Liking: A tale about online datingby Jenni Quilter
One drink in, it became clear that date number one didn’t think too much of my profile.
He had a point. I had not even attempted the first section, “My self-summary.” Answering, “What am I doing right now?” I had replied, “Suffering questions designed to provoke existential dread.” I had left “The most private thing I am willing to admit” blank. I had also misspelled my moniker and couldn’t change it without paying money, so was stuck with VivanRutledge.
“I thought you were cagey,” he said. “Are you afraid your students will find you?”
I had not worried about it before.
We ate turkey jerky and olives, and in a mostly empty bar, the barman watched us talk. I did not know then that there is a distinct look to an internet date.
He told me that he used to live in San Francisco. This was where the love of his life still lived. I asked him if he’d gotten over her. “Either I’ll never get over her,” he said, “or it doesn’t matter anymore.” After that, he was in a five-year relationship with someone he met online, but he didn’t want to talk about that one.
We talked about homemade vodka stills, music composition, motorcycles and Vermont. He had indigestion, and fits of hiccups preoccupied him from time to time. He was currently working as a systems specialist for a lighting design company. “Saving the world’s lighting, one rich person at a time,” he said. “A guy I work with says that.” I liked that he gave credit where it was due.
It may have been the whiskey, but at a certain point he hit the praise button. He thought me better looking than my profile photo. He thought that he shouldn’t help me improve my profile. I thanked him for being nice. And he was.
I told him it was my first online date, and he was attentive and aggressively flirty in all the ways I had been dimly afraid of — proposing he accompany me to my friend’s lingerie business in Hudson that weekend, suggesting I stop by his place after a masked ball that weekend — but he had also been willing to talk about almost everything. He had listened with care. I keep on wanting to write that his eyes were kind, but that’s not it at all. He was just aware.
Outside, he watched me unfold my folding bicycle, and asked for a kiss. I gave him one: wet, brief, aunt-like.
But there are those who’ve never dated online. Yes, still. And they’re stuck on terms and phrases like “self-summary” and “love of his life”. Really? they may be wondering. You talked about that? And maybe some are thinking they should try this. This one is for them.
The next night was my second date. We had agreed to meet at a Japanese cocktail bar that is known for its ceiling fresco of unhappy-looking Asiatic cherubs. We drank, and talked and smiled at each other, and the smiling and the talking were utterly separate, like sound and image in a silent film.
As I cycled home afterwards, over the Manhattan Bridge, it was surprisingly cold. I was drunk, and very aware I was grinning into the darkness, and grinning at my grinning.
He came from Montana. While we were waiting for a table, we had sat on the bench outside. To sit next to him felt instinctively comfortable. I was happy to talk; I even nattered. He was moving to Brooklyn from Hoboken, and looking at apartments in my neighborhood. I found myself not wanting to write about him. I had the superstitious delicacy that comes with the things you either want or are afraid you will not get.
I met my third date two days after the second. In one of his profile photos, he had a full-face temporary moko. I paid so much attention to that that I couldn’t recognise him at the cafe in the East Village — nor did he recognise me. We sat alone at separate tables for 10 minutes before he got up to go outside, presumably to call, and I tried to steal his far-superior corner table. He came back inside and caught me, hovering, an inch away from sitting down.
He worked as a copywriter in advertising, was from Ireland, had lived here for decades, still had the accent. He was at least 15 years older. He did not want wine, or beer. He used to. It seemed that for him, each decade was as distinct as a country, and that this one lacked natural resources. He was living in the East Village, biding his time, knowing that he wasn’t biding it for a partner or child, a better novel (he’d written three), family, or any other teleology we measure our lives by. Nonetheless, he was still biding. I asked about Dublin. Sure, he lived among soft, overly optimistic fools now, he said, but no, he wouldn’t go back to that sharpness, that negativity. I recognised the guilt in thinking that home was not enough. He had a wit on him; he was quick, quicker than I, quicker than nearly everyone he knew. He also had a flourishing, conspiracy-minded sense of the controlling elite in the United States, and spoke darkly of the Ivy Leaguers controlling things.
That this was the default, though, says something about how OkCupid works. They want you to feel inundated, deluged. I would scroll through the user names, marvelling. Beautiful_Ruins. Acharmingmonkey. Cool_calm_king. SurgeoninNYC. Funfunfun. DO_NOT_VISIT_ME. The only other time I had inspected photos like this — amateur close-ups, one by one, each face flashing by — was when I read news reports of a mass killing. A faint Pavlovian grief kicked in; I could see the pastness of them all too clearly. And there were so many! It was as if I had crested a pass and come upon an entirely new eco-system, a microclimate: thousands upon thousands of men, stretching away past the horizon line of my understanding.
The city seemed different. Colleagues’ somewhat inexplicable dating stories — “She’s a semi-professional basketball player” — now seemed utterly explicable. “Oh!” I felt like saying at least five times a day. “Oh!” No one had talked to me about internet dating, but everyone was doing it. Here I had been stumbling around in the dark, my hands stuck out in front of me like a zombie, tripping over furniture, and now I had these night-vision goggles. I could step over and around and towards people with an accuracy that seemed magical.
