The woman adjacent to me on the train glanced at her phone and then leaned forward. “Share a cab?” she asked me. Mornings typically witnessed a bottleneck on the rainbow network of commuter lines etched in the four-sided diamond of Washington, D.C. and its neighboring suburbs of Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia. Those delays syphon one’s soul for 60-second slurps at each station like a mosquito. This time the delay hit the ten-minute mark. The bug found its first palm slap.
The woman’s Eastern European accent, brunette coiffure and lithe arms reminded me of a Bond Girl – Pierce Brosnan era. Her body pivoted and pushed from her seat.
“Sure,” I said. I grabbed my luggage.
“Let’s go,” she said. We exited the train doors, still open at the East Falls Church Station.
We hustled to the parking lot, which held an assortment of cabs. My commuter companion instructed the driver to drop her off near the National Mall, then to proceed to my office near DuPont Circle.
During our expressway ride we discovered that we attended the same university. The woman, from Ukraine, talked about the current political crisis with Russia, regional cuisine and her profession. She asked me about my career, my birthplace in the Midwest and local restaurants I preferred. I enjoyed one of the greatest conversations I’ve ever had with a complete stranger. Although there wasn’t any flirting, there existed a strong familiarity between us – effortless dialogue. Not only did I feel more interconnected to the world because of this conversation, I found myself quite attracted to this woman.
And 50 minutes later, just before the taxi dropped her off at her office, she made a passing reference to her husband.
With a composure difficult to muster, I said goodbye, and I continued to my office. I replayed the conversation multiple times in my mind. I didn’t notice a wedding ring, and as silly as it seemed, she didn’t “act married.” Instead, she appeared actively engaged in our talk and quite forthright in recruiting me on her road trip.
Any success I had in life came from perceiving the signs, the subtle signs that people project – and for this situation, she communicated sign language in mittens.
I can count times in the past year that I’ve talked with women who were partnered up yet engaged in long discussions with me. Only later in those conversations did each woman mention a boyfriend or spouse.
I am guessing many people wouldn’t necessarily see anything wrong with that. We don’t live in a “matrimo-cracy” where women are required to declare their relationship status before conversations with unacquainted men. Yet, there is a level of disappointment that occurs in guys when chemistry is felt while conversing with a woman, yet more than 30 minutes later, the woman mentions a significant other. “Oh, you’ve been married for two years? Yeah. Great.”
I needed an answer for this conundrum. As with most issues relevant to gender dynamics, complications abound. No single explanation exists; no single solution exists.
“I think that the fact that you have a boyfriend should be brought up within the first five minutes of having a conversation with another male,” Gabrianna, a 21 year-old bartender at a local D.C. cocktail lounge, told me.
“You don’t want to lead anyone on,” she said. “Also you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where it seems like you’re single, because that’s not only wrong for your boyfriend, partner, husband, whoever else, it’s also wrong to the person you’re speaking to. You don’t want them to think they have a chance with you, when they don’t. As a girl, if your boyfriend was talking to another girl for 15 or 20 minutes and didn’t bring up the fact that he had a girlfriend, we would all be pissed. We’d be furious.”
Tamar, a 38 year-old leadership coach who’s been married for five years, expressed a different point of view.
“I have to say, as a married woman, I don’t feel I have to lead with: ‘Hi, nice to meet you. I’m married – anyway let me tell you…’ Like, I’m my own person,” she said. “And I have this whole identity that’s me. And sometimes you meet someone, and you start a conversation with them, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I need to tell him I’m married.’ You’re just having a conversation with them.
“I do agree that, if you, as the person who’s interested, or just thinking, ‘Huh, this person is really cool, and I wonder if this is going to go somewhere,’ then it really is for you to ask, ‘You know hey, I would really love to continue this conversation. Are you by any chance single or interested?’ Then the person can say, ‘Wow, thanks I’m really flattered but I’m actually married.’ Women don’t feel the necessity to say, ‘Oh by the way, I belong to this man. Ha-ha, I meant to tell you that, except I’m not my own person.’
“There’s an assumption that exists that if a woman is married, she has to lead with that, or else she’s deceiving people. I think that’s unfair and hypocritical as well, because I don’t think that assumption is made for men at all.”
Women don’t feel the necessity to say, ‘Oh by the way, I belong to this man. Ha-ha, I meant to tell you that, except I’m not my own person.’
Katie, a 40-year-old teacher, married two years, expressed a similar point of view. “I don’t think a guy or a woman has to advertise that they’re in a relationship any more than I think someone needs to advertise their sexual preference upon first meeting someone.
“It’s best for at least one side of the pair to check and ask about intentions and where things are headed. Now that I’m married, I don’t at all hide that I’m married. My ring is on my finger; my husband comes up in conversation regularly.”
According to the women I’ve talked to, they and their girlfriends are more keyed-in than men as to whether the other party is interested or not. They say women are selective when choosing a moment to divulge relationship status.
“I’d be reading their cues – context is pretty important,” said Amy Saidman, early 40s, the artistic executive director at performing arts center Story District in D.C.
“If we were at an office or in the Metro, I’m not going to be thinking, ‘They’re looking to get with me,’” Amy said. “If we’re at a party, I might; and then I might be more forthright. I might be quicker to find a reason to mention I am in a relationship. And I would be reading their cues if I thought they were flirting with me; if I thought they seemed interested.”
I’ve always been of the impression that a woman can spot a man’s intentions five steps ahead, like a Russian chess grandmaster. So could it be that a woman, fully aware of the intentions of an interested guy, occasionally rides out a scenario, enjoying the moment, until it’s socially responsible – or fair – to mention that she has a partner?
