Signs and Sensibility
Dedicated to my friend Alyssa, who knows that the best thing to do with Jane Austen men is steal their names for cats
No matter how many online profiles protest that the creator “doesn’t want to play plays games” dating is all about games. From how you write about yourself and which digital self-portraits you share, to where your messages fall on the flirtatious/friendly nexus, to when you lay your cards on the table and attempt to lay them, everything about the scene is contrived and constructed. Maybe there are straight-talkers in Europe (“Uh, he wants to sleep with you,” the bartender, acting as a translator, told me in Florence, Italy, about my new acquaintance) but Canadians are especially weary of speaking directly. We think it’s rude. Instead, we act nice and act nice and act nice and then disappear.
It’s a world of signs and symbols, of complex social codes, as Edith Wharton put it a hundred years ago, a world of hieroglyphics. But there’s no Rosetta Stone to guide us. We feel our way around in the dark, hoping to find the way to the light and maybe, just maybe, happily ever after.
We learn by trial and error. I used to think that kissing someone meant that you liked them. And, for me, ‘liked’ meant that you would at least kiss them on one more occasion, and, if nothing unforeseen happened, you would continue to kiss them. I gradually learned that this was not the case for everyone, that there were a myriad of reasons to kiss someone, many less pure than my preteen Sweet Valley High ideals.
So I changed, but I kept my faith in signs. When, after our first date, the Gentleman told me I could leave a toothbrush at his house, my head was filled with Carrie-and-Big over-analysis. I was excited, but I also felt like maybe he should know that that would scare off a more commitment-phobic boy than myself. Then he brought me roses on my birthday. And called me his boyfriend after returning from a trip. And invited my parents over for dinner. All signs pointed towards his seriousness about me, to us being together for at least the immediate future.
So I was devastated when he ended it in an email, and on top of that, retroactively de-romanticized us, claiming that I had misinterpreted the toothbrush, the roses, the dinner. Maybe, if we were being charitable, we could buy his argument that it was a cultural thing. He comes from a country where men are physically affectionate with each other and where you always repay someone by having them over after you were their guest.
Sure. Fine. Whatever. But then I braved the internet dating world again, wondering if I was ready for it but not wanting to wait around for my sex life to find me, and met an amazing Canadian guy, had probably the best date of my life, only to be informed that he wasn’t ready to start seeing anyone.
“We can be friends though, right?” My favourite sentence.
Again, all the signs were there, and they led me astray. We are truly in the dark. We rely on signs and signals that are not guaranteed, that change meaning all the time. Someone like myself, who wears his heart on his sleeve, who is always open to getting to know someone new, is encouraged to trust, to not over-analyze, and then shot down, again and again.
But this is how the scene is, and there’s no other choice, unless one wants to be like some of my friends and simply declare that they don’t date, which, despite my periodic bouts of rebellion, is never going to be me.
It makes one nostalgic for a time when there were discernable rules, when courtship was a highly-structured sport, when they designed rooms with an alcove specifically for young couples and a chaperone. I like the idea of love letters, of country dances, and Jane Austen-esque secret engagements. At least, I thought, people always knew where they stood. (And, yes, as a gay man, I realize that I would not have participated in such dainty rites, but I can dream, can’t I?)
But then we watched Sense and Sensibility for which star Emma Thompson also wrote the screenplay and Kate Winslet earned her first Oscar nomination. It was directed, of all people, by Ang Lee, a credit card that always surprises me. Thompson and Winslet play Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sisters who, like all Austen women, have seen their financial situation alter and need to find husbands so as to not end up in the poor house. Elinor is stoic and introverted, the ‘sense’ in the title, while Marianne is sentimental and dangerously romantic. Both sisters end up falling for men who clearly share their affections, but mysteriously do not propose. Marianne in particular becomes obsessed with the charming Mr. Willoughby, chasing him all the way to London and confronting him very publicly at a ball about not replying to her letters.
“You didn’t even text?” you can imagine the modern day equivalent snapping.
“Did he tell you that he loved you?” her sister asks, after Marianne receives a letter from Willoughby claiming that she minsinterpreted their relationship from the beginning.
“Yes, she replies. “No… never absolutely. It was very day imlied, but never declared. Sometimes I thought it had been, but it never was. He has broken no vow.”
“He has broken faith with all of us! He made us all believe he loved you.”
“He did!” Winslet cries, her voice raising an octave. “He did – he loved me as I loved him!”
Never have I watched this scene and so related to it. And, let it be said, that young women in the 19th century, led to believe they were practically engaged and then dropped, were in a much worse position than myself. They could lose their priceless ‘reputations’, while all it does to me is shake my already fragile dating ego.
Love may be blind, but it’s instructive to remember that in both Regency-era England and 21st century Toronto, dating is too.