Romantic Semantics

I ducked into a random bar in Clinton Hill the other night, enticed by an empty barstool visible through the window. A quick martini before crashing my friends’ dinner party would be just the thing. It was a cozy place, lots of wood and warm lighting and a gregarious bartender who supplied large, perfectly stirred martinis and easy non-invasive banter. Feeling uncharacteristically gregarious myself I told him about my ongoing search for my regular bar in Brooklyn—the one thing I’ve yet to find since moving to New York. I looked around the cute little spot and took stock of its virtues and shortcomings (pros: cute, friendly, big martinis, oyster happy hour; cons: music choice was meh, a bit pricey across the board). The bartender asked me, “So, what do you think?”

“I like it,” I said. “I’m wondering if my boyfriend would like it here too.”

“Boyfriend” is a word I haven’t used in a long time, and its application in this case was as a convenient shorthand. It’s an easily understood word that is much more concise than “this guy who I really like, who, by some crazy luck, seems to like me back, and we’ve been spending more time together lately than we were a couple of months ago, but not sure if we’ve crossed into boyfriend/girlfriend territory or not, and don’t really care, because whatever is happening is pretty fucking great just how it is.” To me, in my head, that guy is just Ant. To my friends whom I speak to about him he is Ant. But for this bartender who doesn’t have the benefit of context, Ant became “boyfriend.” It was just easier.

But I started wondering, where is that line? I’ve had boyfriends in the past, obviously, so I’ve crossed it myself a few times already, as have nearly all of us so-called adults. The other words that define the romantic/sexual pairing of humans, fiancé and husband or wife, have very clear cut milestones attached to their advent. Someone spends too much on a gaudy ring and someone else says, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” and voila! Fiancés. Then comes the big splashy wedding and wham, husband/wife. But the gauzy period that precedes these milestones is less defined. Long gone are the days someone would pass you a note scribbled on binder paper that said, “Will you be my girlfriend?” with handy checkboxes for Yes and No. (Not that I ever received such a note, mind you. But I was aware of their existence, having observed with fierce envy the more romantically successful middle-schoolers I matriculated with.)

So I started asking people when they stopped thinking of someone as the guy or girl they were dating, seeing, fucking, etc., and started thinking of them as their boyfriend/girlfriend—what was the defining thing, the criteria they used. Which turned out to be a pretty interesting question to ask people, because no one I spoke with had ever really thought to define it before, and upon being asked to do so, gave some very thoughtful, very different answers that gave an intriguing view into how varied and relative intimacy is.  

There were the more accidental and casual proclamations of the moment that step was taken. A coworker told me how the guy she was dating drunkenly referred to her as his girlfriend. “I was like, what, girlfriend?” she said. “Then we talked about it later, sober, so now we’re just going with it.” And some more intentional actions; one of my friends told me she and her girlfriend baked cupcakes together to commemorate their transition to official “girlfriends” status. 

My friend Patrick said he rarely dated someone unless he knew he wanted her to be a girlfriend. “I don’t even really get involved if that’s not on the table,” he said. “Like, I already like someone enough to want to be in a relationship with them before I even start dating her. Which is probably why I’ve been single for so long.” Contrary to Patrick's all-in approach, there were other people who confessed to doing everything they could to prolong the dating phase, eschewing any action that would bend their path toward the impending girlfriend/boyfriend status for  reasons that varied from person to person. Everything from "I don't wanna fuck it up" to "I don't want to be tied down" to "I'm waiting to see if something better comes along." 

I asked the question of a game pair of bartenders while eating lunch at their bar in Williamsburg. One of them told the story of how he uses the excuse of having to walk his dog to usher people out in the morning. “So, if someone comes home with me, and they’re still there in the morning, I say, I have to walk my dog, and we all get up and go. But the dog would be fine, waiting a while. So I know I’m serious about someone when I make the dog wait.”

His compatriot behind the bar, who gave the question some serious thought, tried and dismissed a few different answers before settling on this: “When I can unselfconsciously pray in front of someone, that’s when I know she’s my girlfriend.” Which makes sense. Spirituality is an intensely personal thing for some people. Practicing it in the company of someone who may not be similarly inclined indicates a lot of trust.  

Another coworker broke it down to how you approach managing your schedule. When you start making plans for your week and you check in with the person to see when they’re free to hangout, as opposed to fitting them in after the fact. Same goes double for planning weekends away, she said, “When you’re just dating someone, and you go out of town for the weekend, you maybe tell them, but you probably don’t. When you’re more serious, you’ll invite them to come with you.”

Of course other people had more expected answers like, once there’s a spoken agreement to sexual exclusivity, the introduction of the person to friends and family, toothbrushes left in each other’s bathrooms, space made in a dresser drawer, the buying of tickets to an event well in the future, the handing over of a set of house keys, attending a wedding together, traveling together—there were all kinds of turning points that defined when you left the “dating” path and found yourself at the trailhead of a more involved trek though the wilds of a relationship. But what was one person’s trailhead wasn’t necessarily someone else’s. And even between couples, each person often had a different moment that defined when their boyfriend or girlfriend had become so in their own mind. Not everyone made a point of baking cupcakes together, is what I’m saying. In fact, most people didn't. 

I’ve thought about my previous relationships, the good ones and bad ones, and I don’t really remember if I’d ever consciously flipped the switch to “boyfriend” when I got involved with someone, but the switch definitely got flipped. I’d never really parsed that moment or defined the criteria that made it flip; whatever it was, I’m sure it was different for each relationship, and it was never as clear as a note on a piece of paper. But I always had this eagerness to name it, define it, lock it down, as if somehow doing so would eliminate all my myriad doubts and insecurities. It never did. This time around, getting to know Ant, things are moving more easily, more languidly than they have for me in the past, I feel no urgency to define or name anything, but also, accordingly, I don’t harbor much in the way of doubts and insecurities (though, because I’m me and am still pretty fucking neurotic on my best days, there are some—wouldn’t be interesting if there weren’t, I guess).

That said, going to new places and considering whether or not he would like them is a telling new habit. There have been a few other new habits—from Rick & Morty fandom to an extra stock of beer and pistachios in my house to a new fondness for Marc Maron—that bespeak a new influence in my life. I enjoy these habits and his influence because he’s fantastic and hanging out with him is one of my favorite things. So, as far as I’m concerned, he’s stuck with me for the time being. If that one day transmogrifies me into “girlfriend” and him into “boyfriend,” well, I hope we can live with that.