I'm journeying crosstown on the M66, a last-minute decision to bus it to meet Blond Arrested Development Fan for drinks. I met Blond Arrested Development Fan online, so this is a feel-out date: Am I actually interested in this person whom I only know through photographs and writing skills? I'm not particularly excited to meet him, not the way I get when I'm on my way to meet a guy I've met in real life, about whom I've developed genuine feelings. Absent are those does-he-like-me butterflies that remind you of gawking with goo-goo eyes at your crush from behind the door of a locker. When I meet someone online, my nervousness beforehand is never more than the sort of minor sensations I could expect before a job interview. "I hope this goes well" is all I'm thinking. And that makes sense. I have very little at stake. I'm traveling through Central Park, on my way to a date, and yet my eyes wander, sizing up the guys on my bus whom I've concluded are gay. He's cute. He might be better than Blond Arrested Development Fan. He's a brunette. Maybe I don't want to be with a blond. This brunette looks Jewish, and I'm supposed to end up with another Jewish guy, aren't I? But that redhead sure is cute, in a nerdy kind of way. I've always had a thing for redheads. But wouldn't a redhead get old after a while, like the way I can only listen to Tori Amos for like five minutes before I get really sick of her? It's such a specific sound.
Was dating always this way, with lonely souls ready at a moment's notice to jump ship and find someone who might be a little "better," before we've even gotten to know the first person at all? When our parents were courting, was dating this much like shopping? Before phones were computers that fit in your palm, did we treat our potential mates like a shirt we bought at Banana Republic -- totally willing to return it for a refund if we found a shirt we liked more at the Gap? Dating now is more akin to Amazon.com than a school dance. There are fewer and fewer butterflies in bellies. This is not a good thing.
Two months ago, I met Vanilla Southern Guy on OKCupid.com. On our first date, we went to a wine bar and made out along the Hudson River. I told him about my chosen career -- I'm an actor and playwright, and, at the time, I was unsuccessfully hunting for a day job -- and he treated the whole thing as if I'd told him I lived on a kibbutz. After Date One, he referred to me in his texts as "unemployed," which I think he thought was endearing, but I found it rude. A few days later, he invited me to a late-night IMAX movie last-minute, and we made out during Jurassic Park 3D. That was pretty fun. Our third date was spent at his apartment eating grapes and making out some more. It got late, he wouldn't let me sleep over, and I went home. I was positive that this guy would not be my husband, but I was willing to keep hanging out with him. I mean, why not? Zero others were knocking at my door, so maybe he would grow on me. I texted him a week after our third date to see if he wanted to "hang out," as we say, but he responded with a detailed account of -- oh-em-gee! -- how busy he was, and I never heard from him again.
A year ago, I met Pointy-Nosed Architect Fella at a gay bar. We gazed at each other across the room, but he was a shy one, and it wasn't until we found ourselves washing our hands next to each other in the bathroom that we chatted. We danced and kissed on the dance floor for about an hour, but we decided to be good boys and not go home together that night. We swapped phone numbers, and, the next day, I went on a two-week vacation. We texted the entire time. (Why does it seem that whenever you meet a guy, one of you goes away the next day on a two-week trip?) I returned, and our first date was lovely, boiling with the mutual anticipation born of our two-week separation. He seemed a little simple, but I figured it was nerves, and I had a terrific time. We scheduled a second date, and the day before our planned reunion, I found myself in the neighborhood where he told me he worked. I had no intention of visiting him at his office -- obviously -- but I thought it would be cute to text him to let him know I was nearby thinking about him. His response was, "Seriously don't visit. My boss hates visitors," and the next day he cancelled our scheduled date, citing the fact that he was "a little put off by things from yesterday." I made it clear that I had no intention of visiting him at work; I'd just met him! He admitted that he "probably took it the wrong way" but that he "likes his space." He texted two days later to see if I wanted to "hang out," and I told him that I was apprehensive about ever seeing him again. And I never did.
Then there was Gorgeous Biracial Finance Man. I met this Jason Taylor lookalike when we made gay eyes at each other on the subway. He was so visually perfect that my throat got dry, and he helped me carry my groceries to my building. I had just moved to New York, and this whole experience made me feel like I was in a 21st-century independent film with clear Nora Ephron undertones. We texted for a few days. At one point, he inquired, "Do you have a thing for black men?"
"Sure," I replied.
"Have you ever been with one?"
"No, actually, but I'm definitely attracted to black guys, and you in particular."
"I usually only like guys who have a thing for black men."
"I've just never been with a black guy."
"Yeah, but I generally only like guys whose fantasy is to be dominated by a black guy."
It was all downhill from there. We went on one dinner date, where we partook in delightful repartee, but, afterwards, we made out on the street, and he was clearly not into being with a guy who didn't have a Dominant Black Men baseball card collection. (Might I remind you that this guy was half-white.) I never saw him again.
These are just three tiny tragedies from my short, two-year New York City dating life. There are dozens more where these came from, and they have all led me to conclude that, in dating, we don't give anyone enough of a chance. A grading scale has taken the place of the genuine blossoming of human emotions, and technology is to blame. We live in a world where if one little thing rubs you the wrong way about someone you're dating, you can get on your device and shop for someone else. Did he come across as clingy in a text message, the most easily misunderstood form of communication? Go on OKCupid and find someone better. Does he not have a black man fetish? Go on Grindr and see what other hunks are nearby.
