The young couple on table 26 is finishing dessert. They’re on what I think’s a first date. Things seem to be going well. The girl’s never taken her eyes off the guy. Her body language suggests she’s really into him. The guy’s body language suggests he can’t wait to get into her. Kind of a striving GQ type – subtlety doesn’t seem to be his strong suit.

I’m standing off to the side watching this little drama play out. I’ve no doubt these kids will go bar hopping after they leave here. They’ll have a few more Ketel Ones, reach a certain level of intoxication and, if their chemistry’s still good, have that passionate first kiss. After that their options range from a chaste goodnight, a romantic breakfast for two, or an embarrassed search for clothes at 4 am. Part of the fun’s not knowing what’s gonna happen. Dating’s like going on a job interview. You don’t know if you’ll get the job, but if you do, you get to see the interviewee naked.

The couple looks over at me. They both signal for the check. I usually give the bill to the person who asks for it. But, since they both requested it, I place it in the middle of the table.

Now the fun begins.

The man doesn’t reach for the bill. The woman doesn’t either. They talk a bit more. After a few minutes, it becomes obvious the polite time limit regarding who’s gonna offer to pay has expired. A look of apprehension crosses the girl’s face. The guy starts fidgeting.

I’m thinking the guy’s an idiot. Call me old fashioned, but I believe the man should pay on the first date. And no, I don’t think a woman “owes” anything if a guy picks up the tab. If the girl wants to be dessert – that’s her own grown up choice. And I’m not so old fashioned to believe a woman should never pay. I like going Dutch and I appreciate a woman taking me out to dinner. When you’ve been dating a while it’s nice to come to some sort of agreement on costs. I’ve known girls who’ve insisted on splitting everything 50/50. I’ve know others who’d let me pay for dinner but buy lunch or drinks. And I’ve known girls who’d always leave their wallet at home. But, despite the vagaries of my dating experience, I still believe a man should shell out for the first date.

Finally the woman reaches for the checkbook, opens it, and examines the bill. She says something I can’t hear to the guy. In response he pulls out his wallet and pulls out a credit card. The girl reaches into her purse and pulls out some plastic of her own. I go over to the table.

“Could you split the check?” the girl asks.

“Not a problem Miss,” I reply.

I run the check and return to the table. The atmosphere around the couple’s changed. They’re still polite and smiling but it’s obvious the electricity passing between them has dissipated. The girl’s leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed. The guy looks uncomfortable. Suddenly I feel for the guy. The girl signaled for the check too. Maybe he got confused and an embarrassing miscommunication occurred. But his default response should’ve been to pay the bill. But who knows what’s going on? Maybe he spent all his money on GQ threads and can’t afford the whole check. Maybe he’s acting out some gender role conflicts. Maybe the girl is too. It’s tough dating in today’s world.

But whatever happened, for whatever reason, this “job interview” fell apart at the very end. Like an acquisition deal that goes south in the eleventh hour, these two kids are never going to complete their merger. I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve been on dates, feeling everything flowing, only to have something fuck it up. Men and women are complex creatures, acting within and through a host of motives, histories, and hopes. Happiness can be tantalizingly glimpsed, the Promised Land seen – only to be blocked by a gossamer wall of intangible otherness. It’s frustrating.

But it seems these kids are missing each other over money. And that’s a shame.

The couple pays the bill and leave. They converse for a minute on the sidewalk. The girl holds out her hand. The man shakes it. After a few more words they go off in opposite directions.

I watch them go. When they’re out of sight I pick up the check. Not a bad tip. At least they didn’t take it out on me. The bus girls clear the table. Another young couple sits down – the lights shining in their eyes.

I sigh to myself. I hope this date goes better than the last one. It might. Love is like hope.

And we keep hoping in spite of ourselves.

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