As if first dates aren't awkward enough, two locals agreed -- while sober -- to let me tag along on theirs.
The date was arranged by Julie Ferman of CupidsCoach.com. Julie introduces people for a living. They say she tallies the weddings with notches in her headboard.
Julie specializes in older singles, who face a tougher market. By age 40 most single people are single for a reason.
"You can switch doctors," says Julie, "but you still have the same ailment."
Women who try online dating don't need to be told. MSNBC says that a third of registered men share at least one unpleasant trait: they're married! What a tangled World Wide Web we weave.
Julie swears that all her men are legal, and Brett was no exception. When I arrived at Brett's home, the birds outside were chirping loudly, urgently, maniacally. Spring was in the air.
Brett, 45, answered the door wearing jeans and black Polo collar -- uptown casual. He had laser-blue eyes, the kind you find in a comic book. His cologne was smooth and subtle, nothing like the birds outside.
We sat down in the kitchen, where we talked about dating at age 40 (Brett's part) and being so married that you reject naked women in your dreams (my part).
"The biggest problem," he said, "is the baggage." Spoiled children, pyscho exes, fried hardware. It's rare these days for Brett to meet a woman who isn't divorced. Perhaps his is Generation Ex.
Brett had read Linda's resume. She seemed issue-free and, more important, pretty. Experience bade him to be cautious. She was probably wanted in three states.
Brett had answered his own survey straight up ... except for the part about sex. Whereas he had written something about sex happening in its own time, what he meant to say was, "Whatever you can spare."
Brett was edgy because Linda "likes a man who is well-dressed." Linda later clarified that she meant tastefully dressed, but it confused us simple guyfolk at the time. Brett and I went down the list: shoes, socks, underwear, pants, shirt. Can't get any more dressed than that.
I squirmed for Brett, knowing how first dates are like never-ending job interviews. He would describe his qualifications, explain past experience maybe in the third person, and otherwise justify being alive. He would also have to sit up straight.
I asked Brett if he wanted to stretch or something, but he's not that kind of guy. Brett is in it for the long haul. He's tired of all that free time doing what he pleases. He wants a wife.
Brett regrets the loss of two loves that he let go in the past. He thought more trains would be by. Now he knows better. So it goes.
"You get to the point of surrender," says Brett. "You just stop looking."
He pierced a hole in me with his laser-blue eyes and said, "Then there's the part of me that craves..." Brett chuckled. He didn't have to finish. I knew he meant hugs.
Brett and I arrived at The Dockside Terrace on time. Linda would be fashionably late, so late that I wondered if she might be fashionably absent. Brett straightened his collar for the fifteenth time. Then she appeared like a vision in the courtyard, blushing with apologies.
Linda, 37, does bookkeeping, which in the dating world translates to reliability. Unlike other accountants, she is neither bald nor overweight. Linda is, in fact, a breeze off the beach. She wore a summery scarflike dress that probably has a name if you're a woman.
At the table, Brett and Linda tried to act natural while Chuck the camera guy snapped photos, Jason the voyeur guy jotted notes, and other patrons looked over so often that they actually lost weight in their necks.
Then I retreated to the bar, where I received intelligence from Jackie the Server.
"They seem to be getting along," said Jackie. "They sure do talk a lot."
Brett had chicken piccata, and Linda the seared ahi tuna. The tuna was so absorbing that you didn't chew for fear of ending the deliciousness (I had the same thing.)
After dinner, I decided to check up on our couple and found them making out on the table. Ha. Kidding. They were just talking. In fact, they never stopped talking. Perhaps they were conducting mutual baggage checks. It's not like people come up and say, "Hi, I'm moody, anal-retentive, and insanely jealous. Care to dance?"
People were leaving the restaurant, sorry for the voyeur guy licking his plate at the bar. I would sit there for three more rounds before the date exhausted itself. The bartender now calls me "Norm."
Contrary to what you see on TV, Brett and Linda did not end up in a hot tub with another couple. Brett walked Linda to her car, where they exchanged numbers cautiously, like envoys at a peace talk.
I spoke with Brett afterward. He beamed as he hadn't hours earlier. He was abuzz with possibility. Linda was easy to talk to, he said. They seemed to agree on everything from working to working out. It's not like one was Muslim and the other Hindu.
Brett seemed readier for hugs, but he wore it like his cologne -- smooth and subtle. He plans to call Linda at some undisclosed point in the future. Linda plans to answer. I asked Brett to propose marriage for the sake of the story, and he laughed as if I were joking.
Cupid Julie says, "You meet, you make a friend, you see what happens."
According to Brett, Linda said that she wanted a relationship but wasn't quite ready but had to go to the bathroom anyway. He couldn't get a read on her and had forgotten his Womenspeak Handbook.
Brett himself was less ambiguous. I believe his exact words were, "I'm ready now."
Brett and Linda both clammed up when I pried about their future. They hemmed and hawed till I thought they might run for office. As much as they enjoyed each other's company, neither would risk saying so.
"A lot of women don't make the effort," says Brett. "Once they get burned a couple of times, they don't want to make themselves vulnerable."
On the way home, I reflected on my own first date with the missus, how I took her horseback riding and the wonderful time we had till I ran out of quarters. Now, as hard as it is for us to refrain from strangling each other, our pains could never compare to sitting by the phone on a Saturday night, wondering how the interview went.