If one day I wake up in hell, surrounded by pillars of fire, with my insides on a cheese grater, I won’t have any questions. I want to know why I’m there: I love dating.
If you yearn to be held close to a person who is like and opposite to your soul, dating is a miserable activity, a merry-go-round of rejection that spins into nauseating infinity. But if you just want to grab a drink on a Thursday and maybe peek into a stranger’s medicine cabinet, you really can’t do better than dating.
Dating is a whole new experience. There is no other socially sanctioned opportunity to meet a new person, talk about ideas and feelings, and then leave, with zero commitment to each other. A first date with a person you meet online is isolated from all other threads and filaments in your social network. It is suspended in time, and it only exists because two people decide it should. It’s an absurd and hopeful thing to do.
For the right person, dating is the perfect hobby. Dating combines the best of hunting, fishing, puzzles, creative writing, community theater and stamp collecting. For many years, dating has been among my greatest interests. I’ve gotten great advice from dates, visited new bars and restaurants, learned about different jobs and family dysfunctions. A first date is a front-row seat to another person’s reframing of their own personal myth. It’s my number one source for meeting new dogs. It’s an exciting way to find out that you don’t care about recreational ax throwing.
I am now in a relationship. We went on a first date, and a second, and a third, and then suddenly I wasn’t just looking in his medicine cabinet, I stored a multi-step skin care routine inside it. I don’t feel the urge to date anyone else – but I do miss the freedom of sitting down with strangers and letting an opportunity slide.
But before my relationship, I was single for most of my twenties. Reflecting on dating feels like being a babbling child waking up from a dream. Sometimes dates wanted to vent, to use the blank canvas of a stranger as a safe space for their questions about life. Sometimes I did the same – a man on a first date is not a therapist, but in desperate times I have tried. It’s unfailingly interesting to learn about people’s roommates, their childhoods, their favorite pasta places and hidden parks. I love that dates are limited, the parameters less sticky than most interactions. After a first or second date, it is not only acceptable but practically inevitable for a person to say “let’s never see each other again”.
Shortly after receiving my first Covid vaccine, I went on a dating trip. I went on three first dates in one week, all at the same bar. My first date stared intently and asked good questions. We talked animatedly for about 25 minutes, then he stopped me. “Something terrible has happened,” he announced. I was startled, but he refused to explain, shook his head in disbelief, so we split the bill and left the bar, looking pale and haunted. We walked a few blocks in silence. Finally he turned to me. “Look,” he said. “I think you are such an interesting person.” I was confused but fascinated. Being dumped after 25 minutes was the first. Was this man going to claim that he had telepathically reconnected with an ex-girlfriend during our date?
“You talked too much and kept interrupting,” he said. There was more. I seemed anxious. I had misunderstood one of his jokes. He was very apologetic, but he wanted to be honest. These things troubled him.
It was immediately clear to me that most of what he said was true – I was talking too much. I interrupted. I certainly didn’t get his jokes. I had been so excited to get back into dating, but it came at the cost of really listening to the other person. I asked if he would come into my apartment and give me an overview of how he thought the date had gone. This was not a seduction attempt. My date was very surprised, but he came in and we sat at a polite distance, playing chaste and going about the date. There was no sexual tension. Analysis only.
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Two nights later I went on my second first date of the week, at the same bar. When my date spoke, I felt strongly that it would be a loss to me if he got up at the end of the night and walked away for the rest of his life, as I had been so happy for other dates to do. I frantically started replaying the tips from my previous date. What did the first man say? That I should listen, not interrupt, make time for the other person to speak. I took a breath. I gave silent thanks for my last date. I tried to act like a normal person.
Now we have been dating for more than a year. I still went on the third date that week, with the third guy and at the same bar. Just one more for the road.
If dating is torture for you, hearing that someone else likes it does very little good. I don’t think that single people who want to be partners are lucky or should enjoy being single. Rather, I believe that people in relationships lack opportunities to find humanity in strangers. It is a real loss, and one that is not recognized often enough.
The closest I’ve come to finding a replacement for dating is standing and waiting for public transport. Like a first date, it starts awkwardly – furtive glances, long silences, staring into the distance. But then everyone starts asking personal questions (“how long have you been waiting?”) and finds commonalities (“the 45 is always late! It’s terrible!”). You are standing with another person. You keep each other company. You wait – faces red, hearts racing – for something to arrive.