Given the recent international mania surrounding the royal wedding, women might be forgiven for thinking that every British man is an enchanting, sandy-haired aristocrat. But I spent my twenties as a single Jewish comic living in London, and I can confirm that dating in England is a lot uglier on the ground. Despite our images of bumbling and witty Hughs, the men are neither all princes nor all charming.
The first thing I thought when I saw Jon across the crowded British pub was, “What a Jew.” He was short and bald. The matchmaker for this blind date had been right about him being exceptionally hirsute. I hadn’t meant to be set up; I’d learnt that in the U.K. it was best to play non-desperate. But celebrating my thirtieth birthday, I couldn’t resist complaining about my recent forays with British men who ran down the street away from me in the middle of dates, or emailed just to tell me how much they didn’t like me.
After years of dating, I was exhausted and needed help. I had spent my twenties reading The Rules and watching Sex and the City religiously, hungry for romantic advice. (Arguably, I deserved whatever trouble I got.) Alas, the rules in the U.K. were of a different order — a majestic one established at birth. England functioned on a rigid system of social behavior involving indirect conversation and privacy. (The English show affection by politely ignoring you.) I wondered constantly how a nerdy, self-sufficient, global woman could find love in this post-matchmaker, post-feminist world. Finally, I’d expressed this storm of angst to a friend, saying, “Don’t you know any nice single Jewish guys?”
“Well, there’s one,” he said. “But I should warn you — he’s very hairy.”
“Whatever,” I’d answered, “So am I.” Hair was the least of my worries.
Until now, in the bar, as I, fashionably late in a pink peat-coat and retro glasses, approached the table where Chewbacca was waiting.
“You look like you said you did on the phone. A fabulous Anne Frank.” Jon laughed snarkily. “That was pretty obnoxious.”
“Thanks,” I responded, annoyed that I had bothered shaving my legs.
“And you don’t look a day over thirty-two,” he said. I was thirty. It was sparks from the start.
My turn: “What do you do? What’s your passion? Your dream?” I wouldn’t normally have launched in like this (in England, no less), but there was no time to waste. He had booked us tickets to a show that was about to begin, and apparently, I was aging rapidly.
“I don’t have ambition,” he said. Great, I thought. A real winner. Then I learned that the show he had planned to woo me with was a ukulele concert. We made our way to the venue upstairs from the bar. He started panicking. “Since you were so late, we might not get seats.”
“Relax,” I said, plunking myself down on the floor. I could already tell this was a wasted evening. There was no point maintaining pretenses. Forget lady-like leg-crossings. Forget the list of pre-planned conversation topics and selection of witty anecdotes demonstrating savvy-yet-vulnerable sides of myself. Forget breath mints. This date was un-English, unanything.
“I’m not used to being in the audience,” I said, surprisingly insufferable. “I perform.”
“Wow, that’s odious,” he said.
“Thanks.” What was this — a date or a fight?
Between sets, he leaned into me. “You’re brutal, you’re honest, you say what you mean. You’re so not British.”
“Yeah,” I answered, “I thought the white teeth gave it away.”
“What are you looking for in relationships?” he asked.
“Here’s my policy,” I said, speaking curtly over the ukuleles like I never spoke to anyone. “One stray and you’re out. I don’t forgive infidelity. Ever.” Why would I say that? I surprised myself with my unfeminine frankness.
“So you know what you want,” he said, smirking.
“You lack ambition, and don’t.” I smirked back.
He looked at his watch. I assumed it was because he wanted to go, but it turned out he was freaked out about missing the last train. He had come to the dangerous, cool east of London, and he needed to get back to his safe, suburban west. “Where’s the train? How long will it take me to get there?”
“You can’t take a cab?” I asked. “How cheap are you?”
“That’s my rule,” he said. “No cabs. We all have rules.”
“Fair enough.” I had no clue what set of rules we were adhering to. I tried to describe the station’s location, but he was so annoyingly nervous that I walked him there. We arrived just in time. “See, I wouldn’t want you to feel worried,” I said, noticing he didn’t seem worried that I now had to walk home alone. This was anti-chivalry.
“I’ll call you.” He ran to catch the train.
Goodbye to that weird one, I thought, as I bounded down the street. The brutality of our conversation had left me strangely energized. I could deal. By thirty I had been through so many rejections that another terrible date that climaxed in him dashing for public transport didn’t set me into a spiral of self-critical depression. I was pleased with my lack of disappointment. I could be on my own if I had to.
