Freshman year, my close female friends and I would sit in study rooms late at night, not studying. Sunday nights were a time for deep reflection: on the amount of work we’d put off until then, on how long we could last before we went to Studio 34 for coffee and French bread pizzas and, inevitably, on our “boy situations” — on the weekend ventures whose faces, lips, phone numbers and bedsheets we’d become well-acquainted with.
One Saturday night, I had — as freshman custom dictates — done many, many shots at one pregame, had a couple of mixed drinks at another and somehow along the way picked up a boy who shared my admiration for whiskey and appreciated that I knew all the words to Alicia Keys’ and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” He got my number, produced a Tower pass out of thin air, walked me to the Street, got me a beer in the taproom and ended up pressing me against the wall of the dance floor. We parted for air, and he held out his hand and asked if I wanted to go home. I let him walk me to the arch in Walker Hall before I stopped him and said coyly, “Why should I go home with you?” He paused, held both of my hands in his and said, “Because this,” and kissed me, long and slow, as a couple of passersby hooted and hollered. I was a freshman. It was romantic.
By Sunday night, I had told every close friend within reach. I’d felt a relieved thrill at getting a text from him following up on something we’d talked about the night before. I’d also gone through countless cycles of alternately feeling great about my newfound “boy situation” and feeling horribly insecure. The study room conversation proceeded something like this.
“I know I’m not supposed to get attached, and I know it was a drunk DFMO thing,” I said, pencil hovering in one hand and flirty text messages cradled in the other. “But look! He’s just so nice!”
As groups of close female friends are wont to do, the room lapsed into a discussion of the merits of my nice boy and his niceness. One friend offered an anecdotal account of a time she had observed him nobly bringing a drunk friend to McCosh. Another offered apocryphal stories on his intelligence and pleasant, easygoing manner gleaned from a friend of a friend. We then decided that his known association with a few unpleasant individuals was outweighed by his innocent, boyish smile, the way we had talked for hours and the way he had been a complete gentleman over text the morning after.
Our deliberations left him with a net positive niceness. “He’s a Nice Boy,” one friend declared, even as I sat nervously toying with my phone in my lap.
Four weekends into our vague, undefined association, my Nice Boy and I had spoken just once about our relationship and defined it as decidedly not a relationship, but rather a “casual repeat hookup arrangement.” I had been fine with it at the time, but as time passed and I realized I hadn’t thought about hooking up with anyone else since we’d met, things changed. I felt insecure, and almost angry.
The rest of the story plays out in a familiar scene: My Nice Boy and I continue our “arrangement” until one day, I find myself sitting on a couch waiting for my Nice Boy to text me because I no longer want anybody else. I take the initiative and text my Nice Boy once or twice, and there are a few tension-filled not-dates at the dining hall for lunch thrown in there, but the tableau remains: a girl on her phone in the taproom, waiting for the boy who isn’t, strictly speaking, her boy, to take her home.
I’m told that some girls are able to navigate the stormy waters of Princeton’s “hookup scene” without the emotional rollercoaster, but I’m in my third year here and I’ve yet to see it play out in any girl’s favor, including mine. I know that by buying into the culture of blind makeouts and “Oh, I don’t really remember him,” I’m signing an implicit social contract with the world that catalogues Streetside behavior as “blowing off steam,” “college rites of passage” or “just having fun.” I know that the Street is not the place to go if I’m looking for a boy to hold my hand on the way to class. When I go out in my short skirts and low-cut tops, I’m not looking for that either — girls, it should be noted, like to hook up too.
But what happens if the random boy is a Nice Boy? What is the protocol for steeling yourself when it seems like it could be one of those genuine connections, those movie-montage moments? Steel ourselves we must, of course, because as successful 21st-century women we “don’t do relationships” and we “don’t get attached.” But as actual humans with real feelings, we also can’t help it if we’re attracted to boys it is all too easy to fantasize spending daylight hours with, even when we meet said boys when we’re less than sober. And when we find one on which these fantasies so easily stick, why do we fall — as we so often do — into the personal insecurities and private self-loathings that characterize the “casual repeat hookup”?
My relationship with my Nice Boy began on the Street, lived and breathed on the Street and for all intents and purposes appeared restricted to the Street. When it became apparent that my defenses had failed and I was on some level enamored with him for him, and not just for the cheap thrills he provided on one dark dance floor or another, the terms of our relationship made it so difficult to think about moving it over into the real world, into sober kisses and the vulnerability of reality. I didn’t want to be the one to ruin what seemed to be, for a time, a golden goose. I didn’t want to assume something was there that wasn’t there; I didn’t want to end up the fool.
Eventually, I stopped texting my Nice Boy back. I was afraid, and our connection wasn’t perfect. I was filling my head with optimistic “You can do better!” platitudes and itching to retain some sort of upper hand, to go out and find another boy with whom I could have a truly casual hookup arrangement devoid of actual feelings, a boy who wouldn’t make me think about words like “exclusive,” “dating” or “boyfriend.”
Maybe that’s the real tragedy of the hookup culture, for both guys and girls: the creation of a third category of relationship between “boyfriend” and “friend,” a vaguely defined and haphazardly executed territory of genuine attraction without genuine attachment. Whatever direction our relationship might’ve taken, I thought it had been irrevocably marred by frustrations and fears. Could a real, meaningful relationship have happened after I’d spent so many nights hating myself and my Nice Boy in turn? And the kicker, the question that eats at me to this day: If we hadn’t met on the Street, would things have been different?
Removed from the cheap thrills and hollow Saturday-brunch storytelling sessions of my freshman and sophomore years, when parties, pregames and dance-floor indecency were the sum total of my social existence, I’ve been looking back on this Nice Boy and others with more than a small measure of regret. I don’t think, though, that the Nice Boys I became “involved” with — some of whom, including this one, are now other girls’ Nice Boyfriends — are lingering on our wasted attractions quite as much as I am.