Your heart is in your mouth, you wonder why you bother, all the ways in which the next few hours will go wrong present themselves in a seamless highlight reel, an instinct rises above your fear and you keep moving, you’re locked in, you realise life is this, life is being in the game, this nervous energy is a sign from your gut you are alive, on you walk, you see the figure, the unsuspecting date, anxious, expectant, because your text-game is on point, of someone you now won’t live up to, who you’ve hoodwinked into spending the evening with.
First dates are terrifying.
They always scared me shitless. You wouldn’t know it though. When the lengthening shadows of my twilight years draw in, and I sit there by the fire with my patchwork memories, some less reliable, too smoothed over, too benevolent to the home truths of my past, I will cast my mind back and think, you know what, I’m not the last guy in the world you’d want to go on a first date with. Not at all. I gave it some unique flavour.
Meet me in Piccadilly, under the statue of Eros, I’d say. Baller starter move. With a knowing grin the God of Love would point his arrow directly down at us as we ambled up Regent St and hooked a left onto Hebdon St. Having complimented the lady on her attire, I’d drop some casual knowledge about an obscure David Bowie album cover, and we’d proceed up the pedestrianised boulevard. If it was winter time I might make some passing remark about the chill in the air. She would concur.
I’d then stop, look her straight in the eye.
It’s about to get a whole lot colder.
Emanating from the shadows, a neon haze would move across our periphery and reveal its source. An establishment dripping icicles of class, charisma, clean-lines and sophistication.
In both temperature and atmosphere the Ice Bar is indisputably cool. Upon entry one is handed a thermal cloak and gloves before passing into a sub-zero chamber, whereupon a ticket grants you a complimentary spirit cocktail. They play very loud EDM, and you sit on ice stools and drink your drinks and slowly get colder until your tumblers – also made of ice – begin to melt and your twenty minute time slot comes to an end.
I asked a Russian once if the atmosphere of the Ice Bar reminded her of the Moscow winters of her youth and she shot me a look I imagine her compatriots reserve strictly for leering through the Ukrainian border fence. Another girl found the whole thing so distasteful she insisted we leave half way through our allocated slot, which at £18 a head was a blow to both my wallet and my self esteem. But I couldn’t blame her. The place was awful, full of Italian tourist families taking selfies, the drinks were bad, the music was shit, it was freezing.
But it was also kind of the point.
The Ice Bar was something to laugh at. Something to do together that was kind of interactive, that involved a couple of drinks but was less neutral than the pub, that was weird enough for us to feel connected in spite of. I remember once to my horror a fully booked Ice Bar meant the pub was the only other option, and it was far more intimidating. As if over a pint there would be nowhere to hide. When you were as nervous as I was, the ice bar was a diffusion technique, an expert way to…
break the ice.
And strangely the real world seemed a lot more manageable once back in normal clothes amid a normal temperature, like the two of you had only just met but had already been through the ringer, and walking back across Regent St into the beating heart of Soho, it felt like you were meant to be together.
My mate Chuckles once proffered some advice. Bro, he said, on a first date always book a restaurant in the vicinity, and if things are going well covertly beeline for the joint in question and just at the moment you’re walking past be like… I know this great place, and duck in. It’s a classy move.
The restaurant was Hix on Brewer St, it had these beautiful bar stools, and sitting side by side one felt both closer and yet under less scrutiny. Life has taught us, wrote St Exupéry, that love does not consist of gazing into one another’s eyes but looking together in the same direction. I would quote this around the time we took our seats. Hix also had a bar downstairs and once dinner was done we could keep the vibe going by drinking extremely strong cocktails til closing around 1am. I’d then see them off in a cab, giving the crucial double-tap on the roof once the lady was sitting comfortably.
I must have done this first date five or six times.
Did I feel bad repeating the same formula? Every date was different, and my thinking was the smoother the logistics ran the better for both of us. I don’t think I repeated any of the same punchlines or got any names mixed up. I remember one girl asked me 3 questions in six hours, which I deemed reason enough not to go on a second, and another, an architect, asked me so many questions I made my excuses and hit the gents to compose myself. But I don’t think my company ever deemed the date a disaster.
As the years drew on, as the doorman at the Ice bar started recognising me and their weekly newsletter peddling subzero deals cascaded into my inbox, as my mates relentlessly ripped the piss, seasons changed and rearranged and one day the Ice bar went under, and even Hix started emptying, eventually closing its doors for good. So came to an end the chapter of my first dates. I also somehow got a girlfriend, which removed those evenings from the equation in the best way possible.
