Your heart sinks. You have just realized this person is not for you and never will be. What is there left to say? Check, Please

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some first date. First he makes a joke of buying drinks at the bar for another woman who is drunk and, it appears, homeless. Then, as Bohager's sound system plays Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," he turns to his date and says: "Can I call you my brown eyed girl?"

Better yet, bonehead, call me a cab.

All right, his date, Margaret, a graphic designer from Baltimore, doesn't say that. She doesn't know what to say. At such moments, words may fail. Yet the gut speaks loudly. Two words: Check, please ...

Consider it the opposite of a magic moment. Think of it as a pin in the sort of romantic balloons that will be floating all over the place this Valentine's Day. Chances are the happy couples streaming into cozy restaurants, inns, heart-shaped bathtubs or whatever else this weekend are there because they have not previously shared a "check, please" moment.

It's the deal-breaker. It's the fissure suggesting an unbridgeable gulf. A moment ago this person presented visions of the potential romantic future; suddenly he's something lumbering around in your personal Jurassic Period. What can you say?

Waiter ... uh, check please ...

A stranger to such an experience is a blessed soul. Or perhaps someone who hasn't been out much.

This would not be Margaret, 35, who prefers to go by her first name only. Who could blame her? She's married now but Baltimore's a small town. She might again bump into Mr. Bohager's. Or the fellow with whom she had that first date at Obrycki's Crab House. The crabs were fine and the beer was flowing as was, it seemed, the conversation. Then it came time to talk about where to go after dinner.

"He said, 'I just feel so dirty, so grimy, smelly.' He insisted on going home to take a shower before going anywhere else," Margaret says, recalling the date some seven years ago. She knew it was over. She knew her future could not include "someone who can't be dirty, who can't eat a crab and go on with life."

She didn't want to see him again. But wait: He never called. Could it be that the shower story was just his excuse to end the evening? Wait a minute, who's "check, please" moment was this?

It can be complicated. And it can be terribly -- no, make that hopelessly -- simple. Happy visions vanishing like smoke.

Caroline McKeldin, 32, a computer trainer and writer from Baltimore, describes a 10-year crush perishing with breathtaking speed. She first knew the guy distantly in college in 1986. He seemed funny, smart, attractive. Circumstances and timing always kept them apart, however, until they found themselves in a group of friends in Vermont for a ski weekend in 1996.

There were a few awkward points, but the defining moment did not occur until they drove back in her car. Somehow the conversation turned to anorexia. As McKeldin recalls, the fellow seemed agitated, quite earnest when he said: "I just don't get it with anorexics. Why don't they just eat?"

McKeldin, who has published two funny books, has a fine sense of humor. She knew he wasn't joking.

"I thought right there, 'OK, you have the sensitivity of a rock,' " says McKeldin. "I was dumbstruck."

So much for the decade-long crush, the fragrance of possibility, the Valentine's Day celebrations yet to come. She had heard the smoke alarm of her soul.

Such judgments might seem rash, unfair. But, really, according to whom? At this stage, to whom are you accountable but yourself? What was it someone said about fairness in love and war? The "check, please" moment echoes the deep mysteries of attraction and compatibility.

Quick turn-offs

Carol Scott, who manages the Together Dating Service's three offices between Baltimore and Washington, talks with her staff and comes up with one "check, please" story after another.

One woman says she got enough information from one seafood dinner with a guy. Get this: She claims she wouldn't see him again because when he ate the shrimp, he failed to remove the shell or tail, just crunched the whole works. Another guy foreclosed the possibility of a second date by showing up for the first in shorts and Mickey Mouse socks, then spent the dinner talking about his collection of Mickey paraphernalia.

Give it more time, says Scott. At least a second date, for heaven's sake.

Gina Caruso, a 37-year-old editor from Baltimore, doesn't think so.

"When I was dating," says Caruso, who is now married, "one of the deciding factors was if someone was kind of stingy."

