*Features adult language and themes.*
The day was finally here. Charlie had put it off for as long as he could but it was inevitable. It probably wasn’t the best mindset to have when setting a date.
Chloe had become persistent. For reasons beyond his understanding she was very keen to meet him. They had chatted everyday for the last month or so. Usually through instant messaging and texts. On a few occasions they had tried speaking on the phone but it had been a little stilted and awkward. Charlie wasn’t a small-talk person. He could do it when he had time to think about what he wanted to say and type it out. When he was face to face or could hear the gaps in conversation on a phone he panicked and clammed up.
I’m looking forward to meeting her, but I’m dreading it. This is the problem with meeting someone from the internet. It’s no good asking someone to travel for an hour to have a meal or go to the cinema; you have to make a whole day out of it.
Charlie had visions of talking with Chloe for five minutes before she realised she’d made a terrible mistake. She’d be too nice to let on and they’d miserably linger around together for the rest of the day.
The trouble was that he knew this girl. He knew almost everything about her without having met her. He’d often heard people wonder aloud if you could really get to know somebody on the internet. Charlie was certain it was possible. He’d never met his best friends in person. Like most things in life it came down to trust. You had to trust that the other person was being totally honest with you. There were loads of reports about how people misrepresented themselves on the web. It wasn’t just predatory pedophiles. The risks of online dating were the same as online shopping; you never truly knew what you got until it arrived at your door. The only thing online shopping had over online dating was that you could send a product back for a refund. If you meet a girl online and she turns out to be a man there’s not much you can do to get compensation. That was taking it to extremes though. People always tried to up-sell themselves. Dating profiles were the new CV and the sad fact is that everyone lies a little. No matter how ugly a person is there will be one photograph of them where they look pretty good.
The elephant man probably had a picture that he looked at and thought: ‘You know, the lumps on my head look pretty good in that light.’
Over the last month Charlie had tried his best to subtly fact check Chloe. He read through the transcripts of there past conversations and dropped in a few things she’d said in the past to see if they tallied. She hadn’t been tripped up by anything. They exchanged a few pictures. It had taken Charlie hours fiddling with a webcam to get a picture that he considered passable. He was sorely tempted to put it into photoshop and retouch it, but he resisted. In turn, Chloe had sent a range of pictures of herself. It hadn’t helped the situation, she looked totally different in each one. Her hair colour changed, they were taken at strange angles that made the shape of her face vary and the range of clothes she wore changed her appearance dramatically. Charlie had mentally made a composite of her features for an approximation of the girl he expected to meet at the train station.
He’d done his best to keep putting the date off without letting Chloe think he wasn’t interested. He desperately wanted to meet her, knowing it was a big step for him. He also realised how rare it was for a girl to be interested.
He just wanted a bit of time. Time to prepare. Time to fix himself somehow; until he was ready to meet her.
He’d been surprised to find himself eagerly awaiting the second Kurt Sampson article. He must have read it 50 times. Pouring over every word trying to extract as much meaning and advice from it, as possible. He even went a step further and bought a few of Sampson’s previous books. He’d felt pathetic and weak but decided that the circumstances were extraordinary enough to warrant his behaviour.
The February HTBH article had helped to show him how lonely and desperate he was. Charlie reached into his pocket and took out a scrap of paper that had been folded and unfolded so much it was beginning to fall apart. It was a note he’d written to himself in response to the advice.
* * *
Self-Esteem: Think positively. Train yourself to be an optimist. Banish negative thoughts. Never automatically assume the worst. Think like a winner. Wnners never dwell on failure. Give yourself positive self-talk.
Meaning: I don’t believe in religion, never have. I need proof before I can commit to anything.
I do believe in ideas and creativity. I see proof of ideas every day, all around me. They are real and they can be powerful. In the hands of creative people an idea can change the world for the better.
Love: Be brave. I must be prepared to make myself vulnerable; be open with another person. Risk and reward. This is the biggest reward in the world and well worth the emotional risks.
* * *
Charlie looked up from the paper just in time to avoid a row of wheelie bins on the path. They never move the bins on this street.
He was walking up the Road towards the station. Cars whizzed by, Charlie had to be careful as he moved closer to the kerb to avoid the bins. He had his music pumping into his ears, a scarf wrapped around his neck and a beanie hat pulled down low to his eyes. It was as close to wearing a mask as he could get away with.
