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Swipe Left: I turned my bad dates into fun anecdotes but at an emotional cost

I’ve spent evenings in the pub performing my bad dates for a hungry audience. But once the laughter fades, I’m left feeling cold.

03 Jan 2023

Alex Smyth

Welcome back to Swipe Left, gal-dem‘s dating column with a new writer each month.

“OK, OK – so,” I begin. It could be one of several dates. There is the one where his big light is too harsh, too clinical, for anything sexual, and so, in the absence of a lamp, he puts his phone torch on and places it on the side for the next hour or so. There is the other one where she tells me, unprompted, that all her friends dress better than mine. And, of course, there is the one where he’s surprised I don’t take coke because I’ve got the perfect nostrils for it. “Like little hoovers,” he says.

Bad dates shouldn’t go untold – I’m convinced that’s half the fun. Shaping and re-shaping a story from Thursday night’s negging and awkward silences returns a certain agency to me. I’ve come to love these moments with friends, passing bad dating stories back and forth. There’s a collective catharsis. Our catching laughs mark a reclamation of power, softly punctuated by valued input and grounded in years of friendship. 

“Shaping and re-shaping a story from Thursday night’s negging and awkward silences returns a certain agency to me”

It’s almost ritualistic: the romantic ups and downs shared in the corner of a flat party or an over-crowded pub; the series of gasps and muttered variations of “fuck, no”; the Instagram search providing accompanying visuals before I recreate the oddly possessive way the date held my hip/neck/hand. When the less-than savoury details come, we pull ourselves into a whisper. Our slightly drunken breath is hot against each others’ cheeks and it feels so good to be so close. 

There’s an art to knowing when to push at the narrative and when to leave it out for others to pick at for their own pleasure – and I think I’m getting good at it. What was once a point of connection between friends has now become a wider performance at each lulling social occasion, open to friends of friends of friends, their old flatmates and the people I sometimes smile at in the library. I like responding to their calls and running over the details they like, again and again and again, just for them. 

I believe in storytelling: the way it brings people together and builds communities, and the sense of power and control that comes with stories. In them, I am not a sexual object, but a narrative subject.

Besides, there’s a real desire for it – and for me. I undo each button of the story and make sure the polyester fabric drops to the floor to end the narrative at just the right moment. It’s a very particular feeling: all expectant eyes are on me. I’m not quite sure if I like it, but I’ve started, so I’ll finish.

“I undo each button of the story and make sure the polyester fabric drops to the floor to end the narrative at just the right moment”

Some of the dating stories are less fun and end with my close friends offering a firm hug and a much-needed, “No, that’s not funny, actually.” It’s a relief to be granted permission to be upset. But there’s also a real hunger for matters of this ilk from the distant acquaintances who listen in. Their eyes light up with each racist and sexist plot point. For a moment, in their vision, I feel sparkly and shiny and wanted. Then, as the feeling wears away, it starts to turn a little cold, standing narratively naked like this.

So, I’ll cherry-pick the dates into a version of events that I feel comfortable with – but someone usually wants more. “And what did you say back?” they’ll ask. I press my lips together. Take another sip, make some light ambiguous noise. There’s a parallel to how I offer a veiled nothingness both to these questions and to the various Hinge dates’ comments which spark them. Admitting that I said nothing would be to concede to a shameful passivity, at odds with the pithy version of events that I am narrativising. 

“Rituals are difficult to break, and so I find myself picking up cheap laughs from the sticky pub floor”

Instead, I opt for distraction. I’ll introduce the story of another Hinge date, a shiny new toy for the audience to play with instead of me. In my desperation to entertain, I end up being mean about what posters someone had on their walls or how they kissed my cheek. A bad date isn’t always offensive; sometimes we just don’t click. But rituals are difficult to break, and so I find myself picking up cheap laughs from the sticky pub floor. It feels good for a second or two, and then the buzz wears off and I wish I had simply shut up. 

I started 2022 with an ending, that of my first proper relationship. It was a quiet type of love and I often didn’t have much to say about it. I didn’t need to fill myself up with the hungry eyes of an audience – the care and respect my ex and I gave each other was enough. 

I think I’d like to be a little more quiet, again. And I’d like to be quiet independently – not simply because I’m in a happy relationship. I’d like to savour my stories for the ones who hold me and love me, even when there is no punch line. I think it may be my new year’s resolution.

There is power in sex and storytelling, and chatting shit about a stranger from the night before. But sometimes I’d rather keep my bra clasped and my stories tucked away in my back pocket. Maybe there is power in that, too.