The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    Essays

Ladies in Waiting

Becca Rothfeld

On the Phone, 2006, by Franziska Neubert (b. 1977); private collection/Bridgeman Images.

Waiting, which renders everything provisional, which suspends progress or conclusion of any kind, is worse than clarity.

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
—W.S. Merwin11xW.S. Merwin, “Separation,” in The Second Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993), 15. Retrieved from Poetry Foundation website:

In the most memorable scene of the 2002 film Secretary, nothing happens. The protagonist, Lee, sits as still as possible, her hands planted firmly on the desk in front of her. She has been instructed by her lover, who is also her sexually sadistic employer, to hold this position until he returns. For over ten minutes, a period that represents entire days in the movie’s internal timeline, Lee remains faithfully immobile, wetting herself in the process.

Lee offers up her violent passivity as proof of her love, and her physical humiliations are like religious devotions. Hoping to gratify her lover by depriving herself of food, she declines into hunger-induced delirium in which she experiences a hallucinatory vision of her therapist. He explains, “There’s a long history of this in Catholicism. The monks used to wear thorns on their temples, and the nuns wore them sewn inside their clothing.”22xSteven Shainberg (director), Erin Cressida Wilson (screenwriter), Secretary (motion picture), distributed by Lions Gate Films (2002). Like centuries of monks, nuns, and mystics before her, Lee transforms her inertia and hunger into an active occupation through the performance of sacrificial pain.

Hunger is a particularly intensified iteration of waiting: acute wanting directed toward a palpably absent object. The literal hunger of mystics like Catherine of Siena, who famously fasted for much of her life, corresponds to a greater hunger, necessarily insatiable, for communion with God. When Lee’s lover comes to her rescue, he resuscitates her with a protein shake, and their relationship adopts the familiar, flagellatory rhythm of feeding and hungering, deprivation and indulgence. Lee’s grand gesture, the gift of her famished waiting, is its origin and its core.

Waiting seems central to the experience and practice of masochistic piety’s messianic successor, romantic love, the force that is supposed to redeem twenty-first-century women as religious salvation once redeemed their forebears. But how exactly does waiting figure into contemporary romance? In his 1977 treatise A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes argues that waiting is constitutive of love:

“Am I in love?—Yes, since I’m waiting.” The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.33xRoland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard (London, England: Vintage Classics, 2002), 40.

In Barthes’s view, love is centrally defined by the transfiguration of neutral lack into conspicuous vacancy, of emptiness into absence: Love is waiting, and waiting is love. For Catherine of Siena, perennially ravenous, the absence is God’s. For Lee, delectably paralyzed with submission, it is her boss’s. For the lover, the beloved’s absence is always acute. Distance is not a redistribution of presence but an evasion or a thwarted expectation, like a phantom limb.

In Secretary, Lee has fled the premise of what would have been her wedding to a banal boyfriend, and as she awaits her boss’s return she wears a crumpled wedding dress. This image might seem to undermine the usual marital tropes: A sort of inverse Miss Havisham, Lee deserts her conventional lover at the altar in favor of a sexually deviant relationship. She is the abandoning, not the abandoned, party, and her passivity is chosen, not imposed.

But despite this, she represents yet another variation on the familiar figure of the woman waiting. Initially, this woman wove while her husband went off to war; later, she donned a wedding dress and waited at the altar for a man who would never come; finally, she settled behind her telephone or her mailbox, first analog, then digital, to wait for men who would probably never call or write. As Barthes elaborates,

Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the Woman…. It is Woman who gives shape to absence, elaborates its fiction, for she has time to do so…. It follows that in any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized. A man is not feminized because he is inverted but because he is in love.44xIbid., 14.

Barthes suggests that waiting is constitutive of love—the lover is “the one who waits.” If waiting, even for men, is an essentially female posture, then love proves to be a fundamentally feminine exercise. The figure at the desk, with her tattered wedding dress, her throbbing hunger, her clenched hands, could only have been a woman.

The Day-After Text

At first, everything was good, as it tends to be in the early stages, after the first bouts of effortless intimacy, when your body fits so neatly into a foreign body that it seems to have returned to a familiar place. I received his day-after text promptly, approximately seven hours after I left his bed. The text was a ritual gesture, and its content mattered less than its arrival within the allotted twenty-four hours, before the possibility of future interaction expired. In its immediate aftermath I did not wait. But as our conversation acquired momentum and settled into a comfortable cadence, I found the distribution of my attention shifting. Some part of it was withheld, repurposed, devoted to measuring the increasing lengths of his silences. He was beginning to recede, and I was beginning to wait.