He’d put a lot of effort in choosing his clothes. He had gone shopping the week before, especially. He was wearing a new pair of jeans and a smart shirt open over one of his favourite T-shirts. He didn’t want to completely change the way he dressed, he needed to put himself across honestly, but the new clothes he’d bought made him feel a bit better. He hadn’t considered that the weather would conspire against him. All of his new clothes were covered by his tatty jacket.
Positive self talk. I look good, I feel confident. It’s going to be a fun day.
He carried on walking doing his best to keep the wave of negative thoughts at bay. One managed to leak through his defences. If it’s going to be so much fun why do I feel ill? Roller coasters make you feel sick, but they’re still fun.
“I guess,” he mumbled to himself.
Chloe was due to get in at 9.46. She was travelling up from Chelmsford. It wasn’t a long journey but neither of them drove. She had offered to come to Ipswich for the first meeting instead of Charlie going to her, or both of them meeting somewhere neutral. She said it had been a while since she’d visited Ipswich and was looking forward to it.
Charlie had been racking his brains to think of things to do to fill the day. Ipswich didn’t have a wealth of entertainment. He had suggested seeing a film. It was an easy sell and it would take up a few hours of the day where they didn’t have to entertain each other. It would also be a topic of conversation afterwards.
He’d been searching the internet for first date advice and preparing as best he could. This included memorising a list of conversation starters as well as a few things she’d mentioned in their previous chats she might like to elaborate on. He was as ready as he was ever going to be, but the nervousness still plagued him.
He crossed the last road to get to the station passed the car park then into the building itself. Coffee smells drifted out of a doorway. He was tempted to get one but stopped himself. I don’t want to be pissing all day, so I probably shouldn’t drink too much.
The commuter rush was over for the day so the ticket barriers were open. We walked through and made his way over to the opposite platform to meet Chloe when she got off the train.
The anticipation of the first meeting was killing him. His stomach was in knots, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He sat on a bench for a while, got up and paced around. He tried to stand still but couldn’t.
The station announcer informed everyone of the trains arrival, 30 seconds later it pulled into the station. The train flew past Charlie as he stood on the platform.
At the last minute he had an overwhelming impulse to step in front of it. It passed as the first few carriages whipped by. His head scanned from side to side as he tried to spot Chloe through the windows. It was impossible, everything was a blur. The train came to a stop, Charlie couldn’t see the front or rear of it. It seemed as though the train went on forever in each direction.
People spilled out of the doors, too many to count, too many to look for a face he half recognised. The crowd flowed past him and around him. Charlie realised he was getting in everyone’s way. There was no hope of spotting Chloe. She might be near the back of the train and get off behind him, they might miss one another. She could probably walk right past him and he wouldn’t recognise her. He began to worry. He hated crowds at the best of times. With the added nervousness and stress of the situation he was feeling even worse.
As quickly as it had surrounded him the crowd fell away as everybody made for the footbridge over to the other side of the platform towards the exit. He was alone again. The platform was empty, he looked behind him, it was clear. Then turned back. The train was getting ready to depart, a conductor was walking along closing the doors and signalling that it was ready to leave.
She’s stood me up.
Feelings of relief and disappointment fought for supremacy inside him.
A head popped out of one of the windows, it got the conductor’s attention. He went over and opened the door. Chloe jumped from the train thanking him for his help. She gathered herself together and turned around as the train pulled away.
She was shorter than he’d expected her to be. He couldn’t see what colour her hair was today. She wore a wooly hat that had plaits with bobbles on the ends, they fell down either side of her face framing it. She gave him a wide smile when she recognised him and began a half-walk-half-trot towards him. He went forward to meet her in the middle. She had a soft, kind face with round cheeks beneath her big brown eyes.
Suddenly a wave of nausea inducing panic broke over him. What am I supposed to do here? Should I shake her hand? Hug her? Is she expecting a kiss? I have no idea. I hope I don’t throw up over her. His thoughts were cut short as Chloe made the decision for him and slammed into him with a hug. Her head just about came up to his shoulders, as she squeezed him with vice-like arms she tucked her head into the crook of his neck. The bobble on top of her hat tickled his nose. Chloe withdrew just as Charlie was getting used to the embrace, he was on the verge of enjoying it. She stood back holding him at arms length as if to inspect him.
