Jen Doll | Longreads | April 2019 | 18 minutes (4,598 words)
According to those jaded but constant belief systems that keep the worst romantic comedies in business, the third date is the make-or-break one. In these busy times, the idea goes, by date three you’ve spent enough time together to determine if either of you is a serial killer, or hiding something very bad in your closet (metaphorical or otherwise), or has the tendency to type “hehehe” when laughing by text. And if the relationship by date three veers toward make rather than break, well, finally the “rules” have lifted: It is THE MOMENT to get naked (not at the restaurant, please). The thinking is based in some combination of propriety and sexual policing and also sheer time management: You haven’t put so much energy or effort into this budding romance that uncovering an in-the-sheets incompatibility ruins your entire life — but it’s also not so soon it’s considered “rushing in,” which, when applied to women, of course, means “being too slutty.”
No matter that “slutty” is an outmoded, sexist concept and that you should sleep with a person if and when you feel like it (and if and when they consent), I grew up with “the third date’s the sex date!” pressed upon me as, if not law, then at least a kind of informed ideology: Do it then to uncover any latent micropenises or irrecoverable technique problems; do it then to get it over with because would you look at that elephant in the room?; do it then to get the rest of your relationship started; do it then because by the third date, what else is there to do?
So, when it came time for the third date with a man I’d been seeing — a guy who lived in upstate New York, which meant our third date would be more of a weekend visit; did each night count as a date, I wondered, or was it the whole package, a kind of Club Med situation with dinners and entertainment included? — there was a certain amount of buried internal stress and anticipation related to the event. Not that I was going to go get a Brazilian, or anything. I was in my 40s. Those days of paying a stranger to rip large swathes of hair from my nether regions had blessedly gone by the by. (Yes, I said “nether regions.”) But in my brain, a place far more difficult for strangers to reach, my thoughts were going a little bit wild. I’d been dumped earlier in the year, I’d gotten back up and shaken myself off, I’d tried again, and I’d actually met someone. But how many rounds of the dating game was I prepared to endure? If things went in the direction of “break” — what next, not only for me and this guy, but maybe for me and anyone? This is what rom-coms never really tackle: What happens when you get so tired of dating, so disappointed by all the prospects, you just give up?
In the absence of answers, I sought to occupy myself. I took a train to Beacon, New York, a town about an hour away from where my date lived — he’d pick me up there the next day, and our third date would begin — and met some friends I was just getting to know. We watched a poet read from her impressive collection in a garden, surrounded by trees and flowers and sunshine. I wasn’t even so sure how I felt about poetry readings, but I liked this version of me, trying new things, with different people. I bought several of the poet’s books, and had her sign one, even though I’d not known much of her work until that moment.
At this poetry reading, I noticed the sort of man I used to date, dark-haired and vaguely off-kilter. He seemed to be with a woman, but I couldn’t discern their relationship — sister, friend, wife? What was clear was that he kept getting up throughout the reading to help himself to wine from bottles that had been set up on a long table next to our rows of folding chairs. The first time was civil enough; the second was noticeably close to the first. The third was a little too much. By the fourth or fifth or sixth, the wine had run out and the man was red-faced and a little bit stumbly. People looked away; the woman he was with leaned further into the words of the poet, and I thought to myself, THERE IS THE KIND OF GUY I USED TO DATE, AND WHOM I WILL DATE NO LONGER.
I grew up with “the third date’s the sex date!” pressed upon me as, if not law, then at least a kind of informed ideology.
Later that night, once the poet had left and my new friends had driven home and dusk had settled, I wandered through town, where I’d rented an Airbnb for the night — I was the kind of woman who did that, too! — texting my future date about how cute everything was, and how I wished he was here with me. I was in search of a good bar, not too packed, but also not empty, somewhere a single person could pull up alone and feel among friends. Across a bridge I found it, tucked on a hill. I headed to the one empty bar stool in the back, and there was the man who was like all the men I’d dated and shouldn’t have. This time, he wasn’t poetry-reading intoxicated; he was simply drunk. Drunk, but still charming: He asked me if I was new in town. The bartender asked me if I wanted to move. There wasn’t really anywhere to move to, so I said it was okay and ordered a glass of wine. The conversation was circular in the way it usually is with drunk people, the same basic subjects looping through again and again: Do you live here? You’re kind of attractive. What do you do again? Wait, do you live here? I told him I’d seen him at the reading, which set off another loop: Are you a poet? A writer? How old are you? No way!
