After a month or so adjusting to New York life and recovering from hurricane induced post-traumatic stress I decided it was high time I got myself some dates. I updated my location on a couple of online dating sites to “New York”, which resulted in a flurry of messages. Well, if you count three as a flurry.
To begin with I exchanged a few messages with a couple of girls on a dating website called “Ivy Date”. This site was aimed at ivy leaguers and Oxbridge students/alumni. I know, it sounds terrible already, but I figured as I was eligible I should take advantage of it. Of course I never paid them any money, so I was limited to replying to the messages sent to me, or just sending creepy looking smiley faces to girls I liked.
I found myself in two conversations on this site. One was with a teacher in the upper west side and one was with a medical student out in Long Island. The conversation with the teacher seemed to go well, and we started arranging to meet up, until suddenly her profile disappeared and all record of our conversations vanished. This was odd, as she definitely didn’t seem like a robot, or a figment of my imagination, but whatever reality she existed in it was now separate from my own.
Unperturbed by vanishing date number one, I setup a date with the medic from Long Island. We arranged to meet one Sunday afternoon for coffee. The location was set as the Ost cafe in the East Village.
This being my first New York date I was a little nervous, especially since this was probably my first coffee date ever and I wasn’t sure of my ability to make conversation without the help of alcohol as a social lubricant. I avoided eating lunch to reduce the risk of any sudden nausea attacks. I dressed myself in my coolest looking jeans and least creased collared shirt, and opted for the slightly tatty and less insulated black coat over my giant red skiing jacket. Before leaving my apartment I made my bed look vaguely presentable, just in case this date was so wildly attracted to me that after consuming a single cup of coffee she wanted to bundle me into the nearest cab and race full tilt back to my apartment so as to make sweet and aggressive love on the nearest soft furnishing. Of course, a messy bed could completely derail this fantasy, so to plan for this optimistic eventuality the bed was duly adjusted. I then left my apartment, locked the door behind me, and marched off down first avenue to meet my fate.
I was about 10 minutes early for my fate. Fortunately, Ost coffee had clearly anticipated chicken-shit Englishman who don’t know what to do when arriving early for a date, and had helpfully provided a bench outside on which to sit. At this stage of my dating career I was unsure of the etiquette for waiting on a date to arrive. Waiting outside has several advantages. Firstly, you don’t have to look like a weirdo sitting alone in a bar or coffee shop (I had yet to appreciate that this is normal New York behaviour). Secondly, you don’t have to deal with “service professionals” solo and can wait to rely on the social expertise of whoever you are with to navigate you through the diplomatic minefield of ordering a beverage. Thirdly, if you or your date decides the place you chose off the Internet is actually terrible, you can go find somewhere less terrible, and you are not trapped by an already purchased drink investment.
Unfortunately, outweighing all of these advantages is the significant disadvantage that waiting outside on the sidewalk makes you look like a loser. Especially if you don’t even have a smartphone to fiddle with and are forced to stand there staring into space, or freaking out passers-by who you stare at when mistaking them for your date.
My assessment is that cool people wait for dates inside an establishment, perhaps having already purchased their beverage. Then if they are sufficiently confident in the execution of the sitting and drinking, the bar or coffee shop becomes “their” territory, giving them the upper hand in the game of dating and seduction.
At this stage of my dating career, however, I was not one of those cool “waiting inside” people, so I sat on my bench and pretended I was doing things with my shitty flip phone. The autumn sun was nice though, and kept me warm despite the chilly November air.
Fortunately, not long after our scheduled meeting time, a girl appeared who looked suspiciously like the person I had been talking to on the internet.
“Jenna?” I asked
“Yes, you must be Timmy!”
“Yes, nice to meet you!”
At this stage of a date some kind of physical greeting is often customary, but different people have different expectations, which can quickly lead to awkwardness. At first it seemed to me to be a little bit strange to hug or kiss a stranger who you are just meeting in the flesh for the very first time, and while I am fine with physical contact, it’s not something I really grew up with a lot of.
I was uncertain what to do when this kind-of-short-and-kind-of-cute-girl came to a halt in front of me as I stood up to meet her. For the briefest moment we stood there face to face, the autumn sun illuminating a friendly smile on her face. Should I go for a friendly hug? Or European style cheek kiss? Perhaps a handshake? Ok, clearly a handshake would be weird. I glossed over my indecision with action.
“Shall we go in?” I said, turning towards the entrance behind me.
She had a cheerful American voice, although “American” perhaps doesn't narrow it down much. Her family was from Long Island but she lacked some of the harshness you might associate with a Long Island accent.
I ordered a black tea and she got some sort of complicated sounding coffee (almost all coffee’s sound complicated to me). She started to fumble for her purse.
“I’ve got this, don’t worry,” I said.
“Oh are you sure?”
“Yeah, no worries!”
I can’t remember if I put a buck in the tip jar, I’d like to think I did, but it’s possible it didn't even cross my unconditioned English mind to tip someone who just dispensed a hot beverage, handed it to me across a counter, and half smiled. If I forgot to tip though, Jenna didn't seem to notice.