But I was not accurate. I did not spend hours trawling through profiles. It was a comfort to me that the website was so vast; I told myself that even if I tried, I would never exhaustively know my options. I wanted to let synchronicity rule. Another way of saying this is that I was still rather passive. And I did not have particularly high standards: I had no consciously framed deal-breakers, my age range was laughably large and I did not know that if you clicked on a tab labelled “The two of us”, you could read their answers to questions you had also answered, and see, for example, if they also agreed that having sex on drugs was a somewhat good idea, or if turning a right-hand glove inside out would turn it into a left-hand glove. So I never did. I registered the percentages — how much they were a match, how much a friend, how much an enemy — as if they were bodily measurements, but the difference between a 75% match and a 92% match didn’t seem like a huge deal breaker. With the exception of my first long-term relationship, all the men I have loved would not register as a match for me. This sounds more loaded than it should. Or maybe it sounds just about right.
Still, I culled about 95% of the messages I received. This is because I didn’t respond to those who just sent pictures of their bodies, or those who were more my enemy, percentage-wise, than my friend or my match. I didn’t respond to drift netters (“Hi. Enjoyed your pix and profile. How are you on this fine weekend?”), or admonishers (e.g. “Normally I’m sceptical of anyone who mixes up book, movie, food, and music preferences…”), but I did respond to those who indicated they had actually read my profile. Answering, “I spend a lot of time thinking about…” I had written: “Raptor Jesus. Why your bones pop and crack. Fierce-looking women with very straight backs. Teeth. That the only place I can see a visible pulse in my body is a tiny dimple of skin just below my ankle bone. If people ever really give up. Voice-over artists. Neural pathways as river beds. Metaphors. Working fireplaces.”
The men I responded to asked me questions about these things. One explained the process of nitrogen bubbles in synovial fluid. Another speculated that I had thin ankles. A third sent me a link to an article about neural networks. When they suggested a drink, I accepted. I didn’t really allow myself to register the physicality of their photo; I didn’t gaze at their face, try to guess at the body beneath the cloth. I figured that the difference between a profile and a person was so naturally large there was no real way you could dismiss the latter based on the former.
In other words, out of fear and reason, I reined in my romanticism. I told myself I would go on 10 dates and then reassess the situation. I did not look at other women’s profiles.
What I’m doing with my life
But I also had the convenient excuse that I was not American. Growing up in New Zealand, I did not date, but roamed in packs. Relationships grew out of friendships. The thought that you could kiss a stranger on the basis of an hour-long coffee date was laughable. A “conversation” about whether to even hang out in the first place seemed bureaucratic.
Nonetheless, despite my smug dismay with American culture, I’d grown up with American TV. I knew about dating’s symbolic capital: about collecting and trading and returning digits, Valentines cards, football jackets, or golden hearts (half-hearted or whole) hung on golden chains. I knew about private lines, and orchids on wrists, and being picked up at your door and dropped off at it. I knew about crying and eating ice cream out of the tub (though we had only large square plastic tubs, not your dainty circular ones), and how friends might arrive to squeeze me into heels and a dress and plant me at a bar where a nice man could smile at me across the mahogany. “Would you like…?” Oh, yes. I knew about that opening line.
Even if I had not experienced any of this for myself before I moved to New York, I had the guilelessness of a tourist; I expected that living in New York, I would be subject to these ideals’ effect, even if I didn’t subscribe to them. And throughout six years of a long-term relationship in New York, part of me kept on waiting for the other shoe to drop; even if dating seemed ridiculous, I still wanted to be asked. But it never came. That man across the bar never smiled, never sidled up too close to me. I was hit on, yes, but not formally. There were private declarations of affection, but not public ones. I watched rom-coms with an incredulous, pleading eye. This all seemed ridiculous, and yet it never happened to me.
A couple of weeks later, date number three and I went on a second date to The Counselor. In one scene, a body double for Cameron Diaz straddles the windshield of a sports car, her legs split open wide with the impossible right-angledness of a Barbie doll or an 8-year-old professional gymnast. She’s wearing a very short dress, and no underwear. She slowly rubs the fulcrum of her body up and down against the glass. Javier Bardem is sitting in the driver’s seat, taking in the show.
There was something great about how embarrassing this was; it was supposed to be sexy, but it was like watching a snake eat a mouse. I knew exactly what it would look like from Bardem’s perspective; her vagina would look like one of those fish that eat the algae off glass tank walls. I think my delight must have showed, even in the dark. I sensed my date looking askance. We had agreed to smuggle hot tea and snacks into the movies. He had brought his own apple and cheese and cookies, and did not share them. On the long escalators down, afterwards, he told me that the women — Penélope Cruz and Cameron Diaz — were not hot enough. “There’s no good reason the men would act like that,” he said. “There are plenty of hotter women out there. Why not give them a chance?” Indeed. He texted a few days later, wanted to go on a third date. I felt dismay.
Jamaica Kincaid, writing about matters much weightier than these, has said that “the space between the idea of something and its reality is always wide and deep and dark. The longer they are kept apart — idea of thing, reality of thing — the wider the width, the deeper the depth, the thicker and darker the darkness.” This idea holds true for most things, including online dating, where it seems there is more gap than matter. There’s the space between Cameron Diaz’s legs and mine; that one’s easy to spot; everyone loves to talk about Unreasonable Expectations of Female Beauty. But there are so many other gaps here. There’s the gap between what date number three was like online and in person. There’s the gap between our general expectations of dating and its reality. Ditto for love.
