respected my work—indeed, that he shared my interest in singular words and the construction of shining sentences, notwithstanding (or, perhaps, precisely because of) the fact that English was his third language.

According to psychological findings, one of the most positive effects of a good father-daughter relationship is that the girl discovers a sense of mastery, how to make herself effective in the outside world. Somewhere along the way I must have imbibed from my father that writing was a worthwhile occupation and that my thoughts—at least on books—were not to be sneered at. Indeed, some months ago, a woman doing research for a book about successful women and their fathers came to interview me. In my conversation with her, casting about for memories, I was suddenly reminded of the birthday cards my father used to send me, which always included a little witticism or play on words. (I recall one such card he signed “Enchante,” shortly after my novel Enchantment had come out.)

So you might say that if I failed to learn how to flirt in the more obvious, Hugh Hefner-ordained ways, I learned an alternate means of flirting—flirting with my mind, which was the part of me my father honored. And although that is a more rarified form of seduction, leaving out whole swaths of the male population, for those men to whom it does speak, it tops a glimpse of décolleté or fawning questions about his day at the office each and every time. This approach may not pan out in the conventional way, and it certainly won’t bring you roses on Valentine’s Day. But you can always look ahead, and buy yourself some daffodils in time for spring.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel, Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.

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