I have this nonfiction writing guide, a sort-of-bible I acquired in college that I keep on the top shelf of my bookcase. It is in perfect view from my bed, a place where I do a good portion of my writing, and a place where I can be easily reminded by my prophets that guidance is but a mere four feet away. It is also an excellent spectacle to gaze upon while hanging upside down whenever I’m caught in a dead spell and counting backwards from 3,952 while blood is unapologetically rushing to my listless brain seems a wise experiment to conduct in order to merely pass the time. To the naked eye, this book may be rather dull, a simple shade of tan with thin black letters neatly centered on its spine. But, to my impatient and grasping self, it is the North Star – the compass that I so need in utter and perilous times when I am wandering in too many directions.
Most of my writing takes place in my mind, an unfortunate occurrence for my mind, but a logical conclusion for a tangential wanderer. So when words finally make their way to the page, a babbling ramble tends to spew forth and I like to hang my upper body over the side of my bed hoping that a quick, firm drop onto the carpet will merge one or two thoughts. My theory on coalescence usually ends with me popping a few aspirin in between defeated sighs as I reach up for my sort-of-bible and flip through essays written by Annie and Phillip and Wendy and Bret, these apostles with their wise teachings and insights who guide me through the very ebbing and flowing of this genre. I demand to them, Give me some sort of sign, any damn sign will do! I want to be told what to do, what to write next, yet I demand the freedom to fall on my own head at my own will, and it surely does not help that I’m yelling at a book.
Under that same veil of contradictory logic, I joined a dating site when I decided to date no more. My best friend and partner-in-crime, Vince, had joined OkCupid and excitingly blabbed about it one evening as we were drinking beers and listening to awful pop music. I rolled my eyes because I roll my eyes at those sorts of things; nevertheless, I signed up a few weeks after ceasing contact with my latest “boyfriend.” (He preferred the quotation marks.) The header was catchy enough on the home page: Join the best dating site on Earth, and I remember vaguely thinking, Well, okay then. My mind was actively trying to cut off signals to my fingers as I incorrectly typed my own name while filling out each highlighted section, but stubborn curiosity won that battle.
If you have never been on a dating site, the first issue you might encounter is what exactly you should type. “About Me” sections are for the raging narcissists lurking deep within our guts, and initially I tend to flourish the page with circling quips about my obsession with bacon and humorous observations about my dog. Words that, according to my brilliant mind, are worthy of a Sedaris essay have now found their way onto a webpage aimed at catching the attention of 21-28 year-old men who enjoy beer pong and deer hunting, living within the greater Omaha area. I smile to myself as I finish the sentences. They’ll think I’m hilarious with my flirty diatribes, running through my mind as I hit the “save” button and press onward to the quiz questions.
Having never ventured into the realm of online dating, I did not expect quizzes. Endless questions that poked away at every topic known to man (politics, religion, sex, etc.) filled my computer screen, and I had no choice but to fill them out if I wanted to see who was mathematically meant for me. And even the choices were open-ended, causing much frustration as I pondered over whether I was always, often, neutral about, somewhat, or never against the death penalty. After each question I was allowed to defend myself in a small text box where I could stumble my way through an explanation to every man who’d eye my results why I was often for or against some social concern. Growing more distraught and desiring a human who could pinpoint his own exact answer without resulting to a lengthy opinion on death metal and foreign films, I blindly clicked always bubbles and never bubbles, deciding that I was going to be passionately bipolar.
Exhausted, I decided to forego more questions regarding abortion and income taxes and clicked on the tab where I could upload a photo or two to make the boys drool. Like the “About Me” section, I found this to be an opportunity to showcase my various talents, and so I began uploading pictures, each telling its own grossly entertaining story with the help of a detailed caption. I figured if I looked fun and exciting, the fellas might overlook my questionnaire efforts. For my profile picture, I decided on a close-up of me at Eat the Worm, halfway tanked at a going-away party, but I rationalized that I had had a really good hair day.
So there I was, staring at that square face with a great mane, ready to meet the bachelors who would sweep me off my funny feet. And, surprisingly, it worked. Emails poured in hour after hour as each potential mate proclaimed I was cute, funny, really interesting, and any other ego-boosting adjective you could fathom. I read through all of them. I even re-read through all of them.
