I remember the heady days of high school when I was first able to “date” on my own. Let’s face it, having a car or at least a license to borrow mom and dad’s opened up a whole new world. Rides to school. The hallway meetings hurrying between classes. The long lunches spent cuddling up and making out. It was all about connection. I certainly had no real social graces when it came to dating. I did what everyone did: dinner and a movie.

Dinner usually consisted of fast food.

Movie was whatever was starting at 7.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember any of the movies I saw during that time when I was out on dates. The movie was just the excuse. We wanted to be together. We wanted to be connected. And that last word is something that I tend to forget in the midst of my more “mature” relationships.

There’s all this amazing chemistry at the outset of a relationship. “New Relationship Energy.” It’s great being in this kind of honeymoon phase. It feels like it felt in high school. But unlike in high school, there’s all this other stuff that I have to pay attention to. I have to get up and go to work. I have to take care of my home. I have to pay my bills, fix my car, and keep up my obligations and appointments. Time is a commodity, and it doesn’t take long for life to take over from the rapture of being with someone new.

Unfortunately, though, chemistry isn’t connection. And chemistry, while it can always be present, isn’t the same as being grounded together and fostering that deepening bond. Also unfortunately is the fact that somewhere along the line, we stop being satisfied with just spending time together. I, for one, start relying on things that are more monetary in nature. I’ll send flowers. Or maybe I’ll take her out for dinner. And while those things are nice, they’re different from the things that are connecting.

Going to dinner is fine, but it doesn’t always have to be something extravagant. What about cooking dinner for her instead? What about making sure she has the things she likes always on hand? Try being attentive, because I get much more mileage out of genuine presence than I do the “things” I give to her.

It’s time.

And more than that, it’s quality time.

The things that stand out most for her? The days we went to the beach and just laid there watching the waves come in. Hours we sat there. We laughed. We talked. And it created an easy kind of rhythm for the afternoon, even giving us the opportunity to joke about the windburn we shared, or how much we had to pee by the time the afternoon was over!

There was a time we went hiking, and on a whim, I’d bought a dollar thing of bubbles. And we walked with her using the wand and blowing bubbles the entire time. She wasn’t in the best of moods when we first started. But it sure didn’t take long for things to get fun and silly and lighthearted; for her mood to ease, and for the afternoon to dissolve into tenderness. Because bubbles make everything fun. Go ahead. Tell me I’m wrong.

It’s funny. The things I enjoyed most as a kid: going for walks, playing games, watching movies, getting ice cream, sitting by the fire and making s’mores, going to the beach, or just hopping in the car and driving with no destination: those are the things that are some of the most enjoyable memories I have now as an adult.

Connecting starts with a foundation of time. And that requires both people to make time. Especially when both of us are busy, we make sure we make dates. We start talking about it days ahead of time. And sure, there’s sexual tension. We both enjoy each other sexually, and we talk about it as a way to amp up the tension. We send each other pictures and text messages, egging each other on. But it’s not just about showing up for the physical intimacy. It’s making time and just being present without some sort of agenda or routine.

Robert F. James is a lecturer in creative writing at San Jose State University. He’s been a professional writer his entire adult life, and his writings primarily focus on the challenges of modern masculinity. He lives on a small hobby farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, where he raises chickens, rabbits, and ducks while managing a small garden. He’s been a Sailor, a pastor, a television and radio personality, and a professional piercer. His eclectic background lends itself to an exploratory aspect of his writing. His work is an authentic reflection of the issues he puzzles over on a daily basis, and he spends a good deal of time outdoors to process them. A large herd of deer on the property seem to respond favorably to his ramblings.