Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Not too long ago, the match I was chatting with a match on Bumble began to explain, with emojis aplenty, the best first date he’d ever been on, when he and a girl had booked tickets for a flight to Bora Bora the same evening they met. In his mind, I’m sure, it ticked all the boxes for the kind of experiences, and people, we’re told to chase with gusto: Adventure! Spontaneity! Really, though, it mostly had me wondering whether these people had jobs, or pets, or anything that tethered them to real life and prevented them from wandering off onto some Bachelor-style fantasy exploit.
When he turned the question back on me — what was my best first date? — I realized, with a cringe, how many first dates I’d been asked on that would also qualify for a Chris Harrison stamp of approval: Cooking classes, invitations to galas I didn’t own dresses for, extravagant bottles of wine purchased with reminders of exactly how expensive they were, formal dinners where we both realized midway through the bread basket that neither of us was really feeling it.
Some of those dates I went on, others I politely declined, but with every single one came the repeated reminder that just meeting someone new is a ridiculous amount of pressure. Pressure to stand out, pressure to prove romance hasn’t crawled under a dating app and died, pressure to make every experience into an adventure even when you don’t know the person’s last name.
The best first date I’ve ever been on had none of those things, because the best first date I’ve ever been on was a plain, boring, no-frills invitation to coffee. In fact, if I recall correctly, his exact phrasing was: “I know this is kind of lame, but would you like to get coffee this afternoon?”
But it wasn’t lame. It was simple. The coffee date, I now firmly believe, is the most underestimated of all social interactions that require us to turn off Netflix and put on real pants. Instead of the rehearsed spontaneity of flinging your credit card at a travel agent, it required me to actually be spontaneous. I didn’t have time to change clothes: If I was going, I was going in the flats and pants I told myself resembled Audrey Hepburn but probably just looked like leggings that I’d worn to work. I also didn’t have time to brainstorm any elaborate pre-planned topics of conversation, which presented a welcome challenge — we had nothing to do on this date except talk, but we’d have to rely on each other to keep the conversation going.
And, it dawned on me on my way over, coffee was an easy exit. Maybe that’s a bad thing to admit, but the fact that I wouldn’t have to suffer through a full meal with someone who kept explaining that my name “wasn’t a real first name” (yes, it really happened) was a relief.
We met at a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop that only had six tables, and I wound my hands around my cup with nerves. The hand-wringing led to a conversation on nervousness, which led to us talking about an article on anxiety we’d both read, which, in turn, led to us chatting about the biggest sources of nerves, like jobs and moves and what comes next. An unlikely starting point, but we learned each other’s friends’ names when we talked about who was moving where. We discovered mutual likes and dislikes as we recounted the best and worst of pizza toppings, movies, and false starts, like accidentally melting a cutting board during an ill-fated cooking attempt (me) or going to the airport to pick up a client for your boss and mistakenly collecting the wrong person (him).
One hour turned into two, “I know a good pizza place around the corner” became dinner, and dinner became shopping in a Walgreens for all the candy we could carry and heading into a movie we both wanted to see. It was powerfully normal. We wound up sitting on the floor until 3 a.m., telling jokes that were too stupid or too crass to make a good first impression.
It’s not coffee, the beverage, that holds the magic; it’s coffee, the social activity. There are thousands of listicles and Pinterest boards devoted to planning the perfect first date, most of them begging all of us to quit hiding behind our phones and schedules to be more “cute” or “romantic.” Coffee isn’t either. It’s a networking activity, the thing your boss might’ve taken you to before deciding to hire you. It certainly isn’t Bora Bora.
But it’s a drop of modern-dating armor. With something simple as coffee, you can’t rely on anything else to fill the space of getting to know the stranger sitting across from you, to distract from the awkwardness that brings. You can’t be a dating performance artist nailing all your lines; you have to be a person. And activities and adventures are exciting, but sometimes you just want someone you can sit still with.
Are some of those more adventurous dates a blast? For sure, and I’m not swearing them off. But I bristle a little at the idea that meeting for coffee is, as one of my friends put it, “kinda too ordinary.” For me, it’s a chance to really get to know someone — and, by extension, a chance to avoid wasting your time, or someone else’s, if you know things aren’t clicking. It’s just the right amount of practical to make the date seem more like a conversation, and less like an event. If that’s what too ordinary feels like, give me too ordinary every time.