Saturday 18 November 2017

Three blind dates... see how I ran!

Premature declarations, meaty hands where they should not be and short men with complexes ... Wendy Pestana on the perils of being single and set up

Wendy Pestana. Photography: James Horan
Wendy Pestana. Photography: James Horan

Wendy Pestana

So, just who are the 'non-seeing' ones on a blind date? The two who have been thrown together by a well-meaning friend or, indeed, those beneficent pals who have decided that, because you're both single, of course you'll hit it off?

After a few trips into a world in which I initially thought there'd be nothing to lose but a few hours and hopefully a few laughs, I decided that it's the self-satisfied married or 'in a relationship' friends behind the set-ups that need to clean their rose-tinted glasses.

"Why, she's single and he's single!" they cry in unison. "She's at an age when she'll be grateful for any male company; likewise for him."

"Oh, we know just the perfect man for you," they grin, reassuring themselves that, once you meet, you'll shrug off your penchant for Guns N' Roses and Radio Nova, never-ending nights and urban tribes, reverting to type of what a fortysomething woman is expected to be.

And when you're a widow too -- hell, sure you'll settle for anything.

Well, to slightly paraphrase Ralph McTell's classic song, let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Dublin -- I'll show you something that'll make you change your mind.

"I'll be in a suit," he said, "and I'm the same height as you, so don't wear heels." Beep. Beep. Beep. Dial tone. End of phone conversation, and an introduction kindly made possible by a distant relative.

No heels? On a night out? And a Friday night out, too. That demand -- or rather, command -- should have set off alarm bells, should have immediately got me calling back with some smart, cutting retort and a brush-off.

So, the guy doesn't like to be shorter than the woman he's out with, I thought. I'll give him a chance -- what's to lose?

Fast forward to that evening and there I was, tottering along in 'halfway' heels towards the trendy city-centre bar we'd agreed on for the rendezvous.

It didn't surprise me that when we exchanged glances of 'recognition' as I walked inside, he remained sitting, his eyes sweeping upwards from the shoes. And the opening to Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' flashed through my mind: "You need coolin', baby, I'm not foolin'..." And even though he was probably at least 10 years, if not more, younger, I don't think he'd have known the song.

And that was it. I kicked off the barely-there boots, pulled on the sky-high stilettos (packed into my handbag), jumped on the bar counter, slung my air guitar around my shoulder and broke into song.

Okay, so that's a little embellishment, but hell, that's what I was thinking as I managed to blurt out: "I'll have a mojito, please."

We spluttered through a stop-start conversation that took in, oh, two-for-one drinks elsewhere, the slowness of the bar staff to refill the rice-cracker bowl, the loud music and the couple sitting at the table next to us -- she could have made an effort, he didn't seem interested.

Yawn. I downed the cocktail and mentally kicked myself -- with the halfway heels -- that I hadn't organised a 'get out of jail' phone call from one of my friends.

More alcohol, and then I'd make my excuses. I stood to go to the bar when it dropped, and with it so too did my jaw. "Let's go back to your place," he pronounced.

I was barely into "That's not a good idea" when he kicked off (and, no, it wasn't his shoes either). "Why do all women turn me down?" he shouted, his voice turning into a roar as he ranted on about all the disservices done to him. "And I asked you not to wear heels!"

He stood up. I looked up, and very quickly looked down again. My one step back was fast turning into one step beyond. I smiled, picked up his drink, downed it (what did you think, that I would have wasted it by throwing it on him?) turned on my halfway heels and left.

It was 9.30pm on a Friday; I wasn't going home. A couple of calls later and I'd tracked down a few people who didn't care whether someone was wearing flip-flops or sky-high stilettos.

In the 200 or so metres between the chic surrounds I'd just left and the comfortable old dive I was heading to, no-head-for-heights texted three times. He was sorry, he didn't know what had come over him, he was getting into a taxi and would meet me at another hotel, he'd be there waiting. Yeah, right, I couldn't wait. Delete, delete, delete.

And did that put me off? Not a chance. Roll on date number two, courtesy of a friend of a friend, and a couple of years older this time. Another bar, this time mid-afternoon in a salubrious southside Dublin suburb. I'd at least seen a picture, although there's not much to see when it's been taken from a distance and viewed on a dinosaur of a phone. But this one assured me he was almost a good head taller than me. How could I resist?

A polite peck on either cheek in greeting and I was guided gently to an awaiting stool, carefully placed in front of a large screen.

"Front-row seats," I said, hoping he'd pick up on the rise in pitch at the end, which turned it into a question. And of course, silly me, I'd forgotten there was a major international rugby match on that day.

The barman took our order and, glasses in hand, we took our places. Fifteen minutes to kick-off. By the time the national anthems started, the craic, as they say, was potentially heading towards mighty.

And then, as whoever it was kicked for touch on-screen, a big meaty hand landed on my thigh off-screen. If I'd had a pacemaker, it would have stopped, and I felt the generous measure of one of Ireland's finest whiskeys seep into my dress as the glass shattered simultaneously on the floor. One helluva crack, all right.

