It was a great first date – but then there are two ways to read that sentence.
Reading #1: Take it exactly as it is written! Add to it no inflection and excavate from it no extra meaning.
Reading #2: After a great first date, the dates that followed were, shall we say, slightly less stellar.
I’ll just make this easy on everyone: go with Reading #2 here, okay? Because it was a great first date – the kind generic pop songs are written about, the kind of songs we end up lip synching to in front of mirrors – but what followed was a weird cornucopia of a possibly-racist neighbor, a questionable lack of chivalry, mystery about things that never needed to be mysterious in the first place, an undercooked chicken, a too-large porch swing, and someone I love dearly recommending that I procure myself a shovel. So I guess what I’m saying here is that you should probably settle in.
It was July, right around that point of summer when the anxiety-ridden creature who likes to camp out deep inside of me (the one I usually try to starve) began to indicate it was feeling the first stirrings of panic. Because summer was already half-over, see? Because the heat was so heavy that I couldn’t make myself see the logic behind the notion that if a summer is half over that must also mean that there’s still half a summer left to enjoy. Because all the things I’d once planned to do – Travel! Tan! Dust every square inch of my home until it sparkled like the fucking night stars! – seemed to be slipping away more quickly and more permanently each and every day. Because it was already July, and my legs were no tanner than they had been in the latest days of June.
I need to make a plan, I thought to myself. I need to accomplish something and I need to do it right this very second so the rest of me can settle the fuck down and hibernate until I have to deal with the actual anxiety attack that will undoubtedly overtake me right before school begins in September, when I wake up sweating because no part of me even faintly recalls how to set an alarm clock.
Being the pragmatic sort came in handy right then. Tanning, I realized, took time and was bad for me. Traveling took planning and also caused stress because I am physically incapable of going anywhere without packing at least seven pairs of heels for the journey. So I decided instead to just land myself a brand new boyfriend. I was in the market for one anyway and there was this one guy whose picture I kept stumbling back to on a dating site and he was posing with his dog and he looked confident and on that I’d-better-make-a-fucking-plan Tuesday, I decided to send him a little message:
You look like Dave Grohl.
I can no longer recall what it was that he wrote back, but in the messages that then fluttered between us, I was able to suss out that he was in his late thirties, he was a professor at a college, he was really into his dog, he docked his boat in the very town where I had grown up, he most likely wasn’t a serial killer, and he would prefer to meet me as soon as possible.
What I could not fully suss out was whether or not he actually knew who Dave Grohl was.
I find comfort in a bit of back-and-forth-before-a-date-banter; I’m verbal, so that sort of interaction plays to my strengths. But there wasn’t very much back and forth with this guy. He requested my number, called me up right then and there, and asked if I could meet for a drink that very night. And though I swear I could hear the evil critter who lives deep inside of me hissing that my evening would be so much easier if I just stayed on the couch and ate a hunk of cheese, I momentarily chose to smother the fucker and told my next boyfriend to text me the address of where we should meet. What came back was the name of a bar I’d been to approximately six trillion times in my early twenties and I smiled, immediately feeling a swell of relaxation because that bar brought me only happy memories and because I fear almost nothing as much as I fear being lost and driving in circles on a summer night as my makeup melts off right before a first date that I probably shouldn’t even be on anyway because if I am out with a stranger, who will sit on my couch eating a hunk of cheese?
Optimism, however, was still thriving somewhere inside of me. In no time flat, I showered, shaved every single hair off my body, straightened my hair in spite of the humidity, tossed on a tank top, a miniskirt, some wedges, a huge rose gold statement ring and then I careened out my front door ready for whatever was going to happen.
Maybe he’ll be hilariously funny!
Maybe this will turn out to be the single finest evening of my entire life!
Maybe he’ll realize on the drive over who the Foo Fighters are!
Maybe I can fake my death in ten minutes flat should I decide I need to get far far away from this guy the second I see him.
My death-faking skills are on fucking point, but my time management skills? Those need work. I am perpetually early for everything and I always have been. I’d rather sit in my car for twenty straight minutes obsessing over an imaginary mascara clump than show up late for an appointment. I like having that extra time to breathe, to hope for the best, to center myself – or at least I tell myself that I like having those extra moments, though the clenching I feel grabbing hold of what I’d venture is either my liver or my spleen as I find myself waiting…and waiting…and waiting… well, it never feels a whole lot like anything resembling comfort. I didn’t want to have that experience this time around and I knew I would not get lost heading to the bar, so when I found myself running early yet again, I swung a quick right and drove instead to my parents’ house. It was close and I needed somewhere air-conditioned to kill some time.
