“The great question that I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’ ”
As usual, Lucy Stone is waiting for Martha. She’s worked late tonight and taken a cab straight from the labs to La Luna, the Chelsea wine bar where she now sits, wondering why she rushed. Martha is never on time. At least tonight, Lucy’s come prepared with the current issue of Biology Today, which she has open to an article on the mating habits of swallows. The magazine lies on the stainless steel bar in front of her and Lucy holds a pen poised to take notes in the margin. Only she’s not really reading, just trying to look occupied to avoid unwanted conversation. Her blond hair is pulled back neatly and folded over in a large barrette, and she wears the thick, black-rimmed glasses of someone who wants to be taken seriously. But even at thirty-three, with a teaching position at Columbia University and the promise of a remarkable career, Lucy can’t quite pull off the look of a seasoned biologist. When she tries, it has the opposite effect, making her seem young and even more approachable, the way a little girl never looks more like a little girl than when she’s dressed up in her mother’s high heels and party gown.
It’s a quarter after nine, fifteen minutes past the time she and Martha agreed to meet, which means Martha still has five minutes before either of them considers her officially late. Relax. She’ll be here any minute, Lucy tells herself, wondering what it would be like to be the type of self-confident woman who goes to nice bars by herself—just to read and have a glass of wine—and doesn’t worry what anyone around her thinks.
“Tonight’s Martha’s big night, right?” asks Eva, La Luna’s plump bartender, as she pours Lucy a glass of red wine. “I can’t believe she’s going through with this half-baked plan.” Eva only charges Lucy and Martha for one glass of wine no matter how much they drink. She says it’s because they’re good for business, but she has a crush on Martha and is well tipped by them in the process. More provocative than pretty, Eva is wearing her usual low-riding skirt, which reveals an ample swath of young belly and a tattoo—slightly parted lips—just below her navel.
Lucy nods. I can’t believe it either, she thinks, but if anyone can pull it off, Martha can.
Lucy stares at the bowls of radishes placed along the bar and thinks of Scarlett O’Hara, retching in front of a ravished Tara, wondering who actually likes radishes. But looking down the bar, she sees that everyone does. People are congregated around the bowls, dunking radishes in sea salt and popping them into their mouths, which gives her a pang of homesickness for Cape Cod, where the typical bar fare is peanuts and Chex Party Mix. Here at La Luna, the food is complicated, full of flavors that take a certain will to tackle. Eva has explained to her that the food is meant to “challenge” the wine. En garde, Lucy thinks, and drops a radish into the salt, puts the whole thing into her mouth, and crunches down. Her eyes water slightly at the bitterness. She takes a sip of wine and has another radish. Then another.
“Hey there,” says a handsome sandy-haired man in his mid-thirties who has sidled up behind her.
Lucy turns on her stool and peers at him over her glasses.
“Hmm. Interesting,” he says, reading the article’s title over her shoulder: “ ‘The Mating Habits of Swallows.’ ” He lets out a low chuckle. “And from where I was sitting, you looked like such a nice girl.”
Lucy smiles uncomfortably.
“Any good bird shots in there?” he says, laughing at his joke.
Lucy doesn’t answer.
“I might not know a whole lot about swallows,” he continues, “but some people consider me an expert on mating.” He steps back with his hands on his hips so that his jacket spreads open.
Lucy recognizes the behavior as similar to that of the male ruffed grouse, a bird that makes itself look larger through chest-puffing and wing-stretching displays. She makes a mental note to include this behavior in the section of her research paper on male dominance. As Lucy looks the man over, she wonders if lines like the one he just used generally work for him and feels relieved that she no longer has to give a second thought to such advances since falling in love with Adam two years ago.
After a moment, the sandy-haired man becomes uneasy and lowers his arms so that his shoulders slump forward slightly. Then he shrugs and moves on.
Silence is a fairly new tactic for Lucy, one that Martha taught her. The old Lucy—single Lucy—would have laughed politely at his jokes even if she wasn’t interested, only to spend the balance of the evening trying to shake him. Failing that, she might have agreed to a date with him if only to explain why she didn’t want to date him, and it’s conceivable there would have been a second encounter, a coffee, perhaps, to make sure that everything was resolved satisfactorily. Once, a few years back, when Lucy was trying to get rid of a persistent suitor, Martha—never a fan of her friend’s accommodating approach—suggested that a blow job might be a nice way to let the guy down gently. That paved the way for Lucy’s current, more direct communication policy.
