Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Instead of hoping the universe would put the ideal partner in my path, I went to an online dating site. By the time I was done checking boxes to record my preferences, the pool of queer women in my age bracket was whittled down to eight candidates. Only one struck my fancy: Dena. Something about her profile gave me pause, but I told myself not to let such vague reservations stand in the way of romance. I sent her a message, and we exchanged phone numbers.
I was washing my car when she called. “Hey,” I said. “How are you? Where are you? It sounds really loud.”
She said she was at a pool hall, playing billiards. Why had she called me when she was in the middle of something else? I was already questioning my decision to contact her.
When we talked again the next night, she was in another noisy location. Though irritated, I agreed to meet her at a bakery Saturday afternoon. Maybe things would go better in person.
I arrived fifteen minutes early. After thirty minutes I checked my phone for a text or missed call: nothing. Another thirty minutes went by.
Once, I had woken up in the middle of the night feeling numb from the waist down. While waiting for my ride to the hospital, I’d placed a call to work to let them know I wasn’t available. Within an hour I was getting a spinal tap to determine if I had meningitis. If I could make a call while facing potential paralysis, surely Dena could send a message about running late.
I texted to make sure she was OK. Getting no response, I bought myself a slice of cake and left.
An hour and thirty-seven minutes after our agreed-upon meeting time, I received a text: “Where are you?”
“I left a long time ago,” I wrote back.
She claimed she’d gotten stuck in traffic and sent several pleading texts. Was she kidding?
Dena later called and offered a generic apology, like a child who had been scolded by a parent. I said goodbye and didn’t speak to her again.
A month or two after that, I met another woman online, Maxine, who is one of my closest friends to this day.
“Have any online-dating horror stories?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “there was one woman who showed up over an hour and a half late and wondered why I wasn’t still there waiting for her.”
“Is her name Dena?”
When I was twenty-seven, my kidneys failed, and I had to undergo dialysis. At the clinic I would sit on a blue recliner with two thick needles inserted into my arm. Tubes carried my blood to a machine that smelled like bleach, where the blood was cleaned before being returned to my body. I sat there for three hours at a time, three days a week, feeling devastated.
Michael often sat across from me in his own blue chair. He was handsome, with dark hair and kind eyes, and he would smile and wave when I arrived for treatment. I would politely wave back. One morning we locked eyes for a moment, but I quickly turned away. I wasn’t sure how I felt about meeting someone new. I had ruled out dating, unable to imagine any man wanting to be with someone as sick as I was, even if he was sick, too.
One day Michael walked over and said hello. I felt vulnerable, strapped to the chair with my blood running into a machine, but I managed to say, “Hi.” That was it.
Another morning, after my treatment, I started a conversation. We found we had a lot in common and decided to meet outside of dialysis, outside of our chairs. We got coffee, talked, and finally kissed.
We haven’t spent a day apart since.
I thought sixteen was the magic number: if I hadn’t started dating by that age, I would be forever branded a reject.
My prospects didn’t look good. I wasn’t interested in any boys at my school, and though I had gotten my braces off and my gawky phase was behind me, I was brainy and a bit of a square. I spent my sixteenth birthday puking into a bucket — not due to the aftereffects of a wild party, but because I had a stomach virus.
Things started to look up that summer when I got a job at a fast-food restaurant. By August I had caught the eye of a co-worker who went to a different high school.
When he phoned, I took the call on the line in my parents’ bedroom. (This was 1989, and there were no cordless phones in our house.) I was hoping for some privacy, but Dad, an aspiring photographer, chose that moment to test out the softening filter on his camera. I wanted to strangle him with the phone cord. Only later did I come to appreciate that he had preserved on film the first time a boy asked me out.
I remember little about that date other than the awkwardness of holding hands in the movie theater and that we didn’t kiss good night.
On our second date my fast-food Romeo and I went to the mall, where he bought me a phone of my own. I shouldn’t have accepted the gift. My interest in him was already fizzling.
