Back in the Game

An early marriage took Dina Nayeri off the romance market for all of her 20s. One divorce and 12 years later, she entered the dating scene—clueless.

ABOUT A YEAR AND A HALF AGO, in our sunny canal-side apartment in Amsterdam, my ex-husband, Philip, and I shared a plate of Dutch cookies as he wrote an Internet dating profile for me. "This is just for practice," he said, attaching a blurry photo of me wearing sunglasses. He included a lot of cheerful words about my personality—joyful, articulate, feisty—and insisted on an intelligent partner with a knowledge of the arts and my native Iran. He named my online persona after the main character in my new novel.

Philip and I started dating when we were college sophomores. For a decade, we traveled the world, reading books in cafés and studying new languages. But as time passed, we grew to want different lives. He wanted roots: a finance career in Europe, kids who ski and dive. I wanted wings: a tattered suitcase and my smelly leather jacket, a body of literary work, a place among Iranians. The last days of our marriage felt like a series of dinners in which we told each other stories from two alien worlds, each smiling kindly. After we separated, Philip began to date, and since we remained friends, he worried that I would be lonely.

A few days after posting that online profile, I got on the back of Philip's scooter, and he drove me to my first date in 12 years. Please don't make me do this, I thought as I buried my face in his neck while we flew through the streets. I didn't want to meet people. I liked the ones I already knew. Eventually, I thought, someone would knock on my door and say, "Hi. I'm your next boyfriend. I brought pad thai and a backpack full of obscure Middle East fiction. You sit there and read aloud while I play soft background guitar."

Philip dropped me off next to the restaurant where I was meeting an Italian graphic designer named Mauricio. As I got off the scooter, I felt impossibly alone, like I was walking a plank into open ocean. Philip put my face in both his hands and said, "Do you want me to take you in and deposit you at the table and shake his hand?" I said, "Yes, please." He smiled and drove away.

Mauricio seemed to be a self-entertainer: He told me about graphic design in Amsterdam and the best bars in Sicily. I wasn't really listening. When he sensed that I was nervous, he ordered me a glass of white wine. He knew about my divorce from our online chats. "You're just out of practice," he said. "Soon you'll realize you're very pretty." I could tell that he wouldn't ask me out again. I hadn't felt the sting of rejection in 12 years, and I decided that if dating was a game, then I was only in it for the ego boost of a sure win. Whether or not I liked the guy, I needed him to find me impressive.

Next, I saw the drummer of an indie rock band. On our date, my first instinct was to tell him stories. I talked about girls' school in post-revolutionary Iran and frying up noodles on a rice farm in Thailand. I seemed inviting, but I wasn't really trying to make a connection. I wanted someone new to fall for me so I could say to Philip, "See? I did what you asked. You can stop worrying." The drummer didn't stop calling for weeks. I never went out with him again.

I played this game with dozens of men over several months. The guerrilla dating ended abruptly one night when I met a guy at a party in New York City, where I was in the process of moving. At dinner he said maybe seven interesting words while I put on a one-woman show. By midnight, I was exhausted. What the hell am I doing? I wondered when I got home. I don't owe anyone this much work. I was starting to hate cocktail bars and the sound of my own voice. Dinner plans, like marriage vows, are no insurance policy against solitude.

SO I STOPPED dating. I had my friends. I had a few casual lovers. I wasn't searching for an ego boost, a new relationship, or a way to prove to Philip that I'd moved on: I turned off the part of my heart that wanted something more. I just wanted to be selfish, to live and love in the present, and to rely on serendipity for the basics: sex, affection, some good conversation.

I learned that to live in the moment, you need a concrete heart. I learned that falling asleep next to a new person requires Ambien. That you will be judged by your morning music. That if you make breakfast, you are considered charming. I learned the farce of communicating over text. When Philip and I first dated, we wrote each other love letters. Love letters are bold. They require vulnerability. Texting a lover is about getting what you want while remaining essentially impenetrable, seeming not to care—this part felt strange to me.

How does a grown woman who spends her professional life thinking about refining language and understanding human bonds respond to texts like these? "Hey, beautiful, I have a weird question about a girl." "Dinaaaaa, you're amazing. Let's kick it." Usually I went with an emoji of a sad baby chicken.

After a few months, these relationships started to seem absurd and juvenile. I had a flesh-and-blood heart; I wanted to use it, not pour concrete over it. I wanted to care.

Now I'm done trying to impress—with cool stories, with fake unassailability, with anything. Instead, I look to see if others impress me. I bring the flawed, vulnerable version of myself to every table. Sometimes that makes me feel exposed, with my lengthy musings and too much emotion. Maybe I'll sound like I've been living in another universe, but so what? In a way, I have been.

So I explain all of this to the men I date. I say: "My 20s were bizarre, and sometimes I'll do and say crazy things. Especially when I get confusing texts." The good ones reply, "I love that you said that." I guess this is how you go from dating to actual relationships. Recently I started to see a guy with musical talent. Maybe I'll order pad thai and ask him to play background guitar as I read. I bet he'd say yes.