She had been trying to pass on her philosophies about dating for years, and to sum up her rules, they were this: Don’t. Don’t look at a man. Don’t acquiesce to him. Don’t let him touch you. (She would not have considered a world in which a woman touched a man of her own volition.) Don’t call him. Don’t answer his call. Don’t be available. Don’t pay. Don’t say yes to anything except a marriage request. Don’t eat that. Just don’t.
She thought flirting was permissible, but that it was an art. We agreed on that, but her version of the art was about batting her eyelashes and looking away; mine was jumping into a man’s lap and licking his face and begging him to love me. She didn’t know how I’d ever get a husband if I was so open and eager to share. It didn’t occur to her that finding a husband was not the same thing as operating a successful marriage; that these things might actually be diametrically opposed. It didn’t occur to her after her first divorce, or her second. Some people are better with short-term goals.
Nevertheless, she tried: She gave me one piece of advice about dating when I was 15, and like that story about Hillel teaching his student the entire Torah while standing on one leg, everything else since then has been commentary. Here it is, presented in full, as I’m not even sure I understand it completely and perhaps you can help:
It’s a story from her own youth, living in Rockaway, Queens, after she emigrated with her family from Israel. She was beautiful, my mother. You should have seen her. Sometimes I’ll come across a picture of her and a person who sees it will say, “Is that Elizabeth Taylor?” I once found a picture of her next to Paul Anka. He seemed very happy to be by her side. Her eyes are big and open and she is looking slightly upward. Her hair was ironed flat. She knew not to smile. She excelled at an expression that told her thousands of admirers that she wished was anywhere else. Paul Anka!
One day, she was preparing for a date with a man named Jerry with the help of her best friend. Jerry was supposed to arrive at 6 p.m. At exactly five minutes after six, the doorbell rang. My mother sent her friend downstairs to the door with this message: That she say, “Yes?” And Jerry would say, “I’m Jerry. I’m here to pick up Daniella.” And the friend would look slightly bewildered and say, “Jerry? She just left with a Jerry.”
Even now, as I write it, I am tempted to call her and ask her for more explanation. But I know by now she will only repeat the story because the lessons of it are obvious to her. Whatever she was trying to convey to me, she had to know that I couldn’t pull it off, this subterfuge; I wasn’t her. I wasn’t beautiful like she was. I couldn’t stare contemptuously at a man and make him want me more. I just wanted to engage in conversations. I wanted to learn about people. She’d seen me through a lifetime of social interactions. She knew I was too needy. I led with my heart. This was my most horrifying feature to her. Still now she shudders with every personal essay I write. She cannot understand why you wouldn’t want to keep the inside on the inside, where it was designed to be the whole time. Your privacy is your ammunition.
I dated and I did it all wrong. I went out with a guy who didn’t call after. I took out my wallet. I offered to meet him at his convenience. I asked someone out. I asked a man why he hadn’t kissed me yet. I called a guy I’d gone on three dates with when I hadn’t heard from him in two days. (It went to voice mail; I called back the next day, then I understood.) I tried to convince a guy who was dumping me that he shouldn’t dump me.