“So should we meet to grab a drink sometime this week?”
I’d lost track of the number of times I’d typed that phrase into the Hinge or Bumble chat box. Usually after a day or two of chatting, but sometimes after a multi-week, back-and-forth investment.
I wasn’t sure if it was my age (40), some sort of collective post-COVID social anxiety, or pure laziness, but suddenly the mental load of dating seemed to fall squarely on my weary, stress induced rash-covered shoulders.
“What is this?!” I cried to girlfriends during trivia last week, shoving my phone under their noses.
What are you up to this week? -Rich
How’s your week been? -Tom
How was trivia? -Ben
“All of them! All of them are doing this! And with these dudes, we’ve ALREADY BEEN OUT. And now they won’t stop texting! But they won’t ask for another date! I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS.”
“Did you meet them on Bumble?” one friend asked. “I have this theory that maybe it’s training men not to make any moves [since Bumble requires that the woman ‘make the first move’].”
“Some were Hinge,” I replied. “But you might have a point. I think I did initiate the first date in all cases. …Are they just not that into it? Back burner-ing? Friend zoning? Too scared to wind up on my blog?”
There had been an impressive uptick in Dates Who’d Discovered My Blog Before Meeting, after all.
I sighed and put my phone back in my purse, trying not to think about the last three dates I’d line up – all canceled, by them, just hours before our meeting time. A bone deep weariness and latent anger threatened to take over as I recalled all of the recent dating disappointments – including one crushing heartbreak.
“Don’t worry. I understand women. Like I knew you took your purse to the bathroom just now because you have your period.”
“You’re having so many bad dates because you need to improve your screening process.”
“If you did run a background check on me, you’ll see that I have a restraining order out against me by my third ex-wife for strangulation. But it’s not true.”
“I’m just not ready for a relationship.” x 1,427
You don’t say.
Not just the mental load of making plans, carrying the conversation, and offering to pay (all still resulting in little more than the above), dating was taking its toll in deeper, identity-challenging ways. Had I lost my ability to read the room? Could I no longer tell the difference between sincerity and narcissism? Genuine interest and politeness?
Meet Cary, a first date from a month ago.
“Hey! I just got done with a long training run and I’m STARVING,” I typed into Hinge. “Any chance you’d be up for meeting at [x] or [y] restaurant instead of the whiskey bar? [Y] restaurant has a full bar! And I promise I’m not trying to score a free meal – I’ll even share!”
I pressed send on my message to Cary, feeling bold but a little bad about proposing a last minute change. Twelve years my senior and brimming with goofy photos and energy, I assumed he’d reply along the lines of, ‘I got upgraded from first date drinks to dinner on a Saturday night?! Score!’
“Y restaurant is fine,” he responded 15 minutes later. I gulped.
“I can try to eat quickly here and keep the original plan,” I backpedaled, a knot forming in my stomach. Was he really that stuck on the whiskey bar? Should I have kept my mouth shut since girls are supposed to be pretty and agreeable and never hungry?
“No, your happiness is important. And I’m easy.”
The knot grew and I shook my head. Certainly I was reading into what seemed to be “off” replies. Besides, I didn’t have time to worry about it if I wanted to finish drying my hair and keep our original meet-up time. I put on a fitted shirt, corduroy skirt and winter tights, leaving my hair down. I raced to the restaurant to make sure I could get a table for us and not cause any more drama with the change in plan.
A minute or two after 5:30, Cary walked in, unsmiling. The knot in my stomach became a full on Boy Scout lesson.
I sprung up and opened with my usual,
“Hi! Are you a hugger?”
Cary was much slighter than I had imagined and we hugged awkwardly.
“Are YOU a hugger?” he replied after we were already embracing, a tone to his voice that might have been teasing if not for the edge. I laughed nervously, failing to think of a witty comeback.
“Thanks so much for your flexibility with the change in plan,” I blurted as we sat down.
“Do you normally have trouble asserting your needs?” Cary retorted.
I blinked. This opening line rivaled, “You’re wearing gloves? Are we boxing?” and “I left my oven on.” Overwhelmed by rushing to the restaurant and thrown by his aloofness, I felt my eyes prick with tears.
“Well it depends… In dating situations, usually not…,” I started rambling. “Not with my family, especially not my sister. But with friends…” Could he tell how flustered I was? “Anyway thanks again so much for your flexibility! I’m so excited to eat! Have you been here?”
“Yeah, I actually live nearby,” Cary said, still not offering any smiles, a stark contrast to the silly poses in all of his Hinge photos.
Okay, so the location change shouldn’t have upset him… What was the problem??
“I guess I should order if you’re eating,” he continued, looking at the menu.
“Oh, you don’t have to! I’ll shamelessly shove food in my face by myself,” I joked to no effect.
“Do you care if I get beef tacos?” he asked, knowing I was vegan.
“If I cared about things like that, I’d be upset a lot,” I teased, still trying to lighten the mood.
“Okay, I’ll get fish.”
I stared at him.
“I was kidding,” he replied, and proceeded to order the meat tacos. And beer, despite me reminding him that they had a full bar and he could get the whiskey drink he so obviously had had his heart set on.
We carried on the kind of painful conversation you might have with a distant, visiting relative; plenty of questions asked, but only out of pure obligation. I couldn’t for the life of me pinpoint the issue, but I felt like the nerdy high schooler whose older cousin was forced to take her to prom.
When the waitress brought the check an hour and a half later, I quickly grabbed it.
“Ah-ah, this was my idea. I’ve got this.”
“We can split it,” Cary offered half-heartedly and I fought the urge to roll my eyes.
“Excuse me, I have to use the restroom,” he continued.
I grabbed the bill and ran it up to the counter, desperate to get out of there as quickly as possible. Cary didn’t walk me to my car, instead giving me another awkward hug outside.
“Nice meeting you,” he said and took off in the opposite direction like he had somewhere much better to be.
I got in my car and stared at the clock. 7:15pm. 7:15pm on a Saturday night and I was alone. Thirty minutes later, I got an alert that Cary had messaged me through Hinge.
“Thank you so much for dinner. You are really sweet and kind. I don’t think we’d be a great fit romantically. [sad face emoji] And I want you to find your guy and get off the apps! It was fun chatting tonight and I enjoyed your company.”
No. He. Did. Not. I stared at my phone in disbelief. Pour a little salt in the wound much?! I gathered myself before uncharacteristically responding (given that my go-to move is silence).
“Haha yeah… I read the room and you immediately gave the distinct impression that you did not want to be in said room. No worries! Take care!”
I put my phone down, poured a manhattan, and fired up Emily in Paris – a mental load-free plan that never disappointed.