Playing the game of love

Illustration by Shane Achenbach, The Michigan Daily

Written for The University of Michigan’s English 425: Immersion Journalism course in Nov. 2015. First appeared in condensed form in The Michigan Daily in Feb. 2016. I changed some names. I didn’t change some others. Deal with it.

I’ll admit it. Somewhere in the annals of my iPhone, buried behind pages of restaurant takeout and music subscription apps, I have a Tinder account.

I am the worst kind of Tinder Person. I’m an infiltrator, a Tinder imposter. I only open the app when I am in line at Meijer or waiting for my pasta water to boil, and I seldom use it to actually text or talk to a match. I just appreciate the self-esteem boost of having someone swipe right and like my profile picture, an Internet ghost with the privilege of knowing when someone thinks she is cute, but having zero obligations to follow up. It’s all in good fun.

But I’d never go on an actual Tinder date. There’s something so shameful about searching the bar for someone you only know as “Brian,” who has brown hair and made a Pulp Fiction reference on his profile. With only photos and a short bio section to base attraction off of, there are bound to be some mistakes. I’ve heard some horror stories from my female friends — guys often lie about their age, post misleading photos, have personalities that differ wildly from their polished online profiles. And despite what romantic types might tell you, Tinder is an app designed solely for quick meet-ups and no-strings-attached sex. It’s hard to get to know anybody from a photo and quippy comment.

Every time I match with another user, I hear my grandfather’s intonation to be a “lady of breeding and substance,” a young woman who only wears pink nail polish and says no to marijuana. With hundreds of years of courtship tradition and gender roles weighing on me, it feels improper to be this forward about wanting sex so badly that you’ll bed a complete stranger.

Apparently, not many college-aged students share my qualms about dating apps. As of late 2014, an estimated 50 million users — half of whom are between the ages of 18 and 24 — have downloaded Tinder[1]. Each of those 50 million uploads a profile picture, short bio, and only the most basic of personal information: first name, age, location. Any other user in the area can see your profile and judge the other person’s hookup potential based on this information (but mostly the profile picture). Once a couple “matches,” or mutually likes one another’s profiles, they are able to message one another. You know what comes next.

But in an age where mobile dating apps like Tinder, OKCupid, and Grindr turn finding a partner into a series of effortless ones, zeroes, and dick pics relayed across a 4G network, a girl has to wonder if there is such a thing as real dating anymore. I don’t mean dating as a swipe on a screen and texted plans for a night chilling with Netflix — I mean dating, at a restaurant or at the movies, with a friend of a friend and the promise of a nice afternoon. The kind of dating that little girls fantasize about before they learn what feminism is; the kind of dating that brought most Gen X-ers together, the traditional couplehood that produced countless millennials.

The kind of dating that brings two college kids together by fate. My father got married at 21: He was a year younger than I am now when he made a life-long commitment to a woman he loved. I am 22 years old and can count the number of dates I’ve been on one hand.

Am I falling behind because I’m behind with the times, unwilling to accept new, technology-based paradigms of dating? Is it even possible to go on a real date in 2015, or am I chasing the fairytale fantasy of a prince-type who just doesn’t exist anymore?

Well, I guess there is only one way to find an answer. I’ve got to ask somebody out.

***

According to a study conducted at Stanford University, 30 percent of straight American couples meet “the old-fashioned way,” through friends. More specifically, 10 percent of straight American spouses meet at work or through coworkers[2]. In order to get that full old-fashioned experience, I’ve got to ask a coworker to set me up.

I send a text message to Alex, one of my beat editors at the student newspaper. I’m his boss, and he’s very charming and easy to talk to, so I assume he will oblige me and send me some names of his cute and funny friends. He’d better, or I will fire him.

“Hey, I have a bizarre question for you!,” I message him.

“Finally!,” he replies.

I explain my situation: I am writing a piece about dating rituals in the digital age and investigating the viability of old-fashioned dating in a youth culture that is obsessed with efficiency and cool apps. “Do you have a friend who might be down for that? A friend who wouldn’t completely bore me or make bad dad puns?”

