Have you ever been caught in the crossfire of two people flirting? I have, in the back seat of a car while the people on either side of me exchanged fleeting glances and small inanities. It was shocking. I mean that almost literally: it was shocking in that it reminded me of touching an electric fence as a child. There was a jolt of power, something invisible but still taking up space, almost tangible. That is what flirting is.
Actually, what am I saying? That is what flirting was. You know, back in the days before the very act of lightly touching or breathily talking could have grave consequences for all concerned. I was once an accomplished flirt but am now, sadly, completely out of practice. This week in a Zoom meeting, a boring man made a bad joke. I heard someone giggle and realised it was me and then, even more tragically, I saw myself do a little smile and angle my ancient hoodie to show off my collarbone. Alone in my room as I have been and will be for the duration of lockdown, I knew in my bones – particularly my poor useless clavicle – that flirting was dead.
In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he forgot to include flirting, and that’s on him. Of course, there is an endless number of much more significant phenomena to mourn today, but permit me to pour one out for this most enjoyable of activities. Good flirting treads the line between meaningful and meaningless with a delicate step, and it is that fear of falling that gives it such a satisfying thrill.
Flirting fractures the veneer of an ordinary day to reveal a new connection, however improbable or ephemeral, and I have yet to find a satisfying substitute
Flirting can lead to something more, of course, like sex and relationships, both of which have also been blunted by shutdowns and sickness and danger since the pandemic began. I’m not talking about sex and relationships here, though, rather the minute connections that illuminate the prospect of either or neither. What I really mean is the instinct and imaginings that all of us, single or coupled-up, carry in our heads and bodies; the flashes of instinct and imagination that used to flicker out in the world and crackle into other people’s heads and bodies, alerting both to sudden possibilities. Flirting fractures the veneer of an ordinary day to reveal a new connection, however improbable or ephemeral, and I have yet to find a satisfying substitute.
My friend Janelle is the best flirt I know and, despite everything, she is trying to power through, even if that means adopting increasingly cartoon-like behaviour. “Prior to the pandemic I would street-holler men because I like to see them get embarrassed, like how they do to us,” she told me wistfully. “I was like a construction worker out here. Now I will flirt with people with my mask on, just for laughs. I’m so corny I’ll do the Roger Rabbit-style Wahoo”. Then they’ll keep walking, but sure enough I’ll walk backwards and they’ll turn around. So yes, I’ve still got it.” But that’s more for laughs – she massively misses regular flirting. “I don’t flirt with an end goal in mind. I flirt when I’m in relationships and not, I just want that attention and those feels.”
I get it, totally: flirting isn’t essential, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve a purpose, even if that purpose is just a great story. I ask Janelle, who is a comedian, about a story she told on her podcast, You in Danger Gurl, about relationship red flags. This particular story was wild and hilarious and problematic; years ago she was on the subway in New York and vibing heavily with another rider when he came closer, licked her shoulder, and told her they should go out. And they did go out! I wondered out loud if that would happen today, which made Janelle scream with laughter. “First of all, I’m not getting on the subway, for anything. That is not going to happen.” Then she deadpans, “I wish somebody would lick me right now, because it would be murdering time. If they have a death wish? Sure.” Has it become easier to imagine murdering someone instead of flirting with them?
A flitting connection between strangers that would never be repeated, an encounter that was barely consequential except for the slightest, sweetest lift in both of their hearts
I felt quite glum after speaking to Janelle. Not a frisson to be had in all the land, that was my conclusion. But then I spoke to another friend, Seamus, who reported the following encounter with some enthusiasm. “This week I flirted with the man who works in the supermarket,” he said. “I feel like this used to be a big part of the gay experience, but the apps laid waste to it. I asked him where the coffee was kept and he showed me.” I was a little sceptical but he added: “It sounds like a boring encounter, but it was an extremely charged moment thanks to the masks we were both wearing, and the fact that it was probably the most action we’d both had in months.”
A charged moment! A flitting connection between strangers that would never be repeated, an encounter that was barely consequential except for the slightest, sweetest lift in both of their hearts. You remember what a heart is, don’t you? It’s that silly little organ inside us all, the one protected by our clavicles, the one we thought had forgotten how to flutter, the one that one day just might surprise us all again. – Guardian