Call me a slow convert, but after considering my slim dating prospects in a small town, I decided to give online dating a try. Perhaps my long-sought life partner (56, 6′4″, twinkle in his eyes and outdoor gear at the ready) is waiting for me in another state?
In the Beginning
Much to my chagrin, I rapidly become obsessive. My love of wide-open, blue-sky possibilities—tinged with a smidgen of panic over “Will I ever marry?”—culminates in frantically checking my inbox at unexpected moments. Has Rick written? Has Jeff answered my questions? Has a new guy surfaced—someone so uniquely suited to me that I’ll laugh out loud and say, “Yes, yes!”?
Sure enough, Gregg writes, Dave answers my intriguing queries, and a new guy—Peter or Matt or Neal—pops up unexpectedly. And we start again with the exploration, the who are you and are you enough like me to be compatible but different enough to be fascinating (rather than weird). Every evening, I open my online account and hold my breath.
I used to think of my future man as simply “tall, dark, and handsome.” Now I think in terms of “Jim, 57, 5′11″—accounting manager, New Haven, Connecticut” or “Bryan, 52, 6′2″—artist, Phoenix, Arizona.”
Many days, my hopes are dashed when Jim goes silent or Bryan “closes me out,” saying our values are too different, and I find myself almost indignant (How can he say that after only four emails?) and then introspective (Was I too eager, too revealing, or not open enough?).
After a few months away from the emotional drain of searching and not finding, I’m back online.
I learn to let a lot of profiles pass me by, looking for the few who stand out: Scott, who can make me laugh in one short sentence; Will, whose recently read books are on my wish list too; and Ryan, who, at seven feet tall, literally does stand out from the crowd.
As I talk about them with friends, they become Wilmington Scott and Remington Steele Will and Tall Ryan.
One of my earliest email connections is Lutheran Joe, a former pastor. Then there’s New Jersey Jeff. Nice alliteration for the boy from the Garden State. Along the way I also interact with Fisherman Matt, Artsy Earl, and Physical Fitness Kenneth (who is obsessive about his body . . . and expects the same from his partner).
With far too many, we reach what I call the uh-oh moment: that second in time when someone with so much potential sets off alarm bells.
With some matches, that uh-oh moment surfaces quite early. Like when Cooking-Dancing John asks my opinion on something and then proceeds to criticize me. Or when Prince (no, not that Prince) informs me (on the second email exchange): “Nothing is more beautiful than you wearing only the moonlight and my kisses.”
Still in the Middle
I move slowly into the giving-out-the-phone-number stage. Lutheran Joe is the first guy I actually speak with, after a (very long) series of emails. I have great hopes, yet our first call (and our second and our third) feels as if we are continually missing each other’s volleys on a tennis court. Swing and a miss.
A wise friend later tells me, based on her own experience, “Don’t email too long before you talk on the phone, and don’t talk for too long before you meet. You see more of the real person at each stage, and I’ve been surprised a few times. . . .”
With Gentleman Tom, our emails in one day are fast and fun, so I say yes—daring, daring me—when he says he’d like to call. I give him my number, and we chat and laugh for quite a while. Then he says he’d like to see me. Tomorrow.
Tom lives two hours away, and he’s willing to drive over for dinner. Why not? I say to myself. Still, I set up safeguards: meeting at the restaurant, not giving out my last name, telling a friend my plans.
Tom and I have a nice time. Not a wonderful time, but a nice time.
Some people might call them little things: that he asks almost nothing about me and talks so much at dinner that I almost feel invisible. That he picks up his soup bowl to slurp down the last little bit.
After our date, I write a thank-you note. If we lived closer, I say, we might enjoy dinners or a hike sometime, but the distance is just too much.
He’s kind and appreciative and appreciative in return, although disappointed. And so over the next week, I flail around in my mind: I ended that too quickly. I should have given it a second chance.
I end up making myself a promise: Once you get this far, give everyone a second chance unless you see red flags.
Suddenly, I see that my online membership is about to end again and that the slow build-up of potential men is actually starting to move forward. Maybe this cyberspace game of red-light, green-light is going to work after all.
Musician Rick is still in patient, consistent pursuit. At the same time, I’m itching to hear again from Psychotherapist Steve, who says he checks his email every morning, wondering if he’ll hear from me. And Chesapeake Jim—who has appeared out of nowhere—tells me not to disappear like Cinderella.
I sit back in amazement. Jim seems fascinated with me. He calls me “effervescent.” Have I ever been called effervescent? No, indeed not. And now, to Chesapeake Jim, I am effervescent.
More from the Middle
And then the computer produces tears yet again: Jim has decided to pursue a different Cinderella. I guess that effervescent is not enough.
Soon, however, I get over Jim as conversations with other men begin speeding up. In one two-week stretch of time, I meet four different men in person.
And then, everything funnels down to one guy. Rick.
Musician Rick, who sends me a Valentine’s gift and suddenly starts ramping up communication. Who has a great voice and a round, deep chuckle.
When the Valentine’s gift arrives, I demand, “You don’t even know me and you’re sending me gifts. When are we going to meet?” And we make plans.
Two weeks later, I drive up to the hotel where he stayed after a late flight. And there he is.
Finally, the End of the Middle
You know, I’ve heard my share of online horror stories: seemingly great guys who are actually living with a fiancée; women who turn out to be fifty pounds heavier than their photos; those whose emotional imbalance is frightening. Psychotherapist Steve recalls being stalked, and Photographer Matt shamefacedly admits being swindled out of cash by someone in Nigeria.
But my first date with Rick is nothing like that. He just seems, well, normal. We have a great weekend—hiking, wandering into used bookstores, cooking together, and meeting different friends of mine. He’s kind, asks good questions, is a gentleman and then, wonders of wonders, wants to meet again.
I enjoy him, but I can’t get past the fact that I feel no magical attraction, which isn’t technically a red flag, but I’m not sure. Still, there’s that promise of second chances. . . .
Fast forward a few months, and I, in turn, spend a weekend visiting Rick’s hometown and church and local haunts. We pick out live lobsters from a tank for our dinner and take pictures of each other in the town square. I almost can’t believe we’re doing this—both of us buying plane tickets to see if this will work. Wondering if we’ll become an online-dating success story.
But when I board the plane to return home, I inexplicably start crying. And I know. Without even analyzing it, I know. There just isn’t enough here. I’m not interested in more than friendship, and neither of us can afford to continue buying plane tickets. So, I have to tell Rick.
So, here I am—approaching what seems like years of this online experiment. I wonder if I’m too busy and too drained to keep doing this. Maybe it just isn’t for me. If everyone else can meet people the “normal” way, maybe I should get off the computer and hope for someone new to move into my town.
But there’s this new guy named Steve, just two hours away. . . .
Cover image by Bonnie Kittle.