“Yeah, I just don’t know about this one,” I said to Jenn, recounting last night’s date with Chris. “He had on this plaid shirt and a plaid jacket at the same time. It looked really goofy, like, did he even look in a mirror before he went out? And he dropped this comment about how he shares his Netflix account with an old girlfriend. That’s weird, right?”
Jenn swiveled away from her laptop to face me. We were in her office, doing the Monday afternoon recap of the weekend and each of our recent attempts at romance. She paused before saying, “You’re such a Seinfeld character about dating.” I laughed and we continued our talk, but the comment stuck with me. At first I was a little insulted – I haven’t seen every episode of Seinfeld, but I’ve seen enough to know that Jerry and his pals were a little specific when it came to finding The One. In need of a refresher, I scanned the show’s Wikipedia page for reasons Jerry had ended relationships: man hands, liking a commercial he hated, eating her peas one at a time. It all sounds a bit too familiar.
Among my friends in my city, I’m the youngest. While I’m just turning 25, the rest of my girlfriends are firmly late 20s and early 30s. The frustrations and hopes they express over martinis at our girls’ nights revolve around parenting a partner’s teenage daughter, how to navigate a new husband’s traditional Korean family, and the heartache and opportunities following the breakup of an eight-year relationship. Then there’s me. I’ve never had a real, grown-up relationship. My last serious boyfriend and I were together in the first year of college, breaking up the summer I was 19 years old. The longest I’ve let someone into my life since then caps at about four months. Now, settled into my professional life and a fantastic community, I want a relationship a little more lasting, but my forays into finding something real turn into tales more worthy of sitcom punch lines at martini night.
There was the Guy Who Made Me Want to Brush My Teeth. There was the Guy Who Laughed Too Loud in the Movie Theater. There was The Guy Who Called Me “Fuzzy Ninja” in a Text. Yes, maybe I put each of these suitors into too small a box, but there were funny stories behind each of them, and I loved making my friends laugh and shake their heads. “Ugh, I hate dating,” I’d flippantly say after the chuckles died down. Then we’d move on to my other friends’ “real” problems and adventures.
But for each of the guys who I’d labeled after one or two dates, there were their counterparts who I’d seen for weeks or months, diminished into one episode-title of a label. There was Steve, better known to my friends as Dr. Douchebag – the psychiatrist who I told my friends needed some time on the couch himself. In truth, Steve drew me in, thrilled me, and then hurt me badly. But it was easier to highlight a Seinfeldian flaw than to talk about how I had trusted too easily, gotten too close, expected too much.
John, even while I was dating him, was the Hipster DJ to my friends, or later, The Guy Who Shoplifted A Box of Nails. He was odd and delightful and I think he loved me for a little while, but we grew apart as we neared our college graduation and our future goals became clearer – and more divergent. This was more painful to think about than that he had swiped something at a Home Depot to fix up his apartment. The label was a way to say that I never cared, a way to file these men neatly into the Book of Ali’s Failures. It was a way to keep my friends from knowing that unlike them, I wasn’t looking at wedding rings and sonograms, but at online dating profiles and friends of friends of friends with whom I had nothing in common, just on the off-chance that I might be initiated into the world of People Who Have Someone.
And there was Jim, a kind-hearted college advisor who painstakingly prepared a thoughtful date, making dinner together at his home. He pre-cut each of the ingredients ahead of time and bought my favorite wine so I could just relax. He became The Prep Bowl Guy – “so weird how he had everything lined up, just like on a cooking show!” I cringe when I think about how hastily I labeled him: while I was still there in his kitchen, I was thinking about how I would tell the story at the next martini night. I surprised myself with how sad I felt when I ran into him holding hands with someone else a few months later. Why did I call him after the dinner date to say, “Hey, do you have a minute?” Why did I say I wasn’t interested, when in reality I didn’t even know him enough to say that? But the story continues to be about the Prep Bowl Guy, and not the guy to whom I was afraid to open up, the guy who I was afraid to give a chance, the guy who scared me with the way he listened to what I said.
If I had given any one of these dates a real chance, I wouldn’t have been able to stamp him with just one fatal flaw. My first love, my high school boyfriend Kyle, was so flawed and complicated and messy that I couldn’t possibly pick one thing with which to label him, put him neatly away into an easily digestible anecdote. I don’t talk about him at martini night, but I think about him often, and when my mind wanders to him it’s never about how he never listened to his voicemail, or his sometimes misguided facial hair. I was a teenager when I met him, so I unreservedly opened myself up and loved him. I didn’t write him off for any of his lesser qualities, and because I didn’t, I have beautiful memories of apple orchards and New York City and quiet drives through Connecticut, those stories that grow hazy in the fog of first love. The instinct for self-preservation that comes with getting hurt and growing up hadn’t yet kicked in.
The other day, I told my college boyfriend, with whom I’m still friends, about the Seinfeld Dater theory. “Yeah,” he typed out into our chat window, “You totally are.” He went on to say that if I would just give any of these guys a chance, the things that to me seemed like deal breakers would instead become “reasonable flaws.” You know, flaws: those things we love about our partners at the same time they infuriate us. Maybe Prep Bowl Guy would have been great at balancing a shared checking account and keeping track of the details of our lives. Guy Who Laughed Too Loud in Movie Theaters could have made me guffaw at high volume right along with him. Maybe Dr. Douchebag was just as scared as I was, and we pushed each other away.
A lot has happened since I was 17 and so open to new relationships, not the least of which has been heartbreaks big and small. I didn’t lose my hope in one terrible incident; rather, it’s been chipped away over the years as failed relationships and unrequited crushes piled up on top of one another. Now, I am overwhelmed by the enormity of getting to know someone new, weighed down by the excruciating decision to trust someone. If someone likes me, there must be something wrong with him. I want to believe in myself, that I have something to offer, that someone will see that in me. But I don’t, so any guy who asks for the second date must be The Guy Who.
I like making my friends laugh and hearing at parties, “Hey Ali, tell the Fuzzy Ninja story again!” But I also like waking up next to someone the morning after I first spend the night, and walking home in the sun replaying our conversations over and over. I would love to trade being the cynical, funny one in my group of friends for being the happy and boring one.
I’m going to keep trying. As I continue to meet new people and grind through the first-date small talk of finding out how many siblings and pets my date has, I’m going to try to let the little stuff slide. I don’t want the person I’m seeing to be The Guy Who Shares a Netflix Account with His Ex or The Guy Who Wore Two Kinds of Plaid at the Same Time — even though these are some of his reasonable flaws. I want a love that defies punch lines and storytelling, that is messy and complex, that thrills me and devastates me. I don’t want this guy to end up being The Guy Who — I want him to just be Chris.