I am getting married next month to a man I’ll call Ken, because that’s how perfect he looks. We have known each other slightly for years—we got our doctorates in the same rather esoteric branch of biology, so we corresponded from time to time, met at conferences or lectures, and so on. But we never really got to know each other until we ended up in the same city two years ago and were amazed by how much else we had in common, from writing poetry to owning French bulldogs.
We moved in together after a few months. He proposed a few weeks ago. We both hate big weddings and want to start trying for a kid right away so we decided on a very short engagement and a modest wedding.
Here is my problem. Ken is a really spectacular-looking guy, the kind who literally turns heads. As for me, I suppose I am the sort of person who can look good on a good day, to people who already love her, but that’s about it. It is no secret to anybody that I am totally outclassed in the looks department.
Ken seems to truly respect me for inner qualities—brains, wit, opinions, kind heart. He has told me that the thinks I look great, and that anyway he does not care about looks very much. And it is true that he doesn’t seem at all vain about his own appearance. His clothes are appalling. He would much rather look through a microscope than into a mirror, and most of his poems are about either philosophy or nonflowering plants.
All good, right? But what worries me is something my sister said. She happened to mention the other day that she hardly knew any couples who fit Ken’s and my description (man much better looking than woman, does not seem to care about woman’s appearance very much). And that the ones she did know of always ended badly because the man turned out to be gay. And so now I am thinking about my first boyfriend, who was really a babe (I was the smart one in my class) and whom I adored because he seemed to take my opinions more seriously than other boys did, and didn’t care that I was carrying a few more pounds than the cheerleaders. He came out in college. And then there was this couple my parents knew for a long time and used to play bridge with. They were married for almost twenty years and had a similar story. People would comment on his absolute respect for his wife’s opinions and pride in her accomplishments, and how refreshing that was, especially since he was a way better catch because of his great looks…. Anyway, after they split up he started living with a man.
My fiancé is a lovely, thoughtful lover. But now I am thinking maybe too thoughtful? I am all screwed up about this. I am worried that Ken and I might both be kidding ourselves. The wedding is in five weeks. Should I slow things down and rethink my relationship with my fiancé?
—Freaked out in Framington
No. But you might want to rethink your relationship with your sister. I have my doubts that she “just happened” to mention how rare it is to see male-female couples where the man is better looking than the woman, and how even in those rare cases the men are closeted gays. An observation like that, which is hurtful and tactless and insinuating and unsisterly on so many levels, usually takes some planning. Are you quite sure your sister isn’t resentful of your happiness? Jealous because you snagged an amiable looker who shares your interests? Predisposed to belittle your appearance and question your judgment? True, weddings can bring out all sorts of weirdness in otherwise bearable family members; but, if you ask me, and you sort of did, your sister has gone beyond wedding weirdness this time and into Iago territory.
Unless you firmly believe that clearing the air would make you feel better, I suggest that you never discuss this matter with your sister again. Ever. Try not to give her any more openings for sniping about your life with Ken. Cut her off the minute she tries. And take her general attitude, and any other destructive remarks she “happens” to make, with a mountain of salt.
As to whether there is any merit in what your sister said, I certainly hope not! I like to think that there are guys out there, even gorgeous ones, who can manage to sustain a healthy, many-faceted heterosexual relationship with women who may score a bit below them in the conventional physical attractiveness category. I have actually known a few such men—which, if we are talking about counterexamples to disprove a general statement, is actually relevant and probative. By contrast, you really can’t use anecdotal evidence to prove a blanket observation, and it’s hard to think of anything more anecdotal than the instances your poor worried mind dredged up. For one thing, there are only two of them. And they are both pretty feeble. It is hard to learn anything valuable about mature adult sexuality from your experience with a closeted and probably tortured high-school boyfriend—except to realize that it may have left you with some insecurities about your own attractiveness and made you grist for Sis’s mill. As for your parents’ friends’ situation, who’s to say what happened there? Maybe they moved on for reasons unrelated to looks or sexuality. Maybe he was a monogamous bisexual and they fought over money. Who knows? And who cares, really? It is self-indulgent even to speculate about an isolated case.
And your sister’s evidence is worse than anecdotal, since she never actually related any anecdotes. It is not even evidence.
Listen: Do you trust Ken? Is the sex mutually enjoyable? If so, your current doubts are probably just wedding jitters, exacerbated by your sister’s insinuations. Even assuming that Ken is really a ten to your five—which I do not, by the way: you sound like a self-deprecating soul, with plenty of help from your sister—it is far more likely, and far less insulting to men, gay people, and basic humanism, that he is unaware of or uninterested in this disparity than that he is living an elaborate lie. You say that he does not seem to care much about conventional good looks, and your portrait of him squares with that: anybody who writes poems about ferns and mosses and dresses “appallingly” probably doesn’t devote a lot of thought to whether his beloved could match his hotness score in a poll of People and Vanity Fair readers. Nothing you have written gives me any reason to doubt that Ken loves you, likes what you look like, and probably likes several of your other qualities even more. That makes you lucky.
It makes me sad, though, that you are questioning your own attractiveness, and wondering —even for a moment—whether Ken’s “thoughtfulness” as a lover means he might be gay. And it worries me that you are so susceptible to your sister’s poison. Nothing you’ve written raises any questions about Ken’s sexuality or your mutual love and respect. Believe in yourself, and trust your beloved.
Unless you have other grave doubts or conflicts you haven’t told me about, I see no reason to postpone your wedding. I am sure you will be a beautiful bride, more than beautiful enough for your Ken, who I am sure would rather have you than Barbie (much less another Ken) any day. I wish I could be there, bearing gifts. Perhaps some exquisite liverworts.