As long as he was the unanswered party and I could imagine him in a state of painful expectation, I felt invulnerable. I fantasized about never replying, about savoring my silence and his presumed anxiety for the rest of my life, but I never managed to go very long without answering and reverting to my habitual state of waiting. (“I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game….”)

Before I met him, I spent most of my time at the British university where I was studying “abroad” taking prolonged showers, checking Facebook in the library, and thinking haltingly about the essays I was writing for my master’s program. In the library, I sat next to a young man with preternaturally red cheeks—they looked painful, scraped—who seemed to be conducting a survey of eighteenth-century botanical atlases. For hours, he sat hunched over his laptop, scrutinizing archival documents that somebody, perhaps he, had laboriously scanned. Sometimes he took notes by hand. Not once did I ever see him check his e-mail or Facebook, as I often did, only to find that no one had contacted me since the last time I checked, five minutes before.

At the pub, where the beleaguered members of my course congregated once a week to “talk about their ‘work,’” no one talked about their work. The botany boy, to whom I had never spoken, was never in attendance. Maybe these sessions occurred when he did his laborious scanning. I lamely sipped sparkling water while my peers, who drank beer, speculated endlessly about the weather, which was so stubbornly noncommittal (never torrential but never fully sunny) that it left little to the predictive faculties.

After I met him, however, I spent much of my time waiting for him. This was more engaging than one might imagine. Immediately after receiving messages from him, I felt a sense of amazed, vertiginous relief that he had answered—yes, he had answered—and this lasted for several seconds at a time before it reverted to muted panic that soon he would answer at greater and greater intervals and then would cease to answer at all. I experienced a cumulative total of maybe five minutes of joy during the week before I saw him again, not counting sleeping hours.

There is an eroticism to waiting: Sexual fulfillment requires that one urgently desire what is necessarily, torturously delayed. Romantic waiting is, like certain shades of pain, delicate enough to hint teasingly at future gratification but never disagreeable enough to preclude it. But at a certain point, gratification has been so thoroughly warded off that waiting becomes unendurable, and it wasn’t long after our second meeting that I began to wait in earnest. What had at first been surprised delight that he existed was transformed, without my noticing it, into fear that his privacy would close back over him. His silences began to stretch longer and longer, often for days. I wondered, relentlessly and futilely, what this portended. When I confronted him about what I could only describe as a “tonal shift”—what seemed to me to be a cruel infliction of waiting—he purported to have no idea what I was talking about.

This shift (tonal or otherwise) in patterns of waiting represented a shift in power: Expectation is a form of subjugation. What is the opposite of waiting: the imposition of waiting on someone else? I wished it on him, ineffectually, like a curse. As his communications petered out, I felt increasingly powerless, besieged. I recalled the medieval conception of God as sustaining us, actively willing us into existence second by second, and I felt that his silence was at every moment draining me of myself.

Depression, Too, Is a Form of Waiting

In Iris, the literary critic John Bayley’s tragic account of his brilliant wife, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, and her descent into the fog of Alzheimer’s, he quotes clergyman Sydney Smith’s advice to a depressive: “Take short views of the human life—never further than dinner or tea.”55x John Bayley, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (London, England: Duckworth, 1998), 44. Depression, too, is a form of waiting, for deliverance or vindication or a sudden onslaught of meaning that fails, devastatingly, to arrive. Waiting is a manipulation of time—it is “enchantment,” as Barthes writes, a spell that stills and silences its victims—and its antidote is to make time pass at the usual rate once again. (In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham’s abandonment and subsequent waiting arrest time completely: She stops the clocks at 8:40, the moment at which she received the letter breaking off her engagement.)

Smith exhorts the depressive to throw herself entirely into some proximate thing, to repopulate the vast stretches of undifferentiated blankness with something like events. One tries to foist sequences back onto a slop of time that has come to consist in the recurring, harping note of absence. So one lives, one tries to inhabit the minutiae of the activities one performs, one tries to externalize oneself and ultimately to lose one’s sense of one’s selfhood altogether, so that one can become the objects one rearranges on the dresser and forget that one is waiting, that none of one’s activities are complete without some additional element that is wretchedly, unforgettably elsewhere.

