My first date wasn’t much different from any of the dates I’ve had lately — sending a photo of my outfit to the group text, the nerves (the incredible nerves!), wondering if conversation would carry, curious if they’d want to kiss me — and that’s because my first date wasn’t that long ago. In fact, it was just last year…
Growing up extremely religious, I was taught that dating or acknowledging your sexuality as a person were all lumped into a “don’t do that/don’t talk about that” category, on top of the laundry list of other things I wasn’t allowed to do (including dancing, wearing pants, going to the movies, wearing jewelry and putting on makeup). My parents told me that guys only wanted sex, and to stay away from them, so all through middle school and high school I did, even though I desperately wanted a first kiss and a prom date and a boyfriend. My adolescence came and went, with nary a boyfriend or kiss to report.
I went to a small, mostly white Evangelical Christian university, and almost everyone seemed to be dating to get a “ring by spring.” Let’s just say I wasn’t seen as “ideal wife” material. A guy I was best friends with/secretly in love with (who was white) told me, “If we ever dated my mom would… not like that.” He went on to date all our female friends, but not me. From then on, I saw myself as simply undateable, and all the while it seemed like every other weekend a new sorority sister got engaged. Being immersed in this high-stakes dating culture only made me want a relationship more — but for frantic reasons, not for fun, what-a-time-to-be-young-and-alive! reasons. I figured something was wrong with me — that everyone else had something I didn’t have. I tried to shift focus to friendships and school, but the ache remained. Post-college, I moved back to my hometown and the dating landscape ranged from bleak to non-existent. Everyone my age had already been married for a couple of years or had moved out of state. I quickly removed dating as an option for myself and decided to lean into my career instead.
Fast forward to coming to New York two years ago, at age 30. Moving here on my own made me feel empowered, like a new version of myself. I was starting over in this big city. One of the first things I did was download Tinder and Bumble and get to swiping. I became obsessed with finding a date, because I finally could without feeling guilty or completely hopeless!
My first date ever was with a super attractive guy (let’s call him Nick). I had obsessively planned everything, down to the cozy ambiance of the bar and the black camisole I wore on that freezing night. I didn’t, however, remember to eat anything that day. So, on an empty stomach, overflowing with nerves, I drank two cocktails and accidentally got drunk. The date was a bust anyway, because Nick talked non-stop about himself the entire evening and gave me what is hopefully the worst kiss of my life. My first date was in the books, and it was horrible, but I couldn’t help but be relieved to finally be a “dating person.”
Trusting my dating/relationship instincts — which I didn’t know I had — was a game changer. It turned out I was way better at all of this than I’d thought. I started seeing myself in a sexual and romantic way. I learned to touch and be touched without pulling away, to flirt and talk about sex and become comfortable with being desired. I grew heart-calluses after rejection, which hit extra hard those first few times. I taught myself to cope and move on.
Now that I’m on “the other side” of dating, I see all the ways hanging back paid off. For one, I don’t mind taking the lead, because why not? I think we build up outcomes in our heads and make them such huge deals, when in reality, nothing terrible will happen if I initiate the first kiss. I approach every date with the same level of open-heartedness and optimism, even though I’ve experienced some major heartbreaks — like breaking things off with someone I loved, who didn’t have the capacity to be in a relationship with me. I know what I want, and more importantly, what I don’t want in a person — and that is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, ever.
When I looked up the definition of a late bloomer, I was surprised to see it described as someone whose capabilities aren’t yet seen by others — it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’d never thought about it that way before, and it was such a relief. When you grow up watching everyone else do something you feel like you should be doing, it seems like there’s a piece missing, when in reality my piece was intact the whole time. None of us automatically knows how to be in a romantic relationship — it’s ever-evolving. And I don’t think I would go back and try to change anything — in fact, I wish I could just tell myself that it would turn out even better than I expected and that I wouldn’t run out of time. After all, life is too short (and too long) to rush such a good and intricate thing.
What about you? Any other late bloomers out there?
(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)