That first Spring, I went on a date with a man from Iran. When I told him I was from Alabama, he responded, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” My instinctive reaction was I guess, maybe, I don’t really feel that way. The frequency with which Forrest Gump references peppered introductions baffled me. Even so, it communicated something to a shy, sweet man from a world away. Shorthand is necessary on a first date, when there isn’t time to unravel the intricacies of a person. You can barely survey the landscape. He told me he was surprised by how cold Americans were—dispassionate and cagey in their affections, as if they might spend them all. I knew well what he meant. I’d been on the receiving end of that buyer’s remorse, banished from intimacy as if it were never half mine. But I had done the banishing, too, once or twice.
In fact, my worst offense is the gentleman in this anecdote. I was upfront with him that I was not looking for romance, so it wasn’t the threat of his expectations that made me ghost. It was the raw ache of a great reveal. Somehow, we ended the date having shared deeply personal stories about ourselves. We were sitting in Union Square when I told him how, at age 18, I found out my mother lied to me about the identity of my father. She was living in Europe and disowned me. I entered college feeling abandoned, angry and broadly distrustful. Hearing this, my new friend’s eyes shone with a dark sympathy. He said I would not have known what to do.
I asked about his parents. He told me his father was executed before he had a chance to know him, along with other members of his family, along with others still. I reckoned how small my world was, how small my pain. I fear this is the real reason I never called him again. I told a stranger my ugly truths and he said I admire you. Something in that was scary, too.
I have a friend, let’s call her Alice. One Thanksgiving, she went on a date that rerouted her inner life. He led her back to his apartment, incrementally, with the offer of a ride home. He asked if he could kiss her and she said yes. Soon he was hitting her in the face. He bit her breast hard enough to break the skin. He pulled her necklace tight around her neck so a pale pink line was visible the next day. He yelled at her not to move. He said “Fuck it” and tried to pry her knees apart. Failing that, he pulled her stockings below her knees. Alice reached down to cover herself with her hands. He looked at her hands, her face, then back at her hands. In that breathless moment, he looked as though he would cry. Tentatively, she pulled her stockings up.
In the stairwell, he told her she had saved his Thanksgiving.
She didn’t cry when her car picked her up because she felt, somehow, embarrassed.
The following Monday, someone knocked at her office door and she froze, terrified to move. Her female co-worker answered it. It was the mailman.
She decided to file a report with the police. Just a report, no charges. But the police told her she had not been sexually assaulted. As the policewoman told her this, Alice sat clutching a bag with her bloodied bra in it.
Yes, he’d grabbed a fistful of her sweater and said he wanted to tear her clothes apart. The policewoman asked Alice for clarification: In an I-want-to-hurt-you-way or an I-want-to-fuck-you-way?
On her assailant’s dating profile, he’d posed with a shining fish in hand. In her opening message, she admitted she’d always wanted to catch a fish then set it free. He’d responded in the river, you hold it with its head into the current, so its gills can drink up the oxygenated water. as it revives from the shock of the battle, its body starts to undulate slowly, but it stays subdued in your hand, hypnotized, as if doesn’t yet believe in its independence.
And she’d thought, That’s vivid.
As Alice walked out of the North Beach police station, the policewoman who interviewed her ran outside. She may or may not have said, “Wait.” She may or may not have said Alice’s name. But she extended her hand and said, “It was nice to meet you.” Alice stood there, just confused enough not to cry, and shook the woman’s hand. Alice wanted to feel an apology in it. The city buzzed around them. No concern for what was given and what was taken.
Alice remained confused. She’d looked up the sexual assault laws in California. She’d googled her assailant and seen that he received the highest teaching award at a storied university. She replayed the police interview in her head, then the assault, then the interview again. She must have told it wrong. She was not the perfect victim.
He lived a few blocks from her workplace. Because of the ride he called her, he knew where she lived.
The policewoman said, “Next time you should leave the first time you feel uncomfortable.”
And Alice thought, “Next time?”
She had dreams she could breathe underwater. She had dreams that he found her and punished her. She had dreams that he found her and he was nice, so nice, because he did not know he was a rapist.
Ten months later, she was diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia.
Her shame and her doubt left room for nothing else.
Part 2 of 3 feature installments in the Nerve series IT’S A MATCH: Exploring peril and grace in online dating.