Dating

Is Flirting With Strangers When You’re Coupled Up Okay?

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“Follow me,” said my friend, gripping my hand and pulling me to the dance floor. “Look behind you... to your left... the guy in the white T-shirt and the rucksack by the speaker.”

It’s a classic technique: dance near the hot guy until he notices you and asks if you want a drink. But I was sceptical because it hadn’t worked for me in a while. I felt slightly ridiculous. Like a kid performing a play for their parents on holiday.

My friend leaned towards me. “Stay there,” she said before disappearing towards the bar. It was a clever addition: alone I’d be easier to approach. But I felt dumb and didn’t want people to think I had no friends so turned around to follow, only to see that The Guy was blocking my way.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

Then I asked him what he did and he told me about his PhD at Oxford. Said that all his research was on the laptop inside his bag. Said it was his baby. I thought about making a joke about how I thought I was his baby but decided against it. His arms clenched around the handle of the bag. The tension running right the way up his arms. His big arms. Girls came over and danced near him and I fucking hated them and wanted to pull their hair out. Forgot about feminism for a while. He guessed that my top artist on Spotify Wrapped was Drake. I wouldn’t have guessed James Blake was his but should have been able to. I said that the average height of women in the UK is way smaller than you’d think: 5 foot 3 inches. He said there’s no way that’s true, made me make a bet with him on it. He still paid for the tequila shot even though he got closer to the right answer. The chat carried on like this for over an hour; it was kind of shit but almost cuter because of that. It showed that we liked each other enough to still find it interesting. There was something holding us there together in the middle of the dance floor through all the questions like “So, how do you know those guys?” and “You got much on tomorrow?”

At least that was until I asked: “So who do you live with?”

“Oxford.”

“No, who do you live with?”

He sighed.

“You’re not going to like this.”

“I’m not arsed if you live with your parents.”

“I live with my girlfriend.”

The adrenaline high of our conversation crashed around my ears so that all at once I felt exhausted, fatigued. The world seemed beige and two-dimensional again and I knew the rest of the night would be me waiting before I could go and get something fried to eat. Of course, I thought. Of course, of course, of course.

“Can I buy you a drink or something to make up for this?” he asked.

“I’m probs just gonna find my friends.”

“I’m sorry, I was having such a nice time and I knew if I told you, you’d stop talking to me.”

I worked to make the next 20 minutes as uncomfortable for him as I saw fit. I made out with this woofy-haired estate agent called Hugo who had a picture of his cockapoo puppy as his phone background to make him jealous. Granted, it almost certainly did the opposite. I rolled my eyes when he walked past me. Shook my head. Unpacked his excuse with some stranger I met in the smoking area. The way it implied that we were having an interesting conversation that he didn’t want to be torn away from. How he made it sound like I was objectifying him. Was shallow. Why are you only thinking about sex! We could be friends! But we were hardly debating theology; we were all googly-eyed, asking each other dumb shit like, “Are your eyes more brown or green?”

I wasn’t ready to be honest with myself yet – but if I had been I would have acknowledged that I too had used that very same excuse about “knowing you’d stop talking to me” many times before.

When you’re in a long-term relationship, after a while you stop feeling like a person and start feeling like this big sack of flesh with no end and no beginning. Your partner tells you you’re the hottest person in the world but you don’t believe them because they are incapable of giving an impartial response. Their view is muddied by the love they feel. They look at you with toothpaste-crusted lips and they still feel warm in their chest. They kiss you with morning breath. But you can believe a stranger’s compliments because they have no reason to make you want to feel good. They can judge you with the distance of a critic. I used the “knowing you’d stop talking to me” with guys, not because we were having an interesting conversation, but because I needed their lack of love. It convinced me that they would never lie to me.

The guy at the bar used me, but I’m not sure I can be annoyed when I’ve used men in that way so many times before. And I even used him, too, in that moment, or at least got something from the way he was using me. Flirting with him helped me forget about the guy I went on that date with who ghosted me. He helped me see that there are PhD students with big arms who will come and say hi if I dance near them. Granted, if I end up with one of them, I hope he doesn’t flirt with other girls in bars. Although maybe I do want that, because maybe that’s what it will take for him to rebuild his confidence? To have someone who’s not saying “babe, what did you think of my bleached hair?” every five minutes.

I feel so much better since meeting him. And I reckon he feels better having met me. Seeing that he’s still got it. It’s funny: in life there are people that work to help you in millions of different ways. Friends making you dance near a hot guy; answering the phone when you ring them late; endlessly offering incisive criticism when you ask for the 31st time about a Reformation dress you want, but will ultimately decide you can’t afford by the time you factor in postage; putting you in taxis when you’re drunk; telling men to get off you; saving your seat, all the time, everywhere, always. And then there are these strangers who help without even trying, who help even when really they’re doing the opposite. It’s not fair really. It’s exactly how it always will be.