online dating: a brief affair

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Once upon a time on a blazing summer afternoon, my friend Bethany and I met for lunch in Itaewon, Seoul’s epicenter for bars, restaurants, and drunken hookups. Part cesspool, part hotspot with some of the city’s best food, part anomaly of cultural mashup with mosques and Baptist churches, halal markets, Nigerian and Korean merchants, Russian prostitutes, English teachers who should have moved home years ago, and a steady stream of American military members who are as equally loathed as they are liked, the district of Itaewon has a way of roping you in so that you see the charm of the grit, as hard as you try to keep a distance. It is, truth be told, like no other place in the world.

Bethany and I are sitting at the bar, she’s having a margarita and I’m drinking a beer. Later, she tells me, she has a date with someone she met online. Yeah? I say, and then realize the question I want to ask next is barefaced, which is how they met. So instead I take a swig of beer and ask, How does that work, exactly?

At best, I’ve looked at Internet dating with the same disinterest of a spoiled house cat. I’m not a serial dater, and the one time I tried dating more than one guy at a time, I broke away from all three feeling bereft because, while fun at first, none of these relationships were going anywhere. One of us wanted more, never both at the same time. To borrow a line from my cousin Tippy, I have a monogamous heart. Some things are indeed black or white. For me, dating is all or nothing, too risky to be otherwise. And I have the stretches of singledom to prove it.

It’s simple, Bethany told me. The hardest part is making your profile. You send messages back and forth, and if you want to meet someone and they want to meet you, you do. I always suggest going for a cocktail first, and if things are going well, we might take it to dinner. If not, we end the date when our drinks are finished. There’s no commitment, no obligation.

She was meeting someone for the second time that night, and she looked great, effortless. Bethany has a gorgeous head of hair, and that day she wore it in natural curls that cascaded around her shoulders and down her back. She had on a black cotton summer dress and sandals, and when she excused herself to touch up her makeup, I sat in a cloud of thought. If she can do it, why can’t I? What’s the big deal, anyway? At the very least, you might get some good material, a few good laughs for a few bad dates.

Bethany told me more. The tone in her voice was so casual, so nonchalant about the whole experience. Though the thought of meeting someone online still gave me the creeps, the thought of going on dates and starting fresh was appealing. It had been awhile since my last relationship ended, and I’d need that time to recover. Maybe I was ready.

With a fresh buzz, I set Bethany free to meet her date while I went home to bang out an online profile. Over the years, I’ve helped friends and relatives with their profiles, but it was easier to create my own, maybe because I was less invested. This is a test spin, I told myself. An opportunity to practice. I answered all the optional questions, things like do you want kids? and how often do you shower? I wrote truths that weren’t too personal, like that I love to cook, that I keep a steady provision of olive oil, that I like to play instruments. I wrote that I’m a good ping-pong player, perhaps taking liberal use of the word good.

Over the next several days, I got a stream of messages, mostly quick, minimal openers like hws ur day? and hi, I want to talk wit u because I thnk u r good. Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn’t the first attempt at communication with a stranger be a little more personal? Shouldn’t it, at the very least, include all relevant vowels? I mean, if you’re serious.

For many people, dating online is like casting a wide open net into a deep ocean without a vested interest in the type of fish below the surface. Send out the bait, see what you catch, and then decide what to keep. For others, it is a last ditch-resort to finding lifelong companionship. Still others use it as a surefire way to casual sex, not that you need the Internet for that. I didn’t exactly know what my intentions were, but I didn’t think it was any of the above…….yet.

There was a message from a guy who promised a home cooked dinner of hot Chef Boyardee if I accepted a first date. Points for originality and the ability to bring a laugh, though I suspected he’d used the line before. When I didn’t respond, he sent a follow-up: Offer still stands…

An engineer from San Francisco was in town on business and wondered if I wanted to meet for dinner. He only had one night free, the night before he was due to fly back, but I’d already made plans, and I wasn’t into the idea of going to dinner with a stranger who was in town for thirty-six hours. The next night, he sent a message to tell me he had to stay another night to await the arrival of some machinery, and would I like to join him at his hotel for a drink? The view was magnificent. What a coincidence! I stared, open-mouthed, at my computer screen. This has worked for him before. What’s wrong with me? Why am I shocked when the opportunity is right under my nose? I’m more shocked at my emotional reaction, and by the enormity of what you can’t tell about a person by his or her online presence. I fired back a response: In the event that you aren’t joking, I thank you kindly for the offer. But No.

