Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cynicism can be romantic too

The National Public Radio website reports that anthropologist Chris McCollum finds that couples tell very similar stories about how they fell in love. He had found that when talking about how they found a job, people tell stories about very deliberately following certain steps to get to where they wanted to be. But love stories are told completely differently. The article says,

when people really started opening up about their personal stories, they tended to fall into one of two categories. McCollum describes the first category as "romantics." They tend to believe that the external forces of destiny brought them to their beloved. On the other side of the spectrum are "realists," who tend to believe that random chance brought them together. Either way, both believe the process is out of their control.

Not surprisingly to me, many stories start with, "I wasn't looking for a relationship." I hate stories that start with that line! It feels totally unfair to me, who spent 10 years very, very intentionally making every effort to find a man.

My Herculean manhunt sort of makes me want to agree with what McCollum's subjects seem to believe: that finding love is out of our control and we can't make it happen. But even though I was starting to conclude that at the end of year nine, I don't believe it. I published the story of how I met my current boyfriend on my blog last spring, but I'm going to publish it here again at the end of this post because I wasn't entirely truthful. In fact, I left out a huge chunk of how Bob and I got together because I thought if anyone he works with found out the details, he might get in trouble. But since then Bob himself has shared our story with co-workers, so what the hell. My fictionalized, but now completely truthful, story of how Bob and I got together is below and it's called "Doink!"

But before I get to it, I'll just say that we originally met through the Chicago Reader Matches website, but didn't hit it off. I now know that for most of my dating life I have had some very fundamental beliefs that were keeping me from being truly open to loving someone and those beliefs had to be KILLED before I was going to be able to fall in love. It just took ten F#@^-ing years of spinsterhood for that to happen. But finally one day, at the age of 39, I made a very deliberate decision to prioritize falling in love over everything else I held important. Two days later this guy named Bob -- who I hadn't liked when we'd first dated -- asked me out again, but this time I liked him. O, miracle of miracles! -- I ended up falling in love with someone right after I finally made the decision to be open to doing so!

Fate? Destiny? No. Bob and I fell in love because I worked hard for years to meet as many men as possible, then I made a clear decision to fall in love with someone and Bob is a guy who doesn't give up easily. Nothing mysterious about it.

I do not believe in soul mates or destiny. I could have easily ended up with another guy if Bob hadn't been around. I don't believe there's any such thing as "the one," but it looks like that might work against me. Back to that NPR article, Helen Fischer, an anthropologist from Rutgers University who also studies love says that research shows that when people believe they're with the one they were meant to be with, they have happier marriages. I don't believe I was "meant" to be with Bob and I don't believe he's my soul mate. He was just the next one up at bat. Is that cynicism? Will it eventually sink my (one year and counting) relationship? Oh, well. At least it had a good start. Here's my "story with a happy beginning."


Doink!

At work in the restaurant, he was in his element. He’d started as a dishwasher at the age of 16 and spent two decades working his way through several jobs in the industry. Better at partying than at school, he’d always been the class clown and his co-workers liked his easy approach, his goofy jokes and his constant desire to make everyone happy. He loved restaurant life with its teamwork, its mealtime tidal waves of customers and the way he could easily read people when their need for food or drink brought their true natures to the surface.

But for all his charisma on the job, he was lousy at dating. He just froze up. As a result, his only romantic relationships were with the women with whom he served tables, tended bar and cleaned counters. Unable to function very well socially outside of the job, the restaurant was his entire world.

By the age of 38 he was the general manager of a large restaurant in downtown Chicago. It was an excellent job and he devoted all of his energy to it. He had a great staff and a beautiful building. But as the general manager, he couldn’t date anyone he worked with. They were all his subordinates and he couldn’t break his personal code any more than he could violate company rules. He spent his first three years there mastering the never-ending tasks of a general manager, but he spent parts of his fourth year anticipating his 43rd birthday and wishing he weren’t always alone on his days off.


****


She had no problem with nervousness on dates. At the age of 39 she calculated that she’d been dating for 24 years which meant she must have gone out with over a billion men. Although most days it felt like two billion. Earnestly longing for a relationship she could settle into, she also had certain standards. She knew her future partner would be just as extraordinary as she. Their vocabularies would span lakes, his mind would be so agile it would occasionally surpass hers and everyone would admire their beauty and know that these two attractive, brilliant, fascinating people belonged together. There would be no ordinary romance for her.

But finding this romance was turning out to be extraordinarily difficult as well. She had tried every dating tip she had ever received and she had read every book on relationships that anyone had ever thrust into her jewelry-bare hands.

Nothin’.

And although she had a masters degree in English literature, she had skipped from job to job and was currently exploring life as a waitress. Even her broad employment experience, through which she’d met thousands of people, hadn’t yielded that lifelong match.

She had no problem finding men that wanted to be with her, but she just never felt more than a passing interest in them. Her mind was too sharp, her education too prolonged, her humor too quick for any of them. And she dismissed entire populations out-of -hand. Why even bother dating someone without an advanced degree, or who lived in the suburbs, or who had never been to Europe? Her soul mate would be distinguishable by how far he stood out from the ordinary people. She even weighed first names carefully and would insist “There’s just one name I cannot date. I will never be able to go out with anyone named ‘Bob.’”


***


Bob’s hours at the restaurant weren’t getting any shorter, so he knew he had to try some new ways of meeting people. He had always hated the idea of “shopping” for human beings, which is what online dating felt like to him, but after months of sizing up the situation, he knew he needed to take unprecedented action.

