Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blind Dates

The tea shop I write in is a hot spot for blind dates. I am witnessing at least one of them right now. Amongst the students piled high in sweatpants and textbooks, the girlfriends grabbing dessert after a movie, and the weirdos like me, leaning over notebooks and staring out the window, are several couples, chatting over their tea. Which one of these pairs didn’t know of each other’s existence before a week ago?

That woman talking at length about how she came to accept her Filipino-American identity, while the guy across the table slouches his face into his hand and nods in understanding—they are way too comfortable to be on a blind date. Their later conversation reveals that they are gay best friends. That couple holding their cups in front of their faces, sipping their tea and barely speaking—a well-established relationship or a really bad blind date. Despite their reticence, they hold hands on the way out of the shop later on.

But the lady in the casual-but-cute outfit describing her time living in Tucson in a measured voice but with lots of hand gestures and words like cosmopolitan and juggernaut while her male companion drops the lid of his teapot loudly onto the table—these people have never met each other before, I’m sure of it.

The man takes out his phone to check the time.

“Wow, that’s a shiny phone,” the woman says. “Is it heavier than an i-phone?” She and the man take turns weighing two phones against each other in their hands.

This is the way you can tell the blind dates: their victims are talking about nothing. Either that, or narrating their entire life stories in a way we would never do to either a friend or a regular stranger. I was born in Hawaii, but I moved to Pennsylvania when I was a month old…I went to Berkeley for college and the University of Michigan for graduate school. It’s like a job interview, except both parties are being interviewed at once, and no one is relaxed.

I never wanted this sort of thing to happen to me. But my friend told me I had to do it. You haven’t even tried, she would scold me. How can you say you hate something if you haven’t tried it? She is married and has been with her husband for ten years. I suppose the idea of an awkward evening with a lonely stranger appeals to someone at such a point in life. It sounds fun, she told me. If I were single, I would totally do it!

Eventually I caved under the pressure and went on a handful of my own blind dates, one of them in this very tea shop. It was a perfectly nice little date. We had a lovely conversation about our families and what kind of music we liked. I asked him about his job. He was a film editor. It seemed like a pretty cool job to me. Someone would have to be passionate about an artistic job like that. It’s the kind of job people love. Did he love it?

Not really, he told me. It just paid the bills. He had gotten a two-year-degree that qualified him to do it, and it had provided him with stable work editing commercials for beer and prescription drugs. He performed his duties faithfully, with neither relish nor disgust.

What he really wanted to do was be in a band. “It was always my dream,” he told me, “but I can’t even play an instrument.”

“You could learn,” I said. “You should learn to play an instrument and then start a band!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, sounding dejected. “You have to be good if you really want to be in a decent band.”

Well that’s silly, I thought. “You work at it until you get good.”

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think you need to have some kind of talent to begin with. I’d know by now if I were supposed to be a musician.”

Later, as I recounted this episode to my pro-blind-date friend, I felt like an episode of Seinfeld, with my ridiculous fussy reason for not seeing him again. I couldn’t even find concise words to encapsulate the problem.

“He wasn’t passionate about anything,” I tried. Well, that wasn’t true. He was passionate about the bands he liked to listen to. He had told me about a few already, adding that we should go to a show sometime.

“He didn’t have anything he was proud of,” I tried again. But this was still wrong. He was quite proud of his fancy stereo system, which he had described to me in loving detail.

“He wasn’t creative?” my friend suggested.

I’m not sure if this was dead-on, but it was at least a little closer. I wouldn’t need him to be traditionally creative, just to create something. It could be anything: a song, a poem, a computer program, a dinner, an automotive transmission. A perfectly edited beer commercial. Anything. Just something he cared about, something that he had actually done himself.

Considering I couldn’t describe this criterion in something shorter than a paragraph, it seemed like a petty reason not to date somebody. That’s how I felt after every blind date I ever went on, all four of them. Non-creative guy was my last one. I couldn’t take it anymore, shopping for people online like shoes, callously sending back each pair that didn’t fit my fussy standards. I emailed him and told him I didn’t plan to see him again. He took the rejection poorly, with lots of complaining and bafflement.

A week later, I sat in the tea shop, writing in my journal about how I regretted hurting the guy’s feelings. Maybe I should have given him a chance, I wrote. How would I even know if I liked somebody after one date?

This was the heart of the problem: how can people be attracted to somebody based on a date? Or two dates, or six, or twenty? How can you develop feelings for somebody that you only ever meet out of context, never observing how he deals with a challenge, or treats his friends, or does something he’s really good at, or does anything at all besides sit and drink tea and talk?

Should I go out with him one more time, I wrote? Or give up this whole dating thing altogether?

As if in answer to my question, I looked up and saw him walking past the window of the tea shop.

What is he doing here? In Oakland. In my neighborhood. In front of the tea shop that I told him I spent all my time in. He lived in San Francisco, and had talked about Oakland like it was an exotic vacation spot that he had never before visited. Was he trying to find me? Was he stalking me?

He walked by the window once more, then checked his watch and walked in, right past my table.

“Hi,” I said as he walked by.

“Oh, hi,” he said, looking surprised. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said, confused. “Funny seeing you here.”

“I’m meeting somebody,” he said, looking around. “Oh, there she is!” He walked to the back of the coffee shop, sat down across from a woman about my age, and began a stiff conversation.

“Uncreative Guy stole your date spot?” my pro-blind-date friend said, when I told her the story that night. She was laughing so hard she could barely talk. “That’s classic! He’s not even creative enough to come up with a new place to go.”

I suppose this showed that my intuition had been right: he really wasn’t very creative. Or maybe just not very wise. Either way, I had made the right choice.

I think what I hate about blind dates is really what I hate about dating in general: that it is treating a person like a commodity. But I don’t see any way around it. That’s how we get things. We shop for everything else we need: food, clothing, shelter, a school, a car. I suppose shopping for a mate is like shopping for a job. We all hate to do it, but we’re scared of where we’ll end up if we don’t.