The first date is prone to moments of discomfort, an inevitable consequence, perhaps, when strangers meet. The online experience is supposed to afford us the opportunity to get to know each other beforehand, but it never works out this way. In reality, this is just the requisite work. The task of securing a date is just that, a task – assessing filtered photos and exchanging stock emails. When discerning compatibility, it is the date alone that counts. Given the uncertainty, it is advisable to keep the initial meeting short – test the waters and get away unscathed – or as I like to say ‘meet, greet, and retreat’.
The first date is full of conversational admin: friends, family, and work, thoughts on London and other geographical ruminations. This exercise in self-promotion is of course loaded with humiliating opportunities, however of all the awkward positions, few are more problematic than the ‘commuting dilemma’. That is, deciding whether to travel together post-date. You may find yourself going the same way and wish to continue the burble on public transport. This is erroneous thinking. After the frisson of a low-lit restaurant, the glaring neon luminescence of an underground station can be an unwelcome dose of reality.
Commuting together at the end of the date should be avoided at all costs – after all, no one wants to engage in tube-chatter with someone one increment away from anonymity.
I was on a date with Tracy in a Soho bar. She was fabulous, the type of woman who can straddle the line between compadre and princess, without invoking the charmless spirit of the Spice Girls. A hellcat that purports to be both drinking pal and soulmate. Essentially, the kind of woman I wanted when I was 17.
In the bar, a group of chino-clad men were celebrating a birthday. They were bumping along to the bland euro-house, leaning across their cluttered table to exchange what sounded like rugby anecdotes. Presently, a waitress produced a cake from back-of-house. As she tottered forward, mindful of the candles, the men broke into a gruff rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
I said, “why do they have to sing it in such an aggressive way? Are they ashamed to be showing a bit of love?”
“Agreed,” Tracy said, “you know, I would have rated them more if they sang in a soft harmony. Shows more confidence, right?”
She shrugged, and I felt a pang of longing. At last, a real person. As Dylan once said, ‘in this world of fibreglass, I’m searching for a gem’ – poignant, even though the man was a womaniser who cheated on his muse. Still, I knew how he felt. After several more drinks, Tracy reached for my hand across the table.
She said, “you know, you’re an interesting guy.”
I would have preferred ‘sexy’ or even ‘hot’ (in the modern vernacular, this Americanism trumps our somewhat inadequate ‘fit’). Nevertheless, she was a fan of art-house cinema and the less dour works of Saul Bellow, so I took the remark as a great compliment.
Moments later, Tracy leaned across the table and pecked me on the lips.
Resisting the urge to grab the back of her head and thrust my tongue into her mouth, I stroked her cheek then reclined.
At the end of the night, we left together and headed towards Leicester Square station. Conveniently we both lived in Crystal Palace. In the station, we joked about the tourist throng. On the escalator however, matters took a different turn. A man stood on the left, barring the way.
“Mate,” I said, “stand on the right, yeah?”
He tried to move, but there wasn’t enough space. No matter, I thought as I bustled past. I caught my arm on his coat – pulling away with unnecessary force, we almost tumbled. At the bottom, Tracy berated me for my lack of grace. On the Tube, she refused a seat then glanced at her inert iPhone. We stood in the shifting space by the double doors.
“I can’t believe some of these people,” I said of a man with a backpack. “Why the hell doesn’t he just take that thing off, instead of standing there battering everyone? What a moron.”
The man regarded me in his peripheral vision.
“He heard you,” she said.
Tracy looked at the Tube map above the door.
“You know what I think?” I said. She shrugged. “If you need to carry more than one backpack, you’re not a backpacker – you’re a tourist.”
I smiled to myself. That’s one for Twitter, I thought.
“It’s been a top night,” I said.
Tracy didn’t say anything. I looked at her face under the fluorescent strips, makeup was caked around her jawline. There was something uncomfortably real about the Tube. Despite the comfort of our commuting fantasies, the setting was not conducive to romance. Silently, I awaited Tracy’s response but she was still studying the map, how strange I thought, we both knew where we were going.