One of the common complaints I’ve heard from women about online dating is that men lie on their profiles: in person they are shorter, less adventurous, poorer and in general not the resolute go-getters they made themselves out to be. But in general I didn’t experience any egregious misrepresentation; at least, no more than the relentless hyping of one’s life on Facebook. Such a complaint really indicates a more general gap between your online and “real” worlds. Part of the continuing shame in online dating seems to come from the notion that you, in person, are not enough; that you need to create an idea of yourself to get anywhere with anyone else. Compounding this gap is that social-media platforms usually involve some kind of reduction of self-hood; not only do we construct an idea of our self, it’s an impoverished one.
Zadie Smith has written about this with regard to Facebook, pleading, at one point in her review of David Fincher’s film The Social Network, for people to “step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment. Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?” She’s right. It does look ridiculous. She quotes Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget, in which he suggests that “different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies become ubiquitous, become invisible”. Smith worries because she can sense the final turn of the screw. If information systems, as Lanier suggests, “under-represent reality”, might we come to consider that level of information sufficient knowledge of the self?
You can see where I’m going with this. In general, people love to bitch about OkCupid; it’s one way of dealing with the social anxiety of being on the site. Most of the stories people tell about online dating tend to be horror stories, and even if they aren’t that horrible, they’re told with a kind of droll terror. (I’ve heard grown women seriously debate whether to go on a date with a man who posted a photo of a cat dressed in a Broncos jersey.) Of course, this kind of judgment can be an anticipatory defence against being found wanting yourself; there is the fear that the idea of you will not be enough, that you couldn’t even attract someone when you were operating in the abstract. But people don’t say this.
What they do criticise is the general tone of OkCupid, the way in which everyone sounds like a culture snob; the site under-represents reality because people, in their profiles, over-represent a carefully selected list of likes and dislikes, as precise as a character’s tastes in a Haruki Murakami novel. If there is any kind of cultural reduction encouraged by OkCupid’s template, it’s a kind of self-deprecating high-low-brow aesthetic that’s prevalent in Brooklyn. Imagine Girls, but about boys — the same neurotically weird specificity, but without nearly all of the savagery. Here are a few choice morsels from various profiles: “I have a hat collection. We should play Hats sometime.” “Sometimes I write haikus. Sometimes I will read a book on philosophy…while eating fried chicken.”
If distressed denim is a reasonable category of fabric (is it ever really that distressed?) then I’d argue for distressed wit as OkCupid’s tone. The self that this all implies is funny, yes, but also strangely stiff. It’s très cute until it begins to chafe.
For all the fumes of loneliness this site must run on, there is very little explicitly acknowledged pain. OkCupid has a shortened lozenge-shaped logo for its search tab with a candy-pink background that’s shaded from top to bottom, pale to deep (blushing) pink. If blue was the richest colour to Zuckerberg, then this logo suggests a desire to be clean. The letters are lower case, leaning forward (or in), royal blue, sans-serif. Clean; cheerful; active. It could be a logo for toothpaste, carpet cleaner, or a second-tier car-hire company in Europe. OK! Let’s go!
And it wasn’t just the design. The emails to me, no matter how clearly automated, were filled with the exclamation marks and contractions of a friend. The questions you answer in order to generate your match percentages are direct, but also determinedly brisk: “Would you consider an open relationship?” “Do you need to sleep with someone before you considered marrying them?” “Would you like to receive pain during sex?” The neutrality here is a little brittle.
And now my eye is “in”, I spot people who’ve met online all the time. They sit at the bar, their bodies angled so that everything points towards the person, but never quite touches. They trade information with a smiling efficiency: a professional stop and frisk, rather than any kind of lurching, bumping, humping desire. Like Diaz, they are preternaturally cool. If they kiss, it is as if the camera is rolling. If it goes well, and they decide to go home together, the sex can be just as smooth. There’s no mess, just the impressive flexibility of two young bodies together. Anyone who’s grown up with American television also knows how to look like they’re having good sex. And imagining what the two of you look like from a distance is a way to detach, ever so slightly, from the intensity of that moment; the fact that you have allowed a once-stranger to penetrate you, that their hands, tongue, prick, whatever, are inside you.
Of course, there are also other questions you answer on OkCupid that aren’t as direct, that are placeholders for other anxieties. “Do you think women have an obligation to keep their legs shaved?” “How long do your romantic relationships usually last?” There are surprisingly sweet questions. “How do you like to sleep (touching, separate…)?” They all seem to be written to ascertain a kind of day-to-day compatibility, to work out if you would like to be treated the way they would like to treat you. They are not questions about what you fear, or what you have loved. They are not questions about what you would like for yourself in the future. No, these questions are concerned with the present — a present that stretches on quite persistently, but none of it has anything to do with the strange oddness of your life: those distal pulses, the words you find yourself muttering out loud, the grief you are learning that is as variously coloured as shades of white on a paint chip. No one, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, has ever answered the last question on their profile, “The most private thing I am willing to admit”, with an answer that mentions those shades of sadness. What is under-represented on the site is exhaustion and fear. The only future that OkCupid is concerned with is the future of your togetherness. It does not really want to know about the gaps inside yourself, because it knows that even the most well-intentioned, earnest description of these things won’t be received, well, cold.
