Modern Love- Dorky boys: A cautionary tale

This is the first week of a new column called “Modern Love.” Inspired by the beloved New York Times weekly column of the same name, “Modern Love” will share stories of love in any form. Submit your story to if interested.

Like dry hair to a balloon, I find myself drawn time and time again to dorky boys. When I can’t stand one more night “out” of sticky, makeup-drenched flirting over beer pong. When I’m sick of sending witty-yet-still-alluringly-distant texts concluded by a single carefully-selected emoji. When yet another three-weekend string of joking tipsy banter and rubbing shoulders because the room is so crowded fizzles into non-acknowledgment fades into that silent, frantic tension when we pass and he’s with a friend but I’m walking by myself. We pass and I, inevitably, stare into my phone, even if it’s off, and all I can see is my finger oil on the black screen. I feel dread in my stomach that I’m somehow, embarrassingly, alone on this cluttered path.

When I just need a break from the creeping sense that I am masquerading as someone I’m not, a feeling as unsettling as the clumped, bitter taste of lipstick smudged onto my teeth. That’s when I sink into the comfort of a dorky boy.

He’s the one I can play Settlers of Catan with, eating chips and salsa on a Saturday night. Pull my hair into a ponytail and wear sweatpants and not worry about my stomach sticking out when I cross my legs. I know him from being lab partners, or that snowshoe day-hike, or the entry next-door. I can talk to him about speleothems or documentaries or awkward encounters without fear of sounding too enthusiastic or nerdy or bumbling. I can snort when I laugh and tell meandering, only slightly funny stories. I can be myself.

What, exactly, is a “dorky boy?” It’s easier to spot than to define. He may not have the heft or athleticism of a varsity athlete. He might lack the quick wit and litheness of the charmers who crack jokes in econ class. He probably isn’t well-versed in shotgunning a beer. He might have all these qualities but lack some intangible energy, confidence or physical posture. But somehow, he’s subtly excluded from power in that strange, invisible hierarchy of masculinity.

Instead, the dorky boy is genuine. What he lacks in stature or preppy outfits or assertiveness he makes up for with maturity and values. He is passionate about something, probably multiple things, whether it be astrophysics or chess or unicycling. He is kind, and honest. He chooses his friends carefully. And, most of all, he is always down to Settle.

With these qualities, I think, this boy – this man – must be somehow better than those preppy, ping-pong groping, effortlessly confident guys. He will be straightforward. He will value me for my full intellectual and emotional self. He won’t lead me on, cheat, stop texting back. We will fit more naturally together. Because I, at the core, am also secretly dorky. Or not secretly – maybe everyone can sense my dorkiness seeping through the edges of my aura. Just like those peeping leg hairs I forget to shave (or don’t shave on purpose because the razor feels stiff and dry). Does everyone feel like they are painting a smooth imposter’s face over their lumpy skin when they go to the bar? These are my thoughts, when I begin to fall into – to fall for – a dorky boy.

I think, every time, that maybe dating will be less scary and painful with a dorky boy. But, in my forays, I’ve learned a hard truth. Introversion, or friendliness or genuine, unabashed passion for hobbies does not equate with a softer touch in relationships. Like, lust, love – these feelings aren’t rational. They shift and flip and hop from one person to the next.

When that happens, no one can truly soften the blow, no matter how thick his glasses. Trust a dorky boy to be kinder, somehow, and you will inevitably get hurt. Ultimately, their hearts are just as hopelessly cruel and confused as everyone else’s.

In the end, there is no magical quality that sets aside a special group of dorky boys from everyone else. As you probably figured out long before I did, no one can actually be reduced to such a simplistic binary. Indeed, the word “dorky” itself, and such efforts to categorize, invoke subtle, problematic links regarding social power and masculinity and class. In any case, my arbitrary divisions were never founded in any truths about those I labeled. We all have ever-shifting characteristics and interests that we present to varying degrees at different times in our lives. Everyone is just a human in the end.

The dorky boy was only ever a construct to make me less intimidated, to convince myself that someone was worth opening up to. By labeling them dorky in my mind, I give myself power – I convince myself that I can be the cooler one. The one who doesn’t always answer texts, who calls last minute to cancel the Settler’s game every once in a while. The one who doesn’t have to reveal how much I care. If I just think of him as dorky, I won’t have to sink fully into that vulnerable sea of wanting to be with someone and hoping they would take me as I am. I can remain a tiny bit aloof.

I know all this. But the dorky boys – those men I decided, based on their high-cut jeans or love of insects, that I could trust not to hurt me – they haunt my dreams. Their faces sear my eyelids when I close my eyes. A dorky boy’s rejection hurts so much more, somehow.

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