John W. Evans is the author of The Fight Journal (Rattle, 2023), winner of the 2022 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and also, Should I Still Wish: A Memoir (Nebraska, 2017), Young Widower: A Memoir (Nebraska, 2014), and The Consolations: Poems (Trio House, 2014). His poetry and essays are published widely. He is the Phyllis Draper Lecturer of Creative Nonfiction at Stanford University, where he was previously a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer.
She described me as having “a real Tom Hanks vibe.” We were watching News of the World. I was sitting on the sofa. She was sitting on a towel on the sofa. She didn’t like how dirty the fabric was.
She had slept over the night before. That morning, I found her sitting on the floor of my youngest boy’s bedroom, picking lint and Lego pieces out of the carpet, and folding his underwear.
“You know,” she said, “this place has a real Lost Boys vibe.”
“Lost Boys Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland,” I said, “or Lost Boys Captain Hook?”
“Hook,” she said, making a sweeping gesture into the hallway. “Well, actually, they both work. This house is coated in a layer of grime.”
We took the dog for a long walk.
I was having the kind of dating success that had eluded me in my youth. Even better, I was Tom Hanks! Well, Tom Hanks at the very end of his prime.
My ex-wife had described me in a similar way at first: affable, attuned, avuncular. She had in fact witnessed my mellowing from snarky outsider to earnest papa, only to decide she wanted something different.
A few days before we broke up a previous girlfriend who lived in another state had observed, not quietly, “You’re really not done being married to your ex-wife, are you?”
I was not done being married to my ex-wife.
Dating, the stakes always seemed incredibly low, like speculating in currencies: small investments spread out all over the place, with easy outs. I missed being married.
I counted my progress toward a lasting relationship in third dates, a truly magical time in relationships. For starters, sex generally happens on the third date. A really good dinner precedes third-date sex, at a fantastic restaurant you’ll never go to again, at least not together.
On one third date I bought nice wine and ordered the chef’s recommendation: whole-fried fish. The waiter brought the head and everything. On another third date I made lentil soup with a tortilla Española and winter salad: roasted squash and walnuts, arugula and blue cheese, delicious things my boys would never eat, that I missed making for two. On still another, we hiked for six hours through a redwood forest, counting banana slugs.
There is a moment during the third date when the old muscle memory starts to work again, so well that love seems entirely and improbably restored. You know the moment isn’t going to last. But in that precious aubade-esque space of drawn curtains and kids out of the house, you do something you didn’t mean to—try out a pet name, pour a drink, propose a trip—that feels borrowed from a different life, and before you recognize the debt, or the sheer inauthenticity of the gesture, you settle for a moment, and imagine, Yes, a fourth date will happen, and then a fifth date, a tenth, a fiftieth…, and the feeling is wonderful, and the matter is settled.
That afternoon, long after News of the Worhad ended, she got mad when I asked her again to stop cleaning.
“It’s okay,” she said, “to have a clean house!”
That wasn’t what I meant, and I didn’t want to keep at it. Really, I just wanted her to leave.
That evening, I took my dog for a long walk out to the Bay. I closed my online dating account and ordered a vacuum cleaner, washed the cushion covers and then deep cleaned the frame of the sofa and the stairs. I even bought some new hand towels.
She was right about the grime.
“You go on the first date to see if you want to go on the second date,” a friend told me recently, “and then you go on the second date to see if you want the third date. You do that for a while. Over and over. And that’s all you do.”
A different friend put it more directly.
“Stop sleeping with them on the third date!”
She sat in my driveway for a good twenty minutes after storming out of the house, declaring, “It’s not me. It’s you.”
I tried to explain that I did want her to stay. I wanted her to leave and I wanted to fall in love with her forever. I knew how awful it felt to sit in a car hoping very much that someone would walk out, knock on the window, and say it was okay, come back inside, let’s work this out.
Tom Hanks would do that. He would probably be smiling.
But we were at the end of our third date, and I didn’t want to be alone, or change, or feel vulnerable, or compromise, or settle. So instead, I emptied the dishwasher. I put all the good dishes away. I started mopping the kitchen floor, and by the time I took the trash out, her car was long gone, and we never spoke again.