You meet someone and the clock gets wound, a spring tightens and the countdown begins.

Tick: A first date that’s fun enough that there’s a second.

Tock: A second date that ups the ante.

Tick: Third-date intimacies, both physical and conversational, are in full swing.

Tock: That telltale excitement that flutters around your head like moths at the thought of seeing him.

Tick: Fourth date builds on the third, the volume gets turned up even louder. You are distracted and bubbly and your mind wanders to some very NSFW thoughts while you’re in the middle of meetings.

Tock: In a fit of optimism, dating apps are deleted from the phone, or at least silenced. A disproportionate amount of time is spent thinking about whether or not to tell him this.

Tick: The delicious balance of excitement and comfort; of positivity and presence. This is the sweet spot, this moment of ease and confidence that this time, you’re not going to fuck it up. This time you’re going to keep your cool and not turn into the Infatuated Hulk that bursts forth from your usual calm, cool, collected Bruce Banner demeanor to wreak havoc on your sense of equilibrium and contentment.

Tock: You realize you’re always the one proposing the dates; you start to worry that you’re being too pushy, so you ease off.

Tick: But now that you’re not being proactive it’s clear that he’s not either.

Tock: Enter the doubt spiral.

Tick: In a surge of self-protectiveness you refuse to reach out to him until you hear from him first, and therefore you jump out of your skin every time your phone twitches. All the while you admonish yourself for being ridiculous: This is not who I want to be. Why am I being like this?

Tock: After hours that seem like days or days that seem like weeks, he finally reaches out: How u doing?

Tick: Your efforts to be cool and measured in the timing and content of your response fail utterly and you swan dive with self-deprecatory glee into a clever, breezy overly long text message that definitely makes you seem exactly like the spasmodic parody of yourself you’ve devolved into.

Tock: Maybe he doesn’t notice what a mess you are. Maybe he finds this charming or cute.

Tick: You’re fooling yourself. Enter the doom spiral.

Tock: Silence from him.

Tick: More silence. Doom spiral intensifies.

Tock: Dating apps are reactivated. Alerts are turned back on. Your heart’s not in it but this is your way of accepting what you see to be inevitable at this point.

Tick: After a week or so, you decide to send an exploratory text, telling yourself that if he doesn’t respond within 24 hours that’s it: deletion. Wipe every trace of him from your digital life. All those sweet flirty messages from just a few weeks ago. Unfollow him on Instagram (knowing full well his profile is public so you can go look at it whenever you want, so it’s strictly a symbolic gesture). Grow hard and determined to push him from your mind. Be grateful you never had cause to exchange email addresses lest you drink too many martinis one night and decide to regale him with an incredibly well-written but totally crazytown letter about something that made sense at the time, but when you read it through your hangover the next morning you just wish you could die. (But you’ve resisted this particular impulse in recent years, so perhaps you’ve grown a bit after all? HA.)

Tock: Yep, there’s that prolonged silence you were expecting. You quietly delete everything and steel yourself for the self-recriminating post-mortem that’s about to settle on you like a gargoyle on a cathedral, hunching there, reminding you you’re a wreck of a human who is destined to make one bad romantic decision after another until you die alone.   

Tick: Eventually you put an end to your pathetic little pity party.

Tock: Repeat ad nauseum.

Am I the only one this happens to? I’m seriously asking.

Sometimes the countdown is interrupted or subverted, or slowed down so much it seems like it’s not happening, but it still is, just differently. Maybe I should just be grateful it usually happens this way—this relatively quick and tidy way that I know the contours of; I know it will linger with a half-life for a bit. Then poof. Like he never happened.

The extra layer of stupidity on this pile of shitty Irish-pub nachos is that I don’t even want to get into a relationship. Even in light of a new guy who is pretty freaking great, who after enough dates that I’m losing track is still (mostly) inhabiting the fun parts of the countdown—my overriding thought is: easy does it. I am determined to keep it steady, lively, with a good cadence, but not needlessly committal. I’m still wary after the last go-around and am not in a hurry to re-up my stint with the brigade of the boyfriended.

Yet this tortuous tick and tock seems unavoidable, this exploding of my usually stalwart sanity. I recognize this to be wholly of my own devising, my own imagination wrapping me up in this pernicious little straightjacket. In all other aspects of my life I am (more often than not) cool as the proverbial cucumber. I am the calm center of the storm. I am the leaf on the fucking stream. But as soon as I have a solid crush on some dude, I am still an insecure 13-year-old girl who just wants desperately to be liked back. I hate that girl. She is the anathema to everything I value in myself as an adult and a woman. If I could go into my own mind and stab her to death with screwdrivers I would.

Okay, that’s maybe unnecessarily violent. Maybe I’ll just give her a pile of model horses and Nancy Drew books to keep her from messing with me. Or chloroform. Rophenol. Thorazine, maybe? Now I’m just creeping myself out.

I just want her to leave me alone and allow me to be the normal human I am. The person who is calm and confident, who can simply enjoy the giddy process of getting to know someone new without mucking it all up so bad that it ceases to be fun and simply becomes an exercise in anxiety and self-doubt.

 But, stupidly, I think I’m stuck with that spazzy little girl. So I can only hope that one of these days she and I can get along.