I have been on one thousand first dates. We sit across from each other in relatively neutral spaces–homes, coffee shops, restaurants during off hours. Spaces where the exchange of money is nonexistent or minimal. Summarizing ourselves in short, succinct sentences that leave little room for divisiveness, we reveal only the most hopeful, brightest versions of our selves. We hope that what we consider the best version will be attractive, appealing to the other person. We listen to their thoughts, which tend to be similarly general, phrased in a way that does not allow for disagreement, and take what we want from them.
I take what people are physically willing to give: a home for the night, a meal, a cup of coffee, directions. I take stories: learning how a relationship lasting 51 years encouraged a woman to become a stronger person when her husband died surrounded by loved ones at home, learning how we each build ways to protect ourselves from loneliness even when we are alone, learning how love can take the form of maple syrup in ice cream. I take lifestyles: capturing the bookcases built into the walls, living spaces with no furniture, cutting boards that are seamlessly built into the cabinets. I take, and I take, and I take.
They take. They take stories of the goodness of humanity, without having to put themselves on a lonely country road to find out firsthand. They take a young, small, brown woman with a Mid-Atlantic accent who smiles frequently and laughs loudly, giving them her undivided attention for a few minutes, hours, or days. They take a daughter of immigrants and now have access to an American Dream success story. They take satisfaction from knowing that they have contributed to my journey, and my life, for the better.
The past six months have made me incredibly proficient at small talk. I can hear my voice switching from its usual highs and lows to a more monotone, deeper version of itself when I say ridiculous things like, “I’ve biked 10,000 kilometers.” I now forget that it’s even small talk and find ways to revitalize stories that I’ve told a dozen times. These conversations are a way for me to process my experiences, to understand what happened in a small town, to remember why a certain situation ended up that way. I’m slowly learning to use words like “racism” and “colonialism” when talking with white men over the age of 65. I’m slowly learning to express my truth in ways that hold meaning to me, that don’t feel empty and hollow.
I know who I like going on first dates with. Small talk with strangers in front of the grocery store revolves around bike touring, camping, wild life, and danger. When with another cyclist, though, we can disregard those basics and get into what the first date is really about: our philosophies of living, our views on mortgages and financial responsibility, whether we like cats or dogs more.
One thousand first dates have taught me so much. I have analyzed where my mouth typically inserts, “Um”‘s and “Well”‘s, and pinpointed my moments of hesitation. I have consciously worked on strengthening my voice and tone, to speak with confidence about what I have done. I have learned that to nod and smile, even in a moment of disagreement, is not a sign of weakness. To willfully expend our energy where we think it is deserved, and to remain silent when we do not want to use ourselves up, is a strategic choice. I have learned that most of us are still trying to figure our shit out, even when we have the perfect job, house, car, and 2.5 kids. None of our lives are as picture perfect as they seem, and all of us want more. I have learned that sometimes, I crave solitude, an escape from all kinds of dates.
There’s so much I don’t get from a first date. I miss comfortable silences. I miss the small, non-sexual, physical gestures that you make with friends you’ve had for a long time. I miss not having to summarize myself so succinctly, so agreeably. I miss expressing my rage in ways that are divisive. I miss making fun of friends and having them instantly understand my sarcasm, and find a way to hit me back. Hell, I miss cursing blindly.
Right now, I’m basking in the last few first dates I’ll have before the end of this trip. I have become a champion at dodging the banal small talk in favor of getting at someone’s story. I’m hoping to bring these skills into my every day life, into a life that is characterized by routine rather than spontaneity. I find myself looking forward to being in the company of old friends, but “looking forward” is a trap that keeps me from enjoying my present. I remind myself that I am here, near the end of an unusual journey that constantly invites strangers to interact with, engage with, and help me.