Tales from the Dating Scene
The End of JDate (Or, The Most Bitter Essay on Dating You’ll Ever Read)
By Amy Klein
Hi JDater! You have 131 unread message(s)! What’s more fun than meeting interesting new people who are interested in YOU? For the best results, respond right away to their note–while you are still fresh in your admirer’s mind. Now, go on. Make it happen.
Your friends at JDate.
I’ll tell you what’s more fun than meeting people from JDate. Anything. Anything is more fun than meeting a (not) perfect stranger for an interminable drink that inevitably stretches into a dinner at which I am sharply digging my nails into my thighs both to keep myself awake and to distract myself from the pain at hand.
That’s why I am loath to sign on again to JDate, the international portal for Jewish dating that boasts about half a million users worldwide (Match.com has 20 million by comparison). When the site started in 1997, Internet dating was a little-known and somewhat scary phenomenon; somewhere after the millennium, it became the only way to meet someone.
But here’s the thing about Internet dating in general and JDate in particular: People hate it. They detest it. Listen: If I sound bitter, that’s because I am. But I am not alone. Well, I am alone, technically speaking, but I’m not alone on this subject of Internet dating, and specifically JDate. And I’m not a loser: As a thirty-nine-year-old New Yorker, I’m pretty, athletic, down-to-earth, sporty and fun. “She’s so great, why isn’t she with someone?” is what people say about me, although I’m not sure if it’s a compliment or an insult.
I tend to go for guys that say things like, “I want a woman who is independent and has her own interests,” which I’ve only recently understood to mean, “I only have time for women who are like that blow-up doll in Lars and the Real Girl.” I also tend to go out with guys who write “Communication is key,” to answer the question, “What I Learned From My Last Relationship”–an asinine category which should be re-titled, “What I Definitely Did Not Learn From My Last Relationship Otherwise I’d Still Be In It.” I’ve come to understand these guys would rather join the military during wartime rather than have a conversation about The Relationship and Where We Are Headed, the answer being, Nowhere and Fast.
To be fair: Men also have profound and reflective complaints about the females online: Namely, that women lie about their weight and age. I know this because they’ve told me. That’s what people do on JDates: We talk about other JDates like we are at a family reunion and we are trying to catch up with cousins we haven’t seen in years. Even though it’s more like we’re at tryouts for a freak show and trying to come up with the best or worst stories.
But I’ve found, as someone who has been on more than fifty first dates in the last ten years, it’s not the worst stories that get to you; not the guy who tries to choke you while kissing you “because you’re wearing a choker, so I thought you’d like it”; or the hottie who, in the middle of the date, accidentally texts you, “Date’s not going too well”; or the one who reveals he’s a dumpster diver by diving into a pile of garbage before dinner (after dinner might have been OK).
No, it’s the colossal amount of people who are not for you: The guy who looks exactly like his picture but who has as much chemistry as a paper plate; the one who tells you to your journalist face that he doesn’t read the news because it’s too depressing; the one with three cats even though you wrote you are deathly allergic.
Nothing wrong with any of these people per se, if per se means “for someone else.” How many slings and arrows can a dater suffer? I recently started envying my parents, who got married at twenty-two; and that’s a scary thing because my parents had a terrible marriage and divorced after twenty-nine years, but still, at least they didn’t have to JDate.
It hasn’t been all bad. I’ve gotten three boyfriends from the site. That first one I could have met on my own because we had so many friends in common. I hadn’t, though. JDate introduced us, but I didn’t reply to his email until four months later (I was inundated with suitors before I turned thirty-five), and by then he was about to move across the country. I fell in love with him anyway in the six weeks we were together, and after he left, I had such great hopes for JDate that it took years and hundreds of dates before I realized I wouldn’t meet someone like him again.
My second boyfriend was a welder. Now, when I read this on JDate I thought it was a joke, the way men write under profession, “clown school” or for birthplace, “another planet.” I LOLed, it was so funny. (I’d never seen a blue-collar person on JDate.) When he called his voice was sexy and raspy and I didn’t realize it was because he’d pulled an all-night welding shift, and by the time I realized he actually was a welder it was too late because I’d already accepted a date. We went out on-and-off for a year, and this is not to JDate’s credit, because we were ill-suited and incompatible, and even though it’s taboo, I’ll say this: It was because of our class differences, and by this I mean education, money, values and social circles, and if it were not for JDate we never would have met at all.
