I’ve been thinking a lot today about how much I love first dates.
First dates are an entirely separate, unique category of human interaction. They come with their own success criteria and are governed by their own set of rules, which are often contradictory and confusing – not to mention understood differently by different people. They act as a sort of gateway to what we might describe as conventional dating, but can also re-route us to a host of more (and less) interesting places, sometimes when we least expect it.
As a result, it is possible (preferable?) to assess first dates in isolation, rather than making any verdict on their outcome contingent on subsequent events; which is just as well, given how intrinsically rich they are in data and detail. They are fascinating, maddening, and occasionally just a little terrifying, but done right they constitute some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on…at least to begin with…
Anyway, perhaps counter-intuitively this sudden burst of affection was triggered by a message I received yesterday afternoon from someone cancelling the second date we’d scheduled for later this week. Let’s call her Lydia.
“I’ve been seeing someone fairly casually for a while,” she wrote, “and over the last few days we’ve decided to make it a bit more serious and exclusive. As a result, I think it’s best if we don’t meet up on Thursday – I’m quite sad about that, and I’m sorry to mess you around! I’m sure you’re not fussed, but I wanted to explain because I had such a nice time last week.”
As rejection goes, that definitely sits at the milder end of the spectrum. Lydia was honest, kind, and thoroughly decent about the whole thing – and frankly, having got to know her at least a little bit over the last couple of weeks, I’d have expected nothing less.
Still, I was pretty bummed. Like her, I’d enjoyed the previous date a lot. It had all the right elements: good food, good wine, excellent conversation, and a chemistry that simmered just below the surface all evening, before bursting up through it right at the end.
For the most part, I like to keep first dates pretty simple, especially if I don’t know the other person very well. Cinema and theatre are obvious no-nos, along with anything else that essentially makes conversation impossible. Likewise, I try to avoid arranging first dates where the activity is likely to be the main focus; anything too elaborate can obscure and confound the central purpose of the date, which is to get to know each other and establish whether there’s enough of a spark to make it worth meeting up for a second time.
On this occasion, we opted for an early dinner, and squeezed into a cosy Italian place in Hoxton, which I’d walked past over the weekend. I discovered quickly that Lydia was sharp, considered, lively and self-aware; generous with the details of her own life, and curious about those that made up mine. Drop-dead gorgeous too, for whatever that’s worth (ok, a lot – it’s worth a lot). Nothing about her felt forced or artificial; she seemed like a person comfortable and easy in her own skin, and relaxed enough to let a relative stranger see that.
We hadn’t planned anything beyond the restaurant, but eventually found ourselves snogging in the corner of a slightly grotty East London boozer. We were both a little flushed with alcohol, though far from drunk, and I held my breath when I kissed her for the first time, staying as still as possible out of sudden fear that the moment might dissolve around us. Later, as I walked her back to the station, there were more kisses: we snatched them from each other, hotter and a little frantic, our hands roaming more liberally than they had in the pub. Whenever we disengaged, bursts of slightly giddy, rambling chatter filled the space, serving mainly as a shared filibuster; each word took us a little closer to her train, and held at bay the prospect of full-on public debauchery. It felt intimate, but in an easy, almost conspiratorial way.
In other words Lydia was pretty much the perfect first date – and in my head, that will remain the case, regardless of the fact that there now won’t be a second. There will be no revisionism here, and certainly no regret; the date itself was excellent, and sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes that has to be enough…
That’s perhaps one of the biggest differences between the person I am now, and the one I was 10 years ago. For a long time, I found it really hard to relax and enjoy first dates properly; I was nervous beforehand, tentative and reserved while they were actually happening, and deeply self-critical in their immediate aftermath. The built-in failure rate appeared dauntingly high, especially given how infrequently they came along in my early 20s. What’s more they were capricious; for someone who likes to be in control of things, the unpredictable nature of those initial encounters was difficult to swallow.
Like anyone with bad early romantic experiences, I feared rejection, but more than that it was the fatalism I struggled to accept. I would chew over the date for days afterwards, second-guessing conversational choices and berating myself for my many social and physical failings – real and imagined. Rarely did I stop to consider whether or not I’d actually been attracted to the other person; low self-esteem typically relegated that to a secondary consideration, as I instead fixated on their obvious lack of interest in me.
Thankfully those days are long gone. I’m much happier at 34 than I was at 24, and that’s reflected in pretty much every aspect of my outlook on sex and relationships, first dates included. My glass is half-full, not half-empty; for all my cynical moments, I am at heart a positive person, and at this point in my life that extends to cover the way I see my own value too.
That shift in outlook has enabled a further, crucial change in the way I approach dating. In a nutshell, I’m no longer obsessively outcome-focused. Instead, it’s all about enjoying the process and the possibility. Each time I go out with someone new, I do so simply because I’m curious or excited to spend time with them; to soak up their company and conversation, and to offer mine in return. Anything on top of that is a bonus – a lesson I wish I’d taken to heart many years earlier.
A first date isn’t just the means to an end. It’s actually its own gorgeous little moment in time; something we can only ever do once with any given person, and which we should treasure and value accordingly. Sometimes, like last Monday, that moment will be awesome, but even when it’s not – even when it’s downright terrible – I rarely wake up the next day and regret investing the time and effort required to create it.*
I’m sure there will come a point where I slide naturally back into monogamy, or at the very least a less open form of polyamory, whether with an existing partner/partners, or with someone who hasn’t yet crossed my radar. When that happens, I guess I’ll miss the thrill of fucking other people, but if I had to put money on it now, I’d say it’s the pleasure and possibility contained in those warm, rich evenings with someone new that will feel like the biggest loss.
*I realise that a lot of this post is written from a position of privilege. For one thing, as a man I have the luxury of going on first dates without having to worry too much about assault, abuse or harassment, and I want to acknowledge that here. Not everyone can afford to be so carefree or positive about dating, and as a result, this is very much my perspective on it – it’s not intended to come across as any sort of manifesto for how others should feel.