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Some folks back in DC spoke enviously of my chance to "become whatever you want," which didn't resonate. I was thirty-eight and basically liked who I was; it was my surroundings I wanted to change, not me. Yet in New York I did self-upgrade in ways I hadn't planned. I rode my bike on busy streets. I pitched stories to magazines I admired. I openly stared at the beautiful young men who congregate here like pigeons and taxis. Doing these things, on top of selling most of my stuff and moving into a railroad flat in Brooklyn with a very strange stranger, made me a braver person.
Reinvention didn't have to spring from self-loathing or secrecy, it seemed. It really could be organic, a form of becoming. And boldness was rewarded. Sometimes one of the beautiful men stared back, and looks sometimes led to conversation or dancing and then to kissing in a cab hurtling toward my place or his. I'd learn the gentleman's last name in the morning when we politely traded business cards, a Kabuki ritual of parting rarely followed by a phone call.
All this cosmopolitan action was thrilling and flattering and I did mean it when Ie-mailed my friends back home that "you don't need a boyfriend here, you can date New York." (I was embarrassed when Sex and the City later built an episode around the same line.) And I was also forming routines and routes and the buds of friendships. The real-life stuff joined or displaced images from books and movies and black-and-white photos, and the city started to become home.
But I was alone almost all the time. I felt more like a movie camera than a person, especially with my Walkman on. When the music lined up serendipitously with street life-say, a wrinkled beggar trudging through the subway car as Skip James or Robert Johnson moaned in my ear-I could briefly merge our movies by giving him a dollar, even pushing the headphones off to hear him out. But it was still two movies. My one-night stands and my professional "networking" card exchanges (which also generally came to naught) were just slightly longer movies, gracefully performed, polite, then over. I prided myself on not being in the suburbs watching TV, but sometimes I felt equally spectatorial. I just walked more.
So I went online to find a boyfriend. I clicked into the personals from the margins of Salon.com, where I wrote a column. I figured I'd throw my dating dollar toward my struggling employer, which was starting to show up on Fuckedcompany.com as the Internet bubble began to deflate. (Salon, still going, has proved itself the Rasputin of Web sites.) Back in 2000, people still lied about online dating, but I didn't have anyone to lie to. And it didn't seem humiliating anyway; it seemed more like another bold adventure.
I searched first, checking little boxes to build my parameters: nonsmoking, age thirty-five to forty-five males over 5'10" within ten miles of my zip code. I chose Any for race, religion, eye color, and the rest, clicked on Search, and reeled before the instant man-bounty. Hundreds of them, stacked ten to a page as if in an apartment building. The pictures to the left of the headlines were little windows opening into each story. Either a witty headline or an attractive picture lured me in, and I found hordes of funny, creative, attractive, thinking, evolving men.
I'd guessed this demographic would be more populous in New York, but I'd never seen them gathered so efficiently. I'd certainly been in no room, building, or even block of the city with so many intriguing eligibles. It did seem absurd to have to computer-date in the most bachelor-dense city in the land, but here was a promising new neighborhood of Sex City, a better way to bring the relationship seekers together. You could check Play or Serious Relationship, and most checked the latter. The Salon personals seemed a not-unreasonable place to find a partner for the second half of life.
Making the profile was like a cross between going on a first date and writing a personal essay-and more fun than either. I quantified recent, middle-aged shifts in my mate priorities: warm over cool, soft over sharp, humble over certain. Figuring out how to scan and e-mail a photo boosted my pride in my technical competence. Crafting an adorable written me while sitting at my computer in sweatpants and dirty hair was a uniquely relaxed way to date. I didn't know yet that the paradoxical self-description is the clichè of online dating, so under Why You Should Get to Know Me, I put independent yet loving, sincere yet funny/ironic, tomboy yet sexy, and I made bettyveronica my handle. Making a big deal of my contradictions felt forthright, as if I were also admitting to my less attractive loner dyads: impatient yet tenacious, judgmental yet acceptance-preaching, critical and thin-skinned. I put my real age and my weight on a good day.