I didn’t know what to say. Really, I had no words for response, no little witticism to reply with, and I sat and I read. Apparently, getting started was the easy part. Playing along was simple as I created this fast-talking, man-eating seductress with questionable political views. Now I actually had to converse with these men, and I was out of words.
Spoken language and nonverbal communication are two separate entities that rely on one another to create meaning; however, this is lost online. In the real world, if a guy is staring at my chest while I’m talking to him, I know to say something unsettling (like, say, referencing the size of my pseudo-penis) in order to draw his eyes up and help me move onto the next victim. For all I knew, the single guy across the keyboard could be staring at my digital rack while I typed away about my childhood, and all he wants is to see a digital nipple or two. And I would never know, unnerving me and paralyzing me in front of the keyboard, typing a paragraph about where I like to go fishing or which Tarantino film had the best opening dialogue (Reservoir Dogs) now impossible.
In the real world I can improvise, read those nonverbal cues. I had no way of navigating this, no possible sort-of-bible to reference as I weighed my options: to respond or not to respond? Or, more accurately, to fake it or not to fake it?
My head throbbed like I had fallen over the side of the bed again, hoping for an idea or two to pop out. I had jumped into this “experiment” thinking that everyone has a shtick while trolling for an online date, and I had certainly better have one as well; however, my abrasively intelligent cuteness was wearing thin as I wondered whether or not I could actually keep a guy interested in the real world once we were offline.
I knew I could ask Vince for help. He went on numerous dates almost every night of the week, a real veteran in the online dating world. The man spent his free time creating Craigslist personal ads laced with pop music lyrics and penis references. I needed an expert.
I sent him links of the men who had emailed me, asking for his advice on whether or not I’d probably be compatible with at least a few. I was ignoring the algorithms behind these dating sites that guaranteed perfect matches. I needed my best friend to point me in the right direction as I told him which guys I thought were cute.
Many nights were spent doing this, and each time he gave similar advice: be yourself and meet in a public place. You’ll be fine, you’re great.
“Easy for you to say. Boys don’t get raped. I’m a girl. We get raped.” I was quick to whip this line out almost every evening.
“Oh my God, Codie. You will not get raped.” He was quick, too.
Eventually, I was able to type up quick responses to my growing number of suitors, vowing to meet for a casual date if I was truly interested. Having just recently split from my latest male companion, I was in no rush to start anything, let alone force myself into an awkward conversation about couch hopping and mixed martial arts while downing pitchers of beer in order to feel slightly more invested in the conversation. I really had no intention of even responding to these men, initially believing that I was just here to tease, to lure them in and extract myself from that world the very next day. But Vince’s enthusiasm got the better of me as he cheered me on like a rep for Nike, and I agreed to meet Mark for a beer at the Homy Inn.
I was early, because I am always early for first dates, and I was too chicken to walk into the bar I had so often frequented, drunkenly bantering about writing professors and essay assignments. I sat in my car and tried not to sweat and I scratched at my neck for an itch that didn’t exist. I took deep breaths and imagined that I was either going to meet the man of my dreams or peel out in the parking lot and speed for Iowa the minute I realized the ax he was carrying was meant to murder me. I laughed at this and fondled the passenger seat for my phone to find the time. He was late, which I was accustomed to, and I laid my head against the headrest and closed my eyes, trying to relax.
I become anxious when I write, too. I envision it all in my head and watch it pan out in different scenarios. In doing this I become torn that I will either not write it all down in time, be forced to watch it disappear into my subconscious, or that in writing it down I will lose the very ideas festering within that stratosphere, that putting them on paper somehow disturbs their very nature. Sometimes I work through the anxiety and I stay up for hours when others have fallen asleep, refusing to stop because it would be impossible to start again. Other times I lose control and I watch the words disappear.
That night, waiting for Mark in the parking lot, I felt torn. I could either walk into that bar and continue our conversations from online into the real world and maybe enjoy meeting somebody new in such an unconventional way, or I could sit in the car and watch the moment pass by, possibly ruin it if I even interfere – the spell of online persona undone by flesh and bone. I felt like two versions of me were anxiously bobbing in the car, yet I wasn’t quite sure which one was real.
