I had my first date when I was fourteen: a boy named Bobby Dublin asked me to go to a movie. My second first date was last year, and though I’ve had almost half a century to work on my romance skills, the second was possibly worst than the first. At least the first one came with popcorn and a Nestlé Crunch bar.
Between these two landmark occasions, I was married for forty years. I met my ex-husband at grad school in the late sixties, and people then didn’t date; they “hung out.” We “hung out” for two years before we got married, at which time I assumed I’d never be called upon to do this again.
But I was wrong, and eight years ago my husband asked for a divorce. We’re still friends, but being alone after that many years requires readjustment. In my case, readjustment consisted of being angry, swearing off men, and wishing I could marry my dog, Cecil. As this was not possible, my friends kept telling me to try dating sites. One of them had met a gorgeous man on Match.com who lived two streets away from her. He’s a doctor and pretty much the total package; they got married and have lived happily ever after. So I signed up.
I thought my profile was clever and compelling. No one else did. No one cared that I have great taste in music, read a lot, and am a good cook. I got a few responses—not from anyone I’d want to meet, except perhaps the horny seventeen-year-old who said he liked cougars. It was tempting, but I thought if I engaged with him the stress would give me a stroke or a heart attack.
Then one man sent me a note. He was divorced, solidly employed, and had read a book or two. We chatted on the phone. He had an American accent, but he told me he was Indian, Parsi to be specific. We made a date for the weekend and I started getting ready for the big event.
Now, here’s why I’ve decided that I’m constitutionally unable to date: I forgot how to do it. All I could remember was that it was critical to keep the conversation rolling. So I went online and Googled Parsi. The Parsis, or Zoroastrians, practice an ancient religion, and they’re very much a minority in India, I discovered; there aren’t many left. They’re known for being highly educated and often wealthy. I should have left it at that, but I kept researching.
I found a piece from 2012 in the Wall Street Journal about one of the Parsis’ most pressing problems: the vulture shortage. Traditional Parsis still adhere to a moving, beautiful practice called dokhmenashini, a sky burial in which they rest their loved ones’ corpses on high pillars in sacred Towers of Silence, and wait until birds of prey descend and leave nothing but the clean white bones. The mourning process takes four days.
For centuries this has worked out quite well, but because of environmental issues, the vulture population is now dwindling. The deceased are left on their pillars to bake under the hot Indian sun. I won’t go into detail, but it’s not a pretty picture.
When I read this article, I thought I’d hit dating gold. I had a unique, distinctive conversation topic. All was well.
But sitting across the table from my date at a drab restaurant near Hartford, Connecticut, I could tell we weren’t a match. I knew he knew it, too. Still, I’d studied for this, and I thought I might be able to add kindling to the fire. So I said, “I am so sorry to hear about the vulture shortage in India.” He looked at me like I’d just grown a second head. He didn’t say a word, so I pressed on: “If my mother had died and she was on a tall pillar and no one was eating her, I would be bereft.”
I took a long draw on my Tanqueray and tonic and waited for his response. After a long pause he said, “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you are talking about.” To my surprise, American Parsis don’t see the vulture crisis as a pressing issue. In fact, he’d never heard of sky burial. “My father is buried at the Holy Name Cemetery in Wallingford,” he told me, adding, emphatically, “UNDERGROUND!” And that was that. We left before we could even order entrées. He looked nauseous, and I know I was.
I’m not counting on a third first date. But I still think the vulture situation is a wonderful conversation starter. Maybe Cecil wants to hear about it.
Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT. She is the canine editor of Departures. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook ser