Second chances don’t come along every day and you never get another opportunity to make a first impression. It is these clichés which reverberate as I make my way to this date, a last minute reprieve for a potential romance I’d long consigned to death row.
After his most recent text message, which tells me he’s available again four months after our first date proved to be a dead end, I surprise myself by not bothering to ask what went wrong with the guy he chose over me. I find I don’t want to know. I’m afraid that it may have been something ridiculously trivial, and want to spare myself the worry that I too may be eventually cast aside over some trifling matter.
The texts between us have been spirited and friendly. It’s like the winter apart never happened, as if only last week I saw him for dim sum and cocktails, leaving the evening on a very chaste high. Our compatibility has been cryogenically frozen.
As I step off the tube and head toward our meeting point, I try to banish from my head all thoughts of being a second prize; I am to overthinking what Paris Hilton is to sex tapes. After all, he didn’t have to ask to see me again; he clearly wants to.
We are going bowling. His idea. As my head is so crowded with other petty misgivings, I haven’t even got time to worry about my subpar bowling technique or looking stupid in front of him. He is standing waiting for me outside the bowling alley, hands in his jacket pockets, standing bolt upright against the chilly air.
His face, still as fresh and handsome as the last time, breaks into a smile as he sees me approach and we begin our date just as the last one ended, with a virtuous kiss on the cheek. He leaves a wet mark on my face, but I don’t wipe it away until he turns his back on me and starts to walk into the building.
We chat about how dreadful we are at bowling as we get our shoes exchanged. We get drinks and settle down in our lane. It’s roasting hot and I have to take off my sweater. I see him scan me as my raised T-shirt exposes me right up to the neck, but spot neither a flicker of appreciation nor revulsion. He just watches me impassively. A cool customer.
He’s first up to bowl. He is, as he said, pretty terrible. Because he’s quite tall, he looks ungainly as he hurls the ball down the lane, which lands more often than not in the gutters. I laugh, embarrassed, as I get a strike, and then another. I’m not letting him win, though. I don’t ever let anybody win anything.
Once the game is over and I have done a subdued victory dance, he suggests we go on somewhere else. As we’re in north London, I’m in unfamiliar territory, so I leave him to take the lead. Again. He suggests getting dinner somewhere and, despite wanting to spend some time in a less formal setting so I can get to know him better without a table between us, I agree, slightly disappointed with myself for being so submissive. He says he knows a little place that we can walk to, and so we set off along streets I don’t know.
As we walk together against the bitter wind, we get on so well I start to imagine what it would be like if we were together. It all begins to become very real to me: the breakfasts in bed; summers in the park; knowing smiles across a crowded room, before leaving it together.
But I don’t let my mind wander too far into the future. The trouble with looking ahead is that I always find myself picturing the end, and the end is never good. Anyway, we have dinner to get through first.
He’s selected a bustling Turkish place, which he reveals is not too far from his house. My ears prick up slightly at this. I’m a seasoned dater, so I know all the tricks: when a suitor takes you somewhere in the vicinity of his pad, it’s because they intend to have you within those four walls and screaming their name before the witching hour. This seems so out of character for my date – his flirtations have been subtle to the point of needing advanced technology to pick them up – so I assume this is a coincidence. If I’m sure of anything, it’s that I’ll be travelling home alone tonight, regardless of how well the next couple of hours go.
It’s at the restaurant we encounter our first glitch. The service is fairly slow; we’re being treated with the polite indifference one affords to a baby screaming on a crowded bus. Nobody has taken our drink order yet and I am feeling rather nervous, so say I would appreciate a glass of whatever, if only to have something to hold in my hand. My date interprets this as me having a burgeoning alcohol problem.
I can tell he’s joking, but he doesn’t let up with it, ramping up my levels of unease and, when the bottle of wine finally arrives, I pour myself a large glass of it to take the edge off, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy before his eyes. I’d forgotten how caustic he could be. It’s a trait I like, but tonight he’s a bit too much. I’m not ready for it, and I think that he could ease up on it a little. After all, I agreed to see him again, knowing that I wasn’t first choice, and politeness – not to mention awkwardness – has prevented me from mentioning it. My thick skin from our first date has suffered some exfoliation in the four months since we last met. I resolve not to give my pernicious self-doubt the time of day. I need to find my balls and stitch them back on.
Dinner over, we adjourn to a nearby pub that is quite busy and extremely loud. He buys us drinks and we sit in a corner far enough away from the hubbub where we can both hear each other, although at first we say nothing. After a minute or so staring at each other smiling in bemusement, appreciating each other, finally he speaks.
“I didn’t know whether to tell you this.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure if we’d see each other again, but now I think we might and so I should really tell you.”
My mind races. He’s married? Dying? Votes Conservative? How bad can it be?
“I’ve applied for a job in Canada. I’ve decided I really want to emigrate.”
I am silent, expressionless. He goes on.
“There’s a few I’ve applied for, actually, starting early next year. I just thought I’d like to try somewhere else for a few years.”
I nod dumbly. “OK.”
“I mean, I might not even get it,” he continues, his voice straining with sincerity. “And I did want to see you again. I mean, I do. I just wanted to be open with you.”
I nod again. And smile. “Well, I don’t think anyone has gone to such lengths to avoid a third date with me before.” He laughs. “ Not to worry,” I say, “let’s just see how it goes.”
“OK,” he smiles. “I’d like that.”
He walks me to the bus stop and waits with me, steam from our hot breath belching out into the oppressively cold air as we exchange the kind of awkward pleasantries you can only say when you’re waiting to put someone on a bus.
Neither of us mentions the C-word, but it hangs heavy in the air. As my chariot approaches, he leans in and plants another, final moist kiss on my cheek.
“Can we do this again?”
I smile brightly. “Yes, of course,” I say, “I’ll be in touch.”
The bus slowly pulls away and although I know he is standing there watching it go, I do not look back. I don’t ever look back.
Post-date rating: 9.5/10 Date in one sentence: Mr Almost Perfect puts an ocean between us.