A few weeks ago, I found myself unintentionally out on a date with a man I'd assumed was gay - again.
(All details changed to protect the innocent.)
We hear a lot about women who yearn for gay men, who foolishly choose to believe that the objects of their affection are straight against all evidence to the contrary. It's the stuff of comedy and farce and Cathy comics. But I have the opposite problem. I tend to assume men I meet are gay, and then I let my guard down, and then I get into awkward situations. I'm not saying it's like the Sex and the City episode where Charlotte assumes this guy's gay because he fits all kinds of stereotypes...rather, I guess I'm just bad at picking up on vibes.
So, here's what happened: I met a guy at a high school friend's birthday party. We hit it off, and started talking about Victorian novels, old movies, and retro cocktails. I didn't drop the "boyfriend" thing simply because it didn't occur to me; I don't know how much I even thought about it - I just assumed there was no romantic interest whatsoever, and as a result was far more open and friendly and probably vivacious than I normally would have been had I been concerned about acting flirtatious. When I mentioned that I was checking out a new cocktail spot for an article, he asked if he could come along. Sure, why not? I said, and we set a mutually convenient time.
The day rolled around and after work that Friday I hopped the subway and got there a few minutes late. My new friend was waiting, dressed in a three-piece suit and a fedora, which was weird because I knew that he, too, worked from home. (Okay, that's only one of the reasons it was weird.) He produced a flower, and a chill went down my spine. We ordered Byzantine cocktails involving egg-whites and herbs. I tried to keep things friendly but businesslike. He casually mentioned an ex-girlfriend who'd enjoyed rock-climbing. I began to panic. I realized I was not just possibly on a first date, but a Friday night first date. "It's so hard to meet women who share my interests in this city," he said. "Which is why when I met you..."
"Excuse me," I said hurriedly, and dashed to the Ladies' room. "GUY NOT GAY THINK ON DATE," I texted my friend in a panic. I sat there as long as I decently could, mind racing, and called myself ten kinds of fool. It would be one thing if this had been the first time, but it wasn't. I don't mean to suggest I'm constantly attracting male attention, far from it: Maybe that's why I never assume someone's interested. Maybe it's because in these cases I'm so much friendlier than I'd be did I think there was any chance of giving the wrong impression. But there was the time with the guy from the bookstore. And the one from the video store. And that guy in high school. And the time I ended up at an Argentine tango class...anyway, this wasn't an isolated incident.
My phone buzzed. "Don't Panic," my friend had written.
I took a deep breath and returned to the bar.
"So, what do we think of this place?" I said brightly. "I'm only so-so on this drink, but I think I have time for one more before I have to go, how about you?"
He said he had no other plans.
"I wish we could try the food," I said, hoping my voice didn't sound nervous, since I'm a horrible liar, "but unfortunately I can't get out of this dinner with my boyfriend's college roommate...you know..." my voice trailed off. It hadn't been remotely subtle. He looked upset. "But," I said quickly, feeling awful, "maybe they wouldn't mind if I bowed out...I mean, since I don't really know him and...yeah, I'll do that. Why don't you order another round? And this is on me. Obviously. So, I'll go and do that, now..."
If you want to know how things went from there, well, let's just say I spent $200 and ended up listening to three hours of his original songs. We have not hung out again. And what made it worse was that I'd really liked him. Why couldn't we have been friends? I discussed this with my friend Claire, whorevealed she'd found herself in a similar predicament.
"I got to chatting with these two guys who I assumed were a couple," she says. "And I guess because of that I totally let my guard down and we had the best time. And one of them asked if I was dating anyone and I thought it was, you know, girl-talk, and I said no, I wish, and then he's like, ''cause my friend here would really like to ask you out.' I froze! " She ended up going, and it was not a love connection. "Isn't it sad," she concluded, "that A) we assume anyone who's not overtly creepy is gay - and that you can only be yourself when you think so?" I agreed that there was indeed a reason the theme of women opening up around supposedly gay men is a device in such terrible comedies as Three to Tango and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
I have always deplored women who assume everyone's hitting on them all the time (even as I kind of envy the delusional confidence.) But at least that attitude, I suppose, keeps one from inadvertently leading people on - and, for that matter, spending hundreds of dollars in guilt money. I know, I know, one shouldn't make assumptions about anyone's sexuality, but we all do, and as long as mine are so inaccurate, I clearly have to be more careful. And that makes me sad, because I wish we could all just be ourselves all the time and not have to worry about dropping "boyfriend" bombs or speculating about people's intentions. Maybe that's naive, but I do.
A good friend of mine, a guy incidentally, says this is a particularly American problem. In Europe, he says, "there's not this tyranny of dating." He complains that in the States, where he now works, you can't ask a girl out without her assuming it's romantic. "And why would I ask someone on a romantic date whom I didn't know?" he asks. "I mean, I want to spend time with someone to get to know them - later, if it develops into something romantic, that's different." This seems so sound and so obvious, yet it runs counter to everything we are taught about socializing, which, like most things, needs to have a productive goal. My own goal, henceforth, is to avoid these situations. And if at all possible, hours-long DVDs of multimedia free-jazz solo projects.