On our first date, my now partner of two years seemed like he was auditioning for the role of “undateable jerk.” He was certainly as handsome as his pictures suggested as he sat across from me at a cozy, quaint restaurant. But tonally, something wasn’t translating from .jpeg to IRL.
The date was purposefully set for 8:30 to allow for ambiguity about eating. It was early enough that if the date was going well, we could order food, but late enough that if there were no immediate sparks, we could pretend we already ate. As I politely looked over the menu, he broke the silence with a story about his neighbor’s cat who he believed to be carrying fleas. He mimed the scratching fits he had witnessed and expressed concern that the fleas would make their way to his home — which he paused to describe as “a disaster” on account of it actually being more of a painting studio with a used couch that he slept on.
When our drinks arrived, we took the opportunity to hide behind sips for a minute. The rigidity in his posture inspired a stiffness in my own. “I actually already ate,” I told him, hoping he couldn’t hear the churn of my hollow gut.
Despite my building doubts, the conversation flowed, mostly because he spent a very long time answering each basic question I asked. I was nearing my last sip of wine when he told me he only recently came to have a shower installed his studio and no longer needed to walk to a local gym to bathe. Though on some level I admired his no-frills commitment to his craft, I couldn’t help but scratch my scalp in reaction. Every bit of information he shared about himself seemed to have a thorn adorned to it. It was as though he were pushing all of his worst cards to the top of the deck to test not only my interest, but also my character. Online, he was social, swanky, and dazzling — the kind of artist who lets people buzz around him, a lamppost of a person. In person, he was formal, guarded, and blunt.
When he excused himself to go to the bathroom, I reached for my phone to update my group text on the situation. But I couldn’t quite put to words what I was feeling. Instead, I answered some questions. Yes, he was very attractive. Yes, he was really a full-time painter. No, he, wasn’t creepy. No, he didn’t smell weird. Yes, he most certainly had big dick energy. But I felt disappointed. Not because he was being too honest about himself, or because he wasn’t sorry for sleeping on a couch. At that point it was more of a sense that he just didn’t want me to like him. That he didn’t want to give anyone a reason to be interested — no illusions for the artist.
When he returned from the bathroom the conversation shifted to me, but not in the way I had anticipated. He admitted that he’d read some of my stories, but he wasn’t complimentary. He made a series of off-putting comments that culminated in an unsolicited critique of my Instagram presence, which he described as “trying too hard.” I could barely catch my jaw before it hit the floor. I was stunned that the guy who was curating such a filtered version of himself online would dare to comment on my pouty selfie. As far as I was concerned, he wasn’t trying enough.
I faked an emergency and told him I had to go. He walked me to my car and tried to test the bounds of my fib.
“Can’t someone else attend to this ‘emergency?’” he asked. “It’s so early, what am I supposed to do for the rest of the night?”
“Not my problem,” I said, ducking into my car and driving off, assuming he’d stay in the rear view mirror forever.
Proving to have had a different experience than I did, he texted me after the date, and the next day, and the day after that. A few more days went by and I assumed my lack of enthusiasm would cause him to fade away for good. But then, one week from our first date, I woke up to an “it’s our one week anniversary!” text. Against my will, it made me smile. I showed a friend, who was sitting beside me. “The Instagram critic?” she asked. I confirmed that yes, it was him, with an eye roll. “He’s trying, at least,” she offered. Over the next few weeks he’d check in, here and there, but eventually he took a hint.
A few months later, we bumped into each other at a concert. I saw him immediately when I walked in — smiling, talking with his hands, gregarious and dimpled, surrounded by a group of friends. It was the version of him I saw on Instagram before our date. If there was this positive, glowing, bubbling version of himself, why would he keep that from me? Isn’t that was first dates are for? I approached him right away, pizza-cutting my way through his social circle, and hugged him. His cologne gave me a buzz, and the way he wrapped his arms around my back was without thorns.
“Flea guy is here and IDK why, but I’m suddenly into him,” I texted a friend. After the concert, we had a drink together with some fellow concert-goers. “You look beautiful tonight,” he said. “Not trying too hard?” I teased. His face dropped. “I think what I said came out wrong,” he told me. I nodded. On account of the fact that he wasn’t wrong, and really the Instagram post in question was soliciting a certain kind of attention, I let it slide and gave him another chance to show me a less prickly version of himself. Because as seasoned daters, we’re carrying more baggage on first dates than we used to. We’re all varying versions of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in “You Got Mail” — set in our ways more than we are flexible, looking at each other with squinted eyes in lieu of doe eyes. On our first date, he had been the testy Tom Hanks to my defensive Meg Ryan. He hadn’t been pushing me away; he had been trying to figure out if I could stay.
Seeing him with his friends allowed me to see him in a different light. I got a chance to see him being himself, without the armor he brought to our first date. It was a frigid winter night, but being near him brought me a warmth I was so close to missing out on all together.