Torture by dating

When it came to romance, I'd always broken "The Rules" -- then "The Rules" nearly broke me.

Published January 19, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I've never been given to casual dating, nor have I ever read, opened, purchased, borrowed or stolen a copy of "The Rules." I have always prided myself on a more organic approach to romance than highly perfumed evenings in clingy black dresses. I've always thought love should bloom naturally, rather than being pried open by the cold, hard grip of sports coats, good behavior and restaurants with real table cloths.

People should present themselves as they really are, without the polite fagade of dating to mislead either party. After all -- no matter how many coats of politesse one may paint on for the duration of a meal, one still goes home after dinner and slips into a ragged old nightshirt and tattered slippers, right? Why not get right to the point?

Based on this theory, I have jumped feet first into several semi-successful serious relationships with "authentic" men -- men who talk to my cats, say things like, "I fully support you in whatever you do," and like a woman who likes to go Dutch. Love me, love my sweat pants -- the sort of relationship that never begins with a date on a Friday night (too intentional), certainly has nothing to do with anything blind (too frightening), and never, ever involves the question "Can I see you again?" (too dumb). Stating the obvious dampens the thrill. If you have to ask, then the answer is no. If the air is thick with hormones, then yes, you can see me again.

Some more traditional types might call this the approach of an over-educated liberal, or even -- deep breath -- of a feminist. I have always called it romance. So how do I explain giving my number to a man I know casually, a guy to whom I would normally give the shut-down because he's too "Hollywood," too much of a player? Curiosity? The inquiring mind's desire to see how the other, hair-sprayed half lives?

We bump into each other on a Tuesday, at a mutual friend's house. He flirts, and at first I am startled. He's never flirted before -- he's a little bit varsity, I'm a little bit liberal arts. It was just never there.

"Why now?" I wonder. He flirts some more, and I am surprised to discover that it doesn't bother me. I am between relationships, 26 and just frustrated enough by my last romantic endeavor to wonder if maybe I've got the formula down all wrong.

Maybe I should try to "date," rather than "see" or "live with." Maybe the key to happiness is lipstick and manicures and letting him open the door for me. Maybe I should pay a little more attention to my hair. Maybe those women in heels are actually ... happy? And he's not half bad looking.

"What the hell," I think. Summoning up all my courage, I flirt back. He likes it. And I like that he likes it. "See," I tell myself with pride, "you can date just like the rest of them. So you don't own a push-up bra. Buy one!" He asks for my number. Caught up in the rush of running with the big dogs, I give it to him.

He calls once on Wednesday and leaves a message. Reason and habit have returned. I am wary and unimpressed. He calls again on Thursday, and I am slightly flattered by his effort. By Saturday he has called seven times, and I feel great. "Let him call," I think with glee as the phone rings again and I let it go to voice mail. OK, so he pursues me, and I like it. What, besides the Rules-reinforcing girliness of it all, is wrong with that? So sue me if I'd like, for once, to go out with a guy who doesn't say, "Let's go grab a slice, meet me there," and then expects me to pay for it.

For once, I want to be treated like the toenail-painting, G-string-wearing, perfume-spritzed woman that I can be. Face it -- dorm days are long gone, just like late-night, after-the-library-closes booty calls and even those postgrad sitcom scenes when you lie around his living room on tapestry-covered furniture and watch "The Real World Honolulu" with him and his four roommates.

Yes, I admit it, I was excited by the thought of having dinner with a guy who comes to pick me up, who calls in a reservation from his car phone and who actually has an assistant instead of being one. Call me shallow, or call me bored. Just so long as he calls.

He comes to my house and sits on my couch while I apply the finishing touches to makeup I haven't worn since my cousin's wedding. I step into the living room expectantly, as if my mother is going to pop around the corner with the camera to get a snapshot before we head off to the prom. We smile a lot and I make certain to grab a sweater, just in case he's in the mood for something spontaneous, like driving up the coast to Santa Barbara for the night or hopping the red-eye to Manhattan for dinner at Jean Georges.

He steps over a cat without stooping to pet it, opens the front door and suggests a restaurant by the water. A foreign giggle escapes me and I say that sounds fine. I shut the door firmly behind me. It is a Friday night. I am perfumed, primped and preened. I am ready for anything.

