Are We Dating Yet?

A San Francisco appellate court recently did something the rest of us have been unable to do since the dawn of time -- it defined dating. In a ruling on a case late last year, the court said a dating relationship "is a social relationship between two individuals who have a reciprocally amorous and increasingly exclusive interest in one another, and shared expectation of the growth of that mutual interest, that has endured for such a length of time and stimulated such frequent interactions that the relationship cannot be deemed to have been casual."

A dating relationship?

To me, dating is what you do before the relationship: the try before you buy. It's the wobbling lap around Nordstrom in a stiff pair of pumps, stopping every few paces to check for feeling in your toes and to peer at your feet in those little tilted mirrors on the floor, before slapping down your Visa card; the spin around the block in a shiny red Miata while inhaling the scent of new leather and jerking and jolting as you try to maneuver the clutch, before signing up for the payment plan; the smooth, cool taste of peppermint ice cream on a miniature pink spoon before buying a cone. I thought that dating was, by its very essence, casual.

This isn't the first time, though, that someone else's definition of dating has warred with mine.

Take Steve, the guy I dated, or thought I was dating, briefly last summer. Our first date, a set-up by a mutual friend, started as an afternoon at the Magritte exhibit at SFMOMA and morphed into drinks, dinner and jazz.

"Uh," he said, glancing at his brown wingtip shoes as we, having been shooed out by museum security at closing, hovered outside on the deserted sidewalk. "Would you like to head over to the Metreon for a beer or something?" After he'd reached the bottom of his beer, a trace of foam clinging stubbornly to his mustache, he looked down at his shoes again and asked, "Are you by any chance hungry? I know this great Mexican place." And, as we lingered over coffee, "Do you like jazz? I just remembered I had tickets for tonight .... "

With his salt-and-pepper beard, tweedy coat and ugly brown shoes, Steve reminded me of my sophomore English teacher. I was charmed by Steve's soft-spoken awkwardness, his labored efforts to appear casual, the way his blue eyes twinkled behind the round lenses of his glasses.

When he walked me to my Toyota, a saxophone melody playing faintly in my head, I disengaged the alarm, took a breath of the warm night air, and turned to face him. We stood in silence. I wondered if he would kiss me. He shifted his weight slightly and cleared his throat, "Well --" I sprang to life, as if on cue, "I should go!" hopped in my car, and waved goodbye with a jangle of my keys.

The first date led to a second and then a third, each commencing with Steve appearing at my door with a handful of flowers he'd picked from his yard. "Salvia, it's a drought-resistant native," he would say as I smiled and cooed, "Oh, how lovely!" No man would stand on the sidewalk picking flowers unless he really liked a woman.

Over Fourth of July weekend, when I was wracked with the flu and had to cancel our plans to go out, my doorbell rang, a jolting bleat, at 7:30pm. Who would come to my door on a Friday evening -- Jehovah's Witnesses? I, wearing a heavy terrycloth robe and frog-patterned flannel pajamas, peered through the peephole; it was Steve, in his tweed coat and those damn brown shoes, with a bag of groceries. So touched by his thoughtfulness, I forgot to be self-conscious about my flu-flattened hair and chapped lips as I opened the door.

"I brought you chicken soup," he said, thrusting the bag into my arms, "and some orange juice." He then wrapped his arm around me and gently escorted me to the sofa in my living room where the fireplace was blazing, and sat stroking my hair and quietly telling me about his day until I fell asleep with my head in his lap.

Within weeks, Steve was calling every day. And staying the night occasionally. Dates, flowers, phone calls, sleepovers. Now, the San Francisco appellate court would probably say that Steve and I were dating. But, for me, and for the voice of my mother that still echoes in my head at inconvenient times, the sleeping over meant we were beyond that test-driving, ice cream-sampling, shoe-trying dating phase. It meant we'd moved on to the early stages of a relationship, that we had reciprocally amorous and increasingly exclusive interest in one another, and shared expectation of the growth of that mutual interest.

For a nice girl like me, who always got good grades, who remembers birthdays, and who does volunteer work when she's not working at her oh-so-responsible job as an accountant, sex isn't part of the try-before-you-buy. If you're sleeping together, you've bought it.

One night, as we drifted off to sleep, our breathing slowing to a shared rhythm, Steve cradling me in his arms, I whispered, "I don't think we should be sleeping with other people if we're sleeping with each other."

The slight tensing of his arms and the long pause before heresponded told me everything.

"Do you?" I whispered, hoping that my voice wouldn't crack.

"Not really."

The next morning, Steve and I showered and dressed silently before rushing off to work. Neither of us mentioned the conversation I'd started. A few days later, Steve suggested we meet for runch at a little bistro around the corner from his house. The place was a wreck -- tattered streamers, deflated balloons -- the day before had been Bastille Day. After the waiter poured our coffee, and, moving very slowly, walked away to place our orders, Steve cleared his throat and said, "I'm not comfortable with the momentum we have going."

Momentum? What is he talking about? How unromantic.

His eyes started to mist behind his glasses, *I think you're ready for a relationship, that you know what you want. I'm not sure I'm in the same place."

Trying not to overreact, I gripped my spoon and bought time by stirring my coffee. "Okay. I can see you're putting the brakes on: are you trying to slow the car down, or bring it to a stop?" Or, I added silently, shove me out the passenger door at 60 miles an hour?

Smiling sadly, he said, "I think we should be just friends."

I was so stunned that I didn't realize I was crying until my eyeglasses started to fog.

And, as I wiped my glasses with a napkin and Steve reached across the table and murmured, "Don't -- you'll scratch the lenses," I wondered how I'd become so attached to this man, a stranger really, in just a few weeks. After all, I hadn't met any of his friends, didn't know how he liked his eggs, and couldn't name a single title on his bookshelf.

I don't know how the appellate court defines "just friends," but I'm glad that, at age 35, I've finally learned what it means to be "just dating."

Lori Writer is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.

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