The palest of intimacies

March 2000

Many men, I assume, have fantasies that involve dispensing with the negotiations and preliminaries of civilized sexual conquest. For instance, seeing an attractive woman—a waitress, perhaps, a woman at a conference, in a hotel—they imagine walking up to her, telling her they want to have sex with her, and she says something on the lines of “Yes, let’s, right now!”

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera offered his variation: the doctor who tells a series of women to take off all their clothes, and they do. It is also interesting to recall a corollary to this fantasy: the male worry that a woman who would so readily agree to have sex must either be a prostitute, mentally ill or substantially less attractive than she at first seemed.

For some years now, while waiting in check-out lines I have had what seems to be a related fantasy. It arises when I see a young, attractive, reasonably well-to-do woman ahead of me. I see her digging money out of her purse or pockets, and I imagine her coming up a little short. My fantasy kicks in—perhaps, flustered and chagrined, she is going to have to set one of her items aside.

In a squeamish version this item might be a box of tampons, but this is the first time this has occurred to me; I am more drawn to the idea of a small box of cookies, or a piece of fruit. Which, it will turn out, the young woman does not have to forgo, because I proffer the sum she needs. And then—this is what provides the more acute pleasure—I do not walk out of the store with this woman, I do not propose a cup of coffee, etc. I keep my head bowed. Like a robot Good Samaritan, I sense the young woman’s needs, provide what’s needed, withdraw my hand.

Obviously this is not quite the “random act of kindness” which is apparently still urged by bumperstickers in university towns and other places where the full compass of self-interest is aggressively overlooked. The recipient of my generosity has hardly been chosen at random—besides my erotic interest, there is the fact that she hardly needs the gift.

Perhaps she and I both, and separately, tremble ever so slightly and privately, sensing the actual target of my magnanimity—sex.

Her lips part. She begins thanking me.

I shake my head, not wishing to have the “simple generosity” of my gift sullied by the suggestion that I was expecting even this palest of intimacies.

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