The Neighborhood Bully, 50 Years Later

The first time I heard “Hey, Buzzard!” I was 12, and I knew he was talking to me. With a small crowd around him, Walter  began flapping his arms wildly in the air, and making loud “caw, caw, caw” sounds. His friends were already laughing and didn’t need an explanation, but they got one anyway: “I call her that because she’s so ugly and her nose is so big,” he told them as they moved down the street.

My nose was way ahead of the rest of my face. In fact, my whole body was just one big adolescent disappointment that summer. My hair had the consistency of steel wool and would puff out like a blow fish as soon as the humidity raised half a percent. I was taller than anyone on my block (including a few short adults). I kept forgetting about my feet. I tripped a lot.

Puberty had not come gunning for Walter the way it had for me. He was athletic and blonde, with perfect symmetry to his face. As the kingpin of our neighborhood, whatever he said garnered plenty of nods and laughs. My humiliation — always close to the surface — didn’t faze him. Just the opposite. The few times I cried only fueled him. Twice he spit at me but missed.

I found no “safe spaces” during those summers. Unless it rained, kids played outside all day, and the hand you were dealt was a three-block radius of your house, maybe a total of 50 kids.

At dinner, my parents might say, “So, what did you do today?” but they never wanted to hear the details. There was an unwritten manifesto of all the Massapequa parents I knew: They’d had the foresight to buy a home on bucolic Long Island, a far cry from the mean streets of Manhattan or Queens where they’d come of age. They got points for providing you with trees, good schools, and fresh air. The rest was up to you. You were supposed to have fun in the summer. It was your only job.

As a child, my mother had watched her family struggle through the Great Depression. She was replete with stories about oatmeal. When my grandmother could afford to make some extra in the big pot on top of the stove, she would have my mother take it to the family who lived above them, a trip my mother dreaded. When the woman opened the door, her face would fall and she would sigh. She took it because her kids were hungry, but she couldn’t bring herself to say “Thank you.” Oatmeal was charity and people who worked so hard didn’t take charity.

My mother fought dark feelings most of her life that all our security would be whisked away. Walter meant nothing to her when  — at any moment now — oatmeal might return as a staple.

My father spent most of his childhood in Maine. When his mother died after his third birthday, his father moved away to find work. My father was shuffled among kindly relatives who fed him as long as they could. Theirs was a small enclave of French mill workers who did not speak English. And then when my father was 11, he was sent to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to live with his father, a man he barely knew and a man who refused to speak to my father in French. New father, new city, new language all in one moment. Walter? Don’t be ridiculous.

My parents listened to me, but their usual response — changing the subject — told me that they couldn’t relate. Their message was loving and practical and always the same, but it infuriated me in its simplicity: “Sometimes life is hard. Be a good person. Figure it out.”

A few years ago I was at a funeral back in Massapequa when I saw Walter walk in. He was easy to spot in the crowded room — still handsome, his blonde hair now gray. I’d been privy to what he’d been doing all these years. He has struggled — in a bunch of arenas — maybe the reason he was such a mean kid. He is still not known for kindness in any form. (Sometimes life is hard.)

Watching him, I felt a little vindicated as if someone had been keeping score all this time, and it had just been announced in this room at the funeral home that my totals soared over Walter’s. I realized, though, that I didn’t need to be the winner. And what I was feeling at that moment was a bit of compassion I didn’t see coming. (Be a good person.)

I caught his eye and smiled. He recognized me, and we made small talk about the old neighborhood. If I thought for a moment he remembered his treatment of me when we were kids, I might have brought it up, just to see what his memories were. But it was clear he just wanted to tell me about his business, his kids who play lacrosse, his new car, and his new wife. And maybe it was during that conversation — as my mind wandered — that I finally completed my parents’ advice from so long ago (Figure it out.) Because I remembered that at 12 I didn’t want to treat people the way Walter did. I didn’t want to end up like him.

And I didn’t.

“We’re letting you go.”

I knew my days were numbered as soon as the new org chart came out. It was complicated and confusing, with squiggles and two-sided arrows. It was like a corporate Escher print, and I couldn’t — for the life of me — figure out where I belonged anymore in the company that had been my employer for six years.

“We’re letting you go.”

I love this phrase, don’t you? It made me seem like some sad, caged bird, who was now free to explore the world, thanks to the kindness of the Board of Directors. At least that’s how I tried to hear it.

My laptop was gone by the time my boss and I walked back to my desk. According to company policy, he was supposed to watch me pack up and escort me from the building.

“Really, you don’t have to stand here,” I said, trying to get him off the hook. I felt sorry for him having to bounce me out. “I’ll come by your office when I’m done,” I told him. Then as he walked up the hall, I reached for an economy 12-pack of Post-it Notes and threw it in my purse. It’s been five years since I was fired, and I’m mentioning it here since I’m sure the Statute of Limitations has kicked in. Apparently my new life hasn’t called for Post-it Notes the way I thought it would. I still have 11¾ packs.

By 7:45 I’d signed a letter giving me a generous severance and making me promise not to sue them for firing a person so old she had actually watched the Moon Landing on live TV and remembered Thin Elvis.

By 7:55 my boss and I were standing awkwardly in the parking lot, as he sweetly lifted cartons into my car: all of my framed photos, potted English ivy, my extra pair of winter boots in case it snowed while I was at work, and a pencil holder my son made in 3rd grade.

He said, “You’ll be just fine.” He looked sad. I thought about confessing about the Post-it Notes.

By noon I was almost buoyant. “It was for the best!” “Thank God!” “No more pressure!” “A blessing in disguise!” All me.

I did the usual things a person does after getting fired: I called everyone else who’d also been fired so we could bad mouth the company that didn’t realize how phenomenal we were. I considered careers that seemed like they’d be much more fun than the one I’d been tethered to —Personal chef? Yoga instructor? Restaurant critic? Then I drank a lot of wine and took a nap.

When it was time to get out there and find my next job, I sent out cover letters only to find the silence they received unsettling. So I did what I do in times of uncertainty. I took to the Internet to find 16 diametrically opposed opinions about what I should do next. I found some job counseling companies, loaded with experts who were dying to help.

I gave my credit card number to one of the companies with the words “PLUS” or “PRO” in its title, and three days later, my new résumé was delivered. Was I was concerned I didn’t recognize myself on paper anymore? Yes and no. It was unsettling to read all the things I had expertise in that I really didn’t. But I still thought as long as I could get an interview, I’d shine. Thanks to the fiction team now selling my wares, it would take the CIA to uncover how old I was until I arrived at their doorstep. Then my charm would take over.

I landed three interviews within the next week.

It takes a lot of time to get sparkling for an interview when you’re 61 — this much I learned. You have to project a certain maturity and know-how without letting them find out you’re wearing Easy Spirit pumps. You have to invest in Spanx. You can’t eat a poppy seed bagel for breakfast. It’s a long list.

For my first interview in the marketing department of a local hospital, I had to enter by walking right past the cubicles of the people I’d be working with. As I opened the door, everyone in the room popped their heads up, like those adorable little prairie dogs you see at the zoo. Immediately I watched their shoulders all slump in one communal exhale (sort of a silent “Oh, pulease”).

No, really, I wanted to say, I’m lots of fun! I know who Taylor Swift is! You’ll like me! I smiled and entered their boss’s office where his 15-minute interview was just over the line of perfunctory. It wasn’t worth the ten minutes it took me to get myself wedged into my Spanx.

The next two interviews weren’t any better. At the second one, the person in charge was — just a guess here — nineteen. At the third, I was interviewed by a panel of women my age, which might have held more promise if they hadn’t been Nuns at a women’s Catholic college and the only thing our lives had in common was that we were all wearing black.

I got three responses all in polite, templated email. All three ended with, “Best of luck in your job search.”

I sat at my computer, reading, and realized something I had glossed over before.

The part about being 61.

Good Intentions and Horrible Blunders on a Country Road

It’s hard to tell this story because it sort of breaks my heart. It was 1933, and my mother was five. She and her parents were driving along a country road at the eastern tip of Long Island, long before it was called The Hamptons. Suddenly traffic stopped, and cars began to line up and inch toward what they figured must have been an accident. They crawled along for a few miles, my grandfather running out of patience.

When they got to a fork in the road, they realized that a car had run out of gas just where the two lanes separated, and right there was a black man holding a gas can, his thumb in the air, hoping for a ride. My mother stood up in the back seat and watched car after car in front of them slowly go around the man.

“Stop and pick him up,” my grandmother told my grandfather, exasperated by the behavior of the drivers in front of them. I like this part of the story, of course — my grandmother so ahead of her time. But there’s another part.

As they got close to where the man stood, my grandmother glanced at the back seat next to where my mother was sitting. She took a newspaper from the floor by her feet and handed it to her small daughter.

“Spread this out on the seat next to you,” she told her.

“Why?” my mother wanted to know.

“Diseases.”

My mother did as she was told, and they stopped. The man, jubilant that this would end his humiliation, went to get in. My mother watched him closely. He saw the newspaper. His smile faded. He got in anyway. My mother remembered the sound his body made as he sat down on the paper designed to keep his “diseases” off their car seat. He took off his hat. He thanked them.

My mother told me that story when I was a young teenager, deep into my “Peter Paul and Mary Know the Answers to Everything” years. My reaction was harsh. How could my grandmother — my smart, kind grandmother — ever do such a thing? And why was my mother telling me this story with nothing more than a little frustration, saying, “Well, they did what they could do.” All I could see was that they were just another smack in the face to the black man who’d stood in the hot sun waiting for someone — anyone — to drive him to a gas station.

My mother told the story because all those years later, she still remembered the hurt look on the man’s face, and it haunted her. She told it because she also understood her parents’ actions in a way I refused to. Because the world evolves in fits and starts, brave take-offs and hard landings, good intentions and horrible blunders. She told me the story slowly and quietly because I thought I knew everything about the universe and how it worked. And she knew that wasn’t true.

And now I know it, too.

 

Can We All Just Take a Breath?

As scandals during my childhood in Massapequa went, this one had legs. I didn’t understand it completely, but I could tell by my parents’ tone it was bigger than the brouhaha about the Townsends refusing to pick up their dog poop, which had rocked Hamilton Avenue the summer before.

This one started the day my mother drove me to our family dentist — a man I’d known all my life — for my 6-month appointment. While we sat in his waiting room, I silently recited my usual prayer to the molar gods about no cavities. My mother immediately noticed that Dr. McGarrity had placed a copy of Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative, on each end table. And as if that weren’t enough, instead of the usual pamphlets about brushing your teeth after every meal, there were now red, white, and blue brochures explaining why people should vote for the senator from Arizona.

“And not just one table,” my mother told my father that evening, “but all five!”

“Did you say anything to him?” my father wanted to know.

“Of course not!”

We talked politics often in my house — the keyword being “in.” I knew that Goldwater was diametrically opposed to everything my parents held dear because they were liberals of the highest degree. If any of our neighbors actually believed in Goldwater (and undoubtedly there were a few on Hamilton Avenue), they kept their leanings to themselves. As did we.

And this — to put it simply — was the way the world worked before Facebook. It was a place where your dentist throwing his conservative beliefs out there on a table could horrify people who were just there to get their teeth cleaned. Long before Twitter came along and we realized how cleverly we could condense our opinions into 140 characters, my parents were aghast that Dr. McGarrity would want the world to know how he planned to vote.

Anyone reading my blog for the last year knows I’m not above hauling out parts of my youth and giving them nostalgic air time. And anyone who is lucky enough to make it past forty begins to see how “simple” life was then. Some of us pine for the past  — loudly and often — especially this year, when the world seems to be upside down.

I’m not one of those people.

Every time someone talks about the Fifties and how perfect they were, I shift to other thoughts: Separate water fountains. Polio. Gay men cheerfully described in their obituaries as “lifelong bachelors” by family members who didn’t know the truth. Or the unrealized dreams some women mourned when they signed up to become housewives and spent every day of the rest of their lives slowly disappearing.

This election cycle looks like it will get crazier before it gets better, and as much as social media is something I can’t live without, these days I feel like I’m drowning in it, especially when my fellow Baby Boomers are at the keyboard. In one corner, we miss the civility and quiet of the Fifties. In another, we’re generating memes and comments — about our candidate, our issue — at an astonishing rate. We need to feel right. About everything.

Maybe it’s time to take a breath. Which is what I’ll do. As soon as I update my Instagram account.

 

 

 

The Ignorers and the Chatters

The train is sold out. I’m hoping for a seatmate who will sleep. I know people who have found their soul mates on public transportation, but I’m convinced I’m not one of them.

