I was thinking about my first kiss in the middle of a root canal. The dentist and his colleague stood over me, overhead light beaming in my face, tubes and tools cluttering my mouth.
It was their conversation that brought me back to the fateful day.
“Who sings this song?” my dentist asked his colleague. “It’s really good.”
Michelle Branch’s ‘All You Wanted’ played faintly over the room’s sound system.
“Uh, I think it’s Christina Aguilera,” the other man replied.
I wanted to chime in and correct them but wasn’t in the proper physical state. Instead I relived that evening a few days after my 14th birthday when I saw Michelle in concert at the Electric Factory in Philly. Back then she was my biggest crush; I was completely enamored with her. After the show I stood in a short line clenching her debut album, waiting to meet the then 18-year-old girl with the guitar.
I remember being surprised at how small she was. She made me feel like we were somewhat equal, despite 18 seeming so old. Brave, bold, courageous me had it all planned out. I knew it was now or never. As she smiled and signed my disc I quickly leaned in and kissed her cheek. Not a peck but a smooch, and to this day I still remember that first feeling of my lips against a woman’s flesh. Michelle smiled even bigger and turned to me with blazing chestnut eyes and exclaimed, “Aww, you’re so sweet” drawing me in for a hug.
Now this was a time long before such an instance might be labeled assault, before Me Too hashtags and social media, and well, the Internet as we know it, really. Things were different, and looking back on it, Michelle and I really weren’t that far apart in age, except at the time it seemed like decades to me.
That night I went home having kissed a girl for the first time in my life, and it wasn’t just anyone. I felt like I was living a miracle.
The song ended and my tooth surgery wrapped up. I drove back to my apartment and replayed the song, reliving it all over again for the hell of it. Besides, it had been awhile since I listened to her music. Later that day I got a text notifying me my cousin had another baby. A family thread materialized and pictures of the child began blowing up my phone along with the Ooos and Aaaas. I congratulated her and muted the thread. A few minutes later I powered up my laptop and began searching flights to Vegas for my best friends upcoming bachelor party. What a strange feeling knowing my best friend of over 15 years was soon to be married, and to a woman who loved him unconditionally. What a rarity. I was happy for him but I wanted to be more happy. Instead my happiness was accompanied by a ping of emptiness for myself.
Later that night I took a walk around my little beach town. From my apartment I trekked two blocks to the boardwalk and walked its length, taking in the salt air on an exceptionally mild day in January. I passed by restaurant windows and downtown lights, watching couples and friend groups dine. Afterward I began unwinding at my apartment and booked another trip. Nashville sounded good. It’d been awhile and I had so many friends there. I liked spending my weekends going on affordable adventures, whether that be local, domestic, or even international if possible. It had always been a central part of me, but lately I felt like it was perhaps a little escapism.
A few weekends prior I met up with friends in Washington, D.C. We were dancing at a club in DuPont Circle when my friend caught me scoping out these two cute girls across the room.
“Go dance with them,” she said to me.
“Oh yeah right,” I fired back, blowing her off. Jen had been married for a few years now and was completely out of the loop. Despite us being around the same age, having graduated from college together, the dating world had drastically changed in just a few short years, leaving what honestly felt like an approximately 65-year gap for Jen to attempt grappling with.
Jen was a loyal friend, sister of one of my best friends, and wife of another great friend. She always had my back in college, giving me the inside scoop, coaching me at the dating game. Now the tables had turned because Jen knew nothing of the modern era and I lamented knowing, well, observing an awful lot of it. I had been trying to explain to her how the rules were insane now, and this new generation only a few years younger than us seemed like decades.
“What do you have to lose?” she asked. I set my drink down on the bar and turned to her.
“It doesn’t work that way,” I replied. “Just watch.”
The two girls backed away and all but shunned a guy who started dancing somewhat near them. We saw the whole thing unfold. The girls seemed a bit out of his league but he was polite, perhaps a bit awkward, but it was clear the girls were visibly creeped out by his presence.
“Jen, you should go ask those girls if it’d be creepy if a guy just randomly came over and started dancing with them or if he were to ask,” I said, jokingly.
“Okay, I will,” she replied and walked through the dancing throng over to the girls. I didn’t expect her to actually go over there.
A few minutes later she came back smirking.
“So, what’d they say?” I asked.
“They said if a guy just randomly starts dancing with them it’s creepy. So I said what if he were to ask and they said that was creepy, too,” she laughed. “So then I asked what wouldn’t be creepy to them, and they said they didn’t know.”
I took a gulp of my drink before responding.
“It’s simple. You’re either attractive or you’re not. If you’re not, you’re a creep, and if you are, well, then it doesn’t matter.”
Literally moments later the case in point came to fruition right before our eyes. A much taller, more attractive gentlemen approached the girls. They were completely engaged and receptive. Soon they disappeared with him into the crowd.
“Case closed,” I said, finishing my drink.
Jen couldn’t stop laughing.
Later that night at a more quiet bar I tried catching her up on some of the things I’d learned about the sickly modern dating scene in America.