Why did I obey the unspoken imperative to wait? Was I trying, like Lee, to prove my affection through my mute endurance? Was my inability to revert my experience of duration to its former state, when his silence was not perceived as a continual laceration, indeed was not perceived at all, somehow masochistic? Or perhaps I felt waiting was better than mourning.

“The woman was then lied to, cheated on, tormented, and often not called. She was intentionally left up in the air about his intentions. One or two letters went unanswered. The woman waited and waited, in vain. And she did not ask why she was waiting, because she feared the answer more than the waiting,” writes Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek in The Piano Teacher.66xElfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2009), 75. To be “not called,” this phrasing intimates, is to be actively wounded: “Not calling” is a transitive offense, like “tormenting.” But Jelinek’s conclusion seems wrong: Waiting, which renders everything provisional, which suspends progress or conclusion of any kind, is worse than clarity. It is waiting that keeps one captive at the desk, determined to see things through until he returns or one starves, whichever comes first.

Waiting Is the Rule

There is, of course, a simpler answer to the question of the role waiting plays in contemporary courtship than Barthes’s convoluted philosophical one. It is that women wait for men: They wait for their Tinder matches to initiate contact, for men to propose to them after years of dating or to ask them on dates at all, for the decisive day-after text (a custom that I realized with some surprise has antecedents in classical Japan; in The Tale of Genji, noblewomen anxiously await morning-after haikus in the wake of their nocturnal exploits).

The messages that I answer immediately, without inserting a buffer of delay calculated to give the (erroneous) impression that I’m busy or unavailable, come from my female friends, and they often constitute an agonized refrain: How soon should I reply? Can I say something yet? Should I call? I know I shouldn’t text him, but…. My advice, ingrained in me by years of comparable counsel from comparably responsive female friends, is always to wait. Waiting is the rule, the convention, tacitly enforced by men who retreat from female aggression and actively perpetuated by women who self-police. This is the agreement we opt into when we receive the first day-after texts with such awed gratitude, as if we didn’t deserve them.

Literature bears out Barthes’s claim and my experience: In books, it is always women who wait. In the Odyssey, Penelope awaits the return of her husband for twenty years, weaving a funeral shroud for her father during the day and unraveling it during the night to put off intermediary suitors, one of whom she will wed when the interminable tapestry is finally complete. Penelope is the product of an oral lyrical tradition that excluded women, and it is only fitting that a male authorship relegated her to the sort of maddening inactivity that waiting so often entails. Like Miss Havisham, condemned to tread the same obsessive mental routes over and over again, Penelope is doomed to weave and unweave the same tired designs to no discernable end.

Centuries later, Walt Whitman would open his 1856 poem “A Woman Waits for Me” with a succinct expression of breathtaking entitlement: “A woman waits for me” as if it were simply and irrefutably so. Later still, in Raymond Carver’s poem “Waiting,” a male speaker makes his way to

the house where the woman
stands in the doorway
wearing the sun in her hair. The one
who’s been waiting
all this time.
The woman who loves you.
The one who can say,
“What’s kept you?”77xRaymond Carver, “Waiting,” in All of Us: The Collected Poems (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2000). Retrieved from Writer’s Almanac,

There is a fond condescension to this poem: It is tender, but it takes the woman’s love and patience—her presence in the door, her mounting fear—for granted. To the male narrator, the waiting woman is a comforting inevitability. The woman’s anxious and vaguely accusatory question does not come from a comparable place of security—not that Carver bothers to investigate.

Of course, waiting women have also spoken for themselves. Gaspara Stampa, a sixteenth-century Italian poet often regarded as the iconic jilted lover, anticipates Barthes’s equation of waiting with love in her seminal poem “By Now I Am So Tired of Waiting”:

By now I am so tired of waiting,
so overcome by longing and by grief,
through the so little faith and much forgetting
of whom of whose return I, weary, am bereaved,

that she who makes the world pale, whitening
it with her sickle, and claims the final forfeit—
I call on her often for relief,
so strongly sorrow wells within my breast.

But she turns deaf ears unto my plea,
scorning my false and foolish thoughts,
as he to his return stays also deaf.

