Notes On A Date (From One Table Over)

This  post by guest blogger, Lesley Hershman, is about the interesting studies that can be made from observing the people around you. Who knew you could learn so much about dating through people watching?




Because my husband and I have been married for 25 years, we don’t

have that much to talk about when we go out to dinner.  After initial

opening statements (“Did you really try to use the plunger at least

five times before you called the plumber?” or “Are we going to switch

drycleaners already or what?”) we sit back in a companionable silence,

with just an occasional comment about the quality of the food or speed

of our waitperson. If we are in a restaurant with a TV on the wall, my

husband will immediately become immersed in any game being shown, no

matter what sport is playing. If there is no TV, his Blackberry makes

repeated appearances partially hidden under the table so that when I

say, “can you please wait until after dinner to check that?” he can

halfheartedly pretend that he was just adjusting his napkin.

All of which gives me plenty of time to observe my fellow diners and

to expertly determine which couples are married, which of them have

been dating for quite awhile, and my all time favorite dinner show,

those who are on a first date. I can usually tell before my entrée

arrives if it’s a date arranged by mutual desire, bringing together two

people willing to give it a go. This is the simplest of field studies,

because there are the obvious clues that are so easy to detect: eager

conversation, smiling and laughing between the daters, who usually are

both leaning towards each other on the table. This contented twosome

often starts with a leisurely drink and appetizers because time is of

no importance. They relish this opportunity to really get acquainted

and they’ll sit there until the restaurant is empty and their waiter is

dozing off in the corner.

But then there’s the opposite of the successful first date and

that’s the dreaded Fix Up That Never Should Have Happened, But Was Arranged By

Well Meaning Friends. (Full disclosure:  I’ve been one of those

misguided matchmakers who brought together two people who would have

been perfectly happy spending the rest of their lives never meeting

each other. I quickly learned that there is a delicate artistry to

fix-ups and if you aren’t a matchmaking Michelangelo, I recommend you

direct your earnest efforts elsewhere, like volunteering at a local

animal shelter. Because dogs and cats can find harmony easier than a

couple who realize very quickly they have nothing in common, but feel

they have to stick out at least a respectable portion of the evening

so they don’t the offend the mutual friend who fixed them up.)

For reluctant daters, there will be a slight hesitation when they

are first shown to their table, a pause that demonstrates an unwillingness

to sit down and plow through it. I’ve never witnessed anyone actually

bolt for the door, but I’ve seen a few make it clear about five minutes

into it that they wish they had.

Drinks at this table are also ordered at the first opportunity, as

is dinner. (This couple wants things to move fast.)When the drinks arrive,

the waiter will have barely set them down before each party lunges and

chugs them down like a beer at a frat party.

The Reading of the Menu is always a huge tip-off too. I have to admit

that I’ve been guilty of openly staring at my target couple during this

crucial phase. The importance of the menu cannot be underestimated.

During a good date, it’s usually a rich source of conversation, another

way to find out about each other; (“Oh my God, I can’t believe it,

you’re allergic to scallops? So am I!” or “I hate capers too!”) But

when there’s already a strained beginning to the evening, the menu

quickly becomes a physical shield to hide behind as each dater studies

it too intently for too long in a strenuous attempt to avoid

conversation.  Neither one is happy to see the waiter reappear and only

reluctantly hand the menu back One particularly inventive  (or

desperate) woman simply refused to relinquish hers and instead used it

as a fan, repeating while she flapped it, “Isn’t it warm in here?

Aren’t you hot?  I can’t believe how hot I am!” effectively keeping her

date at bay.

Once the drink and menu lifelines are gone, the glass of water is

always the next go-to on the table.  After that, shuffling of the

silverware, overly deliberate placement of the napkin in lap and an

intense interest in nearby artwork are also sure signs of things going

downhill. Awkward silences begin to occur with much more frequency and

often result in extended trips to the restrooms.