It’s me, I yelled as I let myself into the house, and suddenly my mother, my stepfather, and my visiting stepsister appeared. I have a date in half an hour and I’m early so I figured I’d just have my mini anxiety attack here.
You have no reason to be anxious, my stepfather said with a smile. You are beautiful and talented and interesting and this guy is lucky to get a date with you!
His words were sweet. They were parental. They were exactly what I needed to hear right then. And they were words far nicer than those uttered by my mother, who could only inquire as to whether the shoes I was wearing were comfortable.
No, mom, I told her with a heavy sigh. My shoes are rarely comfortable. I’m wearing them for reasons other than comfort, okay?
They are beautiful, she said then. And then she asked me perhaps my least favorite question ever: So tell me about this guy.
Okay, so here’s something about me. I am very capable of harboring a few fleeting thoughts that maybe a new guy I’m about to meet could perhaps positively impact the rest of my entire life, but I am not and I never will be the sort of girl who will swoon over someone I don’t yet know. I will never announce, “Eureka! I have found him!” after just one perfect evening. And though I admire that quality in others in some respect – that undiluted champagne flute of bubbly and fizzy hope – I also know that I will always be the kind of person who will stare blankly at someone when I hear her claim that her entire life is different because of some guy she met yesterday. And it was with that understanding in mind, that recurring belief that the only thing this date would probably lead to would be a good story, that I told my mother I had nothing yet to say about this guy and I was almost able to ignore the sad smile she gave me, the one that revealed just how badly she hoped that, maybe one day, I’d allow myself to thaw.
I’ve hoped that for myself.
With offers of well wishes and compliments about how well my hair had defrizzed in the height of summer, I bid my family adieu and set off on what I somehow knew would not turn into my very own hero’s journey. I mean, I did cross several thresholds and I went wading into the unknown, but I didn’t bother to bring a supernatural aid along to help me with my quest, unless you can count minty gum as a supernatural aid, and really, if the quest is for some stranger’s tongue to wind its way into your mouth at some point during an evening, there is an argument to make about the helpfulness of spearmint.
(The winding tongue part? That came later.)
I shot him a text him after I parked and he came outside to meet me. He was tall. He had shaggy hair. He had a thin layer of scruff. He allowed a big grin to spread across his face when he saw me and, before I could stop it or maybe come back to my sensible senses, I caught myself thinking that this guy was making a very good first impression and perhaps he could be The One. And I continued to think that when he bought me a drink, sat me down in the shade, and asked to hear all about me.
Tell me about you, I said at one point when the sun was no longer blazing in the sky and my limbs felt elastic, like overcooked spaghetti. I was a drink and a half in – tops – but it takes very little to get me tipsy, to turn me into the kind of human being who hears that there’s a carnival happening right down the street and thus responds to the news by exclaiming, “We have to go to the carnival!” because part of me will always believe that I will win a goldfish at a carnival and that goldfish will live forever. And so he and I climbed into his Jeep Cherokee and I was pleased to note that nothing – no mini disco ball, no flexible plastic Jesus figure – dangled anywhere near his dashboard and we headed further into town and closer to the harbor where I’d once harbored the most intense dreams and plans for my life. We drove down my childhood streets and there was an easiness to the way he and I interacted. I didn’t feel a please-don’t-let-him-touch-me-yet kind of moment, the kind I always seem to feel when something is new and I’m just not quite sure about any of it. With this guy, everything felt like fun and he parallel parked his car in the middle of a gridlocked road and he turned the wheel with only one arm and glimpsing the strain of his muscle as it rippled underneath his shirt as he turned the wheel felt hotter than I’d expected it to and we walked down the street to the playground area where I’d all but grown up.
Wanna push me on the swings?
There was no delay to his response so I climbed on a swing, pressed my thighs together so the children attending the late-night fair wouldn’t lose their innocence in one fell swoop, and I felt his hand pressing against my lower back in that way. You know that way. It’s the way men who work in Finance lead you to the door of the bathroom in a bar or to a terrace in an apartment. They touch you right on the small of your back and they pretend they’re doing it to guide you to the next location, but you feel like you’re being branded. I did not feel the branding part wafting off of this guy, but the press of his hand in that one spot made me know with certainty that I would eventually wind up on top of him.
He kissed me pretty soon after that and I let him because it felt spontaneous and it felt natural and I’d kissed a lot of boys near that harbor and I’ve always been a fan of newness mixed with nostalgia. It was dark and we were near the seesaw and the whole thing kind of took my breath away. I liked how he just went for it, how there wasn’t a when-will-it-happen series of moments. But when it was finally time for me to get back into my own car and head home, I realized just how little I’d actually gotten to know him. I would not be able to answer many of the questions the women in my life were about to lodge at me like a firing squad. I knew only the basics because he had not opened up at all.
