I crawled off a reformer and hobbled towards the corner of the room where the disinfectant is kept in two spray bottles beside a pile of clean white paper towels. It’s Pilates’ etiquette, you see, to wipe one’s sweat off the machine you were just draped across so the person who works out after you will have the pleasure of only reclining in sweat of her own. It’s been about a year that I’ve been attending this studio faithfully, and I’ve come to be friendly with the other regulars. We know certain things about each other now, the type of casual information you trot out as you lay panting beside one another in the early hours of a weekend morning or in the finally-blessedly-light-outside time of 6:00 PM. I know, for instance, who just had a birthday and whose kid is in his junior year of Art school. I know who recently cut all alcohol from her lifestyle and promptly dropped twenty pounds because apparently her favorite prior food group was vodka. I know which person’s hip hurts when the lunging happens. I know who just signed up for a nutritionist because she ate nine mini cupcakes last night and then exploded into a paroxysm of guilt that manifested into a hysteria of dietary planning. I know who never stops fucking moaning during every single exercise and I’m just guessing here, but I have come to think the reason such a thing occurs has to be because this woman’s imaginary (and perhaps her only) friend told her the class’ secret name is Porn With Pilates. I know that when we’re told right before class to grab the ring, the ball, and the dowel that we will all collectively heave a deep sigh because shit is about to burn.
There’s a easy familiarity we have going, so I wasn’t particularly surprised when one of the women met me near the door on our way out of class and asked if I’m involved with anyone at the moment.
“I’m actually dating like it’s my job,” I told her. “And my work is exhausting.”
“I may have someone for you,” she said – and I could feel my insides clench just a teeny bit because she suddenly sounded very much like a mother. She didn’t sound like my mother, mind you. My mother has learned to abide by my boundaries. To the uninitiated, those boundaries currently include:
1. Calling before coming over.
2. Not handing men my number unless I’ve approved such an action. (The sole caveat to this rule is if the man happens to be a cousin to the Family Springsteen – and even then, he’d better be a first cousin.)
3. Ceasing the attempt to pass off whipped cauliflower as mashed potatoes the way she did for years without my knowledge or my consent. And though I realize this rule has nothing to do with dating, I am still haunted by the egregiousness of it all.
“What’s this guy like?” I asked while mentally cataloguing excuses I could shoot off quickly should excuses be necessary. I keep those excuses in an imaginary holster; I always have them at the ready to explain why I cannot date some phantom. Right now I’m wielding the “I’m simply far too busy these days grading finals” and “I think one of the guys I’m seeing actually has some real potential, or at least his hair does.” I’d maybe toss out “I’m considering becoming celibate because I’m now getting all the exercise I require through Pilates and the moans coming out of that other woman make me want to light a cigarette after class anyway,” but I’m afraid that will get back to The Moaner and I’d feel badly about that because even though one night she didn’t just moan and instead yelled out “I’m so tight!” she is still a nice lady.
Also? That totally happened.
Anyway, the woman who was asking me if I wanted to meet whichever man she knows is really very sweet and, frankly, I was way too tired to make excuses because we’d just planked for what felt like a trillion seconds while my instructor yelled, “Work for it, Nell!” and I’ve recently discovered I respond quite well to someone screaming at me to get stronger.
“Well,” she said with a beatific smile, “He’s a Christian man…” – and that’s when I knew this well-intentioned person didn’t actually know me in the slightest.
“I’m gonna need to stop you right here,” I told her. I made sure to keep a smile on my face because this woman deserves all the smiles. She was attempting, after all, to do a mitzvah, but I’m not sure a good Christian man she attends church with bi-weekly is the sort of guy to comprehend the meaning of the mitzvah.
“I’m a completely nonreligious Jewish girl,” I said. “Religion is just something I personally do not respond to, though I respect that other people do. But a very religious man is probably not my soul mate and I fear he’d toss holy water on me on a semi-regular basis.”
