“They do the best flat whites in East London.”
This was how Katie described our first date venue – an ‘independent coffee shop’. It sounded like something from an insipid travelogue. I wanted to roil in a cauldron of romance, instead I going to paddle in the tepid waters of Sober Dating.
“That sounds great,” I said.
Only I didn’t ‘say’, I typed. I have reached maximum dating disconnect. At this point in my journey (yes, journey. Think of me as a dating journeyman) my pre-date communication is strictly online. I am not alone in this, of course. We swipe until we like. That’s how we play. There is no longer a requirement to speak before meeting in the 3D world. And of course there is no need to refer to that place as the ‘real’ world either. The Internet is threaded into our very being, and that world is just as real as everything we see around us.
The coffee shop was typically hard to find. I was spectacularly lost. Even google maps set out to confound me. After wrong turns, and right turns, I ended up back where I started: outside Hoxton station. It was a land of hollow feeling and manly leggings. How I hated East London. I felt conspicuously old, and (in my smart-casual outfit) chronically overdressed.
“Hey,” I said into my phone. “How’s things?”
I was about to ask Katie for directions, but wanted to sound relaxed about my navigational failure.
“Great, where are you?”
“Outside the station surrounded by posh students…Oh, to be in the land of the cockney. Where’s the place again?”
“It’s just by the…hold on…I can see you!”
I turned to see a distant waving lady. A Hoxton siren. Venus in denim. Katie smiled and I waved back. Joy flooded in. Perhaps it was going to be OK after all. Perhaps this dastardly game of roulette would pay off. Perhaps I really would find The One.
Fifteen minutes later I knew I was wrong. It wasn’t the crowded, muggy coffee shop so much as the fact that Katie deemed the place a suitable setting for a date. I was crushingly sober, and likely to stay that way. Who wants to date in a coffee shop anyway? ‘Best flat whites in London’ or no, I was having a bad time. Needless to say, the decor was part of the problem. It was all worn fittings, and Victorian boarding school crustiness. The whole concept of ‘shabby chic’ fell apart sometime in 2013. Now, it was just shabby.
But I liked Katie. I liked all of my dates. It was always the circumstances that led to dark unraveling. The ladies themselves were invariably charming and upbeat. I wondered how they could remain so while online dating (with its many disappointments). How did they do it? How do any of us do it?
“I just love these macchiatos,” Katie said.
We were on high stools before a steamy window. On one side a bangle-wearing millennial hammered away at some (no doubt self referential) document on a Mac. On the other side a French couple languidly discussed something languid. The cafe itself was all mismatched chairs and cheap fittings. It would seem the proprietors had smashed the place up with great love and attention. As for the patrons, every last one of them had the earnest look of a Remainer: educated, middle class, and stunningly unaware of the North.
I said, “Yes, these macchiatos are great!”
I took a long sip, trying to think of some kind of coffee-related anecdote. There was something troublesome about this coffee shop date – for starters it was all far too real, bound to the world of the mundane. What were coffee shops for, exactly? Perhaps a quick break with a friend, a solitary read of the papers, or the occasional bit of work. But not dating. Never dating. This was no place for love. It was reality-plus. A place of earnest discourse and brainless tablet use.
We were on our third macchiato when I realised I had run dry. It seemed alcohol gave me my best lines on a date – booze made me my best me. Caffeine, on the other hand, sucked the very marrow from my bones. My funny bones. I was as dry as a private school prefect and twice as uptight.
Katie said, “You ok, you’ve gone all quiet?”
“No, no. I’m fine…”
But I could not elaborate. A passing bearded youth bumped me with his man-bag. The French couple next to us started laughing. Katie looked into her phone. I looked into the street, wondering how to steer us towards a pub. It hit me right then. No one ever found the love of their life in a coffee shop. And I was to be no exception.