A Date With Disaster

ALICE STEINBACH

December 03, 1990|By ALICE STEINBACH

NO MATTER HOW WELL OR HOW badly they end, first dates remain one of the cruelest social inventions ever devised by civilized minds.

"A first date is an extremely dangerous undertaking," says a newly divorced male friend who is about to re-enter the world as a single. "It's a bit like rafting in white water with no paddles. Both situations carry with them an extremely high potential for disaster."

Tell me about it. I had a first date on one of last summer's hottest days, and the guy showed up wearing a down jacket and knit cap.

From friends come the following first-date disaster tales:

The man who showed up carefully coordinated in glen plaid pants and a Nehru jacket. The woman who wore a strapless, black silk dress to a baseball game. The guy who made it clear on the way to dinner that he expected to share breakfast as well. The woman who talked lifetime commitment before the cappuccino arrived. The first-date who announced two minutes into the evening that he (she) went to Harvard.

Weird. Horrible. Embarrassing. Boring. Pathetic. Expensive. Such are the possibilities that await those who enter the Long, Dark Night of the First Date.

But, hey, if you're doing the dating thing -- and it doesn't matter whether you're 16 or 60 -- you already know from experience what I'm talking about. I'll bet that right now, as you read this, you're remembering some awful moment on a first date when you looked over the restaurant menu and silently screamed: "Why am I here with this odd-looking stranger who speaks a language I don't understand?"

And you had that thought before you noticed he was wearing a pinkie ring.

Of course, part of the reason why you've agreed to go out with the stranger beside you has to do with listening to Mom -- or your best friend -- whose last words were: "So, what have you got to lose? It's just one night out of your life. How bad can it be?"

It's hard to put into words just how bad a first date can be -- although we all know the answer: Baaaaaaad. Real bad. And there's no end to the unpredictable, innovative ways in which a first date can suddenly swerve out-of-control and into the wrong lane. To paraphrase Tolstoy: Although happy first dates are all alike, every unhappy first date is unhappy in its own way.

Happy first dates, for instance, go something like this: The doorbell rings. You open the door. Your eyes meet. You discover you both like bowling. Things go great from there.

Unhappy first dates, on the other hand, follow an erratic course.

"So many parts of a first date can spell disaster," says a female colleague. "Like the moment you open your front door and see that he's wearing a sweater three sizes too big or pants with the widest elastic waistband you've ever seen. Then you realize you're going to have to be seen in public with this person. And worse than that, some people will assume you're a couple."

For a lot of men and women, however, it's the Getting to KnoMe part that often spells disaster on a first date. Read my lips: It's the small talk with someone you don't know that is so often the most depressing aspect of a first date. And you dread answering such probing, cosmic questions as: Where did you go to school? Why have you never married? Whose fault was the divorce? Why did you become a free-lance biochemist? Where do you work out?

"I hate it," says one woman. "You have to muster up the same enthusiasm each time. I just wish I could hand the guy a tape and say, 'Here's my story. Let's just bypass the first date and go right for the second date."

Personal habits loom large on a first date. Or to be more precise, the inability to tolerate your date's personal habits looms large. Little things get on your nerves -- things like the way he or she breathes, eats, walks, talks, sits, stands, snorts when laughing.

"I can't stand it when my date talks during a movie," says one male friend. "I can't stand it when a guy wears his glasses on top of his head," says a woman friend. Both cite these offenses as adequate reasons to foreclose on the possibility of a second date.

Well, maybe. But then there's the woman I know who gave a bad first date ("He wore socks that fell down around his ankles and had a tendency to slurp his coffee," she recalls) a chance at a second date -- and wound up marrying him.

Which reminds me: A friend theorizes that we could cut the divorce rate in half if all husbands and wives were forced once a year to go out on a first date with a stranger.

Preferably a different stranger each year.

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