Woo Is Me! The Courtship Question

A few weeks ago, I

got a lesson in courtship from my father. It started when I told him that I’d

been dating a man who said he liked my apartment, with its Moroccan

painted-wood pieces and flea-market finds.

“That’s terrific,” my father said. “That means he’s interested .”

“Because he said he

liked my apartment?”

“No, because he’s lying,”

he said. “That means he likes you.

But what’s not to like?”

This method of simultaneously boosting and deflating at once

is what I like to call a “compli-insult”: essentially, a compliment with an

insult chaser.  Example: “You look so great -you’ve lost so much weight, you

can hardly see your double chin anymore!”

“Why wouldn’t he like my apartment?”

“Forget about that. Listen, when I was courting your mother,

I lied all the time. I told her I liked opera, the ballet-anything to make her

think I was artsy. And it worked.”

“So your definition of courtship is lying?”

“No,” he said. “Well, maybe a little.”

The topic of courtship

was part of a larger conversation, namely my wondering how people actually

manage to start-and maintain- relationships in a city I’ve come to think of as

an anarchy of romance, a Mogadishu of the heart.   As someone who’s been wading in the dating pool for a while now,

I barely remember the stages of my last relationship: How many dates

constituted “going forward”?  How does

one know when one is in an actual “relationship”?  What do you have to go through to get to the point where you’re

walking hand-in-hand through Blockbuster on a Saturday night, debating between Erin Brockovich and Stripes ?

For some, the first

stage of dating is the “nickname stage”: When talking with your friends, you

refer to your new prospect by a nickname. One woman I know went out with a man

she dubbed “PBS tote bag” because he was never without one. One man said he and

his friends called a woman “The People’s Republic” because of her pear-shaped

proportions. Other nicknames people mentioned included  “Crocodile Dundee Hat,” “The Health Nazi,”

“Bonnie-Why-The-Long-Face?” and “The Hammerhead Shark.” A Web designer who

speaks so quickly that he pauses for deep breaths said, “I hate nicknames

because you don’t know what people are calling you: You could be ‘Fat Joe’ or

‘Small-Penis Dan’-it’s definitely not ‘Tall, Handsome Frank.'” 

The man who dated “The People’s Republic” explained the

hidden significance of nicknames. “Nicknames are used to keep track,” he said.

“If you say, ‘Last night I went out with “Acapulco Guy” or “Filler Chick,”‘

your friends conclude,  ‘That’s

nothing.’ But if you say, ‘I went out with Susan,’ they think, ‘Ah, that’s something .’ They go from someone in your

tickler file to a real prospect.” A decorator who said she is “securing her

life in case she doesn’t meet Mr. Right” opined that nicknames were a defense

mechanism. “It’s calling men names and feeling better about yourself,” she

said. “Because it’s usually the guys who dump you.”

There are other ways besides nicknames to create a

protective screen. “If they’re not Jewish, I’ll talk a lot about my Judaism to

create distance, so I can rely on that later and use that to break up,” said a

male psychology student. A woman who has been married once said she tells men,

“I just know I’m going to bury my second husband.”                 

So once you get past the nicknames and death threats, what

is courtship? One woman described it as “a man not giving in to his neuroses”;

another defined the courtship stage as “the first three dates when you do nice

things.” A dentist called courtship “a more elegant term for seducing.” The

decorator thought it was “the dance of deciding. Figuring out if you want to

get to know each other or run for the hills-which is also a dance, just

faster.”

When I think of

courtship, I don’t mean flowers with a card that says “Just Because You’re You ,” but instead a little time to enjoy

each other before hopping in the sack. “There are two kinds of courtship now,”

a blonde explained from behind Ari Onassis wraparound shades. “The part to get

you into bed-and then the part to see if they want to have a relationship.”

Some people (well, men) questioned the need for courtship at

all. “We can be slovenly from the start,” the psych student said, “because we

can get laid anytime we want.”

When I asked people how

they would want to be wooed, the fast-talking Web geek said, “I’d like to be

left alone,” while the blonde said, “I’d like to be hunted like a wild animal.”

A man who claimed he “looked like Jeremy Irons in college” associated wooing

with money. “Many men want to woo,” he said, “but they give up because they

think it requires lots of cash. They see other guys who are loaded, so they

think they can’t compete.” A singer had a simpler take. “I like details,” she

said. “Like if he remembers I had a doctor’s appointment and asks how it was.”

So assuming you get through the courtship, how do you know you’re

in a relationship? For many people, it seemed to come down to one thing: the

toothbrush. “In the same way that prospectors staked their claim during the

gold rush,” the divorcée said, “the toothbrush is a wedge into a relationship.”

“The bathroom is key,” said another woman. “When he says you

should leave things in the bathroom, you’re in a relationship.” She had another

tell-tale sign: “You know you’re in a relationship when a man starts to freak

out.”

The decorator felt

differently. “I think that as much as you can stash your toothbrush in his

medicine chest, until he introduces you as his ‘girlfriend,’ you’re not,” she

said.

To my surprise, some people said that sex was the deciding

factor. “Once you start sleeping with someone, you’re in a relationship,” the

singer said. “But that just might be me.” The pudgy Jeremy Irons look-alike

said, “If you sleep with a woman and you’re nice to her, it’s assumed you’re

practically in a relationship. Whereas if you’re a jerk, you’re off the hook.”

Others pointed to “The Talk,” in all its varieties. The

psych student mentioned the “Let’s Go Out With My Parents Talk.” An importer

mentioned the “We’re Not Going to See Anyone Else Talk.”

“Either you’ve had The Talk,” said the importer

fatalistically, “or she’s monopolized my evenings so much that there’s no time

to go on other dates-so you might as well just throw in the towel.”

In writing this, I think

I was hoping that stages would provide a road map. Dating can so often feel

like a trip into the Bermuda Triangle, where you either survive and enjoy a

sunny vacation-or turn up on Unsolved

Mysteries. I want some order in the chaos. If I added up all the time I’ve

spent on dating-setting up the first date, choosing what to wear, meeting for

drinks or dinner or coffee or brunch, coming home not sure I was into him (but

wanting him to call anyway), getting the call, anticipating the second date,

choosing what to wear again, going on the second date, deciding I kinda like

him, going on a third date, deciding I really like him, going out a few more

times, fantasizing about our bike trip to Italy, getting more serious, feeling

happy to be alive, wondering if things are getting weird, wondering why things

didn’t work out-I could have gotten my M.D. 

And written an opera. In German. Twice. Woo Is Me! The Courtship Question