The restaurant is beautiful and the hostess smiles knowingly at us as if we reek of first date. He picks a bottle of wine and encourages me to order an appetizer. He casually mentions his latest trip to Italy. He was, of course, producing a big-budget film there and hardly had time to enjoy the beautiful Tuscan countryside. He did, however, squeeze in the chance to sample some of the regional wines. "He's good at this," I think, and find myself wondering how many dozens of first dates he's been on in his life.

I try to picture him after dinner, alone in his apartment, beer in hand, wearing only a pair of beat-up varsity shorts and a ratty T-shirt. I can't conjure up the image. He orders a shrimp dish loaded with endive, leeks and capers. He points to the menu and says, "They have a great tiramisu here." Contrary to years of conditioning, I am impressed.

A second bottle of wine and an order of rum-soaked ladyfingers later, we land in my stairwell, lips locked, hips grooving like bad music. I push him away, and his last words to me are "I'm going to go take a cold shower."

"Woo," I think. "That was fun. I bet he calls me tomorrow to say he can't wait to see me again. I can do this dating thing after all!"

Ah, the arrogance, the casual confidence of the woman who had shaved -- everywhere -- before donning the panties without holes, even though she knew no one was getting anywhere close to that underwear tonight. (Yes, we women do know who's in charge of that, at least. We have to hold on to some semblance of control before we slip off down the rocky slope into the Valley of He Never Called, or wade through They're All the Same River, which runs downstream, both ways.) I watch him pull away and commend myself on a date well done. "This," I think confidently, "I can get used to."

Pride fully extended, I wait for him to call. He doesn't. Days turn into a week, and I become Satan's child, embodiment of the Anti-Rules, not confident, cool and certain that one day, when he can take it no longer, he will call.

No, no, I am the Rules Unplugged, frustrated and confused and wishing desperately I could regain that precious, fleeting feeling of control I had when I was being pursued. On the seventh day, I accept with horror that I am being blown off by a man who called me seven times.

"What did I say?" I wonder, as if anything I could have said while his tongue was in my throat would have been intelligible, or even heard, let alone considered. "How could I have been so stupid?" I cry. "He knew about the tiramisu -- am I that foolish?" He probably practices first dates like some people practice religion: every Friday night. "Fine," I sniffle. "Then I'm not calling either."

On the ninth day, I have an epiphany. I stand in front of my closet, and in a moment of clarity, I realize that pride has led me straight down the path to hell, as it always will. I realize, with horror, that I have left my favorite sweater in the back of his car. Now I will have to call. Anguished, defeated, crushed, I stand in my bedroom with my head in my hands. I have lost the game.

For a second I consider sacrificing my sweater to the greater good of femininity, to the cause of all women exhausted from going Dutch all the time. Guilt overrides my social conscience as I remember that my mother gave me the sweater for Christmas, and that on more than one occasion she has mentioned how expensive it was. No, I will throw the game.

I call. I leave a casual, witty message. "Ha, ha, ha, you know, it's just so cold in Los Angeles in August, I'd really better get that back from you soon." Ha, ha, ha. I hang up the phone, dreading that he will score extra points in overtime by not calling back.

He calls back. He tells me that he's out of town on business, but that he'll check for the sweater when he returns. And, as an extra kindness, he closes his message with "I don't know the number here at the hotel, but you can call information on the island of Oahu if you want to reach me."

Yes, I can call information on the island of Oahu -- I am college-educated and have often used the services of the phone company without parental guidance -- but why, my dear, would I want to? If I did call information and hunted you down over 3,000 miles of ocean and Kalua pig, I'm sure every hardcover and paperback copy of "The Rules" would burst into flames, simultaneously, in bedrooms and libraries and women's medical group waiting rooms around the nation. I could never be responsible for that kind of mass destruction and terror.

I don't call again, until 10 more days pass and I know that I will have to. Ah, the sweater, precious grail, keeper of a thousand dashed hopes and dreams and desires. Yes, I call again. As I dial, I draft a witty, lighthearted script. I will leave a message on his machine, because he's never home. I will make a big joke out of it, I will be buoyant and bubbly and sound hurried, as if I have squeezed this call in between two dates and lots of champagne. One problem: He answers.

