A Year in the Underbelly of Sex in the City

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Like many women who come to the Big Apple in their twenties, Maria Dahvana Headley was determined to meet Mr. Right. Like many women, though, she couldn't find him. After dozens of failed attempts, Headley decided she needed to revise her dating strategy. So, she embarked on "The Year of Yes," vowing to go out with every person who asked her. The result is her witty, original memoir of the same name. And yes, this one is absolutely true.

Galley Girl: What was your life like before you came to New York City?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I'm from Idaho. I was there until I was 17. I grew up in a pretty rural place, in the middle of nowhere, farm country. Where I did not fit in, at all. I never did, and I always knew I wanted to leave, and go to New York. I was a huge reader, so I'd read all these New York-set books. I was all about Dorothy Parker, at probably a dangerously young age.

GG: You're a gutsy girl! How did you decide to have a Year of Yes?

MDH: It was just frustration, mostly. I was at the end of this long spell of dating a certain sort of guy, which is what I thought I wanted. At the end of Idaho, I was felt so squelched intellectually, I was like, "I want a guy who read a lot of books, just like me!" That's what I thought I needed. I thought, that's the only way it will work. I started dating these guys, all whom were interesting people, actually — artists, and Ph.D. — holding literary theorists — all very intense intellectuals. New York is famous for this type of person. And it's kind of great, but as far as dating was concerned, I was discovering that I wanted...more of a real man, I guess. Or more of a cowboy; what I'd grown up with, on some level, which was a surprise for me. Then, one morning, this guy called me up. We were not dating. He was someone I knew. There was a misunderstanding, and he thought maybe we were. He called me up and said, "I'm listening to NPR. Do you want to come over and make out?" That was the last straw for me. I thought, "If I'm getting asked about NPR as an aphrodisiac, I have taken a wrong turn. Something is really wrong here. I have to do something different." I was at least clear enough to realize that a lot of the problem was me; that I was critical; I was not talking to lots of people who talked with me. I was pretending they didn't exist. And I thought, well, maybe I just don't know. Maybe I don't know what kind of man I want. Maybe I don't know what kind of person I want. Maybe I have no idea. Maybe I'm just lost, and I should just let fate decide. Being in New York as a girl, you get lots of hissing and hooting and hollering and "hey, baby." I thought, well, all of those people are talking to me. I'm not talking to them. There are four million men out there that I have discounted. I'm probably dating this small category, there are going to be a hundred of them. Why not expand my pool?

GG: What were the rules? What did you decide you wouldn't do?

MDH: There were definitely some ground rules. Not as many as you might think, though. I said I wouldn't date anyone that was really drunk or high, or falling over. I didn't want to go out with somebody who was messed up, because, I thought, they're not in control. They're not going to be who they are. And I won't be able to control them, which is not a good thing. I didn't want to get into anyone's car, telling them where I lived. Some people knew, because they were my neighbors or whatever. But for the most part, I didn't even give people my phone number. I was trying to be safe. And I had to make a rule part way through that I would not date anyone who was underage. But that was about it. I went out with a couple of women. I didn't have a rule about that, and why should I have a rule about that?

GG: What attitude did you take publicly? Were you intentionally flirtatious? Were you were giving guys come-ons?

MDH: No, but I smiled at people and made eye contact with them. I said hi. Nobody does that here. Everyone has this patented focus that's just straight ahead. We try not to make eye contact with other people, for the most part, because we don't want to have those conversations. I'm still like this. I'm a pretty gregarious person. People are surprised to see somebody smiling at them, to have someone say hey. I think our society has gotten to a point where that almost never happens. So when it does, it's a big deal. People are really excited; people will come up and have interesting conversations with you, just out of the blue, if you are open to it.

GG: What was the most frightening thing that happened? Did you meet a few weirdoes along the way?

MDH: Oh, of course. Weirdoes everywhere. The thing that happened that was frightening was not so much related — maybe peripherally related — to the Year of Yes, to the dating stuff. Somebody, who I maybe knew, broke into my apartment towards the end of the year, and just sort of — I was there, I was asleep — watched me sleep, apparently. Took nothing. Just turned on all of the lights, stayed in my apartment, and broke my lock. That was scary. I thought, is this one of the people I had dated? I don't know who it was. It did no harm, but terrified me. That was pretty scary.

GG: Were some of these guys businessmen types?

MDH: Uh huh. One of them was a software millionaire. That was sort of a glamorous thing, except that he was very weird. He was French, and he lived with his mother on the Upper East Side. It was this doorman, glamorous building. He basically proposed to me after four hours. He was desperate — he'd been in a little software cave, I think, for 12 years. He had not come out. And when he came out, he needed to get married quickly. We met in the Barnes & Noble line, and he was just gung ho. And a little crazy.

GG: Now, some of what goes on in New York is just patter. Were any of these guys just amazed that you said yes to their advances?

MDH: Oh, yeah. I definitely had some guys walk away, who had been hitting really hard on me. I said sure, and they said, "What?" and turned around and walked the other way. Because it was all just bravado. Which was fine, because I didn't care. It was very interesting; it was kind of an interesting lesson in gender dynamics, on sort of a vast scale. It was interesting to watch different kinds of guys you would not have expected to behave terribly, behave terribly. Guys you would have expected to behave terribly, behaving like wonderful people, who had some different weird life situations. That was what was cool about it overall for me. It was eye-opening, and expanding.

GG: Where did these guys take you? Did you go to fabulous places during the year?

MDH: Not so much. It's like the underbelly of Sex and the City, this story! Sex in the City always rubbed me the wrong way, because it was so glamorous. My life was so not glamorous — we went to diners, we went to greasy spoons, we went to falafel places. It was really down and dirty. I was broke, too. I had no money at all. I was at NYU, putting myself through school, working like four jobs. So mostly it was just cup of coffee, glass of cheap wine. I still can't drink red wine. I can never drink it again, because it was just cheap red wine. I had a hangover for probably a whole year.

GG: And your best experience during the year?

MDH: Meeting my husband (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, author of "The Kentucky Cycle." So much for Miss Manners.)