Early in the week I stop on my way home for something to eat after working late. About halfway through my meal a couple sits at a table nearby. They seem mismatched, both in size and style. I check myself for making this judgement; after all I’d like to think I’m deep enough to remember that human connections have nothing to do with size or style; that they’re made up of much more interesting and mysterious things than that.
Still, humour me. He looks younger than her, at least by way of style. He looks to be the kind of guy who shops at the mall for clothing and assorted electronica and other boy bling with his buddies. That kind of guy didn’t exist when I was his age, in my little world anyway. Boy bling was only popular among the white polyester pants and open shirt set of my parents’ generation; and electronic toys came in really large boxes with really large woofers and tweeters that took up whole corners of living rooms or was installed in the doors and rear windows of the shaggy-haired owners’ beat up Monte Carlos.
This guy has perfectly trimmed hair and a nice shirt and expensive looking jacket and has just set his expensive phone on the table after checking for messages. The gal is not the kind you’d imagine our guy and his buddies cruising at the mall. She doesn’t look like she goes to malls much. Her hair isn’t modern; neither are her clothes. She doesn’t set a phone on the table upon sitting down.
But it’s not the appearance of the two that gets my attention, it’s the expression on his face: a bland smile, which is not a smile; the kind of face you wear on a first date when you’re trying to hide your disappointment, trying to pretend you’re up for a good time when really you’re counting the minutes to the moment when you can call an end to the evening and chalk it up to experience. His eyes match the insipidness of that not-a-smile, trying to look at her as if she were somehow interesting but seeing through her instead.
I can’t see her face but I expect it is either (1) wearing the same bland mask of resignation, or (2) wearing a face of an eager, insecure not-a-smile, not quite covering a furious search for something clever to say.
She takes a long time to order a drink and the guy and his bland not-a-smile are patient as the gal discusses options with the server. I'm taken back to a time when I was about 15, sitting in the corner of a car with a bunch of kids having skipped school on a gorgeous June afternoon. We stopped at a drive-through window and I ordered a large pop because I was thirsty but was mortified to discover just how large the large pop was, and I spent the rest of the glorious June afternoon feeling miserable and embarrassed about having ordered a bucket of pop (no doubt puny by today’s standards) and thinking I must look so ridiculous. Of course the only thing that made me look ridiculous was the embarrassment over a stupid cup of pop which nobody noticed. That moment of insecurity ruined the experience of the afternoon which should have been fun, with boys and skipping school and early summer and all.
My mortification over that pop is probably the only thing that keeps that memory alive in me. And what gives me compassion for that girl who seems to be trying hard to order the right drink. After she finally makes her decision, he orders a craft beer in a fancy bottle without hesitation.
I can’t bear to watch as she considers the food menu and turn back to my book, ironically, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life, a memoir by Kristen McGuiness who embarked on 51 dates in 50 weeks. Looking up now and then I see the couple’s conversation slipping in and out of the air between them. When it’s not sliding off to the floor in a heap, the talking is quiet, serious, polite. He nods kindly at something she says and then it slithers away again. Between bites she watches the filler content running on the hockey channel right above their table. He looks around for something to be interested in.
No doubt I’m in tune with the couple because of this book I’m reading which is all about a whole bunch of first dates. I’d heard the author interviewed on the radio a year or two ago, and quite possibly it was she who inspired me to embark on my own Year of Dating Fearlessly. Certainly I’ve had my share of bad first dates, more of them than good ones and like McGuinness I was searching for some kind of flaw in me that was hindering the success rate.
In the end, my year of dating was more successful than hers – on one level. What we both got was a little more self-understanding. For me, it was a reaffirming of my awareness in knowing what I want and what I don’t want and being secure with that. I’d venture to say that wouldn’t be far off from what I knew back when I was 15. At least when I wasn’t agonizing about what boys were thinking about my drink choices.
As I ask for my bill, things seem to be warming up, the conversation more animated and relaxed. Maybe it’s the drinks loosening them up a little. I’m hopeful for them.
But then as I walk past them to leave, she’s watching the hockey channel with a bland not-a-smile and he’s talking on his cell phone; and my hope for them slides to the floor along with their failed conversation.