As a nearly to-be-wed, there’s a lot to look forward to. But at the forefront is: no more singles wards, no more first dates. I’ve been lucky enough to not have a lot of bad first dates…mostly because I haven’t had a lot of first dates, period. But I did have one bad first date. Like epically bad. I blogged about it years ago, but its subject found out, threatened to sue, and forced me to take it down.
But the good news is I’ve moved. We’ve never spoken again. I don’t think he has a google alert for me any more. So…it’s time to try again! Because it’s really just too good of a story. One might even say it’s “ducking” worth it. (He did. He said that.) So here’s a short story about my last worst first date. It’s called So That’s What San Pellegrino Tastes Like. And it’s a throwback.
It’s not that I’m small town. I know stuff. Sure, I don’t drink; I don’t do drugs; I’ve never had sex—but I know stuff. It comes with the territory: being a well-read, curious, quick-witted, and gossip-happy young woman, you can be sure I know stuff. For instance, while I’ve seen every episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians I’ve also watched all of 30 Rock. I’ve seen Citizen Kane and memorized Jurassic Park. I read Edith Wharton in junior high and was Team Peeta all through college. So even though I was moving from Centerville, Utah (population: 16,000) to New York, New York (population: 8.4 million) I felt pretty confident in my ability to adapt. To blend. To fit in my swanky new city digs with the sophistication of a woman who had seen every episode of Friends. Unfortunately, what I hadn’t spent my whole life preparing for was dating.
Dating is a tricky thing. It happened all around me, but rarely involved me. I can say depressing things like that because LOOK AT ME NOW! But back then, there was no wooing, no courting. The nicest dinner I’d been taken to was the never-ending French toast buffet at Kneaders (to be fair, it was really good French toast). I got invited to a Jazz game once. And someone once promised to take me to see the lights at the Station Park Mall—which turned out to be code for making out in the car in the parking lot. But generally speaking, boys just…didn’t like me. Believe me, I don’t get it. Who wouldn’t want a mouthy, opinionated, snarky girl with short hair and bad makeup whose love of sarcasm was matched only by her dislike for sports?
It beats me.
But in any case, I was getting out. Greener pastures awaited! So as I packed my bag (singular) for New York and I looked forward to how my life would change. Theatre, music, art. The lights! The crowds! The action! There was so much to look forward to. And pulsing nervously beneath the surface was that sweet hope and impossible dream that maybe, just maybe, dating for me would be different too. But it’s like the old saying goes: the grass is never green so always, always be careful what you wish for.
I was only a month into my move when I found myself apple picking with some new friends in late September. The whole thing felt so New York. And that’s where I met…. Let’s call him Roger.
I had spent the day flirting with some other boys, pretending not to mind the way they talked about their yacht club and threw around their Harvard degrees. These boys were successful, they were driven—they all worked in finance. This was the dream, I reminded myself, thinking of all the boys I left back in Utah, just getting back from their summer jobs selling pest control. But even so, when Roger came up to me and asked if I liked the opera, I found myself a little worn out. The pretentiousness of it all was stifling. I wanted to be like “No, but can we talk about last week’s episode of The Bachelor?” Instead, I smiled demurely and tried to stop the conversation with a simple “Not really.” He ignored me—a trait, come to find out, most boys in finance share—and told me about how the opera really is the best of all the arts and I really should check it out. I told him I was familiar with many of the Greats (I know stuff, remember?) but I just didn’t particularly care for it. Still, he pressed, asking me what I majored in. English. If I liked to read. I studied English. Did I ever read any Nabokov. I want to murder you right now.
He then asked for my number, a bold move I was not prepared for. Usually there was hemming, hawing, flirting and cajoling. Often there was me dropping hint after hint to no avail. So I wasn’t used to a guy asking me point blank like that. But looking at him, with his smarmy face, a sweat breaking out under his tailored coat as he waited smugly for the digits he fully expected me to give, I knew I didn’t like him. I knew we had nothing in common. And I knew, deep down, a night with him would be a night I’d quickly want to forget. But still, I was a nice girl. And nice girls are trained to always say yes.