I wasn’t kidding when I told Alex that I had a bizarre question. We’re close, but not that close, definitely not at the level where it’s appropriate to text him at 2 p.m. on a Monday and ask him to set me up with his best-looking friends. As I wait for his response and agonize over the gray dots that signify he’s typing a message, I briefly consider asking Alex out. After all, he’s the one I know, the one I work with. Sitting down for coffee with him will be easy, even effortless. But I can’t just ask him. I wait.

“Let me think about it and see if any of my friends bring up really wanting to go on an old-timey date with a journalist,” he replies.

Something tells me that won’t be an easy sell.

***

Since I am not the foremost authority on the quality of first dates, I decide to grab a coffee and interview someone who is.

John is effortlessly compelling, with thick, dark hair, sea green eyes, and the kind of voice that makes you want to shut the fuck up and listen. I have been his friend for a year or two, and watched him go through a handful of girlfriends and a few handfuls of hookups. He’s waiting for me at a table in Espresso Royale when I arrive, a few minutes late.

I pull my chair out, a little flustered from the weirdness of interviewing John, but he assuages my nerves with an easy smile.

Having never been on a Tinder date, I ask John about his experiences following up on the conversations he starts on the dating app.

“I think Tinder is interesting, because you’re starting from square one, almost like you’re being set up with someone,” John says.

He goes on to say that the dates themselves are not that different from the typical notions of blind dates, where a friend might set you up with a stranger they think might be interested. Likewise, Tinder puts two people together based on mutual assumed interest.

John cites one major difference between meeting a girl at a party and via Tinder: the number of options presented to you is much smaller with Tinder and similar dating apps.

“In real life, if you meet someone, you can do anything from getting their number, to asking them out on a date, to making out with them, to taking them home. On Tinder, you almost have to have a date first to make sure they actually look like they do in their photos.”

“You have to make sure you’re not getting Catfish-ed,” I quip, referencing the documentary about fabricated online identities.

“Exactly,” John laughs back.

I ask him about the specifics of what it’s like to go on a date as a man, if the vestiges of an old world obsession with chivalry and active male pursuits are still intact in a culture where women are more active in social, political, and workplace spheres. “What’s it like being a guy on a date?”

“I think it’s harder as a guy, because you’re kind of expected to pay for dinner and all that. As we get more progressive in society and as the stereotype of the guy paying becomes known as, like, a ‘refreshing’ and ‘gentlemanly’ thing to do — if the guy doesn’t pay, it can be confusing for the girl.”

He isn’t alone in this concern. In a 2013 poll of 2,000 American men and women, 55 percent of men and 63 percent of women asserted than a man should pay on the first date. Male respondents cited appreciating the chance to “provide” for their dates, and women perceived the men as trying to “impress” them.[3]

John also mentions the age-old problem has plagued men since the dawn of time: What do you do if she’s just not that into you? Lust at first sight is rare for both members of a potential couple. Anecdotally, I know that my grandpa Selwyn and grandma Gwen met at the hospital where they both worked. He asked her out at least ten times before she finally wore down and said yes; before their first date, my mother initially thought my father had a weird haircut and “seemed like an ass.” Women are stereotyped as the choosier of the two genders, leaving those poor men to pick up the pieces and try again until they find a girl who says yes.

“I’ve never been on a date where it was ambiguous whether or not I wanted to sleep with her,” John says. “The guy’s position is known, and it’s the girl who decides the outcome.”

***

It’s Tuesday, and Alex still hasn’t gotten back to me a list of young men who want to go on a date with me. I’m a little worried; I have a draft of my article due the following Monday and I want to get this first date out of the way promptly in case he wants a second one.

However, I feel a bit stuck. If I’m obeying the “traditional rules of dating,” like I am attempting to do with this experiment, I can’t be the one who blatantly asks someone out. According to my friend Jamie, men apparently like being the ones to do the asking-out. It’s a huge turn-off if a girl is too forward and doesn’t let the guy doing the pursuing: “If he likes you, he’ll man up and ask you out.” This is certainly not true of every man, but I’m worried it’s true of Alex.

