I am 55, recently divorced, and quite fond of the Internet. Last summer I ran into an old friend at the library. She is newly single and I realized that I could easily develop feelings for her. The problem was that she was in the throes of a digital romance on a popular dating site.
Inspired, I created a profile there and started looking around.
As a writer, I have something of an Internet footprint. I decided to keep my profile vague with a touch of light humor.
I soon saw profiles of three very attractive women. My strategy was to send a brief invitation for coffee or a hike, along with links to my website and my Facebook page. Even a scrap of information could lead to all that anyway, so why be coy? I dropped my privacy settings to the lowest level.
To my surprise, two responded right away. So I made dates for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The third responded, too, and I told her that after years of not dating I had two set up for one weekend. She wrote, "Way to go," and invited me to holler back if "neither turned out to be the love of my life."
One of them was a very active and savvy practitioner of the digital arts whose handle was... let's call it Lilac. She has a website and two Facebook pages, and it turned out we had more than half a dozen "friends" in common. Our first date turned into a second date and then into a third.
It was clear that Lilac wasn't completely over an intense relationship, the endgame of which hadn't yet played out. I should have walked away, but she was a lot of fun to be around and in a moment of abandon I said if she wanted to use me to get him interested in her again, I'd go along with that. She also did some crying on my shoulder about the way he treats her.
It didn't take long before our flirtations spilled over onto Facebook. We went for a drive on Black Friday. She uploaded photos from her mobile phone. The next day each of us posted pictures to each other's "walls" and made jokey comments about America's shopping frenzy. I commented ironically about the "ugly stampede" that ensued when I was eying an Indian print tablecloth at a decidedly quiet import shop on a side street in Brattleboro. She responded ironically about the "scratching and clawing" preceding her purchase of some boots.
I cropped a photo she took of me looking up to a seven-foot-tall folk art rooster and made it my profile picture. I read articles she "shared" on her wall from both high- and lower-brow publications, and instinctively liked them, and added comments. I enjoyed the way her brain worked. The little orange flags that appear in the upper left corner of FB when somebody acknowledges you are like dog biscuits for attention seekers. I looked eagerly for her comments and had fun posting mine. We would also see each other in person, text and email.
I thought it was going well when two things happened. I fell in love, and her communications stopped, while mine kept going. I figured she was busy, but after a week I asked if she was ignoring me. She sent a tart reply, asking that I stop messaging her.
By this time I had gotten more hooked into Facebook than ever. I was off to New York City for a weekend to see my mother, an excursion I had invited Lilac to join me on. I took my camera and documented parts of my trip on Facebook. It was almost as if she was my imaginary friend.
The woman who had captured my attention didn't want to hear from me directly, but that didn't mean I couldn't post to a public forum I know she follows intently. She has more than 600 FB "friends." I couldn't help but wonder if she was reading my posts about walking around the city and running into Occupy Wall Street characters in the East Village. I knew there was a connection between us, and part of me was hoping that by putting my movements on display I could kindle twinges of interest in her. I also "friended" the other woman I had dated that weekend in early November, inviting her to follow my Facebook doings, which she did.
Other people, who had made it into my Facebook orbit but whom I hadn't been in touch with for years, also commented on and "liked" my posts. I was having fun. My 22-year-old son, on the other hand, told me that the frequency of my postings was "out of control." He seemed to accept the explanation that I was a newbie, acknowledging that he did the same at one time. My "friends" tally broke the 200 mark.
Back at home, I put coded messages on my "wall." I reposted one of those syrupy aphorisms that make the rounds on Facebook. It said in bold: "After all this is over, all that will have really mattered is how we treated each other." I knew that if Lilac read it, it would ping a discussion in which I told her that she deserved much better treatment than her recent companion was doling out. The rest of my "friends" would just see it as the benign bit of uplift that it is.
Then, on Christmas Eve, I noticed that Lilac's status updates were not showing up on my page anymore. I checked my "friends" list and she was gone. She went so far as to "block" me, meaning that all our messages to each other were expunged and we instantly became invisible to each other on the social networking site. Wow.
It occurred to me that Lilac's postings from our early dates were probably meant to be seen by her recent lover as much as they were meant to be seen by me, or the rest of her network. Was he her imaginary friend along on our date? If he was looking in, I can imagine he could easily read between the lines comprising Lilac's and my missives to the world. I can certainly see that he and Lilac are doing things together now. Trying to rise above it all, I even "liked" one of their first interactions. Maybe that's what got me kicked off her radar.
Then I did something I am not necessarily proud of.
The dating site we met on has something that falls somewhere between a scientifically calibrated way of pairing up people whom destiny would eventually bring together anyway and a gimmick. Under a tab labeled "the two of us," it generates hundreds of questions with multiple-choice answers on everything from sexual proclivities to whether you would rather lose the right to vote or the right to bear arms. You choose the questions you want to answer and then, by some algorithm, the site determines your compatibility with various prospects on a percentage basis from zero to a hundred.
I created a second account and set out to answer all the 238 questions she had answered in a way calculated to push our compatibility rating to as near 100 percent as possible. Watching the red number on the top of the screen tick up from 70 to 80 to 90 percent turned into a game. The questions ranged from banal ("Would you prefer good things happened or interesting things?"; "Do you like horror movies?") to blush-worthy ("How would you react to receiving nude photos from someone you've been chatting with online?"). Once I answered, her answers were revealed. After 24 hours I was able to re-answer questions to bring mine into closer alignment with her responses.
After a few days I was able to push Lilac's and my "match" potential up to 98 percent, meaning that if she logged back onto the site, "mine" would be the first profile to pop up. What would I do if she contacted the "me" that was sort of "me," but not really? It hasn't happened, but I suspect that if her current relationship falls apart again, she'll be back to checking out the Internet dating scene. It's possible she would see through the ruse and find it funny given her appreciation of digital playfulness, churlish, creepy, or some combination thereof.
How would I respond? I wasn't thinking that far ahead. But personal ads have a history of leading to mysterious U-turns (think piña coladas) and people game Internet sites all the time. Copping to it in the Advocate might be a bit weird. But aren't writers supposed to illuminate stuff that happens below the surface? And if it weren't for churl, you could kiss much of world literature goodbye.
Serendipitously, during this time I got a call from the woman I ran into at the library over the summer. I asked how her digital romance was going, apologizing for the directness of the question. She said they finally met, and there was no spark. We are now becoming better friends—and we don't flirt online.
Eric Goldscheider is a freelance writer based in Western Massachusetts.