Earthlings, I think we’re idealistic creatures by nature, underneath our hard, jaded exteriors that spit into buckets, eat our steak bloody, and watch a lot of Breaking Bad — just to revel in the chaos of the universe. We want to believe the best in people, even on our 100th lousy OKCupid date or our third date with a guy we’re really hoping will be better than the last date. We want to believe that this will be The One — or at least proves our budding cynicism about dating wrong. More than anything, we crave The One Who Was Different.
Although I have had plenty of The Ones Who Will Be Different, I’ve had more of the first variety — the three bad dates guy. I now refer to a choice example of this as “Three Bad Dates Jeff” — because his name was Jeff and we went on three bad dates. (Brain breaker, I know.) We had one of those ideal Meet Cutes, that was only lacking a head bump, an umbrella and an adorable dog whose leash would incidentally entangle us both, but it became clear that’s all we shared. There was technically nothing wrong with Jeff; it was just a case of oil and water, or oil and Guy Who Really Likes Rock Climbing and Has No Other Relevant Interests. To pregame for one of our dates, we once watched a rock climbing video he was desperate to show me, while my eyes slowly crossed and I reenacted scenes from Enter the Void in my head.
We then went out to get dinner at this gay-owned establishment in Chicago called Nookies, which is of the burgers-and-fries-and-nothing-else variety. Being an adventurous eater, I ordered a type of pasta I’d never heard of — and later wasn’t sure was a thing — and he got the burger and fries. His was a classic, safe choice — a nice metaphor for him as a person. He talked more about his rock climbing interests and middle-of-the-road new wave bands from the 80s (see: Modern English), and then our food came and it was colder than our chemistry. Not wanting the complaining about my food to be the most memorable part of our date, I shut up and ate the food that pretended to have to do with Italy while we both contemplated our meal in relative silence. It was practically monkish, and a passerby may have thought we started our own gay monastery. (Which, to be fair, is what every monastery sounds like to me.)
After our check came and he paid for my stomach cramp, we went to see a movie about animated puppets that I fell asleep during, and he let me sleep. When I awoke, he assured me that I hadn’t missed anything. The moment we left the theatre, the skies opened up like a cruel romantic inverse of that scene in The Notebook, and we walked the long way to his apartment, where he promised episodes of Wonderfalls on DVD. I’m a big fan of everything Bryan Fuller touches — which I hope will include my privates someday — so I figured it was a safe, easy, boring bet. I would fall asleep, he wouldn’t touch me because of his scary low sex drive and our evening would rest in peace.
But then he got a call from a friend who happened to be in town just for the evening, appearing in theatres one night only. TBDJ asked if we could go out with this friend, and I said that sounded fine, even though socializing more sounded like being hit with a staple gun — but without all the fun times. However, I figured there would be other people there. I could talk to some of them, while ordering about seventeen Gin and Tonics, enough to make me forget about the puppets or the pasta I was increasingly sure was made of pale, freakishly long worms — the Taylor Swifts of annelids.
But this was the other version of the Choose Your Own Adventure story that didn’t happen — because I forgot my ID at home and was too baby faced not to get carded. With my Bieber cheeks, I was a target for bouncers.
He asked my permission to go out with his friends, anyway, and take a rain check on Bryan Fuller, the alternate universe savior of my night. But instead of being in that version, I walked home, alone, and spontaneously cried in the rain. I felt like an Adele song, and not one of the torch songs where she gets revenge and feels like a bad ass. I was the sad one no one listens to — unless they are eating all of the cake in their refrigerator.
But I saved the best detail for last: this was our second date. I went on another date with him after that. This was nobody’s fault but mine. No one was forcing us to spend time together. This wasn’t a Scientology matchmaking service.
