Sure, I'd had to push men away when I was traveling by myself through South and Central America, but that was because they were latino men and I was an American woman traveling alone and they all knew what that meant: I was easy. They'd seen the movies. They'd seen American TV shows. American women sleep with anyone!
But I was in The South, where women - except me - knew how to wear makeup and do their hair and dress and flirt. My company had moved its corporate HQ from New York to The South years before and rumor had it that the men who had come down from New York were astonished by the women. Nothing against New York women - they are stylish and steely sharp, but southern women cloak their steel in velvet, lipstick and charm.
I started a new exercise class. It met at 5:30 a.m. and was run by a former Marine drill instructor. My excuse for all that follows is that it was at 5:30 a.m., which is not my best time. My perceptions were not as keen as they should have been. Plus I don't wear my glasses when I exercise, so I couldn't see that well, which meant I couldn't see facial expressions that might have helped me interpret words better.
I have made many early-morning exercise mistakes in my life, including snapping at the pregnant woman who climbed into the lane with me at the JCC pool, even though there was an empty lane next to me. "Must you share a lane with me?" I demanded. "There's an empty lane next to us!"
She smiled and changed lanes.
The next day, I saw her in the locker room. I had had time to think about what I had done and was horrified at my rudeness. "I owe you an apology," I said. "There is no excuse for my rudeness yesterday. It won't happen again."
I suppose I should have used the political/public figure apology of, "I'm sorry if you were offended" because why waste an apology on someone who might not have been offended? Maybe she thought my behavior was perfectly acceptable.
And maybe not. She smiled and told me not to worry about it.
The next day, I read a story in the paper about the new rabbi at a nearby temple. A husband and wife rabbi team who were both assigned to that temple. She was expecting their first child. The photo showed the woman I had been so rude to. Oh man.
Back to my exercise class. The instructor, Mark, was divorced. A few years older than me. Confident. Funny. Smart. In amazing shape. Ooo-rah.
He was flirty. Always had a snappy comeback. I can be somewhat mouthy under the right circumstances, so I egged him on.
I mistook his flirtiness for actual interest. In me. Even though he didn't ask me out or make any other indication that he would like to spend time with me outside of class.
One morning, the entire class and Mark went to Perkins for breakfast. I made some smart-aleck comment to Mark and he told me to put on my big-girl panties and deal with it.
This is how much I don't get out: I had never heard that expression before.
That afternoon, I went to Target and bought a flimsy thong. Which I stuffed into a brown envelope. With the note, "Are these the panties you're talking about?"
Oh you're already cringing, as you should be. If only I had cringed before I handed the envelope to him at the end of the next class.
What do you think a man who didn't know me well would think?
How about, Wow! She's hot to trot! I might not want to date her, but if she wants a little fling, well, that's OK with me.
After two days with no comment, I emailed him. "Well?" I asked.
He was hesitant. What am I supposed to tell my 16-year-old son about these if he comes across them? he asked.
I didn't have a good answer for that.
A friend who always had many men asking her on actual dates only she never thought they were dates - What do you mean, just because he picked me up and paid for my supper, he wants to date me? We're just friends! I don't know why he tried to kiss me! - told me that if I were going to do something as stupid as give a man a pair of panties, I should have given him granny panties so I could toss it off as a joke.
But a dainty, lacy thong?
That is a pretty clear message that I am looking to get laid and that is it.
Mark sent me a very nice, thoughtful email.
Gentle Gold-Digger, he wrote, I am most flattered. But I am not looking for a relationship right now. I just broke up with a long-term girlfriend and am taking a rest, focusing on my children.
I was mortified. Because of course what he was really saying was that he was not interested in a relationship with me, which I have to admit was not a bad thing as people are not always a match, but still the rejection stung. It was like that scene in When Harry Met Sally when Sally sees her old boyfriend and he's married to another woman and Sally says, "It wasn't that he didn't want to get married. It's that he didn't want to marry me!" And then she ends up with one of the most annoying men in the world, Billy Crystal, but then it's not like Meg Ryan has covered herself in roses recently either.
And I was also mortified because I really liked his class - after just a month, I could see my abdominal muscles. For the first time ever. I couldn't drop out of the class. I needed to look good so I could find a man who would want a relationship with me.
I just had to endure the humiliation and add another rule to my dating list: the problem is not working with/attending the exercise class of someone you date, it's working with/attending the exercise class of someone you used to date or in front of whom you have humiliated yourself.