A special hell called dating

What philanthropic urge did she think was motivating my dinner invitations? Concern that anyone so dense is surely unable to boil water and must be fed?

Published December 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Hey, you -- Soldier of Love. Think you've walked point in the dating wars? Think you've been through
the Hades of courting? Listen up, rookie. Here's my story:

I see a woman standing alone at a private function and introduce myself -- her name is Amy. (No, it
isn't, but play along.) We chat. I ask her to dance -- we dance. More chat. I ask if she'd like to go
for coffee sometime, or maybe even get a bite to eat. Amy is noncommittal, but gives me her phone
number. A few days later I call -- she calls me back and we talk some more. During a second
conversation I ask if she'd like to have coffee. She agrees. Coffee lasts two hours and the
conversation ambles over numerous topics, casual and otherwise. Toward the end I ask if she wants to
go to a Halloween party with me -- she says she'll have to check her work schedule and get back to me.

Later, I'm having trouble getting Amy on the phone. I leave several messages with her roommate -- I
suspect she's blowing me off. But lo and behold, she phones and says she can go to the party after
all. We make arrangements and, as the call is wrapping up, I mention that I've gotten almost chummy
with her roommate, thanks to all the messages I've left. "Oh, you mean Tom?" she asked. "He's my
husband. Is it OK if he comes to the party too?"

Well, hell -- why not? And damned if they didn't both come -- my hot date and her mild-mannered spouse.
It wasn't like that, either. Amy may have been perversely naive, but naiveti it was, not some other

An extreme example of miscommunication, but not unique. On more than one occasion I've vigorously
pursued a woman, only to have some phrase like, "As my boyfriend said recently" drop from her lips on
or about date No. 3, leaving me to wonder -- what philanthropic urge did she think was
motivating my sudden outpouring of dinner invitations? Compassion for the clueless? Concern that
anyone so dense is surely unable to boil water and must be fed?

These puzzling encounters have led me to believe the dating scene has been misrepresented in popular
culture. There's an underlying assumption that runs through almost all portrayals of romance, from
movies to magazines to Archie comics -- the premise that, when boys and girls get together, everyone
knows the agenda. Will it be yes or no? Betty or Veronica? Embrace "The Rules" or break them, but
we all know the rules are there, and we all know what's at stake.

Except for Tracy. I asked her out shortly after she told me about breaking up with her boyfriend. Or
Corrine -- a small business owner who tentatively accepted my dinner invite by saying, "My only
constraint is this place" (her business). Or Delia -- she not only accepted my invitation to the opera
but also mentioned she was spending Valentine's Day with her parents.

According to my rulebook (oh, young and innocent notion), those statements were signals -- coded
messages -- meaning, "I am romantically eligible." I was, of course, right out to lunch. Coded
messages don't work when only one person is decoding. Tracy had reunited with her boyfriend before our
first date (there were three in total before this news was casually mentioned.) Businesswoman Corrine
turned out to be happily attached (later a female friend suggested to me that women don't like to
think of boyfriends as "constraints"). As for Delia, she clearly viewed Feb. 14 as nothing more than the 12th Day of Groundhog. Her indifference to calendar-based romance didn't bother her boyfriend
any -- they're married now.

The world has changed since the days when every intermingling of unmarried men and women was seen to
be fraught with danger and therefore tightly controlled. Ironically, the unspoken fears represented by
the presence of chaperones made the exciting potential implicitly clear. Repression soaked everything
in sex.

Not so today. My friend Amanda, a very attractive photographer, recently described a first meeting
with a male colleague. "He asked for my card and I gave it to him. I was in total business mode," she
recalled. Soon, however, his amorous intentions became clear and the very married Amanda hastily
tossed out the H-word. "It's been so long since I've been hit on like that," she told me. "I keep forgetting that when you're single, everyone you meet represents possibility."

The modern necessities of business interaction have muddied the sexual waters considerably.
Admittedly, a little romantic inconvenience is a small price to pay for our more gender-egalitarian
society, but goddamn it, I wish we could all get it straight for once.

For a while I even tried to do it myself -- to drain that alligator-infested swamp o' love
single-handedly. To accomplish this, I wrote a little speech. The Speech was delivered, in what I hoped
were sincere and unthreatening tones, at the end of the first date. It announced to my companion that,
in case there was any lingering doubt, my interest was more than platonic -- besides, I already had
enough buddies. Romance was what I lacked, and I hoped the same was true of her. If she was
unattached, I would like to see her again.

