Like clearance rack shopping or a poor episode of Saturday Night Live, online dating requires patience and just enough hope to sift through the unappealing until something gives you pause. Wading against the internet ether in search of that something, clicking over endless profiles, I assured myself that at the very least I would be amused by my online dates, and I certainly wouldn’t get hurt. It turns out I was only half right.
In some ways, online dating lends itself well to love’s multi-layered screening process. First, there is the diligent analysis of profile photos. I like to think of myself as open-minded, and I responded to chat requests regardless of – and sometimes out of morbid curiosity – what I initially saw. Going off of the pictures alone, I conversed with a pirate sporting a live lizard as a facial accessory, a leg cast, a Chevy truck and a medieval knight in a homemade–and endearingly dented–chainmail outfit. And then there was the lovely gentleman who had taken a photo of himself in what appeared to be the basement from Silence of the Lambs.Next, if the profile photos did not inspire fear for my own safety, there followed the text interchange. I was astonished by the amount of men who sent me messages in Spanish, Russian, or what I can only call Not English, in spite of the fact that I had typed my own profile entirely in English. I was very wary of the overuse of emoticons and punctuation, which tends to come across more as the inner workings of a mental disorder and less as innocent, though manic, flirting. And, of course, I found myself dodging the obligatory onslaught of horrific pick-up lines. My personal favorite: “Are you a baked potato?” The punch line being that the man believed I was, like any well-prepared spud, “hot.”
Stage three is the phone call. Within the first five minutes of speaking with one man, our roles as potential dates morphed into those of counselor and patient. Despite our relatively normal online chats, over the phone I suddenly felt the need to comfort him for over an hour as he let loose a fraught story of how he became sickeningly depressed when his girlfriend dumped him – five years ago. There was also the man who interpreted our exchange of phone numbers not as an opportunity to call me, but as a personal invitation to send me a constant barrage of text messages like clockwork which were increasingly shrewish, until silence didn’t do its usual trick, and I felt the need to send him a polite cease and desist.
Finally, there is the meeting, where you leave the cocoon of your head and all its interpretations of what had gone on so far and merge an online phantom—a disembodied voice—with reality.
The man I finally met in person had created through words a witty, amatory, deep and elaborate environment comparable to a fractured fairy tale. I was his princess, and he galloped toward me on his horse browser, a PC-oriented prince who would rescue me from the nefarious suitors I had met online so far. We talked about everything from Ayn Rand to personal struggles to varieties of cheese. Over months of almost daily chatting, texting, emailing and sending a multitude of photos amidst a few phone calls, he led me to believe that he was—if not the one—a man at least not cringe-worthy.
But online dating is detrimental for what it hides. The all-important first impression consists mainly of the unspoken visual cues, body language, a chemical interaction that can only be felt by presence and, when you are just typing, your basic instincts are severely compromised. The subtleties of a person’s face explain so much more than the written word and, as a writer, I sometimes forget this. His subtleties — the lack of eye contact, the touching of my hand and the tone of his voice — in turns condescending and fawning — hurt and confused me. At the end of the night I was exhausted. I wondered whether half the things he had said to me online were mired in sarcasm and if I had been completely disrespected without knowing it.
Weeks after our date, the silence from him made any uncertainties I had about his feelings toward me irrevocably clear. I was in a purgatory of shame over the attraction I could not shrug off, which had been building so indelibly, right up to the moment that reality shattered it.
But the lesson I take away from my online dating memberships is invaluable. Better the incompatible suitor you know than the Prince Charming you don’t. I’d rather confront all variations of the male gender in person — would rather be called a baked potato, get insulted, or fall in love, directly, with a double dirty vodka martini in my hand and him sitting right across from me the whole time.
At least I would know for sure that he was there to begin with.