As I prepare to wrap up this blog, I will tell you one of my favorite stories. I can look back on my time of internet dating from several years ago and appreciate it for its humor and insanity, but I don’t want to go back. I can’t defend or condemn online dating, I can only say that my experiences led me to many people whose interior walls were impenetrable to true intimacy, and so were mine. It was a safe way to date, and through it I learned how to be more vulnerable, and vulnerability is what is most beautiful in each other, don’t you think? Here’s the story:
It’s 9pm on a wintry Saturday night. I am preparing to do one of the riskiest things I’ve ever done, though it doesn’t feel this way in the moment. I’m on my way to meet a total stranger, who is visiting from across the country, to spend the night together. It sounds totally crazy, or maybe it sounds completely normal. At this point, I’ve begun to lose touch with my own compass. I’m on my way to pick up Max, who is in town from New York City. We met on OKCupid just after I decided to check YES to the “casual sex” box on my profile. Unlike every other man who responded to the casual sex box, Max seemed like he might have a modicum of respect and gentleness around this whole experience.
I pull up in front of a shabby Victorian in NE Portland, and a stocky redhead walks toward my car. He is cute, and young—22 to my 39. Max lumbers like a bear, and he settles into the passenger seat and gives me a shy smile. We drive to a cafe with the intention of talking and getting to know each other, but while waiting outside for a table we start to make out. It’s really good making out, and we decide we feel comfortable enough to skip the coffee. We head to my apartment, where we talk and kiss on the couch.
I have told Max that we can’t have intercourse. For one, I am nervous. For another, Lalu has asked that I don’t because Lalu and I have a date the next day. Because Max asks, and because he is as sweet and gentle as I suspected, I tell him the whole story of Lalu. Max is incredulous that I am allowing somebody who won’t give me his whole self to dictate who I can have sex with. For the rest of the evening (and the next morning, and for several months after through text messages), Max tells me that I am in charge of my own body and can do with it what I choose. This young, quiet, horny man has become my inner-feminist.
Despite all that, and thanks to toys, Max and I have a great night. I give him a ride back to his friends’ house the next morning, on my way to meet my second of four dates within the 24-hour period (not typical of me, but this is part of this crazy story). My second date that same day is with a woman named Emma. We meet at a small coffee shop near the river. Emma looks like a sturdy heroine from a Dickens novel: broad-shouldered, square-jawed, a strong but resigned look in her eye. She is funny, bright, curious, and we hit it off right away. We talk a long while and then walk along the grey river in the crisp air. Emma tells so many good stories in rapid succession that I begin to feel quite boring. And then we are back at my car and it is time to say good-bye. We make plans for another date and then I wave good-bye as she flounces away in her white dress. I am excited. I’ve not had a relationship with a woman and I think this could be something. You’d think I could cancel the other dates and just enjoy this, but no. I have two more dates to get through that day, and I am very under slept.
I scurry home from my date with Emma to change the bed sheets and get ready for my date with Lalu. I shower and try to rest a bit, but then he is at the door. Lalu is smooth in everything he does—the way he says hello, what he wears, how he moves and touches me. He is a contrast to adorable Max and perky Emma. As we kiss, I know this is the last time we’ll be together, in that indefinable way you just know that something is over. You can read all about it here, but for this story you just need to know that this was the day we decided to stop seeing each other. We make love. It feels good to be so close to a person, but I’m not satisfied because I’ve begun to fall in love with Lalu and he won’t fall in love with me. We say good bye and I close the door, feeling sad and confused. I cry a little, but not too much because I have my fourth date to get ready for!
For some god-awful reason, I have planned to cook dinner for my fourth date. This date is also with a woman—Meg, whom I’ve had two dates with and the spark just won’t ignite between us. I make a quick stir fry that I can tell won’t be very good. I am so exhausted at this point that I decide to lie down for a quick rest, and immediately fall asleep. I wake up to the sound of Meg knocking at the door. “Just a minute!” I call, and glance in the mirror. My eyes are red and my hair is messy. This whole day has been a dramatic experiment in just how manic I can get with my dating.
I let Meg in and it feels just as awkward as I imagined. If there is no spark by the third date, what are we doing? We spend the next several hours eating at the coffee table while she tells me the longest, most detailed story I think I’ve ever heard. It’s about her first love, and it’s truly a tragic story. It ends with the two of them separated by an ocean, a marriage, a homophobic culture and parents. I am literally holding my eyelids open by this point. I tell her I am coming down with something and that’s why I’m so tired. She chooses this as a good opportunity to launch into a one-sided discussion about when it’s appropriate to make a first move. I don’t realize that this IS her first move—the rambling on about making a first move—so I stare at my phone out of the side of my eye, watching the clock numbers change in slow motion. How is it only 8:00??