Over the next two years that phone sitting on my nightstand would often cause me to feel guilty — especially when I used it to talk to other boys.
In high school I had an unrequited crush on a boy named Darren. I joined every club he belonged to and trembled when his knee brushed mine under the table, but we never dated.
For ten years after graduation I pursued what any sane person could see were unavailable men:
The college professor I slept with the summer of my sophomore year, who told me up front, “This won’t last, you know.”
My good friend from graduate school, who would have been perfect for me were it not for the inconvenient fact that he was gay.
A grad student I met at a party, who had just split up with his previous girlfriend and went back to her after a few weeks.
A colleague in my department, who broke up with me almost immediately because — get this — we were “too much alike.”
By my late twenties the number of weeks I had spent in relationships, in total, barely broke double digits. I needed to practice dating, I decided. So I started answering personal ads in the newspaper. One man, J., seemed promising. We went to a Mexican restaurant and talked about movies and music. I told him he needed to listen to the Dire Straits album Love over Gold on CD to really appreciate it. (CDs were fairly new then.) After dinner he said he’d had a great time and promised to call that weekend.
Three years later I got a message on my answering machine: “This is J. I don’t know if you remember me, but I was listening to Dire Straits and thought about you. Would you like to get together?”
I wasn’t sure I did. Three years was a long time, and I still felt snubbed. I was also pining over a married man, who lived ninety miles away and assured me that he was “almost certainly” going to get divorced soon. (He holds the record for sheer unavailability in someone I was pursuing.)
I called J. back and set up another date. We had a good time. I was able to relax and be myself because I still thought of it as just “practice.”
J. and I continued to go out on practice dates until the night he whispered, “I love you.”
This past fall we celebrated our twenty-third wedding anniversary.
After I came out as a lesbian in my early fifties, I met Winona at a women’s dance, and she invited me out for a drink. Before long we were exchanging daily phone calls and text messages peppered with hearts and flowers. We met up whenever we could, usually at the bar or at my place, never hers. It took me several weeks to piece together that Winona was living in an RV with her seven dogs. This should have been enough to scare me off, but I was hooked.
Six months into our relationship I sold my house in the city and purchased a spacious country home just for us.
It took me a few weeks to realize I’d made a colossal mistake. Winona proved to be incapable of intimacy on any level. By 7:30 most evenings she was tucked into bed with her prescription pain pills, a glass of wine, the TV remote, and a dog or two. She would retreat into sullen silence in the face of any slight, real or imagined. I was relegated to tiptoeing around her and the dogs (who, she reminded me, came first), paying the bills, keeping house, and generally accepting the blame for all that was wrong with our relationship. Hurt and bewildered, I finally realized that, in my obsessive need to be loved, I had let myself be taken advantage of by a classic narcissist. I found my backbone and told her to move out.
Before leaving home for a semester abroad in Morocco, I prepared myself for a romantic dry spell. The prospects of my meeting someone in a conservative, Muslim-majority country seemed slim at best.
A month into the trip, in classic just-when-you-least-expect-it fashion, I met Omar, a singer with a band in a small cafe. He was tall and charming and had a wonderful voice. Two days later I asked him out. We walked the streets of Marrakesh and talked for almost four hours. Before parting, we kissed. He kept looking around nervously, as if afraid someone might see. When I asked him why, he told me it was illegal to kiss in public. He didn’t want to get arrested.
We spent the next two weeks searching for, but never finding, a place to be alone.
Molly Rose Brown
Port Townsend, Washington
At the senior-housing complex where I live, it didn’t take me long to find the best-looking, smartest, most polite single man and strike up a friendship. I’m seventy-nine, Al is eighty-five, and he and I spend lots of time together, ostensibly walking my dog, Bosco. Sometimes we sit on a bench in the courtyard to discuss the challenges of life in general and growing older in particular. We laugh about our past sexual exploits but never consider adding any new ones to the list. In six months we have not even held hands. It’s good just to have a friend.
Whenever Al joins Bosco and me on a walk, some residents peek through their blinds at us. In the lunchroom they wink as if to say, We know what’s going on.