I’ve decided to ask Alex to participate in my experiment because he’s one of the most game-for-anything individuals I know: He isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself performing improv and stand-up comedy. Most importantly, he makes me laugh. Our senses of humor are similar, a weird amalgamation of absurd and brainy, but he is funnier than I am.

Rather than approach him in person and face immediate verbal rejection, I decide to embark on another one of my smooth texting conversations. Texting is easy, because the lack of personal affect and body language make it easier to manipulate how the other person sees you. If you’re just going off a brief Tinder bio and picture, I can be anything and anyone. I can be the brazen, confident girl who asks her coworker on a date.

“I have another bizarre question for you!,” I shout into the 4G unknown. I think he’ll appreciate the callback to my previous ham-fisted introduction. He’ll find it endearing. “Are you free for drinks this Thursday or Saturday?”

The choice of drinks is intentional. I did my homework beforehand — Examiner said that a drinks date is “low pressure” and that “two people seated at a bar can be less intimidating than sitting at a table for two at dinner.”[4] It doesn’t have to be longer than a half hour, and the bourbon might make my conversation skills a little neater.

“Oh man, I’ve got late night rehearsal on Thursday and then a performance on Saturday,” he replies.

Shit. Shit.

He’s not interested. I messed this up. Now I understand why guys can get so nervous asking a girl out. When you’re the person stepping up, you feel at first like you’re the empowered one and the whole situation rests in your hands. But you’re just presenting an idea, and with a simple “no,” they can crush your dreams of picnic lunches and mornings after.

I know enough to realize that “I’m busy” is basically a nice kid’s version of a rejection.

But I won’t give up so easily. With a little coaxing and some strict assurances that I will be “chill about this,” Alex and I eventually come to a conclusion. We’ll meet at Espresso Royale, the most casual coffee shop in town, at 2:30 on Wednesday. I have class then, but I begrudgingly agree to skip it. We all make sacrifices for love.

Alex asks for clarification on whether “this is for the class thing,” and I reassure him that yes, it’s only for the class thing. I click my phone to lock, willing myself to think about something else, anything other than the fact that I am getting coffee with a cute boy on Wednesday. I’ve got to keep my promise to Alex. I’ll be chill about this.

***

On Tuesday (thirteen hours until my date with Alex; I am not counting the hours or doing anything weird), I interview another friend about his dating experiences. Dustin, an art student and a quiet, romantic type, confesses his frustration at a lack of a script for dating. He says that, to some extent, there are rules one can follow for a successful date — he must be right, because Barnes & Noble sells dozens of books claiming to reveal the “rules” and “tricks” to roping in a significant other. But a lot of dating involves thinking on your feet, feeling out a situation and summoning all your social skills. It can be frustrating, especially for shier types, like Dustin (and me).

“I wish my love life played out like some kind of movie,” Dustin says.

He also asserts that Tinder is a completely different experience for male and female users. According to Dustin, his female friends get many more matches than he does: “You can scroll down, like, four times, and the list never ends. Me, I have maybe seven matches in as much time. I’m not blaming anyone or anything, but I think it’s easier for a girl to say no and reject a guy.”

Dustin isn’t the only one with this issue. If you Google “average Tinder matches,” you are met with a barrage of Reddit and Quora forums where guys compare their number of matches per week. There are headlines like “Guys: Here’s How To Get A Right Swipe On Tinder” and “Five Elements In Men’s Tinder Pictures That Get Matches Like Crazy.” On the first three pages of Google results, there is not a single entry that focuses on how women can obtain more matches. Dustin’s implied assertion — that women are picky and fickle when it comes to online matches, selective to the degree where the pursuit of a mutual like becomes a game — holds at least some degree of truth. Women have the agency to choose a swipe right or left, a yes or a no.

***

My father’s first wife, Jessica, was just 20 years old when she accepted my dad’s marriage proposal. Matt and Jessica were married at age 21, July of 1983, approaching their senior year of college. My dad’s five best fraternity friends all got married that summer; they were young and impulsive and lived in houses where the floor was sticky from beer. Of the five couples, only one remains intact today.