Lucy goes back to pretending to read, but the bar is loud, crammed with hipsters from the art world—gorgeous twentysomethings whose real talent lies in looking disheveled, with unwashed hair, scuffed shoes, and untucked shirttails. Lucy wills Martha to arrive.
To Martha’s credit, she’s been working hard on her time-management issues and not being late is one of her two New Year’s resolutions. The second resolution, which was Lucy’s idea, is for Martha to go out on at least one date a month. “Easy to say when you have a boyfriend,” Martha chided her, but she knew it was a good idea and eventually agreed. Lucy’s resolutions are to finish her postdoctoral fellowship paper, Sexual Selection: What Humans Can Learn from Animals, and to make sure that Martha goes out on that date every month. Martha has only ten days left to secure January’s date, and it will be no small feat for Lucy to complete her research and write her paper in the next year. With this deadline in mind, Lucy underlines the first sentence of the article: “Female swallows invariably select for extreme tail-feather length in males.”
Martha arrives twenty minutes late on the dot. Snow is melting on her hair, and her curls have sprung into tight, dark spirals around her face. Pink-cheeked and positively glowing, she gives Lucy an enthusiastic hug that lifts her slightly off her stool. “Sorry I’m late,” she says, smiling broadly. This is Martha’s standard greeting and it rolls off her lips as easily as anyone else’s “How are you?” or “Good to see you.” Even her answering machine says, “Hi, this is Martha. Sorry I’m late. I’m on my way.”
Lucy foregoes her usual lecturing look and pats the stool beside her. “Tell me everything.”
Martha McKenna is an actress and she relishes attention. “Patience,” she says, shrugging off her coat Gypsy Rose Lee– style, first the right shoulder, then the left, until it slides down her back. She’s clad in the armor of the New York thirtysomething single woman—designer everything (charged to maxed-out credit cards) and red, red lipstick. She’s one of those women whose beauty lies in her imperfections, which are abundant and work in marvelous unison: her nose and chin are too pointy, her eyes slope downward and disappear into slits when she laughs, and she has a brilliant streak of white hair, which forms its own silvery twist, separate from the rest of her dark brown curls. When she’s not feeling old (she often describes herself as “close to forty” even though she just turned thirty-seven), she knows the streak is her sexiest feature.
Eva approaches with a bottle of Martha’s favorite Chardonnay. “Hello, glamour-puss,” she says, looking at Martha and batting her eyelashes flirtatiously. “Tonight’s on me.”
“Hi, sweetie,” Martha says. “Regrettably, I’m still straight this week.”
“You’ll come around,” Eva says, pouring Martha’s wine. “So, how’d it go?” she asks, meaning how was the inaugural night of Martha’s new business: FirstDate.
It has been three months since Martha came up with the concept for FirstDate, following a blind date with Simon Hodges, a man who thought the way to a woman’s heart was through her ears. Even before their drinks arrived, Simon began reciting the lengthy and well-rehearsed story of his life: his hilarious childhood antics, his sober course of study at Harvard, his failed first marriage, his current success as a political historian. Throughout his speech, Martha contemplated how much scotch would be considered too much in polite company.
An eternity later, when they were on the sidewalk outside of the restaurant and the date’s end was finally in sight, Martha scanned the horizon for on-duty lights, euphoric that the prospect of freedom was just one taxi ride away.
Simon cleared his throat. “I daresay, this has been a magical evening.”
You daresay? Martha turned around and found herself looking directly into a pair of descending nostrils, dark and hairy, and moved quickly to avert a kiss on the mouth.
With his eyes still closed, Simon said, “If you’re feeling even half the connection I am, just give me a sign. Any sign.”
Martha considered her signage options. She could place her index finger to her temple and pull her thumb trigger, or wave an arm overhead, the universal signal for a swimmer in distress. Instead, she got into a taxicab.
“How’s it possible that a man Simon’s age has no idea how to treat a woman on a first date?” Martha said to Lucy the following morning over steaming mugs of café au lait in Lucy’s cluttered living room. Books and journals on the reproductive habits of various species overflowed from the bookshelves into neat stacks on the floor. “I didn’t say three sentences the whole night, which Simon somehow managed to interpret as rapture. It might have been the worst first date of my entire life.” Martha lit a cigarette. “What was yours again?”
