Culture

When ‘Goodbye’ Is A Click Away

After the end of an 18-year relationship, the last thing I wanted was a date. It would be another two years before I began to feel the pinch of loneliness and thought I was ready to start seeing someone again. This simple realization proved to be a huge hurdle crossed and gave me just enough confidence to begin my search or, at the very least, open up to all the possibilities that jumping back into the dating pool might offer.

I'd convinced myself that the ups and downs of dating again looked exciting. After all, I was young, avant-garde and single. Well, perhaps not young; there had been a slight fast-forward of 20 years. Middle age had coolly snuck up on me, and I was unsure where someone "mature" might meet potential compatible companions. Never being particularly in vogue or partial to the wine-and-cheese set, the usual venues made me uneasy. My sister suggested I try Internet dating. I resisted the idea mightily, thinking this ranked right up there with mail-order marriages. But after a few dozen Saturday nights alone with my cats and "Law & Order" reruns, I reconsidered.

The Web sites for dating are extensive—you can log on with hopes of finding a serious relationship or simply playing footsie under the table—all assuring you of your desirability with a hazy guarantee of finding a suitable match. After logging on to one I found appealing, I typed in the required revelatory information, wrote a pocket-size informative essay, pasted in my best photo, chose my Web name and paid a small fee. Instantly there appeared hundreds of faces, complete with "handles," profiles and criteria. Could it be any easier?

I got right to work. I flirted, I e-mailed, I put myself out there. And then I waited. Responses came back, questions were sent, replies were launched. What fun! And then I waited some more. That's when things got a little sticky. Sometimes days would pass before a reply came again. Sometimes they didn't come at all. As quickly as the attractive snapshot faces had appeared, they likewise vanished into the silent cosmos of the Internet. I was left with pensive hands on the keyboard wondering what had happened.

Was I too picky? Not picky enough? Had I seemed desperate or, worse, pathetic at 48? Maybe my teeth weren't straight enough. Maybe I couldn't pass off those wrinkles as smile lines after all. Possibly my religion was wrong, or maybe it was unfashionable to be a Steelers fan. And who actually listens to James Taylor these days? The doubts came flooding in like a summer downpour. After a few weeks, a few sites and a few dollars spent, I turned off my computer. Instead of scouring for e-mail in the mornings, I drank some coffee and smoked a few socially ostracizing cigarettes. And I ruminated on e-dating.

It's pretty easy to get used to instantaneous satisfaction. But express communication also lends itself to an equivalent measure of abruptness. If you don't care to continue an Internet relationship, whether as casual friends or potentially something more, you simply don't respond. What I found most disquieting was that I was guilty of doing this, too. The effortlessness of sitting at a computer provided me with a kind of anonymity and irresponsibility, and it was far too simple to imagine all the faces weren't connected to living, breathing human beings with hearts and minds and the same anticipations. In cyberspace, I'm not really accountable for any insensitivity. Click on, click off. No exertion to begin, even less to end.

I resigned from Internet dating with mixed feelings and tried hard to sidestep being upset. After all, this was a venture that I had chosen. Besides, I did meet some new friends, ones I can e-mail about the weather in Nebraska or their hopes for a Democratic president. And I'm sure all the find-your-true-love sites work for a sufficient number of folks or there wouldn't be so many sites or so many people hopping on the bandwagon. I just wonder about the others out there in cyberspace who made the same gutsy gamble and found themselves back on an identical starting square. Plenty of my Saturday nights are still spent alone, sometimes even surfing the Web, but not for a reasonable facsimile of love or with any illusions of a high-speed solution. And I'll continue to take my chances with dating, but I think I'll leave the computer in standby mode. I just like the odds better.

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