La Wally says:
He doesn’t sound gay to me. And even if he does come out some day, by then you would probably already have a couple of smart, good-looking kids with a responsible dad. So go for it.
By the way, that sister is ugly where it counts.
Zeb, a guy who works at my office, just gave notice because he got a job teaching art at a private school. Today when we were all sitting around after our monthly all -staff meeting—which is one of the only times I’ve ever seen him, since he’s in another department and building—somebody asked him about the school. After telling people where it is, how many kids go there, and so forth, he summed it up as “a fancy school for spoiled fucked-up rich kids.”
I kept my peace, but what I would have liked to say is that the school is not all that fancy, and its students are not all rich or “spoiled” or “fucked up.” I know this because my son goes there and I work hard to pay for it. David, who is dyslexic and has a mild attention deficit disorder, is a delightful, generous kid, well-adjusted and less entitled and materialistic than most middle-class American teens I have come across. Of his classmates, some have learning or emotional challenges, some are brilliant and unconventional, and some just seem to be unremarkable kids whose siblings go to the school, or whose parents like its philosophy.
I am angry at Zeb’s attitude and the way he expressed it. And I wonder how good an art teacher he can be if he feels that way about his students. But I hate to mess up his life and, frankly, I don’t need any more unpleasantness in my own life right now. What should I do?
—Miffed in Massachusetts
You need to tell the school administration what you heard. Anybody who feels the way Zeb says he does about the school and its students should not be teaching there.
I suppose it’s possible that he didn’t really mean what he said. Maybe he had just had a dreadful encounter with a snooty trustee. Maybe he knew one of your fellow staffers’ kids had been rejected by the school, or couldn’t afford it, and was trying to make them feel better. Maybe he was just having a really bad day and regretting his choice to change jobs. Or maybe he is immature and tone deaf, and was trying to sound cool. None of these scenarios, or any others I could come up with, seems very likely, though. At the very least, Zeb must have felt that there was some truth in what he said, or it would never have occurred to him to say it.
Besides, no matter what his motivation, Zeb publicly disparaged the school and its students at what sounds like a fairly large meeting. This itself is a disservice to the kids and, of course, terrible P.R. for the institution. If you support the school, as I assume you must, I believe that you should alert the people who run it.
I sympathize with your not wanting to be “mean” or to be responsible for putting another person’s job in jeopardy. But you have to balance this against your duty to speak out against a man who may cause emotional harm to your child and his schoolmates, and who seems to have no scruples about tarnishing the school’s reputation. There’s no question that the welfare of these children (some of whom attend the school precisely because they are fragile) outweighs the job prospects of a guy who, at best, made a very stupid mistake by dissing them and, at worst, really does hold them in contempt. They are innocent kids, and one of them is your kid. He is an adult who signed on to help them learn and grow, and he messed up.
Of course, it is easy for me to preach from a safe distance about your duty to speak up. You are right: doing so may indeed lead to some “unpleasantness.” This is the kind of situation where a bottle of long-acting, incident-specific emotional anesthetic capsules would come in handy. Take one and it would be a cinch to talk to your headmaster. Pop a few more and it you would have no problem dealing with Zeb if he lost his job and knew you were the reason, or even—heaven forfend!—if he talked his way into staying on (probation, maybe?) and ended up teaching your son and taking out his anger at you on him. It wouldn’t bother you at all if Zeb’s old friends at your office were onto you and gave you the stink eye. In fact, if the headmaster let Zeb go and didn’t tell him why, you would take Zeb out to lunch and tell him yourself, for his betterment and in the spirit of transparency.
In this imperfect world, where doing the right thing can make us squirm and tremble and lose sleep —and that’s on days when we’re not second-guessing ourselves—it makes sense to decide how much “unpleasantness” we can put up with, and try to arrange life accordingly. As I have said, I don’t think doing nothing is an option in this case, since the welfare of children is involved. But nobody is required to be an absolute moral heroine; and speaking directly to Zeb (the lunch option) might require that level of heroism if you are an introvert or a conflict-avoider.
In fact, I don’t see any shame in trying to insulate yourself from Zeb as much as possible. If, as I hope and expect, the school decides to retract its offer, ask the school if there is a way to do so on some pretext that protects you and avoids a confrontation with Zeb. The school authorities might actually prefer this course, depending upon various legalities (has a contract been signed?) and their view of how best to minimize negative publicity. On the other hand, they may feel obligated to tell Zeb the real reason for letting him go, and perhaps to hear his side of the story before taking any final action. If so, ask them not to mention you by name.
But they may do so anyway and, even if they don’t, Zeb may be able to guess your identity by running through the people who attended that fateful staff meeting. (Of course, you may be safe if he has badmouthed the school so often that he never manages to zero in on that one meeting!) If Zeb does find out, and confronts you somehow or otherwise makes life difficult for you, I hope you’ll be able to console yourself by remembering that you did what you thought was right for your son and his schoolmates. Since virtue is rarely its own reward, I think you should further console yourself with a nice bottle of wine or mani-pedi or mental-health day playing hooky with your son, whatever works.
Being good can be a drag. With any luck, though, you’ll come through this without having to deal with any recriminations from Zeb because you will never come in contact with him again, at your son’s school or anywhere else. As for Zeb, let’s imagine him enjoying a long and happy career working with machines.
La Wally’s response:
I partly disagree. I would start by talking to Zeb and just tell him what I wrote in this letter. He needs to know so he can clean up his act. If I still didn’t feel good about Zeb teaching my child, I would let the school know.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.