By Laura Barcella
You don’t want to know the ludicrous number of possible love connections I’ve squashed by getting sloshed on a first or second date. The things that have come out of my mouth — both figuratively and literally – on nights out with essential strangers make me want to crawl into bed and stay there.
So it’s probably – no, definitely – a good thing that I decided to give up drinking in the summer of 2006. I’d had enough embarrassing nights out. I’d woken up beside more than my fair share of unattractive strangers, and was, in turn, more than ready to bid farewell to the drunken rants, crying jags, and ridiculous battles with boyfriends, friends, cab drivers, cashiers and waiters. I thrilled at the notion of never having another hangover. (My hangovers were baaaaaad.)
But when I said goodbye to alcohol and its commensurate drama, I didn’t intend to bid farewell to dating. I saw my romantic future shimmering atop a cotton-candy cloud of contentment and stability. Without the crutch of alcohol, I told myself that my once-jumbled love life would fall easily into place. Now that I was sober and ready, Mr. Right would surely be waiting for me (albeit at the local coffee shop instead of the next bar stool).
It sucked to discover that alcohol-free dating was still, well, dating: an ouchy dance of anticipation, expectations and artifice. And for those of us who don’t drink, dating can be even more of a mixed bag. Why? Because, in case you missed the memo, most Americans are all about alcohol. We meet for happy hour at five, dine with wine at seven, meet lovers at a bar later on, and make every excuse to have another round. When love and sex get mixed in, the whole shebang gets even stickier.
To be honest, dry dating hasn’t been as smooth as I’d hoped. Most of the men I dated in early sobriety were drinkers. Not alcoholics, but average Joes: the kind of guys who had no trouble stopping after a couple of glasses of wine; the kind of guys who couldn’t remember the last time they puked up all 12 of the Stella Artois drunk the night before.
Guys like these sound good to most women. “Those men are stable,” you might be thinking. “They’re normal!” And yes, indeed – they are. But, see, Normal and I clash like hot cider and summertime. Normal gives me uncomfortable side glances and keeps me at a perpetual distance. Normal makes me feel crazier than I actually am.
I learned this lesson the hard way after dating a man named Craig. Tall and dark with long eyelashes (my weakness), he was sexy in a skater-boy way (I never got over my sixth-grade propensity for Vans and bowl-cuts). He was a friend of a friend, who I’d casually admired for months, and his warm, easygoing manner won me over right away. He was a considerate guy who held doors open, carried my bike up the stairs and offered to feed my cats when I went away. Sweet, right?
Right – and things progressed nicely until, cuddled on my couch one night, Craig said, “It makes me sad that we can never have a glass of wine together.” Which, to my hypersensitive brain, sounded like, “the fact that you don’t drink is a deal-breaker.” He claimed he was just being honest, and we tried to talk it out. But it bothered me deeply that my sobriety – something I was proud of, something I’d worked hard for – could be an issue for him. His uber-casual comment made me feel like there was something wrong with me for being unable to drink like a Normal Person. (Damn those normies!) My therapist urged me to break it off, worried that Craig’s cluelessness might drive me back to the bottle. But I liked him, so I waited it out; and we ended things a month or so later.
Craig wasn’t the first guy who seemed unsure how to handle the fact that I don’t drink. More than a few internet dates have magically disappeared after learning that I was sober. They didn’t try to sugarcoat their disdain with any “met someone else”-type excuses, either. Nope; we’d exchange a series of perfectly pleasant, getting-to-know-you emails, and then the dude would suddenly evaporate when I mentioned that I’d prefer meeting for coffee instead of beer. Odd.
Then there are the men I wouldn’t dream of dating – the party boys (ahem, cough, alcoholics) who don’t drink remotely like Normal People, who see nothing wrong with pounding six shots of Cuervo at the taqueria. I had a close encounter with a member of this species on a brunch date last year. A carefully constructed hipster with tattoos lining each arm, Steve was cute, unkempt, and unshaven. He ordered a mimosa as soon as we sat down, and mentioned that because he works from home, he goes to a bar every night “just to be around people.” (Apparently he’s never heard of restaurants or book stores or coffee shops or libraries or…) Steve also noted that, a few years back, he was “a dog” who slept around and tried to collect as many women’s phone numbers as possible. He said he had “grown up since then.” (Um…okay.)
Guys like Steve make “Normal” men — a la Craig — look like dreamboats. But, like I said, I’m not looking to date someone too average, too boring, too well-adjusted. I like flaws, I like edge, I like quirks — heaven knows I’ve got plenty of them. Guys who are Normal don’t usually get me. Though I admit: Thanks to sobriety, I’m much saner than I used to be, and that’s definitely not a bad thing.
I decided to stop drinking when it started doing me more harm than good – when it started contributing to the deterioration of both two-hour dates and two-year relationships. Like lots of people, I ride a rickety daily roller coaster of moods and emotions, but my overall frame of mind has improved a lot since the summer of 2006. I’m 32, single, and sober, and I’m ready for a little companionship with a funny, sensitive but not-too-Normal man. I know he’s out there — inquire within.
Laura Barcella is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Salon, the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and the UK Guardian’s Comment Is Free. You can find her on the web at www.laurabarcella.com