It’s at that moment that I realize my thoughts have been drifting back to Emma all day. She is the one. It’s harder than it should be to get Meg to leave. I make excuses about being tired and not feeling well, that I need to go to bed, and she counters with offers to stay and help me. We awkwardly hug at the door and then finally I am alone! I collapse into bed and read texts from Max, telling me he hopes I ended things with Lalu for my own sake, and reminding me that I have control over my own body. I smile and fall asleep.
I get to see Emma a week or so later. She is house sitting for a friend and invites me over for lunch. The house is beautiful, and she has made salmon cakes and salad, with homemade limeade. It is delicious and special. My nervousness is hard to contain. She is as light and bubbly as I remember, with more funny stories to entertain us. After lunch we move to the couch and I know we will kiss soon. I’ve never kissed a woman. I’m curious and afraid. What if I find it repulsive and can’t hide my reaction? Emma sits next to me on the couch and curls her legs up. She begins to stroke my arm as we talk. Her lips are full and rosy.
“I would like to kiss you today,” she says. “Would that be okay?”
“Yes,” I answer. “I think we should kiss today.”
We pause and stare at the dog.
“Is now a good time?” she asks.
I nod and then we move in and our lips meet.
Hers are exquisitely soft. My brain explodes. This is what it feels like to kiss YOU! my brain shouts at me. Is this how it feels to kiss a woman? No wonder men like it so much. I am surprised by how much I like it. It’s just like kissing anyone I like—zingy, sparky, wet—but silkier. When the kiss is over I confess that it was my first time kissing a woman. She pulls back and looks confused and excited at the same time.
“I’m sorry, I should have told you,” I say. “I didn’t want to scare you away.”
“Well, did you like it?” she asks.
I nod. “Very much.”
On our next date, we make love. I mean, I think we do. The whole absence of a penis is throwing me off a bit. When does making out become making love? Is it when the genitals come into play? Or is it when some form of penetration happens? When I arrive at the house, Emma is preparing to take a bath. I sit and watch her while she tells me about a couple she used to be involved with. I am fascinated and aghast.
“You mean you dated both of them at the same time? Wasn’t that super weird? And exhausting?”
“Well, it was mostly her. I loved it. We’re still great friends.”
Emma is so experienced and sophisticated, I’m going to have to struggle to keep up. She regales me with stories that shock me, but she tells them with such normalcy. I am curious to know more details, but afraid I will come off as a prude if I admit I don’t understand half the things she talks about.
Later, when we are in bed and in full make out mode, I am distracted by the oral sex debate happening in my head. I am very nervous to go down on Emma because, to me, that will be the make-or-break moment: either I’ll gag and admit my bisexuality has limits, or I’ll like it and… what? I guess proceed from there. I would rather just know now, though, so I kiss my way down her body and begin.
Men and women both talk about the vagina as the definitive orientation zone: you either like them or you don’t. If you’re in the gray zone about them, you probably don’t like them and might want to question your orientation towards women. I can tell you, now, that I like them. At least, I like Emma’s. All the things I was afraid of—that it would be fishy, dirty, too many folds—are not true. It is fresh, alive, and so much fun. But also very confusing. I assumed I would naturally know my way around, since I have one of them myself, but I am a little lost. So lost that I can’t find her clitoris. A newfound compassion for men swells in my chest. It’s confusing down here! I finally have to ask her if I am on her clitoris and she says yes, but I am still having difficulty staying on it. Oh well. I just do my best.
After that (did we make love? I think so…), Emma leaves the room and returns with a large shell, sage, and matches.
“Since this is your first time with a woman, I want to make it special,” she says. She lights the sage, lets it burn for a minute, and blows out the flame. The sage glows red and fills the air with white smoke and the smell of dry fields. She brushes the smoke over me and has me do the same to her. I am touched by this gesture, and it’s so much something that a woman would do. I have a feeling I’m going to like having a girlfriend. We lie down and I’m feeling happy.
“So, should we have the genital word talk?” I ask.
“You know, should we talk about the names we like. Are there words you hate, and words that really turn you on?” She is staring at me so strangely I can only assume no one has asked her this before. “For example, do you hate the word vagina or does it turn you on?”
“Oh. Um, not the word vagina. I’ve always liked cunt.”