“That’s a toughie,” Lucy said, sifting through her bad-date memories. She’d had many like the one Martha described with Simon Hodges, dates where her role was to be impressed and seem interested. And she’d had the opposite, too. Dates where she was expected to do the impressing while the guy sat back and evaluated her performance.
“Seriously, last night represents an all-time dating low for me. Dull and opinionated is a deadly combo.”
“Bad? Yes. An all-time dating low? No.” Lucy had heard too many of Martha’s dating stories over the years to fall for that one again. “You’ve gone out with more-deserving contenders. Like that guy who sang opera to you over crème brûlée. Or what about the Boston blue blood you went out with? Lothrop?”
Martha imitated Lothrop’s put-on Brahman accent: “ ‘I assume you’ve Googled me and know who I am.’ ”
“That’s the one.”
“I guess you’re right. Lothrop trumps Simon,” Martha agreed. “But let’s not forget that I’m not the only one who has a history of bad dates, Miss Happily in Love.”
“No argument here,” Lucy said, recalling a first date who mentioned his wife so casually over their after-dinner drinks that she almost didn’t register the remark. “In the five years we’ve known each other, we’ve dated momma’s boys, narcissists, chauvinists, men obsessed with their last girlfriends, men obsessed with their last girlfriend’s new boyfriend, needy guys, flirts, gropers, girly boys—”
“Basta!” Martha put out her cigarette. “The real problem is men don’t know how to be good men anymore.” She walked over to the windows and looked across the garden courtyard to the opposite ivy-covered wall of the Kingston, where her own apartment was. “They’ve forgotten how to seduce women,” she said, twisting a lock of hair. “Does that ever happen in nature? I mean, do male birds ever just forget to sing the songs that attract females?”
Lucy considered the question. “I’ve never come across it in my research.”
“Simon wasn’t a horrible person, just a horrible date,” Martha continued, turning back to face Lucy. “You know, I think I could actually help them.”
“Help them?” Lucy furrowed her brow in mock contemplation. “Let’s see: Feed starving children, save the whales, or help incompetent men?”
“I’m serious. They can probably be taught.”
“Taught what? How to be better men? You’re proposing dating classes?”
“More like private tutorials,” Martha said. “We go out on a date, and afterward, I tell him what he’s doing wrong. Or right.” She closed her eyes and imagined what she would have said on her date last night: Ask more questions, Simon. Don’t try so hard to impress. Talk less. Relax. In her fantasy, Simon is all smiles and nods. “Plus,” she said, opening her eyes wide, “I bet it could be lucrative.”
From that conversation, the concept for FirstDate was born. Lucy skipped her yoga class and brainstormed with Martha all day. What would FirstDate’s mission be? To help men make more favorable impressions on their dates. How would it work? Clients would take Martha out to dinner as if it were a real first date and Martha would critique their courtship skills and tell them how to improve. What would it cost? A flat fee, plus the price of the meal. Why would men do it? The promise of results!
For the next two months, Martha dove headlong into her research. Of course, the anecdotal evidence from women overwhelmingly supported the need for FirstDate, but did men know they needed help? Would they pay for it? By and large, Martha’s straight male friends refused to discuss it with her. When she asked her younger brother, Jesse, he suggested that Martha go back into therapy. And Lucy’s normally unflappable boyfriend, Adam, got flustered just trying to explain all that was offensive about the concept.
But Martha was neither discouraged nor dissuaded. And sexist or not, Lucy believed that if men thought it would improve their chances with women, they’d sign up for FirstDate in droves. She cited a recent study, which demonstrated that male howler monkeys actively sought to learn new courtship behaviors that gave them competitive reproductive advantage over other males. “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be the same with humans,” Lucy concluded.
Martha made the monkey-to-man leap. She developed a business plan, wrote a mission statement, and designed a Web site. Her only real outlay of cash came when she placed a couple of strategic advertisements in New York magazine and Time Out New York, as well as on local Internet dating sites. The ad read: men: you only get to make a first impression once. hone your courtship skills with firstdate.
