The Art Of Casual Dating

Perhaps I should blame my parents; sometimes I think I might be their karma. I am the byproduct of two of the 80s biggest heartbreakers accidentally falling in love. I remember overhearing my mother on the phone with her sister as they joked about how at 12-years-old, I was already such a hopeless romantic. Naturally, I was mortified as she laughingly tried to convince me why it’s an apparent good thing to feel. 

It’s no wonder that the whole casual dating scene never felt at home to me, considering the foundation of what I once thought dating should look like sat on a pedestal of exasperated proclamations of love—a teenage boy serenading you with a guitar in hand on the high school football field, a grown man standing on your front lawn with a boombox, or even more realistic, a silver fox who leaves you playing the he-loves-you-he-loves-you-not game for an entire decade until he finally proposes with a diamond Manolo Blahnik shoe in an Upper East Side penthouse apartment. 

So you can imagine to my surprise that being raised on scripted romance didn’t exactly set the stage for success in the realm of modern-age dating.

While my parents were the era of going-steady and love ballads, we are the era of swiping and repressed feelings. In the 80s, romance didn’t mean humility or a loss of independence. It wasn’t a tug-a-war of nonchalance, or a who’s-more-blasé contest. But rather, it was as simple as a new chapter with the hopes that happily ever after will be written in the stars. And while I do believe that that type of romance can still exist today, for anyone who’s ever lived and dated in New York City—I think we can all say in unison that finding that “big love” can feel so few and far between since our feelings are challenged in an island of go-getters who ride shoulder-to-shoulder trains every day and yet, have no idea how to say hello. 

For whatever it may be, I found myself diving head-on into dating when I caved and moved to the Disneyland of hipsters, better known as Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As my roommate once put it, I “plucked the pages of Hinge” as soon as I moved in. The evenings that weren’t spent decorating the walls or naming the furniture were spent over cocktails at speakeasies and candle-lit dinners. You would think as a self-admitted hopeless romantic, I wouldn’t be able to pull off the casual dating scene. But for the first time in my life, I felt like I could actually play the role of The Chill Girl© since “getting myself out there” simply meant getting acclimated into my new neighborhood.

And while there was a frenzy of blondies and brunettes, finance bros, musicians and more—what I was left with was someone who would become my first summer fling and a lesson in timing. 

I couldn’t make this up even if I tried. On the literal first day of summer, this year’s Summer Solstice, I was running errands (see: shopping for a new outfit fast) to prep for my date that night. And as I was browsing through the clothing racks, a name I hadn’t seen in years popped up on my phone. It was from one of the first guys I had ever dated in New York. I coined him to my friends and to the Internet as an almost-lover. He was the first guy I dated in the city who I really felt had the potential to go somewhere and in a two paragraph-long text, he shared how he was pretty sure he saw me on the train that morning and went on to apologize for any hurt he may have caused me in the past.

You would think seeing his messages would leave me dumbfounded but instead, I felt light. It seems we always get the apologies we once sought after, once we’ve stopped looking. His apology brought me back to the person I used to be—someone craving love, wholeheartedly, yet had never felt it before. Like clockwork, his texts were a perfectly-timed reminder that even if things don’t pan out as planned, feelings and vulnerability don’t have to be invalidated just because they weren’t experienced to the fullest or didn’t hold up the way we thought they would.

With that, I headed to my date with a guy I had been seeing for a few weeks at this point. On our first date I blurted out that I already liked him because, hi hello I’m Ella and I’ve been embarrassing everyone around me since 1993. Fair enough, his reaction was a bit taken aback. Yet on that Friday night, the first of many that summer, he said to me:

“You’re amazing, damnit, I like you.”

I smiled ear-to-ear for the rest of the night.

He was an actual New Yorker, sans the accent. Tall with a heartthrob haircut, and filled with comments that always made me laugh. While he admitted that feelings weren’t easy territory for him, I felt a sense of comfort fast. We would binge trash TV together as I watched him laugh at the parade of men on The Bachelorette. His quick wit jokes about one particular contestant, one who channeled emotional abuse and admittedly mirrored traits from my previous relationship, gave me a sense of ease I’m not sure I’ll ever fully be able to thank him for. His ability to see through toxicity and manipulation gave me a sense of hope that maybe, just maybe, conflict never had to look like that in a romantic relationship or in any relationship period.

