Why Every Bad Date Has a Literary Soul
After a string of perplexing encounters, I was surprised at the lofty themes that kept emerging.
My memoir, No One You Know, details a time that I was far from friends and reeling from a breakup, so I noticed myself becoming much more open to strangers like dental hygienists and drifters and taxi drivers. Starved of intimacy and connection, I was also going on a lot of dates, another frontier of my life suddenly crowded with people I didn’t know at all, as I tried to get over the end of a relationship that spanned many years and places. Dating then was often exhausting—so many people would flake or cancel or we just wouldn’t be a good match. Sometimes, it worked out for a while, but usually it didn’t.
Later on, when I started putting some of the wildest stranger stories down on paper (like when a man on a train platform and I got into a tense confrontation over some four-leaf clovers I was carrying), I noticed that they shared some themes of identity and persona with some of my more befuddling dates. It was surprising to see a literary gleam in something as familiar as dating.
But when you abstract away the banal elements of small talk and drinks, you’re left with some classic ingredients: there’s natural tension. Details are extra salient. You may not have long together, crystallizing the experience of time. Plus there are clear stakes, two characters, and a lot of unknowns. That’s part of the reason why dating stories can make good anecdotes, especially when something odd happens (not in a scary way, just unexpected). Here’s one story that was in an early version of the book.
What You Sound Like
“I want to hear your voice,” she says. “What you sound like.”
When she first insists on a phone conversation before we meet, I find the idea a bit archaic. Out of touch. We’d already transitioned from OKCupid to texting, but in the end, I like her explanation. I’ve often noticed during phone conversations with people I haven’t spoken to in a while that I register their voices in a different way than when we speak in person. It feels like this woman wants to weigh every aspect of me, slowly. My voice — I’d never really considered it as a thing of its own. I always cringe when I hear myself talk on an interview recording. Is that really what I sound like? But when she makes her request, it fills me with a romantic notion, alight with the prospect of my own uniqueness, at least in someone’s eyes.
We’re both busy; a week passes, then another week. Finally, we schedule a time to chat on the phone, but that day my voice is hoarse! Raspy. I sound like I’ve gone through pack after pack of cigarettes even though I don’t smoke. I start worrying what exactly she’ll hear when she hears my voice. “Loves Marlboros” isn’t the message about myself I hope to convey. Voice really seems to matter a lot to her. I pace back and forth in my tiny Astoria apartment. Like a slumping baseball player seduced by steroids, I down a few spoons of honey to help my odds. She picks up and after just five minutes of talking, she’s satisfied. I’ve advanced through round three.
“You passed,” she says, laughing.
A little confused at the brevity, and to make it feel less like a one-sided evaluation, I say she passed, too, though I’d already been ready to meet.
A few weeks later, our schedules finally align. I listen to music on the Q train into Manhattan, filled with the good, nervous energy that accompanies a possibility. If she is able to derive so much psychic data from a voice, I’m excited to introduce my full self. But as we walk to the bar, it’s hard to even get a word in. All she wants to talk about is her ex-boyfriend. The immediate deep dive into that topic catches me off-guard, and it’s hard not to find it off-putting. Then comes the dagger.
“You really do look a lot like him,” she says.
My gait slows and I feel a queasiness in my stomach. I must sound like him, too.
In hindsight, some of the dates seemed to almost resemble theatrical two-handers about identity. There is more than awkwardness there. There’s a stage. What will you not say? What stories will they choose to tell? Even with the intense flush of new details, the other person is still a mysterious blur. It’ll take time for them to come into focus, for you to discern if this is how they actually may be most of the time or if it’s just how they seem in this specific place or moment. It’ll take time to know who you’ve been with or how they see you. Is there some as-yet-undiscovered tripwire that will connect you in an unexpected way, perhaps much deeper than you’d first imagined? Or perhaps you’re fitting into a box you would never have guessed.
No One You Know is forthcoming from Outpost19 on May 4, 2021. It chronicles Schwartzman’s deepest, weirdest, and most memorable encounters with strangers, all revolving around the question of what does it mean to really know someone. Preorder a copy here.