My last JDate boyfriend was great and sweet and smart, but in the end, he didn’t really want a long-term relationship—not that it stopped him from pretending he did on the website. And that seems to be the bulk of the members, aside from those who are just on it for sex. To this latter group I say one thing: If I wanted to have a casual hookup with a stranger, I’d rather meet an Amazonian named Seamus or Shaquille with rock-hard abs than a 5’6” bespectacled mama’s boy with allergies.
All this is a very, very, very long way of saying why I don’t want to sign up again for the site. But here’s the problem. I’m thirty-nine. Old even by non-Jewish standards. (Jewish-wise, I’m basically dead.) People don’t set me up anymore. Mostly because they don’t know anyone eligible.
So it’s just me and the Internet–and it’s too late for me to understand another website like the cool Nerve personals or OKCupid (just “okay?” why not “GREATCupid?”). I’m going to stick with JDate. Besides, they owe me. Yes, that’s right. JDate owes me a husband. I’ve paid them more than a thousand dollars, not to mention at least two hundred hours of dating time–this doesn’t include prep time of pedicures, waxing and therapy. If dating were tax deductible I could write off half my life. Ergo, I must meet someone on JDate.
And if I do meet someone offline, in real life, I will go look him up on JDate and contact him there and I’ll tell everyone at our wedding loudly and clearly that we met on JDate, that everyone must go on JDate (although everyone will be married by then) and see, I wasn’t wasting all my time and money and in the end. I was not a JDate failure.
Yes, JDate owes me. It’s payback time. JDate, here I come.
Postscript: The Author did, in fact, go back on JDate, but sadly, did not meet her husband on the site. She met him at a party. A real, live actual party–at a bar, no less. By the time she got married she had forgotten about JDate and all the hours she wasted on the site, and, like most coupled people, had also forgotten about all her single friends.
Amy Klein is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon and NPR, among other places.
C.M. Duffy is an illustrator residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in editorial publications, books, advertising and album covers.
* * *
Why I Married My Best Friend on Facebook
By Lilly O’Donnell
My Facebook profile says I’m “Married to Haley Moss Dillon,” and has for the last four years. But it’s not exactly true.
First of all, Haley and I are both straight women. Second of all, we’ve claimed to be married since long before New York State legalized same-sex marriage. These Facebook “marriages” between best friends have become the digital iteration of friendship necklaces, two halves of a heart, bought at Claire’s and displayed as a proclamation. But they have practical applications beyond letting the world know that you love and are loved.
When I was nineteen I got engaged to the guy I’d been with for three years (he bought me a ring and everything: Art Deco white gold with a pearl and two little diamonds). We were even “Engaged” on Facebook, making it really official.
Eventually I realized I wasn’t ready to get married. I wanted my single years in a cramped studio apartment full of books; I wanted to try to make it as a writer, even if that meant poverty; I wanted the option to pick up and disappear in Europe for a few years. There was no way to reconcile that with my fiancé’s plan to raise three Russian-speaking children in Bensonhurst, ASAP.
So we broke up.
I told myself that ending it was the mature thing to do. I’d rather be single while I was young than end up a middle-aged divorcee, my figure destroyed by the three kids I didn’t even want.
I tried to get excited about flirting. I cut my hair flapper-short, dug out the red lipstick, and bought a new Victoria’s Secret push-up bra.
But, despite my best efforts, I was teenage-girl-heartbroken, crying into my down comforter at night–and in the middle of the day. As if my private misery wasn’t enough, I braced myself for the reactions on Facebook when I updated my relationship status. I dreaded from the pit of my ice-cream-and-booze-filled stomach the torrent of “OMG what happened?” and “:(“ from people I barely knew, and even worse, the congratulations from people who never liked my ex.