Maybe you talked too much. Maybe he couldn’t get a word in.
Those words were whispered into my psyche by the antiquated bitch who lounges deep inside the recesses of my mind and has read and then reread both The Rules and Why Men Love Bitches but has never so much as heard of David Sedaris.
Maybe he didn’t say a ton about himself because he just peels back his personal layers slowly.
Those words were spoken by the rational being who also exists deep inside the recesses of my mind. And I like to sometimes think that maybe the reason I have such bad cramps is because Rational Me is brawling with Antiquated Me and they enjoy doing much of that brawling on top of my uterus.
Maybe he didn’t say much because he just doesn’t have a whole lot to say.
Those words? Those were spoken by the Me who has earned the candy coating of cynicism I have sometimes relied upon to protect the softest of my emotional parts.
Still, I did call my stepsister to tell her that Date #1 went really well and that he and I had fully made out in his car when he brought me back to where my own car was parked. Still, I told my best friend that this guy had set up Date #2 before the first date was even over. Still, I mentally picked my outfit for that next date.
Still, something in me that was far too close to the surface for my comfort knew this guy would wind up being a simple summer diversion.
He took me to an outdoor concert for our next date and then we went back to his place and he ordered in a pizza. Simple and sweet, right? But you should probably know the following:
1. I love pizza. I’m totally normal that way.
2. There may be no other kind of evening I crave more than one spent on a guy’s bed with a pizza. I don’t need to be wined or dined and if I’m really into you. I mean, you can hand me a Pop Tart and call it a night. But when one lives in New York and chooses to order a pizza from FUCKING DOMINOS? That’s the sort of shit I will never understand.
3. The bathroom in his place was disgusting – like maybe-I-should-line-the-toilet-with-tissues kind of disgusting, except there were no tissues and only a few scraps of toilet paper left hanging off the roll. He was a grown man! True, he was moving in only two weeks to a house he’d bought and moving brings about mess, but does moving also mean that you allow your bathroom to become a biohazard? And was that a PAISLEY SILK KIMONO hanging on the back of the door? Did he use it as a robe? And has there ever been anything less attractive than a man in paisley?
4. It was dark when I left – I’d driven to him because the concert was way closer to his place than it was to mine – and though it looked pitch black outside, he did not walk me to my car. Walking a woman out is the sort of thing that belongs in the Introduction of a textbook entitled How To Be A Decent Man. And there was no part of me that didn’t know that and every part of me wondered who had fucked up this guy in his formative years.
5. Even after Date #2 – a date that was hours and hours long – I still didn’t feel like I knew who this guy really was. And my need to solve such a mystery was already starting to dissipate.
He came to my place for Date #3. He came straight from the beach. He came with his humungous dog who my teensy dog took one look at and then hid behind the couch in her own home. He came and asked me if it was cool if he showered because he was covered in sand. Date #3, and the guy was already in my shower. I did not join him there. No, I stayed in my living room so I could whisper assurances of survival to my shaking Maltese who was already almost fifteen years old at the time and clearly too old for this kind of bullshit.
Once he was dressed – this was a guy who seemed to very much enjoy being undressed – I suggested a walk with the dogs through town. I live in a scenic place, one far more welcoming to canines of all sizes than, say, my living room, so we popped leashes on the dogs and then sauntered through town. At one point, two little kids around the age of six or seven asked to pet our dogs and I kneeled down and presented Wookie to their smiling faces. They pet his dog also, and when the sweet little people walked away, this guy whispered to me with a laugh that his dog didn’t really like Black people. My response was to stare at him quizzically and to open my mouth and say something direct, but then I remembered that my brother’s dog doesn’t like any men besides my brother so maybe there was a logical reason to explain why this Domino’s-pizza-loving man’s dog didn’t like humans without white skin. Because all this went down before Trump, okay? I was not yet used to hearing random people brazenly touting their racist views with an unabashed smile.
The next time we saw each other was when he wanted to show me the house he’d just bought. It was about 45 minutes away from me, but buying a house is a big deal and I was happy for him. I went first to his old place so he could pick up his old TV a neighbor had stored (outside!) for him and it was there that his neighbor – someone I had never met – told me the new house this guy bought was lovely…but it was in a neighborhood with a lot of Black people. I didn’t hold my tongue that time. I told the neighbor while looking her straight in the face that living in a diverse neighborhood was not the sort of thing I viewed as a downside. (I also told the neighbor that keeping this guy’s TV outside on a night it had rained was probably rather foolish.) And when he loaded the totally broken TV into his Jeep and I followed him to his new home, I vowed to tell him what his neighbor had said and I vowed even more to glean his genuine reaction to it all.