Give him a chance, I could hear my mom say, is it really fair to judge him already? He’s in finance.
So, against my better judgment, I gave him my number. And he eagerly read it back just to make sure I’d entered it right—obviously he’d been played before. Giving the wrong number was a technique I hadn’t thought of, so my next line of defense was an old classic: ignore him. Because maybe then he’d never call me. So I talked to everyone but him for the rest of the day, watching gleefully as he turned his attention to a tall Serena van der Woodsen type who I thought might better fit his type. But my nightmare resurfaced when he called a couple days later—on a Monday—and invited me out for that Wednesday. Our destination? The opera.
“I know you’ll love it.”
Do you, perfect stranger who I explicitly told I didn’t like Opera?
I felt the nerves fly up my throat as he detailed what he kept calling “our evening.”
“We’ll start our evening at this seafood restaurant. Do you like seafood? Oh, well, I know you’ll love this. It’s Michelin starred. And maybe we can grab dessert before continuing our evening at the opera. It should be a lovely evening—our evening.”
Honestly, I was beginning to feel very small. But it wasn’t until he offered to send me a car that I found my voice enough to say no. It seemed too much, too overwhelming, too intimate for me to allow someone I didn’t like send a car to fetch and deliver me to him. No. I would take the subway because I was a New Yorker. Or at least I was trying to be.
So it was set. The day of the date was one of trepidation and disinterest. But I at least got to wear a pretty dress. I glammed myself up, mastering a pretty coif I found on youtube and layering my eyes with a dramatic smoky look I’d been dying to try. And I looked good.
Like, pardon my French, but damn can I can clean up.
See? I know stuff.
Just like I knew I made a huge tactical error when I met him at the restaurant bar and he wouldn’t stop looking at me. And then he grabbed my hand, as if he already owned me for the night, and led me to the table. I was immediately uncomfortable with the hand holding. Remember my lack of experience? But mostly it seemed strange that he would be so immediately comfortable with it. We’d spoken for a total of fifteen minutes in my life, maybe, and it just felt so intimate. He didn’t know me. If he did, perhaps he would have been able to tell that I was nervous and anxious and uncomfortable and miserable and maybe, just maybe, a little unhappy.
But the waiter came up to us. “A bottle of wine for the table?”
“No, no,” I said demurely, but my date talked over me.
“We’ll take a bottle of Perrier, sparkling.”
The waiter smiled. “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have Perrier. Can I interest you in some San Pellegrino?”
Now at that, Roger visibly blanched. “You don’t have Perrier?”
“No, sir. I’m terribly sorry, sir.”
I watched in horrified curiosity as Roger scowled, literally waving off the waiter with a practiced flourish of his hand. “San Pellegrino is fine.”
He turned to me, an apologetic line waggling across his forehead with a rage barely contained. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe they don’t have Perrier.”
I couldn’t believe it, either: that this was a thing that was happening. To be honest, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Mostly because I was trying to figure out if we were still, in fact, talking about water. But then he took my hand, his thumb caressing my palm as if to soothe my shaken nerves at this, the lack of a certain brand of water. That was when I decided to laugh.
I pulled my hand away—it is my hand after all—and said the only thing that seemed right. “It’s just water.”
At this point, the waiter was back, the offending bottle in hand. He unscrewed the lid and poured us each a glass that Roger could barely acknowledge. But I smiled up at him.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, not even a second thought. “But could I get a glass of regular water?”
Those words literally left my mouth. Regular water.
“You mean flat?” The waiter finally offered after a moment of dignified silence. I nodded, my cheeks flushing as I realized Roger was watching me, horrified.
The waiter smiled. “What kind would the lady like?”
Roger cleared his throat, but I just shrugged. “Tap is fine.”
And I swore Roger winced.
I couldn’t hear anything but the blood ringing in my ears. My hands were sweaty and my face was hot. I didn’t know why what I did was wrong, but I knew it was somehow distasteful to this crowd, this Michelin starred restaurant I unwillingly found myself in. But if you remember, I know stuff. And I know for a fact that sparkling water is disgusting. It’s not refreshing, not ice cold and crystal clear. It’s fizzy and irksome and not at all ideal to wash down a meal I was already loathe to have. So I wanted my water and I wanted it flat and damned if I was going to embarrass myself by trying to name an actual brand.
