The July sun is just setting, and I am standing outside the Neergaard Pharmacy on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 10th Street in Brooklyn. Sweat pools on my lower back. My eyes are watery and red. A thin trail of snot drips from my nose and rests in the corner of my mouth. The makeup I carefully applied hours earlier is now smeared around my face. I look like The Joker.
I sneeze, spraying a shower of mucus on the pharmacy window. My date, an Italian man who is supposedly in New York to direct a film, is undeterred.
"Come on, bella, you're not so sick," he says. "Let's go dancing."
It's our first date, and he's already insulted me, groped me and instructed me how to pronounce my own name. Plus I am legitimately having a full-fledged allergy attack.
"Thanks for buying me half of a burrito," I say. "But I'm leaving. Goodbye."
He goes in for the kiss.
I wish I could say this was my first bad date, or my last. But no. It was just one in a string of terrible, awful dates that I endured the year I was 30. I'm bad with names, but I remember these dates by their chief — often unflattering — characteristics.
Take Ice Cream Pants. Unlike the man in his sexy profile picture, he had a comb-over and a big belly. He wore a plaid shirt and sateen pants with little ice cream cones embroidered all over them. By dessert, he said he could imagine spending the rest of his life with me.
Then there was Skeletor, who had a 21-year-old cat with 21-year-old cat digestive problems and a jealous streak. Holocaust Denier acted the perfect gentleman on our first date, but on the second revealed some disturbing beliefs. And then there's the parade of Drunk Brooklyn Guys who were three sheets to the wind when I showed up.
The year went on like this, few dates getting seconds. I didn't meet The One, but I hadn't been looking for him. I was out for something else, and it wasn't sex.
Prior to this, I hadn't had much luck in relationships, because I only knew how to relate to men by accomplishing extraordinary emotional entanglements. In my early 20s, dating meant constant romantic intrigue, countless one-night stands and a gnawing emptiness that could not be filled, no matter how many men I tried on.
It took a few years and a lot of 12-step programs to get my shit together. By age 30, I found that actual dating is a dying art, and it sucks. On average, it is one night a week spent in relative boredom with someone you can imagine feeling sorry for in the fourth grade, like Yoga Imposter. At its best, it's a long evening spent discovering your spiritual twin, who also happens to be a gorgeous actor, and whom you will never see again, like Paris Murakami. At its worst, it's the Italian Groper, Square Pizza or Asian Adrien Brody.
On the whole, I'm glad my dating days are over. The point is not that you have to kiss a lot of toads to find your prince — although I did — but that meeting my partner was a stroke of luck I was ready for, because I had survived a year in bad dates. I had to learn how to date before I could learn how to be in a healthy relationship, and I had to do it on my own terms. No matter how many dating books I read, I could only really learn how to do it by getting out there and establishing my own rules.
Dating means constantly putting yourself up for evaluation, and constantly evaluating other people. And with online dating, you are never in short supply of people to peruse, judge or reject. Dating means managing your expectations, risking repulsion and sometimes feeling the aching disappointment of what might have been. But more than anything, dating means coping with crippling anxiety and facing your fears.
This is why dating is good for us.
In my year of bad dates, I kicked ass professionally and creatively. I was a better friend, daughter and sister. I figured out my life and planned my next moves. I also learned what I wanted in a partner and overcame some intimacy issues I had been holding onto with claws.
Here's my hard-earned dating advice: There are no rules. You don't have to wait a prescribed period of time to send a text message. You don't have to wear Spanx, unless you want to wear Spanx. You don't have to pretend to be anything you are not. If you play games, you are going to get games — not a relationship that will matter.
The real gold, however, is what happens within you. Dating can be a true adventure in getting to know yourself and what you want. And if one gets away? Let him. What you have planned is never as good as what happens.