Love in the Time of Cyber-Dating
You think internet romance is fun? Are you mad?
First published in the March 2012 issue of Metro. Illustration by Tane Williams.
It all began about a year after my fiancée broke my heart. Say it together, because it will be the last time you say it for a while: “Awwww.”
My first move was to spend a lot of time on my profile. I wanted to make sure it appealed to my target market: women who wouldn’t find me annoying.
“Indecisive, but unsure whether I should write that here,” I wrote.
I had few replies.
My next move was to spend a lot of time writing messages to women I was interested in. I was remorseless. I would usually send a minimum of three messages a night and sometimes as many as 10. Even as I write this now, I doubt it. It sounds absurdly obsessive, but it’s true. I have the records from those painful early interactions and I’ve shame-facedly read back over them.
“I liked your movie list,” I wrote to Gemma Louise, “and it made me wonder what a movie called When Harry Met Sally and Amelie would be like. I’m pretty sure it would be a winner. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s uncomfortable humour combined with Audrey Tautou’s wacky cuteness.
“Now I have made myself sound a complete movie / tv dork, maybe you can write back and be equally dorky?”
No, she decided, she couldn’t.
To Aumnoi, I wrote: “I like that your one-liner is ‘please’, although I don’t know what you are saying please for. You sound pretty determined. What is your degree in?”
“Please send Mr right to meeeee,” she replied a couple of hours later. “Please please please I’m waiting for the one.”
To my credit, I cut that one short.
I went out with a lot of older women. I liked them because they were usually secure and intelligent, would always offer to pay, and — importantly — were available, since men in their own age range were unfeasibly trying to date younger women.
I would send them messages telling them it is ridiculous that older women are called cougars when there is no comparable category for men. They loved that.
Our dates were invariably disasters.
An ambitious 40-year-old business consultant came from out of town one Sunday and put herself up at SkyCity Hotel so she could get through the three dates she had scheduled for the evening. I found this out halfway through our date.
“Which one am I?” I asked. “The second,” she said. So at least I knew the pain wouldn’t last past 7.30pm.
When we finally left the bar, I leaned in for the goodbye kiss / hug, but she was already several metres away: “I’m just going to go,” she said. “These goodbyes are so awkward.”
“Ohhh! Shame!” one of a group of passing teenagers said, helpfully echoing my own feelings.
If I write an internet-dating self-help book, at least one of its seven lessons will be: “Never give up.” Sure it’s in every self-help book, but as applied to dating, it is particularly difficult to apply. This is because sometimes when dates fail, they fail because people don’t like you. And if, like me, you want everybody to like you, it’s awfully tempting to let that destroy your will to live.
But if you keep going, at some point you get better. You learn the rhythms of dating, where to have the first date, which of your childhood stories are the biggest crowd pleasers. You learn that nobody is “good” at this — some are just better practised.
Now, I’m no stud. I’m awkward with new people, especially women (and perhaps more surprisingly, middle-aged businessmen). I have seen the sex surveys and I can happily confirm I’m behind the average New Zealand man in partner numbers.
But I had discovered the one place where romance is not denied even the least of us, and after a few months of trial and error, I reached the point where I was no longer the least of us. And then things started to unravel.
It was the night at Jane’s (not her real name) where I first noticed what I had become. She was six or seven years older than me, attractive and financially secure with a city fringe-fringe villa.
One night on the couch at her house, after a nice dinner and bottle of wine, she pulled away as I started to kiss her.
“I hate to have to bring this up,” she said, “but what do you want from this?”
I was shocked, although in hindsight I’m shocked by how shocked I was.
“I don’t know. We’ve only been going out a month. I guess I’d like to keep going out with you and see where it goes from there.”
That sat between us for a good while.
“I understand that,” she said eventually, her voice catching. “I feel so bad having to bring this up.”
The tears started then, and they were plentiful. “It’s just that… I want to have… babies, and [long, teary pause] I don’t have much time and [choking sobs] I can’t afford to just be messing around… if you’re not interested in having kids.”
This is going to make me sound really selfish, but it was only at this point that I realised what a dick I was being. Internet dating had become a cathartic playground for me, and I had chosen not to see that some of the women I was dating might not see it that way.
After sleeping with Jane that night, I realised things were going to have to change.