At La Luna, Lucy and Eva are dying to hear how Martha’s first FirstDate went, but the actress in Martha wants her audience even hungrier. “Don’t you just hate that you can’t smoke in bars anymore?” she says.
“Out with it, girl. I’ve got a room full of thirsty customers,” Eva says. “Who was your first guinea pig?”
“Come on,” Lucy says impatiently.
“Okay, okay!” Martha says, but still pauses several beats. “Ladies, I have found my calling!”
Lucy raises her glass to make a toast and Eva mimes the same. “To FirstDate,” she cheers and the three of them clink glasses, real and pretend.
“That’s right,” Martha says. “No more temping. No more waitressing. I’ve already got more than a week of FirstDates scheduled and I haven’t even opened all the e-mail yet. Not only have I struck a chord in the collective subconscious of men, but they’re actually willing to admit they need help.”
“And pay for it,” Lucy adds.
“They want sex, for Christ’s sake!” Eva says. “The fact that men are willing to humiliate themselves for it is hardly news.”
Martha shushes Eva but is momentarily distracted by the sandy-haired man who smiles at her from across the bar. “He’s kind of cute, don’t you think?”
“Take my word, you’re not interested,” Lucy says. “Now, date details please!”
“Okay,” Martha continues. “The stats: Jake Stevens, photojournalist, around forty, short, nice eyes—except they’re focused to the side of my head. I mean, he makes no eye contact. At one point, I turn around to see if there’s a cockroach crawling up the wall or a pinup calendar. What could possibly hold his undivided interest like that? But there’s nothing. So I get down to business and ask him what he thinks his dating issues are. Without skipping a beat he says, ‘I probably just haven’t met the right woman yet.’ ”
“Yeah, Jake, that’s probably it,” Eva snorts.
“My first thought is, Oh my God, they’re all going to say that.” Martha stops. “Then I think of how many times I’ve said it myself.”
Lucy takes a sip of wine. “This is humbling work, Martha. Noble and humbling.”
“Next, I notice that Jake’s hands are trembling—I mean really trembling—and I’m thinking, Um, isn’t that sort of a problem for a photojournalist?”
“Maybe he’s just nervous to be on a date,” Lucy says.
Eva shakes a martini. “As opposed to how he feels taking pictures in war-torn wherever.”
“Well, I have to admit I was nervous, too,” Martha says. “But I just treated it like stage fright and got into character. Remember that nurse I played on All My Children?”
“Sure,” Lucy says. “You were good.”
“I was great,” Martha says, clearly still riding high on the adrenaline wave of the evening. “With Jake I became the empathetic and highly efficient Nurse Joanne all over again. And it worked. I said to Jake: ‘Here’s the deal. For the first ten minutes, I’ll ask you questions; after that, we pretend it’s a real date.’ Then I asked him all the questions we came up with—what are his dating fears, what type of woman does he want to meet, blah, blah, blah.”
“And you told him the rules?” Lucy asks.
“No kissing, no second dates, and, once the date starts, no questions of the how-am-I-doing variety. We’ll go over everything in the debriefing.”
“Cool,” Lucy says. “And how’d phase two go?”
“That’s where things got tricky. When we left the bar, Jake took me to Yak-Yak.”
“A Tibetan restaurant in the East Village. Four tables. No chairs. Cushions on the floor. It was by the grace of God that I’d decided not to wear my pencil skirt. I’d have never made it down. Anyway, Jake is talking so quietly”—Martha lowers her own voice—“I have to lean over the table to hear him. I say, ‘Excuse me?’ and he tells me he’s a Buddhist and would like to meditate for a few minutes before dinner. Next thing I know, he’s ohming away.”
“Jesus,” Eva says.
“What did you do?” Lucy asks.
“What could I do?” Martha replies. “But whether it’s Buddhism or Yak-Yak, something suddenly starts working for Jake. His hands stop shaking and he gets all serene, sitting cross-legged on his pillow. In fact, he’s so Zenned out that I start to feel like I’m intruding on what has become his date.”
Martha turns to Eva: “Ask me about the wine list.”
Before Eva can get the words out, Martha plunges on. “No wine. No beer. No nothing. Can you imagine?”
“Heart surgery without anesthesia,” Eva says.
“Jake tells me to try the tea with yak butter. ‘It’s delicious,’ he says.”
