Going through dating profiles is like reading the same book over and over again. Everyone is happy and loves to laugh. Everyone likes beer and coffee and rain. They all spend their weekends hiking and camping. They’re all gentlemen from the Midwest who dislike drama and are on the lookout for a sweet girl.
On the dating site, I tell charming stories about setting off the smoke detector whenever I attempt to cook and spilling coffee on my shirt daily. I join the masses in declaring my love for Happy Hour and brunch on Sundays. I am bombarded with responses from men who claim they’ve found their dream girl.
I go on one of these dates, and the guy treats it like a job interview. He asks me how much I make; he asks me how much I weigh. On another date, the architect-who-runs-marathons brings me cupcakes and tailors our outings around the interests I list on my profile. It is sweet and awkward and overwhelming. There’s the lawyer who holds me hostage in a never-ending game of pool. The Minnesota transplant whose ability to avoid eye contact throughout our entire conversation at Powell’s is nothing short of incredible. The list goes on.
Each night, the same thought arrives: I could be home right now. I could be watching The Voice and eating veggie pot pie.
“Nobody goes on Facebook to announce he has herpes.” The author Jess Walter said this recently, while sitting on a panel at a literary conference in Portland. He was talking about the narrative of social media, the way we craft our Facebook stories to present only the best versions of ourselves. The men on this dating site are presenting their best versions, and I’m presenting my best, and I am bored. I’m growing wary of the narrative, especially the one I tell about myself.
I try to present myself the same in-person as I do on my profile: quirky and charming and a little aloof. As if this tells my whole story. As if comparing myself to a Zooey Deschanel character is all that’s needed to encapsulate who I am: cupcakes and dresses with boots and awkward asides. This is how I’m supposed to present myself. Telling the truth—about my insomnia and depression and inability to feel normal—would be ridiculous.
In spite of my own truth, I expect my online match to be as predictable as his profile. He’ll be from the Midwest, just like the last guy I dated. He’ll be a photographer, too. That’s where the similarities end. He’ll be a salesman, and a very good one. He’ll own a condo overlooking the soccer field. The groceries in his fridge will be organic. He’ll own a fancy coffee maker.
I’ll like him for reasons that have nothing and everything to do with him. I’ll like him for the tiny wooden spoon he uses to sprinkle sea salt on his eggs. I’ll like him for his clean bathroom and his Tom’s toothpaste and the neat rows of shoes in his closet.
My therapist encouraged me to join an online dating site after I spent too much time processing the breakup from the last Midwestern photographer, the writer I met in graduate school. He had a broken vacuum cleaner and no dishwasher. He had mold in his fridge. He had enough fiction on his shelves to fill a small bookstore. I loved him for years, until he decided he loved someone else.
“Wait. I’m not telling you the truth here.” A resident says this to me at the retirement center where I work. He tells me that his youngest daughter is dead, and then he backtracks. “She didn’t die,” he says. “I don’t know how to tell you this.” And then he tells me the real story: His daughter joined a cult and moved with a man and several other women to New York. This was over thirty years ago; he never heard from her again.
My truth unravels, too. I didn’t actually love the writer from grad school for years. I loved the man I thought he would become. This is the most dangerous type of love because it’s not real. It’s the equivalent of lusting after a celebrity or having a crush on someone from afar.
Sometimes the lies feel more like truths than the truths. For all intents and purposes, my resident’s daughter is dead. My Midwestern writer is dead, too. I’m not sad he’s gone. I’m sad that the man I thought he was is gone, and worse yet, that he never existed. I’m sad that the person he thought I was, endlessly nice and bubbly and pliable, never existed either.
I stand up my therapist one day. I decide I’m finished. It’s not that I don’t need him—I’m still processing the breakup and my grandmother’s death and the fact that I’m thirty and me—but I can’t be honest with him. I hear myself telling him the things I know he wants to hear. About moving on and feeling better and spending less time crying in my car. He buys the lies, and I realize I’m wasting my money.
When I don’t show up, he calls me three times. He sends a bill to my house with a handwritten note, asking me to call him back. I pay the bill, but I don’t call. I think blowing someone off is the worst thing I could do; I do it anyway.
“Wait, I’m not telling you the truth here,” I want to tell the guys on the dating site. I want to remove the picture my hairdresser took moments after my last haircut and replace it with one of me on a camping trip, unshowered and wearing a red hat. I want to talk about being unable to face my own therapist. I want to tell them I haven’t slept in my bed in weeks. I washed my sheets and started to put them back on, only to get exhausted halfway through and stop, laziness leading me to the couch instead.
Even that’s a lie. I don’t sleep on my couch because I’m lazy. I sleep on my couch because my big, empty bed makes me ache with loneliness and I’d rather use it as a receptacle for laundry than a place to rest my head.
I can wrap my story in a glossy package. I can make myself sound fun, but I’m no more or less fun than any Midwestern photographer who wears plaid and looks sincere but doesn’t really give a shit about anything I have to say. Fun is the story we tell the world when we post our vacation photos and describe the epic meals we consume, but fun is not my truth.
