I opened my OkCupid inbox to find a kid in Top Gun shades calling me by my first name. “Is that you?” he asked.
Being recognized on an online dating site felt a bit like my dreams of being naked in public. My instinct is to cover myself up but I know it’s too late; all my wobbly bits have been exposed to a street full of strangers in the harsh light of day.
He went by GarethOK, and I wondered if he was trying to be funny or just lazy. I checked his pictures again. There were five. In four of them he looked like he enjoyed a good game of Dungeons and Dragons. In the fifth, he was a potential Daniel Radcliffe in aviator sunglasses.
I’d like to say that I’ve never judged people based on their appearances, but on OKCupid, and sometimes in real life, I do – and I’m happy to say I’ve often been proven wrong. Which you’d think would be a lesson that would stick. I know that especially on OKCupid appearances are often deceiving. That guy on a sailboat in the white turtleneck ended up wanting me to wear a gimp mask, so you never really know.
I stopped trying to figure GarethOK out and messaged back with a polite hello; the recognition triggering a sense of obligation to respond, despite the fact I couldn’t place him. But at this point, I had been single without prospects for several months – which I imagine is the equivalent to day four of a fasting cleanse, when the memory of food is still new and you’re not yet numb to the hunger.
He said we’d worked together at a tech company that shall not be named. He is a programmer, and had an office upstairs from me.
I’ve dated a programmer in the past, and he went to the gym a lot and wore tight t-shirts, so I’m not one to lump all of them together in the same category of nerdishness. But Gareth had the rumpled, mama’s fabric softener appearance of having moved from a computer in his bedroom to a computer in an office, bypassing all social life in between. I banged my hand on my head. “Stop being judgy!”
I messaged back and said, “Sure, I remember you,” because I try my best to be compassionate in real life. We chatted a bit back and forth about the job, which I’d left a half year ago and moved an hour away, to a different town, for a much better job with a pension. Because that’s where I’m at in life.
Then he asked me out for dinner. I emailed him back and asked how old he was just to make sure I wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was 22. I told him I was 37. He was unfazed, responding with a smiley face. I didn’t agree to the date right away, debating it for the next 24 hours. I asked several people.
“I heard there’s a lot of cougars on the island. Now I know,” deadpanned my friend Drea, who lived in Vancouver.
“Go for it, younger guys have more sexual energy,” said Gemma, who knew I was deprived.
“I don’t know why you moved here. There are no single men in this town,” advised my therapist.
I messaged Gareth back and agreed to dinner. We decided to meet at a mid-way point between his city and mine, choosing a random restaurant in a small old folks village on the ocean. We chose the following Thursday night. I made 96.9 % of the decisions, planning and executing the details of a date I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on, but that’s overcompensation for you. He was likely deferring to my wisdom, and nervous about going on a date with an actual woman. I didn’t really care; as my Grandma always said, “beggars can’t be choosers.” She never said this within the context of sex, but it does seem appropriate now.
During the week, Gareth asked for my phone number with a flimsy excuse. I gave it to him without private debate, because I was busy buying a condo and flirting with my mortgage broker.
Gareth texted “hey,” with nothing more. I texted back, matching his lack of effort, as an experiment. How did a text conversation unfold if either party was unwilling to try?
Him: What are you up to?
The hypothesis is that this was a very boring experiment. A day later and it seemed he’d taken a page from Ryan Gosling.
Him: Hey, girl.
Me: Good one.
Me: Nothing. How’s it going.
Him: Good. You?
Painful seconds of my life I’ll never get back.
Him: Whatcha doing?
Him: What do you like to do for fun?
His tone had swiftly veered into flirtation territory. Was I being blindsided? Was this guy a cool, confident programmer that I’d never noticed at the office out of sheer accident because usually I’ve got a radar for these things?
Me: That’s a loaded question.
Him: Lol. You have sexy eyes.
Me: Why didn’t you ever say hi to me at work?
Him: I’m saying hi now.
Me: That’s cute.
Him: I’m glad you think so.
Our date was really looking up! I imagined us developing a torrid romance just inappropriate enough to be the envy of my single friends – not that its a competition. Gareth warmed up to the banter and flirted outrageously throughout the next week until I was pretty much ready to skip dinner and go straight to his place on the date. But a neutral opportunity to investigate our chemistry was probably the proper way to start.
On the evening of our meeting, I drove in the dusk to a tucked away restaurant in a nearby town where all the homes looked the same and the streets were fenced with lean, even trees. I walked the sidewalk to my destination, watching the patio activity up ahead and trying not to pray that he was cute because looks aren’t everything. I should have been taking this to heart since I was basically an old lady. And it’s much harder to date as an old lady. The days were starting to feel like I was riding a roller coaster going down. In my early to mid-30s I was on the upswing, gravity not yet having a chance to catch up to me. But now, phrases like, “all my bras are saggy,” and “the tectonic plates of my face seem to be shifting,” or “I guess this is just how my body looks now,” were making their way into the daily shuffle of off-hand thoughts. So, why shouldn’t I have a fling with an attractive, young web developer? I’d earned it. Then we could lie in bed together while I asked him some questions about HTML.
I spotted a young man sitting outside at a table, and felt a whisper of butterflies. He was a casual hipster. Like a hipster who’d disassociated himself and was trying half as less as was required. So I guess that made him… normal? Regardless, I surmised that he was a type I could sleep with, but then a pretty blond girl stepped out onto the patio and sat down with him. They laughed together, as though mocking my misunderstanding. Humbled, I stepped inside the restaurant and told myself to keep an open mind.