We really got the gossips talking when I went with Al to the grocery store. That so smacked of intimacy that one fellow called up Al’s ex-girlfriend to report him. I’ve heard that some residents believe Al and I are sleeping together and having rollicking sex.
The other night, when we sat on the bench, instead of discussing politics or psychology or books, Al and I decided to give those gossips something to talk about.
I rode into the Sierra Nevada with a handsome man one spring day in 1975. My date pulled his yellow Datsun truck onto a gravel path, then parked on the shoulder and got out to gather his fishing gear. He slung an old wicker creel — a basket for carrying fish — across his chest, explaining that it was lucky because it had been his father’s. Inside the basket, I knew, was a tin of hand-tied fly lures. He’d meticulously crafted each one, wrapping feathers and thread to resemble different insects. A tattered canvas bag, sewn by his mother, held his pole, which he carefully slid out and assembled.
The air was brisk, the sun just coming up. The handsome young man smiled and motioned for me to follow. “Let’s go!” he said.
I followed him down an overgrown path to a stream. He expertly cast his fly into a still eddy and waited. Soon he pulled in a beautiful trout. Again and again he caught fish, releasing the small ones, while I sat on the shore, reading and writing.
In our thirty-four years together I never learned to fly-fish. Recently I set out to rectify that. In the garage cupboard I found my husband’s lucky creel, hand-wrapped flies, and rod, all untouched since his death. I packed up his gear and went to a stream. The creel had lost its luck, but I enjoyed sharing his passion just the same.
In ninth grade I tried flirting by looking in a guy’s eyes and pretending everything he said was clever. It worked. A boy who sat next to me in homeroom asked me to go see the new John Wayne film with him. I wasn’t crazy about westerns, but I liked Chris. I’d never been to the movies with a boy before.
At dinner I told my parents about my date with Chris. My father put down his fork. “After dinner you’ll call him and tell him you can’t go.”
My cheeks flushed as if my father had slapped me.
“You can’t date non-Jewish boys,” he said, as if it were God’s law.
I argued that it was just a movie. I wasn’t marrying Chris. But my father was done talking and went back to his potatoes.
I left the table in tears.
Chris was incredulous when I told him I couldn’t go: “Why not? You said you wanted to.”
“I . . . I don’t really want to go.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I hung up.
I saw Chris in school for the next four years. We had a lot of classes together. If he so much as turned toward me, I would look the other way, too embarrassed to tell him the truth.
My parents had escaped Germany in the 1930s. Chris’s obviously Anglo-Saxon surname told them all they needed to know. He was a gentile and couldn’t be trusted.
After my partner of thirteen years broke up with me, it occurred to me that I might have to start dating again. The thought filled me with revulsion. I had never been good at dating, even under the best of circumstances, and I was dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
I have a kind of cancer that can be tracked by a blood test. When certain numbers rise, I know I am in for a recurrence. My numbers had recently started to rise again when I began to compose an online dating profile:
“Partner sought, possibly short term. Nursing experience a plus. I am past my prime, my heart is broken, and I will probably be doing chemotherapy within the next year. On the plus side, the infusion lounge is a great place for a first date! I also enjoy long walks on the beach, surfing, and Ativan. Be warned: I have a moody preteen who will hate you initially, possibly forever. (She seems to hate me, and I wait on her hand and foot.) But if you are looking for an exhausted woman, prone to sudden crying jags and panic attacks, who — bonus! — has the black cloud of cancer floating over her head, look no further. I am the one for you. Oh, and a previous surgery has left me with a flatulence problem and a scar down my abdomen that makes my belly look like a butt.
“Contact me soon. My days may be numbered.”
I am relieved to say that I am now in remission and in a healthy and loving relationship. I found him online. He is loyal, sweet, and doesn’t judge me. Even my teenager loves him. When I climb into bed at night, he curls up at my feet, his tail tucked beneath him, and my dread melts away. I rub his soft fur and find peace in the knowledge that I will never have to date again.
