Sometimes first dates are awkward.
Sometimes first dates are bad.
Sometimes they are the VERY WORST.
A shining pillar of awfulness, that you can forever compare future sushi/italian/ethiopian dinners with unappealing starving artists/office drones/actuaries so no matter how bad, no matter how hopeless you feel the dating scene is in your mid-twenties, at least it wasn't THAT BAD. This one particular date I'm about to describe... it was that bad.
Halfway through college, I found myself suddenly single, after my super-serious-totally-going-to-be-together-4ever relationship dissolved. Although I ended things, I didn't take it well.
Like the protagonist no one likes in a Thomas Hardy novel (I'm looking at you, Tess of the D'Urbervilles), I took to my bed. And moped. And moped some more. And then slept twelve hours. And moped again. I think I cried some, too.
Then I got really bored of being sad, but I couldn't quite snap myself out of it. Since I don't do "moderation," I swung wildly in the opposite direction and bought a one-way ticket to New York City for the next day. I was sooo bohemian and cool, sleeping on a friend's couch in Greenwich Village and wandering the streets by day. I visited the kickass theatre company I'd interned with the summer prior, where I received the best life advice I've ever come across:
"I know you are sad but you look GREAT. You should breakup with people more often. Especially if it brings you here."
I was strong! I was cool! I was empowered! I was bold and fabulous and like sooo New York! I was never, ever going back to North Carolina to face reality!
Just kidding, I had a project due on Tuesday and my partner was furious with me.
So back I went, but with a full heart and empty bank account! Yes to trying new things! Yes to saying yes!
In theory, at least. In reality, I was still crying A LOT and sad A LOT and eating A LOT of frozen yogurt.
A few days later, a guy friend (We will call him... Jean-Claude, because I'm obsessed with the JCVD volvo commercial right now. Those LEGS.) suggested we grab dinner before my play rehearsal so we could catch up. Nothing signaled "ALERT DATE ALERT." Jean-Claude was twice my age and getting a PhD in some sort of science I can't even pronounce. We'll say it's ADVANCED MATH. He was cool and smart and European (swoon) and "just wanted to cheer me up."
Okay, maybe I should have gotten a hint.
The dinner location was a surprise (red alert! red alert! chances of this being a date = HIGH) but I had four hours of play rehearsal afterward so we only had about an hour. He arrived at my apartment in a button down and nice shoes. I was wearing sweatpants. It dawned on me that this might be a date, but I immediately shook off that ridiculous notion.
We arrived at a little vegan restaurant tucked away in the back of a shopping center. I think it was named Blooming Lotus or Tofu Rivers of Desire, something earthy and creepily too-sexual-for-a-restaurant. Because we were eating around my rehearsal schedule, it was about 4pm and the place was completely DESERTED. The one other person in the restaurant, our waiter, Herman, also happened to be in my acting class, and seemed shocked that people were actually in the building. He explained the specials in excruciating detail, down to the last bean sprout. I bit my lip and examined the fancy plates and multiple forks, suddenly hearing the Akbar-ian shriek in my mind: IT'S A TRAAAP.
I was on a date.
Growing up in the south, I always admired the possum's approach to confrontation: play dead. I decided to keep acting as if I had NO CLUE that this was DEFINITELY A DATE and thankyouheavensabove that I had a strict gotta-be-at-rehearsal deadline.
"Sooo... why'd you choose a vegan restaurant? It's really cool; I never would have thought of something like this." I was praying Herman would come back so I could have him re-explain the appetizers or talk about vegan cheese.
"Well I noticed your eating habits are disgusting so I wanted to teach you a lesson."
To Jean-Claude's credit, my eating habits ARE disgusting. I mostly survive on macaroni and pizza. Jean-Claude had made a similar comment a few months earlier, at my beach birthday party, as I was touting the merits of beanie-weenies (which are freaking amazing, thankyouverymuch). And he is a health nut. But still. We were alone in a restaurant, and he was wearing nice shoes, and he called me DISGUSTING. Also, "teaching someone a lesson" should be reserved for grandpas. Or kinky bdsm things. Neither of which were going on at this dinner.
Herman the waiter magically appeared, saving me from trying to come up with a response. I had him compare and contrast the soups. I asked HIS favorite dish. I asked about our homework and how his final project was coming along. I asked about his family. Maybe I could stall for another forty minutes. But alas! One other couple had entered and needed to be seated. They were young and in love and looked like they probably loooved zucchini noodles.
I ordered a "loaded baked potato," which was an insult to baked potatoes everywhere, as it contained neither cheese, nor sour cream, nor bacon bits, nor hearty meaty chili. I think it was a potato FILLED WITH MORE VEGETABLES. What a travesty. It's not like I was living in LA yet, where everything is kale and quinoa (even our vodka!) - there were at least two burger joints within walking distance.
