Ephemeral Attraction

The art of the crush


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What would you call someone who derives a vital thrill from the beauty of passing strangers? Before you answer, consider this: a perfect body, waiting at a corner for the light to change. Consider the faultless, curving neck, tan and strong and graceful. Or think of a well-muscled forearm, two bar stools down from you. Or a beautiful accent floating over from a stranger's flickering tongue, twisting familiar words into music.

You see someone on the street or across the room in a restaurant or crowded into the corner of a subway car, and from a body or a face or the sound of a laugh a beautiful fiction develops. You nearly trip in admiration at the coyly blinking belly eye of a strolling stranger -- a wayward prince or princess from the fabled land of Ab whose favorite sexual position is the sit-up crunch. You sip your beer and make cat-eyes across the dining room at a young poetess with poems by Swinburne circling inside her head like chicken hawks. You wonder when the tiny creature crowded by the rush-hour throng into the corner of the downtown express will call out your name, because surely those little hands were meant to be held by you and you alone.

What is the word for the active pursuit of erotic reveries inspired by random faces? Your granddad might have called it girl-watching, but granddad was a sexually constipated, tonic-slurping old deacon; his characterization strikes me as much too pathetic a term for what one hopes is, at least occasionally, a two-way interaction. Girl-watching is something greasy-haired math majors do during chess-club breaks.

My friend Sabine describes the phenomenon as 'anonymous flirting' and considers the fleeting but powerful erotic tension between passing strangers to be as normal a part of urban life as hailing cabs or looking both ways before crossing the street.

Less charitable critics might say that my admiration of unknown beauties approaches a form of stalking -- an objectification of humans that betrays a bubbling psychosis. But really this is an exaggeration. If I turned and followed the objects of my fascination after they passed, then perhaps. If my fascination persisted and grew dire; if I followed them home and waited outside their doors with fistfuls of shabby Korean-deli roses -- well, then, yes. If I took photographs of them with a telescopic lens and wrote them love letters that I never mailed, if I trailed them when they went out on dates, keeping a discreet distance, consumed with jealous rage, thumbing the honed edge of a mail-order hunting knife, weeping quietly and humming 'Mi Cielito Lindo' into an ether-soaked handkerchief -- now that would be stalking.

To me, though, my deep appreciation of sundry shopkeepers, sidewalk strollers, caf? dawdlers and waitstaff has always seemed much more complicated, astounding, and innocent than the unsubtle characterizations I have heard people propound. I've come to think of it as an art -- the art of the crush -- and it is the closest thing to a transcendent experience I have ever felt.

Like many metaphysical notions, the art of the crush is easier to define by what it is not. The art of the crush does not concern the pickup game, that vulgar wolf's pissing contest. It is not about belt-notching. Nor does it have anything to do with doe-eyed infatuation.