"Take your time with dating," my friend said in a relationship advice voicemail last week, "I mean, remember how felt like I'd never get over Ken, and then, everything changed when I met The Dentist?"
"The Dentist" was not actually a dentist, but a dental student, who owned the condo below hers, played tennis, and kept up impressively with her sarcastic banter. But his dating nickname brought it all back: the healing, excitement, and power-couple potential he represented during that summer six years ago, and the heightened concern with morning tooth-brushing she dealt with during the romance.
He had a real name, of course. It was French, pretentious and unpronounceable. We used it only during the few hot weeks between the time the relationship was brand new and when it was over, when they were fantasizing about drilling a hole in her floor and installing a staircase to connect their units. I can't remember it.
The Dentist, The Poet, Soccer Guy: The names my friends and I assign to the not-quite-boyfriends who move in and out of our lives are created as shorthand. They simplify gossip shared over brunch, in distracted workday g-chats, and in "quick, fill me in on your life" (meaning, unless you've had a major health crisis or been laid off, the men in it) phone calls.
But they're more than practical. The detachment a nickname offers prods us to remember that this -- growing up, dating, and yes, even heartbreak -- is all part of a story in which we're the main characters and, realistically, most of the men we interact with are really just extras whose names won't even end up in the final credits.
Calling someone The Security Guard or The Pretty Boy makes life feel more "Seinfeld" or "Sex and the City" than "Single Ladies." It's clearer all the time that we don't control much when it comes to love. But the language we chose to discuss it can provide some emotional organization and perspective in this arena where, if we're not careful, both can be scarce.
Often these names aren't creative or clever. No one chuckles when I reference The College Crush, but everyone knows who I'm talking about. And many that have animated our discussions over the years simply name an occupation (The Blogger; The Bike Pro), or where the man was first encountered (PG County Dude; Birthday Party Guy). Conan O'Brien isn't the most creative reference to a tall redhead, but the point isn't to be witty. It's to manage your own story.
Some of them force us to recall with every reference why a romantic interest is a bad idea: Married Guy, Separated Guy, Depressed Guy, and Work-Guy-Whose-Name-We-Can't-Say-Out-Loud. Others remind us why we let someone go.
My friend who replaced one Dan with another, much more compatible one, who shared her love for dancing, began referring to the ex as Daniel #1. The cold addition of a numeral to his full name perfectly conjured his stiff, unemotional outlook, and how he'd ruined many a night out by "trying to be a scientist about salsa."
Some, like Cucumber (use your imagination) add a laugh track to the melodrama of relationships. Gay Hankie's sexuality wasn't actually in question, but his name referred to the way he weighed down his slim frame with diamond jewelry, coveted the euro swim trunks on the cover of GQ, and wore a bright pink satin pocket square like a miniature security blanket. Not to mention, "I've had another failed relationship, and meanwhile, Gay Hankie got engaged," is just more satisfying than the same sentence referring to him as, "that clotheshorse I went out with few times last year."
When the nicknames get too long, they get initials for ease of use. MCM stood for Male Companion Matt, a name that suggested a particular guy's limited utility in one friend's life. BCK was short for Boot Camp Kyle, the trainer. There was no relation to the serial killer of the similar initials, but the sociopath association seemed did seem fitting as time went on.
There are some we'd never dare to utter in front of their subjects -- although they aren't mean-spirited (after all, we're dating these people): Short Guy. Old Guy. Fifty [years of age]. A friend and I once made a conscious effort to stop referring to her flirtatious colleague as White Guy ("God, why do I call him that? You know I'd die if he were referring to me as Black Girl," she kept fretting).
Caucasian Guy was a PC flop. Tattoo Guy didn't stick either. Finally, the combination of edgy body art and his chin-length black hair let us settle on The Vampire, right around the time she lost interest. A 23-year old-who took himself quite seriously was peeved when someone slipped up referred to him by his dating nickname -- The Baby -- after a couple of glasses of champagne at a Christmas party.
It's my understanding that men use dating nicknames, too. I once asked a boyfriend what mine had been in the beginning of our courtship and, to my dismay; it was not Adorable Curly Haired Girl, or Probably The One, but, simply, The Lawyer. His, I was embarrassed to admit, had been "Towel Guy."
The reference was to the decision he made to bring one, tucked into shorts, to a first date at a white-tablecloth restaurant, explaining with a shrug, "I sweat a lot." When it became clear he'd be around for a while and (I'd concluded that being "one quarter thug" was endearing rather than embarrassing), I tried to retrain my friends to refer to him by his occupation instead. But I'll never outlive the jokes about white terrycloth.
When someone is safe, when some of the walls come down, and when hope and excitement begin to beat cynicism and detachment in another round of the game love, the nicknames outlive their use. Recently a friend referenced "Ron" and I didn't know who she was talking about until it clicked that this was the Wine Bar Guy.
"You realize," I told her, "that we're calling him by his name now. This must be serious. "