Okay, I’ll admit it: when I call in sick, I usually end up watching Oprah. Sometimes the reminder that other people are worse off than me is the best medicine.
One day the big O was kneeling at the feet of Maya Angelou, who sagely said, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” It sounded good at first, but ultimately all I could think was: it must be a long time since this chick’s been on a date.
In my humble (and extensive) experience, first dates are like job interviews—except that the evaluation is happening on both sides of the table, and so are the lies. In the conference room, “I’m ready for a new challenge” really means “I hate my boss.” And across the table at Starbucks, “I’m looking for a serious relationship” translates to “I wonder what you look like naked.”
In Greg’s case, I started wondering long before the first date. I first spotted him at the Alliance Française—passing in the hall as he was on the way to his intro course and I to the advanced. We locked eyes for a second and my body shivered a bit as I took it all in—the square jaw, the thick dark hair, the shoulders that went from here to Burgundy. I momentarily regretted having studied French for the past 10 years, wishing instead that I could be sitting beside him, just learning to conjugate.
It took weeks for the cruisey looks to give way to “hello,” weeks more for “hello” to generate a conversation and, finally, coffee after class.
We each put on our best “first date” face, trying to impress with our charm and seriousness. He told me he was a flight attendant, and we discussed our mutual love of travel. We shared our motivations for studying French—my desire to read Proust in the original and one day move to Provence; his more practical goal, to be bilingual enough to work international flights, which paid more. When I told him I was a writer, he professed his admiration for wordsmiths and rattled off a list of the books he’d read lately.
And we talked about relationships—all those failed attempts at intimacy that littered both of our pasts, our determination to find someone next time around who was really capable of opening his heart. Greg was serious about love (French, after all, is the language of l’amour); he wanted the real thing, and he was willing to work at it, he said, as I fell into his baby blue eyes.
And, naively heeding the words of Maya Angelou, I believed him. Greg was the whole package—smart, funny, ambitious, gorgeous. As I marked off his qualities on my mental checklist, I flirted shamelessly—and thrillingly added modesty to the list when he seemed flattered. The ideal man, and he was impressed that I wanted him!
We kissed goodbye outside the coffee shop. And kissed again. And again, finally admitting what had been dancing around us for weeks already. “I want to go home with you,” Greg said, “but I’m afraid you won’t take me seriously if I do. Not on the first date.” So we agreed to meet for lunch the next day. Sex on the second date is so much more mature.
Needless to say, I hardly slept. I rambled on and on to a friend on a late-night phone call about how perfect Greg was, how this guy had the potential to be the one. (Is that the most overused and ridiculous phrase in the vocabulary of dating?)
He was still hot the next day, his dark eyes coyly peering at me from beneath a backwards beret, a tuft of hair curling over the collar of his pale blue sweater. And he was still charming. But somehow, last night’s modesty had become today’s dogged insecurity. Last night’s cleverness had morphed into all-too-revealing self-deprecation. Greg was still nursing a broken heart, he said; he wasn’t ready to date seriously. He wasn’t sure he was even capable of it anymore.
“Who said anything about serious?” I asked. “We just met!”
But that’s how the neurotic mind works: just a taste of happiness, and Greg’s head had started doing somersaults of fear. “If I liked you less,” he said—trying to let me down easy, “I’d probably just sleep with you right now.”
So like me less, I thought, hypnotized by the dark hairs that fluttered beneath his Adam’s apple as he spoke. I had seen enough French films to know that sex could change everything. Sex was enough to free his heart. And if it wasn’t, at least we would have had some fun. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
But the openness of the day before was gone. Greg looked at me now as if through a scrim—holding himself back. And suddenly I thought the real truth was yesterday’s. Today was the lie. Today, If I liked you less really meant I like you too much; I’m terrified.
That’s what I told myself, at least, as we parted outside the restaurant and hugged out a half-hearted au revoir. And then, watching him saunter away under that jaunty beret, I realized that it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Maya Angelou was right: The truth isn’t always what matters. Sometimes it really is what they tell you that counts. Underneath it all, maybe Greg did really want me. But what he was telling me—verbally or not—was that he was unable to go there. What his heart wanted was irrelevant if the rest of him wasn’t ready to listen.