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I was running very, very, very late for a first date.

A married friend of mine had been talking for years about how she wanted to set me up with an eligible bachelor she knew. It was, of course, the stuff of a Jane Austen novel. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of 6’2” or taller must be in want of a wife. We were perfect for each other, she avowed: with similar interests and comparable career tracks, we were sure to hit it off. For some reason, though, over years of both of our friendships with her and her husband, this mystery man had never materialized.

But one night, out of the blue, she’d sent me a text saying he’d be in my old hometown. It wasn’t quite a novel-worthy coincidence, though—I was going to be long-haul driving all day and only passing through. By the time I got his invitation for an evening cocktail, I was already frazzled, but I figured that it was worth a shot. At least I could cross him off the list of “someday set-ups.”

And now I was running extremely late. I sent him a frantic text, imagining a disgruntled Mr. Darcy giving up and walking away without ever taking the trouble to meet me. But when I finally piled out of the car, straightening my hair and my skirt, he greeted me with a smile.

For all my friend’s assurances that this was my dream man, I’ll admit that I’d been skeptical. But when I looked up (far up!) into those dreamy eyes, my head did start to swim a little bit. This guy was here to go on a date with—me?

My romantic experiences so far had been, well, not always too romantic. And blind dates, so far, had been painful and difficult at worst, and awkwardly self-conscious at best. Never much good at flirting, I often found myself constantly micro-examining how I looked, what I said, how I laughed—and being my own worst critic meant never really being myself.

But this tall stranger with the puppy-dog eyes and warm voice didn’t seem like a critic—far from it. I had driven all over creation that day, so I didn’t have energy to spare for anxiety and acute self-consciousness, and the sweet cocktail was washing away the last of my obsessive concerns about how I came across. He complimented the hair that I hadn’t had time to curl. I found myself cracking jokes and flirting like someone who actually knew how to flirt. The conversation never lagged, and we spanned regular first-date subjects—our families, our careers, a smattering of religion and politics—without ever getting bored.

“ . . . And I’m moving at the end of the month,” I found myself saying. “I’m starting grad school, and it seems like a really great opportunity."

He was enthusiastic and affirmative. “Actually, I got into that same grad school once. I ended up going where I did because it was more practical.” I always swoon at practicality in a man, and the conversation quickly swerved back on track.

As the date wound down and the buzz of the cocktails wore off, we wrapped up our conversation and headed to the parking lot. I hesitated, wondering what he’d say. Did he want to see me again? We did the awkward post-date hug and said goodbye, and I wondered what he was thinking as I turned with a wave to start my long drive back home.

Over the next few days, we texted back and forth. There was still a spark of chemistry, but we weren’t in contact often. In the meantime, I was packing boxes and calling moving companies, getting everything ready for grad school, and keeping track of all the unpredictable coronavirus-related restrictions that were affecting all those plans. After two or three days of sporadically texting back and forth, I realized this wasn’t sustainable. I didn’t know whether I’d be going into grad school with someone new to get to know, or going it alone. Part of me was wondering whether he’d make another move, thinking about what it would be like to get to know him better, and trying to guess whether he was thinking of me. And that part of me was proving extremely distracting from what was actually happening in my real life.

I finally realized that there was only one way to know: I had to ask. I sent him a message explaining that I wasn’t ready to add more uncertainty to my life. If he was interested in getting to know each other better, I was all on board, and if not, no worries, but I just didn’t have the bandwidth to play the will-we-won’t-we game. Then I turned off my phone and tried to forget the whole thing for a couple of hours of packing.

While I folded sweaters, I had a realization. I was about to go on an adventure—the new adventure of a lifetime, a new chapter of my life in a new town pursuing a new career. That was my real life. This conversation wasn’t about whether I was worthy of love, or even about whether he was the right guy for me. It was a conversation about whether he wanted to join me on my adventure, and if he didn’t, that was okay—I would do it by myself.

His response, when it came the next morning, was clear and honest. Realistically, he just didn’t see a relationship developing right now. I was disappointed, but I had to admit even in the moment that he had a point. And now, I think he was right. The fact is, no matter how great the guy, I needed to live in reality. My head was turned by the conversation and the cocktails, but starting a new relationship while also starting a new life would have been difficult at best. No matter how well things went, he would be miles away and employed full-time while I was pursuing graduate studies. We might know a little bit about each other’s families and careers, but we were still basically strangers. The dream-castle I’d built on one great date just didn’t fit into our real lives and concrete plans—puppy-dog eyes notwithstanding.

Nowadays, I’m pursuing my grad school dream, but more importantly, I’m living my real life every day, setting up a new apartment, reading my books, making new friends. I know that he’s living his real life somewhere else, and that one of these days, a new Mr. Darcy may just walk on by—someone who belongs here, in the life I’m really living.