We found seats on the high stools at the thin table running along the window, with a good view of the street and various East Village passers-by. There was another guy further along the table who was wearing large ear-enshrouding headphones and diligently inspecting Facebook, oblivious to the first date nervousness unfolding to his right.
And then we chatted.
We talked about many things; why she wanted to be a doctor, what my research was about, how annoying Hurricane Sandy was, how Long Island had lots of nice green estates you can cycle around and was great for escaping the city, how she went to Yale and moved back with her mum as the cheapest living option, etc etc. I was pleasantly amazed at my own ability to make sustained conversation while sober with a nice girl who I’d only just met.
Back in Oxford it had seemed like alcoholic intoxication was some kind of prerequisite for finding romance. By and large, the English seem to have this complicated relationship with their emotions. We try our best not to show any sign of having them at all for 90% of the time, and then for the other 10% we get as drunk as possible and try and express alllll the emotions in one garbled mass of drunken debauchery. Then the next day we pretend that we can’t remember any of it… and that we have no idea where all those road signs in the kitchen came from… or why there is a dead traffic warden in the bathtub.
You see, the English have figured out that, at least in England, alcohol can be used as an excuse that will get people to forgive otherwise unforgivable behaviour. Many Brits seem to buy into the dubious assumption that person X can be transmutated into a fundamentally different person Y by the addition of booze. Clear evidence may then be obtained that (person X + booze) = (a massive dick), but yet person X and their supporters get to legitimately claim that all their asshattery is solely the product of the booze variable in the equation. I’m very unconvinced by this line of reasoning. I have no doubt alcohol relaxes ones impulse control but those impulses still have to come from some twisted recess of person X’s actual brain in the first place.
Losing a little bit of impulse control is definitely an advantage when trying to ‘get it on’ with a girl. Without alcohol, the ‘English’ as a genetic entity probably would have gone extinct centuries ago, and Oxford students would have nothing to do except study and have obscure academic arguments with each other. (Although I’m sure if given enough time they’d develop plenty of other destructive habits to deal with the ever-present fear of failure). Oxford is also predominantly a collection of nerds of one form or another, and as nerds have the tendency to overthink things and lack random social skills, this makes them especially reliant on liquor for expressing feelings of attraction. I was no exception as a student, and for a long time even trying to kiss a girl that I fancied seemed like the ultimate emotional gamble; completely unthinkable unless blotto.
However despite the lack of social lubricant on my date with Jenna we managed to navigate around any awkward silences and I don’t think I made too many weird or disturbing comments... at least not that I was aware of. Although I soon realised that my earlier bed cover adjustments were definitely over optimistic for a coffee date.
I did veer into slightly dangerous conversation territory at one point. While talking about her Jewish background and I asked, “What’s your take on Israel?”... I don’t normally make date questions sound like part of a lie detector test run by Mossad, but at that time Israel and Gaza were engaged in one of their little contretemps, and I thought it was legitimate current event worthy of discussion. Admittedly “What’s your take on Israel?” was a poorly framed question, to which she gave a suitably diplomatic answer. However there was a definite cooling of the tone.
Having steered the conversation away from politics we chatted for a while longer, hot drinks long exhausted. My fancy nylon tea bag lay stranded at the bottom of my cup, its herbaceous contents drained of their tasty alkaloids, and, after a little while, I began to feel awkward that we were taking up much sought after sitting space in this busy coffee shop.
“When are you meeting your friend?” I asked. This seemed to precipitate the end of the date.
“Yeah, soon. I should get going actually!”
We got our coats and I walked her to the L subway stop. We exchanged a quick hug and I said something like, “Let’s do this again sometime!”
“Sure!” she replied, “Bye for now!”
“Bye, have fun with your friend!” I called after her as she sunk down the subway stairs. The green metal work of the subway entrance severed our connection as I continued to walk along the pavement.
Those brief snatches of movement I caught between the subway railings were the last glimpses I ever saw of her. I messaged her on Ivy Date later that evening.
“Hey, it was great chatting today! Did you have a good afternoon? I got my paper written so I'm going to relax and sort through some photos! Hope psych goes well, and let me know when you're next in town :-)”
A day or so later she replied: “It was great meeting you! The first day of psych was rather hectic- I’m hoping for the best though. I’ll let you know when I make my way back into the city and hope you have a good week!”
While it’s possible she has not returned to Manhattan for over a year, I think it’s more likely that this was just one of those dates where both parties “like” each other but don’t really pick up on the spark that makes them start to “LIKE” each other.
 Yes I needed better clothes, but my pay cheque was delayed by hurricane Sandy… and I hate shopping.
 I think the only time someone looked cool with that model of phone is when Walter White broke one in half in Breaking Bad…
 My dad still gets confused every time I try to hug him (we normally end up in some kind of weird half hug, half handshake situation instead).
 I’ll save you an overwrought discussion on the etiquette of paying for things on dates for now… but yeah, I bought her coffee. Go me.
 I’m not usually someone who acts like a dick when drunk... A tit maybe; I get louder (and arguably funnier) for a while, then as I get really drunk I get quiet and even more introspective than usual, which is when I know it’s time to go and sleep before I fall over.