I bury my face in the first piece of reading material I can grab from my parents' coffee table -- Men's Health. Maybe I'll learn a few tips on "How to Cook Like a Man" while the glossy pages muffle my grinding teeth.
It's not that I don't appreciate my family's good intentions asking after my health, my well-being, my nearness to producing grandchildren -- it's just a gut-level aversion to pressure, however well-meant. Plus, it irks me that such a banal, almost ritual parent-to-child inquiry raises yet another question that I'm not so sure I can answer: What does "serious" even mean, anyway?
Well, let's see. Discussion of marriage? Definitely. Discussion of preference between linen and Egyptian cotton sheets? Perhaps. Accompanying one's date to a party to meet his or her friends? Maybe. Accompanying one's date to Target while he or she shops for a new desk chair? Stumped.
Certainly, a couple's potential for progress is a good indicator on the "serious" scale. Some relationships progress naturally and quickly. Others reach a certain point and plateau. Still others are forcibly stunted by the desire -- however long it lasts -- to keep things casual.
But could I even tell whether a seemingly casual relationship was turning serious? What are the signs? It's said that in ancient Maori culture, a woman would mark the object of her affection with a cut or scratch on the arm. Bloody, maybe, but one wouldn't be left needing to ask Dan Savage what she was trying to say.
I'm relatively new to the dating game after the demise of a five-year relationship, and fine, OK, I'll admit it -- I'm a little rusty. Short of a prospective beau sticking a "sold" sign on the back of my jeans, would I be able to tell when it was time to have the "what are we" talk?
For answers I turn to my best friend, a gay man working toward his doctorate in clinical psychology. What he lacks in credentials he makes up for in scrumptious ramekins of low-cal chocolate pudding.
"What does 'serious' mean to you?" Jason asks. "The word means different things to different people."
A maddening answer, maybe, but he has a point. For my mother, "serious" meant the formal presentation of a sparkling, half-carat ring. For many of my friends, it's the ceremonial changing of their Facebook relationship statuses.
And for me? (This will require more pudding.)
To start, a date's genuine interest in my "me-ness" is a promising first stop on the road to getting serious. His "What kind of materials do you work with?" is an infinitely more attractive response to my love of jewelry-making than, "Oh, that's nice. Are you going to finish those potatoes?"
A sincere concern for my future might also spell "long term." If I ask a guy his opinion on a job interview outfit and he says something honest like "too much cleavage," that will score more points than a simple "you look great" any day.
Ironically, for me, things are less apt to get serious if he brings up serious topics too soon.
Once, over coffee and pastries on our first date, a guy asked me to tell him my deepest, darkest secret.
I swallowed and put down my fork before I involuntarily added new meaning to his gentle prod to "spill my guts."
But that's not to say staying superficial is a positive thing, either. Physical attraction will get you to a certain place -- namely, to those Egyptian cotton sheets -- but you can't coast along forever on lust alone.
Sooner or later, someone is going to have to break that starry-eyed magic and -- shock! horror! -- let out a fart. And yes, that will register as another step on the "serious" scale when they do.
In the meantime, I plan to tell my mother when she gets off the phone, a girl's got other things to think about -- her career, for instance. And getting out to see the world a little before putting down roots.
Or maybe, Mr. Too-perfect-to-still-be-single-so-what's-he-hiding will come along and sweep me off my flip-flops, and things will get "serious" before I can even finish typing "Facebook."
It could happen, mom maintains.
She can't be serious.
Rachel Heller is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and can be reached at email@example.com.