Affair of the heart

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A few years ago, I found myself in the middle of a random hookup that suddenly didn’t feel so random. I’m sure it’s happened to you. That rare experience — which inevitably comes when you least expect it — when you encounter someone who manages to chip away at the icy boulders of your psyche. Someone who can talk Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ozzy Osbourne and John Denver while also being tolerable. Some stranger you can instantly tab as a soul mate.

I’ll call this person Todd. I met him one summer at a ranch in Montana. During that time we laughed and played chess and fooled around and, well, as much as I wasn’t looking for it, we (if you’ll pardon the expression) connected. So what happened once I left? We spoke a few times, and the phone calls were so awful and monosyllabic that I ended up whiting out his phone number in my address book. During our final conversation I asked if we were still on for a reunion we had planned. His response: “I’ll call you Sunday, OK?”

Many a Sunday has come and gone, and I’ve heard nary a peep. Clearly, he knew that what we had was over — and he was way past it. Which is not to say that what we had (and we had it a lot) wasn’t good. It was great, in fact, great enough for me to mentally decide, Hey! Let’s take this further. Deep down, however, Todd knew something I didn’t: we weren’t meant to be partners for life, but — damn! — we sure had fun together. We’d shared a nice, worthwhile, no-regrets week. And despite its brevity, our interlude was substantive and real. Then it ended. It was, as I now know, the most misunderstood of affairs: the Meaningful Fling.

More than hormones

Think about it. Less wrenching than a full-blown relationship, less degrading than a one-night stand, the Meaningful Fling offers intensity, romance and visceral stimulation. Yet it manages to leave out the feeling that you’ve spent the past six months churning through an emotional Cuisinart. It’s the perfect liaison. Let’s be clear: The Meaningful Fling is not just about carnal gratification. That would count as the Meaningless Fling, and while that type of activity has its time and place — European trains, late-night bars, the conference-room table with a stressed-out co-worker — it invariably leaves an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth. Meaningless Flings are about scratching a persistent itch, with little emotional involvement or gratification. Meaningful Flings, on the other hand, bridge the gap between insignificance and hypersignificance, merging the thrill of a one-nighter with the familiarity of a friend: Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year; Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca; Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise; Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County; Joseph Fiennes and what’s-her-name in Shakespeare in Love. They all had romances that could only exist in their particular times and places. So the lovers took what they could and enjoyed it fully. Hey, they’d always have England.

Indeed, though there’s no “forever” with a Meaningful Fling, there’s clearly more going on than overenthusiastic hormones.

You can let down your guard with your Meaningful Fling. You can share your dreams. You can show her your romantic side as well as your crazy, neurotic side. You can basically open yourself up fully without a fear in the world because — and here’s the kicker — you never have to see this person again if you choose. It is what it is. A fling. With meaning.

The Meaningful Fling has been clinically tested and proven effective. After figuring out these concepts back in Montana, I’ve spent the last few years further exploring the theory: I went to Italy, and during a tour of the Vatican encountered a photographer I’ll call Umberto, with whom I had a brief Roman holiday. He spoke no English; my Italian is limited to “penne” and “prada.” So we communicated in Spanish, which we both spoke rather well. We got along marvelously, scooted around the city on his little motorino, discussed film, music and art. But neither one of us wanted anything long term. We had 21 days of unadulterated pleasure with none of the baggage of a relationship. There were no pretenses.

My MO: I am responsible for no one’s backpack but my own — and I’m thrilled about that. I returned home physically exhausted but psychically unscathed; I can look back on Umberto and think, va bene. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he lived across the Atlantic. To be sure, the Meaningful Fling works best when there’s some kind of preimposed barrier: say, an ocean, a gig with the Peace Corps, a war. Since there’s no way the relationship can progress, the dilemma about taking it further is removed. Moreover, you can’t blame yourself for its ultimate demise. You can curse circumstance, and relieve yourself of all culpability. No one’s expectations get shattered, no one’s ego gets pummeled and no one comes down with any mysterious stress-related skin diseases.