Then came a guy who’d grown up on a goat farm in Iowa. His opener: Want to play ping-pong sometime?

He mentioned he’d recently been dabbling in baking, and linked to a website he’d made with photos of multi-tiered birthday cakes decorated with neon icing and plastic GI Joes. Alright, I thought. This guy is funny, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. We sent a few messages back and forth until we decided to meet around dinnertime. I waited for him outside a café at dusk on a hot day in late July, my heart in my throat. It’d been over a year since my last first date. From his photos I knew to look for tight curly hair and big, tortoise shell glasses. When we shook hands it was apparent that we were both nervous, which put me at ease.

At a bar we ordered beers and started with all the formalities of a usual interview. It soon came out that he wasn’t living in Seoul, that he was merely passing through on his way to Tokyo. What the hell! I thought, but I bit my tongue. Traveling solo gives enough chances to meet people, so why the need to ensure it by fishing online? Are the chances of hooking up better by meeting online? Shouldn’t you at least be upfront and honest about where you live? Then again, I never asked. We went for galbi and split the bill, and there was zero chemistry, none to dig up from fresh dirt with a shovel. If I tried to make a joke, he’d give a little wheeze and nothing more. If he tried to joke, his efforts would fly over my head and he’d shrug, like oh well, plenty of fish. It was a good lesson in the difference between online chemistry and face-to-face chemistry, two things that are not at all the same. I flagged down a cab and wished him a good week in the city.

I got another message from a guy who was living in Seoul and working as a musician for the US military band. He was articulate and sincere, and he took initiative and planned the first date. I liked that. We met near his apartment, and from there we walked halfway up a mountain to reach the base of a Buddhist temple at dusk, both of us dripping with sweat. After we’d wandered awhile, we hopped a fence near a stream and shucked our shoes, wading long enough to feel cool again.

We went to dinner at an Indian place he liked, and our conversation flowed easily. He was open about himself but reserved with me, as if he wanted to be sure I would accept his story before he learned more about mine. He told me how he’d begun playing piano later in life than most professional players. When he talked, he chose his words carefully, and a thought line between his brows would appear, the same line that disappeared when he listened or laughed. He was a nice guy, so far as I could tell in a few hours. But when I got home, I thought about my upcoming week, about my aberrant schedule, and about how much pressure it is to nurture a relationship while trying to kick-start a career and be in two places at once. I jumped from one to twenty before the second date. And here’s how it goes down: if I am at first indifferent, he is persistent, and it’s that persistence which starts a relationship. Without the persistence, the fire’s dead in the water. He was persistent the next day, even though I told him I had to work, which I did. I’d been there before–willing to make something of what I knew wasn’t right off the bat, and I didn’t want a repeat occurrence. I asked him if we could hang out again as friends, a rejection in the eyes of a guy, and he said he’d love to. Never heard from him again.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to try something new, and maybe I’m not ready to put in the effort of going on twenty tepid dates to reach something that clicks. Maybe I’m too comfortable being single, or at least devoid of the incessant need to be a part of a couple. Maybe it’s  simpler, that online dating is just not for me. Maybe old-time person-to-person contact with a splash of serendipity is, as it always was. Maybe I truly am, as always suspected, part sixty-year-old man, part thirteen-year-old girl trapped inside a thirty-year-old body.

The End.




  • Destiny

    Exactly how I feel about online dating! I’ve done enough online dating to know it’s just not for me. Met a lot of nice guys whom I wanted nothing more from than friendship (at best)…and I haven’t made any new friends. For people like us who like to feel our way around the world and thrive on that in-person connection (including the unexpected ones), the internet has a hard time providing for us.

    • admin

      precisely. But, you know, we know better. It’s those 3 little words I never wanted to hear as a kid, but end up speaking to myself as an adult: told you so.

  • Nikoline

    And hey, at least you can say you tried. I always find new experiences, even if I didn’t like them, to be a window into another world or a way to see life from another perspective. Enlightening- but just not right.