And so one morning, many years later and just a few ago I found myself on long-forgotten once familiar ground, feeling my way around the edges of a first date once more. There was nobody in my sights, only a strong instinct in me to want to meet someone. I was coming out of a period of unease and as tended to happen on the upswing, the heady mead of life was re-entering my body and I felt alive and happy.
In the intervening years the landscape of dating had changed. Introductions through friends were an option, but most had found one another by then, and the pickings were slim. These days, meeting someone involved the small task of swiping right on a glowing interface. That, or you went old school. The I gotta go see about a girl technique. Walking up to someone in a public place, facing the firing line of ultimate rejection, asking for a number.
One afternoon, sat in a bar opposite my house sipping a non-alcoholic IPA I heard a voice, and peering in its direction as nonchalant as I could manage, I saw her. Sharp intake of breath. She was unreal. Pouring sweat for half an hour I worked through a plan of action, something self-deprecating but not too creepy that would justify interrupting her and her friend mid-flow. I decided to bust home and put something cooler on.
Walking back across the road fifteen minutes later to seize my destiny with clammy hands, she was nowhere to be seen. But something had clicked into motion.
A few days passed, it was the week before Christmas, I was meeting a mate and his fiancée to hit their local for dinner. And in there, across the floor, was this girl, waiting tables. She was something else. I couldn’t keep from following her with my eyes, tracing her, the way she walked, how she carried herself, interacting with the revellers, gliding around the room. I spent two hours boring my friends talking tactics, and as the place was emptying, they went to wait outside and I made my move.
I’d written down my number on a napkin. I went over to her, motioning to pay, and looking up at me quizzically, she pointed to the bit of paper I was clutching with a peculiar agitation. The receipt? Nn-no, I stuttered, it’s on the table. And as we walked over a pall of terror drew across my mind, I grew faint, and lost it. In a last attempt to salvage some coolness I threw out a couple of insights about Christmas being a busy period, she frowned and half-nodded, and tumbling like a redwood onto a forest floor of regret, I flat-lined, paid and left. From the corner of my eye I could make out my mates’ faces pressed against the window, front row seats to the spectacle of my failure.
I pussied out, I said under my breath as I got outside, and without so much as a sideways glance blurted Happy Christmas, got on my bike and cycled home, dejected and full of defeat. But I didn’t make it. Half way across Well St Common, moving between the shadows cast by the beams of lamplight I heard the beating of enormous wings. In front of me an Angel hovered, stopping me in my tracks. I dropped my bike to the tarmac and stared. Be brave, came the voice of calm, if you do not have courage nothing good will ever come.
I went back.
Many months later my girlfriend told me it was the coming back that got her. If you’d asked straight out I don’t think I would’ve given you my number, she smiled.
I went back to the park the other day and saw the spot where I’d thrown my bike down. How weird I thought, a two and a half year relationship could’ve been snuffed out forever, vanishing into non-existence then and there in the space of ten seconds, on the basis of one decision. We weren’t even supposed to be in the pub that night. Louise had planned on cooking but was pooped after a long day, so the plan changed.
How arbitrary life is. I might’ve married this girl and I was two split-decisions away from never meeting her. How many opportunities pass us by, within metres and minutes of us. How alive is every day, every single one, singing with potential, a swirling moat of magic lying in wait, for our courage, ready for us to reach out and meet it without fear with arms outstretched.
The feeling I felt cycling back that night with her number, the feeling that made me want to shriek at the sky, having gone towards the thing I feared the most and made it, whatever the feeling was, I must go towards it again. I wondered how many new discoveries, interactions, ways of seeing and being in the world, every morning might bring about, with the vision of that feeling in my heart. The spirit of the unformed future, circling above us giggling and pirouetting in the air. What we call fate, said Rilke, does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us.
I gotta go see about a girl.
Am I enthusiastic. Am I terrified. I don’t know. I know that I like myself more these days. I have less reason to hide, behind a thermal cloak and some loud EDM.
The other day, on a train, someone tells me how great her last few Tinder dates have been. I thought the opposite was normally true, I ask. Well yeah, if you want something serious I’d steer well clear of them, you’ll be disappointed. But for meeting new people and cool conversations they’re great. My phone can’t get on dating apps, I say. You’re fine. Stick to the going up to strangers getting numbers game. You did it once already, she says. You can go again.