How can I have mo'lasses when I ain't had no'lasses at all?

On paternalism

It started out promisingly enough. “It was such a pleasure meeting you last night,” his text message read the morning after we met at a friend’s birthday party. “I’d love to see you again.” 

Exactly a week later, I met him at his office in Chinatown, where we sat for a while smoking cigarettes next to the window and talking. He told me about dislocating his shoulder snowboarding after a shoot, and about training for a triathlon, and when he was a teenager he drove around the Middle East with his mother, and that he just read “Mating” by Norman Rush and loved it, and… 

I was intimidated. What hasn’t this guy done? I thought. Then I began counting what a friend calls “Me Moments”: you ask your date a question about him or herself and then sit back and count until they ask you the same (or, the original version of the Talk-O-Meter). For four hours, this guy did not ask me a single question about myself, unless he was responding to my response to one of his ridiculously interesting stories. 

It just went downhill from there. He ordered for me at dinner (in his defense, it was a restaurant where plates are meant for sharing), pressured me about going on more dates (when I told him I couldn’t hang out Saturday night, he said, “I’m a busy guy! I left Saturday night free for you,” as if I already owed him or I wasn’t busy myself [not that he would know, since he didn’t ask what it’s like being a freelance writer]), and said I could come over to his place but I had to stay on the couch (only after I told him I wasn’t going home with him) and I could find the money on the dresser before I “scurried out” (I mean, he was obviously joking, but still).

That night was a particularly egregious example of something I’ve experienced a lot: paternalism, which in a lot of ways is just a subtle form of benevolent sexism. My ex-boyfriend was condescending, explaining everything, even stuff like the industry in which I work, to me. When I was a barista my co-worker crush was like that, too, prompting a friend to tell me that I “was the kind of person men feel like they need to talk down to.” In both cases, it got to the point where I started to feel stupid and insecure and doubted myself even more than I already do. Even the other night, getting into an argument about the legitimacy of meditation apps with that guy, who doesn’t have a wallet and proclaimed he was pretty much high for a decade, I felt like he was in the right, and for his life experiences he was a better person than I.

Then, I realized (with the help of my therapist, of course): No. Yes, generally speaking, one should be an informed citizen and read books and watch movies and work hard and try new things, but that doesn’t mean you need to showboat on the first date. It’s about having a conversation. And sometimes, that involves playing dumb (as John McPhee noted in “Elicitation,” his wonderful piece for the New Yorker about interviewing), or asking a follow-up question instead of replying with your own narrative; in that sense, I was as good of, if not a better, person than he — or at least, a better conversationalist.

It took me schlepping to Bed-Stuy with this guy and getting home at 2am to figure this out, but at least now I can tick off one of my anxieties instead of simply filing the memory in my Rolodex of bad dates. Plus, it makes a great story.