And so with weeping whence my eyes are filled,
I make piteous these waters and this sea;
while he lives happy there upon his hills.88xGaspara Stampa, “By Now I Am So Tired of Waiting,” in The Defiant Muse: Italian Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to the Present, eds. Beverly Allen, Muriel Kittel, and Keala Jane Jewell (New York, NY: Feminist Press, 1986), 15.

Stampa’s poem is, at its core, an indictment of indifference: She denounces the man to whom it is addressed because he fails to suffer from her absence, and thus fails to conceive of the passage of their time apart as an exercise in waiting. Stampa, in contrast, is excruciatingly aware of her lover’s absence, and she can be described as waiting precisely because she experiences separation as pain. This is what waiting is: the transformation of time into misery.

Dorothy Parker’s short story “A Telephone Call,” a two-thousand-word exercise in agonized anticipation, echoes Stampa’s initial figuration of apathy as the inverse of waiting. The work follows a woman waiting for a telephone call (not, we presume, forthcoming) from a man she loves:

I mustn’t. I mustn’t do this. Suppose he’s a little late calling me up—that’s nothing to get hysterical about. Maybe he isn’t going to call—maybe he’s coming straight up here without telephoning. He’ll be cross if he sees I have been crying. They don’t like you to cry. He doesn’t cry. I wish to God I could make him cry. I wish I could make him cry and tread the floor and feel his heart heavy and big and festering in him. I wish I could hurt him like hell.99xDorothy Parker, “A Telephone Call,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, intro. Brendan Gill (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1973): 121.

The story ends inconclusively, as it must. Resolution would be too relieving: It is inimical to the uncertainties and frustrations of waiting. With a gesture that mirrors Penelope’s in its contrived futility, the narrator begins to count by fives, hoping that her beloved will call her before she reaches five hundred. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five….” “A Telephone Call” concludes without concluding.

Waiting is sustained by the possibility of fulfillment yet to be decisively precluded. The woman in Parker’s story is capable of waiting because she is capable of hope. If she believed with any certainty that the call in question would never come, then her orientation would change: She might grieve, but she would no longer wait. The man who neglects to telephone is certain that a woman is waiting on the other end of the line, and this is why he is not waiting, why he feels no urge to confirm that she is still there with her hands placed, as instructed, on the desk.

As in Secretary, waiting—a nonevent—constitutes the crucial narrative force in “A Telephone Call.” Parker eschews conventional plot arcs, in which ends represent marked departures from beginnings. The woman waiting by the phone follows Penelope in performing activities that represent a particularly poignant kind of stasis. For every image she weaves, there is a countervailing un-weaving: for every advance, a retreat. There is no progression, just endless circling around the same fixed point of obsession. Waiting itself is her occupation and preoccupation. “Absence becomes an active practice, a business (which keeps me from doing anything else),” writes Barthes.

If women historically have been the ones who wait, it is at least in part because most cultures have confined them to state of involuntary idleness. (Penelope is not permitted to leave home to participate in the war effort, and Lee is the secretary, not the boss.) The gendered distribution of waiting assumes a hierarchy of time and activity in which men set the terms and fix the schedules. To be waited for is to assert the importance of one’s time; to wait is to occupy a position of eternal readiness in which one can be called on at male convenience. Waiting amounts in this sense to “waiting on”: Waiting women exist provisionally and subserviently, in the service of an absent element.

In his book Interruptions, the critic Hans-Jost Frey writes, “To understand waiting as expectation is to think of it from the point of view of totality. One who waits is in a state of incompleteness and waits for completion.”1010x Hans-Jost Frey, Interruptions, trans. Georgia Albert (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), 57. (This formulation vindicates Jelinek’s cleverly transitive phrasing: If waiting is an active occupation, then absence is an active cruelty.) There emerges a metaphysical dependence: If togetherness is completion, then separation is fragmentation. The integrity of the lover is conditional upon the beloved, the eternally awaited. If waiting constitutes love, as Barthes suggests, it is because waiting is the ultimate act of vulnerability: It requires a willingness to endanger one’s wholeness, to halve oneself.