8Glass wrote me after I'd been on a week or so, opening with
Sorry I haven't written earlier, but I wanted to give you enough time to fool around with the other guys around here, 'cause I figure if we end up liking each other (and I'm hard pressed to see how we're going to avoid it), I don't want you wondering forever, "What would it have been like with that cute guy from the Netherlands who had that featured ad, or that half-naked Calvin Klein pinup boy?" No, better to get it out of your system now. I clicked onto his profile: he hadn't showed up in my search because his ad was hidden from all except those he contacted. He had big, dark, kind eyes, and his three photos included an older one featuring him with long hair. He seemed like what we called a progressive back in DC, an earnest sort I was having trouble finding in New York. For the "celebrity he resembled most" he put "the Holy Ghost"-check. Guys who list actual look-alikes, usually actors, come off vain and deluded, plus I'm a sucker for a blasphemer. He listed his occupation as "do-gooder"-check, social conscience and deflation of self-righteousness. Everything he wrote was witty and smart, subtle, layered, and decent. He lived in the East Village, my favorite neighborhood and only six subway stops away. It was all there.
I labored happily for a half hour over my three-sentence response. I asked if his handle meant he chomped shards like some carnival freak or if he was the eighth sibling in Salinger's family of geniuses. I also said I'd had trouble finding left-wingers in New York. I honed and honed and lobbed back my reply.
He answered immediately, pleased I'd gotten his handle's reference. And we were off. First a flurry of on-site e-mails, then the name disclosure and the switch to regular e-mail. In a few days' time, we were sharing our lives. Nick did well doing good, designing housing for the poor; he was a red-diaper baby who'd lived in New York all his life. He told me the exact bohemian history I wanted to know. He steered me to E. B. White's "This Is New York," a work whose wisdom and beauty attached to him in my mind. I told him my new-in-town trepidations: Smart people took fashion seriously. Writers slandered and gossiped instead of discussing Craft. Donald Trump was a folk hero. I e-screamed, "ME TOO!" when he shared his loathing of the city's eponymous anthem to crawling up the backs of one's fellow man, "King of the hill, top of the heap." Nick validated my doubts about the city, but told me I'd still grow to love it. Just what I wanted to hear.
Soon Nick and I were e-mailing ten to fifteen times a day. I guess the homeless were on their own those days; I know my work wasn't getting done. I'd try to log off but couldn't help peeking one last time for his name in my mailbox. He Googled me and read my columns, then e-mailed them to his friends and told me their compliments along with his. We typed long quotes out of favorite books and sent mini-essays about beloved movies and music. We agreed on politics and told self-flattering stories about our families and past relationships and kept jokes running over days. He rhapsodized about the beauty of my picture, not overtly sexual, but romantic. Drawn-out flirtation like this was a new treat: I generally would have slept with someone I liked this much by now.
Perhaps it felt so close because I "talked" to Nick from the room where nobody had ever been except the one-night stands and my cat Spud, confined inside for the first time in his fourteen years. I typed all my parental guilt to Nick, the first New Yorker I'd come out to as an overdevoted (not crazy!) cat lady. Was I not in effect a jailer, I agonized, knowing how happy Spud had been roaming the big yards of DC? Nick assured me I was anthropomorphizing and that retirement in a Brooklyn apartment was the best and healthiest life a cat could have. More of what I wanted to hear. As Nick and I shared more and more affectionate dailiness and art-discussion loftiness, he seeped into the room, settling among Spud and the photos and paintings and taped-up quotes, the stuff too precious to sell at my yard sale.
After two weeks of virtual woo, we decided to meet. He picked a bar on the edge of Chinatown. I washed my hair and got dressed, took the subway to Soho, and walked south on Hester Street, inhaling the world after too long at the computer. The city was as erotically charged as ever, but softer now that I shared it with Nick. The fire escapes looked to me like black lace draped down the brick walls; the cobblestones, lumpy quilts thrown across the narrow streets. Nick's wit and compliments and wise observations played back in my head like music. I forgot that people on the street could see me beaming till their smiles reflected mine. We weren't eight million lone voyeurs anymore; we were all costars in a romantic comedy.
