Emily Carr, 45, federal contractor, and Lou Vivas, 42, real estate agent. (Daniele Seiss/For The Washington Post)

When a male frigate bird is ready to mate, he gulps in air, inflating a red pouch on his neck like a balloon. The display is unmistakable: The pouch sometimes ends up as large as the female of the species, and frigate birds inflate their pouches only when they want to mate.

If only the romantic interests of humans were so easy to discern.

Soon after Lou Vivas, 42, arrived at Pesce, a seafood restaurant in Dupont Circle, for his dinner date with Emily Carr, 45, he knew the match wasn’t right. Lou, a divorced dad of a 9-year-old girl, yearns for a partner with whom he can grow his family. A hard-charging real estate agent, he devotes all his energy to his career and his child. He doesn’t take vacations. He doesn’t take breaks. When he has spare time, he studies books about leadership and business. You’d think a guy like Lou would make his intentions clear very quickly on a date — but you’d be wrong.

Early in the evening, Emily, who is also divorced, had misgivings about the match as well. “He said, ‘I’m a total night owl,’ and I didn’t say anything,” she told me later. “I get up at 5:30 basically every morning.” Single and childless, she relishes travel — but that subject was a nonstarter with a man who never vacations. Their expectations for first-date conversation also diverged: Right away, Lou recited his romantic history and asked for hers, which took Emily aback. She prefers to build a rapport before dragging skeletons out of the closet.

But some elements of their personalities did seem to mesh. The reason Emily wakes so early is to train for long-distance races; she’s an avid runner and can be pretty hard-charging, too. “It’s about how well I do against my own goals,” she explained. She works as a consultant for the federal government and considers herself “goal-oriented and driven.”

Over a bottle of Sancerre and a plate of ceviche, the duo discussed their jobs and life stories. Emily couldn’t tell if there was a connection. But then he asked for her phone number. If he was asking for her number, he must want to see her again, right? What’s more, when they were done eating, they walked to get ice cream. “I was just going to get a scoop and he was like, ‘No, you’ve got to get the trio,’ ” she recalled. He insisted on paying and offered to drive her home.

Emily told me she took all of these actions as signs of interest. Sure, there had been a few red flags early on, but none had seemed like a dealbreaker. “I was like, ‘Okay. He’s cute. He seems really nice. Seems like he has a good head on his shoulders,’ ” she said. Arriving at her home, Lou insisted on walking Emily to the front door of her apartment complex, even though she told him repeatedly that he didn’t need to. Surely, no man would escort a woman the 10 feet from the curb to her door if he wasn’t hoping to get invited in, would he? And when a guy is cute, smart and seemingly signaling interest at every turn, you give him a shot, right? So she kissed him. They kissed multiple times, both parties reported.

But none of this was meant to signal romantic interest, Lou told me when we talked three days later. Details that Emily interpreted as signs of interest had been intended quite differently. He’d asked for her number “to signal the end of the date,” he explained, not because he wanted to stay in touch. He had paid for her ice cream, driven her home and walked her to her door just to be polite.

To be fair, I would have misinterpreted all of those signals, too. Like Emily, I went into this thinking I knew the signs of a date gone well. But Lou seemed to be operating with a different set of semiotics. I felt like a female frigate bird who had mistaken a red balloon for love.

To her credit, Emily picked up on the truth sooner than I would have. Twenty minutes after the goodbye kiss, she texted Lou. “I was like, ‘Thanks for the ice cream. That was really fun.’ And he sent me a smiley face back.”

A smiley face! Has there ever been a signal more inscrutable? And when I spoke to her three days after the date, he had yet to elaborate. After four days of silence, she texted him: “You seem like a guy who knows what he wants. So best of luck to you there!”

“Ok,” Lou replied. “Good to hear from you. Best of luck to you as well.” No further signals needed.

Rate the date

Lou: 3 [out of 5].

Emily: 4.


No further contact.

Maureen O’Connor is a writer based in Brooklyn.