Roger gripped my hand—I really don’t know why he felt so comfortable with my hand—and told me we could have ordered a bottle of water. But at this point I was annoyed by his pretense, by the show of it all. This was just a restaurant, it was just dinner, and it was just a glass of water. So I shook him off me, once again, and laughed too loudly, quickly making a self-depreciating comment about how small town I must be but I just don’t like sparkling water.
Turns out if there was one thing Roger didn’t understand more than tap water, it was sarcasm.
The evening was an awkward batting back and forth as he would ask about my family, my life, my interests, and I would make a joke about my small town, my loud family, my poor taste. At first, I did it because I was uncomfortable with his attention. And then I did it just because it annoyed him so much.
It mesmerized me how quick he was to stand up for me, to assure me I was more than I thought. It was disconcerting how comfortable he felt deciding he knew me so intimately that he could edit my definition—no matter how playful—of myself.
But let’s not be too serious. At that point, the feminist inside me was a gentle purr, irked by him and nettled by his affection, but still gently sleeping. That is, until it came time to order our food.
It was a fancy restaurant. Definitely the nicest place I’d ever been to. I’d perused the menu a bit before, looking at it online as I tried to find some silver lining. I figured if I was on a date I didn’t want to be on eating food I didn’t necessarily like, I should make sure I get the yummiest, most expensive thing on the menu, right?
It’s the little things, after all.
I had my eye on a blackened salmon with pureed potatoes. Since I know things, I assumed that was a fancy way of saying mashed. It was outrageously priced but decked out with sides I could imagine enjoying. Something recognizable. But Roger had a different idea.
I don’t know what it is about fancy restaurants, but I’m absolutely certain that waiters are trained to address the male at the table and only the male. He never once looked at me after the water debacle. I was a prop at the table, someone else to hang onto Roger’s every word and every whim, and I was not to be noticed. But I still watched in surprise as Roger began to order. Our conversations had so revolved around him and what he thought of me, that we hadn’t even discussed what to eat. And yet the way Roger took over the ordering, it seemed as though he’d put great thought into it. Without me.
“You like oysters, right.” It was less a question than an assumption. I’m sure even the waiter noted my look of horror as Roger began ordering a small arsenal of oysters, a food which up until this moment I had successfully and quite purposefully avoided.
But still he ordered. “Now, are these from France?”
“No, sir. Those are fresh from Maine.”
Roger tssked to me privately—as if the waiter couldn’t hear. “I really wish they had the French oysters; they have such a finer brine.”
Brine, if you don’t know—which I do, because I know stuff—is just a fancy word for salt water. As in, he was concerned over which ocean spit these things up because, wherever it came from, we would still be able to taste it. It being the salt water.
And then our waiter asked what we would like for the main course. I took a deep breath, eager to order the salmon, already dreaming about the pile of mashed potatoes that would cleanse my palette from all this brine. But Roger didn’t look at me. He looked at the waiter, smiled, and said, “We’ll have the scallops.”
I’m sorry. Scallops?
Now, we’ve already established I know stuff. And while I had never had oysters before, I had had scallops. They too are little blobs of flavorless meat. The chicken nuggets of the sea. Bite sized morsels that taste like absolutely nothing but supposedly make you feel fancy because they come in a dainty little row all lined up, seared in uniform.
I know I hate scallops.
But that was it. The dinner order was placed. The waiter left. And then began an awkward game of ranking me to my face. He would ask me questions—things like, “What’s your favorite movie?” or “Where’s your dream vacation?” Innocuous questions, and usually fun to answer. But with him it felt like an interview. A test. With every answer he would nod and smile and say something like “Well, that’s a plus five.” Or “I’ll add ten points to your score if that’s true.”
Insert uncomfortable laughter here.
Uncomfortable laughter was beginning to be a staple of this date, actually.
“Not to sound gay, but I really like A Knight’s Tale.” Uncomfortable laughter.
“You think Dark Knight is better than Batman Begins? Negative five points, for sure.” Uncomfortable laughter.