Of course, in this day and age, the ever present cell phone is the

Swiss Army knife for daters. The camera can be used to record a

photographic record of the evening to send out later as proof of the

good (“doesn’t she have awesome blue eyes?) or the bad (“can you

believe this loser wore this awful T-shirt? And I swear his haircut

looked like road kill had landed on his head!”). A fake rescue phone

call or text coming in from a trusted friend can end a disaster date

quickly (“what?  Aunt Martha needs a kidney donor ASAP? I’m on my way

to the hospital now!”)  Calls and texts are also made to issue updates

about the date as soon as one party is left at the table when the other

one runs to the bathroom, where another call or text is probably being


If and when the woman excuses herself to go to the restroom, I’m a

little ashamed to admit that I’ve ditched my husband mid-sentence to

follow her. If she’s angrily combing her hair in the mirror, I want to

say soothingly “I know, I know, I can’t believe how long he’s been

talking about his ex-girlfriend either!” but I’ve yet to work up the

nerve to initiate any conversation that lets on that I’m observing her

date so closely. One memorable young woman just kept muttering the same

swear word over and over while she slapped on another coat of lip

gloss. My educated guess was that she liked her date more than he cared

for her, based on what I’d seen back at the table. I wanted to tell her

to stop trying so hard and knock off the annoying giggle after every

couple of sentences, but I didn’t. I still regret not trying to help

her out.

At an Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago one busy Saturday

night, a particularly brazen woman didn’t go to the bathroom, but instead

started rifling through her date’s jacket as soon as he did.  When she

found his wallet in the pocket, she started to go through it while

calling someone on her cell at the same time, reporting on the guy’s

credit cards, amount of cash and other personal items. I was so

simultaneously fascinated and horrified by her behavior that when our

waiter returned to ask if I wanted another glass of wine I impatiently

waved him away without taking my eyes off of her. Just in the nick of

time before her date returned, she tucked the wallet back in his jacket

(I’m not going to lie, I kind of wanted her to get caught just to see

how her date would recover from that insight into his dinner companion,

the sisterhood of women be damned). Whatever she found in the wallet (a

black Amex? Big wad of cash?) must have impressed her mightily because

she became immediately much more attentive and adorable to her

unsuspecting date. I was dying to see how the evening ended with them,

but my uncooperative husband refused to wait it out with me, stating he

wanted to go to home and bed early since he had to catch a six am

flight to L.A. in the morning. I reluctantly left them cooing over

another bottle of wine, trying desperately to send a psychic message to

the guy about his date’s deceptive ways.

And then there’s dessert. This is no better gauge of how things

have gone and how they’re going to go for the rest of the night. When the

waiter utters the “would you like to hear about our dessert choices?”

to my couple, I’m on highest alert. If the couple confers over the

dessert tray and chooses to share the carrot cake, all has gone well.

But when both actually look horrified at the thought of sweating it out

any longer and decline as vehemently as if they’ve been offered a

saucer of arsenic, its game over. I’ll bet fifty bucks that half an

hour later they’ll both be at  home in their pajamas in front of the

TV, separately.

I’m aware of the trying economic times we live in, but we’re

talking about budding romance here, you shouldn’t put a price on it) and requesting a

doggie bag is  an instant mood breaker.  Not only is it awkward to

carry the big white bag or molded aluminum foil swan out of the restaurant,

but the clear message is “I’m not thinking about a future with you, I’m

more concerned about what I’m going to have for lunch tomorrow.”

Of course I have no idea if any of the couples I’ve observed ended up

together or not. The one date that I witnessed could have been awful,

but maybe they were willing to give it another chance, and the second

one worked out much better. Or the wonderful date I saw (and had such

high hopes for) might have been a case of beginners’ luck and

subsequent ones were disastrous. And who knows if any one of them

glanced over at my husband and me and vowed to keep their exciting

dating life going instead of ending up a boring old married couple like


I’d tell everyone looking for love to put the cell phones away

during dinner and really concentrate on who is sitting across the table from

you. He or she might just utter the very words that you’ve always

longed to hear a significant other say and it would be a shame to miss

them because you’re busy texting “can’t believe how short he is!” or

“she reminds me too much of my ex.”

Everyone begins a date with some degree of hopefulness—otherwise,

why would they bother to go in the first place? There’s always the risk

that the date is going to turn out to be a catastrophe, but there’s

also always the chance that it will be the start of something

wonderful. Either way, a dinner date only lasts a couple of hours,

unlike a Colonial American ritual I recently read about, known as

bundling: A courting couple would spend the night together in the same

bed to “ensure compatibility.” And consider this: “Sometimes, the girl

wore a sack that was enclosed with a slip knot at the bottom and tied

with a drawstring at the waist. If a parent had anxiety about the

situation, the sack could be sewn shut.”

Think of how hard it would be to escape a lousy eighteenth century

bundling date, trying to run to the bathroom wearing that thing.

(Sorry, I meant the colonial version of fleeing to the bathroom—which I

guess would be, er, hiding out on the chamber pot?)   Maybe dating in

these contemporary times with a little texting and toting home a doggie

bag isn’t so bad after all.






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