A Date with Ben and His Hair

In our first email exchange, Ben made a point of letting me know right away how many miles a week he ran (50) and how many pounds he could bench press (I forget but it was a lot for a man his age, he told me). Usually stats like this weren’t the way to my heart, mostly because when a man started with details about his health regimen it could only lead to the line I got once: “Uh, you know you could stand to lose a few.”

But Ben’s physical fitness blah blah blah and his loyalty to kale, which was ahead of the times, was coupled with concise, solid prose that didn’t make me wince, and — trust me — that didn’t happen often.

Who knows, I thought as I waited for him at a Baltimore bistro, Maybe this is the night. I spotted him down the street, or the person I thought must be him. There’s that expectant look I came to recognize, kind of the opposite of Bitchy Resting Face. When you’re meeting a date, you make a concerted effort to look open and smart and terribly lively as you walk toward the restaurant. There’s always a great chance your date has already spotted you in the crowd and is going through that initial checklist we all keep with us on dates.

Ben’s body looked great from what I could see of it though I wasn’t much into bodies as my main point of attraction. But from afar, his hair seemed to be too black against his white (SPF 300 sun-screened) skin he took great care of. (Another conversation).

I swallowed hard as he got close enough and we identified each other and we smiled in the universal, silent dating language of “I am not a hoarder,” (him) and “I am not Kathy Bates in Misery.” (me)

Once we were seated I got to catch my breath, and I was grateful for the stirring rendition of Ben’s morning run around the reservoir (heron sighting and phenomenal weather).

I needed time. Because of what was happening on the top of Ben’s head. There lay a synthetic black hairpiece — a credit to an enduring salesperson somewhere who sold him on a dream. This person had fit this shiny apparatus onto Ben’s bald skull and said, “There, sir! I challenge anyone to think this isn’t your actual hair!”

I could not look away no matter what I did. I kept thinking, Make eye contact! Make eye contact! but I knew I wasn’t. Then he sneezed and I watched as it slid a tiny bit to the left. I realized in terror it was not glued down or whatever it is you do to those things. If it moved another half inch, I was prepared to go to the Ladies’ Room and, on the way, find our waiter and send him back to the table with a big heads up for Ben.

This didn’t happen. I eventually made some eye contact, but I’ll admit it might have been fleeting. We split the bill and he walked me to my car. I was thinking, Poor Ben, pretending he has hair. I was wondering if we’d end with a little hug, which was a nice to say, Not in this lifetime, but thanks for a dinner I didn’t spend in front of the TV or talking to my cat.

Instead Ben cleared his throat rather officially and said, “Here’s what I think. It’s just best to be honest at these awkward moments. I had a very nice time, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I’m just not that attracted to you. There’s no chemistry here and I have to admit it.”

It was fair to say, that on the dating front, I was now 0 for 2. A less optimistic person might say I was more 0 for 2 than any human being had ever been since dating was invented. But not me. I had a date lined up for the next night. And his name was Bud.

[Up Next Week: A Date When I Got to Be Dorothy Parker]

A Date with Nathan and the Elephants

Nathan was the first date I’d had in 26 years. Based on his emails, I was pretty sure it would be magical. He was brilliant and literary. He’d gone to Harvard and worked — in a somewhat vague capacity — for a think tank in Washington, DC. I pictured him spending his days lounging with other think-tanky people on leather chairs in some opulent office on Massachusetts Avenue. From what I could glean, he doled out advice for less-smart people somewhere, and that was plenty good enough for me.

His emails contained perfect spelling, and this seemed important to me, as if bad spelling were a character defect I wanted to avoid in a man. His messages were didactic in spots, but then he would write, “I really like fun. I want to be part of a fun couple.” I sent him my telephone number. He called when he said he would. We talked for a while. He didn’t seem like a serial killer.

“Shall we meet at the zoo then next weekend? That might be worth a giggle,” he said.

I shuttled to the back of my head a few red flags that had surfaced during the call. For a man who’d grown up in Michigan, he had quite a British accent going for himself. I could tell he didn’t think I was funny. And I am funny.

I was game. “Baltimore Zoo or Washington Zoo?” I asked.

Was that a snicker? I believe it was. Nathan was clear he didn’t actually ever leave Washington, which he called The District. He suggested we meet at the Elephant House, and added, “It’s the National Zoo.” But he wasn’t finished. “And, by the way, the name of yours is the Maryland Zoo,” he added, just so I’d know I got both zoo names wrong.

Traffic was horrible, and then I missed the exit for Connecticut Avenue. I was almost 45 minutes late. I didn’t want him to think I’d ditched him, so I ran for the Elephant House as soon as I parked.