I told him I was a vampire, realizing I should have listened to the bartender. I had more wine to combat the mistake.
But it was all fine, really. The guy’s friends came in and apologized to me and confessed the guy had something of a drinking problem, a fact that was clear from the start. The guy himself disappeared and his friends worried about him — what if he’d fallen into a ditch on the way home? But then, he never had before, they reassured one another. Mostly, I felt glad that I’d given up on such men, those types who had pervaded my 20s and 30s with a certain kind of excitement, but also disaster. Feeling more sure about my solid one in the wings, I left and walked back to my Airbnb, but not before stopping at a convenience store for a Diet Coke and a couple of snack bags of chips, my own drunk-person behavior of choice. At the house, I fell upon the bed and slept, the chips unopened. I would bring them with me the next day. Chips, I figured, are as good to have as anything on a third date.
In the morning, my date, E., picked me up at my Airbnb, coming to the door and knocking like a proper suitor. I introduced him to my Airbnb host, a woman I’ll probably never see again, and she gave the smile of an approving parent. On the way out of town E. and I decided to have lunch at the Beacon Roundhouse, a boutique hotel/restaurant that overlooks a rushing creek and waterfall. We were seated next to floor-to-ceiling windows in an otherwise largely empty section of the restaurant. I do not remember what I ordered to eat, but I definitely had wine — I was hungover from the night before, but it made me chatty and loose. He had a drink, too, and we talked about our parents and our high school years and then, after another drink, of potentially just staying and getting a room; this was the sort of place that surely had claw-footed bathtubs and Frette linens. Why the heck not? Live a little, why don’t we? (“The third date’s the sex date!” pulsed in the back in my mind; I imagined how it might all go down, perfectly aesthetically curated, like I was the set designer of one of those rom-coms I so derided.)
In the end, though, we didn’t. Why spend the money when we had his whole house to go back to, just a little over 30 miles away? I’d been there before, on our second date, in fact, but it had been late and we’d spent most of the time eyes-closed and chastely sleeping. I knew enough to trust this person next to me while unconscious, or at least, I thought I did, but I wanted to know more. And hotel life wasn’t real life, it was just another extension of the romantic mirage. So we drove to his place and there, in the hazy late afternoon, we puttered about the kitchen, thinking about our options for what to do next. I put the chips on the table, and there they also remained unopened. We sat down and talked. Somehow it came up: He’d mentioned previously, by phone, that his sister had left some pot chocolate at his house after visiting. Maybe we should try that?
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We were in agreement. Now, this was something to do! E. foraged in the back of the freezer, where the pot chocolate was hidden, and cut several chunks on the kitchen table. I had not had much experience with edibles — there had been some gummies from a friend, a cookie that I was warned to “take slow” at the end of a night — but I wasn’t worried. I was always too much in my head. Time to get out of that. Maybe this would help.
I took a bite of chocolate, and then another. You can probably see where this is going.
It all started out great, which is to say, nothing much happened. We went into the living room and sat on the couch near each other, listening to old records. “Wait a second!” I announced, sitting up straight. “I have a brilliant idea for a movie plot!” He listened, nodding, as I unleashed my rom-com idea. “See, this woman, the main character, has been hired to kill the president, so she travels to a small town in the middle of America, where he’s going to be delivering a speech. But her first night in this town, due to being on some new medication, she gets blackout drunk and goes home with the hot bartender.”
“Are you making this up on the spot?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. I took his smile as a cue to continue. “She doesn’t remember anything in the morning, but what the bartender knows and she doesn’t is that in her drunken stupor she told the entire bar — a divey place full of crusty locals, it’s this kind of post industrial town that’s fallen onto hard times, you know, one of those places they’re always profiling in the New York Times — that she’s been hired to kill the president.”
He stared at me.
“I probably shouldn’t be saying ‘kill the president,’” I said. “Don’t tell anyone about this. Definitely don’t put it on social media.”
“I’m not really on social media,” he said.