And yet. Over the months of writing this, I have found myself repeatedly returning to the general profile headings that everyone is expected to “answer”, the ones that I failed so badly. “Self-summary.” “What I’m doing with my life.” “I’m really good at….” These are extremely open-ended. Though some of these can be answered using lists, many people choose to answer in complete sentences and paragraphs. There’s no character limit to each field; I could cut and paste this essay into these profile categories in paragraph blocks (which I did). This fact feels strangely moving. Yes, there is a sense of curatorial and the attendant portentousness when small things come to stand for big things, but with OkCupid you aren’t nudged, like you are on Facebook, towards selecting representations that are pre-prepared for that internet platform; you’re not picking apps, or thumbnails of bands and TV shows you like, implicitly encouraging your friends to click on to them. Very few profiles I saw on OkCupid even used URLs. They’re culs-de-sac, not wanting you to move on. Accordingly, these profile categories resist modularity. It may not mean that much to some, but this is the flipside to Smith’s fear; as social-media platforms become more ubiquitous, the distinctions between each app will also become more meaningful.
I’m really good at
On EHarmony, for instance, things are different. Creating a profile there confirmed for me, in an oddly satisfying way, just how differently philosophical software can be. There are more questions to answer in your profile (which I answered just as spottily), but you have less control over your choices. Men are “outside” your parameters. Every day, you are sent seven “matches” to consider. If you want to pursue one of these, you can select four multiple-choice questions to send them. These questions are purportedly light, but the answers are so rigidly different from one another that the symbolism is easy to spot and hard to avoid. “What do you like to do on the weekend?” Well, what if your idea of a weekend date has nothing to do with going a) thrift-shopping, b) bowling, c) visiting a gallery, or d) white-water rafting? What happens if you would happily do all four, but not every weekend? What if you like art, but hate the gallery scene? What if you’re generally drawn to investigate the relationship between alcohol and hand-eye co-ordination, but don’t really fancy bowling? I couldn’t quite believe that the initial stages of contact with people didn’t require you to type a single word of your own.
The second stage of contact asked you to select a list of values (from a longer shopping list) that are important to you. It felt largely meaningless, as if there was a structural redundancy built into the site, a belief in the safety of delay, in swapping abstractions with each other. People might take months to pluck up the courage to actually write or talk to one another, reading and rereading their profiles in the hope that the value of an encounter could be ascertained prior to contact. And in the meantime, Kincaid’s gap grows only wider and darker.
In general, the men’s descriptions of themselves on EHarmony were structured by what they were looking for, which was vague: someone kind, who enjoyed eating good food and having a great conversation. (OkCupid didn’t really ask.) These expectations were broad, but the silent assumption seemed to be that they weren’t low. These men frequently had the distinct look of being burned. They had alimony to pay. They were mostly businessmen from Manhattan and Long Island, and though they were often the same age as I was, they seemed a generation older. They wore collar-shirts every day. They read the New York Times, section by section. On EHarmony, there was less a sense of a shared subcultural field, with its attendant micro-distinctions, and as a result it was very hard to joke. The men on OkCupid, with their flannel shirts and quirky glasses and good facial hair, seemed to be playing in some way, caught up in meaning but not crushed by it, living the dream, but not the nightmare. Or, at least, that was what they hoped. Reading more of OkCupid’s profile categories, I started to sense the ways in which people were being given more freedom than they knew what to do with. In response, they went all coy and cute, but you could sense something else there: in the unrestrained syntax of a person, gaps naturally formed, opened up like night flowers, and at least you could sense a space without being completely lost inside it.
I met date number four for a mid-morning coffee at an East Village cafe. He was a recently divorced father of two young children who lived in New Jersey. He was in his early fifties and visibly blue with fatigue and pain; the past year had been, he said, by far the worst time of his life. I suspected I was his first online date post-marriage. When I took his blazer to hang on the hook behind me, I caught a whiff of the lining. He smelled like my grandfather.
We spent the first 30 minutes discussing an article about Microsoft Excel in that morning’s Wall Street Journal. He taught a computer program very similar to Excel to college classes, and was fired up by the paper’s frank admission of Excel’s weaknesses. I told him about a database I was working on at my university, and he diagrammed on a napkin what I would need in terms of filters and data storage. He was very nervous. He asked me about the art book I was writing, if the art in it was similar to Salvador Dali’s. “No,” I said, “it’s not Surrealist.” He gave me a blank look filled with terror.
He emailed me later that day, asking for a second date. This had happened after every date so far, but this was the first time where I had to say no, quite clearly, even though he was obviously fragile. I spent 10 minutes thinking about the wording; I did not like admitting to the possibility that I might hurt someone else’s feelings. He wrote back almost immediately, and was frank, open and generous. He understood. I felt a huge rush of exaltation. We had managed to behave decently to each other.
Favourite books, movies, shows, music and food
So far, my thoughts on online dating, as expressed to my nearest and dearest, were expressions of wild enthusiasm: “It’s amazing! It’s so eeeeeaaassssy!”
