As it happens—and I say this without any defensiveness at all, honestly, really, because I’m secure enough in myself that I don’t need to prove anything about my attractiveness and worth by ensuring that you all know this—I’ve been on several actual dates in the last year. But if I haven’t dissected, catalogued, stuffed, and mounted every single one of them, and put them on display as artifacts of my history (and proof of my attractiveness and worth), I’ve had my reasons.
In some very few cases, the dates have gone well enough that to even reveal that much strikes my superstitious mind as the utmost, fate-tempting, folly—and consequently, I’ll say no more, to forestall jinxes. Far more typically, the dates were just more of the same—confrontations with incompatibility; provocations to impatience, ennui, and occasional pity; recoil from physical and personal qualities I could never have anticipated would bother me, until they assumed alarming human form on this or that barstool, throughout the city, from one tedious week to the next. Time spent, for stories just not worth telling.
So I can’t tell you the really, really good stories (yet), and I won’t bother you with the demoralizingly-dull ones…which thus only leaves the truly, truly awful ones. (And there are fewer and fewer of those, because my writerly desire to accrue material has been gradually replaced by a wiser desire to husband scarce resources). I’m not sure that these awful stories are ones I should tell, or that you need to read. If I tell a story that’s funny, or maybe bittersweet but heartening, then maybe I’ve added some good to the world. But if I tell a story that might distress you, and yet change nothing, then is it worth telling? You might feel sympathy for me (and heaven knows, I do love my sympathy); you might feel both personally and generally outraged. But you won’t be able to do anything to change its outcome. In which case, what will this story actually do for you? And never mind you, what will telling it do for me?
This particular tale of romance and seduction took place in the bleakness of last winter, but I’ve held on to it since then, not because the incident left me especially hurt, but rather because the malign gloom of last February had already weighed me, and my writing down, quite enough, to the point where I felt (as I so often do) like the Lady of Shalott, stuck with her loom and her mirror and her curse. I was “half sick of shadows.”
Why do I feel compelled to tell this story now, instead? Well, now is…not then. That thing, then, is done, finished, not the thing that is happening—no longer the thing that is immediately and factually a moment of my life, a thing to be endured. Now it’s just a thing that happened—to me, incidentally, though it could just as easily have happened (and has, and does) to anyone else. Now it’s a thing that happened that I can mine and exploit for the purpose of telling stories to you, for you (fine, yes, for me).
Rightly or wrongly.
Once upon a time, when the city was under siege by winter, and we all felt the weight of the snow pressing in on us from all sides, keeping us from going anywhere, doing anything, seeing anyone, A. and I reached our limit and had to Get.Out.
And not Out to just any old place. Not at all. Instead, we seriously and earnestly did what we were supposed to do, which was to Get Ourselves Out There. We didn’t do something we actually wanted, for no better reason than that we wanted it; we did what single women are enjoined to do, and which we grudgingly accede to, so that we can say we did our due diligence. We got Out There and—heaven help us—went to look for men.
We had discovered that one of the newest things in dating is…cocktail parties. That is, everyone is so fatigued, disillusioned, fed up, and over all the self-promotion, and lying, and photoshopping when you shouldn’t and not photoshopping when you should, that the prospect of actually meeting other human beings, live and in person, seems marvelously novel. The big online companies (there might just be one giant OmniDate by now, studying us and moving us around like chess pieces) in their infinite wisdom make arrangements with a bar here, or one of those paint-your-own picture outfits somewhere else, invite us all, and then leave it up to us to make Romance happen.
Not surprisingly, we’re not much better at it in person than online: a few of us stand around haplessly, edging toward the perimeter of little conversation circles, hoping the cute guy talking to the woman less attractive than ourselves will lose interest in her and focus on us; or if we’re holding our ground in the circle, strategically shifting a hip or shoulder to include the cute guy, or keep out the creepy-looking one who’s been skulking around with a socially-underfed look, and whom we are all hoping won’t attempt to talk to us. As might be predicted, every physical type we don’t like is over-represented. Too many beards, too much indifferent dental care, too many badly-fitting clothes. Men strike up conversations, ask me what I do, then, failing to register it as anything significant or interesting, start holding forth on something I’m kind of an expert on, and when I gently suggest an alternative to their opinion, insist that they have to disagree with me. Because this is how they provoke interest and attraction, by insisting that their target is wrong about pretty much everything as a gambit for expounding on how right they are.
