And so I begin. I enter the final active stage of my life alone, with a mental illness which, paradoxically, is at the root of much of that aloneness. I sit and look at the anonymous faces on Match.com. They look old and ugly. Is this how they see me too? Some shout out their messages in capital letters. Maybe they have never used a computer before. Many wear the Mafia-type glasses so popular here in Spain, and many have posted a selfie while driving.
Today I burst out laughing. Someone had “winked” at me, and when I clicked on his profile, I saw the picture of a fairly good-looking guy — the photo was in black and white — sitting in the back of a limo with flute glasses for champagne lined up next to him. His message was so blatantly transparent that it was ridiculous. I emailed him: “You’re kidding, right?” Yes, it was unnecessary and it was mean. I just couldn’t resist.
And so I sit here in Spain, mulling over the past and my dating experiences, pounding away, as is my custom, on the keys (but they aren’t keys, just digital images) on the new iPad I have treated myself to. I received my first Christmas gift in the mail today, sent to me by my daughter, now twenty-four, all grown up. It was a case for the iPad, but, unexpectedly, two CDs, to which she had converted the only video tapes we have of her as a child, spilled out of the envelope.
I watch the first one in which she is three years old, opening her presents at our best friend’s Christmas gathering. I had forgotten. I thought you did not forget, but I had forgotten just how sweet, how irresistibly sweet and still unharmed, how completely dependent on us for her well-being, she was –as if Craig and I knew anything about what we were doing. And who is that person that I know is me? I can’t see her face but she is thin and hunched over: nothing special, really. She has the air of a vagabond about her. I don’t recognize myself. If Penelope, my best friend whose son played with my daughter, had been clairvoyant, and had sat me down and said: “Anne, you will lose your child and your husband through your own actions and cause them much harm and grief, and you will leave and go and live in two different countries and end up completely alone,” I don’t think I would have been able to grasp the words or imagine a future based on such a prophecy. And that happy evening, the Christmas of 1988 or 1989, has been rescued, Thank God, thanks to Penelope’s video camera and a bit of tape.
“Online dating,” Marcia says, “That’s the way to meet men.” She is happily married and, of course, she knows actual success stories to back up her assertion. She sat down, wrote up my profile, and posted it. I don’t know if it’s me or some undetectable cultural difference I am not aware of, but my luck hasn’t been that good. I think there is little honesty in the internet dating world. The site itself encourages you to “sell” a product – yourself. “Put your best foot forward!” “List your pluses,” “Post your best photos, and make sure you are smiling.” Skip over your slide into depression last spring – perhaps, perhaps, you can bring that up when you know each other really well.
My very first experience with internet dating was far from what I had expected. I picked out an expat, a Norwegian several years older. I didn’t actually like his photo, but I thought this would make it easier to have a “practice” meeting. The very first thing the Norwegian said to me when we sat down was: “Why do all of you women post pictures of yourself taken when you were much younger?” I was appalled by his rudeness. He was right. My profile picture was about four years old. The rest of the photos I had posted, however, were taken within the past month. His own face was extremely lined and that hadn’t been apparent in his profile photograph. No matter. I was so shocked by his remark that instead of just getting up, paying for my coffee, and walking away, I actually stayed and conducted, in utter embarrassment, some kind of half-hearted, meaningless exchange of words.
None of the men who came after were as bad as the Norwegian misogynist.
I quickly realized that I was moving in a world of fiction. The virtual world was a world of assumptions. After all, you could not quiz someone straight away on their past history, financial status, employment history, amorous dalliances, or demand a sworn affidavit on their marital status. And as a foreigner, you yourself are a blank slate. You can make up your own new history and concoct an adventurous, fabulous other self — everything you always wanted to be but never were — but so can the locals, for that matter. Both parties are free to reinvent themselves as they tell their stories. In the dates that I’ve had, I’ve come to realize that all the self-talk, the stories that people tell about themselves, often abound in fiction, and pretty bad fiction at that. Sometimes the stories are so boastful that you silently wince in embarrassment. At other times, the storyteller relates his story not to you as the listener, but for his own pleasure, happily fabricating hardly plausible achievements and escapades.
I stayed on my dating site for about three years, with some interruptions. The quest for love is not given up easily. Towards the end, my criteria grew less and less demanding. My thinking was: “Go out for coffee, and give it a shot. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Who knows?” But I knew. Many wanted to follow up, and many didn’t. But not a single one attracted me. It was not physical attraction I was after. What I was on the lookout for were gestures that would reveal a person who could be kind, a person who could have compassion, a person who could, perhaps, eventually show tenderness. And I slowly realized that some degree of amiability can never be enough fill the void of solitude. If anything, if I traded myself in just for company, I would be dealing a death blow to my own sense of self-respect.
And so I walked away. Some are blessed with much love in their lives, and others aren’t. Love does not come easily, and it’s not likely to be waiting around the corner, as friends keep on reassuring me over the years. But deep within me, there is a little box, like the one Miss Brill kept her hat in, with love and hope and pain, all entwined, emerging in the day, and stepping back in, to be covered with a lid, when the day turns to a close.