The other day, doing some errands, I ran into men. This happens with some regularity to me, given that I don’t live in a convent. Since I started dating Robbie, though, my casual male encounters have begun to feel different than before.

The first man I met was a boy, really—twenty if that. He had this color skin and dark black hair and eyes, and he was working in the Mexican restaurant where I stopped to get lunch. While he was fixing me a couple of chicken soft tacos, he explained that it was his first day–actually, it was painfully obvious. The neat thing was he wasn’t nervous. He just kept smiling a ten thousand gigawatt smile, and slowly preparing the food, and apologizing profusely but not grovelingly, and continuing to look stunning.

Five years ago I would have felt obligated to feign indifference to his beauty; after all, he might have noticed me staring at him and then . . . what? Might have thought I found him attractive? Yep, I did—big deal. He brightened my day and I didn’t do any damage to his, I don’t think—just soaked up the sunshine.

The second guy was selling magazines for a homeless charity. “Hi lady, pretty lady, oh lady, nice lady, oh I like that smile, I like that smile.” I have seen this guy in my town for going on ten years now, and his patter is always the same, so I didn’t take it to heart—but it was true that I had a big grin on my face and was slightly high on life, having just left the restaurant with the smiling server. So I told the guy he was a sweet talker and pulled a dollar out of my wallet for the paper. “Your smile is so pretty,” he said, “Where you from?”

He was from North Carolina, originally. I flashed my weak Southern credentials—I grew up near that city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm, Washington, DC-–and we got to chatting about life up North versus life down South. He asked whether I felt lonely in this big unfriendly city . . . did I have a family? Did I live alone? As his questions multiplied, I started to feel the slight frantic fuzz I generally feel when a man is making anything resembling a pass at me.

I knew I could mention Robbie; I also knew that doing so wouldn’t work as the deterrent I imagined it would when I was younger, less sexually experience, and unaware of the word “poly”. Besides, mentioning Robbie usually invited questions about why we don’t live together, how Robbie could let a woman like me (I’m not that great—I’m quoting, I swear!) live on my own, and so on and so forth.

But suddenly, I was calm. It occurred to me that I didn’t have to perceive myself as the victim of this guy’s attentions. I could consider them a compliment–and still not let him control the direction of the conversation. (It’s nice to spend time with a dominant; it teaches you how to assert yourself.) I thought, “Right, well, the thing is, if you don’t want to flirt with the guy anymore, don’t flirt. Problem solved.” So I mentioned Robbie, but mostly I steered the conversation back to the guy’s family, and whether he missed North Carolina, and when he was going back home, and what the food was like down there. Pretty soon we were swapping stories about summer heat and lemonade, which was fine by me.

I’ve tried to talk about men and attention with Robbie, to figure out what’s different since I met him, with mixed success. Robbie certainly understands it when I tell him that men have been hitting on me with increased frequency since we started dating, and he’s mostly quite cool with that. “I could be having the worst dry spell of my life,” he says, “and then I start getting it regular and boom! Women are jumping into my shopping cart at the grocery store.”

What he didn’t quite get, at first, was that the attention made me uncomfortable. One evening I was indignantly ranting about the way some men at a play party he and I had gone to together were ogling me, and he said, puzzled, “But you must have gotten that all your life.” Well, yes and no. I have gotten some attention—but I usually go out of my way to avoid the kind of attention you get when you’re dressed at your slutty best.

I don’t expect Robbie to get the Madonna-whore-complex in its full neurotic glory (yet). I do expect myself to find a way to balance the two. Being with a man who makes me feel like a sex goddess in most ways absolutely helps. I feel sexy/ier. I act sexy/ier. But most vitally, I’ve acquired a little more comfort with the idea of men’s sexual attraction to me. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that they would approach me as a sexual being any more. It doesn’t seem like some sign that they are rabid, insane, serial killers, or ill-mannered. It seems like a plausible thing for them to do.

And so there is no reason for me to be coy about things with them, to do my I’m-ignoring-your-innuendo act (which only encouraged them to be more overt). I am, I hope, starting to behave like what I want to be–a woman who gets fucked with satisfying regularity, who is not necessarily looking for more sex but doesn’t mind recognizing the sexuality we swim in, who doesn’t have to close her eyes to the pleasure of a smile or a compliment in order to feel good, or faithful, or safe. I’m not done yet, but I’m getting closer, one lemonade at a time.

Yet more work by Yuko Shimizu, whose stuff is scrumptious.