My eyelids illuminated and I opened them to see a car passing by slowly. It was Mark. He was driving on a sidewalk dividing the parking spaces from a person’s lawn because he had made a wrong turn. Already I didn’t like him, his inability to reverse a vehicle fueling my cynicism. I watched him park on the other side of the lot and walk quickly into the bar. He was shorter than I expected, but I always picture them taller, and he was already balding. I let the seconds pass by slowly as I again weighed my options, imagined my one half glancing wearily at my other half, exchanging similar looks that read, You first. I shrugged and nodded before opening the door and walking toward the bar.
The Homy Inn is a small neighborhood bar in north Omaha frequented by UNO staff members and nursing students from the medical centers. Vince had seduced me one evening as we ventured our way in. They have champagne on tap, was whispered sensually into my ear as I looked around the mini Disneyland of the Midwest, eyeing Big Buck Hunter in the corner and throes of older women in long skirts and braided hair sipping on pints of beer. The night I met Mark was similar to many nights at the Homy: loud and packed. I found him waiting at the bar, scanning the Oktoberfest specials written in chalk next to the TV.
Mark recognized me instantly and smiled as I finally stood next to him. We shook hands and I thanked God he chose not to hug me.
“You look different than your pictures, but in a good way,” he informed me as we lowered our hands. He sounded too much like Woody Allen. “I got us the special already.” He pointed to the chalkboard and I nodded.
“You don’t look like a rapist or a serial killer, so that’s good.” I had to shout over the noise, but I was probably a little too enthusiastic. I could tell he forced a smile on that one as he reached for the pitcher and glasses and led the way to our seats.
He began filling up the glasses, heavy foam sitting atop the beer. I smiled at thanked him and he smiled back.
“So, what do you look for in a guy?” He had leaned toward me and rubbed at his eye to ask this. He looked utterly bored as I tried to grasp what he had jumped into without a pre-interrogation drink.
Like before, I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t prepared for a test so early on without some kind of build-up. Maybe a, Hi, how are you? It looks like it might rain. So, what do you require in a future husband? We had messaged each other a few nights prior and he had danced around relationship questions (at least, what I had interpreted as dancing around), and I was able to steer the conversation in new directions.
“Just the usual, I guess.” I was able to mutter ambiguity before taking a nice gulp and wishing I were at home watching Telemundo. “So, you traveled around the states?”
Mark talked a lot. He told me about growing up in Connecticut and working in New Mexico before road tripping across the southeast in search of himself. The story that caught my interest was his stop in Texas, on a pig farm with a woman.
“I want to connect with my food. I think people don’t really do that anymore.” His face was lit up when he said this. For the first time since we sat down, he did not look bored.
“Connect with your food?” I was unsure about what that even meant. The most connection I got from my food was feeling nauseous after unapologetically stuffing my face with a bacon cheeseburger and crinkle-cut fries.
“Yeah,” and he emphasized his nodding, “I want to raise my own pig and slaughter it and then eat it and connect with it.”
My jaw may have been hanging open. “How exactly do you connect with it?”
“Because it’s like giving back to the earth - you give back what you take. It’s a circle.” And he drew a circle with his finger above our heads. I refrained from spouting Lion King jokes as I figured out what to say next. He had only moments before explained how he loved people and couldn’t imagine being isolated in the wilderness. Yet, here and now, he wanted a pig to kill and eat and, if he was lucky, connect with on some higher plane of existence that I was incapable of imagining. Growing up in a small farming community, I couldn’t picture the local farmers drinking coffee on Saturday mornings in McDonald’s, swapping stories about who connected with what animal during harvest season.
A part of me wanted to imbibe every word he said, nod away at his fantasies, as if he were my child telling me he was going to be an astronaut despite his severe motion sickness. The other half wanted to down the pitcher right in front of him and discuss neutering methods for his future pig.
I had gotten to know an online Mark and an offline Mark, two halves of one person that were both very much real and capable of contradicting one another. Online Mark was friendlier, sweeter, and interested in what I had to say about global warming or Pearl Jam. In the real world, though, he was bored as he rubbed his face and eyes and carried on about unrealistic ranching dreams.
Driving home that night, I realized I was the same. Online, I was this feisty wiseacre, taking comfort in my words as I seduced men with compound sentences; however, I was cynical and anxious while talking with Mark, unsure of what to do next. But both of these parts of me exist, one easily contradicting the other, both fighting to be heard and seen. And there is no North Star for how to handle that, no sort-of-bible on how to be one and not the other. I can only watch myself unfold; sometimes catching one thing and watching the other float away, incapable of altering my very nature.