“Anyway, the bartender has to decide whether to tell the woman she’s blown her cover…and he has to convince the rest of the townspeople to keep what they know quiet. Which he wants to do because … he’s in love with her!”
“And obviously her life is on the line, but she doesn’t even know it. She’s stuck in this town waiting to fulfill her duty — she works for some spy organization, or something, a job she’s been forced into to pay off her student debt. And he has to protect her without humiliating her, or causing her to bolt, or getting her killed … or making him the new target of the assassination.”
He’d mentioned previously, by phone, that his sister had left some pot chocolate at his house after visiting. Maybe we should try that?
He didn’t respond, so I poked him. “You hate my movie idea, don’t you? You think it’s terrible! The bartender would be played by Bradley Cooper, obviously. I’m not sure about the woman.”
“I think I’m just really stoned,” he admitted. “I’m having trouble focusing.”
This was the point where we both realized the pot chocolate was working.
What to do next? We could get tacos, he suggested, or there was a Mediterranean spot up the street. Or we could stay home and cook. We could eat more chocolate (no, we should not eat more chocolate). In that moment, everything felt big and loud and cozy and warm and colorful, and we were unable to make a decision other than that we should definitely not drive anywhere. The music sounded good. The house was comfortable. But we were hungry. Of course we were hungry. “Is this why people get the munchies, so they can eat?” I asked, and we laughed hysterically, repeating the phrase over and over, central-casting’s dream of a couple of edibles-influenced middle-agers, and went into the kitchen, where he whipped up some roasted broccoli and mini French bread pizzas and served me dinner. It was incredibly delicious, like Wizard of Oz-once-they’ve-landed-in-Oz technicolor food. It was like I’d never eaten in my entire life, until this moment.
I looked at my phone to find I’d gotten an email from New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. It was his weekly comptrolling newsletter, which I’d apparently subscribed to in a fit of post-2016 governmental interest. This installment struck me as particularly hilarious, because what is comptrolling, anyway, and why is he sending out his weekly newsletter on a Saturday night? I burst out laughing, thinking about the hordes of people who could now get on with their festive evenings thanks to this newsletter, and E. chuckled gamely along, though he was probably humoring me. I decided to record snippets of our dialogue in my phone, creating a terrible poem for posterity:
Is this hilarious or is it not
Imagine doing pot before social media
Thus I keep saying
This is the best weekly newsletter about comptrolling I’ve ever read
Will it be funny tomorrow?
It will be funny tomorrow
I keep saying frankly
Yeah maybe it won’t be tomorrow
You know what the thing is about you and me?
We think different sides of the same thing are funny.
My forceful discussion on this topic
Is significantly weakened by the fact that I don’t remember what we are talking about.
The outside light had faded, and we were done with dinner. Who knows for how long? I’d stopped keeping track. But there was a change, a subtle shifting in my gut, or my brain, or possibly both. “Uh oh,” I said. “I feel kind of sick.”
There was no third date rule about this.
E. suggested we lie down in the dark living room and rest, close our eyes, just relax. He handed me a pillow from the couch, and I tried to get comfortable on the floor. But something was bad, and it was inside of me, a flu-hangover with the rolling sensation of a high you can’t control. I stood up and walked into the hallway. E. followed me. He opened the wooden front door of the house so we could see outside, leaving the glass screen in front of it closed. “Maybe we should get some air,” he suggested. “We could go for a walk outside?”
I was possessed by a vision of me striding blindly into traffic, Final Destination-style, through no will of my own. “No!” I shouted. “I can’t go out there! Don’t let me!” I took a seat cross-legged next to the glass-paned door, and tried to find a focal point. I tried not to throw up. He sat next to me. “Was there ayahuasca in this pot?” I demanded. He had told me his sister performed ayahuasca ceremonies. No matter that this is not what would happen if I’d taken ayahuasca. I became convinced the pot had been doctored, and not only that, it was going to kill me. On the plus side, the third-date sex pressure had been put to rest. What I needed to do now was simply survive.
“I think I should go to the hospital,” I told E., and he listened and checked my pulse and told me that even though I felt like I was going to die in this moment, that was only the panic talking. I was having an anxiety attack, and I would be OK. But when you’re having a panic attack, that doesn’t help too much, or at all. Instead, I was furious he wouldn’t take me to the hospital. Who was he to make this life-or-death decision? Did he poison the pot chocolate himself? What an idiot I was for going home with this man! What was I thinking? NO ONE IS TO BE TRUSTED. My paranoia would have been funny if it wasn’t so paranoid.
