Voices: I don’t miss being single – but I do miss first dates

·5-min read

If I wake up one day in hell, surrounded by columns of fire, my insides being applied to a cheese grater, I will not have any questions. I will know why I am there: I love dating.

If you long to be held close by a person who is the equal and opposite of your soul, dating is a wretched activity, a carousel of rejection spinning into nauseating infinity. But if you just want to get a drink on a Thursday and maybe peek inside a stranger’s medicine cabinet, you really can’t do better than dating.

Dating is an utterly novel experience. There is no other socially sanctioned opportunity to meet up with a new person, talk about ideas and feelings, and then leave, with zero obligation to one another. A first date with a person you meet online is isolated from every other strand and filament of your social network. It is suspended in time, and it exists only because two people decide it should. It is an absurd and hopeful thing to do.

For the right person, dating is the perfect hobby. Dating combines the best of hunting, fishing, puzzling, creative writing, community theatre and stamp collecting. For many years, dating has been among my greatest interests. I’ve had great advice from dates, visited new bars and restaurants, learned about different jobs and family dysfunctions. A first date is a front-row seat to another person’s redrafting of their own personal myth. It is my number one source for meeting new dogs. It is an exciting way to find out that you do not care for recreational axe throwing.

I am now in a relationship. We went on a first date, and a second, and a third, and then suddenly I wasn’t just peeking in his medicine cabinet, I was storing a multi-step skincare routine inside it. I don’t feel the urge to date anyone else – but I do miss the freedom of sitting down with strangers and letting a possibility unspool.

But before my relationship, I was single for most of my twenties. Reflecting on dating feels like being a babbling child waking up from a dream. Sometimes dates wanted to vent, to use the blank canvas of a stranger as a safe space for their questions about life. Sometimes I did the same – a man on a first date is not a therapist, but in desperate times I have tried. It’s unfailingly interesting to learn about people’s roommates, their childhoods, their favourite pasta places and hidden parks. I love that dates are finite, the parameters less gooey than most interactions. After a first or second date it is not just acceptable but practically inevitable for one person to say “let’s never see each other again”.

Shortly after I got my first Covid vaccine, I went on a dating spree. I went on three first dates in one week, all at the same bar. My first date had an intense stare and asked good questions. We talked animatedly for about 25 minutes, then he stopped me. “Something terrible has happened,” he announced. I was alarmed, but he refused to explain, shaking his head in disbelief, so we split the bill and left the bar, him looking pale and haunted. We walked a few blocks in silence. Finally, he turned to me. “Look,” he said. “I think you’re such an interesting person.” I was confused, but intrigued. Being dumped after 25 minutes was a first. Was this man going to claim that he had telepathically reconnected with an ex-girlfriend during our date?

“You talked too much and interrupted constantly,” he said. There was more. I had seemed anxious. I had misunderstood one of his jokes. He was very apologetic, but he wanted to be honest. These things bothered him.

It was instantly clear to me that most of what he said was true – I did talk too much. I interrupted. I certainly did not understand his jokes. I had been so excited to get back into dating, but it was at the expense of really listening to the other person. I asked if he wanted to come into my apartment and give me a rundown of how he thought the date had gone. This was not a seduction attempt. My date was very surprised but he came inside and we sat at a polite distance, chastely replaying and workshopping the date. There was no sexual tension. Just analysis.

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Two nights later I went on my second first date of the week, at that same bar. As my date spoke, I felt urgently that it would be a loss for me if he got up at the end of the evening and walked away into the rest of his life, as I had been so happy for other dates to do. I started frantically replaying the tips from my earlier date. What had the first man said? That I should listen, not interrupt, make time for the other person to talk. I took a breath. I silently thanked my last date. I tried to behave like a normal person.

Now we’ve dated for more than a year. I still went on the third date that week, though, with the third guy and at that same bar. Just one more for the road.

If dating is torture for you, there is very little use in hearing that someone else enjoys it. I don’t think that single people who want to be partnered are lucky or should enjoy their singleness. Rather, I think that people in relationships lack opportunities to find humanity in strangers. That’s a real loss, and one that isn’t acknowledged often enough.

The closest I have come to finding a replacement for dating is standing, waiting for public transportation. Like a first date, it starts awkwardly – furtive glances, long silences, stares into the distance. But then everyone starts to ask personal questions (“how long have you been waiting?”) and find commonalities (“the 45 is always late! It’s awful!”). You stand with another person. You keep each other company. You wait – faces flushed, hearts at full speed – for something to arrive.