Dating him was the perfect situation until it wasn’t anymore. He was someone who navigated his feelings slowly and cautiously, while I was initially someone who wasn’t looking for anything at all. But as he made me see that romance didn’t have to be so explosive, that feelings could be felt without being projected—suddenly, I wanted so much more. 

He was always patient and open with me as I anxiously threw the “what are we” talk over and over again. It took me awhile to accept that those conversations were really rooted in a longing for a title he wasn’t prepared to give; and over a wine night with an old friend, I finally saw our situation for what it was. Completely out of context, my friend said to me, “Sometimes ‘I don’t know’ is the ‘no’ we’re not ready to say or admit just yet.” Right then, I finally knew the answer to the anxiously awaited “what are we” conversation that deep-down, I always knew but had been avoiding all along.

The next day, my summer fling reached its end. 

At first, I was instantly brought back to the hurt I felt from the almost-lover phenomenon, embarrassed to be feeling so much for someone who was never mine. But as we spent the entire day filling in the blank spaces that finally explained why we weren’t on the same page and why we may never be, his conclusion ironically left me with a title I never saw coming. Despite how everything went with us, he told me I was one of the best people he had ever met.

Just like that, I realized—whether it’s casual dating or a full-fledged romance, we don’t have to fall in love in order to care about each other. And regardless of playing the role of The Chill Girl© or The Hopeless Romantic©, in this moment of my life, I couldn’t ask for more.

How To Date Post-Breakup: A Lesson in Starting Over

Hair fluffed with musky perfume that I twirled around my fingers — there I was, presenting what felt like an elevator speech for the second time that week. Ghosts from my past and fresh eyes, lip-bit smiles and mini skirts, intoxication under city lights… I couldn’t believe I found myself dating again.

If you told me a year ago that I would be writing this article, I would have been overwhelmed with uneasiness. Because this time last year, I was in the midst of my first love. A relationship that, although was long distance, was certainly worth the mileage. Because no matter what it took to get there, it always felt like home the moment I did.

But here’s the thing — You don’t know what you don’t know, until you finally do. Though it would be a bit of an undertaking to try to summarize why that relationship met its end, I’ll leave it at this: Sometimes, love is not enough.

Fast forward to present day, when I found myself faced with the inevitable first real c̶r̶a̶s̶h̶ crush since my breakup.

There I was, in a Cobble Hill apartment fidgeting with my hair in a dress I just wanted to be noticed in. He offered to cook me steak, an invitation with a weight he couldn’t have ever known about without context.

Because the context was, how one of the most beloved memories I’ll ever have with my ex is the first time he cooked dinner for us. Rosemary and thyme filled the air in my closet-sized apartment as we laughed and drank, while he prepared a steak recipe he had googled in advance. It was the same night he had planned to tell me he loved me.

A little over a year later, and suddenly steak night meant an evening spent in a Brooklyn apartment with someone entirely new, with an oven fan that apparently overpowered anything I had to say. He insisted that he couldn’t hear me, but even when he had the chance to, I would find him checking his phone instead. Meanwhile, across the table, I played coy as I attempted to force a ring I bought earlier that morning to stay on my finger.

But one thing led to the other, and as the night progressed, my ring finally fell to the floor. He told me not to worry about it as his kisses led to his bedroom, and then to the feelings I’d never anticipated spilling out to be met with anything less than reciprocation.

You see, before my ex, all I knew were feelings left on read with the lights off. Before him, all I knew were almost lovers and the thrill of the chase. But after that relationship ended, suddenly I knew very well what it looked and felt like to be in the arms of someone who wholeheartedly wanted to be there, versus someone who just didn’t.

So as I lied there next to him, I wondered if I could somehow resurrect what evolved from that night. After all, for whatever reason, he was still holding onto me despite his words that seemed to fall short. But as I tried to doze off, I suddenly remembered in vivid color the way my ex was so certain about his feelings for me. Though it’s never fair to compare, I couldn’t help but bridge these two situations together. They were night and day, and here I was trying to sleep off the obvious truth that anything other than yes is no. It was then when I knew I had to go.

