We were sitting in the Grapevine bar, in Oak Lawn, sunk low into two comfy, gloriously ratty old armchairs near the front.
“How long has this place been here?” I said, staring up at the red lantern shaped like a star. The place had a low-lit carnival feel, skuzzy and seductive at once. I loved it.
“At least 10 years,” D. said. “It’s my favorite place in Dallas, because it’s all different types.” Gay couples. Frat boys. East Dallas and Oak Cliff progressives like us. I stared at a Dallas beauty queen in a tiny black dress and stilettos. The woman next to her at the bar wore a tank top, jean cut-offs, and boots.
“I can’t believe I never got drunk here,” I said, because getting drunk in places like this used to be my specialty. I don’t drink anymore, but I still like sitting in the cool stupor of a bar and watching the night rise up like a tide. It gave me the feeling that everyone belonged.
And that was nice, because I could still bum myself out thinking of all the ways I didn’t belong in this city. How materialist, conventional, uncreative Dallas could be. On the dating site where I’d met D., I’d scroll through pages of men wearing button-downs with tasteful goatees and Oakleys perched atop their gelled hair. They were walking with God and loving the Cowboys and reading Tuesdays With Morrie. They’ll make someone a good boyfriend one day, just not me.
D. was different. His personal profile had bite. In response to the prompt “What people usually notice about me,” he had put, “Tits.” He had a backpacker scruffiness, which I liked. Old jeans and a T-shirt picked from some pile. When we met at the bar, he hugged me as I went for his hand.
“So what do you think of my tits?” he said, running his fingers over his flat chest.
I smiled. “They’re magnificent.”
I joined the dating site about a year ago, a few months after I moved back to town. I had met one extravagant phony in that time, but he was such a good story that I didn’t mind. Most of the guys were pretty much as advertised. They were attractive and smart and funny. I liked them, but not enough, and I was growing frustrated by the come-ons that arrived in my inbox from another random dude holding a cell phone up to a bathroom mirror. “Hi how r u???” Or: “Greetings from Tulsa.”
Some days I got so sick of it that I considered handing out flyers at the Pearl Cup: “38, writer, I promise you will never be bored.” But instead, I would force myself into the awkward singles bar of that damn website, and I would banter with the men who wrote in complete sentences and showed some flair, and I would find myself driving out to Colleyville, to a bowling alley in Garland, to a Mexican restaurant in the Preston Forest Shopping Center. I might not find love, but, hey, maybe I’d get to know Dallas better.
And for all my groaning about the city’s men, the guys I met were not the same old stereotype. The dating site let me select for the eccentrics: in a band, getting my Ph.D., just moved here from Portland, don’t believe in the gender binary.
One night, I sat at Cafe Brazil in Deep Ellum with a tattooed academic who had legs like chiseled stone. We sat on the patio, watching women walk by in dresses like neon Band-Aids, and he told me about his recent experiments with bisexuality.
“Being with another man makes you aware of your own anatomy in a new way,” he said, and I nodded, taking another bite of my apple pie. I wasn’t sure how I felt about dating a man who also slept with men—I spent much of the next two weeks kicking it around in my head—but
it was definitely not your run-of-the-mill first date conversation.
That guy kind of fascinated me. We texted ASCII porn to each other. We argued about bike lanes and female orgasms. I drove out to Denton in 5 pm traffic to hang out with him, and we walked around the tiny picturesque square (“the poor man’s Austin,” someone would tell me later) and bought ice cream at one of those places where you can test a million flavors and it’s so hard to settle on just one. He tasted a flavor called Sue’s Snickers, and I said, “What does it taste like? Don’t say Snickers.” And he said, “Okay, it tastes like Sue.” I laughed so loud that it startled the woman behind the counter, and I thought in that moment that the bisexuality thing was fine.
Dating worked so much better with an open mind. In my 20s, I dismissed men for such minutiae: listening to the wrong music, wearing the wrong socks. I got mad at a guy in college because he liked porn. I mean, what planet was I living on? But I was young, and I was righteous, and I couldn’t forgive any man for failing to be John Cusack (who probably also likes porn). I didn’t date much.
At 38, I give people more wiggle room. You never know who is going to lunge from the bushes and throw a canvas bag over your heart. The last guy I’d been in love with was a newly separated homicide detective in New Orleans who listened to the Eagles (every one of those things a potential dealbreaker). Maybe it was being older, maybe it was living at a moment when people were having deep, challenging conversations about marriage and sexual orientation and the meaning of fidelity, but it seemed like the men I dated were having the same midlife paradigm shift, reconsidering the old maps, blazing new trails for themselves.
I sat at a Starbucks near the Galleria with a friendly, fit black man (I’m white) who was recently divorced and lived in The Colony, which sounded to me like some eerie sci-fi TV drama. He told me he liked the show Cheaters because he thought it showed how human beings weren’t built for monogamy. He’d been reading Sex at Dawn, the unofficial bible for polyamorists, endorsed by “Savage Love” columnist Dan Savage. The whole conversation felt like one long dare to prod me into asking if he’d slept around on his ex-wife. I just kept nodding and sipping my venti mocha.
“Let’s go to dinner,” he said, squeezing me close as we parted.
“Sure, why not?” I said. I wasn’t scared.