Most first-person pieces on dating end neatly (‘and I quit all the apps one Sunday and met my husband on the Tuesday’, or ‘I have decided to stay single, I now devote my life to rescuing orphaned goats*, and I’ve never been happier’) and frankly, so they should. The general rule of writing is: take your readers from one place to another; don’t leave them where you started. But I think it can be useful, occasionally, to have something from the trenches themselves. Because as much as it kills me, there is no overarching narrative to life. There are few neat endings.
*do not mistake this for snark; a life devoted to orphaned goats sounds like an utter joy.
Eighteen months ago I was terrified of the very notion of dating – heterosexual men hadn’t been getting great press when I came out of a long-term relationship in late 2018. But if you want to meet your match, you actually have to go to where people meet each other, which right now obviously means your dating app(s) of choice. I dip in and out of the whole rigmarole, though, as I’m constantly vacillating between wanting to be part of a team of two, and feeling wary of the compromises and sacrifices that relationships require. If nothing else, I have written more, and with increased focus, in the last year or so than I did in the seven years of being someone’s girlfriend. Or maybe that’s a slight oversimplification – and God, there’s a trade-off, because at least when you’re in a relationship you have someone else to cook dinner occasionally – but I can now be a lot more protective of my mental energy, and I’m not in a hurry to give that up.
But I’m still a hopeless romantic, so it’s off to Hinge I go. To great dates, and atrocious dates, and all the unremarkable evenings and overpriced IPAs in between. And as I’m nosy, happy to wang on about myself at length, and have never knowingly replied ‘no’ to ‘want another drink?’ it’s rare I find myself on an utterly unsalvageable date. You know the situation I mean – you find each other interesting enough that you don’t run out of things to talk about, but at least one of you knows that this evening is as far as it goes. Sorry, no, you’re not quite what I’m looking for. I came hoping the air between us would be charged; different to everywhere else in this room, but there’s no electricity here.
But maybe it’s not so hopeless that you make your excuses after the second drink. Maybe you decide to throw yourself into the evening and eke the fun out of it regardless. Romance is a gambler’s game; you have to keep rolling the dice. Maybe you end up kissing, because it’s the weekend and the alcohol and soft light are blurring reality’s edges, and because there is nothing as intoxicating, nothing else on this planet as sexy as the last held beat before a kiss. And then maybe you end up back at somebody’s flat, in their room, and it’s there you have to decide. Their bed poses the question. And you hear yourself think, if this goes any further, something inside me will die for a while. Desire should pulse through your veins and make you feel too big for your skin – but your body knows. Your brain can decide one way or another but if it’s not right, you will feel something inside you shrink and absent itself from the room. These times are few and far between, but I think most of us have had moments where it’s crossed our minds that backing out now would just be a bit… impolite.
Back to here and now.
My worst fears about dating have gone largely unrealised, so I’m currently of the opinion that it’s not the awful dates that get you down. No, it’s not the outright bad ones – the person who said that terrible thing, the person who had no opinions on anything thereby rendering themselves about as compelling as a rice cake – because you know that these are the anecdotes of the future. This is simply fodder, you think, it’s fine. I’ll leave after this drink, I’ll message my friends when I get home and with scathing wit, we’ll recast the memory of this wasted evening as something horribly funny.
No, the dates that kill you are the perfectly nice ones. He was lovely, he was cute, we had loads in common, but just… nah. There was absolutely nothing there that made me want to see him again. No fucking spark, which is the thing I find myself saying more than anything else, like the walking cliché I am. But the thing is: that chemistry, that involuntary blood-quickening in the presence of the right person, is vital. If you’ve had it, you know it’s worth holding out for. You’re hoping for that lightning strike – a small one, mind, nothing biblical, this isn’t The Notebook. Just a shared glance that feels dangerous if held too long, a slight crackle in the air. You’re not even looking to be swept off your feet. No, it’s more about wanting to sweep someone else off theirs. “[I want someone who can] give me a run for my money” sings Ani DiFranco and yes, exactly that, but also: don’t you want someone who wants a run for their money?
It’s a search for magic. A quest for a night of talking until last orders and kissing in a corner like teenagers. A hunt not for a ‘partner in crime’ (what dating apps have done for the cliché industry is unforgivable), but for a co-conspirator.
Because that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? To find our co-conspirators. To find the person to leave the party with. The person whose opinion actually matters to you. The person to do separate things in the same room with. The person whose touch feels like the most natural and obvious thing in the world.
And so we persist, throwing our hearts out there and hoping they land in safe hands, rather than hands that are careless, or worse, cruel. We persist because lightning strikes the ones who chase it.