There he was, at the entrance of the smelly building, jacket slung over his shoulder. Black hair, very tall. Eyebrows that had merged together to form one serious, knitted line, probably years ago.

“So have you ever been to our zoo?”

I hadn’t.

“How about our Smiths? Our Hirshhorn? Our Corcoran?”

We kept walking, and Nathan kept talking and taking credit for Pierre L’Enfant’s life work. The history of the zoo, the pandas by name. He knew a lot about the llamas, too, which didn’t surprise me. He was like the Chamber of Commerce with a unibrow.

Nathan had planned ahead — lunch at a restaurant within walking distance after we’d seen everything the zoo could teach me. My feet hurt in my ill-advised shoes. He’d chosen a place known for its wine list, which sounded like a great idea at this point. But it also felt like we were walking to Philadelphia.

When we finally got to lunch, the mere act of sitting down felt glorious. Especially since I knew there would be a glass of something earthy, with mellow tannins and a strong finish on its way. For the last five blocks, Nathan had been talking about his wine collection. I had no idea what tannins were but I was in favor of them floating down my throat. Soon.

As soon as the waiter passed out menus, my first-date jitters arrived. I like to stay ahead of worries, so I was already nervous about how the whole paying-the-bill thing would play out. I’d brought lots of cash, in all denominations, covering my bases. I knew most men were now comfortable splitting the bill, so I came prepared. If the bill had come to $350, I was still prepared, so I probably had nothing to worry about.

“What are you thinking about having?” Nathan asked, peering at the wine list. He was asking about my food choice, I knew, because I’d come clean I knew nothing about wine in bottles (although I was hardly a neophyte when it came to wine in boxes, my little joke that had dropped dead on arrival).

“I was thinking of the chicken and pasta.”

More looking at the wine list. More eyebrow. When the waiter came back with his pencil poised, Nathan seemed pleased that the waiter answered, “Excellent choice!”

It seemed like a lot of work just to get buzzed after a long day at the zoo.

Then Nathan leaned over the table and touched the top of my hand. It was the first physical contact beyond the awkward introductory hug we’d shared hours before at the Elephant House.

“So, Linda. . .”

A pause followed. It seemed to last a week.

“I have just ordered an expensive bottle of wine, and I will pay for lunch.” (Another pause almost as long as the first one.)

“But I don’t expect you to sleep with me on our first date.”

On my way home, as I exited Nathan’s Capital Beltway and Baltimore came into view, I was wondering how I was going to tell him. I thought, “Nathan, Nathan, Nathan. Not enough grapes in the Napa Valley for that to happen” was much too harsh.

This would be the first time — but hardly the last — that rehearsing exit lines would be a total waste of time.

It was a new world. Men appeared as words on a screen. They disappeared with no follow-up email, on their quest to be part of a fun couple. Which, clearly, I wasn’t ready for.

[Up Next Week: A Date with Ben and his Hair]

Stranger in a Strange Dating Land

I offered up my credit card number to an online dating service for a three-month subscription. I could have done six months at a better rate, but I didn’t think I’d need that long to find true love. I felt like a pioneer in the online dating movement.

I found a couple of (fairly) recent head shots and told myself as soon as I lost the first 20 of the 30 lbs I was definitely going to shed, I’d take some fabulous new ones of the rest of me. I wasn’t too worried about my pictures because it was clear most men my age didn’t know how to crop a photo to save their lives. Most of them still have half of their ex-wives’ heads right next to their faces. If they weren’t embarrassed, I didn’t sweat it.

So here’s what I said about myself:

Age and Gender: 49 year old female
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Looking For: Male for casual or serious relationship (Just saying “casual” made me sound slutty. Just saying “serious” made me sound desperate.)
Height: 5’ 10” (I would find out the hard way when men describe themselves as 5’ 10,” they mean 5’ 8”.)
Body Style: Average (The options were Thin/athletic, Average, or More to Love) If I was bending the truth, so were most of us over 40, so I just let peer pressure take over.)
Education: Graduate School
Marital Status: Divorced
Has Children: Yes, almost grown
Wants Children: No (But I will be amazed later to see how many men in their 50s write “Yes” or “Maybe” in this space. Shades of things to come for those of us with ovaries in their declining years.)
Drinking: Drink occasionally (The option of Drink Every Day made me sound like I’d be falling down or slurring my words too often. Occasionally made me sound like the type of woman who actually knew what one glass of wine at dinner felt like. I wanted to sound like that woman.)
Smoking: Don’t smoke
Dating Range: 30 miles

I’m infused with a weird sense of power as I type my answers in the boxes. I decide on 30 miles for my dating range as if the throngs of fascinating and passionate men who are 35 miles away are just out of luck. In the big text box, a section labeled More About Me, I wrote this.

