I’m 35. I’m single. You’d think those two facts together wouldn’t be terribly profound; they’re certainly not unusual, but it does feel like a strange place in which I find myself, and I’ve gone to lengths to change this situation.
A year ago I was living with a woman. We were talking about having a future together. It was exciting and different, I felt like I’d crossed some kind of personal Rubicon into real adulthood. She wound up wanting things, and wanting them now, things I wasn’t quite ready for, so she left. After the bruising on my ego had gone down and the sudden fear of being on my own in Halifax—a city to which I’d moved in order to be with my ex—had eased, I actually felt OK. This could be considered a new beginning.
I’m 35. I’m single. Am I ready to get out there? In the past, I met women through friends or work. Serendipity was my friend and my only plan. It’s much more romantic that way, I figured. What was it I wanted this time? A serious relationship? The last had skidded off the road. I wasn’t ready to get behind the wheel of something big and heavy again, at least not right away.
Simultaneously, I was conscious of time’s passage. I’m not getting any younger or any prettier. The winter is long and cold. This is something no one tells you about being in your 30s. The price you pay for a greater self-knowledge and self-confidence is the diminishment of memory and a sensitivity to time. All over Canada, right now, single 35-year-old guys like me are doing the math: in five years I will be 40. I had better get my shit together now. I’ve got no time to fuck around, or to sit and wait.
Though responsibility was knocking loudly, I decided to be juvenile and indulge in some adolescent impulses. I needed to have some fun, to keep it simple. I needed sex. Crazy monkey sex. Maybe with someone younger, who would be more my emotional equal. Then we’d see about the bigger issues.
I put the word out. SWM, suddenly eligible. Clean. Reasonable prospects for the future. I had survived through dry spells in the past, they’d even been good for me, but this time I really felt that it was in my own hands to find love of some sort, whether the furtive, midnight-rendezvous kind or the large, all encompassing, cardigan-sharing kind. Screw serendipity. The shame of it was in no time I’d exhausted the dating possibilities in my social circles. There was no one single and/or interested.
There was only one thing left: online dating.
I knew a couple, recently married, who’d met through an online service. If I needed a precedent for success, there it was. I called my friend Max in Toronto, who about a year back regaled me with tales of his success with Lavalife, the most popular Internet dating service, but he had since quit. I asked him why he’d stopped, given the busloads of available and sexually aggressive Toronto women with whom he’d been scoring for months.
“It’s like…it’s like too much chocolate,” he said. “After a while it just got too intense. Plus, you’re shopping for human beings.”
Pshaw. I like chocolate. A lot. I signed up. The process takes a while. You create a profile for yourself. A pseudonym. As a writer, I chose something provocative, then changed it, and changed it again. I settled on a vaguely Latino, old-world handle. I was scrupulously honest with my personal details of height and body type: slim or average? It would have to be average. I hadn’t fit comfortably into size 32 jeans for a while. Then I had to decide about the picture. Lavalife reminds you that profiles with a picture receive eight times the interest, so I had to find one that I could stand to see out there. I asked for advice from some female friends, and with their advice, found one not entirely awful.
You can submit a profile in three categories: Dating, Relationship or Intimate Encounters. My Dating and Relationship profiles were virtually identical, but my Intimate Encounter profile was different. Different name, different needs. I figured that wasn’t being dishonest…if I was just looking for sex, I would have different criteria for what kind of woman I wanted, and would offer up a different side of myself.
I spent about four hours looking at women. You can refine your search, right down to Zodiac signs. I wouldn’t need to be so restrictive: ages 20-37, Halifax area. I tried to give equal time to those who had pictures and those who didn’t; tried to read all their personal messages, but it became way too exhausting. After a while I just looked at the girls with images.
Then I tried the Intimate Encounters section. The irony is, where a physical attraction is especially key, only one in 10 had a picture on their profile. Most hid theirs, as I had, in the Backstage section, where you keep pictures covered up until requested. Nudity is allowed, though I didn’t go there. I looked at the profiles of over 500 women. I added five to my Dating Hotlist, 16 to my Relationship Hotlist, and six to my Intimate Encounter Hotlist. They varied in ages and looks but what they all had in common was a bit of wit or something original in their personal write-ups. They could all spell, too, which is very important. Oh, and no smokers.
Then I sent “smiles” to most of the women on my lists; a free notification that you’ve noticed someone in whom you are interested. Once you begin an email connection, you have to pay for it, though only one time: every message after the first one with a particular person is free.
I was surprised at the response. No one to whom I smiled responded, but I received a lot of interest from other women who had noticed me. Pictureless women from Ukraine emailed me. Older local women. My first real connection was with a friendly 30-something who worked in the film and TV business. She didn’t have a picture on her profile and wrote me before mine was approved. It took about three minutes on Instant Messenger to discover we knew each other in our real lives. We’re friends. Maybe I should have taken that as a sign that Halifax is just too small for this kind of thing. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I run into people I know all the time.” She made it sound like Internet dating was just a part of the greater community of friendly single people. Well, OK then.
I wasn’t put off by it. Nor was I put off by the woman who—after sharing a few emails about our favourite books—accused me of false sincerity when I decided to politely end the exchange. I did, however, after a couple of weeks, close my Intimate Encounter profile. I had exchanged a few saucy emails with a woman who also didn’t have her picture up. When we shared our images, I wasn’t turned on, and had to find a way to diplomatically bow out. I felt so terrible about it, it was clear to me that I couldn’t be cavalier about looking exclusively for a sexual relationship. It’s no easier letting someone down online than it is in real life, even if you can’t see their face.
Finally, I lined up three dates with women who seemed interesting, with whom I had a few things in common. What shocked me was that there was very little spark with any of them, especially on the first dates. On screen, these women were ideal. Even in person they all were, in fact, lovely, bright and charming, but the attraction was inconsistent. I was expecting a lightning strike, the discussions online had suggested it was possible, but no.
This was the most revealing thing about Internet dating, and why I think it is, in most respects, counterintuitive. In real life, you meet someone, and ideally, you feel an attraction. Then you date and see if your interests and values match up. Internet dating takes the opposite approach. You see a photo of the person, then you discover the person’s interests and values. You do the heavy lifting in advance, work the charm in writing and naturally, you can’t help but build up a few expectations from email exchanges. Then you meet to figure out if there is a spark. How many times in your life do you meet someone for whom you have that mutual attraction right off—even if you aren’t looking for something serious? Lavalife is a great way to meet people and make friends, but for finding love—or something akin to it—it’s a big shot in the dark. It’s also exhausting, and demands more energy than finding love should require.
In four months I’ve been out with six women. I’ve made friends, including an academic who shares enough of my neuroses that we would never have been good for each other. I took a break when it was just getting too compulsive. Every girl I saw on the street, at work, in the grocery store (including the cashiers), I was starting to think I’d seen online. Lavalife is its own culture, and needs to be used in moderation.
I was finally fortunate enough to meet and start seeing a student some years younger than myself (The Breakfast Club almost predates her birth). She was shy, beautiful, intelligent and charming and laughed at my jokes. Sadly, she called it off. We didn’t actually have sex but we shared some delicious moments together. For a few days there I was filled with fantastic anticipation of fleshy delights. Those were good days.
So it’s no big mystery why I haven’t given up. The service provides potential, whether it’s actualized or not. The odds are against me, but Lavalife offers instant intrigue. I’m out there, even when I’m not making any other effort toward that part of my life. It may be impersonal and counter-romantic and wildly unlikely, but it can lead to something wonderful, or, at least a virtual doppelganger of the same.
I’ve seen it happen.
Names have been changed to protect the shy and retiring.