I am in a crowded theater, looking for a man. I know what he looks like, but am not totally sure I’ll recognize him in person. I’ve seen a dozen or so photos, all of which look slightly different, like 12 brothers posing in their favorite activity: hiking! Go-Kart racing! Dancing! I know that this man likes Jon Stewart, dessert and Bollywood dancing. I also know that he sings in the shower, plays cricket, and is left-handed, but none of these things equal the whole person I am looking for.

My dress is ill-fitting. I am low on clothes but don’t want to buy anything new until I lose some weight. As long as I don’t slouch, the cardigan I’m wearing makes the ill-fitting dress look good. And I’ve added my gorgeous European pumps to amp up the outfit a bit. I stand in the foyer for a few moments, trying not to look as vulnerable as I feel, then I head toward the downstairs theater.

This is my first date since my boyfriend and I broke up a few weeks earlier. Thanks to Okcupid, within hours of setting up a profile I had offers for everything from romantic dinners to foot massages to threesomes. I told myself I would take some time to be single, to build my life up, but the lure of easy attention drew me in. Well, that and sex. I am lonely, horny, and more than a little afraid of that shadowy image of my worst self that haunts me. That shadowy image is always single, always alone, always unwanted. So I descend the steps of the theater, looking to feel wanted and desired. Hoping I feel the same for him.

Lots of people are walking down the steps with me. I look around and my mind starts doing the weird flip-flops it does: will he be unexpectedly gorgeous? Will he see me first and bolt? What if he’s terrible in any of the numerous ways he could be terrible—handsy, stinky, creepy, bossy? One of those talkers who doesn’t even care if you’re listening? What if he’s the absolute love of my life, and all those fairy-tale ideas of love that I’ve been trying to shake off the bottom of my shoe for the last five years come true? What if he’s a serial killer and this date ends with me taped up in the trunk of his car?

There is a crowd at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for the theater doors to open. A man in a blue sweater looks up at me and beams. He has a big, bright, beautiful smile that is better than any of the 12 brothers. I smile back. He’s cute. He doesn’t have old food crusted on his clothes. He is standing like a normal person. So far, so good. I approach him and we exchange a polite hug. This is Naveen. And I’m not 100% sure how to say his name, so I don’t for now. I adjust my cardigan and we chat about the theater, how our days went.

He’s not as cute as the best photos on his profile, but he’s cuter than others, particularly the one with him in a restaurant on his birthday, wearing a piece of cake smashed on his head and crumbling down his face. I like his blue cashmere sweater. It’s a lovely shade. I’m sizing him up, and I can see him doing the same to me. Dates always seem to think I’m going to be more petite than I am, despite my description of myself as “curvy” and “voluptuous”. I used to describe myself as “a little extra”, but upon comparing myself to other women who use that term, I decided I wasn’t as extra as most of them. We’re like cars that have been seen in a catalogue and are now being taken on a test drive.

What I’m really looking for, as I size Naveen up, is that spark of chemistry that can only be felt in person. After dozens of online dates, one of which led to a marriage (long story for later), I know that it all comes down to how you feel in the flesh. And that spark has less to do with looks than personality, in my experience. I’ve come to calling first dates Chemistry Checks, and for that reason I usually center them around a cup of coffee or a short walk. I don’t want to invest much time or money in them, because at least half the time the spark isn’t there. Going to see a play on a first date is unusual for me.

But that spark seems to be here, as I stand next to Naveen in line. He makes conversation easily, and listens well. His smile is genuine and he seems to find many things smile-worthy. Warmth and relaxation radiate off of him, and I have an urge to rest my cheek on his soft blue sweater. An urge I don’t follow, of course, because that would be creepy, but it’s not much longer before we’re holding hands in the theater, and leaning our legs against each other’s as we shift in our seats, and at one point in the show Naveen’s lips brush against my ear in a soft kiss. The chemistry, it would seem, is there for him as well.

After the play we go to a nearby bar. I don’t drink, and Naveen isn’t interested in having a drink without me, so we change course and head to an all night diner. We are laughing a lot. He has great stories, which spark funny stories in me, and I’m feeling more and more attracted to him. After the diner we walk to his car, and since it’s late he offers to give me a ride to my own car. We park and, after more talking, the kissing that has been building all night begins. Naveen has big, full lips and likes to suck on mine, which is great. I am a big fan of lip sucking. We’re parked on the street, and even though it’s late, the occasional person walks by. I’m a little self-conscious with people around, but I still allow his hand to explore up my shirt and under my bra. We make out until the windows are steamed up and our bodies can’t twist anymore toward each other without one of us climbing out of our seat.

We pull apart and, grinning, make plans for when to see each other again. He is flying to a reunion in Las Vegas the next day, and I’ll have my daughter when he returns, so it will have to wait until she goes back with her dad. Two young guys walk by and may or may not glance into Naveen’s car. I notice them, and Naveen and I watch as they stop at the car parked in front of ours. They lean on it for a moment, then the taller one whacks the passenger window with his elbow, expertly shattering it. In a flash the smaller one grabs a large shoulder bag from the front seat and they run off.

“Holy shit,” says Naveen.

“That just happened,” I say.

We call the police to report what we just saw.

Naveen dials. “I’ve never called 911 before.”

Naveen is from India. He moved to the States for graduate school, 15 years ago, but his accent is still thick. His skin is dark and his name is unusual. I’m suddenly nervous about him having to interact with the police. Almost as soon as I think this, he hands me the phone and asks if I will finish the call. The operator is having trouble understanding him, or believing him, it’s not really clear which. I take over and basically repeat what Naveen said, stressing the word we, as in we were sitting in our car and saw this. An hour ago we were toasting our glasses in the diner because Naveen had become a US citizen just that week.

I hang up and say, “Thank you for doing your duty as a good citizen.” We laugh, but I sort of want to scram in case the police arrive. I climb out just as the owners of the car in front of us arrive and see the smashed window. The woman, who is very drunk, screams and curses and then bursts into tears. The man comforts her. Naveen gets out with me and we tell them what we saw. She teeters over and hugs me, sobbing on my shoulder, thanks me again and again. It has turned into a very weird night, as most nights do if you stay out long enough. I pat the woman’s shoulder and ask if there was anything irreplaceable in the bag.

“No,” she says. “It was just stuff.” Then she addresses Naveen and I together. “Thank you guys for calling the cops. I’m glad you were here.” She weaves a bit and looks like she might hurl, so I step back and guide her toward her friend. It’s a Couple Moment for Naveen and me. We are acknowledged as being there together, doing something together. For some reason it creates a subtle discomfort between us before I walk to my car.

I drive home and observe the whirlpool of crazy that is starting up in my head. This is by far the worst part of dating for me: the anxiety that begins once I realize I like someone, and ends only when we are securely coupled or definitely apart. I can’t seem to stop my mind from replaying the date in slow motion. I want to find meaning in everything Naveen said, in every touch and turn of his body. I want to locate the evidence of how much he does or doesn’t like me. Until I do, I am weighted by insecurity and deafened by the anxious thoughts shuttling through my head. I don’t realize it yet, but this is going to be the biggest challenge ahead of me in the next few months—how to just enjoy someone’s company without hurtling myself into the future, without pinning them down, without controlling the variables in order to feel safe. Well, that and how to have sex with two people at the same time. But I don’t see that coming quite yet.

Stumble It!

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