Saturday, September 19, 2009

The First Date

I’ve never really been on a real date, one that you hear about in those storybook fables we like to tell ourselves. I didn’t realize that I had been on any date at all in my life, until recently when I had what could probably be considered my first official date and realized that I had two others like this one previously.

In the past, I had descended into something of a social rut and decided to search for more friends online. During this experience, I met two (gay) men who (in the end) I suspect wanted something different than I wanted out of the relationship we developed together. In both cases, we attempted to establish this friendship with one real-world meeting. In these types of interactions, I always remained true to my idiosyncratic self and never lied about my intentions. I never put on a façade to make myself seem more attractive, as I knew it could only come back to bite me at the end of the day (that is, when it turned out I was not the person I was projecting myself to be). My photo was always honest and recent in my profile, my description accurately reflected my personality and tastes. My way of communication had to have been striking compared to the superficiality I understand often pervades such interactions, and this tactic weeded out all except the most committed and worthwhile individuals (at least that's what I believed).

Each time, I dedicated myself to getting to know my new online friends in a deep and meaningful way, often in an intimate sharing of thoughts, feelings, and experiences that cost us both many hours (both on the phone and through e-mails). Then we would meet. When the first person met me, we spent several hours in each other’s company, having fun at concerts and hopping from festival to festival. It seemed like even the fates could not drag us apart in our newfound amity. We agreed to get together again, but he apparently lost interest after meeting me (I never figured out why). Having thought for sure I’d found a true friend, I was disappointed when his e-mails dwindled to a couple of sentences and then stopped coming altogether. I wouldn’t have believed this eventuality would come to light just a few weeks earlier. But within a couple of weeks, I met someone new. This second person and I had great conversations, but we couldn’t relate intellectually (and he had some seriously un-intelligent things he preferred to discuss). At the same time, he seemed like a truly good person, someone who would make a good friend. He knew the city and its people, being an avid volunteer, and he clearly had a deeply-felt compassion for many of his friends and family members. This encounter went as the previous one; it seemed like he had no interest in doing much other than talking about himself, and the dulling in his eyes when I put a word in edgewise should have been an indication of a lack of real interest on his part. It seemed like a bad date. But I didn’t want this necessarily to be a date—I wanted friends! Friends don’t have to have all things in common or make the same lifestyle choices. I continued to e-mail this non-friend on rare occasions, little mises a` jour, as another friend likes to call them; most he never responded to, and eventually I lost all pretext to contact him and gave up. What I didn’t seem to realize is that, even though I was looking for friends and said so explicitly, in reality I was probably going on dates. And each time, it appears, I got rejected. I thought it was unnecessarily harsh and cruel; why couldn’t we be friends? I always maintained an open attitude in this respect, but neither of my online companions seemed to share the sentiment. Apparently I was a waste of time to be written off, let that human connection that we shared be damned.

In both cases, there would have been serious difficulties to overcome if we had wanted a romantic relationship together. Perhaps we wouldn’t have had adequate ‘chemistry,’ although physical attractiveness didn’t matter, at least from my end. Nor do I particularly look to ‘chemistry’, such as it ever really truly exists, as a good indicator of anything (nor do I trust anyone who emphasizes its importance). At the end of the day, I do personally, strictly adhere to what I preached in my post “Overcoming Asexualization.” But beyond the superficiality of appearances, one of these 'dates' was significantly more juvenile than I was, and he clearly preferred the life of the party (that was evident by his squeals and screeches at the concerts we went to). The other one was significantly older than me and seemed way too sexually motivated and too explicit in his discussions of his own sex life. I felt like I was doing my volunteer work while I listened to him, and at one point I visibly flinched with embarrassment (we were in a crowded restaurant, after all, while he was bellowing out all of this). In the real dating world, you probably know a date’s not going well when you have to convince yourself to be more non- judgemental.