“Charlie, right?” She said.
Charlie nodded trying to smile with enthusiasm.
“Excellent. That hug might have been hard to explain away.”
“Yeah.” He hesitated. “And you’re Chloe, I hope.”
She laughed. “Course I am. Good one.”
I wasn’t joking.
She slipped her hand through his arm, turned him around and began to walk towards the footbridge. “Sorry if I scared you back there. I couldn’t get off the bloody train, the window wouldn’t come down far enough and I wasn’t tall enough to reach the handle. I’m glad that conductor came along otherwise I’d have ended up in Norwich.”
Charlie smiled and nodded. I have nothing to say. Come on… Nope. Blank. Shit.
“So what have you got in store for me today?” She looked across to him as they walked up the stairs. When she smiled her eyes shone brighter. Charlie kept smiling back at her. I hope I don’t look creepy.
She kept walking along with him, seemingly satisfied with the silent response. Maybe I don’t need to say anything?
* * *
The film was terrible.
Some rubbish about a woman stuck in a love triangle with a zombie and a ghost.
Charlie had booked the earliest possible showing at 11am. It meant he had to vamp for an hour before going to the cinema. He decided to take her for a walk along the waterfront where he lived. It was a nice scenic place. It had been redeveloped over the last few years. Parts of it were still unfinished due to the downturn in the economy. It seemed that the company ran out of money half way through. It was home to a huge number of flats and apartments that looked out over the marina as well as a few restaurants, bars, pubs and hotels. The new University building was at the centre of it all. It had been part of the reason Charlie chose his flat. Everything he needed was within a five minute walk. He didn’t say any of this to Chloe as they ambled along the marina path. Chloe ran her hand along chains that hung between posts in an attempt to stop people falling into the water.
The sky was grey making the water look muted and dirty. Most of the boats bobbed up and down in the current, but they’d been left alone for the winter and looked a little neglected and sad. It wasn’t the happy vibrant place it was on a bright sunny day.
Thankfully, Chloe managed to take the lead in the conversation. She told him about her family. Her parents and her sister. She had recently moved back to her family home after her last boyfriend left her to take a job in London. Apparently a long distance relationship didn’t work out.
That doesn’t bode well for us then. Charlie bit his lip refusing to comment.
Chloe realised her mistake and tried to add a caveat. “He was completely computer illiterate. It’s hard to keep a long distance thing going without some sort of communication. It’s different with us.”
She swiftly moved on to talk about her job. She was working in a clothes shop while she went to college doing a design course. She wanted to become a fashion designer.
Charlie chipped in now and again with comments about his own family. His mum and her string of boyfriends and his two older brothers that lived at opposite ends of the country.
They had turned away from the marina to head back towards the cinema. “You’re a really good listener, Charlie.”
“That’s a really nice way of saying in a crappy talker, I guess.”
They both smiled. It was a little forced.
When they came out of the cinema the tension was still there. The film wasn’t the conversation starter Charlie had hoped for.
“Well, that was different. Lets give a one word review. Together after 3. 1… 2… 3…”
“Crap.” They chorused and laughed.
“Shall we find something to eat?” Said Charlie.
“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
They headed towards the town centre. Charlie had tried out a few of the conversation starters he’d prepared but they all fell flat. They all seemed too unnatural and made Chloe’s answers awkward. The silences between them got longer until they both gave up trying to say anything at all.
As they walked through town Chloe commented on how many empty shops there were.
“Yeah, it’s got pretty bad around here. Things keep closing. I don’t really come into town much. I tend to get everything I need online now. All these empty shops are partly my fault.
He took her to a little cafe the other side of town. It was a privately run place, not a chain. The kind of place that had work on display by local artists. They took a seat on a big squashy couch and waited for the waitress to come over and take their order.
The silence persisted.
Charlie felt a mounting pressure to turn things around. Something to break the tension between them. He had no idea how to do it. Come on. You really like her. She’s beautiful, funny, interesting. I’m coming across like a brain damaged mute.
Chloe put her hand on his. He looked up and made eye contact. He didn’t feel uncomfortable or afraid, Her eyes were welcoming and he felt warmer when she stared back at him.
“I’ve got an idea.” Chloe pulled a netbook out of her bag and switched it on. “Have you got your laptop on you?”