So it surprised me when I came home to find an email from Jon. Apparently, he’d had a great time. Really? I went to sleep.
The next day, a friend and I conducted a post-mortem, giggling over the lack of courtliness. I felt good about not feeling bad. “What did you write back?” she asked.
“Nothing.” I was proud of my restraint.
“Are you crazy?” Her tone changed to serious. “He’s a single Jewish guy who likes you and isn’t totally insane. Give him another chance.”
I had to admit, she had a point (not to mention, rather low expectations for my romantic appeal). That night, I semi-reluctantly texted Jon a thanks. Then, I didn’t hear from him.
That was fine. I was busy performing a one-woman show, and about to go on a second date with David, my ultimate match-on-paper. An American pursuing his successful social-justice career, he had an Ivy League degree like I did, yet was better looking — chiseled, built, serious with an underlying smile.
We saw a Pinter play, for which he called me twice to make sure I’d be on time. The three-hour play was about a 1950s dysfunctional abusive asylum for suicidals. It made me want to check in. After, I was about to mock the depressive tone when David exclaimed, “Genius! A fascinating representation of cultural malaise.” Then he added, “I’m on a cleanse, so let’s just sit outside and chat.”
I followed, careful of how my legs were crossed so my calves’ fatness careened away from him. He semi-reclined his muscular physique and launched into a full-scale analysis of his previous relationships with “ambivalent, powerful-yet-insecure, push-pull women.” He mentioned he was going to a hip East End club that evening. I was about to begin my usual spiel — to impress with my savvy knowledge of hot-spots and get myself invited so I could show up late and coyly grab his attention that I would never fully have, eventually seducing him while trying not to seem like I cared. But as I looked at his rare ‘Yidonis’ figure, aloof, checking out his surroundings, glancing at me intermittently, continually explaining his “tendency to recycle intimacies,” it just felt like so much work. I was too tired.
So when I retreated to the restroom and noticed a missed call from Jon, I was pleasantly surprised. I was sitting on the toilet while I heard the voicemail. “I know it’s last minute, but will you come see a comic poet tonight? That is, if you can bear being in the audience. If not, let’s make another plan. I’d like to see you again — soon.” His message was direct. Fresh. His voice felt alive. For a second all the rules flashed through me: a last-minute date? But thinking of David (probably still talking about himself), I realized: who cared! Our first date had been fun. I felt like seeing this guy. His brashness brought out my own, a quality I had desperately tried to conceal in that repressed country. I texted him right away. “See you there.”
I didn’t even go home to change.
“Twice in a week,” Jon said, his eyes sparkling, greeting me at the theater door. “People will talk.”
“So let them,” I said. “Now, where’s my beer?”
“At the bar,” he said. He smiled and went. As I waited for him in the audience, I thought about the backwardness of this Jon situation. No chiseled features. No save-the-world. No romance, chivalry, flirting, mystery, or any of the usual titillation. Not civil and choreographed, but pushy and chaotic. No polite beating around the bush. No other flirty self, but more of myself. This was a different level of relating: candid, crass. It was less Carrie and Mr. Big, more Homer and Marge.
That night, after the show, after we decided to look for hot food (not an easy task after ten p.m. in London), after I loved the all-night clubbers’ hamburger joint (“You’re so not British,” he repeated), and after I asked him about his greatest weakness and he answered “gambling” (red light, I thought, but at least it was honest), he dropped me off at my flat. There was no kiss, not even a hug.
“See you later,” he said.
“Call me,” I answered.
As I walked up the stairs, it struck me in a flash. “I don’t even like this guy,” I said aloud. “Just my luck, I bet we’ll get married.”
The fire flared slowly. We fought over a bill, we both traveled and went days sans communication, and when he eventually asked me for the first time to spend the night with him, he did it a week in advance. I never worried about whether I should call him, because he called me. Every card was on the table, so we could use them to play — not games, nor roles, but for fun. I had spent so many years trying — to hide my imperfections, to play it cool, to understand relating. Here, I related and felt understood. I was cool.
Eighteen months later, my ketubah was signed in a seventeenth-century synagogue in central London. It wasn’t Buckingham, but standing under those Queen Anne chandeliers and a floral chupa, I felt like a better version of myself. At our reception, I wore a wedding dress that reminded me of Jon — one I never normally would have pulled off the rack, but I did, and it fit. Surrounded by portraits of dukes as I danced my hora, I was grateful that this hairy British bloke had given me a second chance.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.