That all happened a long time ago. But more recently, in my new experiment (see “Finding Social Interconnectedness”), I started conversing with a new set of people, with whom I invested greater confidence than I had those from my past. In that previous article, I mentioned that someone wanted to engage me on a more intellectual level, and it is this person I am currently writing about. He is the only one who stood out from the others, the one person who I related to closely. We were literally exactly at the same station in life (and place in our respective careers), with a similar orientation to Montreal (having come here from elsewhere). As it turned out, he is passionate about the place I lived much of my life, and I am passionate about his hometown and culture. Which stars were aligned; what are the chances of finding someone like that? Furthermore, I had once worked extensively on learning his primary language (neither English nor French), and my improvement through my discussions with him provided me with a real opportunity for interpersonal growth through his friendship (or more?). It seemed like the possibilities for conversation, for an intimate exchange of ideas, were endless, and this man was clearly brilliant and had no less to say than I did on the subjects we discussed in our e-mails. I figured that his intelligence and introspective nature would translate into his being a more reflective and sensitive person in real life. Neither one of us would likely be considered one of the great beauties of the world, but I honestly found him rather attractive (and he had approached me online after seeing my photo, so I assumed he didn’t find me abhorrent either—or perhaps the picture was just too good compared to my reality).

I had never related to another gay man like I related to him. He was even around my age, but he also had, like me, a similarly more mature, contemplative, and reserved demeanor than most people our age (I often have difficulty relating to people my own age as a consequence of their relative lack of maturity). My conversations with him inspired something deep within me, something real and tangible but altogether nameless, something that transcended any physical attraction I may have felt. One thing I can confidently say is that I felt Plato’s philosophical Eros at my side more than ever.

We conversed online for about two weeks, also spending many hours in our apparent courtship (whether for friendship or romance, I honestly didn’t care—friendship would have been more than fine if he hadn’t desired anything deeper). We set a day to meet, both of us enthusiastically looking forward to it. He had proposed the meeting, and I set the time and place, following up with a phone call to confirm on the day of. We had a nice conversation, and I did prepare myself, making sure I was as well-groomed while remaining as appropriately casual as I felt I could be. From my perspective, the entire evening was a surprisingly smooth and gaffe-less affair, civilized even. I bounded up, right on time, to our meeting point with a huge, typically North American smile plastered across my face. He seemed a little more reserved (or nervous) than our previous conversations would have suggested, and I was undoubtedly a little more verbose than usual. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised that he was more introverted than I previously thought, yet another part of his beautiful character I felt like I could relate to. And when we got to the cafe, instead of having something light he decided to have a full meal, which I thought was a great sign that he wanted to stick around to continue our engaging conversation. In all, we were together for three hours, a first meeting that was not too long and not too short. There were many occasions in which we could have left earlier, but both he and I chose to stay to be with each other as the evening wore on and people came and went. Our discussions were intense; it seemed like we were solely focused on each other. I only saw him, and he only looked at me. It was like the world around us disappeared, with only our serveuse invading it. It was at its very heart an intellectual as well as a social exchange. We came to all sorts of interesting conclusions about the nature of our respective societies and the one we now live in, from a sharing of our different but compatible perspectives. He seemed to lead the conversation as much as I did, a sign of equity. I noticed as the evening wore on (in which there was no alcohol consumption involved), he really opened up to laughter; his facial expressions were more mellowed, and still, we were totally focused on each other. I was glad to see that he became as comfortable in my presence as I was in his. Refreshingly, being myself seemed like all I had to be.

We kept the tone of the discussion serious but fairly light-hearted and amicable; neither he nor I expressed any poignantly romantic interest (also one of those first-date essentials: treat it like you would treat making any friend, to keep it from being too charged or otherwise scary). At the end of the evening, I made sure to relate to him that it had been “a real pleasure” to spend that time with him, that “the time just flew by.” Then we talked outside of the restaurant, and it seemed like we were delaying our inevitable parting (he started discussing one of the details of his everyday life), and our goodbye about ten minutes later involved at least three languages. I had also extended a new invitation: that I would be happy to walk with him if he ever wanted a companion on his rather long commute home from his workplace, not far from mine. With our departure, I walked confidently home, chest held high in the chilled night air without feeling any of its coldness. While I was still not sure if I could call it a date, I had never felt so hopeful about one of these meetings, nor in my wildest dreams from a few weeks ago would I have thought I would meet someone I felt so compatible with on so many levels. So in my own mind, I resolved to call it a ‘date’ (a quote ‘date’) instead of using the more explicit, direct reference: date. I had had what I thought was the perfect first ‘date’ I could ever ask for, and that out of it I had made, at the very least, a new friend. A whole new adventure lay ahead, it seemed.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an entry in this blog if my story didn’t have, like virtually all of life, a pinch of both optimism and tragedy (and clearly the optimism has already been expressed). My invitation went unanswered, and further, I received no word from him in the week following our meeting. Of course I thought about him, of course I wondered about how I should proceed, but I figured that I should at least give it the week. This seems in keeping with the seemingly perfect and well-researched logical sequence of events; some cool-off time was inevitably necessary. I wrote it off to both of our respective busyness. But I’ve never been very good at lying to myself, so I gradually became more and more worried and knew that eventually some course of action was necessary.

