“Touch his arm,” said the cue card floating behind my date’s shoulder, where the cameras and television crew were watching, waiting.
When producers from a respected daytime talk show Googled “bad date” and consequently read an essay I’d written and published in The Huffington Post about one of my worst, they invited me to the show to have a dating makeover and a blind date with “a really good guy.”
I was 40 and single. What did I have to lose?
I’d tried every way I could to meet “Mr. Right,” including online dating, speed dating, singles cocktail hours, Meet-up groups, hiking groups, religious groups, volunteering, and adult education classes. I’d even gone outside my comfort zone and enrolled in a whiskey tasting course, despite the fact that I’m intolerant to alcohol.
But I’d never tried going on television.
The producers asked me to describe the man I wanted to date. He’s someone who has a positive attitude, I told them, emotional depth, self-awareness, physical fitness, a sense of humor, intelligence, and a passion for something he does in his life. He’s looking for a long-term relationship and ultimately wants marriage and kids. He’s monogamous, financially responsible, and practices good hygiene. He’s not afraid to be himself.
Was I picky? I didn’t think so. What were my deal breakers? Smoking, drugs, lying, cheating, criminal activity, and abusive behavior. Name a celebrity look-alike: Paul Walker.
They found Tom*, a handsome and athletic 42-year-old university assistant dean of students. At an upscale restaurant over dinner, our conversation flowed as we talked about our work in higher education—I was a college writing professor; Tom taught a first-year seminar. He resided in Chicago but was raised in Boston, where I was living. We both had cats. We had a lot in common, including our favorite drink, the Shirley Temple.
I felt chemistry.
Touch his arm, the cue card urged.
Hours earlier, wardrobe, hair, and makeup artists had surrounded me. Rows of long brown extensions were glued to my scalp turning my curly blonde hair dark and sleek. My face became a canvas for palettes full of makeup and false eyelashes. I put on a hot pink dress I couldn’t afford.
A confidence coach showed me how to walk “with swag” in five-inch heels, how to hold proper posture at a dinner table, how to sit down, lean in, touch my date’s arm, and speak with my eyes.
I felt pretty awkward, but I was open to trying new things.
After all, it’d been seven years since my last boyfriend. We’d been dating a month when I said I needed him to be patient when it came to sex. I revealed I was in the early stages of recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder; I was coming to terms with the sexual abuse I’d suffered during my childhood.
“I’m not up for being a partner of a survivor,” he said, ending it over email.
The breakup shattered what little confidence I had about being in a relationship. At the time, I was 33. Aside from a long-distance college boyfriend, I’d spent my twenties isolating myself, avoiding romantic scenarios due to unresolved anxiety around intimacy, my fears of truly being seen and rejected.
But by my late thirties, I’d been through extensive therapy and was regularly putting myself out there. Still single at 40, however, I came up against the doubts of others.
“Don’t you understand,” said a woman in my coed therapy group for adults with relationship difficulties, “that a man isn’t going to be able to handle your history?”
But it was my history. I was the one responsible for handling it. And I had.
I didn’t announce my abusive past to the men I met, but my group therapist suggested that in fact I did: I’d published personal essays, some in high profile publications, about overcoming my trauma. The truth was accessible online. A potential boyfriend could Google my name and read all about it.
The group saw my past as a “Scarlet A.” They implored me to have my essays removed from the web, or at the very least I should withhold my last name from the men I dated and not reveal that I was a writer until weeks or months down the road, if ever. My dating life would otherwise be doomed: no man would want to be in a relationship with me.
I continued to go out—with men I discovered were still married, though they’d said they were divorced; with men who lied about their age in their online profiles; with a man who told me he was a Harvard fellow and then disclosed on our date that wasn’t exactly true; with a man who asked me out for coffee, then led me to a water fountain and offered me a cup (that was the date); with a man who disagreed so much with my opinion of "The Wolf of Wall Street" that he decided he didn’t want to see me again.
None of these men wanted me. But I didn’t want them either.
“You’re too serious and intelligent,” slurred a tall bald bachelor at a speed dating event for singles aged 37 to 49. I saw he was missing some teeth.
“How much have you had to drink?” I asked.
“You need to loosen up,” he howled. “You need to pinch my ass!”
I wondered, was this a joke? Was this all that was left of the pool of eligible males? The more men I met, the less hope I had that I’d ever find my “match,” or even anyone decent.
“I don’t get this,” Tom said on our TV date. “You’re charming, smart, pretty. How are you still single?”
I thought the question implied there was something wrong with me. I felt myself blush. I liked Tom, a lot. I didn’t want to screw this up. “I just haven’t met the right guy,” I said, smiling nervously. “Maybe now.”
The cue card appeared to be moving closer to the table. Touch his arm, it insisted.
But I didn’t want to—it wasn’t my style. It wasn’t me. All my life, I’d thought I had to be and do what everyone else wanted in order to be attractive, and lovable. Now, I cast that off.
I started to laugh. “There’s a cue card behind you telling me to touch your arm,” I said, “and I’m not going to do it!”
Tom stifled a chuckle. “Thank you,” he whispered, taking care not to look over his shoulder. “Because that would be very awkward for me.”
“Did you tell him about the cue card?” a producer said incredulously. The crew broke out in stitches.
When our TV date was over, Tom asked if I wanted to go someplace else for dessert, “so we can get to know each other without the cameras."
“I’d like that,” I agreed. “By the way,” I leaned in and added, “this isn’t my real hair.”
Tom and I met up four times over six days, twice with cameras, twice without. When we were alone, we talked candidly about our lives, about our search for a partner, and about going on a TV date. I didn’t know anything about Tom before our first date, but Tom revealed that he’d asked the producers for my full name and had Googled me. He’d read my essays.
“I admire your courage and strength,” he said.
In the course of our conversations, he told me he was firmly anti-marriage and anti-kids. He was looking for a long-term relationship, but without any strings attached. When I asked him why, he explained he’d been burned: “I need an easy out if things go badly,” he said.
My heart sank. I ultimately wanted marriage and to raise a child. But at my age, were my aims possible? Should I give up these things? Tom had many of the traits I was looking for in a potential boyfriend. Perhaps I was being unrealistic in wanting more.
We made out.
“Wow,” Tom said, sitting back after a few minutes, taking a breath. “You’re an amazing kisser.”
I thought it was a line, but he assured me it wasn’t. He said I was the most authentic person he’d ever met and that he felt a connection between us, something rare. I, too, felt a connection, one I’d never felt with anyone before. But I also felt something wasn’t quite right.
Tom’s “easy out” stance was stuck in my mind. And the more we talked, the more it didn’t seem to just be about marriage and kids, but a reflection of his overall approach to life.
I took his cue. On my last night in town, when he asked to come up to my hotel room, I declined. I couldn’t be with someone who was preparing for an ending before we’d ventured a beginning. I was already growing attached. While part of me wished to be fine with a fling, I wasn’t. I never had been.
I said goodbye.
I felt sad and disappointed. But I also felt hopeful. My television dating experience had tested my sense of self and solidified my commitment to being real. My rendezvous with Tom wasn’t just some big tease. He embodied elements of the man I was searching for, which made me revel in possibility.
My “Mr. Right” was out there. I just hadn’t met him yet.