The simple solution: Change my status to “Married” to my best friend, Haley. It provided us both with an excuse to keep our romantic relationships off of Facebook and let me change my status without actually announcing the breakup.
Haley and I were pleased with ourselves for keeping our privacy while still being engaged Facebookers. Plus we really are life partners, so why not tell the world?
We’ve been talking about running away and getting married in Vermont since we were fifteen and sixteen and consider it a cosmic prank that we aren’t lesbians. Unfortunately, just like you can’t “pray away the gay,” you can’t pray for it, either.
We refer to each other as “my wife,” and my coworker was surprised, after we’d worked together for more than a year, that Haley and I are not actually a couple.
A way to avoid broadcasting a breakup to everyone I know had turned into a testament to our heterosexual life-mate status. But I was soon reminded of its original purpose.
The ex and I did a terrible job of breaking up. We kept meeting “to talk,” which turned into goodbye sex followed by attempts at reconciliation. We inevitably fought soon after, which led to makeup sex. After we made up we would try again. It was a vicious cycle of self-delusion.
One night after hours of conversation that dripped with naïve adolescent sap, we decided that love conquers all. Again. We were lying in bed when he leapt up and turned on my computer.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.
He had logged on to Facebook and was updating his relationship status.
I quickly explained my Facebook marriage with Haley, that she would get pissed if I changed my status, and that we had agreed to leave it that way.
As I said it I realized how relieved I was to have the perfect out. I wasn’t ready for an official Facebook announcement that we were trying again, for eager eyes to see our relationship fall apart, again.
When I realized that Haley is the only person I’m comfortable telling the world I’m in love with, I had to admit to myself that the Band-Aid the ex and I had put on our relationship wasn’t going to hold. There’s no Facebook option for “exes in denial.”
We broke up again that day. And only a few more times before it finally stuck.
The virtual marriage came in handy again a few years later when I found myself in another relationship. I was happy, but after the disaster of my previous rush to labels and rings, had no desire to use the “b” and “g” words. I didn’t even tell my IRL friends about the relationship for the first year or so, let alone have any desire to announce it on Facebook. And when it ended, never having really been labeled, I didn’t have to announce that, either.
The fishbowl experience of Facebook and other online profiles seems in contradiction to this generation’s reputation for being noncommittal–to career paths, to jobs, to relationships. We live our lives out online, on full display, but we also want the freedom to change our minds every few days, to have ambiguous relationships and embrace what’s been labeled “hook-up culture.”
The simple, seemingly cutesy and trendy move of “marrying” your best friend on Facebook is a way around that contradiction–maintaining privacy without the suspicious omissions of the information-less profile.
Lilly O’Donnell writes and tends bar in New York City. She’s currently working on her first book, about her father and whether it’s possible to balance life and art.
Melissa Mendes is the author of the Xeric-award winning graphic novel Freddy Stories. Her current comic series Lou is being published by Oily Comics. She lives and works in western Massachusetts.
* * *
A Lollipop And Two Dozen Roses
By W.M. Akers
It seemed I was the only person on campus not getting laid hourly during my freshman year at NYU. The trouble was a steadfast commitment to a long distance girlfriend whom I loved too much to cheat on.
Long distance relationships are tricky because long distance sex is unfeasible, for now. So I dreamed up a Valentine’s Day surprise to return to her bed as soon as possible.
She expected me back in Nashville late February 14th, but I decided to cut class and go home a day early. I’d tell her to step outside her house, where I would be waiting for hugs and kisses. It would blow her goddamned mind.
But come February 13th my flight was delayed by an hour because of an impending blizzard. To kill time, I decided to watch the beginning of “Fitzcarraldo,” Werner Herzog’s maligned masterpiece about one man’s insane attempt to yank a boat over a mountain.
The delay mounted. By the time Herzog’s boat had made it to the other side my flight had been pushed back to 7:45. I gathered my things and left, taking with me a bouquet of two-dozen purple roses I got from a friend who had used them as a film prop.
I had planned on a quick cab ride to the airport, but once in the cab I encountered a phenomenon called “rush hour traffic.” By the time I reached JFK, I was a half-hour away from being New York’s dumbest dummy–the kid who missed his flight to watch “Fitzcarraldo.”