This should not come as a surprise. According to data collected in 2003, 60 percent of marriages between the ages of 20 and 25 end in divorce[5]. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for personality and decision-making, does not fully develop until age 25, meaning that a marriage at age 21 has a foundation on the neurological equivalent of quicksand[6]. The saying goes that people can change a lot in just a few years; the sentiment is especially true for young adults who are still figuring out who they want to be.

In 1990, the average age of marriage was 26 for men and 23 for women; today the numbers rest at 29 for men and 26 for women. In 2015, it is unusual to find educated, upper-middle-class individuals like Matt and Jessica getting married on a whim.[7] According to a national survey conducted in 2008, 18 percent of undergraduate students in the U.S. were married — but this survey includes data from religious-affiliated universities like Brigham Young University, where a much larger percentage of the student body is married.[8]

In my previous conversation with John, who is a senior in college like myself, I asked for his thoughts on the viability of serious relationships at 21 years old. He cited feeling the clock of this portion of his life running out, the great unknown waiting after he gets his diploma. There is not room for a ring on his finger or a wife relying on his income.

“I think a big difference between our generation and our parents’ generation is that there’s this expectation of transience and uncertainty after college that makes people believe that when you graduate after college, you won’t have the stability you need to maintain a relationship,” he said.

John added that he thinks relationships are seldom temporary anymore; the availability of hookups from sources like Tinder or elsewhere mean that when someone enters into a real relationship, they believe they are in it for the long haul.

“There isn’t much of a notion anymore of a temporary girlfriend or boyfriend, in a sense that people don’t have a ‘summer girlfriend’ anymore, they’re just hooking up with someone over the summer. We live in this mentality that we’re afraid to commit, and when we do, we think of it as long-lasting.”

John candidly spoke about his own recent break-up with a girl who didn’t appreciate his efforts to try it the “old-fashioned way,” take her on a few dates before they started hooking up. John mentioned that his ex was a hard science major, and was too busy to waste precious study hours on a guy she would probably leave behind in six months anyway.

“People have this misconception that our generation doesn’t believe in love. I think it’s more that our generation is afraid of love.”

***

Oooooh, I do, I do, I do, I dooooo. Hey! Oooooh, I do, I do, I do, I dooooo.”

I arrive for my 2:30 coffee date with Alex at 2:28, ponytail askew and the Hamilton musical soundtrack still blaring from the earbuds around my neck. I’m listening to the song where Eliza sings about falling in love with and marrying a brilliant man named Alexander. A little creeped out by the coincidence of names, I pause the song and look for a table. After a bit of searching, I find a two-top nudged comfortably against a brick wall. If we run into anyone from work, I have the luxury of squashing my face against the mortar so they can’t see I’m on a date with my employee.

I’m on a date with my employee!

I let another Hamilton song assuage my anxieties. It’s 2:34. Where the fuck is Alex? I peek from behind the wall, looking for a lanky 6’3” guy in a sweater. I’m certain he’ll be wearing a sweater.

At this two-top in Espresso Royale, awaiting a date with a coworker and friend whom I have occasionally considered as a romantic interest, I’m struck by a wave of nausea. Nerves again. The date feels surprisingly high-pressure despite my level of comfort with Alex; I imagine the cozy coffee shop lights morphing into sweaty, interrogation room spotlights and the room full of people disappearing into cinder block walls as soon as he walks in. If he ever walks in.

I look at the clock again. 2:36. I pull my phone from my purse, fingers fumbling to type a text message to my date.

The door jangles — Alex arrives, wearing a cardigan despite the 75-degree November heat. I step up from the wall I’m hiding behind and greet him with an awkward hug.

“ ‘Sup, dude?,” he drawls.

“Nah-thuh mah, brah.” He establishes the parameters immediately — we are on this date as friends and nothing more, an attractive guy doing a favor for his female friend who has a good personality. I adjust, letting my electric nerves simmer to a low blue flame. Keep calm. Dude.