Charlie dug around in his bag, took out his iPad, held it up and waved it at her.
A waitress came over and took their order while the computers booted up.
* * *
RAZ0R5H4RPE: This is going badly, isn’t it?
CHLO-BO13: Nowhere near as badly as you think it is. Trust me, I’ve been on some bad first dates. So far this one doesn’t make my top ten by a mile.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Oh. How many first dates have you had?
CHLO-BO13: Loads. Do you really want to know about my dating history.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: No. Sorry. That was probably rude.
CHLO-BO13: Not at all. I’m guessing you have’t done this a lot, huh?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: It’s that easy to tell?
CHLO-BO13: Yup. But not for the reasons you think.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: You have no idea what goes through my head.
CHLO-BO13: Oh, please. You’re a guy. You lot are easier to read than a Dan Brown novel. So far, you seem to be the exception to the normal rules, but you share a Y chromosome with the rest of them. So there are going to be some common traits.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: It’s not everyday that I have someone that can teach me something. Go ahead, I’m all ears, or eyes I guess.
CHLO-BO13: 🙂 You’re a lot funnier on the internet. But that’s not your fault. You see you’re not being yourself today. Neither am I if I’m completely honest. You see, it’s a first date. Everybody is trying to be the person they’ve sold themselves as and it’s impossible.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Trouble is I am being myself today. In person I’m shy and feel uncomfortable around people. It’s the way I am.
CHLO-BO13: So in fact, you are being yourself on the internet and underselling yourself in person?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: I guess.
CHLO-BO13: Interesting. Usually on a first date the two people involved are trying to present a ‘best of’ compilation of themselves. Men especially. I’m speaking generally here BTW. In my experience every guy I’ve dated has wanted a second date regardless of how bad the first one was. This is down to one simple fact… They think it will eventually lead to sex. Because of this the men I’ve dated have either lied through their teeth or come on far too strong.
You may think this has been a bad date so far, but I’ve enjoyed myself.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: You’re just saying that to make me feel better.
CHLO-BO13: I would think you know me better than that by now. Have you enjoyed today?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: It’s been great to meet you Clo. But I can’t get over myself. I feel like I’m constantly spoiling something that could be great. I just can’t be the person I am online in real life.
CHLO-BO13: Don’t you see? The only reason you haven’t enjoyed the day is because of your own hang-ups. Nothing to do with meeting me is it? You’re putting too much pressure on yourself.
You’ve done the hard part Charles. I already know you. I got to know you well through our chats for the last 2 or 3 months. The first proper date is to confirm all the things we’ve learned so far.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: How have I done then?
CHLO-BO13: You’ve done very well 🙂 I know there’s a lot more going on inside your head than you show on your face and the words you say. I find that interesting. It’s refreshing to be on a date with a guy that’s being himself. Granted, I don’t think you can be any other way but that doesn’t matter because what you are is great. 🙂
RAZ0R5H4RPE: I don’t really know what to say.
CHLO-BO13: This is where you say something nice about me. XD
RAZ0R5H4RPE: We could be here all afternoon.
CHLO-BO13: I haven’t got anywhere else to be.
* * *
They sat in the cafe all afternoon speaking through the computers. Eventually Chloe’s netbook ran out of power. Oddly, Charlie felt comfortable picking up the conversation by talking.
He couldn’t remember what they talked about, it didn’t seem important what the topic was. He didn’t notice any more awkwardness. There were times when they briefly ran out of things to say but it felt comfortable.
When they left the cafe it was dark and they slowly ambled back through town to the train station.
They held hands as they strolled past the football stadium and over the bridge.
Charlie talked his way through the ticket barriers so he could see Chloe onto the train. As it pulled into the station Charlie was hit with a sudden sadness, he didn’t want her to go.
Just before she hopped on the train she stood up on her toes and gently kissed him. He was so surprised he didn’t have time to kiss her back. She got on the train and left him standing there, stunned.
He found his wits and walked along the platform following her down the train as she looked for a seat. She eventually sat by the window, looking out at him.
A whistle sounded and the train jerked and strained as it began to pull away. Chloe gave a little wave and smiled at him. Then she stuck her tongue out. By reflex Charlie stuck his tongue out too. Chloe laughed, as the woman sitting opposite her on the train stuck her tongue out back at him.
Many thanks for reading. If you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to comment below.