Here's one little-observed fact about nice Catholic girls—by which I mean girls who are Catholic, who have sunny dispositions, and who use Humanae Vitae as a dating guide: they absolutely love to cuddle.
Granted, I've dated exactly two specimens as of this writing, so there's every chance my study suffers from sampling error. Still, it's striking that these two women, who had little in common save approximate age, niceness, Catholicism, and a predilection for the author, were both so stunningly tactile. Did they like to hold hands? Please. Walking down the street with either meant entwining your arm with hers in a way that would seem impossible for anyone with actual bones.
Lying on the couch watching Song of Bernadette on DVD, you'd find yourself wearing a head on your chest or shoulder, and fragrant tendrils of hair in your nose, before Jennifer Jones goes into her first trance. By the time she leaves Lourdes for the convent, you'd be absorbed in the type of footsie match that surely inspired Anne Sexton to write: "And I'll be your barefoot wench/For a whole week."
And because they were nice and Catholic, it would go no further.
In an essay for Slate, Tom Perrotta posits an archetype that he dubs the Sexy Puritan. This is a woman both socially conservative and attractive—ostentatiously so. He recalls attending a Silver Ring Thing event and meeting "a slender young blond woman in tight jeans and a form-fitting T-shirt" who "bragged about all the college boys who'd tried and failed to talk her into their beds." In other words, the Sexy Puritan is a god-fearing, godawful tease. Come the revolution, I assure you, Sexy Puritans will be hunted from helicopters.
Thank God she seems to be a mainly a non-Catholic type. I'm betting her kind first evolved in Dixie—where coquetry defines the culture as much as ancestor worship or red velvet cake—and migrated north with the emergence of the glitzy megachurch. My nice Catholic girls were completely different animals. Straightforward and unaffected, they sent no mixed signals, crowned their bedposts with no negative notches. In their orgies of chaste snuggle-wuggles I see evidence for a startling truth: where sexuality decreases, tenderness and sensuality increase.
Too facile? Bear with me here. I'm still trying to figure all this out.
Even in high school and college, when casual sex seemed a biological necessity, I participated only half-heartedly in the hookup culture. That is, I hooked up with any female who made the first move. That approach, or non-approach, brought me into contact with a fascinating cross-section of the gender. To borrow from Wilde, I canoodled every type of woman—once. Gradually, weighed down by each successive failure to connect, discouraged as marriage drained the pool of potential partners, I disappeared onto the Internet.
Even before entering the Church, I was practicing what Catholics call continence. Did I miss sex? Yes, for a few minutes at a time. My association of the act with bad relationships, with disappointment and the guilt of disappointing, muffled the urge. Companionship? Not so much. After you've staked your sense of self on a contest of wills and lost a time or two, you feel a certain satisfaction in solitude.
So what did I miss?
Call it the buzz—it feels like a mighty caffeine jolt. It's the sense that something big could happen to change your life for the better. You might meet someone and have an experience your experience hasn't prepared you for. You're attractive, you're not dead. Life isn't that empty. Why not?
Annie Proulx once ascribed to a crippled ex-rodeo cowboy "a carved-wood quietude common among people who had been a long time without sex, out of the commerce of the world." That's it: the visible sign of an invisible buzzless-ness.
I was approaching carved-wood status, though not quietly, when I met—really met—my first nice Catholic girl. It was at a vocational discernment retreat. I was standing on the monastery porch, peering through the French doors toward the living room, wondering whether I should bolt now and apologize later, or vice-versa. I heard tires on gravel. Turning, I saw a girl step out of a Honda wearing a tight pair of jeans. They were not, I hasten to add, skinny jeans; they were cut '80s-style, high at the waist.
When the girl faced me, I saw that her glasses, too, were cut in the style of the Reagan Revolution: square, in every sense. But her legs—timeless. Perhaps her ensemble seems to spell out a mixed message? Not for me. I read: I am beautiful, but either don't know, or don't care.
Why, you could be my vocation, I thought, as she skipped past me, smiling.