The year was 2009. I closed out my final year of high school at Christian Liberty Academy, and that summer I would head off to Wheaton College. I wanted to study biology and become a doctor. I wanted to grow my hair out long and reinvent myself. But most of all, I wanted to date girls.
I had it easy in high school. I prudently put off dating so I could focus on school work and extracurriculars. But even though I was the silent type, I was still happy to reciprocate flirting and advances. The problem was that I was an introvert, and I preferred to get to know people in small groups and in more intimate settings. I also loved to make people laugh - especially girls. So as a result, there were a few girls that I probably unfairly tagged along with insincere pretenses. When things got too serious, I had my “rule” in my back pocket. “I’m not dating anyone in high school,” - like a get out of jail free card.
Unknown to me at the time, Wheaton College was a terrible place to get to know girls. There was as strict no-drinking policy on campus, and without the help of liquid courage, that meant experiencing the full brunt of every sobering moment - the awkwardness, the anxiety, and the frustration.
There was also very little co-ed mixing. Guys and girls weren’t allowed in each others dorms except for “open floor” nights. For a few hours in the early evening a few times a week, open door mingling was permitted. Just think of the added pressure - not only did you have to talk to girls without a cheap beer in your hand, but there was also a brief time window before the RA sent you back to your dorm.
There was also no casual dating culture at Wheaton. Deeply ingrained Christian values meant the student body as a whole looked down on hookup culture, and some of that stigma rubbed off on casual dating as well. Most students who were dating took the commitment seriously, and even the phrases “go on a date” and “go out with me” conjured serious undertones of commitment and marriage just wasn’t appropriate for a girl you just met. If you wanted to ask out a girl at Wheaton, you had to speak in code.
Do you want to go grab some coffee? Do you want to go check out this concert? Are you heading to All school communion - want to walk together?
And this opened the door up for all kinds of dirty anti-dating tricks. With the absence of exclusionary “me and you” language, a guy or girl you were interested in had complete tactical advantage. They could wait until the last possible moment to decide whether or not they were going to give you a chance. Do you like him? Go alone, and start sending signals. Want him to try harder? Bring a few girl friends along with you and turn this into a group date. Want to cool this thing off indefinitely? Bring a guy friend along.
But I didn’t know this at the time. It was open season, and after leaving my fond memories of no-strings-attached high school flirting behind me, I was ready to hit the Christian dating scene with breakneck speed. In fact, I got started on the very first day of class with the girl who sat next to me in morning Biology.
We went for a walk around campus a few times, and she brought her roommate. I asked her to come to yoga class with me, and afterwards she broke off from the back to eat dinner with her suite mates in the cafeteria. I agreed to hop on a train with her and her roommate to go shopping on Chicago’s State street, and just before the train departed she texted her good buddy Nate to come long. I tried to make the best of it, but somewhere out there, there is a picture of me pretending to ride the bronze Charging Bull statue with him, capturing all of my insecurities and frustrations in a single photo. I think I’m even wearing a newly purchased fedora.
Finally, she agreed to go out on a real date with me. I took her to the Cheesecake Factory in my hometown over Christmas break, and it went just about as good as you would expect. After our appetizers, I excused myself to the bathroom, where clutching a single stall toilet bowl I puked a mixture of cold sweat and diet coke. But like a real man, I wiped my mouth off, and after a few hits of Listerine breath spray, I rejoined her at our table for the main course.
“It’s her birthday today,” I said to the water. I winked at her. Without skipping a beat, the waiter turned to my date and asked “Could I see your ID, miss?”
“It’s not my birthday,” she said without even reaching for her purse.
“Bring the dessert anyway, it’s on me,” I said, trying to salvage my pride.
There was another time that year where a girl friend (friend who was a girl) invited me to go check out a comic book store in town. She had a car on campus, which in itself was very novel and cool. I met her in front of my dorm with greasy hair, a ratty grey hoodie, and pajama pants.
“Alright, you ready?” she asked. But there was no one else there. Just the two of us. A bolt of panic traveled through my body, realizing I was on the receiving end of a surprise date. I don’t even think I had brushed my teeth before leaving. The next time she invited me, I pulled the same move that I had grown to despise. “Mind if I take Jordan along?” Things fizzled.
There was another girl I liked in my analytical chem class. Each week after evening lab, my career lab partner and friend Eric and I would anguish about the Wheaton dating scene, drowning our sorrows in icecream at the campus cafe.
“Just man up and ask her out, dude,” said Eric. “You gotta make a move. Just ask her out for ice cream.”
The following week, I did. Just before class ended, we hatched a plan. “I’m going to do it, dude,” I said. “If she says ‘yes’, I’ll flash a thumbs up behind me…”
“And I’ll get the heck out of there,” he said finishing my thought. He sent me off with a fist bump. His eyes followed me as I made the long walk across the laboratory as students were clearing out.
“Hey, so Eric and I like to get icecream after lab, but he can’t make it today,” I opened, confidently.
