My summer of 1996 was off to a disappointing start. After a thoroughly humiliating misadventure in NYC, I dragged back home to Philadelphia, beaten but stubbornly resilient. Time to huddle with my best friend and partner-in-crime (we’ll call him “Clyde” here, as in “Bonnie And”) to try and brainstorm our way out of this mess and into our own spectacular version of “Summer of George.”
We made a list of all the new, daring things we were going to try – most of which were impractical, some of which were illegal, many of which were said for pure shock value with no intention or desire to actually follow through. Only two items on that list actually came to fruition:
1. See as many films in the upcoming Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Film Festival as we could, and
2. Answer two personal ads each in our city’s weekly alterna-freebie and actually go on the dates.
That’s right, young ’uns. This was the mid-1990’s before the widespread use of mainstream online dating services. But our free weekly city paper had pages and pages of personal ads written by lonely post-collegiate slacker-bees like ourselves. Some of the ads were awful, of course. But many were surprisingly clever, infused with irony, pop culture references, and quirkily endearing descriptions of the writer. You’d feel a little buzz just reading them, maybe imagining some attractive face or other you’d seen at the video store or someplace but were too pragmatic to start a conversation.
There was something so hopeful about that. Here was a place where all the like-minded singles of the city laid their cards on the table. No guessing, no risk of embarrassment. Your attention was welcome; requested, even. All you had to do was pick your favorite.
For my two I chose Bill, a computer programmer and musician, and Aaron, a lover of literature. Clyde picked a man who worked for a film company and a college girl who claimed to be conducting a “social experiment.” Neither of us knew what that meant, but he was very intrigued.
That was the first of our four dates. She’d arranged to meet him at the snottiest coffee house in town. As planned, I stationed myself at the falafel place across the street in case things didn’t work out. Clyde joined me only about 20 minutes later, irritated and discouraged. Turns out the “social experiment” consisted of the student and her friend cross-examining him about why he answers personal ads in the first place. Lots of leading questions and twisting of his words led them to the inevitable conclusion that Men Who Answer Personal Ads are Pigs. Poor Clyde.
For our next dates, we came up with the sitcom-worthy scheme to arrange them at the same time at the same restaurant. We would pretend not to know each other, but keep an eye on each other to stay safe and maybe offer some feedback later. Zany!
But by now, my feet were getting awfully cold. The thought of going on a date with someone I’d never seen before suddenly terrified me. Walking around center city on my lunch break, I studied every face that passed by and marveled at the seemingly endless ways in which a person can be unattractive. It boggles the mind. What if my date looked like that guy? Or that guy? How powerful would the chemistry have to be to overcome it? And is chemistry even possible when there’s absolutely no physical attraction whatsoever?
Clyde met me at my apartment after work. We had some beers and joked around. I was feeling so comfortable and happy, all I wanted to do was sink into the futon and watch Friends. It looked like rain. I pleaded with Clyde not to make me go, but he insisted. He had the whole thing planned. He even made sure we got off at different subway stops so we wouldn’t be seen walking up to the restaurant together.
I spotted my date from across the street and was instantly disappointed. I can’t even really say why. He was attractive enough, or at least not eye-blisteringly ugly. It was just . . . maybe something awkward in the way he was standing. Or the way his ridiculously large umbrella obscured most of his head, and it wasn’t even raining yet. Or the way he wore a tucked-in button-down shirt with vertical purple stripes that screamed late-1980’s Chess King. And from the look on his face, I could tell he was just as politely disappointed in me.
I didn’t see Clyde anywhere in the restaurant. Determined to make the best of things, I ordered a fancy girl’d-up martini and a huge plate of mushroom ravioli, which I threw down with two hands and a foot. Bill was talking about electronic music or some such when I saw Clyde heading for the restrooms. I excused myself and caught up with him. We huddled by the kitchen door, out of sight, trying not to laugh hysterically.
“Your guy is cute!” he whisper-exclaimed. “My guy looks like an alien! Can we trade?”
“This was the worst idea ever!” I hissed. “I just want to go home.”
“Me too, me too. But we can’t just leave in the middle of dinner.” Our waiter crossed by and did a double-take. We smiled sheepishly. “Okay,” Clyde said. “How about we finish up here and then I’ll meet you back at your place.”
“I love that idea,” I said. And I did. The thought of just relaxing in my living room with a friend felt so amazing. Why was I even bothering with these lame dates in the first place?
I paid my half of the check and took the subway most of the way home. The rain finally hit just as I was leaving the station, clattering down in a huge summer shower. I watched each new trainload of passengers get off, hoping to see Clyde so we could share the mad rain-soaked dash back to my building together. Funny how getting caught in the rain alone is so degrading, but getting caught in the rain with a friend is a hilarious adventure.
