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.But he didn’t contact me again, and I never knew why. I think maybe I spooked him. I was a real adult, a grown-ass woman, and he was in that shaky place where you have just emerged from the long tunnel of commitment with wobbly legs and blinking eyes, and you need to go bang 25-year-olds for a while.
This was how I felt about most of the men I dated, many of them divorced and hovering around 40. Their egos were raw and hungry. They needed drunk sex and cooing sounds. I sometimes wanted to cut them off in midsentence, hold their hand between both of mine, stroke the 5 o’clock shadow on their cheek, and say: “You need to go bang 25-year-olds for a while. It’s okay. My feelings aren’t hurt.”
I felt that way about D., a little bit. He was in a “work transition.” He and his wife had split a few months before. And as we sat at the Grapevine, he told me how they’d been in an open relationship for the last five years of their marriage. I sipped my water with lime and nodded.
“An open marriage takes incredible trust,” he said. And I believe it. But it was tough, too, and ensnarled his self-esteem in unexpected ways. He was sore,
for instance, about the way his wife had gone on that dating site a few years ago and been smothered with attention from men who didn’t care that she was hitched. But he, in turn, had gone on the site and been rebuffed by women who cared very much that he was hitched.
And I agreed that it was unfair, the same way that it was unfair how men my own age would prefer to bang 25-year-olds than tangle with a grown-ass woman, but these were the laws of the universe, and we were subject to their spin.
That week, I had a business-type lunch with a friend who has written about this city for many years. I mentioned my conversation with D. to him, and he was incredulous. “Open relationships? In Dallas?” And when I said yes, totally, in Dallas, he said, “But the open relationships are all initiated by the man, right? They’re just smokescreens for the guy cheating, right?” And I said no, not at all. Because in D.’s case, it was his wife’s idea. She wanted to explore her feelings for a male co-worker. And I have one female friend in Dallas who continues to kick around the idea with her boyfriend, and another married friend who eagerly tried it on for size. She called me a few years ago. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my girlfriend!” she said, sounding tipsy, and I was so baffled, like I’d missed a very fascinating email.
“Does your husband know about this?” I asked.
“He loves it!” she said. (They’re divorced now.)
Look, it works sometimes, and it fails most of the time, but the “open relationship” gambit was not something debased or boneheaded, nor was it something that happened only in splashy New York magazine trend stories. You could find it all over the dating site: “I’m married, but we’re experimenting with something new. Maybe this will fail, but it’s worth a try.” It was something that happened between two people wrestling with their own frailties and desires. Monogamy was hard, and divorce was brutal. Could anyone be blamed for hoping a marriage contract came with a line-item veto?
D. and I met for dinner at Mai’s a few weeks later. We talked about writing. We talked about internet culture. He made me laugh by saying bizarre things. “What if I got furious, and I flipped over this table right now?” he asked, gripping the corner.
“I’d be embarrassed,” I said. “And totally turned on.”
Afterward, we sat outside Paciugo and ate gelato. “Let’s sit here and make fun of people,” he said, as we situated ourselves on the high stools that overlooked Abrams and watched giant trucks pull up to the curb.
“It’s weird that you live in Dallas,” I told him. “It’s good.”
And I also felt this way about the other men I dated, who were never exactly right, but still close. Like the tattooed academic who turned out to be a jerk. Or the English teacher who scribbled poems in a notebook and was big and handsome as a superhero. But his voice grew flinty when he talked about his ex, and he was rattled from a dozen major life changes, and I couldn’t help thinking he needed to go bang some 25-year-olds. I started to think I should, too.
I am getting to that age when people say odd things about the fact that I’ve never been married. “I can’t believe someone hasn’t picked you up and carried you off to the altar,” my uncle told me recently, and I thought, ‘What the hell kind of relationship is that?’ My uncle has been married four times, twice to the same woman.
But I think what he meant was: “You have value. I want happiness for you.” And I agree, which is why I’m not letting some strange person carry me off to an altar. I have such a good life already. I live in a carriage house on Swiss Avenue with an old cat who always listens. I strum my guitar every night. I make dinner in my underwear and dance to early Van Halen. I’m not desperate for some guy to cuddle me on the couch while we watch America’s Next Top Dancing Dog (although I am desperate for someone to make the show America’s Next Top Dancing Dog).
One night in August, I went to the Chihuly exhibit with a guy I’ll call Matt. He was not interested in open relationships. That guy was built for monogamy. I wanted so badly to like him, but attraction is a stubborn beast. It never comes when you call it.
We strolled the grounds of the Arboretum, which had been transformed into this Seussian spectacle of blown glass and wild color. It didn’t feel like Dallas. It felt like an enchanted forest. It felt like Mars.
We sat on a bench in front of a twisty yellow sculpture lit up from within, its tentacles swirling in different directions, and he listened carefully as I told him about a work situation that was minor but felt major to me. He nodded and touched my leg at certain moments, and I felt close to him. We talked about personal, real things that night. We talked about how surreal it was to be single in your 30s, to watch your close friends drift away to other universes: married life, two-story homes, Babies “R” Us.
“I’ve been alone for a long time,” I said at one point, “and it’s made me—”
“A little inflexible?” he said.
That’s not what I intended to say, though it might be true. “I was going to say it’s made me reluctant to date anyone who isn’t incredible,” I said, and we both looked down at that moment, because neither of us was sure yet if that meant him.
I wanted to like him. I really did. I wanted him to kiss me that night, both of us illuminated by a tangle of glass that made no sense to us but moved our hearts anyway. But I knew that the following day I would send him the kind of email I was getting better at writing. “The thing is. Unfortunately. I really think.”
I have this fantasy that if I move to another city, it would be different. A city that is more artsy and progressive, more like me. I have fantasies about Los Angeles. (“Los Angeles?” my therapist practically screamed when I told her this. “Do you know how hard it is to date in Los Angeles?”) But I know this is magical thinking, that Dallas is more like me than Los Angeles anyway. That love is tricky everywhere you go.
“If you’re in Dallas,” my mother said, “it’s only logical that someone else like you is in Dallas.” Maybe my mother is right. (She is right about many things.)
Here is more logic. If love happened to you once, it will happen again. You will meet in the pet food aisle at SuperTarget. You will meet in line at the Angelika. You will meet on a dating website and have an open relationship. You will meet at the Starbucks near the Galleria and never sleep with anyone else, ever again. You will meet outside the Granada, both of your eyes pulled upward by the luminous moon. You will meet, and all these questions that felt so hard once will be easy to answer.
Until then, we are beacons for each other, these men and I. We remind each other of what else is out there—in this life, in this city—so much bigger and full of possibility than we ever imagined.
Write to SARAHHEPOLA@GMAIL.COM.