She cocked her head to one side as she considered me and then she smiled and said, “See how you feel about it on Saturday when we meet again. He’s very handsome and he has two children and a cat.”
Now, the only things I like less than a religious fanatic are children and felines. It’s not that kids and cats aren’t sometimes all kinds of cute, but I’m deathly allergic to cats – I’m talking full-on wheezing that requires an inhaler – and while I haven’t yet been able to get a physician to validate my aversion to spending long stretches of time with children, I think there has to be a scientific and/or clinical explanation as to why I crave chocolate and solitude but not kids.
I got out of that particular set-up without offending the nice woman who, even after seeing me sweat buckets and yank my hair up into a bun that leaned alarmingly to the left, still thought I could be a viable candidate for her friend. I was flattered, but as I drove home all I could think about was that night a bunch of years ago when I reluctantly attended some political event with my parents and the same sort of thing happened. Because on that night, I sat at a table beside some guy I’d never met before. He was the son of a friend of my parents, but I’d only actually met his parents once before. Despite the fact that we were total strangers, this guy leaned over to me during the shrimp course and declared he knew someone who would be perfect for me.
I’d been through discussions like that before – you know, utter strangers deciding they could fix my life in the flash of an eye or the slurp of a shrimp tail – and normally I just sit there patiently, my lips curled into something that resembles patience, but that night I just couldn’t pull it off…because I didn’t want to. I was at a political event on a weekday. My parents were there. I wouldn’t have recognized the candidate if he fell from the ceiling on top of me and landed next to my discarded cocktail sauce. All I wanted to do in that second was suck down some shrimp, make it to the dessert table first so I could snag the largest piece of layer cake – an end piece with extra gobs of frosting – and then get the hell out of the room before another Republican told me I must be a Liberal because I believe in crazy shit like common sense gun laws. I’d also just ended things with a guy I’d been dating for about two years and I’d started to question if I’d made the right choice and someone coming at me out of nowhere over appetizers annoyed me something spectacular. But I also knew that the person sitting beside me wasn’t the reason for the conflagration of noise ricocheting inside my head. I knew he didn’t deserve any of my anger when he was just trying to do what a lot of girls would have truly appreciated. So I decided to deal with it by being kind and direct – and to sweetly shut his shit down before the main course appeared.
“You say he’s Jewish? Okay. Him being Jewish doesn’t matter to me. Any chance he plays guitar?”
The guy did not play guitar, so I got away that evening without giving a stranger my phone number that would then be handed off to another stranger.
I think it’s time for you to reevaluate what you’re looking for in life and in men.
Those words were said to me in a text by someone I have known since I was fourteen years old, someone who met me while I was in the throes of my most unfortunate gawky phase, someone who has subsequently seen me through every other stage of my life. He doesn’t live close by, but he has this almost magical ability – an empathetic sixth and seventh sense – to send me a message at the exact millisecond that I need to get it. There have been many times a “You okay?” shows up on the face of my phone when I’ve just decided that I’m not sure I’m okay, but seeing the message makes me know that of course I am okay, I’m just having a desperate-feeling moment. There are only a few people I think we get to have like that in our lives, people almost clairvoyant in their dealings with you, and that kind of closeness can only occur if you put the time in, if you really listen, not just to the words you say to one another, but to the wordless vibrations that connect you to yourself and to the ones who will always matter.
Sometimes I worry that I’m just not enough for someone, I told him really late one night. I didn’t clarify what my “not enough” was referring to, but he knows me so he can understand that I am probably simultaneously talking about how I appear physically and whether I can prove to be as endlessly interesting to someone else the way I want the man in my life to be to me.
You are enough, he wrote back. You have always been enough… and the thing is: you’re better now than ever.
