I thought I was beyond online dating. Then I took a chance
I prepared myself to be let down and lied to. But he loved Bob Dylan. The Harley was his.
Yvonne Watterson with her partner Scott Henrich: ‘Even though I know you’re not supposed to have any expectations, I had prepared myself to be let down and lied to, but my instinct told me that the man at the bar was not going to lie to me and that I would not lie to him.’
Between the time I met my husband and the time he died 24 years later, the search for romance and Mr Right had moved online, a perfect place for me to spend time, my dearest friends urged.
It would be fun, they said, a way for me to reintroduce myself to the world as the single woman I used to be in the days before smart phones and texting and instant gratification.
Online, I could be equal parts brainy and breezy; I could hide behind pictures that only show my good side, and I could deftly dodge questions with cryptic clues about what I did for a living and the kind of man who might be the right kind for me.
In a flurry of box-checking, I could filter out men who didn’t like my politics, my hair, or my taste in music and who didn’t care if I was as comfortable in jeans as a little black dress but did care about when and how to use “you”, “you’re” and “your”.
You also have to accept that it is going to be awkward, especially if the last time you were “out there” was 1989
I could be Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, instead of her Sally who had met Harry a decade earlier, around the time I immigrated to the United States. Yes, my next chapter could be the stuff of a Nora Ephron rom-com.
Sally was an extension of Nora Ephron - single-minded with a certain way of ordering a sandwich exactly the way it needed to be for her. And, most people will remember Sally in the throes of a spectacular fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli. For me, she shines brightest in a scene that snaps me back to the young woman I used to be, the one who still shows up to remind me how little time I have to become who I am supposed to be. Life, she asserts, is what happens in between the beginnings and the endings - in the middle -and in the twinkling of an eye. It is also for the living. She’s right. Of course she’s right.
When she realises she’s “gonna be 40 . . . someday,” Sally is barely 30 and sporting a sassy hair cut that in 1989 should have worked with my natural curls. It gives me no pride to tell you that I subsequently carried in my wallet, for several years - maybe a decade - a page from a glossy magazine that featured Ryan’s many haircuts.
For countless hairdressers rendered clueless and incompetent by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page as though it were the Shroud of Turin, while I beseeched them to grant me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 did they ever get it quite right.
I remember when 40 was an eternity away from 20. By all accounts, 40 was the deadline for letting oneself go. Fifty was sensible and dowdy. Sixty heralded blue rinses - for hair not jeans.
Seventy was out of the question - definitely not a new 50. And now I’m gonna be 60 . . . one day. Time to take stock of all I have accepted about myself, the “alternative facts” if you will.
Some are minor - I don’t have sensible hair, and I spend a fortune colouring it and trying to tame it. Fonts matter in ways they shouldn’t - if I don’t like the lettering on a store sign, I won’t shop there, and Comic Sans on homework assignments forces me to question the teacher’s judgement.
Even though I recently found out that it’s bad for the car, I only buy gas after the “empty” light comes on. I can finally go on record and confess that I don’t like Les Miserables, and I even fell asleep during a performance of the musical version. Opera doesn’t do it for me either, and I only went to the ballet once because all the other mothers were taking their daughters to see The Nutcracker for Christmas.
I resent the aging process and the way it sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. There was a time when, without glasses, I could read the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle (in French and English); now, I spend less time reading than I do searching for one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at the carwash or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament.
My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at concerts over the past 40 years than on something as graceless as aging. My memory is unreliable too.
I can tell you what I wore and with which handbag on June 5th 1984, but not where I’m supposed to be tomorrow evening.
If Mr Right cares about punctuality, he should probably know I have a stellar capacity for getting lost. Although, with factory-installed GPS navigation systems de rigeur and knowing there is most certainly an app for that, I am much better today at finding my way around the greater Phoenix metropolitan area.
If I have been somewhere at least eight times, I can get there without much assistance, but until such times, I must lean on Google maps, Siri, my daughter reading directions from the phone that is smarter than both of us, and those friends and colleagues who consistently “bring me in” by phone from my destination - where they are already waiting.
Other truths are more painful. I almost learned from my ordeal with breast cancer to be kinder and more patient. My teenage daughter will attest that I have yet to reach a level of proficiency in either area.
The circumstances around my husband’s death shattered my sense of certainty and made me cautious. The result? A fragile guardedness reminiscent of a temperamental garage door. At the end of the day, it’s all about survival and control.
But who would want to read any of this in an online dating profile? Let’s face it, Nora Ephron would probably not have described herself the way her son’s documentary characterised her, “She had a luminous smile and an easy way of introducing herself, but a razor in her back pocket”.
It’s much safer - and easier - to sparkle and enchant the way you would on your resumé - except you have to be cuter, avoiding clichés or divulging your home address.
You also have to accept that it is going to be awkward, especially if the last time you were “out there” was 1989 when, if you met a man at a bar, you did not already know his political persuasion or his favourite movie, how much he earned or if he had a tattoo.
You wouldn’t know his deal-breakers. He would buy you a drink, ask for your number, call a day - or maybe two - later, take you to the movies the next weekend, and over time - real time - you would build the scaffolding necessary to weather every storm in a teacup.
