Show Me How You Treat Your Waiter, and I Will Tell You Who You Are

After that night, I'm screening dates for homophobia and transphobia before we meet, kiss, or eat tacos.

A couple dining at a bowling alley

Simone Massoni

You were my last date before the pandemic shut the world down. On that date, I discovered two things. One: Our local bowling alley’s tacos are surprisingly good and pair well with Blue Moon. Two: I need to do a better job screening out bigots on dating apps.

You told me your name was Mike, that you have a cousin who is gay, and that you’re a long-haul truck driver. But now, I’m pretty sure none of that is true.

My dating profile clearly stated “no homophobes,” but homophobes like to get real obtuse and say, “I’m not afraid of them. I just don’t agree with their lifestyle.” So the first time we spoke on the phone, I asked if you had any problems with gay people. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have asked the question in a way that put attitudes toward gay people in the same category as attitudes toward sushi. Do you prefer sushi or Thai?

I should have asked, “Do you respect gay people and recognize their full humanity, or do you believe they have a secret plan to force their ‘lifestyle’ and ‘agenda’ on heterosexuals, children, and the culture at large?”

If I had asked that question and if you had answered honestly, or even hesitated before answering, I never would have gone out with you. But unfortunately, I didn’t ask that question.

At the time, I hadn’t yet processed the fact that I’m not completely heterosexual myself despite having only ever dated (and been married to) men. But my “no homophobes” rule had nothing to do with my sexuality and everything to do with not wanting to date bigots.

At the time, I also believed you when you said you were a truck driver. We college-educated Black women have been scolded by Tyler Perry movies long enough to know that any reluctance we feel to dating a blue-collar man is suspect, even if our reluctance has nothing to do with the man’s job. Even if our reluctance is a common-sense response to red flags, a product of instinct and self-preservation.

“Oh, so you won’t date him because he’s a plumber?” we’re chided. “Plumbers make six figures!” No, we won’t date him because he sends us “good morning beautiful” texts and nothing more for days on end; pops up after being completely unresponsive for weeks at a time, without explanation, to ask for nudes; and likes to start “conversation” with, “The problem with Black women is ...” This is why we won’t date the plumber.

But we don’t date white-collar men who behave that way, either. Men like this, regardless of income bracket, get blocked now. But in the Before Time — before we realized these men weren’t the sharks in the dating pool, they were the water — we gave them chances they didn’t deserve.

So maybe what happened with you is partly Tyler Perry’s fault. But mostly, it’s the fault of my loneliness. In late 2019, before the world changed forever, I was recently divorced and still trying to be hopeful about finding a partner, or even just someone compatible to have good conversation and good sex with on occasion.

What happened is also the fault of my superficiality: You were 6’4” and good-looking.

I don’t remember who chose the bowling alley, but I do remember being excited to meet you in person. We ordered beers at the bar first and were flirting by the time we decided to take them to a lane. I remember telling you I bowl like Barney Rubble. I don’t think you got the reference, but you pretended to.

After a few frames, we decided to get another round of beers and some food. As we sat next to each other trying to figure out what to order, you stared at me like I was on the menu. I liked that. A server came over to our lane, and you ordered a burger. I got the fish tacos–lightly fried cod with crema, cabbage slaw, fresh cilantro, and jalapeños. Perfect.

Whatever was said that prompted me to refer to our server as “they” after they walked away has been lost to time, the pandemic, and menopause. I just recall that I didn’t feel confident saying “he” or “she,” and it didn’t occur to me to say, “the server.” It occurred to me to say “they,” so that’s what I said.

I left the bowling lane that night a little more jaded about dating and a lot clearer about the insidiousness of homophobia and transphobia.

In response, the real you proceeded to have a mini meltdown. “I don’t understand,” you said over and over, while grousing about gay agendas. I told you that it’s basic respect and courtesy to refer to people the way they ask us to refer to them, and to err on the side of caution when we don’t know their pronouns. I told you that it costs $0.00 to do this. You insisted that it costs “us” something, but you couldn’t tell me what.

“I don’t understand,” you said again.

“It’s not that you don’t understand,” I said finally. “It’s that you don’t believe what I’m saying to you.”

And the conversation ended there. You finished your burger and paid the check. We looked everywhere but at each other as I finished my tacos. You excused yourself to the bathroom.

Fifteen minutes later, the server came over and asked if I needed anything else. “Yes,” I said. “Can you please check the men’s restroom, or ask another staff person to check, and see if the guy who was sitting here is in there?”

The server agreed to check. They came back and told me what I suspected. You weren’t in the bathroom.

“What’s going on?” the server asked. I gave them the abridged version.

“Wow! That was really shitty of him,” they said. I agreed.

If I had it to do over, I would ask you more questions before agreeing to meet. I would ask, “So you got along fine with your cousin who is gay when y’all were kids, but how do you treat him now? What if The Cousin Formerly Known as He asked to be referred to as ‘they’ or ‘she’? What would it cost you to oblige? What is the currency of common decency?”

I left the bowling lane that night a little more jaded about dating and a lot clearer about the insidiousness of homophobia and transphobia. You’re the reason I updated my dating app profiles a few months ago to now include, “If you think Dave Chappelle is right about trans people, you’re not my person.” You showed me that “No homophobes” isn’t enough. Since making that update, the number of likes and swipes I get in a given week has plummeted, and I’m grateful for that.

Your walking out left me feeling disappointed and sad, but not for myself; I felt relieved that you’d shown your true colors before I so much as kissed you. My heart broke, though, at how deep your antipathy runs toward people for simply existing and wanting the same regard you enjoy, so deep you sought to punish me for daring to challenge your thinking.

One last thing? Thanks for not leaving me with the check, I guess. It’s the least you could do.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press), won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020–21 Story Prize, and the 2020 L.A. Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. It focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church and is being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson executive producing. Deesha will be the 2022–23 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.

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