“Why even bother trying to help men?” Eva asks, refilling Martha’s glass. “Men are men, and even you won’t be able to change them.”
“Now don’t start down that road again,” Martha says. “You’re becoming a cliché: the beautiful man-hating lesbian.”
Eva mouths the word beautiful back to Lucy and basks in the compliment. Then she leans over the bar, resting on her elbows so that her breasts are sandwiched between her biceps, and addresses both women: “Humor me. Think of the best man you know, picture how smart and good he is, remember the kindest thing he’s done for you, the funniest joke he’s ever told.”
Martha imagines her brother, Jesse, and Lucy thinks of her boyfriend, Adam. Both women smile.
“Now, compare those men with the best women you know.”
Lucy and Martha hear the jaws of Eva’s trap slam shut.
“You see? Even the best man you know only makes a so-so woman,” Eva says. “Am I right?”
Lucy swivels on her stool to face Martha. “So how was the tea with yak butter?”
Martha crinkles her nose. “Just as greasy and gross as it sounds. I only took one swallow. I mean, who in his right mind takes a first date to a vegetarian restaurant that serves no booze unless he’s squared it with her in advance?”
Lucy sighs. “Someone passive-aggressive?”
“More like Buddhist-aggressive,” Martha says. “But you know what? The beauty of FirstDate is that at our follow-up meeting tomorrow, I get to send Jake off on the path of dating enlightenment and start anew. Now, enough about me, already. Spotlight on you!” She points to Lucy’s magazine. “What animal porn are you reading tonight?”
Lucy looks at her Biology Today. “The usual stuff: all the ridiculous things males do to win females.”
“Ah, yes. My favorite topic. Go on.”
Lucy smiles. “This one is about a type of swallow that grows extremely long tail feathers to impress the ladies. And yet, the added weight can keep him from getting off the ground.”
“Seems like a small sacrifice to make,” Martha says, eyeing a man who doesn’t help his date with her coat.
“It’s not, though,” Lucy says. “Some of these males literally can’t fly, never mind helping with the nest work.”
“Let me get this right: In order to get the girl, the boy incapacitates himself?” Martha asks, thinking, That’s so sweet.
“Like women who wear stilettos,” Eva sneers, managing to serve the rest of her customers and still catch most of their conversation.
“In nature, the rules are reversed,” Lucy says. “Males must please females, no matter the cost.”
“So what’s in it for the girl if her guy can’t build a nest?” Martha asks.
“Think George Clooney. Would it bother you if he couldn’t patch the roof?”
“In the end, it all depends on what females need males for. In species where males help with domestic matters, females select based on domestic skills; in species where they don’t”—Lucy points to her magazine article—“females select according to aesthetic preferences. But in both cases, the males are always the seducers. They do whatever it takes—whether that means butting heads, fanning feathers, or flying loop-de-loops—to attract a mate.”
“So why are human men so hopeless in courtship?” Martha asks.
Lucy shrugs. “No idea.”
“But Adam seduced you, didn’t he?”
Good question, Lucy thinks back. Had Adam seduced her? Not really. She’d noticed him first, hunched over some economics book in the library. Then she’d switched cubicles to get a little closer. When she got a good look at his soulful brown eyes, she’d made a point of saying hello. “Now that I think about it, I’m not so sure,” she admits.
“Well, who asked who to dinner the first time?”
Lucy hesitates. “I think it was one of those impromptu grab-a-bite-after-work things.”
“Who kissed who first?” Eva asks. “I know you remember that!”
Silence. “Well, Adam did kiss me, but I think I might have said something to encourage him.”
“Something like ‘Hurry up and kiss me, already?’ ” Eva adds.
Martha glares at her, but Eva doesn’t back down. Her look says, See, I told you, even the best men are lacking!
“Actually, Eva’s right,” admits Lucy.
“Who cares?” Martha says, sensing she’s hit a nerve. “What’s important is that you’re together now. You two love each other and that’s all that matters.”
“I guess so,” Lucy says, but her voice gets small. “Spotlight back on you. Seems to me someone has to find a legit date in the next ten days or risk the consequences of a failed New Year’s resolution.”
“What are the consequences again?” Martha asks.
“Dinner at the restaurant of my choice, which could get expensive once a month for a whole year,” Lucy says. “Besides, you promised you’d try.”