Therapists, dating sites, even self-help manuals are all available to dole out advice on post-divorce dating etiquette. And this is a subject I will return to now and then, because the rules are all so slippery and often, to some extent, quaint. My favorite trash TV hostess, Patti Stanger of "Millionaire Matchmaker," regularly hands out emphatic nostrums for those who aspire to matrimony, whether it's the first time around or a return engagement. One of her favorites is "No sex before commitment."
But, hey, I'm a child of the '70s, a time when you never went home from a party alone, whether the attraction lasted or not. I'm also well above the age of consent. So let's get real here.
Nonetheless, though I might profess a certain post-feminist derring-do about one-night stands, I am now often grateful when my good-girl instincts take over and I listen to my inner censor.
Last fall, a few months after my latest long-term romance took a nosedive, I turned to the personals on Craigslist. For those unfamiliar with this service, the CL personals are a great swamp of unfulfilled longing and desire, where one can post, free of charge, for a hookup with a threesome, seek out a green-card marriage, or advertise for the great love of your life. The ads can be as long as you like, include photos, and appear online within minutes. The women, especially in my age group, tend to look for the predictable long-term relationship, for comfort and stability ("Chicken Soup and Cuddling with a Nice SJF," "RN Seeks Lifetime Soulmate"). The men are a mix of old-fashioned yearning and randy desire ("Older Guy Seeks LTR," "Let's Try Role Play," "Spanking and Romance"). Bad grammar and misspellings abound, somehow making many of the pleas seem even more touching ("Great Man Seeks Partner and Mariage," "I Like the Small Breasted Librerian Type").
After a few weeks of strike-outs on conventional dating sites, I turned to CL one chilly September afternoon, when a regular swim buddy canceled on me. I tentatively typed in a headline: "Dinner and a Movie Tonight?" And then detailed the situation in the text: "A friend punked out on me at the last moment. How about a date with a tall funny blonde?"
I got several offers during the course of the afternoon, but the most appealing came around six p.m. from Peter, a lighting designer who lived on the Upper East Side, and was at that moment in the process of making pot au feu (upscale beef stew). He sent a photo of himself and one of the view from his apartment: a twinkling skyline nightscape looking west toward Central Park. We chatted briefly and I suggested meeting first at a public place so that I could eyeball him and be assured he wouldn't hack me up and throw me into the pot.
We met at a wine bar in his neighborhood, and I think we were both pleasantly surprised to find our photos were not overly flattering: we were attractive people of a certain age. Peter was wiry and slender and balding, with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and bright blue eyes. We exchanged abridged life stories, and he told me about his previous career racing motorcycles, which sounded dangerous and sexy.
After an hour or so, we repaired to his apartment around the corner. One glance at the contents of his refrigerator and it was clear this man was a serious foodie: he had on hand about eight different types of cheese and several varieties of mustard and flavored vinegars. By nine the stew was ready to go, and we ate that and a salad and bread at the table overlooking his splendid view. And polished off a nice bottle of pinot noir. By ten-thirty we moved to the sofa and fell to smooching and by eleven it seemed to me I'd better get my tush in a taxi fast or I'd wind up falling into the sack with a near-stranger. And my sixth sense about this man was not totally positive.
I emailed him later telling him how much I'd enjoyed the evening and expressing a desire to see him again. He emailed back the next day: "I'd love to go to a museum with you sometime, but I don't think we'd make good romantic partners."
"Well, then why," I shot back, "were your hands all over my anatomy last night?"
I never did get an explanation.
When I talked the situation over with a friend, he suggested that perhaps Peter had a wife or other steady woman in his life who happened to be out of town that evening. I can't say I noticed much evidence of a female presence, other than photos of his daughter, but then I'm not given to snooping in other people's closets or bathroom cabinets.
Occasionally cruising the men's ads on Craigslist, I now find a come-on from Peter with a title like "Making Lasagne Verde for Dinner" or "Braising Oxtails for Stew," followed by an invitation to join a "tall mature gentleman" for an ethereal feast. I'm sure it's Peter because he always posts a photo of the beautiful view of Central Park from his apartment. I suppose the gambit is as legitimate as any other as a way to meet women, but I wonder if he always loses interest when his dates failed to succumb to any activities below the waist.