This problem is at its worst in the gay community, where we're more prone to label each other: top, bottom, vers, masc, fem, twink, bear, otter. (I wouldn't be surprised at all if I heard one gay guy refer to another gay guy as a "dolphin." I'd just think I'd missed the latest label.) The gay community's collective sexual identity is built around checklists.
Gay men can satisfy their sexual desires with a tap of their thumb. This is why it's easier to be in the closet today than it was 50 years ago. Imagine living in a conservative small town where you have to go to the next state to find the closest gay bar. Fifty years ago, you might have been lucky to find a trucker at a rest stop who wanted to have some fun. But let's hope you didn't get caught, go to jail, and destroy your career and marriage. Today, however, you can find a guy on Grindr for some no-strings-attached (or NSA, as the abbrev goes) fun, meet up, do your business, and rejoin your wife and kids at church when you're done. Your needs can all be met without your ever having to lead the life of a gay man, which, particularly in a conservative small town, is a painful life to lead.
Because gay men are so accessible -- especially in New York, where there are just so many of us -- technology has made dating seemingly impossible. Our strange new world, despite its breathtaking connectedness, is a lonely, lonely place. Things are moving too fast for our hearts to keep up. People are so busy running from person to person searching for "the one" that no one's holding still long enough to see whether they actually like who's in front of them. Perhaps we should all take some advice from the sage Dan Savage, who counsels that "the one" does not exist. There is no 100 percent. There's 70 percent, or, if you're lucky, 80 percent, but "the one" doesn't exist.
I don't like online dating. I don't like that I've developed a technique for how to look at pictures on OKCupid profiles: Find the picture in which he looks the worst; that is what he actually looks like. I don't like the forced introductions. I don't like that I'd never have met this person if I didn't have a computer. And I really don't like when the dude turns up and you realize within the first 20 seconds that you're just never going to be attracted to him. His voice is whiny. He smells like chlorine. He's in need of braces. (That's why he isn't showing his teeth in any of his pictures...)
We don't have these issues when we meet someone in real life. When you've first met someone in person, there's no dismal realization that your date looks nothing like his pictures, because there were no pictures to begin with. You met a boy in a pink shirt with messy hair at a friend's birthday party. His eyes made your tummy feel the way it does when you're on the pirate ship ride at a carnival, and he was quite the conversationalist. You wanted to date him. You met a glasséd boy with manicured hair when you picked the seat next to him at a coffee shop. His hands looked irresistibly holdable, and he made you actually laugh when he made fun of Anne Hathaway. You wanted to date him. I met Gorgeous Biracial Finance Man on the 4 train heading downtown. As we stared at each other across the car, his smile made me feel like such a little girl that I had to look away, and he told me he was in finance but was also a liberal. I wanted to date him. This is how people used to meet. And, in the case of both Gorgeous Biracial Finance Man and Pointy-Nosed Architect Fella, this is how people sometimes still do meet. Of my dating horror stories that I've chosen to recount here, only one of them began online, but each man was turned off to serendipity, clicking out of whatever we could have had going and moving on to fill his shopping cart with superior merchandise.
But it's complicated. It isn't sensible or fair to stick around with someone just to say you gave it a shot. That I was willing to go on a fourth date with Vanilla Southern Guy, in whom I was fundamentally uninterested in the long run, is not necessarily a good thing. He was wise to cut it off. Why am I willing to give chances to guy after guy who is just OK, exactly like the cupid whence he came? Perhaps our high standards in these situations will make our generation happier than our parents'. We're probing, and we won't settle for anyone less than a fantasy -- until we're older that is, when we'll find "the one," who we'll be disappointed to realize can't be a fantasy and has to just be a flawed human being. From what I can tell, most of our parents bit this bullet much earlier than we will.
My parents met when they were in high school. My father played football on the same team as my mother's cousin, and they used to flirt by the bleachers. To put it simply, their courtship went like this: "You live within a 15-mile radius of me. You're not annoying. I like being around you, and I like having sex with you. You'll do." Our parents found someone with whom they could deal, and they called each other the "loves of their lives," though they might have known deep down that they weren't. If dating apps had existed in the '70s, my parents might have had "better" options from which to choose.
And this explains why, about once a month, I get a phone call from my mother, who tells me about another of her friends who was left by their spouse for someone they met on the Internet. Most of them are leaving damaged, toxic relationships that are spawning damaged and intoxicated children. But still. These things didn't used to happen, because how could they have?
When I meet the right man, it won't matter if I meet him online or through Jess and Marie. When I meet the right man, I won't care what he smells like or what shape his teeth are in or that he pronounces the end of his gerunds with an "-een" instead of the proper "-ing." And he won't care that I still bite my nails or that I can recite verbatim Sally Bowles' entire monologue that proceeds "Perfectly Marvelous" in Cabaret, or that, no matter how hard I exercise -- which, let's face it, isn't very hard at all -- I will always have a small roll of fat where my lower abs should be.
Finding love is hard. That's why there are so many movies about what a hard thing it is to do. But, as my mother always tells me, there's a cover for every pot. We'll all find somebody, sooner or later. In the meantime, I suggest we all slow down.