After a while, though, I gave up and headed home alone. Maybe I’d missed him. Maybe he was waiting for me in the lobby. But he wasn’t there. A thunderstorm raged on. Eventually I went to bed, worried. The whole point in going on this date together was to keep each other safe. What if his alien date turned out to be some evil homophobe, just as his “social experiment” date planted that ad simply to attack the men who answered it? I sprung out of bed and called his place frantically, but there was no answer.
Clyde called me at work the next day. Turns out he’d gone back to the alien’s place after all and had a magical evening. Men.
Meanwhile, I still had one more date left with Aaron, the literature guy. I decided to brave this one alone. I chose a little bistro around the corner from my apartment. My building had a doorman and I lived on the 20th floor. I figured I could make a hasty escape if I needed to.
I made the mistake of wearing a new shirt which I’d never really given a proper test drive. This shirt, which had looked great when standing still in front of a dressing room mirror, had an unfortunate habit of slipping with my every move to reveal way more cleavage than is advisable on a first date. The guy’s eyes bugged so far out of his head, for a minute I worried that I’d forgotten to wear a shirt at all.
But I doubt a more conservative outfit would have made much of a difference. There was something terrifyingly eager about him. He was smitten. He sighed blissfully at just about everything I said. He took each ordinary detail about me and declared it proof that we’d be so great together.
I tried to stop being so damn fascinating, I really did. I turned all my love and affection to my bowl of spinach lentil soup and coconut soda, but even that seemed to enchant him. A woman who lets herself enjoy food with reckless abandon! How amazing! (And honestly, I usually love when someone is attracted to my chow-hounditutde. But this was not the night.) I paid my half of the check and ran like the wind, vowing to stay far, far away from the personal ads from here on in.
But Aaron kept calling. For two weeks, he’d leave messages on my answering machine stating the exact minute of his call. I figured sooner or later he’d get the hint and leave me alone. But no. The calls kept coming.
Finally, I called him back and tried to let him down easily. But he wasn’t having it. How could I just decide I didn’t want to date him based on one date? What possible reasons could I have? I’d try to give him some weak, feelings-sparing line, but he deftly deconstructed each one. I’d try again, and he’d find more semantic loopholes, disproving my every argument and insisting that we should be together. So I had to be more direct.
“Look,” I said, “this just isn’t going to work out. I’m just not interested in dating you. Please stop arguing with me, because my answer is no. No!”
“I see,” he said icily. “Well, thank you. Thank you very much. Not for your kindness, but for your abruptitude.” And with that, he hung up the phone.
Abruptitude? Oh well. At least it was over. I put down the phone and headed for the kitchen, wondering what I could find to snack on – RING!
I picked up the phone. It was Aaron again, calling to apologize for hanging up on me. And then he wanted to argue some more. How could I just discount him like this for no reason? How could I just decide that I didn’t want to date him without even bothering to get to know him better? What sort of psychological problems must I have to lead me to make such a self-destructive decision?
I somehow managed to extract myself from the conversation, hung up, and called Clyde. I was shaky and sputtering, cursing his name for ever encouraging me to go through with this ridiculous plan in the first place.
“Give me his number,” Clyde calmly insisted. And I did.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but Clyde called me back a few minutes later, laughing. Turns out he’d called Aaron pretending to be an irate pizza delivery guy. (“Yeah, I got a pizza here for Aaron! You called and ordered a pizza and you don’t answer the door! Now I’m standing out in the rain! Are you Aaron? You owe me sixteen bucks! It’s raining out here!” Et cetera.) Clyde flustered old Aaron as badly as he’d flustered me.
We laughed on the phone together for a long time. Silly as it was; ridiculous, pointless, and mean as it was . . . I loved Clyde to pieces for it. In some absurd way, that stupid prank phone call was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for me. The way he just unconditionally stood up to someone who was upsetting me and sent him running . . . no one outside the family had ever really done that for me before.
We said goodnight, and I looked out my window at the city, 20 stories below. Everything was so far away, and what was down there wasn’t very welcoming in the first place. The smelly old corner grocery store. The Chinese restaurant still recovering from a recent fire. It couldn’t have been later than 8:00, but the streets were dark and nearly empty already.
I thought of all those people out there in the bars, clubs, and ironically furnished apartments just trying to find each other and be a little less lonely for a while. You’d think it would be easier, kinder somehow. We all wanted the same thing, after all. And yet, here I was: sitting alone and above the fray, where a prank phone call was the warmest gesture of love and fidelity I could get my hands on.
And so it goes. I went back to the kitchen in search of the immediate comforts of snacks, TV, and a kitty on my lap.