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For young singles, dating is a mix of caution, romance


Sixteen months after they started dating, Weston Taussig and Felicia Luna are still aglow in each other's presence.

On a gorgeous afternoon, on a crowded patio of a California coffeehouse, they see only each other.

But, oh, what they went through to get here: informal background checks. Frank talk of former lovers. The scrutiny of two mothers. Two AIDS tests -- and six months later, two more.

"The new generation of thought is that we have to be careful," said Mr. Taussig, 23, of Costa Mesa, Calif. "The whole thing is a conflict. You have the passion and romance, you want to be young and immortal.

"But then you remember, 'If I'm stupid, that's it.' "

His words are hard, definite and spoken in the flat, pragmatic tone of a member of Generation X.

For this group -- those born in 1961-81 -- the impetuous, swept-away rituals of romance come later in life, if at all. There are too many things to worry about: date rape. AIDS. Pregnancy. Careers and school loans.

As for marriage? They'll pass. They saw what happened in their own families.

Parents of Generation X are twice as likely to be divorced as their own parents.

"My generation has had it tough from the beginning," Ms. Luna, 18, said over a cafe mocha. "It started with, 'Don't take candy from strangers' when we were just little kids. We really don't have any innocent views of the world."

More than the generations before them, young adults are forging relationships in the safety of groups. Things can stay casual that way; it is easier to screen someone.

And once interest has been established, there is less pressure at a table full of people than at a table with just a candle on it.

Often, first dates are casual, preliminary and inexpensive meetings such as lunch or coffee. Dinner dates are best saved for later, when hearts are aflutter.

"Lunch is the best way to have a first date," said Barry Nilson, 26, a law-firm courier. Although he is engaged to be married, Mr. Nilson offered his perspective: "Dinner is a two-hour ordeal. With lunch, you can have a burger and see how things go, then get back to work and get on with your lives."

Willamette University student Jean Prijatel, 19, job-hunting recently at South Coast Plaza in Orange County, Calif., said she and her boyfriend spent early dates exploring museums and tide pools.

It was cheap, but more importantly for her, it was safe.

"I never felt unsafe with him," said Ms. Prijatel, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif. "But it was better to watch out. It's scary. At school, date rape is everywhere. It's just a bad situation."

National statistics compiled by researchers at Arizona State and Auburn universities indicate that 1 in 4 undergraduate women will be the victim of sexual assault before graduation and 84 percent will be attacked by an acquaintance.

Such concerns have turned many from dating. Others simply don't have the time.

With jobs scarce and money tight, romance has tumbled down the list of priorities for Generation X.

"Now people want to be stable themselves before they fall in love," said Heidi Ristau, 24, a Nordstrom clerk who has a boyfriend in Austria.

If and when romance gets rolling, the couple must face the fact of AIDS.

When Ms. Luna and Mr. Taussig got serious last year, both were tested for HIV, then again six months later.

They agreed that the specter of AIDS forced blunt communication between them when they would rather have been murmuring sweet nothings.

"It's uncomfortable, to talk about previous partners," Mr. Taussig said. "It seems tacky, but that's the way it is. If there is going to be a second date, the questions have to be asked."

Many young people back out completely, opting for a spot in a roving group of friends instead of going through the hassle, expense and risk of finding someone special and staying with it.

"I don't believe in forever yet," Ms. Prijatel said, "because it hasn't been proven to me that it exists. Marriage is just like a relationship -- you just break up. It's so easy, it's ridiculous."

From the window of his battered Monte Carlo, Chris Howard, 21, spews cigarette smoke and theories of life and love.

"Romance is dead," said Mr. Howard, dressed in a Nirvana T-shirt and threadbare jeans. "Long time ago. I don't know, I've just never been able to find it.

"I wish I grew up in the '60s," he said, tossing the spent Salem out the window. "Make love, not war, you know? It's hard for us."

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