Why shouldn’t she agree to dinner? She’s known him ever since she moved to Philadelphia for grad school. For years she saw him at the various service projects for which she volunteered. Year after year she stood beside him at the Salvation Army on Girard Avenue on Thanksgiving Day, scooping spoonfuls of stuffing, greens, and candied yams onto paper plates to serve hot meals to the homeless. For years she ran into him at the Odunde festival and at the Urban League, encountering him at all the places young black professionals frequented for fun, networking, and fellowship. They are non-speaking acquaintances— they share friends in common but have never been introduced nor ever had a conversation.
So why not? Grad school has come and gone and has been followed by a job in Chicago, but she’s back in Philly now to promote her latest book. She’s in town for a week of public readings, book signings, and radio shows. She’s posted flyers on social media and sent out Facebook invites and many of her old friends have come out to support.
He appears at her Sunday afternoon event in North Philly, where seventy guests cram into a venue meant to hold only fifty. After she’s finished her reading and the applause has ended and she’s signed everyone’s copies, a few friends linger and make plans with her. He lingers too, speaking to the friends he also knows. As the venue’s staff begin to fold and stack the chairs, he holds out his book to her. “Just one more?”
“Of course.” She props his book against the podium and signs the title page in a bold scrawl.
“Are you booked all week for lunch?” he asks, gesturing at her departing friends.
“Looks that way,” she says.
“Then how about dinner?”
Why not? It’s just one simple meal. After all, she’s having lunch with everyone else. She agrees and gives him her phone number, thinking nothing of it until he shows up with a freshly washed car, a haircut, a suit, and a polish on his shoes.
When he opens the passenger door for her, she asks, “Is this a date?”
“I wasn’t sure,” he says, closing the car door behind her. “But I was hoping.”
It’s Restaurant Week and he’s chosen a nice one in Rittenhouse Square with a pianist who plays the soul ballads of the seventies. How can she know that this pleasant evening will not be worth the heartache (on his end) and the tedium (on hers) that follows close behind? Right now she’s giddy on a successful event, warmed by friendships still intact, soothed by soft romantic lighting, and flattered by male attention. He confesses that he’s noticed her for years and has always wanted to get to know her better, tells her that he saw her flyer on Facebook after it had been shared by a friend of a friend and that even though that friend had canceled at the last minute he’d decided to come anyway and he’s so glad he did. How can she guess that once she flies back to Chicago this man, sitting across from her so innocently buttering a roll, will inundate her with phone calls riddled with dull conversation? When he calls, he doesn’t ask a single thing about her, doesn’t try to get to know her. Calling every night without actually having anything to say, he talks to her as if they are an old married couple rather than two people who have been on only one date. He calls to tell her what he’s making for dinner. He calls to tell her that he’s fixing his fence. He calls, each time expecting her to drop whatever she’s doing and give him her undivided attention because he paid for their date and now believes she owes him all of her time. When she asks if there’s anything about her he would like to know, he asks, “Do you wear high heels to work?” When she asks him about his interests, his background, his family, he tells her he’s an army brat but instead of describing the places where he’s lived or offering something meaningful about an itinerant adolescence, he talks about badge bunnies. Disclosing how women with a thing for men in uniform hang around military bases hoping to entrap officers, he regales her with stories of his soldier father’s extramarital affairs. After two weeks of nightly calls like this he invites her back east to attend his aunt and uncle’s silver anniversary party, saying, “I want to show off our relationship.” That they are in a relationship is news to her.
Who can guess that her hesitation, her confusion, will cause the same friends who dolled up for her book-signing to castigate her? Dating in the twenty-first century is hard enough, they say, and hard-to-please women like her only make things worse.
“At least he calls instead of texts all the time,” her women friends say. “You’re lucky. Don’t be such a diva!”
“If a guy doesn’t call it’s a problem. If he calls too much it’s a problem,” her male friends say. “You women are never satisfied.”
They dub her “high maintenance” before they unfriend her and vanish from her social media feed, claiming that she’s the prime example of what’s wrong with the current dating scene— today’s black woman wants too much. In a world where men and women ghost one another all the time, cutting off communication without warning or reason, she should be grateful he bothers to call and honored to meet his family. As long as he doesn’t flood her inbox with pictures of his penis, she should thank her lucky stars.
How could she guess that the bar had fallen so low? How could she predict that eating with a man in a public restaurant would seal the deal, committing her to a long-distance relationship with a man she’s never even kissed? How can she possibly see this far ahead when there are candles on the table and crisp linen napkins and couples all around them and simply sitting there and taking it in is all she wants to do? Grateful to sit still after a flurry of professional activities, she’s just glad for the chance to sip her wine, to sit back in her seat, and to enjoy the pleasure of eating without having to rush off to the next thing. For her, this dinner is a much-needed break, a respite from the whirl. How can she guess that, to him, this meal means much much more?
Later that night, back in her hotel room, she surfs the cable channels she doesn’t have at home, coming across a marathon for a show called Catfish, which calls to mind an old white-haired man with a Cajun accent and a cooking show her mother watched long ago on PBS, but instead of learning the proper ways to blacken or fry catfish she gets a reality show about online daters so desperate for amor that they fall in love with strangers, baring their hearts and souls to people they’ve never met in person, whose faces they’ve never seen, and whose identities they cannot confirm. She watches two white men super sleuth to help the lovelorn put real faces to fake profiles, and she waits for the punchline, but there’s nothing funny about these hopefuls who latch on so quickly and attempt to build on so little. She feels so out of touch, like one who has been asleep for a millennium, awakening to a world where love is founded upon the frequency rather than the substance of communication and where calling every day matters more than what is actually said.
But, now, sitting across from him in this restaurant, she’s neither heard of nor seen Catfish, so she knows it only as a bottom-feeding fish that pairs well with hushpuppies, so she has no inkling that people are so eager for relationships and so desperate for love that they will peer into a drop of water and see an entire ocean, so she doesn’t know to be wary, so when he picks up the check at the end of the meal and says he’s had a wonderful evening and asks her if it would be all right for him to call her some time she sees no harm at all in agreeing.
“Sure,” she says. “Why not?”