My date was in the middle of telling me about his father's early shares in Google when I realized I was choking. Not choking in the metaphorical sense, though I've done plenty of that on first dates — literal, airway-blocking, potentially fatal choking.
Which, honestly, is pretty on-brand for me.
This is one of the hard ways (maybe the hardest) to learn that chicken parm is not actually a great first-date food. It's the type of food you should order only after you've already farted in front of the person you're eating with. But I really like chicken parm. So there I was, slurping up angel hair pasta, specks of red sauce soaring onto my cheeks.
The date (I'll call him Will) and I met through a friend. I was 21, fresh off a breakup, and in the best shape of my life. He was 23 and knew what he wanted to do with his life (finance, of course). At the time, someone's having an inkling of what they wanted in life was the most attractive quality I could think of, perhaps because I could barely decide what to eat for breakfast each day.
Will had the whole "New England prep guy" thing down to a science. I always told myself I didn't like dating New England prep guys, but somehow, they were the ones I always ended up with. He wore salmon-colored shorts and had teeth so straight I could practically see the retainers he almost certainly still wore, nightly. I could tell he never missed a haircut.
For our date, Will took me to the North End in Boston. He said he wanted to take me to "a nice place." As I walked through the dimly lit Italian restaurant's doors, his hand on the small of my back, I could tell he was the type of guy who expected my eternal gratitude for being taken to "a nice place."
After a particularly large inhalation of pasta, I felt a piece of spaghetti lodge in the back of my throat. Panicked, I looked up at Will. Luckily, he was still deep in the middle of giving Google (and, by extension, his ego) a verbal hand job, so my lack of oxygen went unnoticed.
I tried to take a sip of water to ease the stubborn piece of pasta down my throat, but all I could manage was a terrible gurgling noise before the water fell out of my mouth and back into my glass. I realized that this was possibly the most vocal I'd been on the date thus far.
"Are you OK?" asked Will.
I felt like this was an obvious "no," but I shook my head just in case. A flash of heat swept across my face, partly from embarrassment but more so due to the lack of air.
I tried to cough but was only able to produce more noises, not unlike how I imagine an angry, dying raccoon might sound. When it became clear that none of my apparently very subtle clues could disrupt Will's Google monologue, I finally put my hands on my throat in the official "I'm choking" position.
"Should I, like, give you the Heimlich or something?" he asked. His tone suggested that in a list of things he wanted to do, this would fall just below sawing his own arm off.
Fuck this, I thought.
It was at that moment that I decided I would have to save myself. Sticking two fingers down my own throat, I fished out the culprit piece of pasta — an image that must have looked similar to a certain terrifying scene in The Ring.
I coughed with the force of a 350-pound smoker and threw the piece of spaghetti onto my half-finished plate.
"Whoa," Will said.
"Yeah," I laughed, breathing in the sweet, sweet air I'd so foolishly taken for granted.
"That was intense," he said.
"Yep. It really was," I said. I knew I shouldn't laugh — that almost dying isn't hilarious, at least to most people. But I couldn't help it. I looked up at Will, hoping he would loosen that Vineyard Vines belt and have a laugh with me, but all I received was a blank stare.
I excused myself to go to the bathroom and chuckle at my own misfortune in peace. When I returned, we finished our meals in relative silence. I wasn't surprised when he didn't go in for the kiss, or call me again. I guess watching me regurgitate my meal wasn't a huge turn-on for him.
When I arrived home, I gave my roommate the play-by-play. We laughed until our cheeks hurt. We laughed until I thought I would throw up the chicken parm. Or more of it.
"Are you mortified?" she asked.
I thought about it for a moment, and I realized: Maybe there was a time I would have been mortified, but now? I wasn't.
I have gone on so many first dates as people other than myself. I have gone on first dates in the role of "cool sports girl," citing teams and players whose names I only knew because I overheard my father mention them while I sat nearby reading a book. I have played "cultured art girl," racking my brain for obscure artists and the era they belonged to, all the while wishing I hadn't spent so much time texting during my Art History course. I have been dozens of girls, but I didn't want to be them anymore. It got exhausting. They weren't me.
Me? I'm chokes-on-spaghetti girl. And maybe, finally, I was OK with that.
I didn't mind that I choked because, frankly, it saved me time. I could have had a "perfect" date with Will. We could have talked about our family and found things we had "in common" — you know, groundbreaking shared interests like dogs and Saturdays. That could have led to a second date and a third, and maybe those salmon shorts could have ended up in a heap on my floor someday. But that didn't happen, and that's OK.
Perfect first dates are not me. More me, I think, would be a first date that is good in spite of catastrophe. I want to have a good first date though the server gets my order wrong, and the walk home is freezing, and the trains stop running. I want a good first date with someone who tries to help me when I choke on my chicken parm, and who laughs with me when I survive it.
Because I'm not cool sports girl, or cultured art girl, or poised WASP girl. I am the girl who knows too many Harry Potter quotes and who doesn't quite understand what's ever going on with Pluto as a planet (or not). I am the girl who laughs at her own jokes.
I want to laugh so hard in bed that I let a snort out. I want to wake up with bad breath and not feel the need to sneak away to the bathroom to fix myself. I want to inhale and exhale and feel like myself with every goddamn breath I take in front of the person I'm with. I want to be everything I am and nothing I'm not. Because when it comes down to it, the best dates are the ones in which you are unapologetically yourself — and the other person likes you for it. Disasters and all.
And you know what? If that date doesn't exist, at least I know I can Heimlich maneuver myself.