Limited time only

Meaninful Flings have a definite time limit. Any interaction that occurs on a semiregular basis counts as a full-blown affair, not a Meaningful Fling — especially if one party has hopes of turning the relationship into ... a relationship. If Monica Lewinsky had grasped the concept of the Meaningful Fling, she could have saved herself — and this country — a whole lot of heartache.

If you think back, you probably have had a Meaningful Fling or two yourself. Four years ago, Jeff, now 28 and a designer in New York, fell into a passionate Meaningful Fling with an intern he met at work. She was a few years younger, about to graduate from art school and planning to move in with her longtime beau. One night, on the pretext of showing her the local art scene, Jeff took her out and they had a smashing time. Too bad she was taken. “A couple weeks later, out of the blue — and I’ll never figure out why, because it’s the weirdest request — I asked her if she wanted to pick me up at the airport on a Sunday night, then we could go out,” he recalls. She did, and “as luck would have it, it snowed for two days, the city closed down, and we spent the time in bed — all but falling in love.”

This caused no small moral dilemma for her, pre-engaged as she was; for the following six weeks the two had a passionate, urgent, tragic, overdramatic fling. There was never any real possibility that she would leave her boyfriend (in fact, Jeff encouraged her not to), and eventually it was over.

Short, intense, thrilling — meaningful. Twenty-four-year-old Colette, a part-time chef from Indiana, met Robert at an ocean resort where her family vacationed every summer. He was the science instructor for the kids’ program; they met when Colette took her 7-year-old sister to a crabbing event they had one night (younger siblings can be so handy). “He just came right up and introduced himself, flirted with me, and asked me out.” she says. “It was like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. We were together constantly that week.”

They kept in touch for four years, occasionally hooking up in person but usually keeping it to the phone and mail. Though they never reached the status of “relationship,” it was clear that what they had was “a great series of flings.” Their Meaningful Fling finally ended when Colette went to visit Robert and the chemistry wasn’t there anymore. “But it was never really awkward or uncomfortable,” she points out. “It was just like, ‘Oh, OK, no big deal.’ We didn’t have our lives wrapped up in each other, so it didn’t hurt. It was just a consensual parting, very unlike most.”

A bonnie lad

Then there’s Courtney, a 24-year-old teacher in Fremont, Calif., who found the most romantic week of her life in a hostel in Scotland. A local named Kevin showed her the sights of Inverness, kissed her at the top of castles and eventually took her to his country cottage, where they spent seven days without ever getting dressed, subsisting on fruit, toast and each other. “Then he put me back on the bus and I headed off to Glasgow,” she recalls. “We have made no real attempts to stay in contact. We are just leaving the week in its own little bubble.”

Friends in the throes of blissful cohabitation cheerfully disagree with this Meaningful Fling theory. “True connection requires deep commitment,” they say, arguing that the joy of a relationship outweighs all the angst. Nothing compares to the knowledge that there’s someone in your corner who’s willing to go to bat for you, and accept you no matter how scratchy and needy and unbalanced you may be. That’s the ideal. But as this happens for most of us less frequently than a lunar eclipse, the Meaningful Fling is an effective substitute, a way to love and learn during periods of your life when you might not otherwise have the chance. Alas, few people adhere to these principles, which is why the Meaningful Fling so often flops on its face. Human nature — or at least pop culture — dictates that everyone pair off like animals on Noah’s Ark. We often beat ourselves up trying to turn every interaction into something “substantial,” “long-lasting” and “profound.” We try to find permanent meaning in every stroke of a thigh. I hope you fall madly, blissfully, blindly in love. I hope you sail off into the sunset in a catamaran brimming with tulips and daffodils. In the meantime, I’ll be at the Vatican, working on my Italian.

Abby Ellin is a New York-based writer. E-mail [email protected]
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