‘La La Land’

Would it kill us to make dating a little more romantic?

I once dated a man who was so quietly graceful that it took me years to even realize that that was the dominant feature of his character.

In reflecting upon the relationship, I often thought about how peaceful and untroubled I felt during it. During previous, more tumultuous relationships, I’d spiral into a black hole of despair, questioning the depth of his feelings or mine. To comfort me, my friends would say, “When it’s real, it won’t feel this hard.”

Before we get to the point at which we’re sharing a bed and bodily fumes, would it kill us to make dating a little more romantic?

With the graceful man, it felt like that cliché was proved true. And yet it was more than that. Yes, we fell into a (in the end, short-lived) dating relationship swiftly and easily. The simplicity of it precluded all the worrying and waiting I usually do at the beginning of relationships: Will he text? Should I text? How many times should I see him in the early weeks?

With the Graceful Man, I didn’t wonder about any of that. I kissed him in the backseat of an Uber. Two days later, he left a sunflower and a bottle of wine outside my door. He was just there. I didn’t shy away. It was exciting and romantic, but it was also…easy.

And this man was 24 to my 29, proving that grace is independent of age.

When I suggested we should take a free swing dancing lesson in the park, he didn’t try to weasel out of it the way so many self-described “awkward” guys would: by joking that they “don’t dance” or that their skill doesn’t extend beyond the white-boy overbite.

The Graceful Man expressed no hesitations (though he probably felt them). He just said “yes.” And the most touching thing, once the lesson was over and open dancing began, was that he wasn’t terribly light on his feet. But he didn’t quit or make self-conscious wisecracks. He just held my hands as we stumbled through the basic steps together.

This man’s gracefulness permeated everything he did, from the big things to the more mundane. When he took me to an outdoor concert, he packed a spread that left no course unturned: There were olives, cheese, fruit and wine. But even on a regular day, his thoughtfulness stopped me in my tracks. Once when he was headed to the grocery store, he asked me if there was anything he could pick up for me. I sent him a short list. Later, when he came by to drop the groceries off, I opened the bags to find not only the items I’d asked for, but also a few things (corn muffins, asiago cheese) I’d mentioned during conversations as weaknesses of mine.

Ask questions. Be adventurous. Take an interest in your date’s interests, even if you have to fake it for a little while. Stepping outside your comfort zone can be wildly titillating.

Contrast this man’s behavior (oh yeah, have I mentioned he was smart, sweet and sexy, too?) with the awkward self-consciousness of so many 20- and 30-something men. Think about all the dates you’ve been on, the minor details of which mirror the minor details of previous dates with almost military precision:

The two of you approach a door and silently panic, both wondering if he should open it for you. If you let him open it, does that undermine your feminist values? If he opens it, will he be treating you like the damsel in distress you’re not?

Or: The check arrives. You perform the awkward ritual of reaching for your wallet. If you offer to pay, or to split the bill, does that send the unintentional signal that you’re not into him? If he pays, does the patriarchy win?

The worst thing is that, if he does pay, he almost always says something that undermines the generosity of his gesture: “You can get it next time.”

Look, I get it. The Graceful Man is an incredibly unique individual. Probably one in a million, actually. And the truth about dating, especially in the early stages, is that it is fraught with opportunities for awkwardness, self-consciousness and nervous laughter.

But oh how I wish we modern humans didn’t cling to that awkwardness in a way that institutionalizes it. We’ve made awkwardness not only expected. We’ve made it de rigueur. What a sad, low bar.

There’s a reason we (okay: I) idolize the smooth urbanity of a Humphrey Bogart or the cocky seduction of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. It’s because they’re so confident?—?so sure of themselves. And confidence, as your friends will always remind you when you’re on the prowl, is sexy.

Now let me directly address the thoughts I know are forming in internet trolls’ minds: It sounds like I’m either 1) nostalgic for a bygone era in which men held all the power and women were wet-eyed does grateful to be on a man’s bankroll, or 2) a gal with Impossibly High Standards.

My rebuttal to the first criticism is that yes, I’m nostalgic, but nostalgic for the parts of that departed era that required men to be gentlemen. We’ve gone so far in the direction of embracing our slovenly humanness that we have no inhibitions about airing our shortcomings and imperfections for all to see. On one hand, this is a good thing. It means we don’t have to pretend to be someone we aren’t. It also probably means we’re all seeing good therapists.

But there’s something magnetic about a person who rises above their base instincts, who sees courtship as an opportunity to practice and to refine the more noble aspects of their character. That’s what makes the best dates sexy and fun. That’s what makes your inner thighs tingle on the taxi ride home. I know. I’ve felt it.

To the second criticism?—?that I have unworkably high standards?—?I respond with this anecdote: I once met a guy who invited me to a party he was throwing. We barely knew each other, and I didn’t expect him to ask me on a date right off the bat, so I was game to head to his place and yuk it up with his friends. At some point during the night, I was talking to him and one of his buds. In describing their friendship, this guy joked, “Yeah, Dave and I are pretty close. I’ve watched him masturbate.”

I left the party.

Can you imagine your dad, grandfather or any grown man you love and respect saying something like that in the very beginning of his attempts to impress a woman? If your answer is “yes,” maybe your dad is Louis C.K. If so, good for you. How fun!

But speaking for myself, I never tell my dad about the times men have made crude or dumb jokes to me. Because it would anger him, and rightfully so. You should be on your best behavior during a date. If, a few months down the road, you want to start farting while in bed with your partner, by all means, toot away, my friends. But before we get to the point at which we’re sharing a bed and bodily fumes, would it kill us to make dating a little more…romantic?

Here, IMHO, is a simple prescription for making dating less awkward:

Be gracious. Be generous without expecting anything in return. If you foot the bill, don’t say, “You can get it next time.” Just savor the simple pleasure of knowing you treated someone.

If you want to hold open the door, just do it. If your date is not the hold-the-door open type, they’ll let you know.

Ask questions. Be adventurous. Take an interest in your date’s interests, even if you have to fake it for a little while. Stepping outside your comfort zone can be wildly titillating.

Sure, we (especially me) are only human. And life is not a romantic drama. But Hollywood keeps churning out romantic dramas for a reason: Because they reflect something in us that yearns to be graceful and charming?—?to be deeply caring and deeply cared for. That’s what the Graceful Man did for me. His thoughtfulness, emotional intuition and inherent generosity awakened those personality traits in me. They made me rise to the occasion.

They made me remember, when researching restaurants, that he was a vegetarian. They made me prepare a pasta salad for our concert date?—?because I wanted to make something for him. They made me leave a book of Walt Whitman poems, bookmarked to my favorite passage from “Leaves of Grass,” outside his door.

His grace made me more graceful. And grace is not only inspiring and kind-hearted?—?it’s sexy as hell.