My mouth involuntarily frowns. I don’t know that I can say cunt in a sexy way. It’s such a sharp word. It doesn’t roll off the tongue, wetly, like pussy, which is my preference.
“What about you?” she asks.
I don’t know what comes over me. Maybe I’m feeling playful, maybe I’m a little mad that she likes cunt. So I say, “I like the word beaver.”
Silence. I expect her to laugh but she doesn’t. “Huh,” she says. “Like, for your vagina?”
“Yes, haven’t you ever heard it called a beaver before?”
Several long moments crawl by. I want the joke to break, I want her to laugh at the audacity of someone seriously calling their vagina their beaver, but she is all seriousness. This is the first indication that things are not going to go well between Emma and I. Finally I sigh and say, “I’m kidding!” but she either doesn’t believe me or doesn’t understand why I would make such a joke.
“So… you don’t like the word beaver?” she asks.
“No. Sorry, I thought that would be funny. I like pussy,” I say.
“Ew, I hate that word.”
“OK…well, we’ll find something else.”
“No, I can try pussy. I’ll try it. I didn’t know you were joking. It was kind of a weird joke.”
“Yes, sorry. It was funny in my head.”
“I can be funny! I just don’t like dark humor,” she says.
My heart sinks. I can sense the peril ahead.
There are several more instances before our next date, through texts and phone calls, where our senses of humor clash. It’s really just mine. She doesn’t get my dry humor, my sarcasm, or my dark humor. She doesn’t even realize when I am joking most of the time. Sense of humor is what has buoyed every relationship I’ve been in. I mean, how the hell are you supposed to cope with other humans? I realize that I’m just not going to be funny in this relationship, and that is a weird place to be for me.
Meanwhile, I have started to do something I’ve wanted to do for years: stand-up comedy. I’ve only gone once, and honestly, I did pretty well. It was an open mic at a comedy club/school, and the emcee introduced me by saying, “This is her fist time doing stand-up, so please be kind to her.” This made the audience whoop and cheer for me as I took the stage. I had a tight bit I’d worked hard on, that mostly revolved around my fascination with a lover’s testicle skin, and I had brought my good friend who has a loud, contagious laugh and laughs at all of my jokes. Everything came together, and by the time I sat down another comic rushed over to grab my shoulder and whisper in my ear, “NEVER STOP DOING THIS!” I’ve been working on my next bit, perhaps a bit over-confidently, and it builds upon the conversation with Emma, when I suggested she call my vagina a beaver. I think it’s also going to do well.
Emma and I go to dinner at an expensive Peruvian restaurant. I had told her I couldn’t afford such an expensive place, so she is paying, which makes me feel weird, so I only order a salad. She orders half a chicken and keeps insisting I need more food. I have told her that I have somewhere to be afterward, but as we’re kissing outside of the restaurant we both start to wonder why we’re not spending the night together. I have very few free nights, when my daughter is with her dad.
“What’s this thing you’re going to?” she asks.
“Well…” I am reluctant to tell her, but I decide to. “I’m going to do stand-up at an open mic.”
She looks impressed and excited, and she wants to come. I don’t even consider that the jokes I have prepared are about her. I just decide that if I want to do stand-up, I have to be brave enough to perform in front of anyone. So I invite her along.
The club is close enough to walk. As soon as we enter, it feels different than the last time I performed. The room feels shifty and dark. There aren’t as many people. I check in with the emcee and Emma and I sit down. A couple of funny comics go up, and then the person before me goes on. I’m getting nervous, and it suddenly occurs to me that I should warn Emma that she is in the jokes I’m going to tell.
I lean over and whisper, “Oh, um, you might recognize these jokes I’m going to tell…”
She gives me a confused look, so I smile reassuringly.
The comic before me is horrible. Like, not just unfunny, he’s tasteless and tone deaf and mean. He’s telling jokes about a recent news story where a trans woman was killed. I look around the room, wondering who is going to pull him offstage, but no one does. His bit seems to go on forever, to a dead silent room. Then the emcee gets up to introduce me and says this: “Our next comic is very funny. This is only her second time doing stand up, but she killed last time she was here. Please give it up for Mercy Strongheart!” I go onstage to light, skeptical applause, cringing inside.
It’s as if I need to wash the last comic off the stage. A pungent smell hangs in the air, distasteful expressions on the faces in the audience. Emma has a wide, polite smile on her face. I smile and begin…
“So I’m doing a lot of internet dating lately. Anyone here doing internet dating?”
“Well, I’m seeing this new woman—”
Emma’s smile diminishes slightly.
“…and we recently had the parts talk, you know, where you say what names you think are sexy or gross for body parts.”
