A Field of Feisty Unicorns
My adventures in the world of online personal ads.
Most of what I wrote about myself in the Nerve personals was untrue. I won't say that what I wrote was "lies" because that's a little harsh and if I've learned one thing from my time with online personals it's that you can't expect others to love you until you've learned to love yourself. That, and: It's important to live each day as if it were your last, although truth be told, I've never really understood that expression. What—drunk, six cigarettes in my mouth, sobbing down the phone at all the relatives I haven't called in years? It would get tiring after a day, let alone every day for the rest of my life, for them if not for me.
Excuse the flipness. It's just my natural defense against an activity as irony-flattening as online dating. You can try being meta- about it. I don't usually do this sort of thing. Or: I can't believe I'm doing this. Hey, guess what: nor can anyone. Online dating is one of those things nobody wants to admit to a natural proclivity for, or being an old hand at—like being an old hand at urine samples—and yet they are very much a form unto themselves, a species of fiction, really, wherein wannabe Romeos dash off lightly fictionalized, Gatsbyesque versions of themselves in a tone halfway between come-hither foxiness and plangent entreaty, as if forever posed in some doorway, blowing smoke rings and delivering unrehearsed zingers, before disappearing into the night to work in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.
I am an outlaw, a troubadour, a world traveler, a born again romantic. I am grounded yet prone to flights of fancy and / or midnight cupcake hunts. I am athletic yet like oysters and know how to eat them. I am easy-going yet firm in my beliefs (high fiber, good scotch, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Yes I liked that speech, too). I like to laugh at myself as often as I can and once cooked blue spaghetti for 12 people. I think that road trips can be a transcendental experience, if unplanned. When I say "let's pack our bags and move to a farmhouse in Tuscany" I want someone who will reach for the closet and start packing. A friend and confidante, a partner in crime, a co-pilot in secret explorations. A thinker, a doer, a lover, a fighter, a laureate. Also, must love porridge and power-tools.
The key, it seemed to me upon first entering this strange alternative universe of spontaneous road-trips and brightly colored pasta, where coy exteriors belied deep reserves of untapped silliness and nobody is ever allowed to plan for anything, ever, seemed to lie in those all-important conjunctions "yet," and "but." Thus armed, the author could advance an admirable trait (groundedness), then, spotting the possible negative connotations of that trait (dullness), pivot onto its opposite (fanciful), in an act of triangulation that would bring tears to the eyes of Bill Clinton himself, then launch into a series of Whitmanesque paradoxes: Easygoing yet firm. Grounded yet romantic. Shy but adventurous. Athletic but oyster-loving. Everyone seemed to be "easygoing" and "down-to-earth" and liked to "laugh a lot," mostly at themselves. "Favorite Books" featured a lot of Haruki Murakami and Stieg Larsson, with maybe some Augusten Burroughs thrown in to suggest the liveliness of the author's Saturday nights, and then something Tibetan to reassure you they weren't a complete alkie.
"Favorite Onscreen Sex Scene" tended to be a lot of rough, up-against-the-wall numbers from 9½ Weeksor Damage. "Celebrity I Most Resemble" elicited a lot of Maggie Gyllenhaals, closely followed by "moi." "If You Could Be Anywhere Right Now," on the other hand, was an opportunity to kick free of the Gradgrindian exactitude demanded of you by the preceding questions and make good on your profile's nascent kinship with the headiest flourishes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Strolling along the cobblestone streets of Prague. Picking berries in Port Townsend. Looking for tortoises in the Galápagos Islands. To judge by their personals, a date with your average New Yorker consisted largely of trying to keep up with some pith-helmeted Maggie-Gyllenhaal lookalike, laughing madly to herself as she leapt like a mountain goat from rocky outcrop to cupcake shop, pausing only to have sex in the nearest alleyway before dusting herself down and leaping back into the madcap three-ring circus that was her life, her quest for her own zest-filled quiddity undimmed.
It all sounded exhausting. Just reading about it was exhausting, let alone actually traipsing around after these human lightning bolts, picking up cupcake wrappers and berry cartons, explaining to anyone who will listen, "she's actually very grounded … very down to earth, normally, it's just … too many oysters … she gets a little … ." It couldn't be true, any of it. The only place anyone really seemed to tell the truth was in the "What I Am Looking For" section, which was supposed to be the place where you outlined your ideal mate but more often turned into the place to rag on your last boyfriend. It was basically the elephant's graveyard of the whole site, the place your last relationship went to die, amid a rattle of old peeves and niggles. No workaholics, passive-aggressive, brainwashed Stepford men or Republicans, wrote one. No cynics or assholes, and you know who you are, another. Reading that, I leapt back from the screen as if stung. But how ridiculous, I thought, indignantly. No man self-identifies as an asshole and the ones that do are precisely the sort who would respond to a dog-whistle like that. The girl's ad was a self-fulfilling prophecy: She had written the one thing that ensured she would get responses only from assholes. I'd almost written to Nolita657 to point all this out, but something had stopped me—a sudden weary premonition that I would simply be slotting into place behind the last guy, picking up the argument where he left off. Plus, by my own logic, that would make me the asshole.
Instead, I filled out the questionnaire myself, trying to keep smart-alecktry to a minimum while gently hinting at the deep ridiculousness any reasonable man of my accomplishments would feel in this position. "Most Humbling Moment: "filling out this questionnaire." "Hobbies & Interests." What kind of person has hobbies and interests? Almost everyone else on the site, it seemed, so I put a tick next to "yoga" and "baking." "Celebrity You Most Resemble":Seabiscuit. Rereading the whole thing, I was reminded of a stew I once cooked in college, into which I had piled the leftovers of the previous night's dinner, together with as many other ingredients as suggested themselves from the fridge, plus a few of the condiments my roommate once bought and never used, so many, in fact, that they all ended up canceling each other out and reconstituting themselves in the form of a thick brown porridge that tasted of nothing very much at all. I zipped through it one last time to inject a note of artless spontaneity and hit "publish."
The first response I got was an e-mail from my ex, D. We'd broken up just a few months earlier. It read: "Like the personal ad on Nerve. Glad to see you're feeling a bit more 'chipper' these days."
Ouch. That was embarrassing. "Word That Best Describes Your Current State of Mind." I'd been trying to strike a note of cockney insouciance —cheeky-chappy kind of thing. Allow them to infer how dumb I thought the question, while hinting at the interesting word choices that came with dating a Brit. The note from D was just awful, outrageous, humiliating. I hadn't intended for it to be read by the one person who could see through all that crap.
"It's not what you think," I explained when we spoke later that day, in an attempt at damage-limitation. "It's just window-shopping."
"Yes. You know. Fantasy. Pretend."
There was a pause.
Tom Shone is film critic of Intelligent Life and the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.