At a house party, I started chatting with an Indian grad student in a tweed jacket. We discovered a shared love of Asterix comics and IPA and, past midnight, we moved on to Union Hall, a Park Slope bar with bocce ball and a dance floor. He bought me a whiskey ginger, and in a break in conversation about Miyazaki films, he leaned in, sleepy-eyed, and kissed me.
“No, nope,” I said, glancing around. “Too fast.”
A familiar late-night anxiety had kicked in. At a certain point in any night out, I’d be talking to a guy and think, he’s nice, but what if he wants to go home with me? I’d imagine us fumbling in my apartment, clothes scattering, me trying to figure out how to say “no” without disappointing him. Although I’d often want to be more intimate, I’d worry about having to explain that I didn’t want the first time I had sex to be during a one-night stand. To avoid this scenario, I’d throw out roadblocks to scare off the prospective suitor. I’d say, “I’m not sleeping with you,” or “Even if we do hook up, I won’t do anything to you,” or, the then-truth, “I’m a virgin.”
This deflection method never worked because most men sensed a challenge and puffed up like dragon lizards, trying to impress me with how unfazed they were by my obstacle course of sexual disclaimers.
The grad student was no different.
"Hey, it’s cool,” he shrugged. “I have sisters. I get it.”
I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t at least a little interested, so I followed him on to the dance floor. On stage, a band dressed as nurses covered in fake blood DJ’d from a laptop. The grad student took my hand and thrust me into a twirl. Tipsily, I slowed and stepped back. He scowled, mistaking my movement as rejection.
“I’m going to go,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, grabbing at his sleeve. “I’m overwhelmed, but I’d go on a date with you.”
The offer sounded flimsy out loud.
Two days later, he texted, proposing dinner. Feeling the pressure of dinner-and-me-as-dessert, I requested Sunday afternoon coffee.
We met at Ost, an East Village café that has good chai and newspapers folded over old-fashioned wooden rods. He wore a dress shirt rolled at the sleeves, and I liked that his outfit wasn’t too casual or too trendy, that it rode the line between two extremes of the city.
We sat by the window and compared childhoods – his in a Hindu household in Queens, mine in conservative South Carolina. He told me about his grad program in math. My father is a mathematician, so his stories of spending long stretches of time alone, mulling over theorems, felt familiar. I imagined him at a table in this café, staring into space, contemplating an abstract problem into reality. His intensity drew me to him – gave me hope that he wasn’t going to be just another boy interested in bottle service and “having a good time.”
After coffee, we strolled through Alphabet City, and he suggested a favorite bar with craft beer on tap.
Inside, it was shadowy and cool, and we leaned into each other on stools and picked cheeses to share. Groups of friends and young families filtered in and out as the afternoon faded away. While he paid, I excused myself for the bathroom.
In the stall, I pressed my hands to my face and thought, you should go home. I pictured in strokes what might happen next: rough kisses, slippery hands, the weight of his expectations crushing me. But I tried to silence that voice. He seemed like a nice guy, and I was giddy and light and wanted to believe I could get swept away.
Back at the bar, he asked, “Want to drink tea at my place?”
That tiny, idealistic part of me hoped we could simply drink, listen to music and continue talking. I accepted the invitation.
His roommates weren’t home. We perched on the couch in his narrow living room, mugs of steaming green tea in hand. I waited for him to turn on the TV or speak, but he only stared, appraising me. He reached out to touch my earlobe.
“Are those stick-on earrings?” he asked.
“What?” I said.
“My sisters used to wear stick-ons,” he explained.
“No, they’re just regular earrings.”
He tried a different approach. “Sorry if I was too handsy last weekend.”
And there it was. I could brush him off, move on to other topics. But I thought, he wants to kiss you, and how often does this happen, you should just do it, maybe you’ll like it.
Without making eye contact, I said, “You could try again.”
He too-quickly set his tea on the floor and leaned in. I tilted my head, and my neck cracked. I sprung back.
“Oops!” I said, laughing. “Guess you can call me a ‘cracka’!”
He paused. “What did you say?”
“I’m a cracka?” I repeated. “You know. Like, Cracker Barrel?”
“It was a joke,” I said, wincing.
He smiled hesitantly, then pressed forward.
We started making out on the couch. The stubble on his face gritted against my skin, and he slid a hand under my shirt. I couldn’t concentrate, worried his roommates might walk in. My foot knocked over the tea, and he leapt up to grab a towel.
“Maybe we should go to your room?” I suggested, even though I knew better.
His room was large with no pictures on the walls. He pinned me to his bed, and I stared at the ceiling as he kissed me. We awkwardly tangoed, him tugging at my pants, me guiding him up, him pushing my hands lower on his hips, me pulling away. Eventually, I let the making out fade.
“Sorry,” I said, for the second time that week. “It’s just – it’s all too fast.”
He exhaled. “Happens.”
In the quiet, I caught him checking his watch.
We heard one of his roommates come home. I gathered my things, babbling about the snow and directions to the train. At the door, he bent for a kiss, but I hugged him and scurried for the elevator.
Outside, the cold air hit me. I wanted to scream. Why had I gone home with him? Hadn’t I predicted this scene – the roaming hands, the inevitable regret?
For the next few days, I hated myself and my inexperience and inability to be as in the moment as he was. I talked to girlfriend after girlfriend, but it was a coworker who gave me the lecture that shook me awake.
“You’re not in college anymore,” she said, as we huddled by the coffee machine. “Dating isn’t about watching a movie drunk on someone’s futon, ending up hooking up, and then saying, ‘Hey, we’re exclusive!’ You’re an adult. So, date like one.”
I asked what that meant.
"You lost control,” she said, turning on Oprah-voice. “You could’ve walked away after drinks with that guy, but you didn’t. The moment he asked you back to his place, the moment you let him set the pace, you gave up control. And that’s what dating is about now – control.”
Later in the week, he asked if I wanted to grab a drink. I decided to go, reasoning that although I’d freaked out, I had liked our conversations. Perhaps there was something still worth salvaging.
Over glasses of wine, I listened to him talk about his fluency in French, his Phish phase and the awards he’d won. I started checking my phone when he made statements like, “I hate sleeping. It’s such a waste of productivity.” When I told a story about my job, and his response was, “I’m going to the bathroom,” I realized: I didn’t like this guy. I definitely didn’t want to date him. And, for some reason, that felt good.
It seemed counter-intuitive to be excited about not liking someone. Wasn’t I supposed to feel like I’d failed when a date was a dead end? But I was glad we’d gone out. I regained control in knowing what I wanted – which was that I didn’t want anything from him at all.
Around midnight, he let his hand linger in the middle of the table, as if waiting for me to take it.
“Could I interest you in some cider?” he asked casually.
I glanced around the bar. “Where?”
“Back at my place,” he said. “We could drink cider. Watch Netflix.”
“Oh,” I said, knowing what a beverage was code for in his book. “I have work early. I shouldn’t.”
“You shouldn’t?” he teased. “Sounds like you want to.”
I reached for my wallet. “It’s okay. I need to catch a cab.”
“You can call one from mine.”
“No, really,” I said, smiling a little. “I’m going home.”
While I hailed a taxi, he pulled me close and started kissing me. I slipped out of his grasp, said good night and hopped into the cab.
Once inside, he texted to ask if I wanted to meet up again, and I answered, yes, but as friends.
Six weeks later, he responded, “K. Want to get lunch?”
I did not. So, I didn’t.