Our waiter left us to pluck our meal from the tender grasp of God's green earth. Trying to keep the conversation off of myself, lest he find anything else wrong with me, I tried to ask a lot of questions about his life. That's a great date thing, right? Be interested, try not to roll your eyes too much? I am NAILING this single thing.
"So... ADVANCED MATH... PhD... that sounds... very intensive. What is your dissertation on? Or is it a comprehensive project sort of thing?" I know nothing about ADVANCED MATH, and if I were to get a terminal degree it would be an MFA in theater, so I have very few touchstones for either academia or science. But I thought my questions belayed the right amount of polite interest, and I might learn something.
"You wouldn't understand. It's very theoretical and requires a complex understanding of quantum mechanics and calculus and -" My eyes began to glaze over as a wave of pretentiousness crashed over me, threatening to drown me with how much smarter/better/healthier he is. I zoned out to the charming lilt of his European accent, pretending it was compliments or something - love may cover all wrongs, but a fancy accent definitely covers a couple on its own.
You may be wondering why I've stayed and put up with this foolishness for so long. The R. Grace of previous stories would have zinged back with a couple witty retorts, accidentally spilled tofu all over herself, and left in a blaze of glory and tahini sauce. I was snarled between two pathetico strands of thought: 1) Maybe this was how normal people dated, and I was overreacting, and 2) Causing a scene and leaving would require a whole lot of effort that I'd rather reserve for moping later. Both of these were incorrect, and I should have just stormed out in full gusto. However, I stayed, paralyzed in my uncomfortableness. Well, paralyzed except for picking at the saddest baked potato sitting in front of me. What the hell was on it? Squash curls? Bean sprouts? It tasted like grass.
Oh no oh no oh no. I had paused too long silently bemoaning my sorry estate. Jean-Claude took it upon himself to move the conversation forward.
"You're double-majoring, right?" Aha! That makes me sound intellectual and well-rounded. Maybe this date is salvageable!
"I'm getting a degree in journalism and a degree in dramatic art, and I'm in a documentary theater production right now that really gets to combine those two!" Drawing connections between my two fields, showing that I'm actually pursuing them, A++ maybe this date could turn around!
"I don't understand why you're in the arts... it's not like you're benefitting society in any way."
I thought nothing could reawaken the old R. Grace from her heartbreak stupor. I was destined to drift, a shell of a girl, whining and weeping through every froyo place in collegetown. I assumed coming across my true love might rouse me from my haze (jk I'm going to die alone, sadness), but I was wrong. Insulting everything I loved / basically saying I was useless shocked me back into the world of the waking.
I put my fork down. I was done with this baked potato with a side of bullshit.
For the remainder of the dinner, we loudly argued about the merits of culture, human experience, academia (as my first response was, how are YOU benefitting society if you're in school for a decade? Not my best line. I was rusty.), work, money, etc. Our worldviews directly clashed in almost every way. Everything I held dear, he thought was frivolous and wasteful. Everything he valued, I thought was arrogant and self-serving.
I glanced at my phone and realized rehearsal began in five minutes. For those not in the theatery world, being late to rehearsal is unacceptable. Like, 20 lashes and walk the plank unacceptable. I'd just been brutally arguing for twenty minutes; I didn't want to be yelled at for the next twenty. I strongly urged that we get the check and leave now / like right now / like we should already be in the car / let's go / right now / no I don't want dessert / especially vegan dessert / can we go / right now / NOW
To his credit, Jean-Claude did pay for dinner. Considering I had three bites of the award-winning lamest potato, I thought the restaurant should have paid me for a thoroughly underwhelming dinner.
We drove to the theatre in near-silence. I anxiously writhed in my seat, praying that maybe his advanced math skills could time warp us there faster. He slowly pulled up to the curb and I bolted out in ecstasy to finally escape...
"R. Grace?" I turned, thinking maybe I had dropped something in Jean-Claude's car like my dignity, ugh.
"I want to take you on a real date next week."
What was this? A fake date? A clever ruse? A deconstruction of my self worth? And now he wanted to repeat this experience with... more vegetables? Absolutely not. I'd never been so insulted and angry and now I'm definitely late to rehearsal. No! Never! Beyond not every going to happen nope no way no no no....
"uh yeah sure gotta go" and then I sprinted away into the theater.
What? I don't know how to say no.
After rehearsal, I went out with my castmates, reveling in art and whatnot. We stumbled upon on of the best burger places in town / the world. After my blahpotato, I thought I deserved it.
I got a burger. Rare. Extra cheese. With an egg on top.
And it was good.