But a couple of months ago when he and I were talking about some dates I’d been on recently – the good, the bad, the rather acrobatic, and the ones that legitimately made me question humanity – he asked not only what it was that I was looking for, but how what I was looking for had changed over the years. That second part of his question made me I realize my priorities hadn’t shifted enough. Sure, the man I want needs to be attractive enough that I can imagine him on top of me and yes, I’d prefer he doesn’t have children or a currently-active stalker. Those wants haven’t changed. And certain things I’ve always been adamant about are things I must continue to enforce. I won’t even go on a first date with a man who has a cat living in his home because while I can ponder perhaps dating someone who actually hates his job and doesn’t feel like he’s living his career passion (that was a big red flag before I realized that it’s okay for people to desire money over personal enlightenment), I can’t really compromise on having the ability to draw breath. Still, I realized my friend was onto something. I needed to redefine my parameters – for myself and for the strangers whose time I didn’t need to waste – and I could maybe toss a few things I’d once believed essential out into the ether. Call it The Life Changing Art of Tidying Up My Emotional Bullshit. Call it Getting Rid of Outdated Clutter. Call it Growing the Fuck Up Finally, but gone – instantly – went my need for a guy to have a “normal” family because, if I have learned anything over the years, it is that nobody has a fucking normal family and my own family has become so utterly indescribable that I actually actively hope that the right man will not only have a sense of humor about the very unfunny lunacy of it all, but I also hope he’s gone some assholes in his own family tree so I don’t have to feel so badly about what I’m lugging to the Thanksgiving table.
Another once-seemingly profound issue tossed aside? The concern that the man I love will have himself a massive Saint Bernard who will view my Maltipoo strictly as an amuse bouche. But I’ve decided a guy with a dog doesn’t matter. Sure, we will have to do more scheduling, but 1) Saint Bernards are awesome 2) Tallulah – like her human mommy – is far tougher than she looks and 3) I have always secretly entertained the notion of how it would be both adorable and rather convenient if I could attach a homemade sidecar to some enormous canine creature and have Tallulah ride shotgun so I do not have to carry her during the summer months when her fur just adds to the skyrocketing sense of heat.
But the important things – the stuff that reveals who we really are – well, those things haven’t changed and I guess it’s because the core of who I am has not changed. The man I’m with needs to be funny, he just does. I view humor as the greatest indicator of emotional intelligence and I never feel better than when I’m laughing. He must be able to both dole out and take non-snide sarcasm because Sarcasm is the only language other than English and Pig Latin in which I’m fully fluent. He should be self-aware and self-effacing. He needs to be healthy because I don’t want him to die, but he also needs to know the magic that is The Twinkie.
He needs to be cool with a dog sleeping on the bed and he should enjoy taking strolls on cool summer nights before the mosquitoes really descend. He should know how to kill a slug before I have to either see it or worry that my dog might gulp it down whole before I can lunge her way, but he need not ever worry about having to murder a spider because I spent a lot of years at sleepaway camp and I can pick up a Daddy Long Legs by one of its long legs and lead it outside to see his new home without so much as flinching. He doesn’t need to cook because I can, but I’d him to be an adventurous eater and I’d like it even more if he was adventurous in bed. I like doing things like suddenly appearing in a fun little outfit, but I can’t deny that part of the fun there is the surprise and appreciation you get back.
I’d like him to binge shows because he can’t get enough of something that interests him and I want him to always bring me a cup of coffee in the morning, a rather easy task since I take it black. I want him to disagree with me sometimes because the men who are bland nodders cause my palms to twitch and the rest of me to get mean. I want him to check in on days he know will be tough for me and I want him to understand that sometimes I like to rub his hair because doing something tactile, repetitive, and loving makes me relax deep inside. I want him to never tell me the things that matter to me shouldn’t matter and, most of all, I just want him to be honest because much like cats and strangers setting me up with other strangers, I just don’t have patience for any of that shit anymore.
I gave your question real thought, I texted my friend almost three weeks later.
And…? he responded.
And it’s looking like I’m about to have a ton of new dating stories to tell you. Oh – and it turns out that not a single man who works in any area of Business likes it in the fucking slightest.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter