It wasn’t a date. It was a hangout. We met up on a rainy night in the middle of April, to have dinner at a designated locale. “Present!” I texted upon arrival, and he stood up accounted for, waving me over to the bar area. We greeted each other with a hug as the bar tender asked if we would like a table. I let Sam answer, and he said that the bar would be fine. 

Sign: an object, quality or event, indicating the probable presence or occurrence of something else.

Symbol: a thing that represents or stands for something else.

Everyone knows that a hangout differs from a date, though how, or in what way remains largely unqualified. A date is both a sign and symbol. It is an event that indicates the probable presence of something else, namely, attraction, and, traditionally, it serves as a symbol that stands in for something more: courting, love, marriage, etc.

A hangout exists outside the bounds of a date. It may be a sign or a symbol, but it may not be. Thus, choices and actions are not necessarily emblematic, but may be merely situational. And, in this way, a hangout is more like a happening than a date.

A happening is a participatory event or situation. Its only acknowledged purpose is a lack of purpose. It is individual while relational, un-instinctive while transgressing instincts, ahistorical though unavoidably situated within the historical, and it feigns asexuality while involving the sexes.

We spoke intently, openly, honestly and flirtatiously. We broke the rules, discussing both religion and politics, sharing anecdotal stories about family and personal experience. Like children, we were expressive, eschewing whatever first-hangout rules should exist, painting less than flattering self-portraits, in order to display our true color palette, asking without asking: Could you really love a picture of someone like this?

At the end of the night, he walked me home. Holding my umbrella high above our heads for protection from the rain, I asked, emboldened by the evening’s free exchange, if he had expected any of this to come from what had been a brief introduction weeks ago. He was quick to ask what I meant by “this” and I was quick to restate my question, so as to bury my enthusiastic inference denoting the possibility of an “us.”

At my door, he bid me farewell, with another hug. “See you soon,” he said. “Yes, I hope so,” I replied, attempting to convey heartfelt sincerity with just the subtle use of verbal italics. “Are you sure you don’t want my umbrella?” I offered. But he declined, pulling up the hood of his jacket. And despite his text that evening, “so fun!” a quiet feeling told me that this was it, this was the end.

Much like the happenings of Allan Kaprow, a hangout leaves a person feeling somewhat unsettled and largely confused. Why are the women in nests? Why was there jam involved? Or, why did he pay for dinner, if it wasn’t a date? Why touch my leg if merely in pursuit of theological exegesis? We briefly texted each other in the coming days, but there was no follow-through on the plans he had eagerly proposed.

Had I been invited to participate in a happening, I might have prepared my mental nest, accordingly. I might have ceded that all conversation and gestures were a mere play at sign and symbol, a mimicry and parody of intentionality and meaning. He ordered a piece of pie for us to split. He held and helped me into my coat. Oh the ritualism!

But, one is unable to read a hangout, precisely because its sign and symbol are without character. It’s meaning less.

Clare Halpine is director of WYA North America. 

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