Santa Cruz, California
Anna lived four doors down from me in the girls’ dorm. Though we had mutual friends all through college, it wasn’t until after graduation that we spent any time together: We were at the same party, and I asked if anyone wanted to watch the Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Parade with me the next day. Only Anna did. She had always seemed a bit too brusque and opinionated for my taste, but I figured a couple of hours would be OK.
The next morning Anna and I staked out a prime spot for the parade. It was a gorgeous day in Santa Barbara, and soon the acrobats in colorful body paint appeared, and the drag queens singing through megaphones, and the roller skaters with nipple tassels, and the flirty firemen. Anna and I made each other laugh as we watched.
After the parade ended, she asked if I had somewhere to go.
I said I was thinking about the beach. Did she want to join me?
“Yeah! And maybe we could pick up burritos and magazines on the way there.”
It was the start of what we’ve come to call the “never-ending date.” Whenever one activity ended, one of us would suggest another. It would have been the most romantic day ever — except we were both straight. Anna was married to her college sweetheart, and I had recently broken up with mine. When we finally said goodbye, after a cozy dinner and a movie at her house, I wondered if this had all been some fluke.
It wasn’t. Anna became one of my best friends. We had more incredible days together over the next five years, and we wept when I moved to Sweden for graduate school. But our friendship continues from different sides of the world. On one of my recent California visits, the two of us went to the same bar we’d gone to on our first date. Anna has become a benchmark by which I measure all the guys I meet — and one of the great loves of my life.
He sits next to you on the couch and says, “I’d like you to kiss me again.” The room was full of people an hour ago — a weekly guitar jam among friends — but now it’s just the two of you, and it’s midnight, a dangerous time for a married man and a married woman to be alone together. You want to kiss him, so you do. It’s better than the first time, six weeks ago.
You’ve thought about this moment for years, ever since he became your neighbor, but you haven’t thought about what happens next. What will his wife think? What about your husband? What about your best friend, who lives a few doors down? What about every single person in your life?
You tell yourself that stolen kiss was a brief error in judgment brought on by lust and drink. He is fifteen years older than you, has been married much longer, and has strong family values and Catholic guilt. This will stop here.
Instead it snowballs. You teach him how to text so the two of you can communicate in secret. When he looks up and sees you on your balcony, his face fills with joy. More stolen kisses follow, almost daily. There isn’t a private spot in your neighborhood where the two of you haven’t met to whisper breathlessly and press your bodies against each other. But you have to stop. He’s getting an ulcer. The neighbors are starting to talk.
You don’t stop. You give in to temptation and have sex on the grimy floor of his work van. Afterward, as he drives you back to your car, you feel scared, sick, and deflated, but he takes your hand and says with delight, “I have a girlfriend.”
Two and a half years later you and this man are still together, and you, at least, are still married. Your husband has made space for your “boyfriend,” though the arrangement has irrevocably altered your marriage. The boyfriend’s ex-wife regards you both with thin-lipped rage. You have lost touch with friends and family members. You have learned to live with these consequences. If the price you’ve had to pay ever feels too high, you have only to look into his eyes to be glad you didn’t say no to that first kiss.
I didn’t really date in high school and college. I thought I was too fat, my hair was all wrong, and I didn’t dress right. I regret this now. Why didn’t I go out with that guy Brian from my Dickens class? He liked my sense of humor and talked to me whenever he had a chance. But we never so much as hugged.
I went out with a couple of guys after graduation. One kissed me. The other ran his hands over my body on the dance floor. I had coffee with a third man, who told me that he only dated Latinas.
And then I met my husband. The time we spent together didn’t feel like dating. He’s much older than I am and told me I made everyday occasions fun. I married him because he was a good person and I respected his work, but the truth is that I wasn’t in love with him.
I’ve grown to love him, however. He’s a great dad, and when he puts his arms around me at night, it’s even better than curling up with a good book. But there’s never been much heat between us. I touch him with tenderness, not passion. And we don’t understand each other particularly well: I’m a writer, and he’s an engineer. Sometimes I long for a real connection, both mental and physical.
