I lay in the dentist's chair, craning my neck and trying to see the light board behind me. One by one the dental hygienists padded in, stared at the ghostly images of my teeth, murmured and walked out again. Finally, the dentist himself arrived, swathed head to toe in protective surgical garb, grabbed the X-rays and sat down on the stool.
I looked at him fearfully. "What is it? Do I have cancer?"
"You have very short roots," he informed me. "Some of the shortest we've ever seen."
"Is that all?" I breathed a sigh of relief. "You guys tell me every single time I come in."
"You could have bone loss," he said severely. "Do you grind your teeth?"
"Uh, only when I'm annoyed." I looked up at him. "Oh, and when I'm biking. Going up a hill. And sometimes when I'm running. Maybe sleeping too."
"Oh, you're a cyclist?" His eyes brightened and he took off his mask.
"Well, that would be putting it a little strongly --"
"So am I! Where do you go? What kind of bike do you have?"
"Well, I ..." And off we went on a 20-minute discussion of road bikes, trails and chain rings. Short roots, bone loss and grinding molars were all but forgotten.
"So if you ever want to go training sometime," he said finally, as I was paying my bill at the front desk.
"Sure," I said, a little uncertainly. I walked out of the office, feeling like I'd just sat through a foreign movie and completely misunderstood the ending.
"Did my dentist just ask me out?" I asked Harriet in our nightly phone session. "Or was that just a friendly innocent offer? Am I being egotistical?"
"That was fishing," said Harriet authoritatively. "He doesn't feel really strongly about it. He threw out a line to see if he got a bottom feeder or an old shoe or maybe nothing at all."
"Oh, well." Somewhere in there was a compliment, I was sure, but I didn't feel very flattered.
"This seems to be an epidemic lately," she continued. "The other day, I was standing in the post office and this guy I see around starts chatting with me. Then he says, 'So, do you want to go have a drink?' And all of a sudden I realize that it's not a neighborly chat to him -- it's a segue to a date."
"Well, I don't blame you for feeling trepidatious," I said. "Dating and the U.S. Postal Service don't exactly make a tantalizing combination. But, is there something wrong with him asking?"
"Not really," she said. "Except that nine times out of 10, the strangers you meet who ask you out are nobody you would ever consider going out with. I mean, a friendly chat is fine, but why can't they just leave at that? Why is it that men feel compelled to take it one step further every time they meet a woman with a common interest?"
That befuddled me, so I began some calling around. "I was standing in line at Starbuck's yesterday," said Hailey, "and I started to complain to the guy in front of me about the long line. We started chatting back and forth, just in a nice, friendly, urban-village kind of way. He said: 'So, do you work around here? What's your name?' I started feeling a little uncomfortable, and started waving my wedding ring around. I moved to the front to the counter and just put out those little unspoken signals that I wasn't interested. As I was leaving, he said 'Well, goodbye Hailey!' in this peeved way. And I just thought: Sheesh -- can't women ever just be friendly without it having to mean something?"
"Oh, come on," said an impatient Renee. "Attractive women are usually so bitchy and non-talkative that when they are actually outgoing or friendly, of course they're going to get asked out. It's flattering!" But when I pressed her a bit further, she did admit to feeling annoyed when a geeky guy assumed she'd want to go on a date with him, all because she was more verbal than the average gal.
"So it comes down to how attractive the man is," I said. "So, beautiful people can ask people out, but the rest of us slobs have to just hope that a love connection can be made in some unspoken way. Is that what you're saying?"
"I guess so," she said doubtfully.
"There is no such thing as the innocent chat for men," said my friend Kevin. "Let me qualify that: for urban American men, because we just aren't very chatty as, say, the Italians would be. There is always, always something underneath when you're talking to a strange, attractive female. You wait for the signs, see if she's going to be open to being asked out, and then you throw out a line. If they don't bite, then fine. You're no worse off. And admit it -- isn't it flattering to be asked out?"
Kevin had a point, though flattery hardly expressed my usual response to such encounters. Most of the time, I was too oblivious to realize what had happened until after the fact. Other times, the guy was a toad and I felt a little outraged. Still other times, I felt irritated that I can't be friendly without it being taken the wrong way. But one thing was clear: This was one area where the communication gap between men and women couldn't be wider.
"I have a great rapport with my car mechanic," said Sydney, who lives in a small town in upstate New York. "I love seeing him. We talk on and on about my little Fiat, about what a terrible car it is. We flirt and flirt -- he's married, I'm married -- so it means nothing. I love flirting with Antonio -- it makes my entire day."
"He's Italian?" I asked. "According to my sources, he may be chatting away to you, but it means nothing else. Or -- he could be priming you, waiting for the right non-verbal clue before he moves in for the kill."
"I couldn't care less," said Sydney airily. "All this funny confusion between men and women -- that's what life's about. Besides, it's not as if he's my dentist. A guy who's rooting around in my mouth, scraping my gums, who then asks me out -- now that is truly weird."