The hands on my watch moved as I waited for security, but the line didn’t. I pushed to the front. The security area was empty. I begged to be let through.
“My flight leaves in a half-hour,” I said, fumbling for my wallet.
“Kid,” growled the security guard. “You dropped your lollipop.”
“You dropped your lollipop.”
He glanced down. I glanced down. The hundred people whom I’d cut in line glanced down, and saw my Durex on the floor. I smiled a pathetic smile, and the guard let me through.
(The TSA is no longer so forgiving. Last month I watched a haggard grandmother, about to miss her flight, beg to be let to the front of the line. She was refused. Perhaps she should have dropped a condom on the floor.)
Carrying two-dozen purple roses on to a plane is easier than moving a boat up a mountain, but still requires concentration. They rode in my lap, and I spent most of the flight inspecting them for signs of wilt. They survived, and my stewardship earned approving looks from a pair of old women sitting across the aisle. Their knowing smiles seemed to say, “That boy is going home to get laid.”
I landed, turned on my phone, and found four voicemails from a girlfriend who did not understand why I had ignored her calls. By the time I arrived outside her house she was half-asleep and all-the-way angry. But I would have my surprise.
Shivering, I stuffed the roses in her mailbox, crouched in her bushes, and dialed.
“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” she said.
“Go outside,” I said. “There’s a surprise in your mailbox.”
“I’m in bed. I’ll get it tomorrow.”
“It won’t last until tomorrow.”
“What is it?”
“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.”
“Just tell me.”
“But it’ll ruin the surprise!”
“I don’t care about it, just tell me!”
This went on for a while. Finally, as young men do, I gave up.
“It’s two dozen purple roses,” I said, “and me!”
That got her downstairs.
The surprise was a bust. I didn’t get laid that weekend, and we broke up a few weeks later. But she was happy to see me, and boy was it worth it to see her face.
W.M. Akers is a Tennessee playwright who lives in New York City. He writes about theater at AstorPlaceRiot.net.
Chelsea Mose is an Australian-born artist and photographer with a passion for neurology, strange behavior and unforeseen circumstances.
* * *
By Moses Gates
I am not someone you’d call a heartbreaker. When I turned thirty-five a couple years ago, my love life had consisted mostly of a series of flings best categorized as “friendly.” Even my two serious relationships had started off platonic, and evolved in a manner that would never be the subject of a bodice-ripper. I was the guy you went out with when the guy you really cared about had broken your heart. The fun, easy-to-be-with one who made you feel good about yourself again. Not someone who commanded–or expected–a great deal of emotional investment. Breakups usually consisted of a hug and an offer to set me up with a friend who was “not really looking for anything too serious right now.” I was certainly not the type to make women cry–especially not on the first date.
As I grew older, though, I found myself looking for a more serious relationship. But I was not at all used to the first awkward steps down possible-marriage road. My actual “dating” skills were embarrassingly undeveloped. When I asked friends for advice they rolled their eyes at me.
“Oh, come on Moses” one of my female friends/ex-flings told me as part of a pep talk. “You’re smart, good-looking, and basically have it together. And for God’s sake, you’re a thirty-five-year old Jewish guy who wants to get married and have kids. This is New York. How much trouble do you think you’re going to have?”
As it turned out, a lot. A friendly fling is a lot different than a person to potentially start a family with. I went on dozens of first dates, ranging from the great to the excruciating. Sometimes, I felt myself progressing down the familiar path to what I knew would be a fun and friendly few months. But each time I thought about eventually shopping for baby clothes with the person, the answer was always “no way.”
But one date during February 2011 was different. I met Eliana at the opera, where we had balcony tickets for Tosca. She was a beautiful, kind-hearted veterinarian with sad eyes, but a happy and open personality.
We started the night with a quick glass of wine at a nearby diner. We laughed and flirted, and as we headed to the opera I felt a small bubble of excitement at the possibility that an actual mature relationship might develop.