I was filled with the passion of the recently converted. The rituals of dating — of asking, of being asked — had always felt impossibly heavy to me. I had been conditioned far too well by romantic comedies; at the whiff of a meet-cute, I emotionally salivated; from small talk, potential futures reeled out like bolts of cloth. But if you’re fantasising that far ahead in the future, it’s hard to summon up the courage to act honestly in any given moment, to experience intimacy as something that changes, grows and recedes like a shadow on the wall, rather than a chariot race out of Ben Hur. There’s a playfulness you lose if you don’t resolutely winnow the stakes down to size — or at least remind yourself to just enjoy the moment for what it is: a magnesium flare of curiosity for another human being. And now I got to do just that. The sheer number of dates and possibilities lightened the load. It was like a magic trick. What had felt so heavy was now so easy, even graceful. I felt speedy, strong, juggling 40-pound weights like they were teaspoons. Talking, rather intensely, one-on-one? This was my wheelhouse.
I was also a little blithe. I messaged date number five because I noticed we were a 98% match, 0% enemies, and the latter number in particular felt remarkable enough to act on. (Later, he admitted it wasn’t that unusual, but he had decided not to correct me. From my reaction he could tell I was new to the site.) But it took weeks for us to meet up. My social life had spiralled out of control since I had started all of this. I had, in these weeks, also seen date number two for lunch, a movie, and dinner. Sitting in a bar one night, quite drunk, talking and laughing, we had kissed mid-sentence, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.
What I had found, quickly, and with the greediness of someone who already thrives on it far too much, was the promise of intimacy. That these men would be willing to sit down and give me some potted history of their life, which was so much more honest than they would ever offer in any other social context, seemed remarkable. I had the fascination that a crowbar has for a doorjamb. I didn’t want to think too hard about whether these men thought of chemistry and intimacy and dating in the same way. I was aware that thinking about it would probably stop me from behaving in the way that I wanted to, and I didn’t want anything or anyone to mess up my newfound clarity.
Supercharged with adrenaline, I was doing the emotional equivalent of prying open mangled car doors, or sprinting to catch a falling child: saving myself, over and over again. I wanted to think everyone else was doing the same thing.
I was almost an hour late to meet date number five. He was not impressed. Nor would I be. But we talked easily enough, sitting in the back yard of a bar on the cutting edge of gentrification in Brooklyn. He sipped at his whiskey, talking, his eyes moving over my face as if he were measuring a piece of cloth from edge to edge. There’s something to these percentages, I thought. Quite instinctively, we were friends. But he seemed tired — not just tired, but weary. He was a film-maker and actor, and he hated hustling for work. It struck me that no one I’d dated so far seemed particularly happy in their career, which usually had something to do with the creative arts.
This was not just an unconscious preference; as I’ve been writing this, I’ve spent some time online, confirming what was a hunch to be a systemic tendency. OkCupid attracts people who are willing to exist with the frustrations of substitution, to live more than one life — by day, X, by night, Y. It wears you down, but it is perversely nourishing, too, to see how much you can cram inside one life. New York, in general, attracts the same kind of people. This choice encourages a certain pattern of behaviour, a similar substitutive approach to questions of love. Women love to accuse men of a systemic capriciousness here, to mutter things about a man-child (a term that seems strangely religious to me). And it’s true that biologically our event horizon as women is clearer and closer, and that in New York there are a large number of men who don’t want to commit in the way women want them to.
Nonetheless, I’m sure that all the men I dated were looking for something serious. It may not have been marriage or kids, but they wanted to love, and be loved. They were similarly lonely. An American friend tells me that in high school and college, she never dated the way I imagined all Americans did. She thinks that online dating has resurrected a social pattern that was on its way out, an extraordinarily codified tête-à-tête of progressive intimacy. She thinks that Americans have become more socially conservative as a result. At some point in our conversation, date number five said he’d been online-dating for five years or so. He’d had a couple of long relationships in this time, some of which began on OkCupid, but the website was a feature of his thirties. His sense of a middle was of an entirely different order.
The six things I could never do without
Date number two and I slept together. I told him about my decision to go on 10 different dates; I already knew that I wanted to write about the experience. He said that he didn’t want to go on any more dates with other people, but that he wouldn’t press me on it.
I was worried about his resistance to dating other people. I was worried he had nothing to compare me to, and I wanted to be compared.
To put not too fine a point on it, I wasn’t interested in casual sex, but intimacy came so easily to me that it looked quite casual. I may not have been sliding down a windscreen and meeting Javier Bardem’s reptilian stare with my own, but there was something predatory and mindless about my needs. I was greedy. I found myself idly speculating that if you were a tourist, OkCupid was a really great way to get to know New York City. Great conversations! Real life New Yorkers!
Date number six was a dog-walker by day and composer of jazz and avant-garde music by night. The restaurant was too loud for him. When the waiters brushed past, he flinched.
We talked about sense memory. He remembered very clearly an apartment he lived in when he was 10 years old, with his mother in Nashville, Tennessee. He found it interesting that his mother didn’t. She barely remembered the layout, the relationship of one room to another.
“Maybe it was more vivid to you because it was one of your first living spaces,” I said.
“We lived in lots of places before then,” he said.
The point seemed to be that there was no logical explanation — no particular event, no primacy — to his attachment. And we were meant to leave it at that.
He wanted to talk about Jane and Paul Bowles. I’d listed Two Serious Ladies on my profile as a book I liked, but he didn’t want to talk about the novel. He wanted to talk about their lives in Morocco, Jane’s later unhappiness.