Laughing heartily, big-hand man simply moved closer. Thigh was now pressed up against thigh, shoulder against shoulder, and as his arm reached out and then behind me, I bobbed and weaved in a move that even Muhammad Ali would have acknowledged as deft, and made my way to the bar, hands gesturing to indicate I was getting a refill.

I don't remember who won the game, I don't even remember who was playing. I do recall, though, that the smoking alleyway outside gave me occasional sanctuary throughout the 80-odd minutes plus half-time of scrumming, trying, line-outs and offsides -- and that was off the pitch.

Leaving was always an option so, yes, I share some of the blame, but, in mitigation, I tell myself now, I'd been out of the dating scene for a while and didn't want to be rude (oh, how I have learned my lesson).

Minutes after the final whistle blew, I made my excuses: I needed to get home to whip up something to eat, have an early evening, work tomorrow. Big-hand man grasped me, his face trespassing my face's personal space. "No, come to my house; I'll cook you dinner." I wriggled free, declining. "Wait here," he said, turning away. "I need to use the men's room and then we can decide what we're doing." Hallelujah, the sweet song of emancipation started up in my mind.

Moving in what felt like slow motion, I slipped out of the door, on to the pavement, arm lifting, hand out-turned. A taxi stopped, I climbed in, the address rolling off my tongue as I glanced sideways -- big-hand man in my line of vision. "Do it," I told myself silently, and, with a faltering wave goodbye, I was off.

Another week, another rendezvous. Were deficient blind dates, like bad luck, also bundled in packets of three? I was about to find out.

We meet for brunch in an acclaimed yet relaxed restaurant. He's quieter than the other two, brooding almost. He orders the pancakes, I opt for the eggs Benedict. Beer for him, glass of cava for me. The talk is calm, measured; his eyes locked on to mine. There's a degree of tension, but I can't quite pinpoint yet whether it's of the good kind.

As the minutes pass, we travel the world in words: pensive brown eyes decides upon Marrakech as the ultimate place for his palace of life; for me it's the Caribbean island of St Lucia. To an onlooker, we probably appear oblivious to anyone else around us, but there's a growing sense of disquiet within me, although at the same time he's strangely compelling.

Another beer, another glass of bubbly, and as I bring the delicate flute glass to my lips he leans in, lips almost but not quite against my ear. "I've fallen in love with you," he whispers. Jesus.

The reverie is broken; I'm back in control. "That's flattering," I say, "but an hour is not exactly long enough, surely, to be able to come to that conclusion." He's silent, I ramble, filling the space with clichéd phrases: I can't return his feelings right now, perhaps we should meet again, see how the cards fall...

"It's all or nothing," he uttered finally, and, sweeping his chair back, he got up and walked out of the room.

What? I looked around, not knowing whether he was being serious. He'd come back, wouldn't he? But no, pensive brown eyes had fled, leaving me with an admittedly dented ego -- and the bill.

Three blind dates, see how I ran. Even though, technically, the last one ran from me, metaphorically I bolted first. And all of these arranged by people who supposedly had some insight into me...

Then again, sometimes serendipity, kismet, fate, whatever you choose to call it, steps in, and although you may not meet your soulmate in the conventional meaning of the word, you meet a soul that you instantly know will be in your life for a long time. And that's what happened with the pimpernel artist.

It wasn't a blind date in the traditional sense. We'd bumped into each other on a street and perhaps a week later, on yet another weekend night, a text came through, about midnight: "Want to meet up?" I'd just finished work and a few of us had adjourned to the local for a couple of drinks. Instinctively, I knew there was something different about this one.

Six hours later, as the sun rose, there had been no awkward lull in the conversation. From the origins of the word 'assassin' to an opening of hearts and feelings and how we viewed the world, we danced -- verbally, mentally and esoterically. He left 24 hours later, but he hasn't left my life.

Eccentric yet astute, funny but not at the expense of others, confident yet so unsure; a young man fighting to find his way in a world that seemed to have thrown every obstacle it could think of into his way. But he is probably one of the wisest people I've ever met -- he just doesn't know it yet.

I fell in love, a genuinely platonic love now. At first I wasn't sure whether I was simply assigning him to 'replace' the companion with whom I'd shared so much of my life -- my late husband, my first true love -- because they shared so many traits. But all that is irrelevant now. What matters is that we nurture the people who enhance us, in whatever guise they may appear.

And then there's the disarmingly intelligent sometime radio DJ, whose acquaintance I made after threatening to kill him if he 'stole' a taxi from me one evening.

As with the pimpernel artist, it's been a meeting of minds (notwithstanding the few rums and Southern Comforts thrown into the mix), with a few quirky jaunts into some parts of the city which at first seem wholly unremarkable. It's when you're able to see through the other person's eyes a tableau of something infinitely more extraordinary that you must silently nod to yourself, accepting that this life really is too brief to not take a chance on anything that could make you smile, make you feel, make you happy.

And despite the tales of blind-date woe, I'd do it all over again, though with a few words of advice to the aspiring matchmakers: I have compiled and completed my own questionnaire on my likes and dislikes, height, hobbies, pets, phobias and number of children. Feel free to check out a copy before you set me up with the next single man that stumbles into your circle -- I've no doubt he'd appreciate it as much as me. Though, as a gamblin' woman, my money's still on chance.

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