After the second act, I spotted some open seats on the orchestra level. I knew ushers wouldn’t be looking at our tickets, so I jumped at the chance to do something unexpected. Years of being single had taught me how to make sure a night out ends up memorable and not mundane—one way is take your date on a fun little adventure.
Eliana was game at first, but grew worried as we went to make our move.
“I’m staying here,” she said.
She had been wavering back and forth, and I assumed that all she needed was a small but firm nudge.
“Come on, follow me,” I said.
She did not follow.
After Tosca leapt to her death to close the show, I waited by the entrance for her to come down. Almost the whole audience filtered out, but I still didn’t see her.
“Are you still upstairs?” I texted her.
“I’m going home,” was the reply.
“Oh my. Wait and talk to me for five minutes?” I wrote back.
I found her in the subway, eyes red and cheeks glistening. All my bravado melted away. I didn’t make the mistake of thinking it was about me–obviously I had triggered some insecurity or recent trauma. I still felt awful though–all I could think about was trying to comfort her. I apologized as best I could, and convinced her to get a drink at a nearby bar.
The night soon got back on the right track. We sat on a couch, held hands, had normal first date conversations. The good humor and possibility I had felt earlier in the night returned. There’s something about showing emotion, no matter which one, that serves to break down barriers and make two people feel closer than they actually are. Maybe my mistake earlier was all for the best. Plus, even though we’d found each other on the Internet, we now had a good “how’d you meet” story.
“You know I made your grandmother cry on our first date” I imagined a grizzled old me saying to our progeny on a porch swing set somewhere.
“I thought he was so handsome, but such a jerk” she’d add lovingly, while giving me a playful shove.
We left the bar and walked to the Lincoln Center subway stop.
“So what are you thinking?” She asked.
“Well, what are you thinking?” I replied, thinking I’d made it obvious that I liked her.
“No, you first,” she said. Fair enough, given what had happened earlier.
“Well I like you,” I said. “I’d like to see you again.”
She looked up at me.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I can tell you’re not going to be my boyfriend.”
Ouch. What a dirty trick. It was like holding a bowl of M&Ms, asking the six-year old next to you if they liked candy, and then responding “sugar will rot your teeth you know.” I was shocked. I couldn’t tell if she had just reached that conclusion, or had purposefully been a little bit cruel. I had had countless end-of-first-date conversations, some easy, many awkward, but none that involved a bait-and-switch. I struggled for composure as we took the 1 train downtown.
“I really thought we were getting along great.” I said. “Was I wrong?”
“Well I like you and everything. But when you left me in the balcony at the Opera-let’s just say I’ve been there before,” she replied, before getting off after three stops at 42nd street while I continued down to Brooklyn.
I was still flustered when I got home. I dropped everything from the “smooth operator” playbook and texted her. I wanted to show her that I was serious when I told her I liked her, that I was willing to be vulnerable also.
“Sorry, I am just not interested,” she replied.
Since then, I’ve gone on many more first dates, but I still carry regrets from that night. But just as her tears in the subway weren’t really about me, I know my regrets aren’t really about her. I’d had the fleeting relationships I’d had because I’d never been comfortable being “the guy you really cared about.” And at my first halting attempt at being different I’d reverted to type without even realizing it.
Moses Gates is an urban planner, licensed New York City tour guide and visiting assistant professor of demographics at the Pratt Institute. His memoir, Hidden Cities, is in bookstores March 21st. Follow him @MosesNYC
Almaz Wilson is a hopeless romantic and artist living in Brooklyn, New York.
* * *
An Immodest Proposal
By Daniel Krieger
I was teaching ESL at a community college in New York about five years ago when my prettiest student invited me to her house out of the blue to discuss what she referred to as “an urgent thing.” I asked Natalia, as I will call her, if we could perhaps talk in a more neutral environment, like our classroom or a café. But she insisted on complete privacy. I vaguely recalled something about my school’s ‘No Fraternization’ policy, but agreed to pay a visit to my twenty-two-year-old Russian-Greek student’s home.
On the N train to her place in Astoria, I wondered what Natalia could possibly need to talk about. Some arcane point of English grammar? Or was I getting lured into a trap that would have the makings of a noir thriller? With her jet black hair, bright blue eyes, svelte figure and short skirts, Natalia was just right for a femme fatale. I of course would excel as the hapless Joe who gets in over his head.