After work one night, he wearily pounded out his answers to the online Reader Matches questionnaire. He didn’t proofread for typos, he didn’t check his spelling and when he glanced over his answers for coherency he didn’t refine any of his sentences. The sophisticated part of his brain was roped off for the evening.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he muttered as he clicked on “Submit.”


***


Regina was bored with dating. She had little optimism left and had developed a very tough-audience attitude towards first dates. Because men tended to like her she not only never got nervous, but she entered dates like a potential boss in a high-unemployment economy. She was particularly tired of online dating. After years of mining most of her dates on websites, she was finally getting zombie-stare, cold-coffee, there-won’t-be-anything-on-the-next-page-either tired of online dating. But she wasn’t quite done yet, so she responded to the email from the guy who called himself “Doink” (no worse than her handle, “Flamedancer”). She appreciated that he worked in a restaurant, like she did, because he’d understand about never being free on Saturday nights. His ad conveyed a sense of whimsy, light-heartedness and that masculine can-do optimism that always attracted her. They emailed for a week, then set up a date.

It sank.

Actually, it wasn’t bad. She found him easy to talk to and, with their jobs, they had a lot in common. He was just as easy to get along with as his ad had promised and he wasn’t bad-looking and she even agreed to a second date. But he wasn’t funny. Neither of them laughed once and that was not a good sign. The seriousness of their dates puzzled her because his ad had suggested so much more personality than he showed. She might have given a third date a try, except that Bob’s response to their first date was to send her a half dozen tiramisu desserts from his restaurant and his gesture after their second date was to send a dozen white roses. The combination of the blandness of his company and the fervor of his attention weirded her out.

“You’re very enthusiastic,” she said slowly, after the flowers.
“Yes, I am,” Bob said confidently, then hesitated. “Is it too much?”
“Yeah, it is,” she admitted and that was their last conversation.


***


Three months later, Regina needed a job. Bob needed a server. Regina actually had the nerve to contact Bob about a job and Bob was open-minded enough to respond. From their two dates, Regina knew Bob was an excellent manager and Bob knew Regina would be a great server, so he offered her the job and she accepted. Sure enough Regina learned quickly, carried herself with poise and professionalism and became one of his best servers. And sure enough, Bob was the best manager Regina had ever had: organized, communicative, funny and very supportive of his servers and kitchen staff.

And there was his personality! Bob was very funny and he made work fun. Regina liked his tall, lanky walk and his calm response to problems. He was so good at his job and at making everyone feel at ease, Regina immediately decided he was the best manager she'd ever had. It also felt like the best job she’d had in years and she wanted to stay for a long time.

Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed at the end of Regina’s third full month there and everyone was laid off.


***


Bob wasn’t going to keep trying to date a woman who clearly had no interest in him. When he had stopped calling Regina after those two dates, he was done, but he also recognized a good employee. It seemed like things had finally worked out as Regina settled into the job, but he inconveniently found himself still attracted to her. Of course he’d never act on it and he carefully made sure he never displayed the slightest favoritism. Regina was a great server and a great person and he wasn’t going to let her great rear end get in the way of a comfortable professional relationship.

But as the restaurant closed down around them, Bob felt a strong urge to talk to Regina. He screwed up his courage and asked her out for a drink one night.

***


Regina said yes to the drink because she wasn’t doing anything else after work that night and hanging out with Bob would probably be as fun as working with him. And it was. They went out for pizza where he ordered beers and she decided to relax for once. She was surprised at how much she enjoyed his company, so when he asked her out for a drink the following week, she said yes again.

The third time they went out, Regina steered him to one of her favorite all-night diners and chatted happily away about whatever came to mind. She knew she wasn’t attracted to Bob and never would be, but hanging out with him was great. It was so easy to talk to him and he made her laugh. And he seemed to think she was fascinating. The only thing she had to do was ignore the attraction she knew he felt for her. She felt bad to be taking up his time and money when she was never going to feel the same way about him. But each time he asked her out, she heard herself saying yes.

Because Bob had to go out of town there was a lapse during which they didn't see each other. When Regina didn’t hear from him, she was a bit surprised. Was that disappointment? Impossible.

The next time Bob called to ask her to dinner, Regina had to work at displaying nonchalance. She got ready with only a little more than her usual attention to detail and she chose her outfit still clinging to the worn certainty that this was not a date, not with Bob, not a date at all.

When she saw him, she was impressed with his sharp new haircut and goatee. Regina had always been a sucker for a goatee. Was it possible that Bob actually looked kind of hot? As usual, they had a great time. In fact, it was the best non-date yet. As they talked and bantered over steaks, Regina considered whether or not she might feel like kissing Bob good-night. Yes? No? Maybe.

As he drove her home, Bob told her about his new assignment. He was working on a restaurant that needed a management overhaul. He’d be working there for the next month or so. With his car stopped outside of her building, Bob started to say good-night. Regina still wasn’t sure what she was going to do.


***


Later Bob would say that he’d never forget watching Regina undo her seatbelt, turn around in the front seat and climb over to sit in his lap. As she put her arms around him and tentatively moved her lips to his, he thought, “There is a God...”


***


Later Regina would pull back from one of the hundred kisses that followed, reflect on her former opinion of Bob and her old dating standards and say, “I’ve been an idiot...”

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