His genuine reaction told me he was a casual racist because he just sort of shrugged. When I told him how distasteful I found his friend’s comment, he smiled and told me that I was really nice and that’s one of the things he liked about me. Then he plugged in his rain-soaked television, realized it wouldn’t turn on, muttered that MAYBE he’d buy another TV one day while I trembled in a corner about the prospect of dating someone who did not own a working television set and told him I should really get going.
The next day my friend Shannon came over so we could tone our asses by walking the hills of our town.
How’s it going with him?
Eh, I responded. Something’s off. Like, I’m pretty sure he made a racist comment. He eats very shitty pizza on purpose. Also, he told me he got his dog in another country and when I asked why he had been in that country, he was silent for about twenty seconds and then said, “I was there to visit a friend.” I mean, dude…your dog is three years old and you met me three weeks ago. If you were there visiting some other girl, I’m pretty sure I would have no reason to feel jealous since I wasn’t even in your life then. It’s all just feeling…weird.
The racist thing is fucked up, she said. But maybe he was just telling an admittedly horrible joke and now he knows how you respond to that shit. As for the rest, maybe he’s used to other kinds of women who would freak out about the prior existence of someone else.
Maybe, I nodded.
How’s the sex?
He has a full-on boob fetish, which doesn’t particularly bother me because I have nice boobs. He’s good. I got no complaints in that area, I told her.
Give him just one more chance, she recommended. You can see if you read more into his stupid comment than you should have. Good sex really matters. She said this with the certainty of someone who has really good sex with her husband.
I nodded that maybe I should give him one more chance. I was tired, okay? It was almost September. His house was nice and I owned several TVs. I could maybe bequeath him one. And maybe I could make him see that diversity is nothing to be afraid of. Maybe I could calmly explain that one of the benefits of living in New York is how much actual good pizza is all around us. And to be very honest, I knew if I wanted him for real that this guy could be mine and then I could be done with dating and, just for a moment, I actually considered settling.
Thank fucking God the shovel thing happened next.
Almost a month had gone by since that great first date and though I was hyperaware that my response to anyone asking me about him was to deeply sigh, I still answered the phone when he called one night. The floors were being done in his new house, he said. He would have to be officially out of the house for two full days.
Do you need to stay here? I asked this question because I was raised right, but every part of me hoped to hear a word like “hotel” or perhaps “brothel” in his response. But I did not expect to hear what he actually said.
I’m gonna stay on my boat overnight because it’s way closer to work than your place is, but can the dog stay with you for a couple of days?
These are the things that immediately soared through my mind, in the actual order they went barreling by:
A. This man wanted me to house his dog while he stayed on a boat?
B. His dog could not be left alone in my house with my dog! Wookie would have a nervous breakdown! And I had to leave to go to work! How could I leave her in a house with a dog I didn’t really know?
C. We have known each other for one fucking month. Is there really nobody he feels closer to that he can ask for a favor?
I told him I’d let him know for sure if I could help him out and I hung up the phone, my forehead creased with utter confusion and because I’d yet to discover the joys of sporadic Botox. Then I called my mother and told her what he had asked me and I could hear the disbelief drip off my tongue and drench those tits of mine that he seemed to enjoy so much.
Does he not have anyone else he could ask to watch his fucking dog? I asked incredulously.
Tuffs, she said slowly in that now-familiar how-am-I-going-to-get-this-daughter-of-mine-to-comprehend-reality tone of voice. He asked you to watch the thing that matters to him most! Why don’t you see that as a compliment?
Because it’s fucking bizarre, I yelled. I have not known this guy for that long and watching a dog that size is a serious favor to ask of someone and I don’t even know why he has this dog because I have no idea why he was in Ecuador in the first place!
Ecuador? She sounded fully confused.
And how can I leave Wookie with this dog while I’m not here? I’ll be so nervous!
Leave Wookie here for a few days and I’ll watch her, my mother suggested, and I gratefully dropped Wookie off at her house a few days later and kissed her goodbye sadly before rushing home so the probable racist I was dating could come by and introduce his massive dog to his temporary new home.
