If I could apologize to all the men I dated last year, I would tell them I am sorry for bad timing. My brother died in the fall of 2013, and while I’ve sorted through all the expected stuff — from choosing the font for the funeral program to telling my co-workers — little things keep popping up. More than a year later, the simplest of activities can intimidate me.
One of those is dating. The first-date rules I once ascribed to — be charming but not obvious about it; funny without performing stand-up; smart and sexy — are now less important and harder to follow. How can I be all of these things and follow all of these rules?
My friends know what to expect, from mood swings to crying in public. But a first date is like a job interview with the possibility of sex. Before every date, as I picked my outfit and straightened my hair, I wondered how I could answer the inevitable and innocuous question: “How many siblings do you have?”
Just as I had to figure out how to go back to work and shop for groceries and return to some semblance of normalcy, I now face dating after having been affected by tragedy. I’ve learned, through many fumblings, that there is no right way to broach this sensitive subject during the get-to-know-you conversation of a first date. But through each awkward date or drunken hook-up, I’ve come closer to figuring out how to be me again.
My first instinct was to be evasive. Before the obligatory “Do you have any siblings?” question could come up — falling somewhere in between “Where do you work?” and the offer of another round of drinks — I would allude to something bad having happened to me recently. Maybe my date thought I had been fired or recently dumped. It didn’t matter. I knew he wouldn’t guess the truth; nobody wants to say out loud, “Did you lose someone you love recently?”
If my date spotted one of my tattoos, and we fell down the tattoo story rabbit hole, I would withhold details about the one I got for my brother. If he asked why it says “Migration” on my left ribcage, I would say: “It’s a sad story.” Nothing else.
On a first date at a sunny cafe in the East Village, I lied by making the past tense the present tense. When he asked, “How many siblings do you have?” I answered, “Two,” which is technically true. I will always have two siblings, even if one is no longer around. When met with the follow-up question about what my brother does for a living, I answered, “Commercial fisherman.” The difference between “do” and “did” is only a few letters. “Where is your family?” was easy to brush off with a blanket “Washington State.”
Throughout many dates, when I felt the conversation steering in the sibling direction, I would ask about anything that would get my dates talking. I made sure to have a follow-up question on deck, should the last question lead to a dead-end. I didn’t want to get caught without something to distract them. Otherwise they might have wanted to talk about me.
Sometimes I didn’t date at all; I slept around instead. I turned every conversation into one about sex, thus avoiding the hang-ups of modern dating, such as how to interpret a text message’s tone, or what is the reasonable number of dates you can go on before sleeping with someone? I jumped straight to the physical part, and left my backstory out of the bedroom.
I dug through my drawer for the same bra — black lace over hot pink — to become the sexy girl, the one-night-stand. I wanted to live inside my body instead of my head. Some blue mornings I felt guilt, but then I basked in feeling something other than grief.
This is how I behaved for about a year, until I accepted that dating, like every other thing in my life, is no longer easy. There are no rules for how to grieve, how to behave, how to date, or how to live after someone you love has died. There is only a blind groping through the darkness. Sometimes I am lucky and have a hand to hold onto — that of a friend, relative or partner. When I do, I hold it tight.
One fall morning, so close to the one-year anniversary of my brother’s death, I rode the train into work with a guy I had been dating for a month. Somewhere between Brooklyn and Manhattan, I blurted out my story to him. As rush-hour crowds pushed past us, I spoke about death over top of strangers’ heads. I told him about my tattoo: “This one’s for my dead brother.”
There was no alcohol involved, no lies or misdirections; I didn’t use sex as a distraction. There was only my vulnerability, what I had been missing from dating the past year. I hadn’t allowed myself room to be vulnerable, because now I am scared to lose people — brothers and lovers. Once you’ve lost, you realize how easily it could happen again.
We continued to date, but one month after I told him, he moved out of the country. So did the next guy I dated.
Overcoming the fear of letting people in does not mean they will stay. It means you will be okay if they don’t.