This is my Modern Love (if you’re familiar with that popular New York Times column) entry, which didn’t get in, but I wanted to share it here. It’s about an awkward date I had a year and a half ago. It’s true aside from the name changes for the sake of privacy.
Knee-to-knee with Jennifer in the smoke-soaked Southgate House Revival, I wondered if she was aware of the dead skin on my dry lips.
My nervous tick of licking-lip wasn’t copacetic with knee-to-knee, much less face-to-face talk with the girl I’d been chatting up for months, but had yet to meet in person.
If we kiss at midnight, she’s going to realize, for sure, I kept thinking, willing myself not to lick those blistered lips yet again.
Southgate was a bar and music venue converted from an old cathedral just across the Ohio River in Kentucky. Jesus still adorned the panes inside and I like to think said, “Atta boy,” when I offered to cover our first round of drinks.
The dark atmosphere and the off-key acoustics of the live band helped bridge the nerves between two shy, self-described introverts. We both would have been more comfortable absorbing ourselves in a book (Kathy Reichs for her, Lee Child for me) or the fourth installment of Lethal Weapon – where our head space was ours alone and the dancing ellipses offered the protection of distance and time.
Vulnerability is often mistaken for gullibility or a sure sign of weakness. I felt vulnerable that night as I sat in my car, early of course, waiting for her to arrive. I guzzled Wintergreen Tic Tacs. One after the other, as if they contained the elixir of courage I needed. Instead, they made my stomach even queasier.
I slapped myself in the face to arouse my courage. I steeled my jaw. Not much doing; my hands and feet had gone corpse cold.
Once inside the Southgate, we stood in timid shoulder-to-shoulder contact, making mouth-to-ear small talk over the vibrations from the geriatric band playing. The drummer had just removed his suit jacket and was torturing the drum set.
I sipped my beer, certain the long gulps could lead to choking. When nervous, my throat has a tendency to tighten. If I felt the gulp wasn’t going to go down, I’d clench my toes, excrete sweat from the middle of my back and do a subtle cough.
Soon, Jennifer’s friend and a date she’d met online — he’d driven down from Columbus, quite the commitment I thought for an online hookup — arrived. I’ll call them the Slobberers.
I compared myself to him, of course. Hair style, height, wardrobe, teeth, handshake, voice, smell, and most importantly, ease with date. With the new dynamic, I wondered if we were supposed to make some sort of bro-to-bro small talk. We didn’t. Just that exchange of manly handshakes and names.
Both of their names I forgot immediately, as I tend to do, awash in the anxiety of near-term quandaries; such as, what was I supposed to do while Jennifer engaged her friend? More nervous beer-sipping, I guess. Pretending I was enjoying the band. Posing as a guy just out on the town with his gal.
Pretending. Putting on a face. That didn’t seem necessary with Jennifer over the months we’d talked through texts, trading interest and likes, matching up like a fluid, tangible Okcupid algorithm. In person, the ruse was up. Forget the texts, the Facebook likes, and the Instagramming; it was all for naught if we couldn’t connect in person.
I wanted to live up. I wanted to match the “more me” me enshrined in the virtual world of ‘0s and 1’s. Unfortunately, the real me was inside a body and mind in constant fear of failure.
This is how I understood dating went nowadays. A movie and a date were old school. We’d already had a movie date 15 miles apart, from the comfort of our respective bedrooms, texting back and forth as we watched Ripley assert herself in Alien. Then in Aliens. Then the following nights, Lethal Weapon 1, 2, and 3. Ghostbusters, as well. There was an attempt at Alien 3, but we both fell asleep.
Now we were knee-to-knee and, potentially, lip-to-lip, on New Year’s Eve. A double date meant two other people to factor into my Social Anxiety Equation where 2+2 = freak-out. That it was happening on a night that included the tradition of a midnight kiss was like introducing a triangle to the equation. I couldn’t contort it or make sense of it.
Do you kiss on the first date? Depending on the person I asked, it was, no. Or yes. Or sometimes. Not helpful.
Jennifer and I, along with the Slobberers, moved away from the geriatric side of Southgate to the smoke-filled side where a three-person band was even worse.
Smashed into a bench set against the back wall near the bathrooms, we talked movies. It seemed to be our niche, our safe cover. “Did you see this movie?” or “Do you like this actor?” were our go-to questions, an easy launching pad to an intense movie discussion.
Meanwhile, the Slobberers, apparently not prone to my deliberations over whether to kiss on the first date, were tongue-tangling next to us on the bench. And, incidentally, drunk, in that obvious slurred speech/sloppy-limbed kind of way. The pressure to ascertain whether to kiss Jennifer or not was mounting. We were both still nursing our first beers. I was not loose enough for care-free slobbering and didn’t think I could get there by the time the balloons dropped at midnight. Yes, the monsters at Southgate had filled the ceiling of the dance floor with balloons to drop at midnight.
Thank you, Jesus.
When Jennifer wasn’t looking, I tried to nibble away some of the dry skin on my lips. Just in case. The smoke and the music and the pressure of our proximity was getting to me.
The Slobbers talked of going to another bar after midnight, to which Jennifer and I exchanged brief introverted eye contact that meant, “Hell no.”
Then the countdown to midnight. Jennifer recounted to me a list at that moment of movies she couldn’t believe I had yet to see.
At midnight, when the countdown ended and other couples locked lips, we were still talking about movies. We were stuck on Matthew McConaughey who was stuck on a talk show on the bar television.
Nothing happened. I didn’t make a move. She didn’t make a move. The Slobbers mashed faces.
A minute or so later, the balloons came down, delayed by a malfunction. Southgate was filled with adults popping balloons with glee.
Not long after, we parted ways with the Slobberers and each other. We agreed that once we were home and had washed off the smoke, we’d watch Lethal Weapon 4.
In the fourth one, Mel Gibson, at the height of his Gibson-ing, has shed the familiar mullet. Even so, I was glad to see him and Glover. Their well-tread banter impeded on my Big Thoughts and worse, the Big Regrets of the night.
I didn’t need the chapstick anymore. Dallas, my dog, didn’t care about dry lips and sweaty hands and a tightened throat.
I don’t think vulnerability is gullibility. Vulnerability is the catalyst for courage. After all, courage is the willingness to stake your, “I’m present,” flag, even in the face of failure.
My phone buzzed. Jennifer was ready to watch. We had the movie paused on :01.
I pressed play on her say-so.