Then we talked about Abstract Expressionism, and he told me that he used to be a painter. I asked him why he stopped. “My paintings weren’t good enough,” he said. “I could work out patches, but I couldn’t get it to work all over.”
“It’s a problem of parts to the whole,” I said, and he nodded, not really listening. “Now I take photographs,” he continued. He said he went on photo-safaris, and I was confused because it sounded as if he was signing up for some kind of product. Then I understood he’d requisitioned the word for his own particular purposes. He reminded me of the self-taught Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, living in Tamil Nadu, reinventing the wheel in contemporary mathematics: a great talent, living in isolation. But the man sitting opposite me was living — and had done so for the past 25 years — in a city that had arguably done more to redefine painting and music in the past century than any other.
Something didn’t seem right. The connections between each conversational offering grew increasingly tenuous. He jumped from topic to topic, desperate. I could not follow the logic of their association. When the cheque came, and I put my card down for half, he seemed to relax — but once we stood up to leave, he tightened again, seemed diffident, disappointed, as if I had let him down, missed some cue. He wandered off into the night. He did not suggest meeting again.
The next week, though, he messaged, and told me he was always looking for photogenic people to photograph. Would I be interested?
He sent me a link to his portfolio, which I clicked on to, only to find that in addition to images of poetic urban decay, there was also shot after shot of smiling, brunette women, in their mid-30s, sitting at cafe tables or lying on window seats. These women may have been pretty or beautiful, but there was something about the occasion of these photos that flattened any flare of grace. They smiled at me, relaxed, instinctively good-humoured. They looked like teachers and librarians. These were headshots of wives, I thought.
Then my stomach dropped. It felt like that moment when Jodie Foster realises there is more than one type of skin in the woman suit Buffalo Bill is making in Silence of the Lambs. These women were his other OkCupid dates.
I spend a lot of time thinking about
A few months later, I reread Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies. Set in the 1930s, the novel follows the lives of two women, Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield, over the period of a year or so. (Even when we know their first names, the narrator persists in keeping things formal.) Each woman, unaware of the other’s decision, embarks on a course of action that few around her find comprehensible. On a trip to Panama, Mrs Copperfield leaves her husband, settling into a run-down hotel in the city slums with a prostitute called Pacifica. Miss Goering sells her large estate (presumably in upstate New York) and moves to a cramped house on Staten Island. From there, she feels compelled to catch a train and ferry to a “very tough little town [unnamed], besides being dreary and without any interest whatsoever”, where she embarks on a relationship with a self-named bum called Andy, and then a mobster called Ben. She is explicitly drawn to both men because they are sinister and angry. They, in turn, misidentify her. Ben is convinced she is a prostitute (a “medium” one).
Both Mrs Copperfield and Miss Goering come from money — quite a lot of it — but they are drawn to people who live economically precarious existences. The implications of this connection are barely spelled out; it remains one of the blind, or rather, silent, spots of the novel. It could be seen as the blithe, naive, fascination of the rich with suffering — and it is — but these women aren’t tourists. They do not have my blithe enthusiasm. There’s no end-date to the experience. This isn’t a phase; it’s why, perhaps, they’re serious. Asked why she would court social “ruin”, Miss Goering replies, “I believe the hardest thing for me to do is really move from one thing to another, partly.” My eye snagged on that line.
Date number seven was an investment banker who lived on the Upper West Side, whom I met on EHarmony. He responded to my multiple-choice “questions” with actual answers; before him, I hadn’t known it was possible, in those first stages, to type your own responses. We had been emailing back and forth for a couple of weeks, and agreed to meet at a bar in the West Village.
Our first date went very well. We talked almost exclusively about yoga. He was sharp, knowledgeable, easy to smile. But the second date was harder. He seemed a little morose. We talked at length about art, but there was a sharpness that rose in him, occasionally — as abruptly as a plastic fork pushing out of its plastic sachet. At one point, he made a crack about how little money I must make. I smiled, but later boiled. He was used to thinking that women were after his wealth. I was the economically precarious circumstance.
Of course, he was a catch: educated, fit, self-sufficient. So was date number eight, who fell into exactly the same demographic and locale, and who was so handsome (finely formed, a little like a Basenji) that I was slightly shocked to be eating across from him. He ordered like a pro for the two of us, and over dinner we talked about his ex-wife, his daughter, about Israel. He drank a lot, but it didn’t show. Dates seven and eight each wore their loneliness well. Sitting in front of them, I felt interchangeable. I sensed the other women they’d met for wine or dinner, past and present, my features blurring to approximate and connect with their other choices, existing like some shimmering time worm of femininity. I was starting to feel for myself the tyranny of being neither at the beginning nor the end of an experience; how hard it was to rise up, out of that plateau. It was like a mathematical equation: interest equals an individual’s particular charms, divided by the number of dates prior to this one. Things might well have turned out differently if I had changed the order in which I met these men. “The hardest thing for me to do is really move from one thing to another.” At some point, they had begun to blur together for me, too.
