I CAN'T quite remember the first time I asked a boy out on a date; it must have been in kindergarten, when a classmate, my parents, and I all went to a Boston Red Sox game. Of course, I didn't think of it as a date way back then and was quite embarrassed to find that my parents had taped, for posterity, my phone conversation with him.
Not much has changed over the past two decades. I still ask men out, Mom and Dad still think it's a big deal, and I still sometimes write down what I'm going to say before I say it. (Somewhere along the way I graduated from hanging up as soon as someone answers the phone.)
But over time, the nature of such ego-sensitive acquaintanceships has fluctuated dramatically; not long after the baseball game, boys started pulling my pigtails, and I started beating them in math. It was several years before competitiveness gave room for camaraderie. When it did, I was at a loss for words.
My high school sophomore formal dance was approaching, and if I wanted to go I needed to ask someone: My new school was boyless and dateless. Somehow, I thought it unfair that I had to invite someone to a dance, where the pressure to have a perfect evening would be much greater than at, say, a baseball game. And to have the perfect evening, I had to find the perfect date. Unfortunately, Harrison Ford was busy.
My question, ``So what if I just want to ask a friend?,'' found few sympathetic ears among my classmates, who were all seeking just the right man. But fortunately, I did discover and invite a genial acquaintance. Upon hearing a positive response, I pragmatically bought our tickets and unearthed a dress.
But I didn't hear from the young gentleman for four weeks, and when we reached T-minus- seven-and-counting, I got out my pad and paper, wrote out my small paragraph, and called him up.
``Oh, yeah,'' he said. (This may not be verbatim. I was fumbling with my pencil at the time.) ``Well, I just heard my hockey camp starts that night.'' The pencil dropped. ``If I have an early game, we can go late, but if I have the later game, I can't go at all.''
When would he know? (I gripped my eraser.)
``In a couple of days.'' Would he call? ``Sure.''
I hung up and cleaned the scattered crumbs of eraser from the desk.
The rest of the story is a modern-style fairy tale. He did have a late game at 8:00 p.m., but he didn't let me go to the dance without a date. On a sunny afternoon at 4:45, he arrived at my front door and drove us to dinner while I tried not to sound stupid to his mother, who was with him in the front seat because neither of us had a driver's license yet.
After he paid for dinner (I forgot my wallet), I went home and watched basketball and ``Miami Vice'' for several hours. And waited for the hockey game to be over. And trusted that my date would finally pick me up.
Remember, this is a fairy tale: He did pick me up. But it's also high school and hockey season, so he was with his mother and it was 10:30 at night. By the time we got to the dance, some of my friends were already leaving for post-formal parties. While I tried to act unaffected on the sidewalk in front of the building, my new heels (first time out) got stuck between the cobblestones; I almost destroyed my shoes in prying them out. We never even got inside the doors. But who cared, and who needed to go to the dance anyway? Not I.
Exactly four years and several less-cataclysmic dates later, I was still consoling myself when my annual college midwinter ball loomed large just weeks away. I planned to face it with an army of my male and female friends, who would all go together. For many of us, dating certainly hadn't proved an easy way to get to know people.
But wait: All fairy tales, even contemporary ones, insist on ending with a moral. This one stays true to form. A fellow student and I were shooting the breeze one evening before the ball, when it hit me that I should ask him to go with me. He was funny, and better yet, he did not play hockey.
When I ``bumped'' into him a week later at the college post office, he clearly didn't understand why I was so earnestly engaging in conversation (to keep him around until his friends left). He also looked puzzled when a friend of mine passed by and whacked me on the back so hard that I nearly fell over. (She was in on the scheme.) When he finally began to turn to open his mail box, I bowed to foolish bravery and nearly whispered:
``Um, would you go to the midwinter ball with me?''
He moved back about two feet and hesitated. My thoughts wandered: Am I too weird? Will he take this too seriously and say no? How long have I been standing here anyway?
``Sure, sure. Next Friday? Great, should be fun.''
I admit it: I was happy. I guess we were both determined to make the evening a collaborative effort. He called later, not to confess a secret passion for hockey but to find out the color of my dress -
so his tie would match. And when his eyes lit up at the prospect of sledding towards the end of the dance, I didn't pine away with my television. We gleefully exchanged suit and dress for jeans and scarves to celebrate winter with an entire band of fellow revelers. At the evening's end, I was certain each of us had made a new friend.
One could argue, with difficulty, that young people naturally grow more polite after high school. But no friendship is a matter of course. While we work it all out, it surely couldn't hurt to learn how to have fun with someone rather than to expect a good time from him or her. Even if enjoying a hockey game might still be a stretch.