Dealbreaker: He's A Man-Child
My tweenage sister introduced us.
I’d been a camper at my hometown’s Jewish day camp for a decade. The camp formed the backdrop of my first fumbling summer romances: Like with many Jewish youth programs, there was a strange emphasis on matchmaking. Everyone was a meddling Yenta, and gossip over which counselors (and even which campers) would pair up consumed the mess hall conversation.
I was now ready for a more evolved summer fling. After a summer abroad, I’d returned for my first year as a counselor. I was 18. My 14-year-old sister had already briefed me on Gordon, the new counselor at camp she couldn’t stop gushing about. When I finally saw Gordon, I understood why. Gordon was 6’3”, blond hair, blue eyes. I felt instant cartoon, bulging heart eyes. As a Jewish girl accustomed to cabins full of young Woody Allens, I was struck by this Robert Redford outlier.
I soon learned that Gordon wasn’t just a pretty face: The 20-year-old Ivy Leaguer was also a phenomenal counselor. Around the kids, “Gordon” was the handsome, mild-mannered alter ego of the "Green Lantern.” In the first weeks of camp, I watched Gordon pull on the superhero’s green lycra suit and mask and swing from the rafters. As the kids giggled and shrieked, I wondered how I could get Gordon to make a play for my attentions. Then Gordon befriended William, a counselor that my roommate, Sarah, had been flirting with all school year. Summer was the time for action.
To seal the deal with one another, William and Sarah enlisted Gordon and me in a “love war.” Each side competed to embarrass the other with increasingly grandiose public gestures. Sarah and Will were using Gordon and me to flirt with each other, but I preferred to think of it as double dating. Sarah and I would get our 11- and 12-year-old female campers to sing love songs a capella at the guys’ lunch table. The boys would counter with massive 5-foot-high decorated greeting cards. After two weeks of these childish romantic adventures, William and Sarah were an official couple. But I still rarely saw Gordon when the campers weren’t tagging along.
Then, I asked Gordon to take a walk with me around the camp at night. It was the first time we’d hung out alone. Sitting on a bench outside, I tried to initiate a real conversation—about family or politics or a book he’d enjoyed. But whenever I’d ask Gordon a serious question, he’d start re-enacting a courtship scene from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace between young Anakin and Queen Padme. He wasn’t joking, and he wouldn’t stop even when I finally asked him to.
I was annoyed, but Gordon remained my best bet for a summer romance. I kissed him. We started making out all the time, even during camp on the bottom half of the tiny bunk beds in the back of the camp’s offices. But we never went further than kissing. During one of our endless makeout sessions, Gordon confessed that he found vaginas “icky.”
Back at work, I began to understand why Gordon was so good with kids. At first, I thought his superhero secret was just a sweet thing he did for the campers’ amusement. But it became increasingly clear that he was also doing it for himself. Sometimes he was Gordon, helping the kids with their art projects and teaching soccer. Other times, he was the Green Lantern, escaping his adult duties to “save the world.”
One night, the camp threw an after-hours dance for the counselors. The guys wore button-down shirts, the girls wore sexy dresses, and Gordon wore a white silk tie over his Green Lantern costume. At the time, I thought it was cute—he did look buff in spandex—but it was also telling. The Green Lantern character made Gordon every child’s favorite counselor, but even when the kids weren’t around, the performance freed Gordon from actually engaging in adult conversation. It gave him an excuse not to be responsible for anything, even small talk.
Gordon was a man-child: an adult man with the behaviors, hobbies and habits of a kid. In movies, the man-child has Looney Tunes bedsheets, an action figure collection, and gets haircuts from his mom; a slightly more advanced version smokes a lot of weed and snickers at the word “nipples.” In films, the solution to the man-child problem is to pair him with an uptight wet blanket who nags him until he “mans up,” gets a makeover, and marries her. I wasn’t interested in being that type of female lead. I collect comic books, wear bows as hair accessories, and watch Nickelodeon’s iCarly. And I’m actually attracted to funny, chill guys with interests that lie outside relationship commitments and boring office jobs. In real life, there can be something compelling about a child-like sense of whimsy.
But there’s a difference between an aesthetically childish man and an emotionally stunted one. Steve Carell’s man-child in Crazy Stupid Love just needed to change his shoes; Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison needed to adjust his entire personality. No one wants to date a real-life Billy Madison. But Gordon was so good-looking that he could get away with his childish antics for longer than others might have, and his real emotional issues were forever coded as charming.
Gordon, despite having no diagnosed mental disorders, seemed more comfortable hanging out with his adolescent campers than he did with adult women. While we began awkwardly dating, Gordon also grew close with one of his campers, Sarah’s 15-year-old sister Joanna. And while he was never inappropriate with her, it was clear that he considered his campers to be his real friends, not just his charges. There were only five years between Joanna and Gordon, but it was an important five years for growth and maturity. He was better at being a peer than he was a leader. When Sarah asked Gordon to help her assist an autistic camper who had been stung by a bee, Gordon flailed and flaked.
Summer flings are supposed to be as trivial as camp itself, fraught with whims like running in the mud and caring too much about color war cheers. But Gordon lacked the ability to interact with adults after the campers went home. On one of my days off, I went to the closest Wal-Mart and bought underwear that I thought Gordon couldn’t resist: boy shorts with Green Lantern’s logo all over them. He thought they were “super cool,” but he wouldn’t take them off my body. When the summer ended, so did we.