My grandpa doesn’t remember how to eat. When my dad and I bring him lunch at his skilled nursing unit, he picks up his fork and examines it curiously. He holds it up to his head, ready to rake it through what’s left of his wispy white hair. My grandfather is 93 years old, and lately he has morphed into Ariel from The Little Mermaid, not a trace of recognition registering on his face as he takes in the everyday items around him with childlike wonder. Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat? He stacks the strawberries on his plate into a pyramid and howls like a rabid coyote when he hears a nearby phone ring. The napkin tucked into the collar of his shirt finds its way to his head, an impromptu hat for a man who’d rather play cards with his grilled cheese than eat his grilled cheese.
Loving someone with dementia is complicated, because it involves loving a person who is a different version of the person he once was.
Dating is complicated, too, because it involves liking a person who is a different version of the person he will be.
Just as I did with my therapist, the date he recommended I take blew me off. We went out for dinner once. We talked for four hours and split dessert. He texted me as I drove home and asked when he could see me again. I felt happy for the first time in months.
I met him for drinks with his friends. They went their separate ways and we walked to a new bar. We stayed until it shut down, and then walked to where he lived. His condo, with its grand windows lending a sweeping view of the Portland cityscape I rarely got to see, awakened me. I lived and worked in the suburbs. I lived in a state of This Will Do For Now.
His house sparkled. His life sparkled. I thought of him and his sparkling life while he visited a friend in Tokyo. For a moment I believed that things were exactly as they appeared to be.
My coworkers and I ate our lunch on the patio, soaking in the last sunny days before autumn took its turn. We swatted at bees and talked about men. Cautionary tales abounded: husbands leaving after years of marriage, friends whose infidelities tainted everything. I felt the weight of their optimism as they shifted their focus to me: the youngest of the group, the single one, the one most likely to meet someone who could potentially change everything.
“Actually, I did meet someone interesting,” I heard myself say aloud, and immediately wished I could retreat. These were not the type of women who take such a comment lightly. One started humming the wedding march.
Why did I mention him? I knew I’d never hear from him again. I knew he’d go to Tokyo, and return to Portland without a trace. I knew the texts would stop, and the emails, too. I knew I’d never see his ninth floor condo again.
While he was in Tokyo, I thought about his ironing board. It was the first thing I saw when we walked through his door, our bodies fueled by vodka and champagne, moments after being unable to stop ourselves from kissing on the elevator. My last boyfriend neither owned an ironing board nor understood how to use a trashcan. This man’s perfect ironing board and perfect house made me want to do wonderfully imperfect things to him. Everything about him turned me on: his smooth skin, the way he whispered words on my neck, his ability to slice a sweet potato into perfect cubes while making a breakfast scramble. These were the things I thought about while he was away.
On our last date before his departure, I exhibited Herculean restraint and kept my clothes on, though sex was so close I could nearly taste it. I was trying to be—what? Good? Proper? I was trying to be the type of person who was likely to be called back. I was trying to be more thoughtful. Less instinctual. My instincts often led me astray.
I knew nothing about him, but I mapped the various ways I might fit into his life. I made assumptions based on his books and the state of his kitchen. I could see us together forever, and I pretended this idea wasn’t absurd.
I never knew my ex, either. He spent most of our relationship voicing miserable discontent and I attempted to offer solutions instead of accepting the truth: he’d never be happy with me, and I’d never be happy with him. When my grandma was days from death, I was sick of hearing him tell me he was sorry, or telling me everything was going to be okay, or changing the subject, or trying to make me laugh.
“Just be here for me,” I said.
“Does that mean sitting here and listening to you cry?” he said.
That’s exactly what it meant. I wish he’d known me well enough not to have to ask.
I didn’t know the man I was with for years. And though I see the pictures of their gleaming engagement rings and smiling kids, lately I feel like I don’t know my friends. I only know the personas we’ve created.
I buy an extra toothbrush. I don’t know why. I’ve been single for almost a year. Sometimes I’ll sleep with my laundry on the bed. It makes the bed feel warmer, fuller. I’ll wake up with a pair of pants on my face, a shirt flung over my body.
In my solitude, I wonder about the reasons I am alone. Am I too fat? Too boring? Too weak? Maybe they think I’m too—what? The worst thing about a blank slate is everything we write onto it. We carry our best selves into public and our worst selves into solitude.
In my solitude, I wallow in my loneliness. I eat macaroni out of a box, as if I’m not worth the effort of real cooking. I set the smoke detector off and a scene from a charming sitcom does not unfold; instead, I stand cursing, groaning, irritated.
This is the most me I’ll ever be, and it’s the me I work carefully at concealing.
I’d like to meet someone who likes beer and coffee and rain and camping and brunch and smiling, but more than that, I want to know someone. I want someone to know me. I want someone to peel off my persona, see the madness behind my silliness, and like me anyway—not just in spite of my truth, but because of it.
Rumpus original art by Rob Kimmel.