I know that I should talk more about dates seven and eight, that I should differentiate them more. They may be horrified to see me writing about them, and they also deserve more specificity. But at this point, Jane Bowles has begun to pull my focus — partly because, rereading her, I realise how easy it is to forget the values you thought you would never forget. I read Two Serious Ladies well before I moved to the United States. Reading her six years later, I notice that somewhere along the way, I stopped allowing Bowles’ sense of inconsistency to be true; or at least I started to feel guilty about it. A character will wish she wasn’t some place, only to declare a page later that it is very important she return to that same place. Everyone contradicts themselves about what they like — and they are mostly unaware of or unbothered by the contradiction. When characters get what they want, they are almost immediately dissatisfied. There is also often an “and” when we expect a “but”: for instance, “I see in all this that Lucy’s nature is really one of extreme delicateness and morbidity and I am fascinated to be by her side.” There is so little consistency that as a reader, you feel nudged this way and that from paragraph to paragraph, constantly set off balance. There is the sense you are being toyed with in the way a cat will paw at a mouse or an insect: gently, aesthetically, with a genial malevolence. Bowles is suggesting we are much more changeable than we believe ourselves to be.
I love this. I take it as a generosity. And I realise that I had not allowed date number six, with all his strange little silences, non sequiturs and sudden declarations, to be as significant as the others. It was too easy to turn into a caricature of itself, just as easy as it is to poke fun at OkCupid’s assumption that if you can define your parts, your preferences, your likes, in enough detail, someone can discern the shape of your whole. Date number six’s assessment of his painting, that he could work out patches but not get it “to work all over”, is the common criticism of online dating’s assumption that the parts can ever add up. They don’t, or at least not in ways we want or can discern. But this does not mean that they lack value.
We change instinctively, barely consciously, twitching away like cardiac muscle. And when we try to interrupt ourselves, try to correct our path, our mind overcorrects, spins us off —on to a new path, yes, maybe even a better one, but all the while our heart keeps going. This is how Bowles describes the moment just before Mrs Copperfield decides to leave her husband:
Mrs Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered before, because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.
Imagine that for a moment: this small, quick-moving, middle-aged woman, lying in bed and having what looks like a grand mal seizure. To interrupt oneself is really, really hard. It is not driving off together down the highway, or climbing up a fire escape from a waiting limousine, or meeting on top of the Empire State Building. Mrs Copperfield knows she is picking the idea of Pacifica and that the reality will be different. Her grief is the anticipation of Kincaid’s gap. She knows — faces — what we would prefer to hide from. This is why she is trembling. And she also knows that she cannot do it any other way. The dream is the only way this choice can be phrased to her; she cannot pick the reality. Maybe this is why online dating invites so much grief, too. We cannot pick the reality either, at first. And we know it.
It feels clumsy to excerpt a revelation from the book like this one, because it can easily give the wrong impression of the novel, which is mostly composed of dialogue, much of it deliberately inane. (“Was the water cold?” asked the girl. “Yes and no,” said Mrs Copperfield.) It’s not that Bowles wants to undercut this kind of exaltation (it’s what motivates both women) so much as set it into context. These moments do not last. Mrs Copperfield leaves Mr Copperfield, but directly afterwards finds herself, bored, in an extremely hot and tiny store, watching Pacifica bargain relentlessly for new stockings. To Bowles, I suspect the notion that anything could resolve itself, that one could expect or seek “resolution”, seemed highly suspect.
But the myth of wholeness is strong. It’s the myth that promises to lift us out of the middle. On the OkCupid website, they have collected “success stories”, divided into categories: long-distance love, second chances, almost gave up, blinded with science, weddings, and OkBabies. These are the dreams. The markers of success, it seems, are relationships longer than a few years; pregnancy; or marriage. I didn’t think twice about this the first time I read them, but over time, this part of the website, more than any other, feels like the most worrying form of under-representation.
Of course, this choice reflects a much broader notion of what love means, of how the story always ends and never begins with the couple declaring their permanent attachment to each other. Our understanding is that when we fall in love, time stands still — which suddenly strikes me as a pretty terrible thing.
On a typical Friday night I am
Date number two. I didn’t reach my number of 10 dates, partly because I left New York for six weeks, but mostly because I realised that I didn’t want to go on any more dates with any other people. A few months later, he told me he loved me. Then I told him I loved him, too.
The oddity of this step, or maybe our collective expectation that this step would occur, struck me only later. It is a moment much lingered upon in the movies. “But — I love you!” There is something final about this renaming.
Maybe part of the problem with liking is that it is implicitly contrasted with loving, constrained by its expansive absoluteness. “Misha67 likes you!” The ghost in the machine is the verb that hovers behind “likes”. That’s the verb that will bring this experience, supposedly, to an end. The credits roll. You discontinue your account, and have the satisfaction of actually finishing something.
But that just isn’t true. Nothing ever really finishes. Date number two. It’s still hard to write about him; partly because I know he will read this, partly because things have become private, partly because things are always changing with him; it’s a living creature that’s between us, and the only way you can tell the story is to tell the multiple versions of it, and that’s something I can’t start here.