“Monet’s alright, but he has nothing to say.” Uncomfortable laughter.
“You really have to stop being so hard on yourself. I’m sure you’re great at tennis.” Uncomfortable laughter.
I was actually relieved when the food came, Finally, I could busy myself with choking down oysters that seemed to want no business sliding down my throat.
Spoiler alert: they tasted like salt water.
Err, I mean brine.
If I could just take a moment, actually, I’d like to clarify that oysters were definitely the worst part of this date. It might be because Roger insisted I just swallow them. Whole. No chewing, which I don’t think was the best idea. Because, now, gagging down five pieces of ocean phlegm—some dressed with garlic, others lemon—will forever be one of my top ten least favorite moments in the history of my entire life. They are disgusting and, not for better but definitely for worse, they are forever associated with Roger.
The same Roger who, as we left the restaurant, grabbed my hand again. And who, when I pulled away once more, grabbed it once again when he hailed a cab. We rushed to the opera, still late enough that the ushers told us to run. So off came my heels as we bolted up the stairs for the door, getting to our seats just as the lights went out.
I was immediately grateful for the silence. I folded my arms, my hands carefully away from his as I wrung the program and focused on the subtitles splayed before me.
The truth is, I hate the opera. And Roger would know that to if he actually listened to me. But he didn’t and there we were. It was beautiful but dull. And when the lights came on exactly two hours later, I honestly thought it was over. I had paid my dues. It was finished. But Roger politely explained it was actually only a twenty minute intermission. And so he left me on the stairwell to go to the bathroom. A second bathroom break, mind you, speaking to how painfully long this date had become. But we mingled on the balcony for the allotted twenty minutes and I was no longer affable. I was tired and uncomfortable and purposefully my most uncongenial self. He said how excited he was to take me shooting, and I brought up animal rights. He told me he wanted to take me to the driving range, and I mentioned golf’s sexist beginning. I was desperate to light a fire to our bridge, but he refused to take the bait. He just babied me and consoled me, called me girlish and held my arm. Until suddenly we were sitting down again and another hour and a half slipped slowly by.
Finally, it was over. We walked out and I could almost taste the freedom. At this point, I had logged exactly 6.5 hours with Roger on our first date and I was officially done. But he didn’t seem to agree.
“Do you want to go dancing?”
“Tonight?” My tone was meant to convey the are-you-serious-ness of my incredulity.
“Would you want to go to a show tomorrow?”
A panic set in my throat. I had not been trained on how to say no ever in my life. It was always deflect, defect, deflect. But I knew I could not go through that again.
“I’m busy,” I explained lamely, and still he pressed on.
“What about Friday?”
My heart was pounding—the last sign that I actually survived this evening. “I really don’t think I can.”
“Am I coming on too strong?” That. Yes. There.
We were on the steps of the Met Opera House. The fountain was glittering. The crowd was humming into the night. It was close to midnight. My feet were sore. And, after that sad excuse of dinner, I was absolutely starving. I just wanted to go home and binge eat everything in my pantry and down it all with a glass of regular water. But he was grabbing my arm—always with the arm—asking if he was coming on too strong.
Word to the wise: if you have to ask, you probably are.
I forced a smile. I tried to keep it light. I explained that I was new to the city; that I was just trying to find my footing; that I was busy looking for a job; that I didn’t want anything serious right now. And it was all true. But he just nodded with a look that—after nearly seven hours together—I knew meant he was only half listening. And then he turned on me.
“You didn’t let me hold your hand. Is it a cultural difference?”
Cultural meaning my religion.
I tried not to scoff. I tried not to recoil. Instead, I went to my practiced fallback: I laughed uncomfortably.
But he kept pressing. “Are you not interested? After all that?”
My blood boiled. My stomach churned. And I laughed uncomfortably. “I really just want to go home, if you don’t mind.”
So we took a step away from the opera house. He tells me he’ll escort me home, get us a car. But I shook my head. The subway stop was right there and I insisted I was fine to get home alone. But he shook his head, his eyes wide: “You live in Harlem? I never go above 110th street at night. It makes me uncomfortable.”