I order a black coffee and he a caramel latte, and he kindly offers to pay “for tradition’s sake.” I thank him, and we return to our seats against the wall.

According to my friend Tyler, who has been on many more first dates than I have, good topics for conversation include shared pop culture interests and fun childhood anecdotes. Keep things light and simple. Avoid trying too hard, relax, just be cool and fun and sexy. I do my best to follow this advice as I begin the date proper.

Alex and I bitch about our coworkers for 20 minutes.

I’m surprised by how comfortable I feel in conversation with him; I am free to admit which writers sometimes get on my nerves and complain about editorial arguments that I should have won. In fact, I feel so comfortable that I confess my newsroom crush on another editor, and Alex vows to talk to him “like a father to a son.” He listens to my schoolgirl prattling with eye contact and an easy smile; I take notice that his eyes are blue and kind of nice.

Alex checks his watch. “We should probably start talking about something else; I mean, you can’t just write that we were gossiping the entire time.”

“Well, just change the subject! We have that capability, you know,” I raise my eyebrows and return a slow smile. I think I’ve caught myself flirting a little.

I compliment him on his new humor column in the newspaper; I make sure to say this as genuinely as possible, because I mean the hell out of that compliment. He’s an excellent writer. As I read his columns or watch his improv performances or engage him in conversation, I can see the gears in the back of his head digesting his surroundings and spinning them into gold. His sentences are cutting and on-beat in a way that never comes across as carefree or easy. Every word he writes is spilling with blood, sweat, and tears. But I can’t tell Alex this, because I’m feeling a little self-conscious and don’t want to be one of those writer-groupie girls I’m sure he has hanging onto his every written word. I assure him that his column is “very well-written,” and that I “like it.”

“See, that’s the thing. I can’t appreciate when people tell me that they like my writing or that my column is good. I love feedback and all, but it rarely feels proportional to how much I put into what I do. It doesn’t balance out. I just want to tell all those people to get back to me in a month and let me know when my column is still all they can think about.”

I think about this for a moment. See, this is where Alex and I are different. I want to smooth the hard edges of my words into some effortless body — not of hard work, but of genius. I want someone to see my name and read what I write and know immediately from the cadence of my humor and the sentence structure that it’s me, and it could only be me. I want the craftsmanship to be invisible; I want to be a writing deity that simply opens her laptop and spills the gospel onto the page. I want the strictures and the structures to fall away, I want to improv it, screw the rules, and let the prose happen like magic, like falling in love.

I tell Alex all of this, as he sits scratching his jaw and raising his eyebrows in incredulity like I am saying something ridiculous. We’re both writers, both obsessed with the power of our own words and their potential to create a legacy, but this difference in philosophy leads our conversation in an interesting direction. At some point, we devolve into talking about ourselves, blathering on and on for five minutes until we take a pause to breathe — and the other one can jump in. He asks me why I want to be idealized as something I am not; I respond that I am sick of the notion that the most efficient and busiest person is the most successful, and I abhor the idea that hard work is the only path to success.

I’m not sure this counts as an example of lighthearted, sexy conversation. You’re not supposed to talk about marriage or kids on the first date, but what do the guides say about discussing your legacy, what those GQ profiles will eventually say about you when you’re a famous novelist and comedian? The conversation starts to peter out a little as I become self-conscious.

“I can tell from your voice that you’re still insecure about being smart and funny. You know, that’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he reminds me, after I share a particularly heavy childhood anecdote. I feel like I’m on the precipice of making an enormous fool of myself. Maybe I already fell off.

“I feel like I’m on a date with my therapist.”

“That’s what you get with me.”

He breaks eye contact and looks behind me for a beat. “You know, it’s 3:30, I should probably get going.”

I quell my disappointment and respond coolly. “Yeah, for sure, yeah, I should probably do some work too.”

I walk Alex to his next class, an advanced fiction-writing intensive. We exchange small talk for a few minutes, walking side by side as the browning leaves swirl in little tornadoes around our feet. When we reach the marble steps of the marble building his next class is in, I can’t help myself. I lean in.

