Ten years ago, I had a flawless first date. I have no qualms about bragging about this because none of my other firsts have been so storybook-perfect. My first kiss startled me so much that instead of kissing back, I hiccupped. My first relationship ended in a hotel room and not even in an exciting “I cheated on him during a coke binge” way. My first date, though, was one for the ages: making out in the back row of the movie theatre, and ice cream afterward, and I think we even planned it over the phone because that’s what people did back then before Tinder.
It was so perfect that a few days later when he called me to tell me that, essentially, I was too young for him—which at a young and inexperienced fifteen to his seventeen, I was, but still—I wasn’t just gobsmacked but downright offended. How could he possibly have held my hand and bought me a movie ticket if he didn’t intend to take me to prom in five months and introduce me to his parents and post a picture of us together on MySpace?
Ultimately, though, it made sense to me, because after all, things like that didn’t happen to girls like me. I have always been susceptible to this illogical line of thought, that 1) there is a species of woman called “girls like me” and 2) we are by some universal dictum excluded from being honored by experiences that fall into the category of “things like that.”
If you asked me to define either of these, I would probably be embarrassed into taking it back altogether, because empirically speaking, “girls like me” means short white girls and I know plenty of short white girls who are often privy to “things like that,” which I suppose refers to good dates that lead to good relationships and good marriages and, you know, good houses that are well-decorated and not living alone in an apartment that looks like a homeless person’s been squatting there. (This is a more current characterization of the species. When I was fifteen, “girls like me” were girls who bought “Well-behaved women rarely make history” bumper stickers and read everything that had been published about sex on the Internet as some kind of theory-based preparation for an event that would occur in a distant and unfathomable future, maybe in a decade after we were finally allowed to go to parties where parents weren’t present.)
Clear as it was that this storybook first date was an anomaly, it’s been a decade and I don’t remember what it felt like when S_______ slipped his arm around me in the back row at “The Aviator,” but I remember how giddy I was. And how my stomach sank when I realized that this had been a mistake on the behalf of the universe, that Cupid had mistaken me for one of “those girls” and let me go to the movies with a cute boy, and how I felt some of those butterflies that had rendered me practically unable to speak for the whole night die away.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the flock of butterflies that lie dormant in my stomach have never come to life as energetically as they did that night when I was fifteen and S_______ took me to the movies. It’s been four months since the breakup of my first ~*real*~ relationship, and now that I understand that the pain of disappointment is in direct proportion to how long you spent feeling giddily certain that this was the stuff of love songs and that Pinterest wedding boards are for basic bitches but maybe you should start thinking about what your first dance song should be. That’s some curl-up-under-your-desk-and-cry level pain. That’s the kind of pain where if you aren’t careful, you might start thinking it’s okay to quit showering. Fortunately, as I’ve discovered lately, that pain does subside to the point that you can listen to Leonard Cohen again and refer to the vagaries of your relationship like you refer to old friendships that have faded over time. And you shower.
It occurred to me a few days before Thanksgiving, as I wondered whether enough time had passed that I would be able to listen to Mariah Carey’s seminal Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” without caterwauling, that it might be time to dip a toe into the dating pool again. I haven’t been actively avoiding dating, but nothing has come of the occasional flicker of flirtatious eye contact with dudes on the Metro who don’t look like their favorite hobby is beer pong on the weekend with their bros. (It occurs to me that perhaps what I think is “flirtatious eye contact” is me giving crazy eyes to innocent strangers trying to get home from work. This has burned me before.)
Because like all good millennials I don’t understand basic face-to-face human interaction, I signed up for OKCupid, where you can curate away your crazy eyes and your general inability to speak English when you get nervous. I engaged in witty banter with a few sparring partners who looked reasonably unlikely to be serial killers, and a couple of these sparring sessions turned into dates. And not only did I not get murdered, but I even felt the stirrings of my long-dormant butterflies.
It was such a relief to discover that even though I’m 25 now and not fifteen, and I have confirmed through personal experience that a breakup is the emotional equivalent of getting a cavity filled every day for four months on end, I’m still capable of feeling butterflies. Butterflies. If I could ask for just one emotion for the rest of time, it would be butterflies, butterflies like the ones that practically knocked me off my feet when I was fifteen and the cutest boy in school wanted to take me to the movies. Butterflies like I felt when I was 24 and my boyfriend told me that he loved me. The sensation that anything could happen and the certainty that whatever happens, it will be good; the belief—the self-delusion—that although an infinite list of possibilities invariably includes negative ones, they could not possibly happen to me because the universe is smiling on me.
No first date has made me as nervous as that very first one did. This is a good thing, certainly, because I think the only thing that got me out of the minivan and into the movie theatre that night was the fact that my dad circled the parking lot long enough for us to finish listening to “Stairway to Heaven” while I did some deep yoga breathing and thought about how pretty I looked in my red sweater and my corduroy flares (blissfully unaware that nobody who doesn’t want to look like the Keebler Elf should wear flares, but then again, it was 2005 and we’re lucky I wasn’t still wearing a T-shirt from the Limited Too), and I can’t really get away with having my dad drive me to dates in a minivan these days.
It makes me a little sad at the same time, though, to know that I’ll probably never be knocked off my feet by butterflies the way I was that first time. I suppose every time my illusions are shattered—that ice cream doesn’t mean the prom, and that bringing someone home for Christmas one year doesn’t mean that they’ll be there the next—my flock of butterflies is pushed a little closer to extinction. I remember how my stomach sank when I realized that I wasn’t going to the prom with S_______. And sometimes, despite my best efforts to think about neutral things like whether I prefer Brie or Camembert or whether I would rather date Ben from “Parks and Rec” or the grown-up version of Seth Cohen from “The O.C.”, I remember what he said to me that night in August and how my whole body went numb.
But in spite of that, a flicker remains. Mostly because butterflies are so goddamn fun. When someone whose hands are unfamiliar puts those hands around your waist, runs them through your hair, looks at you like you’re something new and shiny and unencumbered by the baggage that maybe one day you’ll share with them and they’ll carry as their own—is there anything more fun than that? Anything more fun than walking on air, than dancing around your living room the next morning lip-synching to Mariah like you’re fifteen again and this boy is going to invite you to the prom?
I’m grateful for my little butterfly farm, for those strivers that have survived every cull to help me steadfastly ignore the likelihood that any good evening will lead to disaster or, at the very least, disappointment. Without that blind optimism, after all, girls like me would just quit showering altogether.