Jolted Out of the Self

Barthes makes two suggestions, both radical. First, he suggests that love is a question of waiting, and second, that waiting is essentially feminine. From this it follows that to fall in love is to become “feminized”—to wait, and thereby take up a traditionally and stereotypically feminine project. But Barthes goes further, proposing that the object of love is absent in a stronger sense: What it means to love, he writes, is for “an always present I” to be defined “only by confrontation with an always absent you.” A Lover’s Discourse is structured as a series of one-sided declarations, “the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak.”1111xBarthes, A Lover’s Discourse, 3. The lover waits, speaks, entreats, but the beloved is constitutionally silent.

To love is to be jolted out of the self by the strangeness of another person, and the beloved entrances precisely because of his unutterable difference—the most basic and insuperable absence. He is absent even when he is present because he is other, situated outside of myself: “But isn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent? Isn’t the object always absent?” As Barthes reminds us, there are two concepts in Greek for desire, one for the missing someone who’s left, and a second for the more curious sensation of missing someone beside me, someone who is with me but who remains less than fully accessible to me: “Pothos, desire for the absent being, and Himéros, the more burning desire for the present being.”1212x Ibid., 15.

Maybe love is the recovery of some former, half-remembered unity, and what we experience is just the aftermath of a prior separation. In the poem “Misery and Splendor,” Robert Hass writes of a couple mid-coitus that “they are trying to become one creature, and something will not have it.”1313xRobert Hass, “Misery and Splendor,” in Human Wishes (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1989). Retrieved from Poetry Foundation website: But do they really want to become “one creature,” to collapse into each other? Wouldn’t this just expand the sphere of a single loneliness? Love and sex must honor difference: The beloved must continue to resist assimilation into the self, must remain apart, elusive, an adored, if tonally inconstant, mystery.

The Art of Elective Waiting

Waiting is consuming. At times it is terrible, a wound that cannot be mitigated but must instead be mutely survived. There are days when making it to dinner or tea, as per Sydney Smith’s sage advice, is a feat. And sometimes waiting is an insult, an indignity, as pointlessly pathetic as refusing to take off the wedding dress in which you were abandoned years ago by someone who no longer cares and probably doesn’t remember.

But waiting in some form is necessary. In his essay “Penelope Waiting,” literary critic Harold Schweizer argues that narrative itself is a specialized kind of waiting: “What constitutes a literary text or a work of art,” he writes, “is not its formal closure or sensuous completeness but rather its complicated extension in our own time of waiting.”1414x Harold Schweizer, “Penelope Waiting,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 85, nos. 3–4 (2002), 280. Stories require displaced elements, problems that plague us enough to keep us reading and caring. Investment is diffuse, and present enjoyment is predicated on the projection of future fulfillment. Narrative obeys erotic laws: This is why the seeming non-stories of Secretary and “A Telephone Call” absorb us. Just as delay intensifies narrative and deferral intensifies orgasm, difference intensifies love.

The alternative to dejected waiting, then, is patience, the art of elective waiting: a capitulation that women author, a passivity over which we assert ownership and which we might come to more comfortably inhabit. When we identify with it, even the worst of it, waiting becomes an end in itself. Frey writes, “There is a waiting without expectation. It can set in when one has waited for something for so long, without seeing any signs of imminent fulfillment, that the object of expectation gradually begins to fade, and yet one does not stop waiting.”1515xFrey, Interruptions, 57. Waiting without expectation is like prayer, devotion undertaken without the expectation of immediate reward or acknowledgment.

There is no true not-waiting, anyway. What seems like fullness is just an intimation of filling, a preview of a more complete dissolution. What I want—to not wait, to converge—is impossible. I want everything, all at once, every part of myself touching every part of you at every moment. An intimacy as absolute as this could only be violent, a rupture. It would conceive of flesh as no more than barrier. It would hurt. I have wanted to admit you into my privacy: I have craved a feast of trespass and violation. And at times I have wanted you to wrench me apart and enter into me until the only life I remember is your life and the only word I remember is your name.

But this isn’t possible, and I don’t really want it, anyway. If I were a part of you, I would not be apart from you and there would be no me in opposition to you, no you to elude me. Instead, I choose my waiting and the joy I find in surrender, in flinging myself at everything I encounter with the brutality of adoration. Catherine of Siena understood this: The whole purpose of adoring God to the point of such delicious abjection is that he is by nature unattainable. He never arrives with a protein shake, prizing hunger apart from filling, or pleasure apart from pain. He never defiles the purity of agony with the weakness of relief. He hurts without mercy. He is a story that never ends.