Recently I told a friend that my husband is the only man I’ve ever slept with.
“You?” she said. “But you’re so sensual!”
“I am now!” I replied.
I have a confidence I didn’t have before. Because my husband is so much older, odds are I’ll live for many years after he’s gone. I will miss him very much — when he’s traveling, I sometimes sleep with his shirt — but a part of me is looking forward to a second chance at dating.
Somewhere in Tehran, Iran, there is an eight-foot-tall painting of my face. I have never seen this portrait. I’m not even sure it still exists. Perhaps, after I ended the relationship, the man who painted it burned it or cut it up. But that would be unlike him. More likely the canvas is somewhere in his parents’ house, lying sideways, collecting dust.
On dates we preferred talking and lying next to each other to going out for dinners and concerts. Sometimes we would walk in the woods. I was relieved not to have to dress up. I might pose while he photographed me, telling me to look surprised or sad or bored.
I was 6,447 miles away when he told me he had painted my portrait. I imagined him shaping my nose, the corners of my mouth, my long hair.
My dates since then have been remarkably conventional: a meal out, a museum opening. Perhaps I’ll wear a little black dress, and we’ll split the bill. There’s safety in that. But occasionally, when I catch my reflection passing a window or mirror, I think of that painting and the nights the Iranian man and I spent memorizing each other’s features.
Kathryn Friesen Kempf
© Johnny Martyr
Late at night I spread the paper on my mother’s messy kitchen table and read the personal ads. Feeling bored and impulsive, I called a number and talked to Chuck. He was twenty-seven. I told him I was eighteen, even though, in the summer of 1985, that wouldn’t be true for another month.
Chuck drove a faded-yellow VW Bug and lived in a trailer in a nearby Chicago suburb. He was thin and pale, with shaggy dark hair and a mustache. Though he wanted to be a poet, he worked at a small printing company, where he earned just enough to get by with help from his parents. A year earlier he had almost died from alcoholism. He was sober now and told me if he ever took another drink, he would die.
I would stop by Chuck’s place on the way home from classes at Columbia College in Chicago, where I was studying journalism. He and I would sit in twin recliners at one end of the trailer, and I would do my homework while he read Nietzsche. He had gone to college for a year after high school but hadn’t stuck with it.
That winter I found out Chuck had been married once, to a woman he currently worked with. They’d divorced after she’d moved in with her lesbian lover. I think he was still in love with her.
In January I dropped out of Columbia, and Chuck and I enrolled together in an evening philosophy course at a community college. Just after spring break he quit going to class and told me that, though he really liked me, he wasn’t physically attracted to me. He preferred skinny women.
When my friends heard I was no longer dating Chuck, they were relieved. They’d never trusted him, they said. But I felt sure he and I were meant to be together.
Three years later, after moving on to a different university, I was back in town and living with my new boyfriend, a chemical engineer who’d just bought his first house. Chuck and I had kept in touch, and we talked about getting together for lunch. He had recently sent me a postcard with a grim cartoon on it: a building labeled “Crisis Center” was about to go over a waterfall. On the back he’d written that he had made a mistake when he’d broken up with me. He should have accepted me for who I was, the way I had with him. He also said he had written a poem about me.
When the phone rang a few weeks later, it was Chuck’s father. He had come across my number in his son’s wallet and thought I’d want to know that they had found Chuck dead in his recliner. I didn’t learn the cause of death, but I assumed he’d started drinking again.
I never got to read that poem.
Kim R. Livingston
The guy I was dating kept telling me that his brother-in-law wanted to fix him up with someone else. My boyfriend told his brother-in-law he was happy with me, but the brother-in-law insisted this other girl was perfect for him: she laughed a lot and was smart and good-looking. My boyfriend replied that I had all those same qualities.
One night my boyfriend’s parents invited me over for supper. His sister and brother-in-law came, too. When they arrived, the brother-in-law looked at me, stunned. He and I worked together but in different departments. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“This is the girl I’ve been dating,” my boyfriend said.
