You hear people talk about hope like it’s a good thing, but you’ve been around, and you’ve seen far too much to let a positive emotion present itself as such without suspicion. You know that anyone who can fool you into thinking you’ve had a great first date is bound to have a body wrapped in Ikea bedding in the trunk of their mum’s borrowed car. Hope in dating seems to always carry a sting just behind the thought it rode in on; a counter-punch that wants to crush the very moment it was born out of. Perhaps it was once a construction crafted in the interests self preservation, but these days it’s very real indeed.
That unannounced kick is the signature of the special genre of hope you expose yourself to when you decide to engage romantically as an adult and a realist. The first wave response of optimism and anticipation is no longer as alone as it was in your early 20s; it’s sharply followed by a panicky list of self defeating reasoning that is the anti-matter of actual emotion. As a subconscious dialogue batters its way into your conscious mind in an infinite loop, you have become some sort of bitterness savant. You hope he’s not a killer, or a stalker, or a Two and a Half Men watcher. You hope the lines he fed you over dinner were as spontaneous as they seemed, and not the recycled property of last night’s equally hopeful diner. You hope the smile he flashed in a moment of silence is because he likes you, and not because he’s finally devised a plausible reason to suddenly leave. You hope that when he said he was close to his family, he didn’t mean it in the far too familiar, fetish DVD sort of way. You hope that the accidental leg touch was not an accident. You hope it’s only chlamydia this time. This is why people say that hope is paralysing. With all those thoughts flying clumsily across the table, it’s hard to even hear when he offers you another drink. Between incest and STIs, your conscious mind regains control; he has a great smile. You hope it wasn’t aimed at the waiter who just walked behind you.
Once that panicked hope has given you enough reprieve to agree to the next drink, a more pragmatic version of the emotion will pull you into a cold sweat with some seemingly analytical undertones. Call it a dating doomsday deconstruction. On the rarest of occasions that you think you’ve found a good one, it will be time to critically tear the place apart in search of a well-hidden elephant in the room. Perhaps its behind that picture of his sister, or the dog he claims he rescued, or the shelf of books he must have bought to impress other metaphorical poachers like you. Before you know it, his imaginary room is a wreck. No elephant, not even a track, but no relent either.
Elephants of mass deconstruction aside, you somehow fumble your way through a meal. Call it luck, or routine. You manage to hold a conversation; you may even sparkle, but he can tell you that – hopefully. A hopelessly satisfying kiss, and the evening ends. This is where the real torture begins. Even through the blinding fog of romantic subtext you never seem to get better at reading, you decide you like this one. You allow yourself to care about whether he cares. In that moment, and his absence, all you have is hope – for a text, another meal, a reciprocal feeling, an admission. Only the crazies get clingy and upfront this early, talk about their feelings, or pitch dates on consecutive nights. You won’t let him see that side of yourself just yet. For now, you’re sharing a bed with only hope – and hope is a rough fuck.
No matter how much practice you’ve had at this, you will never be sure if he’ll call back, or text you about something funny that made him think about you at work, or keep your secret about his flatmate having sent you a picture of his dick on Grindr, but there is at least one thing to be certain of – you’ll do it again. In the cruelest twist of irony, the very sensation that boots you in the chest with every throb is also the sense you’re bound to by the optimism to keep trying – and smiling about it. There’s something that doesn’t check out in the maths of your hopeful reasoning, but every open mouth chewer you sit opposite brings you one gag closer to something worth phoning your dad about. Call it the law of infinite possibilities, or just blind faith, but this Little Emotion That Could always seems to be ready for another hill.
Over the years you’ve built up quite an impressive wall of defense mechanisms – those sarcastic deflections about happy people, the comically bitter rant, the rapid and copious drinking. Somehow, hope is a root that finds the cracks in that wall, and prepares for the growth needed to split it open, leaving you with nothing to converse with but your actual personality – god help you. Hope will make a more welcome appearance, accompanied by an unruly mob of butterflies, when you go out on that one-in-a-million date that you know is awesome in absolute terms, and not just in comparison to the male pole-dancer who used “LOL” as an actual word. There will still be an unavoidable white noise of senseless expectations, but they will no longer be governed by the part of your brain that enjoys Criminal Minds. And this time, his words will cut through. You’ll feel something fly from your gut to your brain at full pace; the postcard of a memory you don’t have yet – a new place to make out, a friend’s birthday drinks you’ll go to together, a family lunch (yep, family). You won’t vocalise any of this for several more months of nervous giggles, but the flutter will be enough to tease your thumbs into sending an excited text, and twist your mouth into the peculiar smile you do when you’re trying not to smile too much. You hope his grin means the same thing.
After the date, there’s just enough residual hope dripping from the outfit you second guessed to gush to a flatmate and eat a complex carbohydrate – now that’s bulletproof! You might even call a parent – not to tell them anything (you’re not that kind of crazy, remember), but just to let them hear you sounding happy. There’s hope for you yet. Whatever ritual you indulge in, previously the property of those soft-headed optimists, you do it in a way that doesn’t imagine a future or foppishly ponder L-words. You simply want to admit to yourself that something honest happened, and you didn’t imagine it. You made him a little nervous, and that’s because he hopes something too. That’s enough for now.
Provided you can keep those feelings to yourself for the time being, and maintain a banter that dances around the edges of emotion without explicitly diving in, there need be nothing crazy about hope. When you were a little younger, you were keen to announce every thought of anticipation, but now you know the joy of keeping them to yourself until they fall out with a thud, and get the spontaneous recognition they deserve. There’s a new elephant in the room – you’ve actually seen this one, you both smiled at each other when he trumpeted from the corner, but there will be plenty of time to talk about him later.
In the world of dating it is hope versus hope. Sometimes it’s barely a win, but whatever gets you out the door for the second spark-fueled dinner can be called a victory. And somewhere between the Thai place he’s been wanting to go to, a high-school style kiss in an empty park, and some genuinely stellar conversation, hope takes gold by the whisker of a cat you may not need to buy just yet.