Which is exactly what I did — until I was outside waiting for my Lyft, which was two minutes away. Naturally, in that exact moment, I instantly recalled how my ring was still somewhere on his floor.

Do I cancel the ride and turn around? Do I try to face him again? Is it even worth it?

I had never felt so embarrassed. It wasn’t so much feeling pathetic for unrequited feelings, but rather, the stark reality of where I was in that very moment versus where I once was, and where I could have been.

Though I must say, the most marveling takeaway I have gotten thus far from dating post-breakup is the frame of reference I never had until now.

Whereas my ex was ready to sing to the hills that he was in love, this guy mustered a “thank you” into his pillow and nothing more when I shared how I liked him. When I left his room to grab my stuff, instead of running after me, he got up to grab his phone.

No, he didn’t and doesn’t owe me anything at all. But once I realized I was never going to get the vulnerability it turns out I’m ready to give, I knew it was time to close the door on someone who couldn’t even walk me to it.

The Lyft pulled up, and I decided to leave the ring upstairs. After all, we just can’t force what was never meant to fit.

——

Two days and a few swipes later, I met up with a musician at a jazz bar where we bonded over our favorite jazz artists: Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and all the greats. He shared with me how beyond a good melody, he loves when a song’s lyrics are so intentional, you find yourself not only hearing the song but feeling it with every last word. He went on to share about a particular song he recently discovered that gave him just that — plus a feeling and connection he didn’t even realize he was looking for.

While I’m not sure whether I felt sparks beyond friendship that night, the next morning he sent me the song he had referred to. And from the moment the song began, I knew at least one thing for certain:

Crush or not, he tapped me back into a rhythm worth listening to.

when love isn't enough

Last weekend, Facebook reminded me that the first time he cooked dinner for us was a year ago. I wore a velvet dress, he had on a satin tie. I poured the wine, he cooked the steak. Between the stove light casting a spotlight on him, and the sound of candles flickering in the background, I found myself exposed when he asked me why I was looking at him the way I was.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with eye contact. It always seems to give way to the parts of myself I figure are best kept in the dark. It’s why I became a writer—I like to think I have a sense of control over the trials and tribulations in my life. I’m an open book, only under the condition that each word is carefully rehearsed until perfected. I’m a hopeless romantic who ironically never thought would find love until it looked me right in the eyes. The smell of thyme and rosemary filled the space in my apartment when I realized I was in the arms of someone who wholeheartedly wanted to be there.

He was the feeling of home in unknown territory. He was warm, familiar, and a stranger all at once. It’s the recipe he used that night, the one that I still have folded in my closet-sized bedroom.

There is no perfect love out there. I’ve seen the imperfections that were in my parents’ relationship. I’ve consumed them in movies, novels, and songs that I can recite in my sleep. They are found in the heart-to-heart confessions shared over wine with my closest friends. Every time, the same conclusion always seems to find its way—just because love isn’t perfect does not mean it wasn’t there or that the love was right or wrong.

Our relationship ended because our arguments evolved into toxicity that neither of us deserved. Maybe words slipped out of our mouths before we could grasp them. Maybe there is such a thing as being too comfortable with one another.

What I do know and what I will always hold to be true is that toxic moments don’t make toxic people. We are human and sometimes we just don’t know where to go. All we can do is try our best, even if our best looks a little different than we thought it would.

What I never could have anticipated is the question I have come to now: a year has passed and suddenly, I am not so sure that I am ready for anything, at all.

I remember back when he and I first met. We were 15-years-old. I had on purple eyeliner and braces while he sported floppy skater boy hair and a goofy smile. We dipped out of my high school varsity football game and found ourselves at a grocery store across the street. We laughed without caution as we ran recklessly through each aisle with tunnel vision. Everything was so light.

Before him, I could not imagine having The One. I couldn’t imagine waking up next to the same person, families colliding, and a future with an “our” before it. Before him, all I knew were my quirks, my darkest secrets, my hopes, and my wildest dreams. I knew all of these things and could not for the life of me imagine meeting someone who would want to enter this world that I have kept so tightly shut.

