The Road to Romance
My ex, having now declared she was single, had also discovered she had a libido. She began to play music in the house and dance. This was something to celebrate since only a year ago she seemed barely alive after the ravages of chemotherapy. She signed herself up on Match.com and started showing me profiles of women. My curiosity was piqued so I signed up too and was immediately shown her profile as my perfect match. We had a good laugh on that and I was forewarned that the algorithms controlling these sites were devoid of intelligence. This was a brave new world. I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up to find that all the bars had been closed and replaced with cyber vending machines where you could look into a window and see women on display tagged with interests they might share with you alongside their profile pictures. You paged through these pictures and clicked on the "quick view" button to view their specs—height, sexual orientation, body type, age, income, religious affiliation and geographical location.
I can recall dating in only the vaguest of ways. It largely consisted of walking out of my college dorm room and into what was then the most popular hall where my fellow co-eds would roost and make trouble by taunting anyone who dared pass by. It was in this fashion that I learned that one Cindy Sunshine (yes that was her real name) had the hots for me. She was a dancer, short, blond with an enigmatic face. She happened to be my type particularly the enigmatic face part. A face that is not considered beautiful and might verge on homely except that the owner had a beguiling way of presenting it. And present it she did at my door late that same night.
"I've come for you," she said. At which point I took her in my arms and kissed her, so bold I was already at 18. This being
the arts college at UC Santa Cruz in the '70s, I already knew that an alternative universe existed here where all manner
of sexual preference might express itself. My relationship with Cindy was soon complicated by the appearance of an on campus boyfriend, followed by an off campus one from home so I had to move on (albeit amidst megadoses of drama). Lots of women were bi-curious. I hooked up with them at our decadent dress-up parties, at impromptu hall gatherings or once in the shower with a man in one of our co-ed bathrooms. An unending supply responding to the rumors of my taste for women and my soft butch appearance. The lesbian community of that time did not embrace me nor I them. I didn't wear the requisite uniform of plaid flannel shirts and overalls and refused to cut my hair. I did have one dyke buddy in the dorms who told me her story of first love; it was so filled with internalized homophobia it was painful to dwell on. Being a lesbian was a sort of death defying identity at the time.
When I returned to the more conservative Bay Area all was quiet on the still closeted home front. Women were not crossing my path quite as often as they used to. I did briefly date a man because he asked and we both loved movies, but he soon guessed that I wasn't really interested. It wasn't long before I learned about the LGBT center on the second floor of the old firehouse on Stanford campus. A local lesbian coffee group was held there open to anyone. I met my now best friend Stacy there. We didn't date each other, but we did date the same woman. A woman who worked at the movie theatre where I was a projectionist. I discovered she was gay because of her habit of drawing two women symbols linked together next to her name on the sign-in sheet. We both rode motorcycles so it was a natural that we would ride together to bars to meet women and meeting none who would have us we would go home together, but we weren't really together together. I took her to an event at the firehouse where she met Stacy and I went home with whomever was left over.
When I went back to college I picked graphic design as a queer safe career option that was also fun; it turned out to be where all the gay talent gathered. I met an arty woman in my photography class. She had a gay best friend and thought that was cool; so cool that I stopped her in a darkened doorway after an art gallery opening and kissed her for an hour. That relationship lasted a year. My longest to date.
Later while working a stint at the library (data entry to convert the collection to the digital catalog) I would flirt with the college graduate working the check-out desk. As she walked by my computer terminal the novelty of a chair on wheels prompted me to alleviate my boredom by rolling out in her path. This flirtatiousness duly noted she was reeled in and stuck around for five years until she found a man to marry. At which point I conveniently took up with her bi roommate. My girl's high school also provided a couple of dates as alumni looked me up. There were other lovely ladies I haven't mentioned. I have to keep some sweet memories to myself.
I did aspire to relationships, but the idea of permanence had not yet landed in my universe. That was the nihilism of the day. The lesbian baby boom didn't show up until the late '80s. By then I had moved in with a woman with a houseful of teenage boys (which was a good way to end any ideas about having children myself). She didn't show up at my door looking for me. It was I who showed up at hers brought to her house by my mother whom she had befriended at a party. She wooed me and smitten by the attention I was easily persuaded to move in. We lived one day at a time in the vernacular of AA. This was good for five years which exceeded my expectations. Then she met someone else more compelling who didn't want to share and I was summarily dismissed, but not before Catherine showed up walking into the lobby where I worked sporting a black leather jacket that caught my eye. A friend of a co-worker. They invited me along when they went for coffee and Catherine and I left the friend in the dust peppering the air with queer references as we flirted with each other.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Is This Me?