I like to spend time with men who laugh and talk about real things (hint: not how big your boat is). I love to cook, drink wine, listen to and tell good stories, see live music and theatre, learn new things. I write and read a lot and enjoy being outside to do both. I’m pretty and engaging, can be somewhat sarcastic when the situation warrants it, but I have a good heart.

The online dating experts who guide you through the selling of your wares tell you a catchy headline can often save the day. So I put a lot of thought into this part. I call myself Windsome Writer, unaware of the misspelling, until a very sweet professor of physics from the University of Pennsylvania writes to tell me I’ve used the wrong word — he thinks I mean “winsome.” I thank him kindly and make the correction but can’t consider dating him because he is too far out of my 30-mile radius.

I clicked on the button Show My Profile to Everyone, which felt like setting sail for the new world. I didn’t have to wait long for my first dozen responses.

I am Delmond. I am 6 ft. divorced/white/male. I have brown hair, green eyes, and a short-cropped beard. I am a Computer Security Specialist for the Government. I am a non-smoker. I am a non-drinker. If you like to snuggle, please call me.
You look exactly like my mother. She was a beauty.
Hello beautiful,
See my photo and profile under the name WILDTHINGEXTRA. There’s a picture of me with my new 1100 Shadow motorcycle. I can also provide a Speedo photo. Tell me which one you prefer! I love SMILING and have a Steve Martin type personality with a Jim Carey smile. INTERESTED yet??? How about we meet at the inner harbor and have some nice conversation, then walk around holding hands looking into each other’s eyes. Got a big empty house with lots of rooms (my bedroom is an option) in case you want to visit and stay a while.
I am black Hispanic man from Panama, married, mature, and educated but will like to master the English language, if you will teach me English, I will teach you many thing. Please answer mando.
Hello There,
Taking a long shot. I am Sharon, a DWF, 49.
saw you ad though I woyld resp[ond. im in my 60’s, have 2 kidds, 4 gran children like the outdoors live in baltimorearea. Can’t type to good if interested drop me a lone.
I am ugly and perhaps unpleasant. Sexually I am active thanks to Viagra. I love life but it doesn’t love me. After this splendid presentation you want to know me?
I have been a Chinese submissive husband for forty years. Retired from teaching and now on my second career. Not handsome but not ugly either by any standard. I have a big and kind heart. If you want to try me how submissive I am, write more about you.
Looking for hot, wet adventure! Slim a must, petite a plus! Up for it?
God, you are cute. How about dinner sometime? An opportunity to try to explain to you that which I still cannot explain to myself . . . how I came to scale Everest, the peculiar circumstances by which I came to adopt two thousand AIDS orphans in Africa, or the strange set of events that left me stranded on a desert of Central Afghanistan, dependent on the fickle whims of the nomads. Get back to me, will ya? Trevor
* * *

I cleaned out my inbox. I was strangely undeterred.

By the third week, things had still not taken a turn for the better, so I made a bold move. I changed my dating radius to 50 miles. And I left the safe confines of email relationships and began to go on dates. I’m looking for the right word to describe what happened next.

Maybe I need to check my thesaurus.

No luck.

Online Dating in Your Fifties. What Could Go Wrong?

For those of you following the chronology of my life on this blog, I’m going to skip ahead. You can’t do that when you’re actually in your life, though sometimes we wish we could. Zora Neale Hurston once said, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” I guess I’m leaving out a chunk of years that asked questions. Some of them were tough. They’re all in the book.

I’m skipping to 1999. I was finding my way in a new life, one I hadn’t prepared for. I found I could finally check off the box  “Divorced or Separated” when filling out paperwork without a little knot forming in my chest. I now had an ex-husband, and women seemed to be lining up for a chance to date him. I considered it God’s way of saying “Gotcha!” if my ex-husband became the most eligible bachelor in America, and I turned into an agoraphobic. And, dateless and alone, I defaulted to bowls of Rocky Road and game shows on TV. What if I ballooned up 600 lbs and made people go to 7Eleven and buy me cookies and frozen pizza because I couldn’t fit through the door anymore?

Realizing that wasn’t the life I wanted, I called my best friend and said, “You know this online dating thing everyone’s doing?”

Her exact words were, “Don’t do it!”

At first I wasn’t in love with the idea either, but I didn’t see any other way to find my second husband. I was sure he was out there, somewhere, and my job was to uncover him. And really, time was a-wastin’. If I wasn’t proactive, my dating window would slam shut soon. Then the best I could hope for would be one of those unions in my 80s in the nursing home with a sweet little man with shriveled-up testicles making me tea in the afternoon and getting me confused with his first wife.

