I’ve been in withdrawal lately. Project Runway withdrawal. There’s just nothing quite as gay on television now that this year’s fashion queen has been crowned. I know, there’s still American Idol, but that banter between Ryan and Simon just isn’t enough.
It doesn’t help much that my own dating life has been a bit tepid lately. So there’s no love in either reality at the moment—reality TV or reality life. That perfect storm has made me nostalgic for the good old days, when reality shows were new and love was more often the premise.
My obsession a few years ago was Joe Millionaire, the guilty pleasure about a poor bloke—young, dumb, and … well, you can imagine the rest—who pretends to be a millionaire in order to test the greed of the American female. Think of it as Donald Trump in a Skinner box, picking out the next trophy.
On the night of the first season’s climactic episode, my friend James had a sex date. As the burly bulldozer was choosing his lady love and telling her that his bank account was drier than David Letterman’s humor, James was planning to be the meat in a sex sandwich.
Sex dates per se are not exactly standard operating procedure for James. Don’t get me wrong: rare is the date that doesn’t end with sex, but a sex date is a totally different breed. A sex date is structured solely around the act—no dinner, no movie, no sly seduction necessary. When you make a sex date, both partners know exactly what they’re there for. In fact, the cardinal rule of sex dates is not to make them with people you’re seriously interested in dating. Even people who are relatively new to sex dates know that.
A sex date requires only two things: a willing partner (aka fuck buddy) and fortuitous scheduling. The tricky part is the scheduling. Since the essential principle of a fuck buddy relationship is freedom from expectation, spontaneity is the name of the game. Unlike a boyfriend, a fuck buddy doesn’t whine when you have to work late—or, more to the point, when something better comes along. Hence, the second rule of sex dates: they are always trumped by real dates, and fuck buddies never get jealous. Fuck buddies know their place.
Rob and James had been fuck buddies for a year or so, though they didn’t get together very often—basically when the spirit moved him, Rob would call and fit James in on his way to the gym or on his way home from work; an hour or so of their standard routine, and he would be off again—as simple as meeting other friends for coffee. Their great fantasy—the one thing they always talked about doing, but had never gotten around to—was a threeway. That was the only thing worth making an actual date for. Actually, it was pretty much essential to make a date for that: relying on spontaneity is hard enough with two people; juggling three busy schedules was next to impossible. So finally, thanks to gaydar.com, they had located a suitable candidate—in point of fact, someone James had already tested out and approved, and someone Rob had been eager to meet for a while. So they made the date—and, as lust would have it, the only time all three of them were free was the night when Evan Marriott was set to choose between Slutty Sarah and Sweetie-Pie Zora.
James had the VCR primed to go as soon as they arrived. By his calculation, he would miss only the last half hour of the show; he could easily catch up after the others had left and still be in bed by midnight. And then Rob called. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said, his voice wavering uneasily between despondent and frantic. “Remember that flight to London I’m booked on Wednesday? Well, it turns out it’s actually tomorrow.” He was knee-deep in work and still hadn’t packed. The flight left in twelve hours. “I don’t think I can make it tonight.”
James and I had a cardinal rule of our own: never call during Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, or the Tony Awards. Silly me; I had forgotten to add Joe Millionaire to the list. But when I heard his voice on the machine, I knew it meant trouble.
James told me all about it as I half-listened, one ear still turned to the TV, where the pre-show was in full swing—a flashback to Mercenary Melissa sidling up against Evan, eyeing his crotch with the subtlety of Dame Edna stroking a gladiola.
Impatient, I told him not to worry about it. The third guy, Fred, was still coming over; the night wouldn’t be a total loss. But James is a sincere guy. He couldn’t stand the idea that Fred would think he had made up the whole Rob thing just to see him again. “So call him,” I said—a bit too abruptly, I thought, but the next segment was about Heidi; I was practically hyperventilating.
When the phone rang again, an hour or so later, I almost didn’t pick up. The moment of truth was about to arrive: Evan was sitting down next to Zora in the grand salon. I flipped on the VCR but kept watching the screen.
As I’d suggested, James had called Fred, the other slice of bread in the fantasy sandwich, and left him a message: “Rob can’t make it tonight, but I’d still love to see you. Just didn’t want you to show up and be disappointed.” Sometimes James is just too considerate.
Fred had only just called back. “I’m wondering if we can have a rain check,” he said. “Not that I wouldn’t love to just play with you. But I was out until six this morning; I really could use the sleep.”
As I listened to the real soap opera, Evan was babbling on, recounting the ups and downs of his dates with Zora while she strained against the nervous smile pasted on her face: ever the realist, she was prepared for the worst.
“Out until six?!” I repeated as Evan drew in a breath. “Doing what?”
James had no idea. All he knew for sure was that, for the second time in a single evening, he had confronted the Flake Factor—the occupational hazard of fuck buddies. Spontaneity is a beautiful thing, but reliability is not a characteristic of the breed.
“Are you watching this?” I asked suddenly. Something was about to happen. Something important and inevitable.
James fell silent, and through the receiver I could hear Evan on James’s TV across town. Stereo Neanderthals.
And suddenly, Zora began to smile broadly. She had been chosen: she was the one. Now all she had to get used to was the fact that Prince Charming was really Oliver Twist.
Still connected by the phone wire, we watched the rest of the show in silence, riveted. Only during the commercials did we share our reactions: gloating when the last of the evil stepsisters got her comeuppance; horrified when she revealed (assuming—inexplicably—that for the first time in a month she was not being videotaped) that it wasn’t only Evan’s lips she had been sucking on in the woods behind the chateau; crossing our fingers as Evan sweated out Zora’s delayed arrival in the ballroom and her weighty decision.
In the end, despite my distaste for Evan’s more primitive moments, I gave in to the sublime manipulation of the show. There was a tear in my eye when the newly crowned (and suddenly wealthy) couple danced passionlessly under the twinkling lights. I gave in to the fairy tale, wanting it to be true—wanting to believe that the TV-made Cinderella had found her prince.
And maybe she had. Maybe not. Probably not. The important thing was that she wanted to believe she had, and so did I. So did both of us. If Zora could find her prince, then James and I could, too. But we weren’t going to do it with sex dates. Evan had proven the adage: don’t buy the cow when you can get the milk for nothing. Slutty Sarah had offered the milk. Zora had withheld, and she ended up with the prize (give or take $49 million).
And all at once, in the middle of that sappy, manipulative moment, I realized the point: there had been enough Sarahs in our lives, enough people who saw us as meal tickets or an evening’s diversion on the way home from the gym. What we needed, I told James, was a male Zora—the boy next door who cares for the elderly and wears tanktops in the hot tub. . . . Well, I could do without the tanktops, but you see where I’m going with this. In the end, Zora admitted that the money had been the one turn-off with Evan; she was more interested in the real thing, the guy on the bulldozer rather than the one with the private jet. She wasn’t after his money and she wasn’t after his body. Throughout the show, Zora had been the one who was hard to read: she didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve; she made Evan earn intimacy, earn the right to know who she was. She knew that that process takes time and effort.
In the end, Zora got her man. But she left her mark on me.