AT FIRST, I COULDN'T put my finger on it. At first, there was nothing but this floating anxiety, this feeling that something was coming up, something I should be doing something about, something that had something to do with the month of December. I went through the calendar and I checked my appointment book, but nothing came to mind until someone said something about New Year's Eve. Then it hit me. It was time to get a date.

Not actually, of course - not really. It has been years since I've had to do that, years since I've had to lift the phone and call some person and ask about someone in a casual way that would move Charles Boyer to applause, what are you doing New Year's? New Year's Eve? It has been a long time, but the old anxiety is still with me.

There are some things you don't forget, anxieties you never lose. I still look at my shoes when an army officer comes by and I have to remind myself when a police car pulls up behind me when I'm driving that I actually have a license and for a long time I thought I had really pulled off a feat when I managed to get a beer - even though I was no longer under age. Things like that you never quite get over and one of them is New Year's Eve.

I mentioned this to a woman the other night and she said with a straight face that New Year's Eve is one of the reasons she got married. Now she always has a date and now she knows who will kiss her when midnight comes around. She was joking, of course, but I think she was on to something there.

Anyway, for a man at least, getting a date on New Year's Eve is something of a rite of passage. It is your first brush with the horror called dating and it is probably the first time you have to call a girl. It happened to me when I was about 12 and at a time when my voice was changing and I didn't have any idea what to say and I didn't even know if you just came right out and asked or if you said something first or what.

So me and my friend Norman went up to my parents' bedroom and there we practiced it. He played the part of Judy Miller, who was my intended for New Year's, and I was someone named Rosalie. We worked over our routines, going through every possible scenario from yes to what would now be called the worst case scenario - an outright no. We did small talk and logistics - where and when they would be picked up - and what should be worn and everything you could think of. We wrote it all down in big block letters and we had it figured so that if one of the girls said something like "maybe" we had various options for the response.

But is was no use. The butterflies were in our stomachs and so I hit on the idea of calling Rosalie and saying I was Norman and he would call Judity and say he was me. I mean, it seemed to make sense. I couldn't care less if Rosalie turned him down and he would not be nervous if Judith told me she had had a date since August and so I lifted the phone and called Rosalie. I was terrific - small talk, banter, jokes, you name it. I dazzled her, leading her up to that moment when I popped the question. There was a pause. Yes, she said. "Yes," I repeated. Norman fell backwards on the rug. He was a success.

Then it was his turn. he dialed. He read the script. He introduced himself. he chatted. He made some small talk. He worked his way down the list, doing fine - nothing great, but all right. Then he popped the question. Under it on the list were all the possible answers. There was a pause. I'll remember that second as long as I live. Judy Miller was on the other end of the phone. Judy Miller of the freckled face and the long, red hair and the parents who had allegedly made a killing in the drycleaning business - tht Judy Miller. Then I heard Norman say the word "naturally." He just kept repeatingit, searching the paper in front of him, turning to me with a panicked look on his face. He had asked if she would go out with him New Year's Eve and she had said naturally. That was not on the list.

Anyway, we worked that one out. Judy, like all New Year's Eve dates, was never heard from again, but it was the beginning of what is called the dating experience. It was the beginning of calling girls months ahead of time for a date and being told they would be washing their hair that night. It was unbelievable how a simple phone call triggered the urge to shampoo. Sometimes you would offer an alternative date and be told that a girl friend was coming over.

But the big night was always New Year's Eve. It was the night that really counted, the one in which you tried hardest to have a good time, the one where you always wound up dating someone you hardly knew, sharing sentimental moments with a girl who meant nothing to you, resolving there and then never to do it again and then finding yourself around the first of December with this strange feeling - this anxiety.

It was time to get a New Year's date.