Since the breakup, I am pretty sure I have watched and read every “How To Get Over A Breakup” video and thinkpiece the Internet has to offer, five times over, until my sleepless mind could finally be put to rest with the lights turned off. Eventually, I realized that the advice I was so desperately seeking was there all along, staring right back at me, once I was ready to see it for myself.

Sometimes, love is not enough.

He was my First Love. In one line, he had me crying over laughter. In one weekend, he had me hiding tears behind my sunglasses as he drove away. He understood me in a way I never thought to understand myself.

It was bottles of red sipped under a New York City skyline. It was hand-holding under Christmas lights. It was my emotional baggage and his fingers running through my hair. It was slow dancing in the middle of the street as he hummed in my ears. It was the blurred lines in our relationship that couldn’t be ignored. For the good, the bad, the ugly, and the everything in-between, our love was clumsy, candid, and unabashedly us.

Perhaps it’s OK that we are no longer those kids running around a grocery store without a care in the world. Maybe love doesn’t have to be right in order to be felt. I can only hope that one day, we can share a steak like we used to and laugh until we cry, as we learn to befriend the parts of ourselves we don’t know how to resolve just yet.

No, it’s not going to be the same, but maybe that’s the point.

i'll take my time


Today, I’m going to wake up, brush my teeth, and comb my hair, but I won't feel like I'm in my skin. 

I’m going to walk into work with a smile on my face and a touch of lipstick—the finishing touch to the grand finale where I pretend everything is as sweet as the Splenda in her coffee. No, I may not be able to move mountains today, but I'll be composed as I stand quietly to myself in a crowded elevator.

Today marks 11 years since my mother passed away, and I still hear her voice saying to me, "Take your time, I'm right here."

navigating my first "adult" relationship at 25

Before him, I only knew of kisses that were met once the taste of intoxication hit my lips. Feelings were left on read with the lights off and never brought back to the surface unless invited.

It was a lot of what ifs, could bes, and uncertainties as I strolled through cobblestone streets in little outfits with the promise of candle-lit evenings and nothing else guaranteed. As it goes, there were the guys I wanted to feel more with, while there were the ones that I had mistaken lust to mean possibility. Looking back, I like to think both myself and the people I dated could feel that something was missing, even if that missing piece didn’t initially click at first. Maybe, it’s just a matter of finding yourself in a place that reveals why once you stopped searching for the reason.

For now at least, I think I found my answer as to why it didn’t work out with anyone else a few months ago on my rooftop.

Thanks to a gutsy DM I sent and texts-turned-phone-calls...

He traveled across state lines; I prepped frozen pizza à la Trader Joe’s. He wore a navy plaid shirt and bought flowers; I threw on my favorite skirt and spritzed perfume behind my neck. He knocked, then two bottles of red under a New York City sky later, a first date turned into a first love and as corny as it all sounds—it makes sense now.

We are as candid as we are passionate, covering everything from the way we fell, to the way we argue, to the way we love, and everything in-between.

Instinctively, I told myself to tread lightly. Be gentle with myself while simultaneously shielding him from any remote signs of vulnerability. Be an open book, though choose the words I read aloud wisely.

He had been in love before; I had not. And that’s all it took for me to find myself using his past relationship as a standard for who I was supposed to be in this equation.

She seemed as effortless and artsy as I am tousled hair I can’t stop messing with. She was one of the guys, while I always found myself at the girls’ table. And on and on my mind will go trying to dissect and differentiate myself from a total stranger, just as long as it means that at the end of the day, if this all goes wrong, I can say I told myself so. As if filling in the blanks to a relationship I will never know and understand will help me secure my own.

I need to accept that yes, she was his First Love and no, I will never hold that title. But it took their relationship and my revolving door of uncertainties to find myself here.

Here: a place I’ve never known before and yet is similar to those cobblestone streets filled with candle-lit dinners and nothing else guaranteed. Because no matter what my relationship status may be, nothing and no one is promised to us forever. My boyfriend may wake up one day and change his mind about me. Who’s to say I couldn’t either? But the difference is, it’s us.