When I got there she asked me to sit on her sofa while she fixed something in the kitchen. She brought out orange juice and pizza. We ate and drank, made small talk. Then she cleared everything away, sat down next to me, and smiled.
“You ready for talk?” she asked.
“I’m all ears,” I said, wondering if she knew that odd idiom.
She told me how much she enjoyed my class and what a good teacher she thought I was. And then she said I was good-looking and wondered if, by any chance, I happened to be gay. I said I wasn’t. She asked if I was single. I said I was.
“So no one can be surprised if handsome, single, not-gay English teacher and his young student fall in love,” she said.
“Good! So here’s what,” she said, taking my hands in hers. “We can get married so I can get Green Card!”
I looked at her with a slightly furrowed brow. She went on:
“I can pay you $15,000 cash when we marry and $15,000 after two years when we can divorce. I have lawyer who will help with everything. We live together and my mother can come from Athens to live with us. So how do you think?”
“Well, um …”
“We don’t have romance,” she said. “It’s business. I get Green Card. You get money and to live no rent.”
I’d been bracing myself for a proposition of another kind. But all that cash wasn’t so easy to resist either, not to mention two years of relief from New York’s obscene rent. I told her I needed to think it over.
The next day, I talked it out with a few friends. One told me the going rate for a Green Card marriage had to be at least fifty grand. Another thought her means of income—she said “exotic dancing”—made the whole thing a bit dicey. A third pointed out the prospect of a failed INS interview as in the movie “Green Card.”
And all the while I kept thinking about the sticky intertwining of our lives that would be necessary to pull it off. Like how would I explain to a future girlfriend what an exotic dancer and her mom were doing watching “Baywatch” reruns in my living room?
There was no way to sugarcoat it for parental approval either. If something went wrong, I could be looking at up to five years in jail plus a quarter-million-dollar fine for committing marriage fraud.
A few days later I called Natalia and told her I appreciated the offer, but the risk outweighed the benefits.
“But nobody know truth!” she said. “We live together two years then divorce! This is good plan. What’s problem?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” I said.
She told me to take a little more time to think about it and called the next day. When I told her the same thing again, she let out a sigh and said I was “selfish.”
Her lawyer, she said, thought so too. Neither could understand how I could pass up the chance to make all that money while helping a girl and her mother get a shot at becoming American.
I told her I would gladly refer her to someone else. She let out a deeper sigh and said my teaching actually wasn’t so great, and I was probably gay after all.
The next day, she transferred out of my class, and that was the last I heard of Natalia.
Daniel Krieger, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a journalist based in New York.
Sara Lautman is an illustrator and comics artist from New Jersey. She has drawn for publications like Bitch Magazine, The L Magazine, The Hairpin, Heeb and The Morning News. Her blog is called MACROGROAN!
* * *
The French Connection
By Natalie Axton
When I was in my early twenties I fell in with a group of French Catholic expatriates. They were an agreeable bunch, carefree in the way people on short-term stays in New York can be. I met them through Bruno, an Asterix-loving, Nutella-slurping Frenchman who was living in my building. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but Bruno was exactly what I had been waiting for. Growing up in a place where most girls dream of owning ponies, I had asked my parents for a foreign exchange student instead. They declined. Bruno, generous and eager to experience New York, was the exchange student I had always wanted. I introduced him to my friends. In return, he introduced me to his.
Bruno was a Catholic and, I came to learn, part of a specific French subculture–landed, conservative, and (sometimes literally) entitled. Critics call them “bge-bge” which stands for “bon gouts, bon gens” and suggests these people believe that good taste implies good people. In New York these French formed a tight-knit circle. Their leader was a man named Laurent. He had attended the prestigious Sciences-Po in Paris, trained to become a priest, and then come to New York to work in finance. This was New York in the mid-1990s, a city revived in the world’s eyes to have become just safe enough to provide slightly dangerous fun. Laurent was the go-to guy if you were French, conservative, and found yourself needing ballast. He was a small man who lived in a very big loft in Soho. He had a lot of parties.