I’d told him I would make him dinner if he assembled my new porch swing while he was over and he quietly set about doing it while I followed my mom’s directions for baked lemon chicken. As I cooked, his dog stared at me and I talked to him saying sentences like You’re going to be a good boy while I’m at work, right? and You are a very handsome dog and I most enjoy your floppy ears and I think I should level with you and say you’re welcome to stay here for a bit, but I don’t think I’m ever going to become your Mommy because I’m not all that into your Daddy. But I did thank the guy profusely for assembling my new porch swing, even when I realized I’d measured the terrace incorrectly and the thing barely fit, and we sat down at my dining room table to have a bit of dinner before he left to go sleep on his boat.
If you could see any artist in concert – living or dead – who would you see? I asked him this as he was cutting his piece of chicken.
There was more than a beat of silence before he answsered “Elvis!” He looked so proud to have come up with an answer. And though Elvis would never be my answer, it’s not like it was a bad answer.
Tell me the kind of music and movies you’re really into, I said.
All kinds, he responded with a shrug – and that’s when I knew I was over him. The bland happiness he had exhibited during our first date was as deep as he would ever want to go and he had no solid passions, at least none that he shared, and asking me to watch his animal was weird. And the thing is: I knew most of this by the end of Date #2. Still, I’d tried. I’d tried to ignore the shitty pizza and the stories that never revealed anything of consequence. I’d made peace with the way he wasn’t careening to a Best Buy at 11:00 PM on a Thursday to immediately buy a new working television. I’d pretended his racist comments were just jokes that had landed poorly, but I was finally done pretending. Still, just because he wasn’t ever going to be the perfect guy for me didn’t mean I wanted him to suffer, so as I looked over his head and saw the big swing on my small terrace, I told him I was pretty sure I hadn’t cooked the chicken long enough and maybe he shouldn’t eat it, lest he get salmonella.
He left that night hungry and his dog apparently was hungry also because he ate Wookie’s plush tiger toy before I even noticed what was happening. When it was dark outside, I grabbed his leash and told him we were going for a little walk. Then I opened the front door and he got so excited that he dragged me down the front steps while I clung to that leash with everything I had and wondered if the massive pull he’d just put me through had maybe left me with whiplash.
Back at the house, I got a phone call from my friend Nikki. I always describe Nikki as the sweetest of my friends and I don’t think I’m wrong about that. It was on that phone call, however, when I first wondered if maybe there should be some bounds on sweetness, some limitations if you will.
His dog is on my couch, he is on a boat, all of it strikes me as insane, and what do I do if this huge dog makes a pile of huge poo tomorrow morning? I have to pick it up! I use a tissue to pick up Wookie’s shit and I do not think that will work with a dog that has to weigh over a hundred pounds.
You might have to go buy a shovel, Nikki suggested – and it was that calm suggestion by my sweetest friend that caused me to fucking lose it.
In what universe can you see me buying a shovel so I can walk behind the dog of a guy I barely know while scooping up his shit? I was laughing when I said it, and she was also, but laughing about it didn’t change the reality of what I was saying.
I am over this guy, I said – and I knew it was true.
Two days later, I dropped the dog off at his new house and I brought with me a small housewarming present of two yummy candles that I thought would look nice on his mantle. Then I let the guy go down on me as a thank you and afterwards I told him I had to leave. I bent down and I kissed his dog goodbye – we’d bonded – and I walked out the door of a house I had no intention of seeing again.
The second I was over it is when he began to pursue me with a real purpose, but the only thing I was left with was the pride that I’d been able to walk a huge dog by myself and the knowledge that a lot of girls probably would have convinced themselves that this guy was enough. And for some girls, he most definitely would have been enough, and that is not a judgment call on him or on them. He’s perfect for someone who doesn’t have a lot of opinions and doesn’t want to talk for hours about them over slices of good pizza. And he’d probably be heralded as a soul mate of some distant relative of David Duke. But too much added up too quickly and too weirdly for me, from the not walking me to my car to the comments about the children to having zero to say about music, and the next time he called I told him that I really did wish him well but I couldn’t see us turning into a real couple.
I get it, he said sadly. Call me if you change your mind, okay?
I never did call him. He texted me after a particularly bad storm to tell me he’d lost power and the candles I’d given him really came in handy. I’m glad, I wrote back, and then I didn’t see the need to say anything else.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I mentally add up the number of guys I’ve slept with and I always forget to include him until I get to the end of my count and mumble aloud, “Now there was one more…” But I wish good things for him; I wish good things for most people. I wish him a happy life. I wish him better taste in pizza. I wish him a windfall of electronics. I wish that he will stop lying to women about his age because on Date #2 he announced that he was five years older than he’d first said he was. I wish that he burns that paisley silk robe and learns to walk women to their cars. And I wish, probably more than anything, that the perfection of an absolutely perfect first date will one day not be a total illusion.
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