Finally, I end up talking to someone who seems quite reasonable. Professional, very liberal, apparently on sound financial footing, living in a nice neighborhood and not in his car, fit, well-read, appreciative of a good vocabulary. We joke about how we could make the online dating screening process much simpler if we just gave a few multiple choice questions on vocabulary and history (“Which of the following is the president of Africa?” Or “A soporific is a) an especially absorbent sponge; b) something you put on sunburns; c) related to the word terrific; d) all of the above”). He watches Homeland and other approved tv shows. We exchange stories about our sports injuries and our stubborn refusal to obey doctors’ advice to just lay off. From this conversation, we make inferences about one another’s values, status, intelligence, and lean-to-fat ratios. Since we’re actually in the same room, each can assess whether the other is attractive. The results are favorable. A. is at this event with me (and beset by a succession of unfortunate hobbits), so I have the advantage of having her impressions too. We agree that my candidate seems perfectly nice and worth seeing again, not hobbit-like at all in appearance, though we’re concerned that he might be a little too earnest, a little too mild-mannered.
He and I trade numbers. After the appropriate interval, I hear from him—he asks me out and we continue to exchange messages in the days leading up to the date. He’s glad he met me, and looking forward to getting to know me better over dinner. And a good dinner too—no Panera or terrible seafood place where no-one but tourists go—French food and everything.
The actual date goes really well. Though I’m a bit self-conscious at first, I start to feel comfortable with him. I make a few somewhat-arcane pop culture references and he gets them; we have a good exchange that ranges from the original SuperMan series on tv with the improbably-fleshy George Reeves, to spelunking, to the question of whether liver is ever edible. Somewhat atypically, we don’t really get into anything too terribly personal; most people can’t resist talking about their romantic history at least a little bit, and dropping a few hints about what they’re looking for—but we don’t really get into any of that. I take that as a good sign, that he might—according to standard dating advice—prefer a certain amount of healthy reticence as part of getting to know one another in a more relaxed way.
And of course, through the whole meal, he’s watching me, I’m watching him, continuing to take one another’s measure.
As we leave, he offers me a ride home. I say that’s not necessary, I can take the train very easily. But it’s miserably cold and our city is still barely navigable on foot, and the date has gone well. I make the calculations we make: he’s attractive, but the concern about him being a bit too earnest and mild-mannered persists. I’m not absolutely smitten, but I’m interested, and I’m definitely cold, so I figured I’ll take the ride, but will thank him politely and leave it at that.
I’m sorry—maybe this story isn’t as gripping as it could be. Well, I’m not quite done yet:
After a completely pleasant but innocuous drive, he pulls up to my house and stops the car. He asks a few questions about the neighborhood, which I answer, talking a little bit too much out of nerves, as, of course, this is a pivotal moment in any date.
He looks at me significantly. We all know this look. I, of course, can’t avoid remarking on it a bit clumsily: “You look like you’re going to make a move,” I venture. “I am,” he says, and does.
Ironically, it was just the day before that I’d been talking to a class about the perils of the Rochester-type hero, who, after 150 years of evolution culminates in Robin Thicke and Christian Gray and Jian Ghomeshi—that self-appointed dominant man who takes what he wants, and who knows what we want better than we know ourselves, and is all too willing to show us, because even though we say we don’t want it, or say nothing at all, they know we do. Editorializing pretty freely, I had warned the men and women in the class that such a man is more trouble than he’s worth, and is, in real-life practice, a menace. You don’t want to be him, and you don’t want to date him, I said, drawing on my seniority and wisdom, to save these poor, impressionable, young people from having to learn the hard way.
Which is one of the many incongruous thoughts I had in my head as this earnest, mild-mannered non-hobbit-y municipal lawyer attempted very energetically and roughly to get my clothes off in the front seat of his car. Instead of the relatively chaste good-night-this-could-be-the-start-of-something kiss I was expecting, he was All.Over.Me.
Thanks to our horrible New England winter, I was swaddled head to toe in so many layers, the man would have needed to be an Egyptologist armed with heavy-duty bandage scissors to actually get at anything important. Which didn’t keep him from trying—he clawed my parka open, trying to get one hand down and the other up. I wasn’t scared. Rather—and this is the familiar experience—I felt slightly dissociated from what was happening. The whole situation seemed absurd, surreal: when he suddenly hit the button on my car seat to full recline, I thought, Didn’t this come up in Happy Days, as a move that Fonzie could pull off but Richie could not?
I wasn’t exactly cooperating, but confused by what was really happening, I wasn’t fighting either. Because I had—had—thought he was quite nice and attractive, and had been curious to see where things would lead, I kept expecting that the present frenzy would settle down into something normal and pleasant. But it just didn’t (this whole episode was maybe 5 minutes? 10?). He did pause at a certain moment (“Oh good,” I thought, “now it will be normal and pleasant??”)—to suggest we go up to my apartment. I realized that he thought things were going really well. I declined, saying, as one does, that I didn’t want to move too quickly. He said, “well, it’s not like it’s our first date.” I didn’t argue the point with him; I didn’t see the point in debating much—I just wanted to get away. I insisted I had an early morning, so needed to go in. He walked me to the door, where he attempted to maul me further (and I actually have to use the world “maul,” which is supposed to be for rabid dogs and starving bears, in a sentence pertaining to my life). I left him grinning, proud of himself for scoring so well on this oh-so-successful more-than-first date.