And there it was. I spent the whole night searching for it and finally I had it: the last straw. I snarled—sweetly—and explain that yes, I lived in Harlem; yes, I’d been above 110th street, even in the dark; and yes, I was completely fine with going home alone. In fact, I preferred it. And so he walked me to the train and I fled.
But not without hugging him goodnight. Because I am, after all, a nice girl.
I was shaking by the time I got home, absolutely flummoxed over how badly the date had gone. My fault, his fault, the world’s fault, I don’t know. But I couldn’t stop laughing. I told my roommates. I called my mom. I texted my friends. It was a story I could already tell would live in infamy. Oysters! Opera! Oh, the intrigue!
But it wasn’t over yet.
The next day he called me and, against my better judgement, I answered. He really couldn’t believe I wasn’t interested. “Are you sure?” He literally asked, as if I might have just been confused. And safe in the comforts of my own home, I told him in no uncertain terms that, yes, I was definitely sure and no, I was not interested.
A few days passed by and I moved on. Until at three in the morning I woke up to a series of texts from him, barely legible and uncomfortably hilarious. He told me—and this is just how he wrote it, “Idk u that well but the i think you’re too critical/hard on y ourself. I kno I didn’t need to take u to a michelin starred restaurant or nothin fancy but I don’t regret it for a second. Ur ducking worth it.”
He’s not wrong.
But it was awkward. It was uncomfortable. And it was also all I could take.
I had another blog at the time. Something small to keep my family back home up-to-date on my New York life. I had exactly nineteen followers, all of whom were back in Utah. And this was the most exciting thing to happen to me in my dating life since almost swinging a date with the hot German exchange student sophomore year of high school. So I wrote up a funny ditty ripping apart the date without mentioning names or places or times. It was mostly immature but not at all aggressive. So in the end, my nineteen followers knew I had a bad date, and, sure, we all agreed the guy was bad for me, but no one knew who he was.
And then, two weeks later, I got a call.
It seems that somehow–surreptitiously, of course–he had found my blog. (Definitely not from a cursory google search of my name.) And he had read through enough of my posts to find the one about him. And now he was calling me out on it. Literally.
I’ll admit, it was silly to write a blog about it. WITH SOMEONE SO CLEARLY OBSESSED WITH ME.
But it was in poor taste. And he dragged me for it, his feelings hurt, his ego bruised, and I truly felt sorry that he had found it. But then at the end of his shaming five-minute long voicemail he tells me, “I hope you’ll do the right thing; otherwise, I’ll have to call my lawyers.”
Now, I think it’s clear by now…I know stuff. And I know there was absolutely nothing his lawyers could do to me. Even though he was worried future grad schools would find it or that future dates could see the time stamp, figure out the opera, look at security footage, and discover it was him thus ruining him for life–“google Palantir, Shelby,” he said–I had done nothing wrong. It was a post he didn’t want to be associated with that in no way defamed him or even named him personally. But, still. I’m a nice person—and, turns out, easily intimidated. So I took it down. And I apologized. Profusely, I might add. And then he proceeded to mansplain the hell out of me.
Looking back now, it’s hard to read those texts. I was so spineless and he was so manipulative. I “wasn’t like other girls.” He was “disappointed” by me, called me “very young,” said he guess maybe he didn’t know me after all.
Which is true. He didn’t. And, hey, I don’t know him either. But by the end of it, I was humiliated, embarrassed, and pissed off. I spent the afternoon groveling via text and finally swore to take the whole thing down (the underlying win for me being please never talk to me again). His last note to me?
“Stop beating urself up. Live and learn.”
Okay, Roger. Whatever you say, Roger. Or, as he’s forever emblazoned in my phone and in my memory, here’s to you, Douchebag Opera Guy.
I may have been young and careless, and maybe I don’t know how to eat oysters (My solution? Just don’t.) or even how Perrier tastes (thanks for nothing, ROGER), but I do know stuff. Like, don’t ever eat oysters again. Always say no when you feel like saying no. And never, ever wear that little black dress around people who don’t deserve it.
But, hey, thanks for the San Pellegrino. You officially ruined it forever.