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I have a lot of baggage. How much do I unload on a first date?

(Washington Post illustration; iStockphoto)

I keep a little notebook full of men’s names. I started it two years ago, not long after my then-husband was court-ordered out of our house. At the moment there are 48 names. Next to their names are pithy reminders of who they are, what we did on our first date and my first impressions of them.

Patrick: Dinner @ Pearl, married 18 years, wife cheated, two kids, jaded, but still believes in love.

Rich: Raised Mormon, recovering alcoholic, bitter but working on it. Humble.

Mike: Sweet guy, walked the marina listening to Elton John from a party boat, sad over losing a job he loved, doesn’t know what to do next. Studying to teach English in China. I hope he does.

Seventy percent of these dates didn’t make it past the first meeting. A handful of them, a little more than that. A tiny fraction, more than that. Only one was a serious relationship that lasted several months. Their contacts in my phone are like a digital graveyard, proof that we connected once but now just a memory.

I’m not sure why I keep this running tally of my dating life. It’s not a proud list; it’s a sad one, a reminder of all the men and the stories they’ve told me, which are mostly of pain. No one makes it to their 40s or beyond without a fair amount of baggage. It’s also a list of how many times I’ve told my story. Because that is what happens on first dates, everyone retells The Story — a synopsis of how you came to be sitting in that restaurant, bar or coffee shop with a stranger you met online.

My story goes like this: I’m from the Midwest. I moved to Seattle 11 years ago because of my husband. We’ve been separated for two years, officially divorced for one. No, it was not good; it was abusive. We don’t talk, but things are finally calm. There was a trial; it was really bad. We have two children — a boy and a girl. I have them 50 percent of the time. I’m a writer and editor. I used to be in medical sales. No, it was not my choice to leave. I sued the company for sexual harassment, and it was a dramatic case that unfurled over a year. Yes, I’ve been involved in two legal cases in the past six years. In both of them, I was called “crazy,” but don’t worry, I’m not. I have papers to prove it! Ha ha. I went back to school, started a new career. I’m writing two books. I work from home. I’ve got a good life.

I’ve recounted these details so many times that it feels as if it’s someone else’s story, like I’m reciting a script. Each time it gets a bit more refined, rote, Cliff-Noted. I skim over some of the worst parts, although there are a lot of them. This takes some finesse. I don’t lie; I think it’s best when people know what they’re getting into.

Of course, when you go on close to 50 first dates over two years, you meet a few who judge you for your story. I am aware of how my story sounds: It signals drama and instability, perhaps more so than others’ stories. But what matters is the way I tell it, as if I am standing at safe distance, with a 10,000-foot view above where an A-bomb exploded decades ago, looking nonchalantly over my shoulder at the wreckage of the past while being upbeat about the future.

Of my 50 first dates, the one man who became a boyfriend once told me: “The only time I see who you are is when you’re with your kids. It’s the only time you’re vulnerable.”

So I stopped talking a whole lot about my children on these dates. This may sound cold, considering what a big part of my life they are, but he was right: They are my weakness and sometimes when I talk about them, my eyes water involuntarily. Then I get embarrassed because I feel pitied, and that’s degrading to a strong woman. Only the selfish bask in sympathy.

Instead, I come off as confident. I get a lot of, “wow, you seem really healthy considering all that.” And: “I can see you’ve processed it a lot. Your attitude is great.”

Yes, my attitude is great on a first date; no one likes to sip their coffee across from a Negative Nancy. But no matter how cavalierly I talk about it on a first date, the damage from my past still aches. I can’t go there, deeply, right off the bat because the last thing you want be on a first date is broken. That comes much later, a milestone most of those first dates never reach.

So the next time you’re talking to a confident woman with a bit of a difficult past, know that yes, she is strong. If she’s like me, she’ll be more forgiving of your weaknesses than she is of her own. She might not share the details with you just yet. But don’t worry, she’s definitely not judging you for your own pain. In fact, your faults feel warm to her cool demeanor.

And finally, her irreverent coldness does not mean she lacks the capacity to love. If she doesn’t talk about her children much, it doesn’t mean she lacks warmth. It just means they are a heartbeat away from the places that hurt the most.


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