I had no expectation that he would remember my name, anticipating instead the possibility of being number five or six in “the dating rotation”
Awkwardly, I built a profile. I checked the boxes, being scrupulously truthful about my age, politics and marital status while taking some liberties with other details like hair colour and the frequency of visits to the gym. I didn’t mention the razor in my back pocket.
This was resumé writing, right? My best friend reminded me I have an unparalleled expertise in ambiguity, which reminded me not to give too much away.
Emboldened, I provided ambiguous and annoying responses to the simplest questions: Favourite thing? The right word at the right time. Perfect date? Anywhere there’s laughter. Hobbies? Binge-watching Netflix originals. You get the idea, and you’ll therefore understand why I abandoned the idea of online dating - or it abandoned me.
About a year later, after a period of offline dating which left me thinking my remaining days would be better spent alone, my best friend told me to take one more field trip online.
Obediently, I touched up my profile, uploaded a recent picture in which I was wearing a favourite green shirt, and waited to see what would happen while also weighing the benefits of spending my golden years in a convent.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
I took a chance.
I. Took. A. Chance.
Ignoring the raised eyebrows and the sage advice from online dating sites which would deem his boldness a red flag, I broke protocol. Without any protracted emailing phase, I agreed to meet the tall and forward stranger the next afternoon.
A quick study, I had filed away the important bits - he was a liberal, a non-smoker, and a music-loving musician who was divorced and had a little girl. I dismissed the interest in football (the American kind, for God’s sake) and golf (eye-roll), hoped he meant it when he checked “no preference” on hair colour, and held on to his mention of integrity - and the picture of the Harley Davidson.
He said he worked out every day - of course he did, who doesn’t? And, no religion too. No deal-breakers. He had my attention.
Still, disenchanted by dating - online and off - I half-expected Mr Forward to be five feet tall and 95-years-old.
Who knew if his pictures were current or if he had built his entire profile on a foundation of fibs? Maybe he didn’t really like Bob Dylan (a deal-breaker) and maybe he went to the gym thrice daily.
Let me just digress to tell you that there are more than a few men in the land of online dating who claim to live in the desert - but also enjoy moonlight walks every night - on the beach. Honest to God. I had no expectation that he would remember my name, anticipating instead the possibility of being number five or six in “the dating rotation”.
It was a Monday. I had sent a breezy text suggesting we meet at 5pm at a well-lit bar. I was wearing the outfit I had worn in my profile picture, perhaps to prove that I had posted a picture taken within at least the past decade.
It was also a good hair day, my hairdresser having redeemed himself with fabulous beachy highlights (just in case a moonlight walk was in the cards).
I was also a mess, embroiled in a legal battle that I’m probably not allowed to discuss here or anywhere else, but I think I probably told him all about it within the first five minutes.
A match made in heaven? No
The Harley I’d seen in the photo was parked outside, silver steel shimmering. Like a Bob Seger song. Unless he had borrowed it just for our first date, this was a good sign.
He was sitting at the bar, staring ahead, and I watched him watch me out of the corner of his eye as I walked the plank all the way from the front door to where he sat. Butterflies. Even though I know you’re not supposed to have any expectations, I had prepared myself to be let down and lied to, but my instinct told me that the man at the bar was not going to lie to me and that I would not lie to him.
Over beers and banter, we sized each other up and over-shared, checking off those boxes our middle-aged online personas had created. He loved Bob Dylan. The Harley was his.
Virtuality was becoming reality and although I was sceptical - sorry, musicians, but you have a reputation to uphold - I was also smitten. The bar closed, and off we went to another.
Having read and committed to memory the FAQ section of the online dating site, I knew this was another red flag. First dates that are too long (or turn into second dates on the same night) are deemed more likely to create a premature and false sense of intimacy. Too much too soon, the experts say. They’re probably right, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t do it again the next night and most nights since. We’ll do it tonight too.
A match made in heaven? No. In spite of all the tactics and algorithms deployed to make sense of our checked boxes and declare us a 100 per cent match, and being declared “official” by Facebook and the young bartender who thinks we’re photogenic enough to be “the desert Obamas”, we are making this match right here, right here where angels fear to tread, in the messiness of the middle of two lives that collided at the best and worst of times. There is no wrong time.
As for the rest of the story? The rest of the story is for me. And for him. As Rob Reiner reminded me in his tribute to Nora Ephron:
“You don’t always have to express every emotion you’re having when you’re having it.’ There’s a right time to talk about certain things, and you don’t need to be out there all the time just spewing. It’s how you become an adult, and I think she helped me see that.”
P.S. Because I know you want to know, I asked him what compelled him to be forward in the first place. He says he thought the woman in the picture was looking directly at him.
I tell him there’s a song in there. Let’s write it.
Originally from Co Antrim, Yvonne Watterson emigrated to the US in 1988 and settled in Arizona where she works in education.
She is director of education innovation at the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and has been recognised for her work in school reform and her activism on immigration. She blogs at Considering the Lilies . . . and Lessons from the Field. Read more of her articles for Irish Times Abroad here.