Things my dates have given me: A California king-sized mattress. An umbrella. Strep. Too many free meals to count. My first taste of jicama. An artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. Stories of countries I will never visit. A cigarette on the balcony of the Oakland museum. A front-row seat to the ballet. A particularly horrible poem about going down on women, The Cleft by Doris Lessing. A hand massage that nearly made me cum. Serious pause. Things I gave them, which they then forgot. Their opinions.
I went on a date with one beautiful man who utterly failed to know himself. Ask why? Regarding any of his opinions and he would answer ‘I don’t know’ every time. It was actually kind of remarkable.
One man told me his earliest memory was sitting under a table with his parents during an earthquake.
One man told me there were no great women writers. I told him some historians think Homer was a woman. He said, ‘that’s one, then’. I said something mocking his profession and before I could finish insulting him, he kissed me. This callous competition continued all the way to his apartment. File under: hate-fucking.
I went on a date with a woman and kissed her cheek goodbye. Watching her bus depart, I worried I’d overstepped my boundaries. I wondered if men would dwell on this.
One of my dates used to be a prostitute. Specifically, he catered to rich cuckolds. He bragged that at any given time, he could guarantee that he had seen more old dudes jerk off than anyone else in the room.
I met a man who lived off the grid most of his life, in America and abroad. He claimed not to have a social security number. He spoke German and lived in the unfinished attic of an Oakland Victorian. Birds’ nests filled holes in the walls. The bathroom and kitchen were the same room. He told me he’d been struck by lightning and that shamans were initiated this way.
I met a man who would never be my boyfriend, with whom I shared the most sexually adventurous friendship of my life. On our first date, he said ‘you’re a little subby, aren’t you?’ This surprised me. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Yes you are,’ he said. ‘Okay,’ I said. Blushing a little as I bowed my head.
Shortly before I left California, I received a message on OKCupid. It read: Hey, I really enjoyed our hike through the city last year, and I was a little sad we lost touch. I’d love to meet up again sometime if you’re interested. It was Xander, one of my first dates in the city, sending a follow-up message 364 days from his initial introduction.
I only had two weeks left in the city but in that time we hiked a Redwood forest, slept in a sailboat, shared a milkshake in a diner overlooking the Pacific, read to each other, walked inside a giant camera, built bonfires on the beach and spent days in bed. I told him about Alice and he wanted to play a game. He began to touch me lightly on different parts of my body—elbow, rib, throat—and asked me to describe how I felt. How the sensations differed. When he touched my cheek I took a deep breath and said: ‘Vulnerable’.
Now, what happened here? Both of us assumed romantic disinterest on our first date, though neither could recall why. We’d changed considerably in the intervening year and were unprepared for new attachments. Did technology allow us to track down what would historically be “the one that got away”? Was the OKCupid algorithm smarter than us? Or had we simply allowed ourselves to fall in love, having no plans or designations to disrupt us?
I did the thing you never do in romantic movies. I boarded my plane and returned to Alabama. Xander and I wrote each other letters, emails, texts, and snapchats, and somewhere in those transmissions something happened. Talking to him became a kinder way of talking to myself. Once a week we Skyped late into the night. It’s strange that you cannot maintain eye contact through the computer. Instead, you’re gazing through. We independently decided to remain in denial about our feelings. Nevertheless, when he visited months later, I said ‘I think I love you’.
Ponder the classic couples: Catherine and Heathcliff, Rochester and Jane, Romeo and Juliet. In addition to Those went badly, I realized something else: in the old world, you only got one impossible love. Now we have airports and polyamory, dating apps that outpace our ethology. Through the internet we can sever emotional ties from physical ones, and vice versa. The accidents of geography can be assuaged, perhaps even forgotten.
For all the offense, online dating has its perks. You can vet each other and save face. You can ghost and block and deliberate. Who knows where the social experiment ends and how mate selection will change as the digital age progresses? I really hope my great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers were hypocrites – it’s too depressing to think they only slept with the men they married.
‘Do you want to see this?’ Xander asked toward the end of our third date, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. ‘No,’ I’d answered, lying down in the passenger seat. I was exhausted from our hike through Muir Woods. Whalesong was playing on a cassette tape and I was concentrating on not vomiting in my crush’s car.
‘I think you do,’ he said. ‘It might be your last chance’.
Reluctantly I sat up and looked at that seamless gold place where the Pacific meets San Francisco Bay.
The trick is to look and keep looking.
Part 3 of 3 feature installments in the Nerve series IT’S A MATCH: Exploring peril and grace in online dating.