Not men, of course. Men are colleagues, friends, husbands and boyfriends of friends, potential lovers, potential fathers for those of us so inclined. Men bring their own set of affairs to the table, and as an adult woman you really have no choice but to engage with them unless you live in a separatist commune. But men will undoubtedly be a different post. I'm talking about boys.
Sheepdoggy boys with skateboards, boys in low-slung jeans and baseball caps, eager Ivy-League-bound boys. Sensitive boys who may or may not dye their hair (I hear the kids call them emo now?), friendly stoner boys, nonfriendly stoner boys, theater geek boys who really want to land the part so they can kiss the girl. Mathy boys who keep to themselves, wisecracking boys who feel bad when they hurt your feelings, Army-bound boys you rarely talk to but hope they don't get shipped away, boys with hot cars your mother tells you to stay away from. I knew these boys, and so did you.
My job brings me in peripheral but regular contact with boys. Boy models, to be precise. The only time I have any need to talk to them is when they get lost and need directions. Which happens often, despite the series of arrow signs reading ---> MODELS THIS WAY ---> in the halls. And you know what I see when a good-looking 20-year-old approaches me with a lost look in his eyes? A dork. A dork! A dork who, even five years ago, I might have blushed upon meeting.
It's not that I'm immune to the charms of a good-looking fellow. But women are so often trained to be polite in a way particular to male-female interactions (as opposed to just plain old human kindness) that it's easy to default into a vaguely deferential position in small, everyday interactions. I keep a watch on myself for this, preferring to keep things on a human level instead of a male-female one, but old habits die hard. And when you're young, it's not just the men your father or grandfather's age you're trained to be extra-courteous to; it's all men.
Part of getting older means that you learn to break these patterns bit by bit: You learn to appreciate men your own age as the people listed above: colleagues, other women's partners, friends, etc. But when you're younger, it takes more fortitude—a fortitude I certainly didn't have back then—to look at the individual instead of as A Male. A male who has power because he can look at you and make your heart race, or make you avert your eyes for fear he'll see you looking. And when you're thirtysomething, and the male in question is 20, suddenly he becomes sloughed off your radar as someone who you unconsciously allow any sort of power over you. He becomes just a boy again, after years of being something else. When you are six years old, an 18-year-old boy you're not familiar with is a sort of weird non-kid, non-adult, possibly fun conversation partner. End of story. And when you are 30, he suddenly becomes exactly that again.
I can finally recognize that they're just as unsure and lost—or headily cocksure, that too—as girls. I can see that because any power or possibility of attraction has dissipated as the gap between me and boys increases. It wouldn't occur to me to blush at a handsome boy who called me ma'am. I look at these boys and think, Somewhere, there's a girl whose heart has broken because of him.
It's not that I wish girls could see these boys for the dorks they so frequently are—the dizzy allure I felt at being near them when I was 16 was heady, exciting, fresh. It's that I wish they could know that they're just boys. No mystical powers, no automatic ability to break your heart. He's just a boy.