I needed to date younger women.
At this point, I had come to believe I was the one of the best internet daters in New Zealand. I was a pungent mix of selfishness and self-loathing.
Then, from out of the clouds of my self-hate, came Claire (not her real name).
When she went to the ladies’ during our first date, I texted my brother-in-law, gushing, “This is actually going really well!” She was short and lively and had 10 times more Facebook friends than me, which is not as impressive as you might think.
She went out much more than me (much, much more if you exclude my internet dates) and she was unbearably bubbly: “You’ve got to know this about me — I’ll just start dancing in the middle of public places. I don’t care where I am!”
She also trumped all my best obscure musical references (“Oh, I love Black Kids!” she said, before I could even start condescendingly explaining their back-story. “I saw them live in Texas last year!”).
I would text her and wait anxiously for the reply, which came — on average — 10 hours later. I would hold out for 20 minutes, then text her back with intensely planned witticisms that I hoped sounded casual.
For example, when she suggested we go out for breakfast (one of several planned dates she later cancelled), I wrote: “Breakfast is a great idea. I love breakfast. As long as we can have eggs florentine.” This was a partial quote from the “favourite foods” section’ of her online profile.
It obviously sounded creepy, and she wrote back asking if I’d memorised her online profile, which of course I had.
I replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m just off to express my opinions strongly, inside and out,” which was a quote from the “what I’m looking for in a man” section of her online profile.
She didn’t reply, and things never improved after that. I tried to make a date for Thursday, but she suggested Sunday or Monday — the days where dates go to die. The following week when I suggested a movie, she told me she was totally chocka for the next two weeks.
I was wretched. I carried on typing messages to the women of the internet but without passion or hope. Over the previous six months, I had messaged hundreds of women and been out with dozens. I even liked a few, but I was convinced she was the one.
“There will be another one,” my friend Phil said, a claim that was patently wrong.
“You don’t understand how long it took me to find her,” I said.
He told me I was naïve — that there were lots of women out there and she wasn’t that special.
I still went out on dates: failed dates, half-decent dates, one date in a loud bar where I couldn’t hear a single complete sentence my date said, and was reduced to nodding at what I hoped were the right places.
I was pretty sure Phil was wrong. The right one had passed on me and I was in a funk, liking neither what I was doing, nor the people I was doing it with.
Zanna’s profile was simple. All I remember of it now was that there was a photo of her climbing a tree, that she was a writer, and that the last movie she had seen was Hot Tub Time Machine.
She looked cute in the tree and, crucially, castigated John Cusack for his appearance in Hot Tub Time Machine — for making her think it would be worth watching.
We met five minutes’ walk from my house. We shook hands and I offered to get her a drink but she got her own. She was attractive and she didn’t warn me about wacky things she might do at any moment. She told me she was going to Cuba to work on a film project.
At the end of the date, I walked her to her car. “Are you walking me to my car?” she said. “What a gentleman.” I kissed her on the cheek.
A couple of days later I sent her a casual text message that was the culmination of 15 minutes’ work writing “hilarious” texts about my facial hair that, thankfully, I never sent. For example: “I have grown half a beard just to impress you and would like to take you out to dinner so you can see it.”
I also dabbled with a more casual approach: “How’s ya Monday going? / How’s ya week going so far? / How’s your Monday treating ya? / What have ya been up to today?” The “ya” thing was suggested to me by Phil, who claimed it was crucial.
Finally I wrote one that seemed acceptable: “So I think we should have dinner this week, in case you decide to emigrate to Cuba and we never see each other again. What do you think?”
The day she left for Cuba, we went for a walk to get lunch in Ponsonby.
“I don’t feel comfortable in Ponsonby,” I told her.
“You’d better hold my hand then,” she said.
I was no longer sure whether I loved or hated internet dating, but at that moment I knew I was done with it. By making it unimaginably easier to meet women, the internet had shown me the best and worst of myself. I had felt — really felt — shame, elation, self-loathing, despair and, finally, love.
Everybody has a strong opinion on whether internet dating is good or bad. The truth is, it’s neither. It’s also true it’s not for the faint hearted, but if you can handle it, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll find somebody else who can handle you. Almost two years on, Zanna and I are still holding hands.