I had this thing happen once with this woman I'd met at a Brooklyn bar back in '95. Call her Joanna. I called her ideal. She worked at a local alternative paper, wore glasses, drank Guinness. She liked Liz Phair and Jim Jarmusch and Paul Auster -- at 23, this impressed me -- but she didn't prattle on about these topics, which I liked. She was from one of the liberal B-towns (Berkeley or Boulder or Brookline, I can't remember), and she didn't prattle on about that either, which was refreshing. So we were at her place one night doing the intermittent smooch-talk-change-the-CD routine, when I stepped aside for a bathroom break. Bad idea. There I was, lifting the lid to have a pee and discovering, by sight and by scent, a waterless bowl with not one, not two, but many, many days -- even weeks! -- worth of, well, stuff that definitely wasn't meant for my eyes and nose. Simultaneously, there was she: remembering the cloggage, yelling desperately from the living room, "No! Don't use the toilet!"
I felt sorry for Joanna, so I tried to spare her the embarrassment by acting as if I hadn't seen her less-than-sexy side. "I was just washing my hands," I said, weakly. But she knew otherwise and pleaded with me about how her landlord sucked and the super was lazy and the 99-cent store was out of plungers. I understood. I empathized. I changed the subject. But I couldn't put the poop out of my mind. That sort of thing, that early in the game, spelled "deal breaker."
It's a shallow practice, deal breaking. I'm not talking about legitimate reasons to cut and run, like when a date refuses to tip or makes misogynistic jokes or kicks puppies. And I'm not talking about irreconcilable differences between long-term couples, or a relationship that simply runs its course. I'm talking about the nuanced stuff, the petty, early-date stuff. Which brings me to theory No. 1 about deal breakers: They are culturally learned. This theory contends that the marketing and TV wizards have sold us a rigid template for perfection, which has made us totally vacuous and unforgiving. By this account, dating has become an exercise in trite scrutiny, a Seinfeldian drill in which the pettiest quirk or remark or opinion can kill everything, and may as well be followed by a funky bass line.
My friend Lauren, 37, an illustrator, for example, met an architect at a party in Los Angeles. He seemed nice enough, so they made plans for dinner. But when he picked her up, he was 1) driving a brand-new red Porsche and 2) said to her, in his best Snoop Dogg imitation, "Let's go get our dizz-ninner on." "I should have jumped out of the car at the first red light," says Lauren. "I know I shouldn't judge people by what they drive. And he was just being silly with the gangsta talk. But a line like that only works with people you know well. He was just instantly lame to me, and that was that, shallow as it is."
Rick, a 32-year-old Los Angeles schoolteacher whom I -- and others -- value for his great depth and compassion, once knew a deal was broken when his date gave a 20-minute monologue on the cinematic merits of "Mr. Holland's Opus" and the on-screen charm of Richard Dreyfuss. "I can't stand Richard Dreyfuss," says Rick. "He's such a noodge. He's like a Jewish mother who'd tell you to go to the bathroom before a long drive. But I tried to work with her. I said I liked 'Jaws' and 'Down and Out in Beverly Hills,' and all that." Rick explained that it wasn't the opinion that turned him off, it was the delivery. "If someone else made the case for that crappy movie or that schlump of an actor, I'd have laughed it off. But she was sold on the whole thing, like a real sucker. It was just so unattractive to me, and I couldn't give her the benefit of the doubt."
Others, however, would say Rick was feeling scared. That's theory No. 2: Deal breakers are driven by fear. Fear that someone else may not like you, so you beat them to the punch by finding their faults. Fear of the potential heartache or vulnerability if things were ever to get serious. Therapists probably have terms for this, like "self-sabotage" or "preemptive safety net." Becky, 33, a photographer and graphic designer who lives in New York, calls it "being terrified." "I'll see or meet someone I think is cute and that I could get along with," she says. "Obviously there's some sort of chemistry, but for me it's easier to find a reason not to go for it, because he could shoot me down or be gay or something, and my ego can't handle that." Becky's most recent fear-driven deal breaker went down when a date kept referring to his mother as "Mom." "He didn't say 'my mom,'" explains Becky. "He just called her Mom. Like, 'Mom's coming to town next week.' I was thinking, What am I, your sister?"
Like it or not, we've all been on the dunce end of the deal breaker, that is, the one who spoke or behaved egregiously. Last year, I went on a blind Internet date with an entry-level TV writer. We had writerly things to talk about, and I liked her well enough to at least go out again. But she never called me, and I was convinced it was because I sang the praises of the "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" script. She grew up in New York (I'm from Southern California), had never seen the movie, and couldn't relate; because of this, I had broken the deal. But soon after, something occurred to me: "Fast Times" is a good script and movie, and was written by Cameron Crowe, who happens to be 87 times the writer you'll ever be, Miss Assistant on "The West Wing." Hence, I threw the monkey at her, and in my mind she became the dunce.
Really, though, neither of us had broken the deal, because there was never a deal to be broken. That's theory No. 3: There's no such thing as a deal breaker. Period. If you can't look past a pair of high-waisted Gap jeans or a Celine Deon CD, then the "it" was never there in the first place. If you have to censor your own behavior and do your best impression of yourself, then you're really not at ease and you ought to just skip the whole affair.
I wound up calling the Brooklyn woman with the polluted potty, but nothing ever materialized between us. And it never would have, even if her toilet had been approved by Mr. Clean. Yes, she was probably embarrassed. And no, it was not a sexy first impression. But if there had been anything more than a cool CD/video /book library involved, if there had been anything holistic, any chemistry or real connection between us, well, the poop wouldn't have broken the deal. In hindsight, I wasn't being shallow or scared. I was merely in the wrong place, with the wrong person, in a deal that wasn't meant to go down.
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Did she sing along to Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again"? Did he quote the Jerky Boys all night? We want to hear your deal breakers. What happened? And did the deal go bust because you were scared, shallow, unsuited or otherwise? Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.