I reached the cross street, started checking addresses, and spotted a man leaning near a door. My breathing raced alongside my thoughts as I drew closer: "That's got to be him. I hope I'm not late. No way he's 5'11". I should have worn flats. He's not-well, I probably don't look as good as my picture either, though my picture's not as blurry as his. Would I look twice at a stranger this short and kind of odd-looking? If I liked his personality, yes, I would. Anyway, it's not a stranger, it's Nick." I straightened my skirt, smiled, and sauntered up to him singing: "Mystery date. Are you ready for your mystery date?"
The man who looked like a plainer version of Nick made a face that wasn't a smile. Uh-oh. I thought the singing was cute, but maybe too show-offy. "You're way too tall," he blurted.
I kept my smile propped up while my brain reeled: "What does that mean? It's bad, right? Not 'too ugly' or 'too fat,' but if it starts with 'too,' it's negative. After all the eloquent, gracious words he's typed, he opens negative? What's going on? And wait a minute, why's he's criticizing me, the one who's generously overlooking his misrepresentations of height and cuteness?"
I kept smiling and pointed vaguely at my boot heels. Then I struggled on and said it was great to, uh, meet him, if that was the right word after all, you know, all the e-mailing. I couldn't help noticing I was doing all the work. We went inside and sat on uncomfortably high, narrow bar stools; I hunched to look shorter. We exchanged some more close-lipped smiles and nods, ordered our wine, and then he turned and asked in a snide tone, "So how was your day, dear?"
What the hell did that mean? Was it a joke about our faux familiarity online? Some sort of crack about us being old and never married? Did he simply hate the way I looked and everything about me and want me to leave? I gulped down my wine, moving to an impromptu Plan B. While I'd been primping for Nick, I'd decided to slowly nurse one drink during the date. I was intimidated by his written intelligence and wanted to keep up. I didn't want to sacrifice thought processes to obliterate my fear and I certainly didn't imagine having the third "what the hell, let's make out in the bar" glass of wine with this gentle Cyrano.
But my thoughtful swain seemed an aggressive boor so far, more to be put than kept up with. He gulped his wine too, and we lunged in tandem for refills.
"What are you thinking?" is not a question that ever gets asked online. The correspondent is the e-mail is the thoughts that exist for you, the recipient, alone. That's all there is to him. I glanced unhappily at the stranger next to me and wondered where it all had gone-all our recognitions, coincidences, compliments, shared guilty pleasures, "oh my God me toos." Our relationship had been the realest thing in my life for two weeks. Now it was dissolving as fast as a dream you try to preserve upon waking, squeezing your eyes against your real life pouring in.
But our correspondence wasn't a dream. It was tangible and retrievable. Stored on two computers. More solid than speech and gestures and facial expressions and body language, in which I felt completely illiterate at the moment. Nick, what are you thinking? Our clear and well-chosen typed words were a truer expression of us than this inarticulate, hostile flailing in a smoky bar-weren't they? I gulped my wine miserably. This was the kind of ontological conundrum Nick and I might have tackled together in e-mail. We'd hit no obstacles in our perfect communication until we came to this accursed bar.
And I'd been the one to push for meeting. "Everyone who's e-dated tells me the same thing: don't dally online. Get to the F2F-face to face," I'd said on the phone-a conduit that wasn't as good as e-mail for us, but still immeasurably better than the corporeal fiasco in Chinatown. "Everyone says the initial meeting is weird if you wait too long."
"Maybe they didn't wait long enough," Nick had protested, his voice rising wildly. "Maybe they should have e-mailed for a year. Maybe what we need is a return to courtly love."
Excerpted from I Love You, Let's Meet by Virginia Vitzthum Copyright © 2007 by Virginia Vitzthum. Excerpted by permission.
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