Dating is hard. To be successful at it, you have to smell like you shower regularly, and you have to wear more than just a night shirt. You can't just sit down and start talking about the thing you really want to talk about (cookies; or why haven’t books been any good since The Babysitters’ Club?). At dinner, you have to say things like, "What are you having?" When what you mean is, "I'm going to order a whole pizza and I'd really prefer if I didn't have to share any of it with you." But we still do it. We even take it pretty seriously, because at the end of a good date, someone might give you unspoken permission to rub your mouth on their mouth.
I have a list of nine ice-breaking questions that I have prepared for awkward silences during dates. At first they come off as grating and weird, and that’s because they are; but they do the trick — they always lead to long-winded answers and speculation, and eventually, if the person is polite, they will ask me the same question. I like that because I have GREAT answers for all these questions, as I have been asking them since I began dating. Here they are:
1. What was your best birthday?
2. If you met someone who had never seen a movie before and would never see a movie again, but on THIS day they can see just THREE movies for some reason, and you had to pick three movies that would make up their entire cinematic experience, what would they be?
3. Same as 2, but for songs.
4. Same as 2, but for books.
5. Same as 2, but for episodes of “House of Cards.”
6. What would your last meal be?
7. What are you afraid of the most?
8. What is something you feel like you should like, but you don’t?
9. What is something you feel like you shouldn’t like, but you do?
My rule about dates is that the nine questions are a last resort. If I feel like I have to ask more than three of them just to make conversation move smoothly, then the date is a failure and the person is not compatible with me. I understand that other people make conversation easily, and without a secret arsenal of questions appropriate for third graders. I am not one of those people. If you are thinking, Sophie, maybe YOU are the problem, I am telling you right now: You’re probably right.
This is all to say that on Saturday I was sad (apparently my default emotion), and I decided I needed to go on a proper date. So I did. With myself.
I know that “going on a date with oneself” is supposed to be reserved for Better Home and Garden subscribers going through midlife crises. In my defense, I’ve always felt like a 45-year-old woman is my spirit animal.
I decided not to take a shower. I decided to wear what I was already wearing. I decided to plan the whole thing myself, and to stay as long as I felt like staying, and to order whatever I wanted to order. And here is the weirdest, dumbest thing about all of this: I actually felt nervous that I wouldn’t like myself and that I’d have to pull out the nine questions.
It sounds like I’m making that up for effect, but I honestly worried. I worried that when left all alone to experience the outside world, without the hand-holding effect of watching “Scandal” (which is what I usually do with myself), I’d find out that I didn’t actually like myself very much. What if I came to realize that I was boring? Or that I needed to feel the pressure of obligations or other people to be able to enjoy myself?
We (I will now [annoyingly] refer to myself as “we,” since I was on a date after all, and dates are for “we”s) started at Crescent City Books, which is a book shop in the the French Quarter. Despite my love of book shops, its unfortunate location had kept me from ever going there. Most of the things in the French Quarter are foreign to me. You can’t go do French Quarter things if you live in New Orleans, because people will think you are a tourist. (A tourist is a terrible thing to be, even when you ARE one. You have to pretend like this is just your local nachos shop, where you come to get nachos every Wednesday, and not the nachos shop you looked up on Yelp an hour ago, and had to take four buses to get to because THE TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM HERE IS JUST SO WEIRD.) Crescent City Books was stupendous: cool and disorganized, with two stories of exclusively used books stacked up and mis-matched, and little plastic radios throughout the store droning with satisfyingly banal NPR correspondents discussing bitcoins. We sat on the top floor, stretched out on the ground, reading books of letters from supposedly famous people we’d never heard of.
Then we went to the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, because we saw it while walking down Chartres Street, caught up in the tipsy chatter of throngs of tourists. I said, “Haven’t you always wanted to go there?” And I said, “Yeah! I really have.” It smelled like a combination of a hospital and an antique store inside. The smell alone was worth the $5 admission fee.
I took myself out to dinner at Sukho Thai. That used to be my roommate Hannah's favorite restaurant, but now she’s trying to avoid rice, which is a big part of Thai cooking. I am never trying to avoid rice, and neither am I, so we decided we’d treat ourselves to drunken noodles and iced tea. Things had gone pretty well up to that point. I was starting to think that I might really like me. And then, when the meal came, we got into an argument.
“You’re eating awfully fast,” I said. “Slow down a little! Enjoy!”
“I am enjoying!” I said. “I just want to eat right now.”
“But you’re binging. You need to avoid binge eating. You’re right on the cusp of being fat. You haven’t worked out in a long time. You’re not being healthy.”
“Hey! It think YOU’RE not being healthy, telling me what’s wrong with me. THAT’S unhealthy. NOTHING is wrong with me.”
“Are you sure you’re not just eating to fill a void of self-loathing?”
“Like maybe you just want to eat because you secretly think that you don’t want to be alone right now? And you’re scared that you’re lonely? And you’re worried that you don’t know how to love anyone, let alone yourself?”
And I was right. I was scared of those things. I was scared of being with myself, because I knew it meant I was going to have to come face to face with these questions that had been lurking around the back of my brain concerning my fear of love.
We are all different versions of afraid of love. We learn to fear it. We translate “love” to “vulnerability,” and push it as far away as we can. At least I have been. For three years, that’s what I’ve been doing, any time I start to feel anything for another person.
Then I started to realize that maybe it wasn’t an argument I was having. Maybe I was just sad. Maybe I was just sad, and had been sad, and had been afraid of admitting I was sad.
“You’ve experienced a lot of loss,” I said. “It’s ok to be scared.”
I was grateful. It was rare for me to be so open with someone on a date. And even though the fear didn’t go away, there was something empowering about sitting with it. About saying, “OK. I’m afraid. And that’s fine.”
And then I spun the conversation back a little, and remembered something.
“HEY,” I said. “I AM NOT FAT. I can eat Thai food at WHATEVER SPEED I WANT, because it is FUCKING DINNER TIME."