Full disclosure here...
I am a 31 year old heterosexual single male. I have been in the employ of the U.S. military for the better part of the last decade, though I recently mustered out. Now I work for a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia. During my last tour in Iraq, my girlfriend of three years broke up with me via e-mail. (I was electronically "Dear John'd") She moved out of our apartment before I returned home in November. To this point nearly every women in my life that I have been in a relationship with I have met either through work or school.
As I re-enter civilian life I find myself wanting to change in more ways than just the ones that the transition from a life in the military would imply. I have never been the stereotypical "military man", even though I come from a military family. My family is from Boston, and "New England liberal" would probably be the more appropriate tag to attach to me. Those that I have met at my new job are often very surprised to discover that I was in the military at all. Given my recent career change and the fact that I finished grad school a few years ago I find that I am suddenly being forced into a most unfamiliar world in which I have little skill: dating.
Since I graduated from high school every relationship of any note that I have been in has been with a woman that I had been friends with for at least several months. Though I spent countless nights in bars like every other college student I was always with friends, and usually one of those friends was the girl I was dating. That's not to say that I've never picked up anyone in a bar - that is a staple of life as a single man in the military. But the women that I became serious with were always the ones that I knew from work, or as in the case of my last girlfriend, from grad school.
Which brings me to my current situation...I have recently discovered that I don't know how dating works anymore.
This realization hit me last night on a flight back to Philadelphia from Denver where I had been visiting my mother over the holidays. I ended up sitting next to a young woman named Caraline who was travelling to Boston via Philadelphia. Caraline was an undergrad at Stanford (Anthropology) whose family lived outside Boston and was travelling home from an extended trip abroad (she had just come back to the states from Paris). As my family is also from Boston and I had lived much of my life there we struck up a conversation.
Oh...and did I mention that she was absolutely beautiful?
Now I have given briefings to Pentagon brass and been comfortable speaking in front of several hundred people at once, but I have never been so tongue-tied in my life as I was with Caraline. People have several "modes" of socializing I have found. There is "small-talk" which is used with total strangers to prevent uncomfortable silences. No real information is exchanged as both parties try to completely avoid anything important. Next is "interest" which is the question and answer give and take of people who are trying to attract members of the opposite sex. This is usually marked by skillful questions that reveal whether any interest is reciprocated in the person you are talking to. Last is "intimate", the mode used by couples and close family members who are socializing. You know you are in "intimate" mode when you are having a conversation with someone in a very crowded room and it feels almost as if the two of you are alone.
I have long been a master of "small-talk", as an officer I was forced to socialize with total strangers on many occasions. I can talk for hours at parties and not remember a single word that was spoken the next morning. I picked up "interest" somewhere along the way - likely during those hours spent in the bars in college. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship has likely experienced "intimate" as it is a necessary part of the communication that exists in couples. I discovered, however, that somewhere along the way I have lost the skill-set to transition from one mode to the next.
Now I understand that conversations on airplanes are not the easiest of social situations to be involved in. You are locked in close confines with strangers for hours at a time in what can be a very uncomfortable environment. If ever there was a situation that called for "small-talk", flying on airplanes is it. But the more I talked with Caraline the more I discovered that I wanted to know more. She was smart, interesting, funny and she piqued my interest in a way that I hadn't experienced in quite a while. Gradually the "small-talk" changed into that question and answer of "interest" as the silences between us grew shorter.
Personal experience has taught me that physical appearance is one of the worst ways to gauge interest in another person. I have dated some extraordinarily beautiful women that were as shallow as a teaspoon, and some women that hid startling intelligence, wit and passion beneath an unassuming demeanor. So while I was curious about Caraline, I was also naturally wary that my interest was a reaction to her appearance...especially since she fell perfectly into "my type". (Which coincidentally is not altogether very common) So it was with no small measure of caution that I moved into "interest".
Talking further with her revealed that while our experiences were very different, we had many things in common and the more I spoke with her the more "interested" I became. I was also surprised to discover that her questions were now mirroring my own - at some point she seemed to have transitioned into "interest" as well. Unfortunately this sent me into another fit of being tongue-tied.
It is not that I am unused to being pursued occasionally - I am not an unattractive person...though I shouldn't correlate Caraline's "interest" with being pursued...as it didn't feel as if it rose to that level. But I'm an intelligent guy who keeps himself in good shape so I should expect interest from others, right? My problem was that I seemed unable to figure out what to do with her "interest".
Maybe it was being on a plane, the fact that she was a total stranger, or even the rustiness of not using a skill-set for quite a while - whatever the reason I found myself having difficulty making the transition from "interest" to "intimate". Translation: I really wanted to ask for her number, to continue talking to her, to find out more about her...but I didn't know how to do it. It was the first time I had experienced genuine interest in someone else since my girlfriend and I had broken up six months before and I didn't know how to react. In the end I didn't know how to get her number without looking like a stalker.
And so, at the end of the ride we said goodbye with a handshake and Caraline went the other way down the terminal. I watched her walk away and was disappointed. Disappointed that I wouldn't get to know her better and see if that buzz I was feeling about her could be extended. Women like Caraline don't walk through my life every day. Disappointed that somehow I had lost the "dating" skills that I had developed years before. Disappointed that I had been unable to take that next step...whatever it was. Whether it would have turned out good, bad or indifferent...I regretted not finding out.
Now I find myself worried about my ability to "date". Have those social skills atrophied over the years and I simply failed to notice? My last girlfriend never complained that I was emotionally distant, we broke up for entirely different reasons. It was not fear, or a lack of courage that stopped me. I wanted to get her number, to get to know her better...I just didn't know how to do it.
I can't help but feel like I missed out on an opportunity last night.