Sounds of shuffling and throat clearing. I’m going to bomb. I can see it.
There are other jokes in there, but nothing works. The worst part is not Emma, whose smile has become frozen on her face like a carved crescent of wood, the worst part is that all the jokes are tied together and they build into a big joke at the end about how we should offer genital-language classes to kids, which, if it doesn’t come off as funny will just come off as creepy. I’m doomed, I’m dead onstage. My choices are to cut it short and exit, to abandon my script and improvise, or to stay with the jokes and bomb. I choose the last. When I get to the part about telling Emma that I like my vagina to be called a beaver, you can hear a pin drop. Her whole body looks frozen and I suddenly wonder if I’ve done something mean.
The jokes all fail. I feel like I’m being lumped in the boat with the trans-hater before me, like that’s what is sticking out of everything I say, his grimy prints that never went away. I recite the last punchline to silence, looking like a pedophile who wants to teach children sexy words for genitals, and exit the stage to polite applause. I take my seat next to Emma, who smiles and nods vigorously at me, still clapping.
I lean over and whisper, “I bombed” to her, so she won’t think I meant to be so terrible.
“What?” she asks.
“I bombed,” I say more loudly, at the exact moment that the room falls silent, so everyone hears me. I sink down into my seat.
The next comic is bad, too, and would probably be silently cursing my name if they could remember it. We stay for the one after that, to be polite, and then I ask Emma if she wants to leave. As we walk back to the car she says, “So do you like your vagina to be called a beaver?” and I realize that she has missed the entire joke, again.
“No,” I protest. “I really, really, really don’t want my vagina to be called a beaver.”
“Oh.” She looks confused, like deeply confused. So am I. I’ve just made things worse.
Emma and I date for several months. We start to say I love you, and to use the word girlfriend. For me, every day is thrilling with its novelty. The first time we talk about borrowing each others clothes (it never happens), the first time we use a vibrator, the first time we go out with a lesbian couple. And then there is the first time I realize that Emma’s roommate is her recent girlfriend of four years, and they still cuddle in bed together. The first time I realize that Emma is in love with her best friend, who comes over to take baths with her. The first time I realize she still regularly visits and cuddles with another ex-girlfriend. I wonder if this is all lesbian normalcy, and some women I talk to say it is and others say it’s not. The point is that it’s normal to Emma.
Emma, meanwhile, is convinced that I will always miss having a penis in the mix. I tell her I don’t think so, but I wonder if she’s right. We talk about the option of having a man join us in bed sometimes (which is when she reveals to me that she has a male lover she sometimes makes love to), and for a while I feel like I’ve discovered the ultimate scenario: have a girlfriend, have threesomes, have sex with men. But that also never happens. Emma also doesn’t want to stop dating other people, and we wrestle with that for a long while. I finally resign myself to it and go on a date with another woman myself, which prompts Emma to fall into a jealous meltdown. After that, she agrees to be exclusive, but it always feels forced.
In the end, our relationship falls apart during our first weekend away. Her best friend, and that friend’s girlfriend, join us at the coast for an overnight at a hotel. The love affair between Emma and her best friend is on full display, and I realize I’m seeing sides of Emma I don’t like so much. She can be a bully, and I don’t know how to handle that. In the morning, I go down for hotel coffee and end up in a conversation with a kooky local painter whose son is about to undergo a sex change, and the painter doesn’t know how to handle the transformation. We are deep in conversation when Emma comes down and joins us. She is rude to the painter, and makes it obvious that she wants me to herself. I realize that we won’t travel well together, which is crucial to me.
We break up within days, quickly and over the phone. I feel great relief, and I sense that she does too. A few weeks later I decide to try stand-up again. I go to a different place, and my entire family comes to watch me. The emcee keeps inserting his friends on the list as they come in, late, which sucks because I get dropped to the last slot. Only one other woman has gone up all night. The male comics have been fixated on penis jokes. I’ve written a whole new bit about jogging, but as I get on stage something comes over me and I say–
“There’s been an awful lot of penis jokes tonight. Are you all ready for some pussy?”
The few remaining audience members clap and whoop loudly, except for my family, who have familiar frozen smiles on their faces—Emma smiles.
I launch into the same routine that I bombed with last time. This is a new club, new audience, new time. I think it will work!
It totally doesn’t. I completely bomb again. I sit down with my family, who smile politely and applaud too long. I look around the sticky club, with the few sad remaining comics, and I know I’ll be okay. Even if nobody else got the jokes, I did. I have successfully entertained myself, and I am happy.