Twenty years went by. By which time everyone we knew was hitched, living together in their separate houses, hardly anyone new entering our inner circle. And so I was completely unprepared to have to go out and hunt women in the wild. But a traveling psychic who came twice yearly from New Zealand, told me there would be another lady for me. "Someone who'll bring out a different side of you," she said. I looked skeptical. "Cups means love," she said of the Tarot card she had drawn. Given this promise I beefed up my portfolio on Match assessed my market value and started interacting with women who were of interest. I went out with 6 women in two months.
The first four had M names. The last time I had serial relationships during a period of transition all the women had L names. This alphabetical synchronicity added a sense of order to my expectations. My first date, M-1 lets call her, had a photo that was obviously shot by a professional. You could read an entire independent film into that photo as she bent over in a black cocktail dress and heels, reaching for a single boot in front of a BMW motorcycle. Her pixie haircut and beguiling smile was so fetching I made it a favorite just as a sample of what could be done in the way of photos. Since I did not meet her height requirement I was surprised when she wrote back thanking me for favoriting her profile.
"I'm a good 4" over your height preference, but would you like to go out anyway?" she wrote. I wrote back saying that I was a good 4" shorter than her height preference so we were even, but all my height was in my body so we'd be okay if we sat down when we talked." She asked me to the Keith Haring exhibit; he was appropriately a gay icon from the '80s. Once at the De Young we texted back and forth until I finally found her. When I saw her in the gift shop she was chatting with the sales clerk and looking at her phone and I was suddenly struck with shyness. How could I be sure it was her even though there was no one else in the shop let alone any other 6ft women. I looked in all the other gift shops just to be sure, came back and she was gone so I went outside and texted her that my phone would not work inside. And she came and found me.
"I'm sorry your phone only works outside," she said coming through the door. I looked up from my capricious phone and she gave me a hug in greeting. Then she apologized for her motorcycle boots which put another 2" to her height. She had such a nice smile and was so eager to please that I was immediately into this dating thing as we walked back in to join the Friday night museum entertainment. Stopping at the cafe for a bite to eat, she asked the first question. "Where did you get that English accent?" And I was off and running. I told some of my best stories and got high just from being listened to so attentively by someone so smart and educated. She told me about falling in lover with her English teacher in high school. This early lesbian history made me feel at home. And we still had the exhibit to view. I had her take pictures of me with a painting. By the smile on my face I was deliriously happy.
"Well that was fun," I said as we walked out the door at the end of the evening, "you want to do it again?"
"Oh good," she said with enthusiasm, "sure". And just before the bus stop I turned and gave her a hug and the extra couple of seconds I gave it I could feel it. That longing for connection. And I broke it off before it could say much more.
Given this auspicious first date I was sure I was on my way to romance and lost my head a bit, writing to her when she didn't write back. I dug myself a hole with all my extra e-mails. She did accept my invitation for dinner, but then got consumed by a busy work schedule. Like so many in the Bay Area she was overworked, but I was willing to wait. I wrote some more e-mails when she was away for the holidays sending lots of pictures of my shoemaking to entertain her. Soon it became clear that she was not going to engage. Well maybe she just wasn't the e-mailing type I tried to persuade myself. Eventually I had to reel myself in—hard. Her silence I realized was making my head spin trying to fill in the blanks, the projections ricochetting off the walls of my brain like a bb in a tin can. I had an entire relationship going on in my mind from start to finish by the time I was done. It made me feel 20 again and not in a good way given all the emotional trampling that went with it. I was too proud now to succumb to such indifference. I had other dates scheduled.
M-2 was bisexual and lived with a man, but wanted a girlfriend on the side. She looked older than her given age and didn't believe in cell phones. That was fine with me; I liked her. I just wasn't attracted to her and was missing some shared cultural ground. M-3 turned out to be newly transgender. She was over 6 feet in heels and had no body fat on her which I crave. I enjoyed our dinner together and I treasured the daily e-mails she wrote me answering my questions about her transformation process. She kept me company in the face of M-1's silence. M-4 shared the most interests with me and we spent an intense 2 1/2 hours talking while sipping Samovor tea in the Castro, in the end discussing a possible film project. I liked this idea of collaboration and hoped we could get to know each other through this project. I also dated a therapist who offered lots of insight on both art and people. And I enjoyed a hike with another competent and articulate woman. I now had plenty of new friends, but no clear dating potential.