Bruno went regularly to the parties, and he took me. They were networking opportunities for the expats. For me, as one of only a few Americans invited, the parties were a cultural event. It was there I learned to “dance rock roll” to John Cougar Mellencamp songs and to cut each cheese in the proper way. I came to understand why the French are all keen on visiting the Times Square Baptist Church (it’s in all the French guidebooks) and why they stalk the squirrels in Central Park with zoom lens cameras (grey squirrels are uncommon in France).
Seeing New York through the prism of this subculture was entertaining. It was French, but it was square. No one was more fascinating than Laurent. I heard Laurent condemn body piercings, tattoos, and homosexual flamboyance as a “need for attention,” then proclaim that he loved living in The United States because it is such a religious country. Laurent spoke for the rest of the bunch, who believed in an ordered society if only they (and they alone) were allowed to break its rules. For example, I once went to the Met Museum with Bruno. It was crowded; the weather was rainy. When we got into the museum we saw the line for the coat check was long. Rather than stand in line to check it, Bruno stuck the golf umbrella he was carrying down his pant leg. “The French don’t wait in lines,” he explained, pole vaulting down the Egyptian gallery on his umbrella-leg. Of course the French wait in lines. But not when they don’t want to.
“Bonjour. C’est Luc. Comment ca va?”
“I’m fine, thank you. Who is this?”
“Luc. We met at the party. Laurent gave me your number.”
Luc wanted to take me out to dinner. I was flattered, even though I couldn’t remember who he was. We went out, had an unremarkable evening, and that was that. The next week Marc called, and the whole process was repeated. Then again the following week with Jean-Paul. Pretty soon every Thomas, Etienne, and Henri were calling me, and I started to wonder why.
Of course I was appalled Laurent had started giving out my number without my permission. But by that point I knew him well enough not to be surprised. What I was curious about was the volume. The explanation lay in French history. French law mandated universal military conscription until 2001. Although ‘universal’ applied only to men and not all men served equally. Because Bruno was well educated and had feigned asthma to a French military medical office, he was allowed to do his military service at Societé Generale, a French investment bank. That’s why he was living in the city. I hadn’t caught on–after all, we had spent most of our time at the parties dancing and sharing pictures of squirrels–but most of Laurent’s other expats were doing the same thing.
I’m not exactly sure what kind of woman I would have expected French Catholic men on shore leave from the financial markets would want to go out with. But I suppose I was it, because I quickly became an unofficial attaché to the Laurent-Soho diplomatic mission. Every week a new Frenchman would call me and say, “Allo. My name is [Hugo Jean-Pierre, Marc, Etienne, fill in the French blank]. Laurent gave me your number.” I occasionally recognized a voice I had met at a party, but most would be blind dates. In any case, I never turned any of them down. None of these calls led to any great romance, but they did keep me busy. There was Tristan who took me to a jazz club in Harlem. And Jean-Luc, who insisted we see Smokey Joe’s Café, a musical revue playing on Broadway. My favorite was Xavier, who lived in Philadelphia. He came in on the odd weekend and was always up for paintball.
Laurent chose to return to France a few years later. The parties stopped, and so did the calls.
And Bruno? Bruno married my best friend, a Canadian atheist who spoke fluent French when they met. They live in the French Alps and have two children.
Natalie Axton is a writer living in the lower Hudson Valley. She blogs at www.livingwithcriticism.com.
Nathan Place is an almost-professional cartoonist, writer and videographer, currently receiving training in two of those fields at the CUNY Grad School of Journalism. He lives in New York City.
* * *
A Kiss on the Cheek
By Daniel E. Slotnik
I was a little bleary-eyed and wasn’t paying too much attention to my conversation with Ron, a coworker, on a January morning years ago. Then he asked a question that made me focus.
“Dan, are you single?”
I waited a beat.
“Um … excuse me? Are you propositioning me?”
“OH! Oh, god, no!” Ron laughed. “I’m seeing a woman named Nan, from Thailand. She has a friend named Ae. She’s really nice, is in New York working as an au pair and is pretty lonely. Also, she’s a knockout. Would you have any interest in maybe taking her out?”
