Nightwatch: sober dating
Can I just say from the offset that I realise there's no way for me to emerge from the following article without seeming neurotic, insecure and most likely in need of an intervention? Or, as those symptoms are more colloquially and collectively known, Irish.
Picture it, London, 2010. I had arranged to meet a gentleman caller for a spot of supper. Things seemed promising: he was Australian so I, being one who seemingly clings so steadfastly to national stereotyping, assumed he'd be prone to wetting his whistle of a Friday evening.
But, to paraphrase that great Antipodean hero Alf Stewart, what a flamin' galah I was.
The guy didn't order a drink with his dinner, so being somewhat unclear of the proper etiquette in such situations, I also abstained. It was only after dessert, when I suggested that we move on elsewhere for a light libation, that I got the full, shocking truth.
"No, I don't really drink," he said jovially.
Don't ... drink ... ? Nope, my brain wasn't computing.
"Oh you Aussies with your funny little dialects," I replied. "I didn't catch any of that. Now could you tell me that again in the Queen's English and in my good ear please, there's a good boy."
"I don't drink," he repeated, flashing me a grin.
"Oh ... I see," is all I could muster in response. I probably wouldn't have been as shocked if the guy had attached a collar to my neck with extending leash, and asked me to crouch at his feet for the rest of the evening like an obedient dog.
"Let's go for a walk," he suggested. So we did, and it was nice (in an awkward kind of way), and I recall thinking at the end of the night, 'Wasn't that a refreshing change?'
A couple of nights later, we met again to eat. But this night I was a bag of nerves, and no Diet Coke was going to do the trick. So I cracked and grabbed the arm of the nearest waiter. "Fetch mommy a tall glass of self-esteem," I wheezed. Turning to the Aussie, I explained, "It's to complement the fish."
After dinner, he opted for a coffee and I ordered a Corona. This one was easy because, to my mind, that beer doesn't even count as alcohol. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it legally qualifies as water in parts of Mexico.
Being the lightweight I am, I was soon buzzing from my wine-beer cocktail, and I vowed there and then, as God as my witness, that I would never go dating sober again.
"You're in good form tonight," was the Aussie's amused (bemused?) assessment, a line that momentarily left me reeling due to its potentially devastating subtext. But I don't drink to excess and I never have blackouts, so I don't feel guilty about admitting that I like a couple of beers, at the very least during the first few times that I'm getting to know someone who might be cast as a future romantic lead.
Indeed, I'd go as far to say that it should be mandatory. To illustrate that point, I have it on good authority that Dick Cheney had approved the use of fully sober first dates as a torture technique in Guantanamo Bay.
To be fair to the Aussie, I don't think he ever expected me not to drink. He seemed to be chatty and outgoing enough to go without, but I know I'm certainly not in those situations. If nothing else, this date marked the first time in human history that alcohol actually heightened, rather than lowered, feelings of self-consciousness.
It does introduce an imbalance of power, though, doesn't it? In my limited experience, it almost felt like one of us was cheating in order to gain the upper hand, though, to this day, I'm not sure which one of us that most accurately applied to.
Maybe it's simply the case that I need to line up more imaginative things to do on first dates. That's fine and all, but, for many of us, we're always going to need that metaphorical slice of lime wedged into a bottleneck that helps to deter those icky flies of awkwardness and shyness.