Then I felt it in my stomach again, more insistent this time. “I think I’m going to puke. Or poop. Or puke and poop,” I said, and began a slow crawl upstairs toward the bathroom, on my hands and knees, because I was afraid I’d fall down the stairs otherwise. I made it to the bathroom and locked myself in but immediately started to worry that I’d pass out and be locked in the bathroom forever. “Don’t come up, I’m leaving the door open, just in case,” I yelled, and E. yelled back “OK!,” and I did not poop or puke, but instead I stared at the toilet bowl and thought about what a nightmare this had all become, and how, as ruining a third date and perhaps an entire relationship goes, this was right up there with getting drunk and announcing you were going to kill the president.
E. came upstairs and sat next to me in the bathroom, and at this point mortification ceased to matter. I started to notice three distinct loops in my brain — the first told me this is bad, this is horrible, you’re never going to get through it; the second comforted me — this is OK, it’s not going to last forever, you might even laugh again someday; and the third demanded, “READ THE MAUREEN DOWD ESSAY ABOUT HOW SHE OVERDOSED ON POT CHOCOLATE.”
“Can you read me the Maureen Dowd essay about how she overdosed on pot chocolate?” I asked E.
“The one from the New York Times! Google ‘Maureen Dowd pot chocolate…’”
“Oh yeah!” He found it and started reading: “The caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar looked so innocent…”
My brain looped to THIS IS HORRIBLE. “STOP!” I yelled, and he stopped.
I looped to “this is going to be OK.” I breathed.
I looped to “read Maureen Dowd.” For some reason, it gave me comfort. “Read more!”
He read. “What could go wrong with a bite or two? Everything, as it turned out.”
This went on until 2 or 3 a.m., though time had stopped mattering. In between readings, E. held vigil outside the bathroom door, which I’d left open as I continued to huddle in front of the toilet, still fearful but also hopeful I might vomit. I wished I could, to get it out, to end this looping nightmare, but nothing ever came. Instead, I stared at the porcelain white of the toilet bowl next to me and I told myself, I will remember this, I will never forget this moment, this is something that must be remembered forever, this is when my life began to change and I started to do things differently, because I will never do this again, so help me God. I told myself I WOULD WRITE ABOUT THIS.
You know things are getting better when you can remind yourself something might make for an essay, someday.
My third date with pot chocolate cut through so much of the veneer I’d crafted in my decades of dating in New York City; it made me feel things I didn’t want to feel, reveal things I’d never revealed to anyone. It made me be, in a way, my purest, most immediate self.
Exhausted, I eventually crawled into bed, and E. joined me. He slept. I semi-slept, that feeling of being on a plane and hurtling through the air and never quite resting but at least your eyes are closed, and that’s something. My mouth was terribly dry, and I occasionally sipped from the ice water he’d put by my side of the bed, in a large mason jar with a metal straw. A less than comforting thought entered my brain: If this was my way to avoid third-date sex, it was pretty fucked up. Then again, maybe it was just the pot chocolate.
I drifted off, sort of.
The next morning brought a kind of relief. The looping had stopped. I felt clammy and used up, like I’d been through something unmentionable, but at least I wasn’t convinced I was about to die. We got up and went downstairs, where E. made me coffee with steamed milk. The chips I’d brought from Beacon were still on the table. Could that have only been yesterday, that all that happened?
“I’m glad you didn’t take me to the emergency room,” I told him. “That would have been bad.”
“You were so mad at me that I didn’t.”
“You were right, though.”
There were Christmas lights hanging above the shelves in the kitchen, a little glitzy sparkle despite it being nowhere near holiday-time, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed them wink at me.
“Did those just go off and on again?” I asked E., who shook his head.
“I didn’t see anything.”
Hm, maybe I wasn’t OK.
What was OK, anyway?