She recalls being asked out on a date by a colleague when she was teaching in New York. They went to a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn, a BYOB place. He took a bottle of wine. True, he was a tad arrogant, a bit taken with his own Ivy League credentials. That wasn't the bubble-popper, though. The "check, please" moment arrived, in this case, just after the check, as he argued how the bill should be split.

Says Caruso, "It almost felt accusatory: 'I paid for the wine, you should pay for more of the meal.' "

More than a sour note or two in an otherwise splendid symphony, it seems the telltale foghorn on a treacherous shoal. Suddenly some decision seems required. Should one change direction? Or would it be better to hold course, seeking further information?

Common interests

I once met a woman at a potluck dinner in Federal Hill. She was quite attractive in a dark-haired kind of way. Sparks, however, were largely absent. Then, somehow, the subject of books arose. And then came The Moment. One of her favorite books, she said, was "Love Story" by Erich Segal.

Hoo-boy. Uh, maybe I should ignore that. She seems such a nice person. But is nice a good thing? "Love Story"? Not "Catch-22," not even "The Catcher in the Rye," but "Love Story." So, who am I to judge? What, I'm such a big-deal intellectual? Forget that. Forget "Love Story." She's very cute. Ayyyyy, methinks De-nial is no river in Egypt. Better yet, forget this particular "love story."

Check, please ...

Perhaps more time would have revealed a saving grace. But how much time is too much time? As Robert De Niro's Al Capone said in "The Untouchables": Life goes on. It's enough to make you think of the joke that went around when John Sununu was President Reagan's chief of staff:

Q: Why does everyone hate John Sununu right away?

A: Why waste time?

In such matters one should consult a professional.

Kenneth Morgen, a psychologist and director of Chesapeake Psychological Services in Towson, says the gut reactions that accompany "check, please" moments may not say everything about your compatibility with the person, but they can be "extremely valuable."

"People pay a lot of money and get a lot of psychotherapy to trust their gut feelings," he says. "People who work hard in a new relationship to make it work are probably wasting their time."

It may be the small things

Quick judgments are best applied to big values questions, says psychologist David G. Epstein, who also practices in Towson. If the two of you disagree about wanting to be married or wanting children, or if you have profound religious differences, it's probably pointless to pursue the relationship. Other apparent disconnections may be negotiable. Unless, Epstein says, you're quite certain that you need and want a mate who avidly shares your interests.

As in, say, someone who speaks your cultural language. As in the experience reported by Baltimore psychiatrist Mark S. Komrad, a "check, please" moment of stunning abruptness.

She was attractive, a successful executive with AT&T; who lived in North Carolina. They met on a cruise about seven years ago. Powerful attraction suggested excellent romantic prospects.

A few weeks after they met, they spoke on the telephone about what they might do during her next visit to Baltimore. Komrad, 41, who is now married, suggested they see an exhibition of Pablo Picasso's work in Washington.

"She said, 'Well, what's that?' " Komrad recalls.

Uh, Picasso, the artist, he told her.

Picasso? Who? she said.

Waiter ... eh, garcon? Check, er, L'addition, s'il vous plait ...

At that moment, says Komrad, he knew the relationship wouldn't last. And it didn't.

Call it snobbery, elitism, if you like. Komrad, whose practice includes couples counseling, doesn't endorse rash judgments. Sometimes, though, it's a matter of knowing what you want.

"Delighting in cultural fluency is one of the things that gives me juice," says Komrad. That Ms. AT&T; had not heard of Picasso "suggests a person who is not immersed in that particular juice."

It's good to know your juice, its texture, taste and color. What a pity you cannot take a seat at some cosmic Cafe d'Romance and simply order it. You can only sample such offerings as time and chance allow. If it's an extraordinarily lucky day they bring your brand and you know it is what you want in the world. And so you savor one glass and order another and another, onward toward that table in the corner with the white tablecloth and the candles on Valentine's Day. Do you realize how lucky you are? You are a blessed soul in a capricious universe, knowing that this time, the evening has only begun when you raise your hand and say: Check, please ...

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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