It’s crying from laughter over the Filipino food we both grew up with; it’s hand-holding at art galleries. It’s jazz downtown; it’s Black Mirror marathons. It’s how we talk about the future with an “our” before it. It’s my heavy baggage and his fingers running through my hair. It’s how we met at a high school football game, and how we didn’t know back then nor do we know now what’s to come.

It’s the way we’ll do whatever we have in ourselves to try. 

and away we go: thoughts on my first solo trip

When I took my first solo trip, one of the few things I was so sure about was simply sharing my experiences.

I imagined the words would flow in harmony with the sepia-toned brownstones that surrounded me in Paris. That my thoughts would be as unassuming yet as charming as the grey skies in London. And that by the time I made it to Amsterdam, I’d be unrecognizable.

I think why it’s been so hard for me to put into words my experiences abroad is because I’m still processing them. My trip was a myriad of empowerment and uncertainty and I am still searching for what will bridge the two together. Beautiful languages swept through cobblestone streets like a song without words on repeat. I noticed body language and the way we present ourselves and how those simple actions can enunciate far more greatly than any spoken word.

It was a mixture of loneliness, humility, and peace. There were friendships, lovers, and strangers that enveloped me. Me, someone in this crowd celebrating her 25th birthday all by myself. There was something humbling about a sea of unfamiliar faces. The way we know nothing about each other except this moment that we accidentally share.

And while I’m still figuring out how to best describe the beauty of the in-between moments, I'm thinking it'll be captured like the stillness of side streets and the art on the brick walls that were created simply because.

If nothing else, my trip reiterated a love of the unknown and the difference between a house and home.

All Is Fair In Love and Instagram

For as long as I can remember, I dreamt of popularity.

From glossy magazines to the prettiest girls in my classes, I always felt an overt disconnect from the life I dreamt for myself versus the image I saw of myself when I looked in the mirror. Instead of seeing the beautiful smile I inherited from my mother, I saw puffy cheeks, a fat face, and crooked teeth. Instead of seeing how enchanting it can be that no one else in this world will ever be me: the good, the bad, my wildest of dreams and darkest of fears—I just saw everyone else.

Everyone, else. Everyone who I believed mattered, the ones I decided I was so far removed from. Because I didn’t look like them. I didn’t have the lives they had, or so I assumed. As if the only way to gain self-acceptance is through the acceptance of everyone else but myself.

Perhaps, I just didn’t see myself in the aspirations I wanted so badly. It’s unfortunately so easy to forget everything you are when what you want can read as a list of everything you’re not. I was so convinced of the grass being greener on the other side that I would jump the fence trying to get over there before considering what was already right in front of me.

I used to walk with my head down a lot, hands held, fingers intertwined. My safety net was to never look people in the eye. At the time, I was so sure that’s what portrayed strength. When in actuality, the only reason I felt safer dodging eye contact was because I wasn’t ready for people to truly see me for who I really was.

I remember the pretty girls who always made everyone laugh, the ones I longed to be, and how instead of laughing with them, they were just laughing at me. They would imitate my inferiority in all its glory—the whole formula with their heads down, hands held, and fingers intertwined as they smirked to each other while glancing my way. And you would think their jokes would have pushed me further from ever wanting to be them, but for whatever it may be, they still found a way to shine in my eyes. I suppose it wasn’t even them who I wanted to be but rather, I wanted to see myself worthy enough of standing on the pedestal I so quickly gave to them.

And I’ll admit, it’s quite embarrassing to reveal the way I would self-loathe myself. At the time, I was just so sure that the key to loving myself was the love of everyone else. But we have to admit our truths sometimes. History will only repeat itself unless I finally look it in the eye for everything it is, and not only learn from it, but accept it. Something I needed to do with myself a long time ago.

I remember being 14 and feeling slightly resentful towards my mother. Unknowingly projecting my resentment towards our lack of wealth and money security. I guess I found myself treating her this way because she was a seemingly easy target for me. I mean, shouldn’t she have known how how bad our situation is? She’s my mother. She can’t be blind to everything they have that we don’t. Doesn’t she feel bad?

Regret is an understatement for how I feel towards the relationship I had with my mother. One of the last things she said to me before she passed away was how our lives would look completely different if she had it her way. I didn’t know what that meant at the time and ten years later, all I can say is that that’s a another story for another day.