That night, we drove over to our friends’ house for drinks and food. I thought I was fine, but on the way there, triggered by the driving, maybe, or the time — nearly 24 hours from the start of what we were now calling “the apotcalypse” — the rolling sensation overtook me again, and though I tried to fight it, I was no match for whatever this weed had done to my brain. I resented the previous me, who so easily moved through the world, her mind and limbs doing exactly what she liked, what she directed them to do. I apologized over and over to our friends, who told me I seemed fine. What a strange thing it is to not feel in control of your own self, particularly when your body gives the appearance of normal! Their words fell on deaf ears, because I knew in my heart that I wasn’t.
We left early, and I climbed into bed, shivering; E. brought me the mason jar, and I tried to sleep. The next day, he drove me back to the city. I was afraid to take the bus, in case I had another panic attack en route. That night, the anxiety struck again. I emailed my therapist and called a friend, who came over to stay with me until I fell asleep. They both assured me I was OK, that this was just an anxiety attack. But how was I supposed to know I could trust them?
In the end, they were right, as were our friends who’d had us over for dinner, and my date, who was rapidly becoming my boyfriend. I was OK. The anxiety subsided, though I was perpetually afraid it might re-emerge. I started taking Klonopin with me everywhere, just in case. I didn’t worry about third-date sex. I worried about being myself again. My therapist told me not to consume any cannabis for “at least a year.” There was no way I was even going to try, I assured him. I pictured the moment in the bathroom, the fear, the staring at a toilet for hours, the sense of impending doom. I certainly wasn’t going to forget.
But the pain does become less intense, even as you’re forever changed by a traumatic experience. At some point, everything that everyone had told me came true. I was myself again. A year passed. And then another. I hadn’t had another panic attack. I smoked a little pot. It was fine. And I got engaged to the guy who’d been there for me during the whole thing.
Recently, I asked E. why he’d kept dating me after that. Didn’t he think I was deeply damaged, trouble from the start … a complete and total mess? Surprisingly, he hadn’t seen it that way at all. “I never in a million years thought that was you, that you would keep being like that forever,” he said, and then he smiled. “And also, it felt nice to be able to help you through it.”
There are so many things people will tell you about dating and finding the one, endless vague platitudes that either reinforce what you’re already doing or tell you how you should aim to be: “Give people a chance!” “Put yourself out there!” “Be yourself!” “Just try a little harder!” “Put on a little makeup, at least!” “Maybe don’t hate men quite so much!” and so forth. These blanket statements presume there’s one clear path that leads to a lifetime of happiness, a pinprick hole you can work yourself through if you do things right and keep yourself slim enough to fit through pinprick holes, but in reality, there’s no one path and, I’m sorry to say — you may want to stop reading now — there’s no lifetime of happiness, either. There’s just two people together, fumbling through this thing we do, trying our best, trying to help each other through the hard moments of life, trying to enjoy the good ones, and hopefully not annihilating ourselves or each other in the process.
In the early stages of dating, we are so many presentations of ourselves: Who we think we should be, what we think someone will like, personalities orchestrated to get what we think we want. We cling to the rules, like “have sex on the third date” or “don’t text back immediately” or “play the game better than the other person” in hopes of somehow avoiding the pain of rejection. We strategize to win. But sometimes winning is letting all that go, and just being (even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time). When E. told his sister what had happened, after she gasped in horror and apologized that I’d had to experience that, she said, “Well, that’s one way to really get to know someone.” And she’s right.
My third date with pot chocolate cut through so much of the veneer I’d crafted in my decades of dating in New York City; it made me feel things I didn’t want to feel, reveal things I’d never revealed to anyone. It made me be, in a way, my purest, most immediate self. And it helped me understand what’s important in a relationship: On the third date, don’t worry so much about making or breaking, don’t worry about sex. But if you find someone who will sleep next to you on the floor when you’re in distress, hang onto them forever.
Never, ever, in the history of time and romance, has someone recommended to another that in order to find the one they should be with, they should eat a powerful quantity of pot chocolate. And yet, for us, it worked. How funny is that? Almost as hilarious as Thomas P. DiNapoli’s weekly newsletter.
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Jen Doll is a freelance journalist and the author of the young adult novel Unclaimed Baggage as well as the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. She’s written for the Atlantic, Elle, Esquire, Glamour, GQ, New York Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, Vice, the Village Voice, The Week, and other publications.
Editor: Sari Botton