He was sitting at a booth by himself, with the menu spread out on the table in front of him. He looked up and smiled at me in a way that suggested doing so was causing him pain, and watched as I walked over. He made no move to get up, shake hands or speak. I sat down, unwrapped my scarf and analyzed him. His glasses were devoid of personality, his shirt was wrinkled, his hair looked like a Supercuts special, but his face was cute enough. He was a guy who could do with a serious Can’t Buy Me Love style makeover.
“Hi,” I smiled, at him, wanting to put him at ease. “Nice to see you again.”
He nodded, silently. I waited. There were no words.
The waitress appeared, and I wondered if she assumed he was my little brother. “Can I get you guys something to drink?” she asked, obliviously.
“I’ll have a coffee actually, Americano if you have it?”
“Sure do, would you like cream with that?”
She turned to Gareth. “What would you like, love?”
He replied as one does when the answer is automatic: “I’ll have a glass of milk.”
Bless the waitress for not even pausing before asking if two percent would do, to which he nodded and she left to retrieve the orders.
I waited. Surely, after all the flirtatious “hi sexy,” “can’t wait to see you,” texts he might just need a minute to find his groove. Surely he was nervous. I was significantly older, and I’d worn a cleavage top.
He cleared his throat, and his face turned red.
I subtly did the top button up on my top.
This was as helpful as I was willing to be. I had no intention of holding his hand (no pun intended) through this date. I’d already taken care of the destination details. He would have to have to step up and lead the conversation; or at least show that he could use his words in an actual conversation.
I listened to the low tones of the elderly couple having a conversation in the booth beside us. They were obscured, so I was unable to watch them. I watched out the window behind Gareth instead. A truck passed. A car passed. Another truck.
The waitress returned with our drinks. Gareth sipped from his glass and I looked away as he wiped at his milk moustache. I took a picture of my Americano and uploaded it to Instagram (it was 1/8 coffee and the rest foam). What was happening? I felt as though I’d left my home and driven into another city within the multiverse.
The bartender growled to the kitchen – something about ice.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “How’s work going for you?”
He shrugged. “It’s good.”
I waited. Sighed. And tried again. “So, how did you get into programming? Did you go to school for it?”
He crossed his arms on the table, leaning forward with glass of milk in front of him. All he needed was a straw.
“I went to the university in town,” he said. “Got a job with the company when I graduated.”
I waited. The waitress reappeared, asking if we were ready to order. I was ready to leave, but I was also hungry. I ordered the chicken salad. Gareth ordered fish and chips. I was grateful there was no pirate pack option on the menu.
After she left, I looked at him expectantly for the remainder of the story but that was it.
I was irritated at this point. Was it really so difficult to talk – or think up his own question? I folded my arms across my chest. “Do you have any questions for me?” I asked.
He raised his eyebrows. “Um,” he said. After a pause he asked, “Do you like where you’re living now?”
I told him I did. I explained that I was in the process of buying a home. He looked impressed.
“I live at home,” he said, bluntly. There was no apology in his voice, or any pride. It was a plain statement, dressed in basics.
“Like, at home with your parents?” I asked.
Another guileless grin, with a nod.
“Why?” I asked, reserving judgement. There could be many reasonable reasons for living at home at 22. Or at least one.
“To save money,” he said, like it was obvious.
“For what?” I pursued. I imagined myself as the dentist and Gareth in my chair, knocked half unconscious by the sedatives as I wrestled with plyers in his mouth, yanking out his words.
“No real reason,” he answered.
We fell into a silence again that lasted until the food arrived and the waitress, bless her soul, sprinkled her soliloquies onto our table like a conversation fairy. It was sweet relief from the silently throbbing awkwardness of our date.
I stuffed chicken and lettuce into my mouth in solace, while he dumped half a bottle of ketchup onto his meal. I worried that I was going to break into hysterical giggling. I tried to focus on chewing.
He ate, and shot quick looks at me before glancing away and staring at the air above my head. After swallowing, I pushed the food around on my plate and told him, “I have to say, I’m surprised by you in real life, after all your text messages.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was expecting someone who could converse.”
He looked away. “I’m nervous.”
“It’s okay to be nervous,” I confided. “It’s part of dating. But if you’re not super confident in real life, you probably shouldn’t pretend to be in texts. It’s very strange.”
He nodded, drowning a fry in the red swamp on his plate. “Okay. I just wanted to impress you.”
“I think most women would prefer the same guy over text as in real life,” I suggested. “If you’re shy, you’re shy. Own it. That’s much more attractive than pretending to be someone you’re not.”
He smiled, dodging his head against the ego blow. “See, you can teach me!”
Oh, honey no. I already have a full-time job trying to teach people how to do things. I maintained eye contact so he would understand what I had to say next. Goodbye fantasy fling. “I can’t date a 22-year-old who lives at home with his parents. That’s going to make me look creepy.”
“We could be friends?” he suggested, like we were haggling a deal at the Farmer’s Market.
“In what sense?”
“At your parent’s house?” I asked, pointedly.
He looked up from his plate. “They wouldn’t mind.”
I would have warmed to him, if he was joking. But bowing out as gracefully as I could was the nicest thing I could do. After our meal we paid separately, and walked out onto the sidewalk together. A little white haired man shuffled by as we stood on the corner to go our separate ways. I looked down at the rest of his outfit. New Balance sneakers. Dad jeans.
True to form he did not answer. He just waved, as I turned and stepped across the street in my heels like a cougar creeping between the cracks of a concrete jungle.