“They’re called finstas, or spam accounts,” I said, describing the multiple Instagram accounts a present-day college girl might have.
“One is their public face or professional social account which kind of showcases how they want to be perceived by the world,” I said. “And then there’s these deep, private accounts where they screenshot texts and direct messages and put their friends on blast and post nudes or scandalous pics and speak their super raunchy minds.”
Jen was baffled. We didn’t have Instagram in college, let alone smartphones. Back then I was roaming the South and the Midwest in my 89 Plymouth with roll-windows and a bench seat, running out of minutes on my T-mobile flip-phone and living free of social media’s burden.
To give her some insight, I shared one particular story from quite some time ago about a girl who lived in my general area I came across on Instagram through mutual followers. She was cute, a photographer, roughly around my age, perhaps a bit younger. The friends we had in common I actually knew in person, and we seemed to have the same interests and frequent the same coffee shops. I took a liking to her and sent a casual, polite message. Typically they don’t garner a response. There’s an immediate guard of judgement and skepticism, unless, of course, you’re extremely attractive, in which I am pretty average. But to my surprise, this girl seemed interested in my life, too. So we chatted back and forth for several days here and there, sharing our favorite restaurants, photo tips and getting a glimpse into one another’s life. At one point I suggested we meet up for coffee. Her response kind of threw me.
“But that would be weird since I don’t really know you,” she said. For a moment I really didn’t know how to respond. In my mind I was thinking, isn’t that the point?
“That’s why I asked,” I responded, with a laughing-cry emoji. It was awkward, and someone reading this will say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have said that you should have said this..” My God there are way too many rules, I can’t keep up. I was just trying to be me.
The comment was “read” by her but never responded. I didn’t want to press her so I let it go. A few days later she unfollowed me. And that was that. If you’re like me you probably think I must be leaving out a part of the story here, only I’m not. That’s exactly how it went down.
This isn’t uncommon, in fact this is typical. No matter what you do or say, you’re never going to do or say it right, unless that is, the person is very much attracted to you. Respect, dignity, manners, getting to know someone slowly over time spent together are all but tossed out the window when people have become disposable commodities due to social media – an endless surface-level-only catalog of humans and lives making us falsely believe there’s always something or someone better out there we’re missing out on or haven’t met yet.
“I certainly don’t envy you,” my best friend said to me over dinner as I complained about how brutal the scene is. His fiance went on to share with me that her good friend thought I was very handsome and liked being around me but there was something superficial I was missing, and therefore I was disqualified. I laughed at the impossibility of all of it and wondered how we got to this point as humans. I could’ve named several superficial things about this friend of hers that I thought she was missing, too. The difference was I would be more than willing to overlook all of them for the possibility of what could be. She, however, could not. And that has increasingly been my experience, but I feel like it wasn’t always this way.
When these dating apps first emerged, I was getting matched all the time. I’d go on dates every week and most of them were with people who actually wanted to go on dates. Some even put away their phones to keep from distraction. Others became incredible friends, one a colleague I’d work with for over a year, and one – an actual girlfriend. Flash forward just about five years and it’s not even remotely close to the way it was. Today I get no matches, hardly ever, and I’ve absolutely mastered the art of starting a conversation and getting no response. I look back at my photos from the past and I definitely feel like I’ve gotten much better looking with age. I’m established with a well-paying job that I love, a nice apartment by the beach, and more travel experiences and stories under my belt than ever. I’m much more interesting now than I was then, except I’ve never been more lonely; completely unable to communicate with this rapidly changing society in which everything is creepy, weird, awkward, a nuisance, and a rash judgement.
The charming line garners no response. Neither does the witty, polite, or the casual. As a last resort a raunchy line almost always works, except it’s just a reprimand. Yet the shallowness, which was once something we’d try to hide, is now worn and displayed proudly like a badge on the ‘finstas’ and Tinder and Bumble accounts of the masses. I kid you not, dear reader, they post height and weight requirements. This is real life, 2018.
I don’t know if it’s a curse but I’ve had a grim track record in the relationships department. And if you’ve read this blog, you’d know. I’m living in a day and age where romance is a turn off, unless of course, you’re exceptionally good-looking. Relax, I’m generalizing.
Part of my problem I think is my my mother. She has set the bar so ridiculously high with her exceptional, selfless, optimistic and smothering love. Her idealism shaped and made me, so let me take back that word ‘problem.’
I’m nearly 30 and I’ve only had two official relationships in my life. One when I was in high school and the other somewhat recent-ish, the later setting me back nearly a decade it feels. The only exception in all of this is this one woman who came back into my life years after I wrote about her ghosting me. (I hate that post-modern term but I don’t have another word for it). She reached out humbly and in a mature manner to reconnect and to make things right. To this day I revere her, because she broke the curse and turned my ingrained bias and bitterness on its head, proving me wrong and leaving me with the one solid example I look back on when I feel most hopeless.