When a French woman named Dominique invited me to her facilitated support group I decided to go and invited M-4 along for the ride so if it got too earnest we could smirk to each other. It was illuminating to listen to women actually talk about relationship woes and participate in discussion that got to the heart of the matter instead of dancing around it. Dominique asked us to pick one word that captured what we wanted in a partner. We each voiced our one word and claimed them as a group—Trust, Fun, Meaning and Hot Sex we shouted in unison. The realness of the experience resonated on my psyche. No more projections. Dominique was on to something. The meeting gave me much needed context and I started spreading the word about her dating salon. I could just go to her salon and forget about asking women out.
Deal Breaker Inventory
Despite having impressed everyone I met with my own accomplishments and entertainment value I didn't seem to be getting anywhere. I searched for possible deal breakers. Everyone can list how they don't measure up. The most common body type women checked on Match was "a few extra pounds". I was too skinny if anything and maybe too short. These physical aspects I could do nothing about, but after one of my dates said she knew I wasn't ready to date because I was coming out of a 20 year relationship I was intensely annoyed. Was everyone making these assumptions? How dare they. Plenty of people were fresh from other relationships. It was part of the territory of having been around the block a few times. People made jokes about it—how they didn't want a date bringing their baggage along, but an overnight bag would be okay.
If someone didn't like that I lived with my ex that I could understand. But some crossed me off when they googled me and saw the size of my online footprint with ten years worth of personal essays posted to my name along with pictures of my half naked self showing off my abs. This led to some soul searching. It was possible that sharing so much of my life would deter people from wanting to become involved with me, but in the end I couldn't give it up. The level of intimacy this sharing had given me with my readers far surpassed anything I could hope for from a stranger. Friends who read my work, understood me at a deeper level and in turn would share their thoughts when they met me in person. This had allowed my life a greater sense of depth devoid of the unwanted projections that had been thrown at me throughout my youth (prompted by my British accent and my Far East foreignness). In these ongoing conversations I was offered a huge sense of connection and community and the opportunity to be authentic. I was still living in a California counter culture sensibility that indulged self revelations. But the level at which I had publicly processed my life had exceeded that of even a Californian. I didn't share everything, but only my closest friends knew where my pubic life ended and my private life began.
The online dating platforms encouraged people to create spec sheets for a date by the questions asked when you wrote a profile. It reminded me of an arranged marriage only instead of the wisdom of a yenta and an extended family to match up pairs this was a do-it-yourself arranged marriage. No more would I know a woman in the context of a social milieu. I had now to invest 2 hours of conversation that could feel like a job interview and compete with candidates that were just a click away. Where once I felt lucky to connect with one person, now the shear numbers of available women were creating levels of ambivalence I had never before encountered both in myself and others. People thought they knew what they were looking for. They thought they could tell by a photograph if there was chemistry or not. And our iPhone culture had changed the way people controlled their input from the world. All of this was erasing the natural serendipity that arises in actual reality. People's brains were no longer open to real time input I feared.
I gave up on Match and opened a profile on Ok Cupid which had a blog approach that felt less like online shopping and drew a more interesting crowd. Given one chance to impress a date I was trying to cram all of my amazing cross cultural life and complex, enigmatic self into one face-to-face meeting. I realized I also expected this level of immediate intimacy with my date. But though they were warm and often offered a hug upon meeting me, they were much more circumspect about sharing their lives with me. It occurred to me that I was perhaps a little too intense for most people. You think? And that these same people just hadn't put together so many words about themselves to be able to respond in kind. I had explored things intently for decades—enough to fill volumes. People don't do this I realized. I had to stop being apologetic about it. It wasn't me who was too much. I was expansively big. It was the culture that had gotten small. It had become a single serving reality (to borrow from the movie Fight Club).
One date did see this about me—the therapist. "Wow," she said after I had filled her in for an hour and a half, "that's all I can say". Now I knew what she meant. (She sent for my review, some love poems she had combined with her artwork as an e-book
. Quite a lovely presentation with the poems excavating her relationships with pithy details delicately handled alongside her impressionistic paintings of women together.)
Once I saw this single serving universe life had become, the whole overwhelming dating thing shrunk down to size so to speak. There was no need for me to impress anybody because there wasn't enough bandwidth for it anyway. All I needed was to hold out a single serving portion and find a way to keep it real. Stop trying to fit into the script our profiles had prompted. Challenge them in some way. I wouldn't even have to reject anyone. They would just fall away of their own accord. And if anyone was left we could set up camp and stay awhile. Otherwise I would continue on my journey already peopled as it was with traveling companions.
Happy Valentine's Day my lovelies.
Labels: autobiography, blogging, dating, online dating, writing