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Picky, Picky
In the Outlet Mall of Love, Finding A Good Fit Can Mean Lots of Returns

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006

Falling in love has never had a reputation for making much sense. Dante glimpsed Beatrice a few times and wouldn't shut up about her for decades.

Why should not-falling-in-love be any more rational?

It comes down to the deterrent power of a Phil Collins CD in a woman's car. Or, a guy who habitually sticks his tongue out while eating, like a lapping dog. His girlfriend returns him to his cage, permanently.

Centuries from now, scientists may point to this as the moment in time when the pickiness gene became dominant. In the end, it will come down to one really old, lonely guy and his list.

"She must have blue eyes. She should like animals, but not in a weird way. No thin lips. No lawyers," he'll be writing, just before he keels over and the human race comes to an end.

* * *

As the measure of a relationship, the taquito is greasy and capricious. But there it was late one night, warmed over countless times, poised to destroy a budding romance.

They'd been out with friends at a few bars. She was hungry. She wanted 7-Eleven.

"She said, 'They've got the best taquitos in the world,' " says Joe Peters. "I said, 'Are you serious?' "

Peters, 28, is not a 7-Eleven kind of guy. More of a distance-cycling, marathoning, healthy meals kind of guy. She insisted. He accompanied her in.

"She even said, "Pick out any one, it's on me,' " Peters recalls of the incident, which wasn't even really a date, and acquired great meaning only afterward, after everything else had happened, with the mayonnaise and the brie. But anyway, there he was.

"It's 3 o'clock in the morning. You can tell these taquitos have been the taquitos nobody wanted and they've been sitting out all day."

He chooses one despite himself -- jalapeno and cream cheese, if memory serves. He takes a few bites and throws the thing away in disgust. She devours hers with evident relish.

This was the beginning (and the beginning of the end) of Peters's brief romance with a woman who "just liked the worst food in the world." Then Peters, a program analyst for the federal government, took her out to dinner, and that's when things really deteriorated. She started talking about mayonnaise.

"Some people are mayonnaise people, I completely understand it. But I. Hate. Mayonnaise," Peters says. He thinks it's a texture thing. "I just find it to be the most repulsive thing in the world. And she's just going on and on about how great mayonnaise is and how you can eat all these things and my stomach is just curdling."

There was one more incident. They went to grab a quick bite and she got a roast beef and brie sandwich, heated up. The brie was "oozing."

"I mean, when it's hot and running all over, it looked terrible, and in light of the taquito and mayonnaise stories, I was just like, I can't take it anymore," Peters says.

He stopped calling her. He knows this sounds really bad.

"Feel free to put in there what a shallow [bleep] I am," he says.

But is it really so shallow? Or is it merely efficient, given all the available women in the world Peters might have to date to find someone perfect? It's like shoe shopping; you can't buy the first pair you try on.

Besides, when you push Peters, you discover there was something else about the girl, something too "small-town," too "old-fashioned and motherlike" for him. You start to wonder if the taquito-and-mayonnaise-and-brie thing is just a convenient explanation for something too subtle for words.

After all, Peters is perfectly willing to accept certain imperfections.

"My ex-girlfriend loved Celine Dion," he says.

* * *

There is a difference between an obvious deterrent -- a problem that most people would condemn in a date, like bad breath -- and what we might call the Taquito Moment.

A great many of us would agree on the following reasons for dismissal of a suitor:

Excessive lateness. Excessive neck hair. Rudeness toward wait staff. Multiple mentions of an ex. Starting a sentence with, "Now, my third marriage wasn't my fault."

The Taquito Moment is more interesting. It reveals as much about the person who despises taquitos as it does about the one who keeps them close to her heart. Often it reveals, in shorthand, something we can't quite pinpoint about the other person, or ourselves. It's a proxy for taboos, or regrets about past failed relationships. It's a proxy for class concerns or cultural differences, because most people want someone who looks and sounds and smells as they do.

The Taquito Moment comes to represent a moment of clarity, the thing you fasten onto later when explaining why you could never go out with that person again. So you broke up with a girl because of her arm hair? Fine. Love, like mayonnaise, is a texture thing. But maybe, on some essential level, the girl just didn't do it for you, because if she had, those would have been the arms of the girl you loved.

