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WHAT MEN MEAN WHEN THEY ASK FOR A NUMBER

Dear Carolyn: I am a totally disgusted 29-year-old woman. I cannot understand how a man can ask for your number and then never call. An even better scenario is when you go out a time or two and, with no indication whatsoever, never hear from him again.

I have wracked my brains and those of my friends. I have been dating a lot lately, and this keeps happening to me, but I have been told I am an attractive, fun, good person. Why can't a man be honest and say he's not interested? Why even get a number if you never plan on using it?

-- Bothered
A. If this were a conversation between two friends, this is where I'd pour you a beer, push the honey-roasted peanuts your way (with a long stick so you can't bite my hand) and ask if you wanted to talk about what was really bothering you.

I have no idea why two dates with you is enough. It could be bad dates, bad social skills, bad breath. It could be that you're unrealistic to expect clickage with even one guy in five, 10, 50. (Why do you think we do a goofy little dance when finally something does click?)

It could also be that ferociously bad attitude you're nursing, but that falls under "chicken or egg?" and I don't have the space to answer that one.

But whatever is fueling your slump, that's the thing you need to get freaked out about -- not by perfectly normal and acceptable behavior from the men you're meeting. When I jot down . . . I don't know, the name of a store, that isn't a promise I'll shop there. It just means, "eh, has potential." Guys are often no different with numbers.

And when they do call, and you go out all of twice, do you really want the third call to be, "OK, I'm going to stop calling now"? Unless you're sleeping with them (which would be your eminently solvable problem right there), there's no relationship yet to end. Memo to jerks: This is not permission to be a jerk.

Something else to consider. It's clearly not fun any more, and so what are the chances that you are fun at this point? Start laughing or take a hiatus.

An explosive secret

Dear Carolyn: My cousin, 16, has been giving the family the flux: She has run away from home repeatedly. Anywhoo, I thought I would talk to her to find out why the mysterious disappearing acts. She candidly explained the situation in detail, informing me that she may be pregnant.

I did not discuss this with her mom (my aunt) because I wanted my cousin to feel as if, no matter what happens, she could always come and talk to me (I'm 23). My aunt found out, from my cousin, that she was in fact pregnant, and when she asked me if I knew something about it, I admitted that I did. Now, my aunt's got a big beef with me. Should I have spoken to my aunt about this?

-- Trustworthy or Untrustworthy
A. Wow. Glad I'm not you.

To tell was to betray your cousin's trust, and to withhold was to betray your aunt's. There may have been a way out that could have preserved your standing with both, but it required your taking a more cautious route in to the whole mess.

Your candid confessor was a minor, and to me that says you had a higher level of responsibility than to lend a passive ear -- especially after she dropped a bomb like that. Granted, this is all easy for me to say now, but I think you needed to tell your cousin that, as her friend and generation-mate, you would have loved to give full secret support -- but that, as an adult, you were obligated to protect her as well. That meant getting help, and that meant telling the auntie.

Not necessarily your telling the auntie -- and that was your wafer-esque opportunity to appease both sides. You could have encouraged your cousin to do it herself. And if that didn't work, cajoled, begged and threatened. (Verrry gently: "One of us is going to have to tell her something, and she'll wig out far less if it's you.") Whatever it took to get her back under family wings. That way, you could have helped without betraying either side.

Theoretically. Had you tried this, you could have scared off your cousin and still embittered your aunt; you can never predict how people will respond, even to a careful, responsible plan.

Meanwhile, daughter told mother regardless, and you remain an adult your cousin can spill to, and maybe your actions were best. The randomness of these situations is why, in the end, you can only perform for your conscience -- and hope like hell things work out.

Understanding this leads to your next step -- asking your aunt to understand this in your effort to patch things up.

Write to "Tell Me About It," c/o Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail: tellme@washpost.com.

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