Having to navigate this dating culture is absurd and it’s only gotten worse. I’m nostalgic for another time; an era in which I never knew but idealize. I think of my parents generation and how small their world was. They had their schools, towns, and communities. When they wanted to know something about someone, they had to ask. They couldn’t look someone up or stalk their life, relationship, or job to get a judgmental glimpse into what they think their life was like. They had to go hang out with them and find out all of that. Their social skills far exceed ours. And when they wanted a job, they physically showed up and applied or asked. Perhaps they read an ad in a newspaper or saw a sign posted or heard from someone about a new opportunity. Whoever showed up with the qualifications and desire to work usually got the job. Today, a position is posted online for the entire planet to compete for. And in an endless catalog of humans and what we perceive or judge their lives or personalities or physical attributes to be, we’ve become exceeding isolated and inward-seeking despite the beauty of global connectivity.
“You’re going to have a big story,” my grandmother said to me over a cup of coffee at a waterfront cafe in Annapolis. We had spent the weekend together exploring and naturally talking about my lack of a relationship status while the other grandkids, all younger than me, were either married, in serious relationships, pregnant or on their second or third child. The kid in me could never doubt grandmom’s wisdom.
“It’s not even that I need to be married or have kids right now,” I said. “I can’t say that’s even what I want at the moment.”
I told her all I wanted was simply a companion. Someone to romance and be in a relationship with. To take on dates and jet-set on weekends. Someone to wake up with and make breakfast for or take out. All I wanted was someone to come home from work and take out for dinner, to walk the boardwalk with, to snuggle in bed and watch movies and read books and sleep in tiny houses and airbnb’s and cozy hotels in towns, cities, mountainous regions, and beaches – local, domestic, and international. Someone willing to be spontaneous, take a personal day and go somewhere we’ve never been for a long weekend. Someone I could take pictures of and write love letters to and hold hands with and share my deepest thoughts and talk or argue about politics with. Someone I could lovingly berate and would lovingly berate me back, with episodes ending in passionate love-making. Someone who would read my writing and be bold and comfortable enough to tell me if it’s shitty or not. Who would go on crazy, fun road trips and hold traditions dear. I just wanted someone to share life, work, creativity, adventures, intimacy, and travel. Instead of walking from my apartment into my little downtown to buy a movie ticket and sit in the theater alone, I’d just want her there beside me, to share all of it. All I wanted was someone so I wouldn’t have to worry about if friends were available to do something or go somewhere because my companion would always be geared up to go. All I wanted was someone who simply loved me and wanted to do life with me and saw it as one big adventure they’d never find anywhere else.
“You get your romance from your grandfather,” she said. She was right. Without a doubt I knew my grandfather looked at my grandmother the same way at 70, as he must have when she was 20. And what a joy it must have been for him to even know her at 20. His love for her so vividly bubbled over he believed he was the richest, luckiest man in the world to have her and the family they made together. Never would he hesitate to let us know.
For the longest time I thought I was the problem. I’d belittle and berate myself, especially over the last year and some months, that I didn’t have it together, that I was inherently and tragically maimed to the point of handicap, without an ounce of self confidence. I felt like a burden when I entered rooms, met new people, took up any space, carried on conversations. Constantly I felt in the way, needing to step aside, let the stories of others play out around me, perhaps even assist in their success. But never once did it occur to me that I of all people could be a main character or protagonist in the unfolding drama permeating around me. For a long time I accepted my role as an extra; a subtle background character to fill empty space all the while feeling exactly that: empty.
Grandmom’s words echoed in my ears, “big story.”
It wasn’t until I realized that many cultures weren’t at all like the one I was living in did my perspective start shifting.
“Maybe I’m not the problem at all,” I thought. “Maybe modern America is the problem.”
It was true that the whole dominant, outgoing, cocky, badass alpha-male thing didn’t go over well everywhere. In fact, places like Eastern Europe were turned off by it and even made fun of it. Introverted men had a chance there, and apparently a lot of other places in the world, too. This gave me new hope. With a love language of time, just meeting someone willing to invest in me seemed like it would be a miracle in itself.
A year ago I connected with a missed connection over Instagram. She was from Siberia, Russia, and had worked at the nostalgic Old Time Photos on the Ocean City boardwalk over the summer of 2014, during the time I lived and worked in the town as a magazine editor and photographer. We exchanged messages and started sharing about each other’s lives, cultures, traditions, customs, families, friends, and politics. It was amazing how this woman 5,000+ miles away wouldn’t have hesitated for even a second to meet me for coffee if she could, and yet the American girl in my very own culture, language, age-range and society was quick to turn it down, even considering it “weird.”
One day when I came home from work I found a card in my mailbox postmarked from Russia. It was quite literally sealed with a lipstick kiss and took months to get to my doorstep.
“I believe in miracles,” the handwritten words read. “Miracles must happen.”
I ran my fingers over the faint indentations of the kiss. It wasn’t a peck but a smooch, and it wasn’t for just anyone, it was meant for me.
“She’s right,” I thought, encouraged, inspired, and uplifted. “They must happen.” And even though I had no idea when it would be or who it might be with, in that moment as I took the stairs up to my apartment, I reveled in all I wanted and started thinking about the fateful, future day of what my last first kiss will be like.