There is something peculiarly modern about this phenomenon, something aligned with our dark privilege of too much , this consumeriffic culture in which jeans and houses and breasts and ring tones are customizable. Consider it all: geographical dislocation, cities filled with singles, extended childhoods and postponed childbearing, speed-dating, the growing sense that the dating pool is as vast as the 454 men-seeking-women between the ages of 29 and 31 within five miles of your Zip code on Yahoo Personals.

In a world of infinite possibilities, the notion of falling in love, of finding The One, seems itself like the taquito girl, small-town and old-fashioned. Once upon a time, The One would've lived in your village or another one like it. Now, she could be this sweet girl across from you at the dinner table, but she could also be someone you haven't yet met. What if there's another woman somewhere in the world, like this girl, but better? Someone who will snowboard with you, and doesn't do that strange throat-clearing thing?

"When I was buying a computer, there were so many features that for six months I didn't buy a computer," says Jillian Straus, 33, whose book "Unhooked Generation," due out Feb. 8, chronicles why people her age have trouble deciding on mates. The people in their twenties and thirties who Straus interviewed "see commitment to one person as a narrowing of lifestyle choices."

And through all of it, the prospect of happiness always just ahead, if only we could find the right person, the perfect person. Happiness, that sly, flitting creature we somehow convinced ourselves was ours to keep.

Online, people attempt to custom-order mates with the awesome specificity of children at a Build-a-Bear Workshop. In the personal section of Craigslist, a man describes his dream woman: "you are very feminine but also a tad clumsy. you are short, but you love high heels . . . you have long dark hair and big eyes. you like to wear mascara and other eye make-up, and/or you have long lashes."

TV writers lampoon our impossible standards. On "Sex and the City," Charlotte once broke up with a guy because she didn't like his taste in china. On his show, Jerry Seinfeld torpedoed a relationship because a woman had "man hands."

On the MTV reality show "NEXT," one person is set up on five dates in rapid succession, dismissing each potential suitor with the word next . Thus, a young woman nexts a guy within nine seconds for having ugly teeth, and a young man nexts a date because she's vegetarian. He loves cheeseburgers too much, he says.

The Taquito Moment is the test you didn't know you were giving until the other person failed. Sometimes, it's an impossible test.

"I say, hurl," Wayne advises Garth in "Wayne's World." "If you blow chunks and she comes back, she's yours. But if you spew and she bolts, it was never meant to be."

* * *

So here follows, in no particular order, several lifetimes' worth of irritations and perceived warning signs -- a window into the modern limitation of extreme pickiness brought on by too much choice:

Dates with bad grammar. Yankees fans. Actors. Indecisive dates. ("Where do you want to go?" "I dunno, you?") A man who wears a backpack, or socks with his sandals. A woman who can't give good directions to her house. A man who likes pink drinks. A woman who drives a black Pontiac Grand Am with gold rims. A man who kisses you and says, "Yummy!" A woman who wears a tight leopard-print top.

"Any girl that orders a salad as her meal at dinner," says Koonal Gandhi, 27, who shares a place with Joe Peters in upper Northwest Washington. That's an indication she is "very self-conscious about either how she looks or eating in front of other people."

"I do have one guy who I actually stopped dating 'cause he didn't know what paella was," says Jenn Lee, a pediatrician who used to live in New York and now lives in Sterling. The gap in knowledge was a sign to her, she says, "that the guy wasn't cultured. How could you live in New York for 10 years and not experience paella?"

Denisa Canales has had a number of breakups; one because a guy was allergic to her cats, and one because she didn't trust a guy's pit bull. More recently, she left a guy over a crucial difference of opinion concerning her shoes.

They'd been dating for two weeks, and the truth is, things weren't perfect. The guy could be kind of critical, she says, and he seemed to think he knew her better than he did. Anyway, they were out for lunch and she wore the shoes, gold mules with a little heel and lots of beading. She recalls that she'd paid $60 for them and had taken some time picking them out, choosing just exactly what she wanted. The perfect style, The One.

"I call them my pixie shoes," says Canales, 23. "Those shoes exemplify everything that I am. . . . They're so, like, fun and they're kinda dangerous."

She'd worn them to a job interview earlier in the day, and the guy had the audacity to remark that he didn't think they were quite right for an interview. She asked if he liked the shoes and he said in fact, he didn't.

She finished her sushi and stood up.

"Don't call me again," she said, and walked out.

And, as a matter of fact, he never did.

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