“So you can get the next one?” my father sputtered. Later, I’d gone home and told him how the date had gone.
“Did you tell him that this one wasn’t even enough to cover the gas it took to get out there?”
I didn’t, unfortunately. I never got the chance because after he paid my brain went behind a window and started watching my body go through the motions necessary to finish the date.
We walked out of the restaurant and stood on the curb before he repeated, “So, you want to walk around inside the market?”
“Sure,” my mouth said, but inside my brain was both squirming and grinning, knowing that this was far from a dream first date but also recognizing it as much better than a run-of-the-mill bad date experience. Like a creepy reporter I thought, “This is going to be a good story.”
So I went with it. It was, after all, my first date. For this I had set aside the time. I was not yet on my fiftieth first date (though I would never get there), where hopefully I’d be able to tell right away from a few lines of conversation that we would waste each other’s time and that I’d much rather spend the evening eating takeout and watching “House of Cards” – no, I was still in an exploratory mode. Still a wide-eyed freshman at orientation week for the University of Dating and Relationships.
It wasn’t a bad date. It was an interesting date. Interesting because of how strangely dull it was. In the company of a different girl with different tastes and standards (though low to me), Steve might have been seen as a great guy. Maybe he was a great guy. Maybe his first date game just sucked over-boiled taro balls. It wasn’t even as if he had anything up his sleeve remotely resembling game. He had simply woken up, rolled out of his childhood bed and showed up at a date he had agreed to go on.
We walked through the sliding glass doors of 99 Ranch Market and….I wish I remember the conversation, however inane it was. But it was overshadowed by a strange thought I had: that this first date was perhaps like the meat of a lot of people’s actual relationships. The plateau that’s reached after they’d been dating for a while. Instead of dates, you run errands together. You go to Target and Costco and 99 Ranch to pick up fruit before visiting your parents. There was something both strange and familiar about walking side by side with a Chinese guy around my age, through the aisles of this Chinese market. Except neither of us had to buy any groceries.
We came to the snacks aisle where he pointed out, very confidently, all of his favorite snacks. Rice crackers, Pocky, and dry, roasted squid.
“I love that stuff,” he said, and I remember nodding, thinking, “I love it too.”
And suddenly I felt endeared to this guy who had no idea what he was doing or how he was coming off. I felt not sorry for my present self for agreeing to this comfortably strange first date, but for my old self, who had held off and perhaps missed out on dating earlier because of my expectations of what I thought dating was supposed to be and how people would react to my own limited experience. I realized that no one would have cared, and if they did, so what? What even were my expectations? What were Steve’s? What was experience and what was it worth? What the hell was a relationship made of anyway?
Some people might be more “experienced” and have gone on more dates and might have even had girlfriends and wives and other variations of long-term committed relationships – but that no one really, ever, knew what they were doing, not even while they were doing it.
That little jaunt with Steve around 99 Ranch Market in Rowland Heights gave me immeasurable confidence. I was finally ready to start dating in earnest. I didn’t want to just test the waters, I wanted to jump in and swim.
Just not with Steve.
We exited the market and I looked at my watch. The date had reached two hours and I knew for sure, as endeared as I was, that the date was over. I would never see Steve again.
“Well that was pretty fun,” he said.
“Yup,” I said, thinking, It’ll be more fun to tell people about this.
“I’d ask you to hang out again this weekend, but I’m going to Burning Man,” he said.
What the hell was Burning Man? I had never heard of it.
“Oh,” he said, “It’s this huge event where you go and look at art in the desert.”
“You like art?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, as we started towards my car, “but there’s other stuff to do there.”
Years later I would find out Burning Man was much more than that, and that Steve’s droopy-eyes and generally slow demeanor were signs of him having more interest in drugs than in art. And that the searching look he gave me was to see if I really didn’t know what else happened at Burning Man besides the art. But I didn’t know anything about anything then. I didn’t even drink on dates.
“That sounds cool,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” he said, “I’ll call you when I come back and we can hang out again.”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
We reached my Prius and he leaned in for a hug. I patted him lightly on the back with my right arm, not knowing what else to do with it. And then he smiled, turned and walked away. I got in my car and turned it on. My first date ever was over.