“Is this seat taken?” He’s about my age, nice looking, and smells good.

During my years of work travel, I discovered a universal truth I’ve held to ever since. There are two types of seatmates: Ignorers and Chatters.

“What are you reading?” he asks as he finishes putting his bag on the overhead rack.

I recognize this as a pivotal point in this relationship, which — unless magic happens — will be over in two hours. What if I make it clear that I just don’t want to talk, to anyone? What if I ignore him?

The best I can do is to hold up the book so he can see the title. Then I give him lukewarm body language. Bette Davis I’m not.

I grew up in New York, so you might think it would be easy for me to find one terse sentence that would let me travel in quiet. But it’s more chronology than geography. It’s growing up in the 50s, I think, that keeps me unable to say “Please be quiet!” to the loud talker in a restaurant or the smarmy salesperson on speakerphone in the airport. I’ve just never been good at it. It came with the territory of my WASPY polite family. Golden rule schmolden rule.

First hour down, and this is what I’ve learned: He is divorced, bad break up. He dates a lot, at least once a week. His son goes to Dartmouth. He has a Cocker Spaniel, and it has a name. I gave up and closed my book 55 minutes ago. Did I say he was a Chatter? He is King of the Chatters.

He does punctuate most of his sentences with: “Don’t you think?” But I realize 25 miles in that his “question” is just a place holder until he can catch his breath. The first few times he said it, I actually opened my mouth to respond, but my timing was off, and he just continued with his train of thought. Besides, it wouldn’t matter if I said: “Let’s get naked and see if anyone notices.” He is on an amazing one-way frequency in this conversation.

For the last 15 minutes of the trip, I retreat to nodding or shaking my head in response to what I guess he’s been saying. I take my cues from his facial expressions. Smile = nod. Frown = shake.

The doors are about to open at the station. I have just spent two hours of my life that I’ll never get back again. I have regrets about that.

“So, are you on Face Book?” he asks as we gather our belongings.

I want to say, “Everyone’s on Face Book.” I want it to be worthy of a Maggie Smith exit line as she harrumphs out of the library in Downtown Abbey.

In my head I can hear my parents, my grandparents, and all my aunts and uncles in some heavenly choir, coming at me from all directions. If you can’t say anything nice . . .

I pretend I don’t hear his question. He asks again. Then I smile. Of course I do.

 

Okay, Okay, I’m Getting Older. I Get It.

I seem to be repeating stories. Even when I take a second to ask myself, Have I already told this person my adorable story that took place thirty years ago? Either I don’t wait for my own answer, or I can’t remember if I did or not, so I launch into it, because, really, it’s my best story of all time: I joined a health club the year after giving birth to my last baby when I was in my early thirties. One morning, as I was walking to my aerobics class, all the way across the entire gym floor, I noticed men looking at me and nudging their friends.

I was getting a lot of attention, just by walking through the club! This was terrific. Men were noticing how well I’d whipped my saggy postpartum body into shape. I was naughtily delighted at how much they all seemed to want me.

When I got to class at the far end of the building, the instructor came rushing over to me, saying, “Oops, you’ve got toilet paper coming out of your leotard, and it’s dragging behind you!”

Lately when I’ve told the toilet-paper tail story, I see a little impatient nodding going on, because my listener has heard it all before and is trying to save me the trouble of finishing.

I believe I’ve now told this story to everyone, though I can’t be sure, so I’m going to keep telling it, just in case.

This happens, too: I’m driving in a perfectly orderly and cautious way and come to a four-way stop sign. A young dad in his SUV is already there, waiting. He spots me and begins waving that I should go. It seems like a panicky wave, like he can’t trust me. Like he wants to save his kids in the backseat. I want to open my window and shout, “Hey, I’m still an excellent driver!” But those were my father’s words to the Police after he mowed down an entire hedgerow in front of their condominium in Florida. So I do go first at the intersection, but I also give the SUV dad a little thank-you wave, showing off I can still do two things at once without hitting the fire hydrant on the corner.

There are more signs that I’m not, shall we say, the young bloom I used to be.
I never run out of anything. Ever. My days of trotting next door for a cup of flour while I’m in the middle of making a pie crust will never happen again. I stock up on everything, even things I will never use if I live to be 100. My heirs can count on inheriting economy packs of toilet paper and a subscription to The New Yorker that will expire in 2045.