I could already see the start of my Bitchy Resting Face showing up in photographs when I didn’t realize the camera was on me. Stuff was happening.I really needed to get a move on.

Online dating had developed into an industry while I was married and going to PTA meetings. I was happy it had emerged as an alternative to bars and anything that had the word “single” attached to it. I liked that online dating was so organized and apparently brimming with men of all shapes, sizes, and denominations. It spoke to my strength — leading with a well-chosen paragraph and following up with some clever rejoinders before I had to ever get out of my pajamas.

The rest would figure itself out. I was to be able to say, “I’m still in my 40s!” and I went around saying it as much as I could. But in a few months that would not be the case and I’d have to find something else to say, something equally optimistic. Because turning 50 sounded — well, 50 sounded — ancient.

Choosing intriguing profiles on my computer screen, and then meeting men in restaurants so they could get a load of my charm. What could go wrong?

Back from “The Real World”

Central New York has the same joke as Wisconsin and Minnesota. “We have two seasons: winter and bad sledding.”

It’s not true. Spring and summer are magical where I went to college, and that’s good because it helps you overlook the jolt you feel when the sleet arrives full force after Labor Day. I arrived back on campus in late June, relieved to be finished with the complexities of life in the city, and ready to tackle summer school. My roommate, Julie, wouldn’t be at our apartment until September, so for the first time in my life, I was living alone.

If you’d known me as a freshman or sophomore, and we happened to meet on campus that summer, you would have been able to see I was no longer the shallow coed who flitted from boyfriend to boyfriend. Mostly because I would have told you so. And for anyone who remembered my short-lived Power-to-the-People phase, I would not have screamed in your ear about Nixon’s war machine either.

I may, however, have been a little too full of unsolicited advice when it came to what I’d learned over the last year in New York City, or — as I called it — The Real World. Walking to class or in the grocery store, I found lots of people who knew me, and I never seemed to be at a loss for words. I noticed no one ever said, “Wow! Fascinating! Why don’t we go for coffee later and you can tell me more about how you’ve conquered the universe?”

Eventually, I came to recognize the bored looks on people’s faces and figured I had summer session to get my feet wet in a new style of shutting the hell up.

My apartment was a fraction of what had been an enormous house at the turn of the twentieth century, probably full of children and the small staff needed to run a proper home. It stood at the top of a hill on Prospect Terrace, a name just full of all the gilded-age optimism rich people had. This neighborhood was once full of business owners or the town’s best doctors and lawyers. The slate roof had long ago been replaced with something cheap, and now the paint was peeling, and the evergreens hugging the front porch were rangy and overgrown.

By the time I moved in the summer of 1971, the house was a conglomeration of apartments and single rooms for rent, with suspect wiring and kitchen cabinets bought at auction. I didn’t care if the corners were dingy. I didn’t care that it seemed I was the only one living in this three-story mansion, except in the middle of the night when the wind blew and the house groaned.

The first week went off without a hitch. How many times in my life have I said that? I went to my new classes, bought the books, and settled in. Nothing to it. I spent early mornings sitting on the steps off the back porch, drinking instant coffee in a handmade mug with a broken-off handle. I kept the music — usually Laura Nyro — turned up as loud as I wanted. I looked forward to afternoons hunched over my typewriter, making sense of convergent validity for my Child Psych paper, and I wondered why I hadn’t done it this way from the beginning.

After my first tests, I called my parents with the news. “I got an A on both of them!”

I’m pretty sure they misheard me and thought I’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature because their reaction was way over the top. The year I’d spent as a college dropout was tough on them. They would be overly thrilled at every increment until the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang out two years later and I marched into the field house in my cap and gown.

I started to wilt in Week 3 of this new life. How many times have I said that in my life? It was late afternoon, and I was reading the paper on the back porch. I’d gotten used to the silence from being the only tenant in a house with 20 rooms. But then I started thinking how nice it would be to share these summer nights with someone. And by “someone,” of course, I meant a man.

An hour later, I heard something come up the winding gravel driveway. A pickup truck rumbled into view and cautiously made the right turn behind the house, toward the bank of garages that had once been a carriage house. Evan Callahan turned off the engine and jumped out.

“Greetings!” He said the word as he moved his entire forearm in a semi-circle.

He would be living here, too, in an apartment on the other side of the house from mine. His was a small studio he was going to share with a roommate, who wouldn’t be in town until September either. So now there were two of us, and I liked the idea. With creaking walls on windy nights, it would be nice to know I wasn’t alone. And now if I found mice in my kitchen, I’d have someone to kill them for me. The Real World hadn’t taught me anything about rodents.

I said, “I made some stew. Are you hungry?”