“She’s the one I’ve been telling you about!” the brother-in-law said.
The brother-in-law and I had talked occasionally at work, but he had never said a word to me about trying to set me up on a date. We all had a good laugh upon discovering I was both girls — and the only girl for him.
Clyde, New York
J. and I met during a semester abroad in Ireland. He was there with his raven-haired, violin-playing girlfriend, and for the first month or two he and I barely talked. Then the whole class traveled to a remote island for a weekend field trip. At dinner that Friday night J. pulled up a chair, sat elbow to elbow with me, and asked question after question. After dessert he invited me to join him in the bar for a drink. We stayed there till 3 AM. I had never known this kind of attention from a boy before. I felt flattered and happy but also confused. What about the raven-haired girlfriend? Had they broken up?
No, they hadn’t. Yet the rest of the summer J. would invite me on rambling walks by the river, or a group of us, including the girlfriend, would hop from pub to pub. Though we didn’t put a label on our relationship, it felt real and meaningful. The morning I left to go back to the States, I slipped a note with my e-mail address under J.’s door.
Two months passed. Then came an e-mail: Did I want to fly across the country to join J. on a family vacation, all expenses paid?
My college roommates and I analyzed the short message. “It’s a booty call,” said one, meaning all he wanted was sex; she said I shouldn’t go. Another agreed it was a booty call but thought I should go. Never one to turn down a free vacation, I went.
That weekend J.’s family treated us as a couple. We slept in the same bed, our bodies touching, but we never even kissed. He never mentioned his girlfriend either.
Years passed, and J. and I kept in touch. I took a sixteen-hour bus ride to visit him at graduate school. He flew to the Midwest to be my date at a formal wedding. At some point he broke up with the violin player and started dating someone else, then someone else after that. We occasionally kissed. Once, during a late-night phone call, he said casually that if we lived in the same place, he felt certain we’d be a couple, but it seemed as if that would never happen.
And then work and school conspired to bring us both to the same booming metropolis. J. had moved there a few months before me and had been unattached when he’d arrived. Days after my move, I waited to meet him for a lunch date. Was this it? Would we make it official? I saw his car pull up to the curb . . . with another woman in the front seat. He introduced her as his new “lady friend.” I felt sick and, once again, confused.
I accepted that J. and I weren’t dating and would never date. But, then, what the hell were we doing? Whenever we hung out, he managed to bring whichever woman he was seeing at the time. They all seemed to treat me as a sort of little sister or best friend from forever ago who couldn’t possibly be a threat. Once, J. asked me to accompany him to the mall to buy an intimate gift for a woman he’d met online. When yet another girlfriend was going through a major depressive episode, he scheduled a weekly lunch date with me to vent about the situation. It was all too much, and I started dating a wonderful man who has never once jerked me around and is now my husband.
J. and I haven’t spoken in years but are still friends on Facebook. A couple of years ago he revealed to his social-media circle that he had discovered polyamory and now had two steady girlfriends. My old confusion came back. Maybe I had been his girlfriend — or, at least, one of them.
“I met a man for you,” my friend said.
I groaned. It had been a cheerless week of gray March days. Work deadlines were piling up, my ceiling was leaking, and a mouse in the house had sent my children shrieking to the phone to call their dad, who’d rushed over to pick them up before I could chase off the rodent.
Suddenly left alone, I felt like a total failure.
Now, to cap it off, my friend was offering to set me up on a blind date.
Blind dates were always disasters, in my experience. On my last one, when I was twenty-two, my date had rented a rowboat in Central Park — then practically toppled it when he’d reached to put his hands all over me. Never again, I’d thought.
But now, twenty years later, I had few options. “This guy is perfect for you,” my friend said.
I met him for dinner, and, to my surprise, Ron was everything she’d said he was. He and I shared interests in art, antiques, and travel. But after an evening of nonstop talk and laughter, he didn’t call again. I was furious and felt betrayed: I’d been set up, all right.