After losing her, ironically enough the popularity I once sought after took a turn. I became the girl whose mother died—and suddenly that translated into the girl everyone wanted to be seen with. The girls who used to make fun of me were suddenly inviting me over and making plans with me because I guess befriending the charity case seemed like the right thing to do. All of a sudden, everyone in my community knew of me and gave me the attention I was so sure I wanted. And while I didn’t want to be defined by my tragedy, for the first time, I felt seen.

Then, there was social media. A place where I could be the girl I always wanted to be. It was a place where I could showcase why I was more than the girl whose mother died.

Social media, particularly Instagram, became a game changer because it gave me a platform to live stream perfectly curated 3 x 5 moments that I imagined would illustrate a life that shined in the way the prettiest girls in class once did.

Instant updates of heavenly looking meals that belonged in a Williams and Sonoma catalog all while seemingly sporting Vogue-approved street style-esque outfits, all while having the most   gorgeous face to match the must-have body. Look at this life I created for myself, and look where I am now. I’m not just the girl whose mom died anymore. This is the reaction I wanted people to have when they looked at my feed, as if looking at my feed could compensate for the eye contact I was too afraid to make.

The thing is, what an aesthetically pleasing feed didn’t reveal was everything my eyes would. The money problems, the family baggage, the not-so post-worthy moments behind the so-called glamorous places that needed to tagged. Followed by the seemingly long-thought out process of editing, photoshopping, and picking at myself until I could deem that maybe there’s a part of me flattering enough to showcase.

Aka, whatever little slither of myself was left. Once analyzed and approved, then I could click the post button. Because you see, the life I created for myself on and offline was suddenly no longer tailored for me, but for everyone else. Suddenly, my feed and social media presence were my way of proving I was worthy of sitting on the pedestal I once imagined popularity and happiness stood on.

But it got to a point where I was comparing myself to people I hardly knew, simply because I had the access and the means to do so. I became bitter over people and things I knew nothing about outside of photos they shared that looked so perfect that they made me question my own. My own photos. My memories. What was mine suddenly wasn’t good enough.

And no, that’s not fair to peg that on what other people choose to share on their Instagram and their social media profiles, but I can’t help but admit that’s just how I felt.

Because for me? Social media was no longer a platform to portray a life I built for myself, but rather my posts collided into a sea of self-validation with the loss of any authenticity I once had. From fashion week to avocado toast and everything in-between, I was too focused on documenting what I wanted my own life to look like that I forgot how to just live in it.

So, I went dark on Instagram.

Only for a month. And does that even count? Well, I can at least say this much.

At first, it was embarrassing how often I found myself checking my phone, aimlessly headed to the folder where Instagram once was saved. The funny thing is how after deleting Instagram, I would aimlessly arrive to my photo app. A reel of 300+ photos with candids, blurry images, memes, saved snapchats. Past memories that were lived and felt, simply for the sake of happening not out of needing to prove a point no one even asked for.

In a short month, I can safely say I learned how to live candidly again. Because no matter how perfectly orchestrated a photo can turn out, it will never illustrate what the moment felt like. A first kiss. A second kiss. Intoxication under city lights. Wine nights with friends-turned-soulmates. Laughing until you're crying. Crying until you're laughing.

I no longer felt consumed by numbers, followers, and self-validation. I could live without the pressure and need of being seen. If I was doing something, somewhere, it’s because I wanted to. It sounds silly, but it should’ve always been that simple.

Now it doesn’t matter if I went out that night, or if the meal I had was “trendy”, and if what I was wearing looked anything less than flawless.

It didn’t matter anymore if anyone else’s day or life looked better mine.

Because I am finally at a place where I’m no longer chasing perfect moments but rather learning how to actually be in those moments, for everything they are. In Instagram’s world of grown-up, live streaming, show and tell— I have reclaimed my moments as only belonging to myself and how they never had to look picturesque in order to be worth having.

I knew I was ready to come back when I remembered what it felt like to do things for me and no one else. I could finally write this article without worrying who will read it, who will care, and if it even matters if people don’t.

So to bad hair days, repeat outfits, and mediocre meals galore—it turns out, my pedestal was in front of me this whole time.