Finally, when that dreaded day, Friday, came along, I consulted with a close (not to mention very wise and beautiful) friend over lunch about what I should do. She could practically read my mind when she saw the flustered look on my face after asking me what I wanted to talk to her about. I relayed the details of my experience with the same optimism that I had myself perceived as it was happening, but it was clear something was off. As concern, even a touch of sadness, entered her eyes, it began to dawn on me how dire the situation actually was. He had never hesitated in contacting me mid-week with long e-mails in the past, and suddenly his entire presence had vanished. Then I tried to start reading various cues from my evening with him, and she made it plain to me that in her experience men are hardly that subtle, and what I perceived as having meaning was probably purely instinctual or simply default behaviour. I then discussed writing that dreadful e-mail I intended to write later that day reestablishing our contact, one that would solidly affirm my interest in continuing the friendship. Left to my own devices, my e-mail might have very well been like our previous ones: a long dialogue continuing where our discussion left off and likely involving a greater level of reaching out on my behalf. On the verge of cringing at the very thought, she provided me with what I knew deep down was the most appropriate response: a SHORT e-mail asking him how he was, how his week’s been going, a positive comment on how my week was, and then a closing statement wishing him a good weekend (without saying whether I had or didn’t have plans). It all seemed very formulaic, but in refusing to respond to my previous open-ended invitation, he had made it necessarily so. Seeing myself now back on that old familiar path of rejection I had come to know from previous experiences, it also dawned on me at that moment that I, in fact, had not been on a ‘date’ but on a date (and hence why this had become so awkward and complicated—which he had implicitly made it). Furthermore, it was also then that I realized (independently, without my friend’s knowing) that this was not my first date as I had thought, but rather my third, and that I had been outright and heartlessly rejected all three times after a first date for no established reason.

I wrote the e-mail, half in his language and half in mine, with an upbeat but more personal style all my own that still reflected my friend’s formula. I received no acknowledgement or response, as I rather pessimistically expected. And it was then that I felt a pain that I had not felt when the other contacts didn’t work out. The previous times I had been disappointed, even gravely so, but this time I was personally rather hurt, sad, even depressed. The feeling was not a tearful one, but it certainly had its capacity to choke me up inside. I lost some confidence in the way I perceived my reality; my first date, or rather my third, was not perfect but was apparently a rather bad one, in contrast to everything I thought and felt. The pain of my third rejection was just too strong; clearly I’m not cut out for this, clearly I take people too seriously and start feeling too quickly to survive in the dating world (or even, apparently, in the courtship of friendship). Perhaps I should just give up altogether, but try as I might to abandon my romantic/sexual identity in a grand gesture such as this, it will never go away. My friend coached me, she said, “you’re going to get hurt in dating, but at the end of the day you have to force yourself to see this as a positive experience, and you can’t just decide to give up; you need to get back out there if you don’t hear back from this guy in a week.”

I’ve decided that dating may very well be like getting wisdom teeth (or chicken pox). In my case, I got my wisdom teeth (chicken pox) painlessly in adolescence (as a child). But getting them later in life can be much more painful than at a younger age, and the older you are the more uncomfortable and potentially painful the experience. Being 24 years old and going on my first date, and then getting rejected, when most people my age have been doing it for 10-12 years, may make all the difference for me in terms of how I perceive the date. In other words, starting to date (and learning to deal with inevitable rejection) may simply be a more painful experience for me now than it would have otherwise been earlier in my life. At the end of the day, however, I’d rather it be this way, that I have an experience all my own, than blithely and superficially conducting my life in imitation of those who have been dating for longer. At least by having such raw feelings, I can sense and come to understand my own humanity.