More than a year later I spotted Ron at a dance festival and walked the other way. I’d just left another relationship and was happy to be on my own again.
But before the night was over, I ran into Ron on the festival grounds. We began chatting, and he apologized for not contacting me. He asked if he could call me again.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” I warned.
He did call, and on our second date we went to a movie. Afterward we decided to continue seeing each other, but, having both been married for twelve years, we were equally leery of long-term relationships. We agreed to keep it light.
Nearly two decades later we are still together. My only question is: Which date is our anniversary — the blind date or the night we went to the movie?
Loudonville, New York
Raised with conservative Christian values, I didn’t have a girlfriend until the age of twenty-five. After she and I had been out several times, I told a male co-worker about this amazing person I was dating and how I thought about her every moment.
“Have you slept with her?” he asked.
“No,” I said cautiously, worried he would guess I was still a virgin.
“Then you aren’t dating,” he informed me.
That woman and I eventually started “dating” after four months of courtship, and we went on to enjoy a meaningful year together. Though the relationship ended, we remain close friends.
In the ten years since we split, I have had numerous sexual partners, but most of those relationships have lasted no more than a couple of months. I can’t help but feel something is missing. I worry that, like my former co-worker, I have become desensitized to the value of physical intimacy and am just keeping score. I look back with fondness on my first relationship and miss the excitement of those four months we spent getting to know each other. I want to return to the sort of dating I did in my inexperienced youth.
Death Valley, California
I was a shy sixteen-year-old when I met Tom at a neighbor’s house. We were immediately drawn to each other, and he soon became my first real boyfriend.
After a few months of teenage bliss, something went awry. On the phone with Tom I made a joke, but he didn’t realize I was joking. He quickly ended the conversation and did not call back. I wasn’t sure what had happened. Since we went to different high schools, I didn’t see him for some time. In that era girls waited for boys to call. Too timid to break with custom, I felt helpless.
Months later my friend Marcy and I saw Tom at a burger place, where he had a summer job. He asked me to go to the movies that Friday night. Though excited to get the relationship back on track, I was scared I would mess up again. When Tom arrived at my house, my stomach was churning. I got in the car, and we went to the drive-in theater. He had just parked when my nervous stomach rebelled, and I vomited all over his car. I was humiliated.
After Tom drove me home, my mom came out to see what was the matter. Although she felt my pain deeply, to my horror, instead of covering for me by reacting as though I had the flu, she apologized to Tom and explained, “She was so nervous about this date.”
Tom didn’t call again. Afterward, whenever I was around a boy I was attracted to, my stomach would get uneasy.
My anxiety must have been contagious. My friend Julie got scared the same thing might happen to her. One night Julie, Marcy, and I were cruising down the road and saw a boy Julie liked in a car next to us. She got so panicked, she opened the window and let vomit fly as we careened down Highway 94.
A friend who struggles to make small talk on dates asks what my husband and I talked about when we were dating: Politics? Religion? Life goals? The answer is: None of the above. In fact, on our first real date David and I actually ran out of things to talk about. I suppose the silence should have been awkward, but it wasn’t.
On subsequent dates we made out in an empty D.C. Metro station, sat in the grass by the Potomac and listened to the roar of jets taking off, and took sweaty summer-afternoon bike rides. We had the usual passionate nights that spilled over into mornings, but pillow talk wasn’t our thing. Somehow words weren’t all that necessary.
For our first wedding anniversary we spent a long weekend in the Tetons. After a hike and a good meal, we sat in front of our cabin reading, the only sounds the turning of the pages and the wind in the trees. A few years later we traveled to Queensland, Australia, and spent New Year’s Eve on an island in the Great Barrier Reef. We stayed up till midnight, not saying a word.
The fancy trips are on hold now that we’ve become parents. Our infrequent dates end with a quiet drive home and the determined purr of the breast pump. This remains enough. We can understand each other through nothing more than holding hands. We don’t need words.
King George, Virginia