It is fitting that he was late, not only because it set a precedent for all of our future meetings, but also because love is not the accumulation of ideal circumstances. Love is messy and sometimes disappointing and rarely as expected.
So he was late: twenty minutes late. Late enough that my fingers were tapping out angry platitudes to a friend about respect and the value of other people’s time, but also late enough that I was afraid. I was afraid I had conjured a connection that existed only in my head. I was holding an acorn and imagining the oak, the way you do when your emotions run faster than reality can keep pace with. Having never met, his image was a precarious one that ebbed further from this glittering ideal with every passing minute. I waited, surrounded by people who came and went and whose faces merged into one. My mind worked to quiet the familiar and rising panic, this time accompanied by a dispiriting concern that he might never arrive.
He was smartly dressed, in a grey woollen coat and a burgundy shirt. That particular shirt has since met its unfortunate demise, but he wore it many times thereafter and each time it reminded me of this first meeting: when, after a few short hours, the thought of dating anybody else seemed miserable and inadequate. I can’t remember whether he apologised for being late. I don’t suppose it matters.
The first thing I noticed was that he had very crooked teeth. Teeth he’d subtly hidden in his photographs, perhaps out of discomfort or because he felt he ought to. The small detail of his teeth stood in contrast to the image of him I had created, and I felt a perverse disappointment at this discrepancy. I remember it took me by surprise, so out of character it was that I would be bothered with such an insignificant thing. Somebody with qualifications might say I was projecting: just as I had expectations, so too did he, and I was afraid I might in some physical way be letting him down. My long, blonde hair was brassy, perhaps, or my outfit – a polo neck and pinafore – too uptight, not to his taste. I was aware of the arrangement of my facial features in a new and uncomfortable way.
If I was a ball of nerves, he was confidence personified. Even now, he never admits to having been nervous: always pragmatic, he recalls experiencing, “only the normal level of apprehension one would feel on a first date.” We had spoken on the phone beforehand, his idea (somehow, I had found a man in his early twenties who enjoys telephone conversations) and one I had been uncertain about only in the prelude. His voice was simultaneously calming and commanding, firm but not clipped. Listening to him speak left you with no doubt that he knew what he was talking about, even if he, in fact, did not.
I took him to a bar I loved and we sat next to one another on a sofa and sipped our drinks as I allowed myself to relax – me: a gin and tonic, him: a nameless beer he drank slowly and with disinterest. I soon learned he isn’t a big drinker. A Sunday afternoon had been an odd time to schedule a date, but the bar was quiet enough that we could hear each other speak. I could appreciate the tone of his voice, the way his mouth curved around words that seemed to come so easily. I tucked my legs beneath me, leaning in as though enraptured.
After a while, we talked politics – an impolite topic I love to delve into on a first date – and his intellect astounded me. I found myself faltering over passionate beliefs, second-guessing myself in the face of a man who was suddenly, deliciously, making me question my views. Teaching me. I wanted to impress him, to make him think I was worth seeing again, because already this wasn’t the usual ‘date by numbers’ exercise I had engaged in with reluctance on so many occasions. Time passed unnoticed. My empty glass remained unfilled and ignored, because to leave for just a minute would be to break the thread of something spectacular.
This piece was originally written for #SRdontbeawriter, a course run by the wonderful Laura Jane Williams, which you can read about here.