Daring to Date on an Island of Survivors

“I think you should write about your dating life,” my father told me the other night over dinner with my sister, her husband and their two beautiful children. “Write all the bad things. I think it could be funny.” When words like “bad” and “funny” are used to describe your social life, other words, like “profoundly disturbing” and “in 10 years I’m going to be showing pictures of my cats dressed in sailor suits,” come to mind.

A year ago, when my boyfriend and I broke up, I was 33 and remarkably naïve about dating in Manhattan. Having watched a lot of Sex and The City , I anticipated the fun of being a single woman in New York, a city I imagined would be ripe with interesting hybrids, like the kayaking lawyer who could play “Purple Haze” on the accordion or the journalist who volunteered with the blind and made his own sushi. These were the men I was destined to meet. I conceived of my single life as an endless array of fabulous events, a surprise party for Moby at Pastis or a quiet night playing “Celebrity” with Anh Duong and the many Furstenburgs, all the while being introduced to architects named Ethan and nibbling on grapes from Dean & Deluca.

One of my first dates was with a nice Jewish boy from Syracuse who was studying for his master’s in music theory. All seemed to be going well: He liked hiking and camping. I liked hiking and camping and sleeping in a hotel. Then the menus came. It was then that I realized, sitting at a Japanese restaurant in the Village, that I was with one of those people who feel compelled to pronounce food items at ethnic restaurants in the accent particular to the cuisine. For example, when eating Mexican food, “tortilla” becomes “dor-dee-ah” (with a rolling tongue) and “quesadilla” is pronounced with a Castilian lisp. “We’ll have the tempoo-RAH,” my date told the waitress, in a tone that sounded like he was sending kamikaze troops to their planes. “And some sah-KAY.” I never thought I’d want a man to order “hat sacky,” but I’ve learned never is a word single women in Manhattan can’t just throw around. It must only be used sparingly, like self-tanner. Another night I went out with a friend’s brother, an Internet guy who impressed me with his knowledge of Planet of the Apes movies. He knew that Roddy McDowall played a well-meaning chimp named Cornelius, who helps Charlton Heston escape evil baboons who wear caramel-colored tunics and sport shag haircuts with bangs. Again, all seemed to be going well. We both ordered grilled fish and talked about where we went to college. Then he asked how many men I’d slept with and did I own a vibrator.

When I told my father the vibrator story, he said I should have stood up, grabbed my coat and said, “You may talk to other young women that way, but I don’t care for that sort of behavior. Good night, sir.” Apparently my father thought my date took place in 1953. “The problem is you’re always in your house writing, so you never meet people,” he said. “What about getting a job in public relations or advertising? I bet there are lots of single men in those jobs.” “Dad, I’ll be fine,” I assured him. After all, just the other day I got a phone call that started with the line: “Your sister’s friend’s husband works in an office with my friend’s wife. I think.” And then there was the computer expert who called me “girlfriend,” as in, “Hey, girlfriend, how’s about we chow in the p.m.?”

Don’t get me wrong, there were some very nice men: the guy whose head was the size of two-liter bottle of Pepsi; the former heroin addict who used to only date strippers but “didn’t need to go for looks anymore.” They were fun. So was the guy who told me, as we were waiting for a table at Bar Pitti, that he hadn’t had sex in almost six weeks and it was making him “really edgy.” These were the good dates.

At 34 I am just old enough to worry my relatives. Now, even if I do find a husband, it looks like we’re going to need in vitro or locate a foreign orphan. “Would you be interested,” my aunt asked, “in a furniture-maker who lives in rural Maine and isn’t much of a talker?”

Many of my friends complain that the men who are left are on the Warren Beatty plan of marrying in their mid-50’s. This made me wonder if every generation has its plague, and because we’ve found cures for both polio and TB, a new disease has taken their place as the epidemic that will control the population: fear of commitment. When women do find men they like, Manhattan becomes a lot like Pamplona-except instead of bulls, women are chasing frightened men through narrow streets. Men who fear registering at Bed, Bath and Beyond even more than being gored in the ass.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise that, in light of all this, I swore off dating for a few months, preferring to do more fulfilling things like watch reruns of MTV’s The Real World Hawaii and eat to the point of discomfort. Then I started to panic. In 10 years I’m going to be a spinster who looks like a Roz Chast cartoon with a pyramid of badly permed hair, who only fits into caftans bought at Indian boutiques on the Upper West Side and whose social life is relegated to lectures at the Goethe Institute. Depressed, I began to watch a lot of summer TV, finding inspiration in the most unlikely place.

Apparently, finding a mate on the island of Manhattan is a lot like the hit series Survivor . Like the castaways on the island, we single women are surrounded by water and occasionally have to deal with rats. Dating is similar to getting cut from the show in that one person usually goes home unhappy. We also must prove we can adapt to difficult living conditions (my neighbor practices the French horn several hours a day), endure physical pain (for me it’s spinning classes) and fraternize with people totally unlike ourselves (these are called “dates”). Like the women who sit around in wet bathing suits and bicker over who’s supposed to find tapioca, the women of Manhattan are no strangers to sacrifice. Generally we live in overpriced, small, dark apartments, endure the subway crush every morning and realize that in a city with millions of men, we’re not going to get everything we want. Not even close. We understand that. We’re New York women, the survivors of another island, and while we don’t eat squirming larvae as they did on TV, we sure do eat a lot of salads.

We single girls have long known what America tunes in to see every Wednesday: Survival isn’t pretty. But like the remaining cast, each of us must proceed believing we’ll be a winner. “Please, you mustn’t give up,” my father announced in a recent pep talk. “Even if these men are borscht, they might have friends. You never know.” While I once hoped for clambakes with Chloë Sevigny in the Hamptons, instead I’m being told, “Why don’t you try the coffee place with the anonymous forms?”

I know it’s time I returned to my own island of gay men and retired Navy Seals. I’ve started dating again, even though I haven’t been on any dates. It’s more of a state of mind. I will embrace the mosh pit of hopeful women in slingback mules and the men who feed them. These are my people.

Daring to Date on an Island of Survivors