“Oh I’m sorry, he stood you up? How rude,” she laughed.
“Hahah right,” I chuckled nervously. “Anyway, want to go? I’ve got a bunch of Thunderbucks I need to spend before Christmas break.”
“No thank you,” she said, blinking slowly. I was dumb founded.
“She just said ‘no thank you’! That’s it!” I said, flinging my arms in the air. Eric whistled, using his hand to motion an airplane crashing into the ground. “Shot down,” he said. “C’mon buddy, let’s go get some icecream.”
I got to hand it to her - at least she had the gall to just say ‘no’. No excuses, no surprise date crashers. Just an icy, dead eyed ‘no’.
At that time, there was another girl I took interest in. She lived in the neighboring dorm on the same floor as ours.
The first time I talked, she was working on chemistry in the dorm room lobby. Seated in a haphazard pile of index cards and notes, she smiled up at me.
“I’m just getting killed in gen chem,” she said. “Julian says that you’re really smart.”
“Sure, I’d love to help. What are you working on?” I said, joining her on the tough carpet floor. After a few minutes trying to piece together her disheveled notes, I gave up.”
“Ah… keep it up. You’ll figure it out,” I said. We set aside the chemistry and talked about music instead. She loved Taylor Swift. I bragged that I had a Fearless poster hung up on the wall in my dorm room.
“You should come by and check it out at the next open floor,” I said. “I can hook you up with some other music too - I got a big hard drive full of good stuff.”
That weekend, I was working my late night Sunday night shift at Starbucks. I sent her a Facebook message inviting her out for coffee. She wouldn’t message back until another few days.
“I was creeped out,” says Marissa. “It was really forward.”
I don’t blame her for the delay, but after the first message, she was very prompt and polite. Our first date was at the small dingy coffee shop near campus. We spent the rest of the night wandering around Wheaton talking. I was so distracted by the conversation that I got turned around and led us right into a parking lot boxed in by high frozen snow banks. We laughed, struggling to clamber our way free over the frozen snow.
On our second date, I took her out for pizza. Marissa was different from the other girls. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to talk to her, like we had known each other in a past life. She said what she was thinking - no head games, riddles, or crafty psychological warfare.
I asked her out on a real date. I even used the word “date”. She and I knew that word meant something. She jumped on a train headed toward Chicago, and I met her at the next stop, grabbing us some Starbucks before joining her. I remember how scared she looked sitting alone in the back of a busy train, and how relieved she looked when our eyes met. It felt good to be wanted. No last minute friends, no dodgy excuses. Just a pretty girl waiting for me exactly where she said she would be.
After we spent the whole day wandering around the Shedd, we went for a long walk around Millenium park as the sun was setting over the city. We rested on a park bench. It was a perfect moment, ending a perfect day.
“I was afraid you would try to kiss me,” recounts Marissa. “That would have been way too soon.”
Staring into a quiet millenium park, the thought crossed my mind. But I liked Marissa, and was playing this much more conservatively than I might have earlier in my botched college dating career.
That weekend, we sat across from each other at a quiet booth in Denny’s to have the talk. “I want to be your boyfriend,” I said. It doesn’t get any more clear than that. Marissa would tell me later that she thought we were already dating, but that was the last speedbump of indecision we hit before sailing into a comfortable, wonderful year of being boyfriend and girlfriend, officially.
We’d take occasional trips to the city to get food and tool around, but most of our dates were in my car. It was surprisingly difficult finding a quiet place to just sit and watch Seinfeld reruns on my laptop without being hassled by campus police.
One evening, we were hanging out in a corner of a parking garage in downtown Wheaton. The butt of a flashlight rapped against my window, shaking the car, the flashing red and blue lights from a parked police cruiser illuminating the back seat. The cops pulled us out and separated us, seating me on the curb while they questioned Marissa.
“They wanted to know if you were taking advantage of me,” she said. It was scary at the time, but in hindsight, quite ridiculous how often the cops or campus security crashed our innocent dates. We’d have to bounce between dark parking garages and seedy parking spots like criminals on the lamb, when in reality all we wanted to do was just watch TV, eat fast food, and talk.
A little over a year later, Marissa and I would take another date to the Shedd Aquarium. Only this time, I had an engagement ring in my pocket. I popped the question on the same balcony we enjoyed on our third date. Dennis, my secret contact at the Shedd who pulled strings for us to use the balcony after closing time, brought out a bottle of champagne on ice. “Take your time guys,” he said. “We’ll lock up behind you.” Technically, as students we weren’t allowed to drink even off campus, but we imbibed. After surviving the treacherous dating world of Wheaton college, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we had earned it.
What did I learn from dating at college? All my instincts, all of my pickup lines, everything I learned from movies like Hitch was worthless. Heartbreak and embarrassment are inescapable. Getting swerved and shot down by girls was a necessary and painful part of life. But if it led me to Marissa, it was a small price to pay.
Thanks for stopping by today. Have a wonderful Saturday.