"what did I do?" Kevin asked me. "How come she won't call me back?" He had warily returned to the shark-infested dating waters, a month after his inamorata, Ms. Trouble, had dumped him, having found larger, more limitless checkbook balances to plunder. Kevin was trying -- "really trying!" -- to find a Meaningful Relationship. "It's time," he said to me. "Don't let anyone tell you that men don't have a biological clock."
"Is that right." I sprayed some more Easy-Off on a crusty mass embedded in the slots in the broiler. He was the perfect person to talk to while cleaning, since he never really listened to what I said and I only half heard what he said. We were comfortable with this arrangement.
"Tell me again the series of events," I said. "She was with Harriet, you ran into her again at the computer center, she'd given you change for the copy machine, you asked her out, you went out and now she doesn't return your call. Right?"
"Yes," he said, "I don't get it. We had a good time. I thought we did."
"Where did you go? What did you do?"
"Uh, some Mexican place. And then, I thought we were going to go to a movie. But then she said she had plans after dinner, so she left."
"Bad," I commented, "very bad. My advice to you is just forget it." I examined an unidentifiable crusty black ball that looked like a charred cherry, imagining this failed date. There this girl sat under the blinking colored lights, looking like a poor man's Christy Turlington (all Kevin's dates looked the same -- thin, brown hair, garbed in J. Crew, generically pretty), surrounded by serapes and mariachis, sipping a watered-down margarita as her eyes darted around the room. The eyes: that's how she'd give herself away, the glances at other tables, the close examination of the salt on the rim of her glass. All the signs were there if Kevin knew where to look.
Knowing Kevin, I had a feeling I knew what went wrong, but instead, I said, "I could ask Harriet, if you want to know what the deal is."
"No!" Kevin said, predictably enough. "I mean, no, thanks. It's like ... well, whatever. Maybe she's got a boyfriend."
"Sure," I said. "But wouldn't you like to know her version?"
"What do you mean, 'version'? I told you everything. There isn't any version to be had. It was a date, not an Oliver Stone movie." He sounded embarrassed. "Besides, it's not worth it. Harriet won't have heard anything, anyway."
"OK," I said. I wondered how, at this point, men couldn't know that women talk about everything, everything with their girlfriends.
"What do you think happened?" Harriet asked me later, when I called.
"I think I know. It's the Contemporary Guy Cripple, isn't it?"
"Of course," Harriet said, sounding irritated. "I ran into Jennifer on the street yesterday, and asked her how her date went. 'Horrible!' she said. Right off the bat. She said she'd bumped into him at the computer center, and they chatted away. On and on -- it was clear he was attracted to her. After an hour or so of this, he finally said, 'So, do you want to go out sometime?' She said sure, and he said 'Great!' They talked some more, and he asked what was good for her. She said Friday. On Friday, she gets into his car and asks, 'So where are we going?' And he does that, 'Oh, where do you want to go?' thing. She says, 'I don't care. Where do you want to go?' He replies, 'I don't care. Where do you want to go?' Back and forth for 15 minutes. Finally, she picks someplace where she knows he's comfortable. He says, 'Sure! I just went there yesterday but that's fine.' And at the restaurant, same thing. 'What movie do you want to see?' On and on, back and forth. At that point she decided to go home and wash her hair.
"The funny thing," she went on, "is that Kevin is not actually a wimp. He's not one of those rollover kind of guys -- in fact, he's gotten in hot water with some people at work for being overly aggressive and tactless. But every time he goes on a date, he pulls this Hamlet routine."
"Oh, Lord. Why do guys do this?"
"My mother says it's feminism." We groaned in unison. "They don't know what to do, so they do nothing. They're scared of making the wrong decision -- like, 'will she think I'm a jerk if I take her to a biker bar? Do I look too pretentious by suggesting French food? What if she hates Kevin Kline and is too polite to say so?' When actually the very fact that they can't even make a decision whether to eat Thai or Japanese makes us think less of them. And who wants to sleep with some indecisive guy? It is definitely not sexy. If there's one thing I hear from my girlfriends, time and time again, it's that passive guys are the ultimate turnoff."
"Yeah. And then when we say 'I want a man to be a man,' they call us hypocrites, as if we're saying 'pull me around by the hair and cry at the same time.' So instead they let us take control and come off as congenital weaklings."
"I asked Kevin about this one time," Harriet said. "He said, 'You know, the truth of the matter is, I just don't care about where we eat or what movie we see. And you girls seem to really care about those things. So I just make it easier and let you decide.' Anyway, Jennifer said she'll never go out with him again. And she even said she realized that he wasn't really wimpy. But it didn't matter."
"And of course Kevin has no idea why."
Harriet's voice turned instructive. "No more Contemporary Guy Cripple for her, she says. From now on, it's one thing and one thing only: A Man With a Plan."