7: dating rules

Affluent, college graduates in their early twenties are easily lured to grad school by the mostly false promise of higher paying job prospects and the temptation of re-joining a large and diverse peer group. Two or three years of struggling to find an adult identity and a place in the world among friends makes pulling the back-to-school escape hatch feel like a catch-all fix to a host of life’s biggest problems. The similarities to the college application process gives would-be graduate students a false sense of familiarity and comfort. They are easily seduced by the nostalgia of long weekends, sleeping through early morning classes and partying through 85 to 90 percent of the semester, saving their only real effort for the last week or two of it.

Grad school, law school, anyway, is tragically un-like undergrad in most ways. In the long history of my education I found it most akin to junior high school. Most days you feel overwhelmed by a new environment, new language, and new set of rules everyone seems to understand better than you. In your first year, you’re divided into “sections” of the same fifty to eighty students and the professors rotate among you. You can’t so much ask a member of the opposite sex to borrow a pencil before the rumors start swirling about your romantic involvement and the anxiety to both fit in socially and perform academically overwhelms many students to the point of breakdown.

In the whole, terrible mess of it, there is only one thing that feels remotely like college.

Thursday night.

Thursday afternoon is the start of it, really. The typical intensity of the hallway welcomes a relaxed energy as ordinarily urgent students move with less purpose and more conversation. The usual clicking and slamming echoing in the locker room above the student lounge (one of the more junior high-ish destinations) is muffled by excited voices organizing plans. Class seems to clip along a quicker, more tolerable pace. Everywhere there’s a palpable, sexual tension, as if every student on campus is anticipating sleeping with every other student on campus, tonight.

It’s week four, maybe five of the school year and so far I’ve avoided the Thursday night mating ritual. At lunchtime, Nick finds me on the patio and suggests we try to “go out tonight” to “make some friends.” It sounds unappealing to me but I don’t have a believable excuse ready, so I agree.

I blow dry my hair for the first time since I  moved back to LA. I put on mascara, the pinnacle of my efforts to look different than I do in the daylight, and because I was blessed with a body that looks good in tight jeans, I use the opportunity to remind Nick that I am, in fact, a woman.

I arrive at Nick’s apartment for the first time four minutes before we agreed to meet. I stall in my car by checking my makeup in my rear-view mirror and pulling out my credit card and ID from my wallet. At 8:01p.m. I slide out of the driver’s side door of my mini cooper and walk nervously across the grass towards the entrance to Nick’s bungalow in the backyard. That night, it feels like trespassing, but no more than a few weeks later and it’s one of the most familiar walks in my daily life.

The door to Nick’s apartment is at the top of a steep, wooden staircase. It’s surprisingly spacious inside, especially the bedroom. I notice immediately how clean it is and that it smells like freshly snuffed out candles and air-drying laundry.

Nice. And comfortable.

Nick welcomes me in with a side hug and ushers me to the living space behind him where our mutual friend Thomas, also a transfer student, is sipping a dark brown beverage, over ice, on the couch. Thomas, who we call “Tommy” is six feet four and close to 300 pounds. He’s from Orange County and went to a small, Christian college that’s notorious among liberal, public-educated Californians for having strict rules about bedtimes and fraternizing with the opposite sex. Tommy is silly and jovial, the type of guy that would make a good sidekick to an uptight cop in an old-school buddy comedy. He reads a lot on the internet so he has a fact or tidbit to contribute to almost every conversation. For now, it’s entertaining.

It’s an intimate gathering of close friends. Except the three of us barely know each other.

90 minutes of clever jokes and casual conversation passes quickly and with ease. Law students share a certain automatic camaraderie. Both our common experiences of legal education the shared personal characteristics that led us down the path to it, generate a common language, and natural bond, among us.

Shortly before 10p.m., Nick, Tommy and I pile into my Mini Cooper and head towards Santa Monica to make some friends.

The bar is dark, everywhere. Dark lighting and dark wood fixtures and dark, leather booth seats. The place is swarming with young people and when I look around expecting to recognize some of them, I’m suddenly aware of how much a stranger I am to Los Angeles. Loneliness in crowded space is a bizarre and uncomfortable feeling.

I realize quickly that Nick and Tommy feel it too. We sort of huddle together the way a group of socially awkward thirteen year olds congregate at a school dance. We’re close enough to the other law students that it looks like we might be interacting with them, but we’re only really talking to each other.

Mostly because of his enormous size and the acoustics of the bar, Tommy is essentially eliminated from the conversation.

Nick’s on his third drink and the volume of our surroundings require a closeness of lips and ears that is typically reserved for those who are already intimately acquainted. I can feel him loosening up in his body and speech pattern. We’re intensely engaged and years later I would recognize the conversation as the type Nick has with a woman he’s interested in romantically. Back then I had no clue, and I’m sure if I asked him about it, he’d deny any romantic inclination. He’s was feeling me out. I know it.

We’re talking about our dating histories, briefly, before getting deep into dating philosophy. Nick tells me about his dating rules, a list of best practices that, to me, sound rigid and unnecessary. I wonder how, and why, he carefully manages a process that even in my overly managed life, I believe to be unmanageable. He insists his approach is well-honed and effective. I remind him that he’s single.

The debate continues over what feels like a number of hours but is likely 45 minutes. By the time we make the collective decision to leave, I feel sweaty and heated, as if we’d spent the entire night on the dance floor.

We haven’t moved eight inches from our original spot.

I drop the boys off back at Nick’s place and make the three minute drive home. I climb the stairs into my apartment, my heart beating faster than the amount of physical exertion demands. I slip quickly into bed, barely changing clothes and forgetting to brush my teeth. My body is exhausted but my mind is racing.

I play back the night’s events trying to make sense of the apparent progress in me and Nick’s relationship. That level of magnetism between me and a man has always resulted in a quick and passionate love affair always feels less like dating and more like a month and a half stranded on a desert island with only him.

This feels different. But even as I drift into sleep, I’m not sure why.

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