You might wonder why I would put myself through this cartoonish, over-the-top pain that even Victor Hugo would agree was too much. I went because I thought he was one of the proverbial “Nice Guys” that we always kick ourselves about. We don’t give the Duckies or the Farmer Teds a chance, but then the Farmer Teds grow up to be hot and the Jake Ryans become partial hermits who cobble firewood in a backcountry Pennsylvania town that looks like Twin Peaks without the charm and backward-talking little people. So, if I just gave this Farmer Ted a chance, who knew? He could be a software billionaire someday or quietly grow into the love of my life. After all, when Harry met Sally, they hated each other, and look how that turned out. I didn’t hate him, so I was already a step ahead. Great success!
The problem was that I made the “Nice Guys” like TBDJ categorically different from the type of guys I’d been seeing — the Bad Boys or, as I like to refer to them, the Ones Your Parents Warned You About. I’ve always had a taste for these, as the three major crushes of my childhood were Ryan Gosling, Jess of Gilmore Girls and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho — who I thought might be just misunderstood. It didn’t matter that he killed people in his dreams and was a capitalist sociopath. Love conquered all. When I ended up finally getting the Big Swoon for a boy, it was — of course — one who fit this mold. Declan was in a band, had unkempt Strokes-imitation hair and a girlfriend. We sat in his basement in our underwear a lot and watched John Kerry slowly derail an unloseable election, which was the only thing that got blown that autumn.
It was great because it was destined to fail. Our homoerotic flirtation was perfectly one-sided — I mildly stalked him and wrote his name in my notebooks and he let me without making a fuss about it — and the “relationship” practically came with an expiration date on it. My mother, who’d made a career of dating the shoppers of Leather Jackets and Unfocused Disdain ‘R Us, told me that if she ever saw him in our house, she would kill him — especially if she hadn’t had her coffee yet. At the time, it was ideal in a 16-year-old romance kind of way, where you get to be sublimely miserable and write bad poetry about it. You’ll eventually kind of break up, in that you’re not hanging out anymore, and you’ll be miserable until you find something else to be miserable about, like reading Sylvia Plath. She saved me a lot of bad romances by outsourcing my misery to the novelists.
The funny thing is that — while guys like these get a bad rap — they aren’t that different than the Nice Guys, although you generally break less things when you dump Nice Guys. Separating them categorically often doesn’t tell you a lot about how they’ll treat you in practice, and a seemingly Nice Guy can turn out to be not nice much later. (See: Matthew Fox.) In the case of THBJ, dating him wasn’t more fulfilling or interesting than my high school fatal attraction, and oddly, all it did was make me wonder where Declain was now. Was he still hanging out in his parents’ basement, listening to Jon Stewart rail against the hypocrisy of politics? The odds were ever in his favor.
Separating these guys into distinct categories didn’t make me happier or more successful at dating, and in a lot of ways, set me up for skewed expectations about what to expect from them — that turned out to be self-fulfulling prophecies. With Declan, I wanted sweet misery and with Jeff, I wanted stable and vaguely dull — like being married to Lyle Lovett. I didn’t want the taste for adventure that his rock climbing entailed or guy with the left-of-center music tastes. I wanted Andy Hardy, which is exactly what I got.
Instead of expecting our dates to be any certain way, or fulfill preconceived notions about what categorical role they should fill, all we can do is be engaged enough to discover exactly what kind of person they are — whether good or bad. If I could go back in time and not be a melodramatic, unrealistic twat on our dates, I’m sure I still wouldn’t have liked Jeff (because we really didn’t have any chemistry at all) but I would have not liked him for the right reasons. I wouldn’t have hidden behind a bush the next time I saw him — with his foxy new boyfriend in tow. They looked happy together, smiling like two people in a very gay toothpaste commercial, and I had bush in my face.
I have my third date with a guy tomorrow, after two very, very good dates, and I could very well end up hating him eventually and writing an Alanis Morrisette song about him. But whether he turns out to be The One Who Was Different or Dave Coulier, I know I’ll be dating a person, and not a concept.