The Speech was spectacularly unsuccessful on every level.
Most of its targets were either frightened or annoyed. A woman named Sumi (pronounced like what I
wanted to do afterwards) simply lied about being single, evidently too terrified by The Speech to
understand that its whole point was to clear up any such misunderstandings.

Eventually the infant Speech was strangled in its crib, and for that I owe a debt of gratitude to
Marilyn. My experience with her highlighted important differences in male-female dating strategies. A
confident, outgoing graphic designer, Marilyn responded to The Speech by saying she wasn't really
looking for a relationship, but would like to be friends. Oh no, I said. I'd been in too many of those
unhappy situations -- two people pretend to be pals although one of them is merely trying to keep a
foot in the door for future romance. Forget it, I said. Too bad, Marilyn replied.

Marilyn met Jim no more than a month later. She told Jim exactly what she told me. Jim said: OK, let's
be friends. Last fall Marilyn and Jim had a big wedding in Holland. But well before that happy event,
Marilyn, bless her heart (we did remain friends whether I liked it or not), had the decency to give me
a good scolding about my heavy-handed approach. Yes, she told me, of course romance between us had
been a possibility, had I possessed an ounce of subtlety. Instead, my zeal to clear up potential
misunderstandings led me to perform heart surgery with a rototiller. What was intended as honesty was
perceived as an insult -- I didn't want to be her friend? To hell with me, then.

The Speech didn't work for a number of reasons, not the least of which was: Proper dating procedure
occupies a middle ground between truth and lies. Lies are to be avoided, but truth? Like Jack said to
Tom, you can't handle the truth -- at least not in the beginning.

Dates are desperate attempts to gain small bits of information from which a larger picture can be
extrapolated. In the compressed dating schedule, there is not enough time to create a detailed
portrait. Therefore every gleaned factoid tends to be given undue weight. If your date finds out four
things about you, each of those four things becomes 25 percent of your perceived personality. Do you
have a pile of old Spider-Man comics under the bed? Save this biographical tidbit for your one-year
anniversary and it becomes a charming little background filigree in the rich and manly Portrait of
You. But let it slip on the first date and bingo -- you're an inbred moron.

Dating is diplomacy. Code words carry extra punch, as was the case in the Nation Formerly Known as the
Soviet Union, where the most innocuous official remark -- "Beloved leader has the sniffles" --
actually meant the funeral was last week. Seen in this light, The Speech was equivalent to a magnum of
drugstore perfume exploding in an elevator. If I was being this blunt right off the bat, my dates
assumed, surely my aggressive boorishness could only escalate.

Another in my rich trove of disaster tales: Carol mentioned on our third outing that her foolish
friends thought we were dating. We are, I said. We're not, Carol protested. Fittingly, the setting was
a Vietnamese restaurant -- a veritable Khe Sanh erupted over plates of Imperial rolls. Exasperated, I
threw all diplomacy aside and asked which of the last four or five days she had been born on.
Remarkably, the donnybrook actually resulted in an honest conversation -- Carol eventually admitted
that she was interested in a potential relationship. She just hated spelling it out in black and
white. Should things not work out between us, Carol wanted plausible deniability -- the ability to
tell herself and others that romance was never an option anyway.

But if The Speech doesn't work and plausible deniability must be maintained, how do poor single
seekers avoid misunderstandings? Are we forever doomed to romantic evenings with our dates and their
spouses? I decided that I needed to talk to Amy again. Perhaps she could tell me what went wrong. Why
hadn't she twigged to my real intentions?

"But you're a journalist," Amy pointed out later over coffee. "You were interested in me, yes, but I
thought you were just interested in people."

Like Amanda the photographer, Amy, a TV reporter, had seen nothing but collegiality behind my chatter.
Why not mention the existence of hubby Tom, just in case? "I didn't give it much thought," she
confessed. "I thought, you're in media -- your interest is just related to your profession."

There you have it. Like so much of what ails society today, this was the media's fault. As for Amy,
you can probably tell she's a trusting and good-hearted soul. Her husband's nice, too. Maybe we can all catch a movie next week.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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