Stair Master Phone Call Romance
By Ashley Hutchinson
“Maybe you shouldn’t have led with that,” my mother suggested. I was on the stair-master, panting while trying to keep my emotional cool.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to be,” I sobbed on the phone, “in order to get a guy, you have to act aloof and unattached, but in order to keep one, you have to demand some sort of label?”
I’ve been on my fair share of Tinder Dates, and many many more first dates. I’m a one-to-two date wonder and I make it clear that I don’t get too attached. And, like clockwork, the day after these dates, I usually get a flurry of text messages from the men I saw. Texts inquiring as to how I was, what my coming week looked like, what I was up to. I always won the chase; I could outrun them all.
This is beginning to sound like a Demi Lovato song.
On this particular phone call with my mother, I seemed to be playing catch up with my own habits: when I started seeing this particular guy, I had led with my usual, slightly rehearsed, opening.
“I’m not looking for anything serious,” I had cooed, on my second glass of wine, “I’m having a lot of fun.” I smirked as I took another sip, and the guy sitting across from me smiled, amused. He nodded along with every word, laughing at the appropriate bits, smiling with encouragement. He hit the beats perfectly, and fell in step with my potentially overworked dance.
One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two three, one…
One, I make them laugh, impress them with my charm.
Two, I reel them in with my passion for what I do, my quirky world view, and mention offhand that I used to play video games (that unfortunately impresses a lot more men than I would like to admit).
Three, mention how important my world of casual dating and label-free fun is to me.
And after the dance is done and I’ve swiveled around a couple times (metaphorically, though after a few drinks sometimes literally), they fall for me despite themselves, and despite my warnings of being “emotionally unavailable.” This emotional distance normally works to get men interested. It’s a hack I figured out when my high school boyfriend said he lost interest in me because I “needed him too much.” I simply “corrected” the problem by becoming the opposite of what I was when I was with him. No more “needy and clingy”; I was strong, independent, and completely emotionally stunted.
But in this case, the case of my stair-master phone call romance, though I got the steps perfectly as usual, I might have tripped up somewhere.
I find that a lot of single life nowadays is taken up by first and second dates here and there, random hookups sprinkled in, and a lot of swiping left. I’m armed with the appropriate skill sets for these experiences; I know exactly how to make a good impression. The problem is that, for young people, hookup culture and casual dating culture are so ingrained, that we become clueless once we reach date number sixteen.
Just me? Okay never mind then.
How long is too long to wait to put a label on something? How does one bring it up? Do we put it on Facebook, or is that too 2008?
And how do you switch gears from casual, no strings attached, to…not so casual?
For the modern woman particularly, there is an interesting conundrum: in order to pique the interest of millennial men, there’s a certain amount of aloofness that one must perform. This aloofness is an act that I had become proficient in after my little stint with clinginess in High School. A part I played while demurely sipping my Pinot Grigio.
But after those two-and-a-half white wines with this new person, that particular first date led to a second date, and then a third, and so on. And it got to the point where dates became less date, and more habitual. Less meeting in public, more meeting at his place, less waiting for a text and more plans and conversations. And the more we talked, the more we found out about each other, the more my performance fell away. We had reached a point where I had no more lines written, only my own words, and we knew enough about each other to be able to become invested in each other’s lives.
Or so I thought.
My lack of script began to wear on me and I found that two months had gone by, then three, and then suddenly it was month four and I was only seeing him, and we had yet to have a conversation about what it was we were doing.
I had no idea how to navigate past date three. The rest was simple improvisation. How was it that I had been continuously successful at getting dates, but when the dates actually went well, I didn’t know how to act? In New York City, I’ve been trying to navigate a world that exalts dating around to the point of unsustainability: dependence is frowned upon yet how do you accommodate a budding relationship that relies more and more on another person to survive? I kept going around and around in my head, and I decided to do something monumental: talk to him.
We met for coffee, and I put it out into the ether: “I’m not seeing anyone else. What do you think about…not seeing other people on purpose?”
He was dumbfounded.
“I, uh, thought you wanted to see other people,” he replied, shifting his eyesight around uncomfortably. His expression was somehow one large conglomeration of surprise and nausea. He looked a little flattered too, but regardless, I could tell he was not interested in my suggestion.
I was crestfallen. And so I decided to take my problems out at the gym, where I called my mother, gasping for breath, and grasping at straws.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have led with that,” my mother suggested, in essence making me wonder: in the end, was it my fault?
There are many challenges to dating in 2017, but the one that I’ve come up against time and time again is the fear of losing someone because I finally admitted that I had feelings for them, thinking I was just being needy and dependent. My feelings of rejection would turn inward; “Don’t be such a girl,” I thought, “just deal with it and move on.”
No matter how many times we want to deny it, no matter how much we wish it weren’t true, being a woman is still hard. We’ve heard it all: we’re either too needy or too withholding, a slut or a prude. And I chose one of those extremes in order to avoid being “needy.” As a result, I overcorrected to the point where I didn’t have the room to change my mind due to an expectation I had set on date number one.
What was I supposed to have led with? A road map to how many dates I would need in order to feel ready for a relationship? I didn’t even know that number.
And all I could think was if I didn’t act like I wasn’t interested, he wouldn’t have wanted me.
Why did I feel the need to act at all?
This stair-master phone call was not unprecedented. I call my mother all the time. She’s the strong, silent type. With my father she is a quiet presence, allowing him to be himself and supporting him. But she has never needed him. Never once has my mother been “too attached.” My mother has been married for nearly her entire life. How did she navigate this balance: a balance between being independent and being supportive?
I asked her this, while panting, and she replied that she honestly didn’t know.
She didn’t know.
There’s no “one way” to be a person. I can ask, “who am I supposed to be,” time and time again and no one will ever give me an answer. Not even my mother, who’s known me forever. My high school ex-boyfriend gave me an idea, but that failed miserably and I ended up dry sobbing on the stair-master like a fit idiot.
But here’s an idea. Maybe be yourself.
It wasn’t my fault, in the end. People are just people. And there’s really no way of discovering who is at fault when we’re all just trying to figure out how to navigate this world, trying to figure out who we are.
I’m not a prude or a slut, I’m sometimes both; I may go through times when I feel extremely clingy or times when I may want to be by myself. There’s no always. One of my favorite professors says, “There’s no always. It doesn’t exist. Always is something that people made up.” We’re inconsistent creatures. I’m inconsistent. I can change my mind.
For now, I’m single again. But at least I know I’m open to needing someone again someday.
And at least I can now skip the elevator, and take the stairs instead.