When I have to bend down, I always look around carefully to see if there isn’t something else I should be doing as long as I’m down there. I hope the cheerleaders from high school also have to do this now.

I’m not sure I’ll ever remember to cough or sneeze into my elbow because every time I feel one coming, I still hear my mother saying “Cover your mouth!”

I’ve never taken a selfie. I reject that word on principle. It’s quite enough that I’m of the generation that established the School of Epic Self-Importance. I don’t need pictures taken at bad angles to remind me that I’m the center of the Universe.

And somehow I totally missed the demise of phone booths. One day they all just seemed to have disappeared from the landscape. This happened while I wasn’t looking, which troubles me.

In his later years, every morning and every evening, my grandfather wrote down the weather in the little boxes of the free calendar he got from his newspaper boy. I’m happy to report I’m not even close to doing that. But the world does seem to be spinning so much faster than it used to. And I’m not ready.

For anyone keeping score, the weather was miserable today. But I don’t remember what it was like yesterday because I don’t keep track. I swear I don’t.

The Dumpster Fire Dates

So far on this blog, I’ve only mentioned the dates that went awry. One reader, who is also a writer, has told me that my dating years are not quite the literary gold mine I’d been thinking they were. He’s become bored. Others have commented that sometimes these tales make me sound — shall we say — a little uppity.

One more. Just one more, I promise, and then I’ll get on with the rest of the story.

The truth is many dates were magical. I had relationships. With good men. But no one I wanted to live with or marry. There was no second husband at all — ever — waiting in the wings.

But I still think I’m a laugh riot when I get on a roll about the dating years, so indulge me just once more. Here they are, in abbreviated form.

Sam, who, halfway through dinner, started calling me Wendy. I had a panicky moment. I was a pro by now, and I’d entered the restaurant, looked at the man waiting who looked expectant, said, “Sam?” and he said “Yes, hi!” and we began our date, as I’m sure we’d done many times according to the rules of the midlife online dating ritual. The second time he called me Wendy,  I was thinking there might be two Sams at this restaurant and this was the wrong one. But my anxiety was premature. He came back to calling me Linda right before his phone rang. And he took the call. On speaker. For a good ten minutes. From a woman who called him Sammy Baby.

Pete, who never took a breath. He would look like he was going to take a breath and give me a hint that maybe I should speak. But then he’d tap himself on the side of his head and say, “Let’s see. Let’s see, let’s see, what else can I tell you about myself?”

Charles and Tom, who spent most of our dates spewing venom about their ex-wives and letting me know all about their screaming fights and standing their ground in front of cars in driveways and protective orders. These men needed a dating coach. I actually excused myself to the ladies room during one of them, hightailed it to the parking lot and left before he could get my license plate number.  He seemed like the type of person who wrote down license plate numbers.

Larry, who got to the restaurant ahead of me on our first date, and had the hostess place a bouquet of flowers on our table. A large, expensive, Queen of England bouquet of flowers. He had great hopes for it going well apparently. He led off with a story about how his sister died of kidney disease because his father had refused to be a donor. (Now that’s a story that makes you hope you’re invited to Sunday dinner soon.) As we parted ways after dessert he asked, “How about going out this weekend?” When I said I didn’t think so, he looked at the flowers and said, “Shit, what a waste of $75.” I wished he’d taken them back because for two days I looked at them and all I could think about was his sister.

Henry, who emailed me after our dinner. It began, “I hope you won’t be offended by this,” at which point you know you’re about to be offended. “I don’t see it in the cards for us. I’m still thinking I can get a woman who will look bangin’ in a thong.”

There was John, who still lived with his mother, and slept in the bedroom where he achieved puberty.

Then there was George, who still lived with his wife.

And Ian, who apologized for leaving his wallet at home. Twice.

And when I list all those dates in one place like this, I think maybe I’m descended from Pilgrims even though my name is not Alden or Standish. I think I must have come from people who spent months sodden, starving, and all full of Scurvy, wending their way across the ocean on a leaky wooden boat. Between lung-crushing coughs, they said things like, “Hoist the sails! Give thanks!” Tomorrow will be better!”

I sat down at every date, thinking the man across from me might be The One. Or as my ancestors probably said, “I’m sure we’ll see land any day now!”

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.
***
HiHo,
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.