There is a shared understanding amongst internet daters of the tragedy in what we are doing: our joint slaughter of the ethos of romantic love. Choosing to artificialize the part of the story where eyes meet across a crowded room, we drive a sword through Cinderella and her Prince. Choosing to completely skip the story of star-crossed lovers pining away in guarded chambers, we hasten the poison to Romeo and Juliet. “Fuck all that shit,” we seem to be saying. “I’ve got 4 hours a week for dates, and they better be good or I’m gonna be pissed that I chose a date over lying around in my underwear watching Netflix.”
We want finding a mate to be like online shopping: drop-down menus of endless options that we can quickly and precisely scroll through to choose the one that fits us perfectly, or most affordably. And dating sites give the illusion that there are always more and better options to be found. Even the name of my favorite dating site, OkCupid, implies impatience or resignation. Is the name saying, “Go ahead and settle for just ‘OK’!” Or is it saying, “OK, Cupid, I’m sick of waiting around for your stupid arrow. Give me the bow and let me choose for myself.” Probably a little of both. We have collectively given up on waiting for time or fate to bring us the connections we desire.
And yet it seems to me, from where I’m sitting now, that the happiest romantic connections are still made without the internet’s help. People who meet at work or through friends, in school or out doing something they both love. People who meet and decide they are attracted to each other before going on a date. Without plunging into the philosophical dilemmas of the meaning of happiness and the nature of monogamy, I’ll share that I hold onto a dream that one day I’ll find my one and only in some spontaneous, heart-stopping encounter.
Sometimes, after a half hour of cruising an online dating site, ignoring the salty messages that come in every few minutes when a female’s status shows her as being online, I begin to romanticize dating in The Real World. The blizzard of online male attention makes me believe I could close my computer, throw on a cute outfit, strut into a bar and choose my date from dozens of men all toasting pints in their muddy, post-bike ride clothes. But just as that is an unrealistic fantasy, so are the images we create of ourselves online. It can become a never-ending, increasingly depressing loop of fleeing reality for online fantasy, then fleeing the reality of online dating for the fantasy of real life.
Storybook romance did come true for me once, and we were almost inseparable for 11 years. After we split up, I had a few years of… disappointing romantic encounters. By the time I tried online dating, I had come to believe that love was extremely rare and shouldn’t be let go of so easily. I was 31 and wanted to become a mother, so I made myself a promise that the next time I fell in love with someone who was ready to have children, I would take the plunge and just do it. I truly believed that if I loved someone enough, we could work our way through any problems. 10 years later, divorced and a mother, I no longer believe that love is as powerful as all that, but I do still hold out hope that I’ll find someone who I am happy with most of the time. That seems attainable, doesn’t it?
In the meantime, I fill my date nights with contrived courtship and planned passion. And even with all the internet consorting, there is still the occasional fling with someone I meet in the real world. For me, I can’t say that one is generally better than the other, but one does typically start off a little less weird. I have never become used to the experience of walking into a cafe or restaurant looking for a person I have seen only in pictures, under the guise of potential intimacy with them.
A series of irritating and short-lived relationships led me to try online dating in the first place. It began with Eric, who started out promising but ended up being very ill-matched for me, as I wasn’t into emotionally unstable men who were prone to violence and suffered from erectile dysfunction unless acting out a rape scene. Call me boring. Then came Graham, the aspiring politician with permanent strands of thick saliva dangling between his lips (he was actually nice enough, minus the spit issue, but the spark was never there for me). But meeting both of these men was so romantic! I met Graham at a friend’s house party. A gypsy jazz band was playing live in the basement, and Graham and I ended up dancing together all night. Then he walked me home and asked for my number underneath the moon. Sigh. I met Eric in a bar, which doesn’t sound romantic, but it was totally that eyes-meet-across-the-room, heart-catches-in-your-throat story. For a while.
Next came Nate… Nate, who I met at a Hogmanay party where he sat at the piano all night and shook the room with jumping music that we all took turns dancing and singing to. Nate and I waited until we were among the last 5 guests before talking to each other, but then made out drunkenly on the sidewalk. Nate, who requested during our first phone call that we split the bill on our first date because he’d “been burned before.” Nate, who liked to write me erotic emails in which he used the word “manhood” to describe his genitals, and “garden of eden” to describe mine. Nate, who was a professional pianist with gorgeous eyes and a voice so deep it made my underwear vibrate. Nate, who farted constantly in these little, staccato chains that he never once acknowledged. Nate, who listened quietly to the story of the miscarriage I’d had when I was 26, then breathed a huge sigh of relief and said, “Oh thank god. I thought you were going to say you’d had an abortion.” Nate, who when I replied, “No, but I did have an abortion when I was 23, thank god”, stood up without a word and walked out of my house, ending our relationship right then. Nate, who showed up out of the blue, weeks later, at my bus stop early in the morning, acting like nothing had happened and like it wasn’t at all creepy that he knew exactly when and where I would be alone. Nate, who called me out of the blue a year and a half later to tell me he’d made a mistake and wanted to marry me. Nate, who I am still afraid of running into, 11 years later.
After Nate, I seriously began to question how many available men my age were viable prospects for marriage and babies, which is where I saw myself headed. To make matters worse, I soon fell head over heels in love with somebody who didn’t, couldn’t, see me romantically and became my close friend instead. I watched up close as he became enamored with one cute, fussy girl after another. Those cute and fussy girls had been upstaging me since sixth grade. Sometimes being upstaged bothered me, but usually I figured that any man who was so easily enraptured by glossy looks was not my type. That’s what I told myself, anyway. And that’s what I was telling myself when I bravely committed to joining hundreds of people on a naked bike ride around the city on a Friday night in June.
I was feeling confident enough that week to at least go topless on the ride. I told my friend Amy, who I’d gone with, that I was going to keep my underwear and mini skirt on for fear of chafing. That was only partly true. The thing I didn’t say out loud was that I couldn’t bring myself to moon all those riders behind me. Our ride took us all over the city and into downtown. We did a couple of loops of downtown, which gave the bar patrons a chance to gather on the streets with their cell phones up, hooting and hollering and high-fiving us as we rode past. For some reason, this made my confidence soar. I sat up, stuck my boobs out, and waved at them as I rode past. “YEAH!!” yelled a bunch of drunk dudes. “SHOW US YOUR TITS!!” Kind of redundant, but okay.
At the after party, which was in a huge industrial gallery, I put my shirt back on and danced to electronic music underneath red lights. Amy had left and I didn’t know anyone there, but I felt wired after the ride and didn’t want to go home. That’s when I noticed a gorgeous, lost looking young man staring at me. He was wearing a cycling cap and a pink chiffon tutu. I smiled and tried to look flirty. He came over and danced his way out of the tutu (thankfully had pants on underneath), then bashfully pulled the tutu over my head and wriggled it down to my waist. I had never imagined that having a man put his tutu on me would be hot, but it was. That was Zed. Or, as he came to be known, Lawnboy.
Zed and I went on to have a wild night that ended in my basement after sunrise. In a weird twist, that night is what led to me meeting my husband. Read Part II of this post for more.