Image: Tina Tiller

Come on baby, light my fire

In the second of our series on Alie Benge’s dating journey, she ponders if that intangible, unpredictable thing that is spark is really as crucial as she’d always believed it to be. 

I usually leave dates feeling buzzed from the interaction, regardless of how well it went. A few weeks ago, for the first time, I left feeling like I was running out of energy. We’d had a fun conversation. He was smart, woke, and crazy beautiful – cheekbones for days – but I’d looked at him across the table and felt nothing. I texted the friend committee, “It was fun, but no spark,” and they realised I’ve said that nearly every time. My short dating rampage has been solely first dates, with one exception. It occurred to me when I left Cheekbones that maybe I’m making a mistake by using spark as my metric. I keep one eye on commonalities or red flags, but mostly I’m looking for that electric hum in the air. I decided this time I’d ignore the lack of spark and keep trying. If he wanted a second date, I’d say yes.

I never heard from him again.

Attraction and spark are different things, yet both are intangible, unpredictable, and not solely determined by appearance. A friend spent months emailing someone from a dating site for older people and when they finally met, she knew it was over. “It was his hands,” she told me. My hairdresser arranged a Tinder date. As she was approaching, she saw his shoes, took a sharp left turn down an alleyway and left him standing outside a bar waiting for her. I don’t care what you look like at all. I’ll be attracted to the way you move, to your energy, and to whether you make me feel safe. I decided I liked someone on a date when he crashed into a table and apologised to it. My type is very specific. It goes like this: he was a massive nerd growing up, but post-high school he grew a beard, found that being smart was suddenly cool, and that he was somewhat higher on the social strata. By the time we meet, he’s in his 30s with some high-powered job and a work ethic that doesn’t align with my need for constant attention. At first I’m intimidated because he seems cooler than me, but then he trips on his shoelaces or accidentally mentions his Dungeons and Dragons character, and there he is: that big nerd, and I’m done for.

Spark comes from interaction rather than attraction. You can be attracted to someone on an app, have a great text conversation, but you don’t know if there’s anything between you until you interact in real life, and the air either crackles around you or it doesn’t. I analyse dates from three points: attraction, spark, and compatibility. If I was smart, compatibility would be the most important metric, but it seems so cold and logical. Attraction is lowest on the list, because I’ve experienced how it can grow from nothing, but I’m not sure spark can. Perhaps if it’s not there from the beginning, it’s not coming. Attraction is the ember, not the spark, and sometimes that ember just doesn’t take.

At the same time, spark has led me wrong so many times. It’s deceptive if there’s nothing behind it. There’s a man I have insane chemistry with. I’m always aware of where he is in a room. Even when we chat online, something between us is fizzing. The thing is, I don’t even like him as a person. I don’t know why we’re friends. If I trusted spark as the final word, I’d be with this man who makes me want to put my hand over his mouth.

Considered objectively, Cheekbones and I were that unsexy word: compatible. I presume that spark is picked up mutually, in a way that attraction isn’t. So presumably, Cheekbones didn’t feel it either. While I decided to keep trying, to see if blowing on that ember might light something up, he didn’t. Perhaps that’s why dating online feels so fruitless. There’s an abundance of options, so if there’s a single doubt about someone, I can throw my hands up, get my thumb out, and start swiping, looking for someone who ticks every box instead of finding a compatible person and just choosing them; just deciding to make it work.

If I met Cheekbones at a bar, I’d feel like I’d found a rare thing, purely because of the uncertainty of being liked back, and by virtue of having found him “in the wild”. A piece of gold glinting in the river is much more exciting than a display of rings in a jewellery store. Maybe the cold efficiency of a mutual right swipe takes too much chaos out of the early stages of liking someone. That was what I liked about the apps: the certainty that the other person was interested. But when I think back to pre-app days, I’ve had more spark with people when I didn’t know if they liked me. It’s the chaos that stirs the ember. It’s the difference between stalking a deer through a valley, or having pictures of deer lined up in an arcade game, ready to be popped in the head.

I neared the end of this essay, still with no answer to the question of whether spark can grow or whether to pursue a date based on compatibility alone. I didn’t have enough data to reach a conclusion, so I messaged America, from my second Bumble date, to see if I could ask him some research questions. He turned out to be two minutes from me, so I grabbed some hummus and met him on the beach. Hummus on the beach (not a euphemism) turned into a walk, which turned into dinner. At the two-hour mark the ontological status of our spontaneous hangout shifted into second date territory. At the four-hour mark, I’d answered my own question: keep going. Blow on the ember. Spark lights up when you’re least expecting it.

Read the first in Alie Benge’s series on her dating journey here




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