We hug, and I thank him again for saying yes to my date proposal and for helping me out with the article I’m writing. He says that it’s no problem.

As I walk home alone, I curse myself for all the things that went wrong. I got to the coffee shop too early. I let him pay, which everyone says means it’s a date. I called him “bruh,” which everyone says means it’s not a date. I over-shared, I talked too much about my own past, and made him fight for every word he could squeeze into our conversation. I argued with him. I laughed too hard when he made a masturbation hand gesture. I finished my coffee too early and slurped at the empty cup. I let him break the date off first. I hugged him — twice. I brought up that stupid fucking article I was writing again, positioned the date as a favor he was doing me and not a real date.

I might have had a nice time even if I weren’t on assignment.

***

I don’t wait around for Alex to call me about a second date. According to a mutual friend, he’s interested in someone else, a girl I know and admire. They’d make an undeniably cute couple.

I feel a tiny pang of disappointment upon hearing this news, but I take a minute to rationalize. Our date was as casual as it gets, probably the closest thing to those offhand dinner dates that characterized my parents’ college experience. We talked; we had a nice time. There was no pressure, no expectation, no steps to be taken. By any definition, it was a real, traditional date, if such a thing ever existed.

On Saturday, I go to a hip whisky bar with a few work friends. I follow the obligatory leather jacket dress code, order the obligatory Buffalo Trace, stand too close to the speakers, and sway to a band that sounds like tipsy uncles doing karaoke at a bat mitzvah. I revel in my coolness — my young age, my artsy pals, my status as an unattached, confident lady who can rock a pair of boots with buckles and drink bourbon and ask boys out. As a growly cover of a Taylor Swift song ends, a young man with a ginger beard approaches me.

“So let me guess. Master’s in Philosophy? I’m great at guessing these things. I pick up on the clues. Those tortoiseshell glasses, the boots, you’re basically screaming ‘grad school.’ I’m Tony, by the way.”

I smile back at Tony and indulge him in a few minutes’ conversation. He’s not bad looking, and if this were any other night, I might have followed him back to his table and let him buy me another drink. But tonight, I just want to dance to some terrible bat mitzvah music and avoid the circling piranhas swiping at my heels and trying to get my number.

Upon sitting back down at our booth, my friend Lev asks me why I didn’t flirt back with Tony: “This sounds crazy, but he seems like the kind of guy you’d want to settle down with.”

Laughing a little too loud, my cheeks flushed with the warmth of the bourbon, I respond simply.

“Nah.”

[1] Sam Lehman, “Tinder Users Spend More Time On The App Than Facebook,” HNGN, Nov. 3, 2014, http://www.hngn.com/articles/48028/20141103/tinder-users-spend-more-time-dating-app-facebook.htm.

[2] Maura Kelly, “How We Meet Our Spouses,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 24, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303325204579463272000371990.

[3] “Date Night: Who Should Pay For Dinner?” LearnVest, Feb. 15, 2013, http://www.learnvest.com/2013/02/date-night-who-should-pay-for-dinner/.

[4] Shaune LaMarca, “The Drinks Date, And Why First-Daters Should Try It,” Examiner, Jul. 10, 2012, http://www.examiner.com/article/the-drinks-date-and-why-first-daters-should-try-it.

[5] “Marriage and Divorce: The Statistics,” Dr. Phil, http://www.drphil.com/articles/article/351.

[6] Duana Welch, “Young Love — Young Marriage?” Love Science, http://www.lovesciencemedia.com/love-science-media/young-love-young-marriage.html.

[7] Eleanor Barkhorn, “Getting Married Later Is Great For College-Educated Women,” The Atlantic, Mar. 15, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/getting-married-later-is-great-for-college-educated-women/274040/.

[8] Stephanie Steinberg, “Saying ‘I Do’ While Studying At The ‘U’, ” CNN, Aug. 8, 2011, http://www.cnn.com/2011/08/04/living/married-college-students/.