“Yes!” I said, pretty eagerly. The past year, after my last and then-longest relationship had ended, had been a bit lonely. What followed was the most awkward, and best, date of my life.
First, Ae and I exchanged photos. Ae was crouched next to an amiable yellow lab in hers, which I immediately took as a good sign. She had long, surprisingly curly brown-black hair, a one-thousand-megaton smile and eyes the color of dark-roast coffee beans. I had yet to speak to her, but I was smitten. I had a couple of my roommates help me take a phone picture that downplayed my starter widow’s peak and somewhat lumpy appearance and sent it to her. She didn’t seem horrified, so we made plans to talk on the phone that Thursday when I had a day off.
The conversation was agonizing. Ae had a very sweet voice and a lovely accent, but she also spoke somewhat haltingly and very softly. My hearing’s not great at the best of times and my room in our sketchy, converted Midtown loft abutted an alleyway where at least seventy-five industrial heaters moaned night and day.
As a result I said “WHAT?” a lot–never a great way to behave in an introductory conversation. But we chatted for over an hour, about dogs, her job in New York, what she thought of the city and Thai politics. (I had learned some basic details, like the name of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, for the occasion.) We made plans to meet at a cafe at Barnes and Noble on 82nd Street that Sunday, and I remember hanging up the phone and feeling more excited than I had in a long time.
Sunday finally arrived, and I dressed up: Fairly tight jeans; a lucky button-down, tucked in; and my brown boots. I was eager but nervous. I went to the Barnes and Noble in the early afternoon, but at first couldn’t find Ae. She had said we could meet in the cafe, but I didn’t see anyone who resembled her picture there. I called her, and we spoke to each other while searching down the aisles of books. I spotted her by the magazine racks and thought “Please, let that be her.”
“So…what do you feel like doing? Do you want some coffee?” I asked, after a protracted handshake.
“I don’t really like coffee. Want to walk around a bit?”
“OK,” I said happily. (I confess, I thought, “Then why did we meet at a cafe?” But she could have said, “I want to ice skate naked through Central Park,” and I would have picked up some skates.)
And so we wandered. For hours. We punctuated the day by stopping for Japanese food at Kitaro, during which I asked her what kind of music she liked (ska, which I don’t love but started rattling off bands like I’d been skanking for years). We took in a very bad horror movie, during which she held my hand (I thrilled like a thirteen-year-old and she asked why my palm was so sweaty at one point. But mostly I kept up a near-constant, anxious commentary on whatever topic came to mind.
Ae was very calm throughout the whole thing and took my chattering with aplomb, though I suspect that she understood only a fraction of what I said because I spoke so fast. But we spent the whole day together, and we’d held hands during a scary movie. I thought things looked good for me.
We’d been together nearly all day, the sun had set and it was cold. Ae asked me to walk her home, to 72nd and West End. I didn’t want the date to end yet, but what could I do?
I left her by the awning of her host parents’ building and, steeling myself, leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. She released a high-pitched, strangled shriek, and ran through the door.
I was utterly shocked—I thought she’d liked me! I did the cheesy “call me” hand signal through the door as she hustled to her elevator.
It turns out that Ae was still in the process of breaking up with a boyfriend in Thailand at the time. She thought I was meeting her as a platonic friend to spend time with in the city. On top of that, as I have learned later, many Thai people, Ae included, prefer to move very slowly in romantic relationships. The boyfriend had taken almost a year to kiss her.
Luckily, I was ignorant of these things at the time, and went home confused but extremely hopeful. Ae and I did have another date (she asked if I could find six friends to meet her six friends at a club—it was an interesting night), and many more after that. We have been happily married, and still often confused, since 2010.
Daniel E. Slotnik is a contributing editor for Narratively. He has worked at The New York Times since 2005, has written for several Times sections and blogs and is a frequent contributor to the obituaries department. Follow him on Twitter @dslotnik.
Andra Emilia Fenton is a Brooklyn-based writer and illustrator. She is currently working on her second children’s book.
* * *