The text I received the next day seemed to come from a completely different person: exactly the normal, sweet, complimentary, note you’d expect from someone you’d want to see again, looking forward eagerly to the next date. I felt like I’d been with both Jeckyll and Hyde in one evening. This was definitely not the text of a man who had any idea that his behavior was dangerously close to assault.
But it wasn’t assault, was it? I felt surprised, angry; what might have been hot in another context, with another person, had instead been unpleasant, annoying, distressing. And the incongruity between his demeanor when we met at the cocktail party, over dinner, in his earnest and polite text the next day—and what he had been like in the car and on my door step—all left me very confused. Could I be misinterpreting what happened? Perhaps I misremembered? Perhaps I had sent mixed signals?
I told all of this to A. as she made me dinner. I asked, “Do you think I’m over-reacting?” Arrested in the midst of stirring her red sauce, A. stood in her floral apron, wooden spoon suspended mid-stir, a look of revulsion and horror on her face. “No!!” she exclaimed. She was aghast. Everyone I’ve told has been horrified on my behalf. My therapist was appalled. My friends’ therapists have been appalled. “No,” A. said firmly. “He was wrong, not you.”
I texted the man back, explaining that we wouldn’t be going out again. I could simply have sworn at him, but instead, I doubtless wrote him more than I should, and yet (unlike him) was taking pains to be accurate and clear. I concluded by saying, “I’m really confounded by the trajectory of the evening, and wish I’d been more assertive about my own needs sooner. I ended up unscathed, but seriously dismayed and disappointed. I want you to know this, because I really hope that my being honest with you now will save other women from similar experiences.” I didn’t hear back from him.
What I hope happened was that my message hit him with the full force of a Damascene epiphany—that the sudden realization that he hurt me, and has almost certainly hurt other women—knocked the breath out of him, and left him quaking with disgust and shame. I hope that he talked to a friend or a therapist, and took a good long look at who he is, and how he relates to women. I hope that he looked at his son—oh yes, he’s someone’s father—and vowed that he will teach that young man that you never, ever, thoughtlessly, greedily, aggressively seize another person without their consent. That’s what I hoped would happen, but of course, I have no way of knowing. It’s just as likely that he cursed his dating fortunes, for consistently wasting his time on one crazy woman after another.
And every day, the news is filled with stories far, far worse than mine, of people saying, and taking, what they want, and then petulantly blaming the other for complaining about it.
You might not think so, because I’ve just written 2500 words which might suggest otherwise—but I’m really fine about the whole thing. That man’s behavior—clueless and clumsy? misogynistic and violent?—didn’t leave me traumatized, or feeling dirty or used, or frightened. I did—still do—have moments where I wonder what I did that made him think his advances would be welcome, or what I should have seen, sooner, to avoid the whole situation. I did—and still tend to—blame myself for being too trusting and open. Because I should feel badly about the vulnerabilities posed by my own good nature.
And I confess, that a couple of days after that very awful date, as I was schlepping from office to gym to apartment, from routine, to productivity, to solitary laziness, back to routine again, only with the added burden of snow, slush, darkness, and cold…I confess that there was a moment where I nearly succumbed to a wave of exhausted despair. This man, in and of himself, was nothing more than a nuisance. But what was so demoralizing, was that it wasn’t just that one—it was the dozens and dozens of them—the ones who seemed great but who didn’t want me; or who were probably great but whom I couldn’t bring myself to want; or the ones who could barely look after themselves, with no friends, no impermeable roof over their head, no hobbies, no interests, no health insurance, no values, no sense of humor, no capacity for care or respect that wasn’t childishly needy or menacingly and tediously controlling, no ability to be with me without hurting me in ways both great and small. How many more, I wondered, could there possibly be? How much more could I Get Myself Out There? How many more such dates could any of us possibly endure?
Asking those questions, as I slogged through winter, I almost—nearly—stopped. My courage nearly failed me.
But what a depressing story that would be! I was composing it in my head, and got to that point and thought—
No, all of them do not get to drag this story down. I’m not one of those postmodern types who has to defy narrative conventions, and disrupt the readers’ need and expectation of a happy ending in favor of how things really are, which is random, and entropic, and bleak. Call me old-fashioned, but I will insist that the story turn out better than that, that it won’t have a tragic ending, or just some edgy, blank, openendedness. Nuh-uh. This is not that kind of story. I’m not that kind of protagonist.
So the denouement of that particular chapter, only one of a much larger, much more gratifying, story, the plot of which is still in the phase of rising-action with no anti-climax in sight—went like this:
I had a moment where my courage nearly failed me.
And then I shook it off, and just kept going.