With a push of a computer key I uploaded my online dating profile (see my blog post "Testing the Water in the Dating Pool"). With that single keystroke I cast myself adrift onto that sea of single people who were all looking for that perfect match -- the love of their life -- their soul mate. In that moment I joined a very large and very un-exclusive club.
Now it was time to wait -- wait and search. On the dating site were photographs of beautiful women whom I would never have had the guts to approach in real life. But here, anonymity and the soft glow of my computer screen gave me courage. I sent them emails, asked them to read my profile, and I told them how much I looked forward to hearing back from them. Somewhere in my head a voice was telling me that they would never respond, but I am still disappointed when the voice turns out to be right (shut up, voice).
Then one day -- I got mail. I was pretty sure Meg Ryan wasn't sending me any emails but I was just happy to have someone respond to my profile. The note was short and concise. I looked at the picture and she looked nice -- tall, dark hair and big brown eyes. We started to exchange emails and eventually exchanged phone numbers as well. Suddenly I'm a teenager again; my hands were clammy against the telephone receiver. I checked her number a thousand times to make sure I didn't make any mistakes. I did not want to have to explain to some stranger that I misdialed a phone number for someone I met online. I wanted to keep that private -- just between me and the several million people on the Internet. It would be on a need-to-know basis.
Finally I called and in my heart of hearts I prayed that it would go to her voice mail because then I would have fulfilled my obligation and the ball would be in her court.
Her voice startled me back into the moment. My voice cracked when I responded, but just a little.
Soon we were having a nice conversation, it moved at a good pace, not too many moments of awkward silence. After a while I asked her if she wanted to meet for drinks the following night, and she agreed. After I hung up the phone I thought, 'This is easy'.
I am fashion illiterate -- I'm pretty sure plaids and strips don't go together, but I would double check with friends before leaving the house. With that in mind, I am very basic when it comes to first-date clothes: black shirt and tan pants. I'm tempted to buy a half dozen of each just to avoid the possibility that I would look stupid on a first date (yeah, it's the clothes).
On the day of the date I kept thinking up answers to questions yet to be asked. I kept thinking of witty remarks so that I would have them at the ready -- like bullets in a gun -- prepared to shoot down boredom if it tempted to raise its sleepy, ugly head.
My whole life I have believed in 'The Spark'. That undefinable feeling you get when first seeing someone, like you have been waiting your whole life for that person to appear. I have been ridiculed for it, but it has guided me through my entire romantic history (tell us again, Al, why are you alone?).
That night I entered the restaurant and picked a spot at the bar, like a sniper in a nest, I would have the perfect shot of her as she entered the restaurant. One by one women walked in and that fist of nerves in my stomach hit my chest as each entered but, as of yet, no spark.
Suddenly there was a voice in the air.
I hadn't taken my eye off the door; how did I miss her?
I looked right. I looked left. Then I looked down. She looked so tall in the profile picture -- did she take it in a room full of tiny furniture? Was she some sort of optical illusion? People may lose an inch or two over time but she seemed to misplace a good foot-and-a-half since that photo was taken.
She looked nice in the picture -- younger in the picture -- less compact. Maybe this is not the same person.
"You are Al, right?"
Those four words slammed shut any exit I might have had planned.
I ordered two drinks and looked at her again. Beneath the sporadic facial hair and wired strands that spring from her scalp, I could almost see a resemblance to the photograph. Perhaps it was a photo of her daughter or of herself from 20 years ago. But like a car accident, I am drawn to her eyebrows, the way they came together, like a prisoner exchange, crossing the bridge of her nose.
I told her it was nice to meet her, and she confessed how nervous she was all day and how she kept changing outfits wondering if they made her look fat.
I quickly started talking about the weather.
As I eyed up the end of my drink and, in my mind, the end to this first date she suggested that we should get dinner. "Of course," I said. Inside my head, a montage of barred prison doors slammed shut as if my brain was now trapped in a 1940s James Cagney movie.
I knew, deep down, I could easily enjoy one meal with this woman. However, guided by my self-imposed spark she did not stand a chance. Because what I had envisioned was that the woman in the photograph would walk into the restaurant and within minutes we would know this was it -- love at first sight. That we'd talk about marriage, about how are kids would be, and whether or not we'd move to Florida one day when we retired.
Although right at that moment, moving to Florida seemed like a good idea.
As the hostess led us to the table I wanted to tell her this was our first date, that we met online, and that she posted a 20-year-old picture of herself with her profile. Of course, I didn't. She sat us down and handed us menus. I scanned mine quickly, looking for something that required little prep work, preferably something raw. Maybe they had leftovers in the kitchen, something they could just put in a doggie bag for me. No need to waste food, or time, cooking a whole new meal.
When the hostess returned I told her I'm not very hungry so I ordered a salad. My date's order seemed to go on for 20 minutes. When done, the hostess went to grab my menu, but I was reluctant to let go. I felt like she was taking my shield just before I was about to step onto a battlefield. A few more tugs and the menu was pulled from my cold, lifeless hands.
We begin to chit-chat -- we actually started talking about the weather again. "Of course it would be nice if it rains -- it's good for the lawns." I live in a condo and the only lawns I ever see are on a golf course and I don't play golf.
Soon enough the food arrives, we continue our intense talk about the weather (we seem to be stuck on that), and eventually, we are finished. The hostess drops the check on the table. Not one to quibble about who was going to pay I snatched it up, put the cash inside, and returned it to the table like a calf-roping champion. I nearly threw up my hands so the judges could stop the clock.
We left the restaurant and strolled to our cars. Well, she strolled -- I tried my best to set the world record for speed walking, but her legs weren't long enough to keep up so I politely slowed down to her pace. She pointed out her car and we moved towards it. Even as much as I found her not to be my type I'm not sure whether to kiss her good night or not. After stopping at her car, and exchanging a few pleasantries, we fell into a moment of silence. She looked up at me and made an almost unperceivable move -- her head leaned forward and tilted to the right. I leaned in, and then down, to kiss her but at the last moment I snaked right and lightly brushed my lips against the side of her cheek. The scratching sound of five-o'clock-shadow against my face sent a cold, electric shiver down my spine because it's not my facial hair doing the scratching.
I said good night then moved off to find my car; my first online date was now behind me.
I know I'm a bad actor in a bad play when it comes to my online dating experience. I'm running off a script written by some internal spark while everyone else is out there improvising their parts. They say a bad dress rehearsal means a great opening night. If that that's the case then one day I will be starring in a play that will run forever (hopefully it won't be Les Misérables).
One date down -- only five thousand to go.