Paralyzed by the threat of star-69, I stupidly resist the urge to hang up and call back tomorrow. How greatly modern technology has redefined the world of dating is something we cannot hope to fully grasp in our lifetimes. We make small talk. I make light. I ask him to give my sweater to a mutual friend, who will then return it to me. He says he will have some more time next week and we should plan to get together so he can give it to me. I ask him again to give it to our mutual friend. He says he'll call me tomorrow to set up a time. He closes with, "It's great to hear your voice."

I bite my cheeks and resist the temptation to scream into the earpiece, less out of a desire to appear calm than out of fear that my neighbors will start to refer to me as the Crazy Girl in 3F. For a split nanosecond I am almost swayed by visions of candle-lit dinners, Italian wines and tuna carpaccio, but these brief mirages fly out of my head as quickly as they enter. It's great to hear my voice?

His words settle in my brain, and I fight the urge to snarl, "That's funny, because it seems to me that the easiest way to hear my voice is to call my number. My voice can often be found at home." No, I will remain calm. I will not say something scathing and catty, like "I bought a pair of see-through underwear for you and you say something stupid like that?" Instead I smile at the earpiece, the weight of womanhood heavy on my shoulders. I close with a calm, if skeptical, "I'll talk to you soon."

This is it, then. This is where those women in heels find themselves three weeks later. This is how first dates end. This is why I've been eating pizza and starting relationships on Sundays for years. This is why all those books have been written, why men think women are crazy and women are certain that men simply "don't get it." Haven't men learned, after all these years, that the most attractive quality a man can have is the ability to dial?

It's really very simple. After all, we women aren't high-maintenance until our needs aren't being met. How complicated can it really be? You say you'll call. We are flattered. You actually call. We are surprised and smitten. You call again. We are hooked. When spoken words and dialing fingers actually jibe, mountains will move, the ageless battle will cease, Atlantis will be found.

Eleven days later and no phone call. I am restless, agitated. I lie in bed at night remembering the fine woolen nap of my hip-length black sweater, feeling the bitter taste of battle in my mouth. I will not relent. I will retrieve my sweater, somehow. Fourteen days, and I call again. He answers. "Great to hear from you. Yeah, I still have your sweater. Listen, why don't you come to this party up in the hills with me tonight and I'll bring it with me."

Why don't you ship it via parcel post? Or maybe send a mule? Or perhaps you should tell me where to leave a suitcase filled with $100,000 in unmarked bills, and then we can let this whole thing rest, OK?

Refusing to let him think that I have staged the helpless sweater act in a sophomoric attempt to see him again, I decline the party. "How about tomorrow, then. I'm going to a barbecue right by your house. Why don't you come with me, have a burger, hang out?"

"No thanks," I tell him. "Why don't you call me on the way to the barbecue and you can swing by my house and drop it off?"

"Sure thing," he responds, not missing a beat. How many first dates has he been on in the last three weeks, I wonder?

Barbecue time comes and goes. No phone call. I leave the house, mapping out elaborate stories I will tell my mother about how the sweater was ripped from my shoulders during a carjacking, or how I lost it while rescuing a small child from the undertow. Perhaps she will be most sympathetic to the truth -- that I have fallen prey to the bad-date disease, that I have erred in judgment and sacrificed my clothing so that others may learn from my mistakes.

I return home several hours later to find the sweater hanging from my doorknob. No note. I check my messages. No phone call. It is finished. The siege has ended. My pilgrimage is through.

As I drift off to sleep that night, I see myself through a drowsy haze, dancing in a shiny, black Calvin Klein bra and panty set, a cat in either hand. Next to me, keeping perfect step, is a handsome young creative type, wearing sweat pants beneath his sculpted chest. He holds a phone in one hand, and with the other he hands me a flannel nightgown. He bends to kiss me and whispers in my ear, "Put this on for me -- you look so sexy when you wear it."

I sleep soundly, curled up tight with my sweater clutched in my arms.

By Jennifer Li Shotz

Jennifer Li Shotz is a writer living in New York.

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