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It was a Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, to be exact. As I swung open my apartment door, I felt mentally prepared for my date with an Irish Catholic. But in he walked, not with the sprinkling of ash I had anticipated, but a thick, gray cross that splayed from brow to hairline. “Is everything okay?” he said. “Yes,” I said. But who could be sure, with this vast difference between us literally written on his forehead? A kiss did little to detract from the awkwardness. His eyes grew panicked, and a glimpse at my own reflection in the mirror revealed that my forehead was now covered in ash. Had this been our first date, I would have been scarred for life.
If you consider that your date could someday share your bed and bank accounts, and that the way you present yourself down to the very smallest detail becomes a representation of yourself, a first date might sound intimidating. It’s like the SATs, when you nervously hoped to secure a bright future—only this time you’re allowed the assistance of alcohol. A good first date follows no formula, per se, but always leads to a second date.
Establish a place and a time beforehand, in a casual, light-hearted way. Wear clothes that you feel comfortable in and, if your faith in pheromones is anything like your faith in God, spritz a little perfume or cologne. To feel calm and confident prior to your date, avoid tense conversations with friends, family, and coworkers (and any horrifying thing Ben Stiller’s character did before he took Mary out in There’s Something About Mary).
Food and love are one and the same for many of us, but a first date need not occur in a restaurant. If you both like baseball, see a game; or if you’re into art, go to a gallery opening or a museum. A first date should always involve both people’s interests. This lets you express who you are, shows what you have in common, and eases the pressure to keep talking by supplying you with at least one conversation topic. Do keep in mind that loud places (crowded bars, concerts) and silent places (movie theaters, theater houses) can make for awkward first dates because conversation is limited.
First dates are all about conversation, so find the words that show your charisma, kindness, humor and humility. Show curiosity in your date’s views and experiences by asking at least three specific questions that require your date to respond with more than just a yes or no. Avoid political banter/immature joke telling (Anthony Wiener is old news on both fronts) along with loaded conversations like religion.
After my cinder incident with the Irish Catholic, the conversation naturally barreled ahead into the territory of religion (and then another minefield: children). While our outlooks and expectations were surprisingly compatible, this chat could be highly awkward on a first date (hello abortion rights activists). Unless you’re so religious that your partner must be as well, or you’re so opinionated on an issue that an opposing view would destroy the foundations of your identity, spare yourself.
“Future planning conversations” seem productive and important, but if premature, they are potentially toxic. Opinions often change, and by stating them as facts, they take on a life of their own and can chokea blooming relationship. Wait until you feel the person is worth the serious conversation. If your first-time dates ever bring up a personal topic like religion, refrain from grilling them like they’re Al Qaeda and be respectful of their beliefs. You might even say, “Let’s just take this one step at a time.” (Anyone who doesn’t understand that isn’t worth a second date.)
Perhaps the hardest part of a first date is ending it. Do Jews go Dutch? Will one person lean in for a kiss, or initiate a friendly hug? If in fact it’s a kiss, do you go for the cheek or the lips? Do you nail down the details of a second date, or merely allude to it?
With no first date Torah-equivalent, you’ll have to do what feels appropriate in the moment, and believe that the right person is on the same page.
Sasha Ingber is a freelance writer whose work focuses on relationships, travel and dance. She is currently a graduate student in Johns Hopkins University’s writing program.