Bowles published her book in 1943, which is hardly millennial territory. My inclusion of the book on my profile could be read as just a cultural marker. But the more I think about her, the more Bowles, mist-like, starts to creep in through the window frame and under the door of this essay. Maybe that isn’t so much of a surprise; I’ve been using her to offer advice from my past self to my present one, to remember how I was before I moved here. We read about others’ experience of love in order to enlarge our own. It’s a simple, dumb fact. A writer’s words act as a structure to experience another’s reality — the person sitting across from us, watching us talk, trying to work out if they like us, too. So how could I not talk about Bowles here? That’s what those lists on OkCupid are for: they’re road markers, the briefest of suggestions. We think we’re being ultra-specific in one way, but there are worlds tucked inside other worlds there, and we know that for ourselves, but somehow, it’s hard to remember that’s true for others when all you do is speak in shorthand. “You like The Wire, too? Which season?”
In Two Serious Ladies, the word “love” is sparingly used, if at all, though there are declarations of affection aplenty. (“Oh, let me embarrass you, adorable” — said by Peggy Gladys, a half-Irish, half-Javanese 17-year-old with the “bright eyes of an insatiable nymphomaniac” — is typical.) Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield are inundated by people who want to be with them. Bowles is matter-of-fact about this; it is nothing remarkable to her, and she isn’t particularly interested in the question of why, so much as what happens as the result of this liking. From this, we are left to draw our own conclusions about the nature of our attachments. For one, sex is not an indicator of intimacy. When the body is touched, it is often with anxiety. This may feel slight — or at least not incompatible with the general lightness and indifference with which we treat sex — but try telling a friend that you’re not having sex with your girlfriend or boyfriend and see how far you get. We want sex to mean nothing until it means everything. Climax offers a validation that cannot, supposedly, be challenged by any other form of human kindness, but Bowles reminds us that the world will provide, though our own expectations frequently exert a kind of chokehold on our vision. Passivity can also indicate a tremendous force of will. Weakness is not so terrible, nor carelessness; as Miss Goering puts it, “a certain amount of carelessness in one’s nature often accomplishes what the will is incapable of doing”. That’s the carelessness of an improperly filled-out profile, or a reluctance to reject the possibility of another before you have met them. How much range we have in caring about people may well determine how wide and free and open our imagination is in general. It may also be the reverse.
I am very aware that I am persisting in using the word “love”. I know I don’t need to, that maybe I should try not using it. And yet I continue, maybe in the hope that the proximity of the word to others may enlarge its meaning. What do you learn from loving someone that you cannot be taught by the rest of the world?
You learn how to listen to someone else sleep. You learn how to casually sniff at the clothes they’ve left on your chair or floor. You learn their laugh — and others’ — as you do animal calls. You learn to find that most things are funny. You learn that your reasons for loving someone else are utterly private and should not be shared, even with them. You will ache, a bodily ache, closer to menstrual than muscle cramps, when you cannot touch them. When they hurt you, the pain is like a wet cloth being wrung out. And when you see them years later, you’ll feel a tug, a fishhook, and you will not believe you could cause the same effect in them. You will forget what it was like to have sex, but you will remember patches of their skin, the bits like deer velvet or dog-ear. You will remember expressions on their face they would hate you to remember. You will relearn afternoons; the way they can be spent in bed, listening to the sounds of the building around you. Blood, in the capillaries, plumping everything up like a nurse with pillows in a fancy hospital. Softness. You will recall individual hairs on their body as if they were pages in a book. You will feel like you are in a psychic three-legged race with them; even when they’re not there, you’ll sense their ghostly attachment, hindering your movement, helping you win a useless race.
You should message me if
I used to fantasise about a photography project that would involve taking group portraits of a person and all of their lovers: everyone, from childhood sweetheart to rebound to marriage — excepting, of course, those who’d died. The few people I talked to about this shook their heads flatly. “Wouldn’t work,” they said. “No one would want to do it.” Which is true. But who wouldn’t want to see such a photo? The imagination would fire up like a lawnmower. This is what I want to see, at the bottom of it all — that flare of curiosity in another’s face, that sudden rush of interest. Oh. What order were these people in? What about the ghostly, familial resemblance we might sense in their faces — the presence of a type or the absence of it? How did it feel, to move through this particular, utterly idiosyncratic, unrepeatable series of people?
Only novelists and songwriters describe the shape of a person’s life by the sum of their loves. In any other medium, there’s a strange reticence; if a sequence is disclosed, it’s nearly always to suggest that one person was more important than the others. (“I kissed a lotta frogs to find this one!”) But the beautiful strangeness of a love affair — this chest, this hair, this blood—derives from its particularity, not its singularity. We live modern lives, with modern boyfriends, but we are still encouraged to think of interchangeability as a devaluing, because we see particularity as an adherence to an ideal. But my dates were all real. They sat across from me at the table, looked at me. That was a gift. The intimacy I experienced may have been casual or blithe or quick, but nonetheless, it lingers. It has stained me. I’m amazed at how quickly people want to reduce these experiences, to transform them so swiftly into disappointment. Our fascination with how terrible online dating can be is also a fantasy, one that props up, far too easily, notions of resolution that may make us unhappier in the end.
I read this out loud to date number two, sitting on a bench in front of a tiny little stream in the country. It was seven months after our first date, mid-summer, and we were listening to water that wasn’t on any map. He nodded. Let me tell you something he doesn’t know about himself. There is a wry delicacy in many of the things he says.
“The nice thing is that you’re together with somebody,” he said. “You can depend on the other person. Things merge a little bit more, maybe.”
The most private thing I am willing to admit: I am ashamed at how easy it was to cure my loneliness.
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