“When I dated, I entertained conversation with men out of curiosity. Part of that was because of the ego boost,” said Julia, a 42-year-old yoga instructor who’s been married five years. “You know, because of the man coming up to you that you don’t know, having the conversation.
“But now that I’m married, there’s no dabbling. Like, if the ring and the kids in tow aren’t sight enough, I leave no ambiguity. I made my choice when I got married; I’m sticking to it. But perhaps what helps is that I had my heyday, and I’ve had 16 years to explore different kinds of men, so yeah. If it happens to be misinterpreted, I shut it down.”
Julia mentioned one example of not allowing those interactions to continue further. Two years into her marriage she had an appointment with a physician. Before a discussion even occurred, she perceived a vibe between the two of them.
“Sometimes these things are beyond you,” she said. “And I’ve had enough experience to know that even if you’re married and you make that choice, you’re still gonna be attracted to other men, and other men will be attracted to you; that’s just a part of human nature.
“I wasn’t giving any signs; the guy knew I was married and had kids. I went back to him one more time. He invited me to come out to watch his group play, which is – you know – you could interpret that as being kind of innocent. I didn’t take him up on the offer, and I decided not to go back to that doctor anymore. Even though I thought he was a very good doctor, and I really liked him, I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity, I didn’t wanna put my marriage in jeopardy.”
So what should be done to prevent any ambiguity in meeting a woman in a monogamous relationship?
Three options: one, ask; two, apply the subtle art of asking without asking; or three, don’t ask and stay disappointed. Cut and dry. It’s not so much a “game” per se, but more a way of being. This takes practice to master. Stepping in as an amateur can lead to catastrophic fuck-ups.
“As a woman in this world, there’s a lot of creepy dudes,” Amy said. “So there’s lots of ways we, as women, learn to diminish interaction – or cut that conversation short. So if some random dude asks me about my book. My first impulse – let’s say on the train – my first thought is, ‘Oooh, I don’t know about this guy.’ Whether I’m single or not single, I don’t know that he’s not gonna be a total creep.
“My assumption is that he is – I’m sorry to the good guys out there. So my inclination would be, ‘Yeah, I’m not looking for friends.’ I’m not going to talk to you about my book. I don’t know about other people, but I’m a very guarded person. Unless he really seems nice – and there’s a lot of things that have to go in for me believing you’re just a nice guy. Not the creepy guy waiting for the opportunity to ask some random woman about her book: that’s your game.”
Amy clarified that she loves making male friends in situations with common friends at a party with common ground. She would be open to doing so. However, if a guy was interested in a girl, Amy’s recommended approach relies on being direct; something that she notices a lot within other communities.
I do think it’s OK for a man to say, ‘Hey you seem like a great person, I’d love to hang out, but are you single?’
“I think it’s great when people can be up front,” she said. “And I know you have to do a dance – you can’t just ask me. But I do think it’s OK for a man to say, ‘Hey you seem like a great person, I’d love to hang out, but are you single?’ And I’ll tell you this, from what I understand from gay men, they’re really direct. They’ll just be like, ‘Hey are you single?’ [Laughter].”
Tamar’s approach, probably more ascribed to the asking without asking camp, relies on the vibe of the conversation to determine if a girl is interested.
“If you guys are interested in each other, and there’s chemistry, the minute somebody asks, ‘Are you single?’ your conversation can go two ways, right?” Tamar said. “If she (the hypothetical girl) is in a relationship, she’s going to say, ‘Yes, I’m in a relationship.’ Or she’s going to lie, because she’s not interested, and then realize, ‘Oh, this guy actually wants to move forward by either asking me our or making a move on me.’ The minute he asks that question, you’re fast-forwarding to an answer that’s going in either direction: it’s going to shut that conversation down, or it’s going to move the conversation forward.
“So I think that people tend to put that question off, [laughter], because I understand if a guy came up to me and was like, ‘Hey what’s up? Are you single?’ Right? I’d be like, get away from me [laughter],” she said.
“It’s weird; it’s not very organic. … If you both are really into each other, you want it to be like a really great conversation – one of the conversations that can go all night and ends with like, ‘Hey do you wanna get outta here?’ or ‘Hey can I see you again?’ And you don’t even need to ask that question because you’re feeling each other, vibing each other.”
One key element for Julia, whether it’s asking directly or indirectly, is humor. “It all depends on what that single man wants,” Julia said. “If he’s just looking for a conversation, if he doesn’t necessarily care if it doesn’t go anywhere, sure, have that conversation.
“But if you’re looking for someone, and if you find that woman attractive, throw out that line that we’ve see in movies a thousand times: ‘So what does your boyfriend do?’ ‘So where’s your boyfriend in this bar? I didn’t see him yet.’ You know, just with a little bit of humor; instead of making it all serious, like: ‘Are you in a committed relationship.’ No – just put a little humor into it. And if you really are interested in this woman, the sooner the better, because then you aren’t disappointed and you can move on your way.”
It sucks getting shot down; just as much as it sucks enjoying a conversation with someone you’re attracted to, only then to get disappointed when you find out they have a significant other. But it takes a bit of confidence and humor to step out there. The more you do it, the faster you’ll recover when let down.
Or you just might succeed.
Imagine that shit.
“It’s not about whether it’s the guy’s responsibility or the woman’s – it’s the single person’s. It’s the person with the question, which happens to be the single person,” Amy said. “Or the person interested in the other. So if you have a question, yeah – it’s your responsibility to find the answer. Now you can be the man or you can be the woman. I don’t think it’s gender specific, and that’s old-fashioned, if you do.”
Corey Quinlan Taylor is a proposal manager, Washington, D.C. blogger, open-mic storyteller and the author of a literary-agent represented manuscript.