ONE AFTERNOON IN late July 2003 I turned up at a café in Brunswick Street Fitzroy to have coffee with a man. I carried, for reasons still partly obscure to me, a small orange case – a child's reinforced cardboard 1950s school bag – and arrived several minutes late.
The man I was to meet had told me over the phone that he would be carrying a ‘crumpler', which I did not at that point realise was a brand of satchel, and I, flustered, had told him I would carry this bag, which I was now half regretting. As I neared the café, trying to look composed, I saw a man sitting in the window seat. When I looked towards him, he raised a stripy bag into the air, and I, in response, raised my orange case.
About six weeks earlier, I had had a revelation of sorts. In the wake of a painful separation and a long period of soul searching over what – or, to be more honest, who – might actually make me happy, I had a sudden intimation that I already knew the answer. ‘You know,' I said to no one in particular, ‘I just want to find someone – lovely.' I couldn't have told you then exactly the ingredients of this ‘lovely' but I could feel it, I could taste it in my mouth. ‘And if I can't find anyone lovely,' I continued (tasting it again, the small word like a smooth stone at the back of my tongue), ‘I'd rather not be with anyone at all.'
It was probably this second stanza that was the critical departure – the final acceptance that being single was better than being incompatibly partnered. But it was the word ‘lovely' that stayed with me – and that I teased into its constituent parts as I sat at my computer one afternoon soon after, composing a personal profile and listing the qualities I was seeking in a mate, to put on the internet.
Not so long ago internet dating was considered a port of last resort. Something if not shameful, at least embarrassing; an admission that in the real world of spontaneous friendships and slow burn courtships, you had been found wanting. But to me it offered a sense of freedom.
British research on internet dating has shown that women in cyberspace tend to be more flirtatious and sexually explicit than in the flesh, while men online find themselves more than usually emotional and soulful. If anything I fell closer to the second camp. I wanted to allude at the outset to the parts of myself I habitually underplayed in relationships.
The trick though was in the writing – the tone light, yet precise; hinting at depths, but never earnest; implying but not quite announcing skills, attributes, vulnerabilities. ‘Good head. Good heart,' I wrote in the two-line bill board designed to entice prospective suitors. ‘Great friends. Terrible sense of direction. Erratic cook. Thoughtful, creative, funny(ish). Work in progress.' I felt that in the pauses and clauses of the written language I could communicate rhythms and dispositions that had little to do with the standard lists of likes and dislikes, music preferences and body shape. There was a code.
Entering an internet dating site is a bit like the first five minutes at an Ikea store – everything is possible and seemingly affordable. It is to teeter on the edge of a boundless, perilous sort of pleasure. An abundance that congeals, almost as soon as you reach for it, into something small and insistent, the colours too bright, everything packed too close around you, pressing on your eyes.
The site is set up so that each person appears under an alias. Each entrant has room for about twenty-five words and a postage stamp-sized photo to entice someone to click on their profile. Once you have joined and put your profile online, you can, if you see anyone who interests you, send them a cyber ‘kiss', signalling your interest. On the first night I sat at the computer for nearly four hours, until the rims of my eyes were red and hot.
FOR ME, THOUGH, looking on the internet was a symbol not of desperation, but of taking control of my life. My relationship history had been marked in part by a sort of passivity – a sense of waiting to be chosen; or of not being prepared to take the risk of rejection. Now, I decided to ask for what I really wanted.
To do that I had to decide what that was. Armed with that one small word, lovely, I made a list of all the qualities I was looking for in a mate. I was clear from the start that it was a mate I was seeking. Not just a friend or a short-term relationship. Not just sex. It can be oddly sobering asking for what you want. Not what you think you should want, or would like as extras – not all the daydreams or wish lists or fantasies – just the things you will not do without. I sat for a while with my eyes closed.
I wrote: ‘Would like to spend time with a man who is smart, sweet, funny, sexy, serious – at least some of the time.' Not an exhaustive list, but, I felt, an essential one. (Later, and for longer than was seemly or even funny, I chided myself in public for not having stipulated a few more criteria: ‘employed', for instance, or ‘owns a car', or even ‘drives a car'. It was almost galling to have got everything I had asked for.)
Having set the bar, I decided to give no one the benefit of the doubt. I discounted immediately anyone who said he was looking for a lovely/nice/foxy/etc lady. I dismissed anyone who aspired to romantic evenings, or sunsets. I ignored anyone who said he had ‘no baggage', who was clearly lying or deluded. Then I discarded anyone whose sole attraction was that they seemed nice. I wanted more than nice. I wanted more even than decent and good and worthy. I kept tasting at the back of my tongue that smooth stone. It was a relief. I made no excuses for anyone, and it narrowed the field a lot.
By the end of the first evening I had noted down nine or ten aliases, two or three of which I had already started to feel attached to. Fourth on my list was an entry that had made me laugh. ‘art loving music loving coffee loving Melbourne loving daughter loving single dad looking for more friends and well a girlfriend
too ... '
His profile said he was a forty-five-year-old vegetarian. ‘I love to cook dinners for people, and love people who haven't had an irony bypass and whose sense of humour extends to themselves / I find people who Don't Drink faintly alarming ... ' Funny, I thought, and smart. But then I thought: perhaps a bit too funny, a bit too smart. Plus, he had listed various obscure films in his favourites section, including one in French, and (while I like French) I wondered if he might also be a bit of a wanker. A friend wondered if he might also be a bit of an alcoholic. The next day though, along with a message from a man who wanted to tie me up, was a kiss from the vegetarian. I took this as a sign. I messaged him back and a delicate email exploration began. In the meantime, however, I too had sent out a few kisses and received a few others unsolicited.
My life was suddenly busy. In the solitude of my small study, I spent evening after evening trawling through a sea of men. Apart from the maybe-too-smart-by-half vegetarian, I exchanged emails with three or four other cybermen. And in the midst of these exchanges a strange thing happened. I started seeing myself as if from a distance. It was not a great distance: perhaps only a centimetre or two, but it was enough to be able to observe with some surprise my own mating rituals. It was like watching my brain dancing with itself.
The first thing that happened was that almost immediately I started to believe that these marks on the computer screen were real people, and that I was having real relationships with them. I started to attach feelings to them. Warm feelings, hopeful feelings, and then, if they didn't respond quickly to my ‘kisses', wounded rejected feelings.
The feelings weren't intense, but they were undeniable – and instructive. I watched entire relationships come and go overnight like weather. It was funny and sometimes painful. For a start, I didn't like rejecting people. I felt mean sending back the little pro-forma slips the site thoughtfully provided. Thanks but no thanks. I found myself worrying about people's hurt feelings. I worried about my own. I found myself feeling responsible for other people's feelings. I wanted everyone to like me. But I sent the slips anyway. From emailing, the next step was talking on the phone. And then, when that proved oddly easy, meeting.
INSIDE THE CAFÉ, I made my way over to the corner table and the vegetarian bag-waver. He had a face that was neither handsome nor unhandsome, or perhaps both, although I noticed that one of his teeth was cracked and discoloured. Again we talked easily. We discussed our children and schools and head lice. He talked about the multi-media course he was doing. My heart sank a little when I realised he didn't have a job. Or even a car. ‘Well I don't know about you,' he wrote the next day, ‘but I thought that was jolly good fun ... (he was English, it had turned out) so I hope you'll fancy catching up again ... '
We met next at an inner Melbourne haunt with great food but no alcohol. It was a drizzling winter's evening and as I drove past the restaurant looking for a car park I caught sight of him making his way on foot down the road. With his hunched shoulders and overlarge coat he looked to me like a little hobo. I had an impulse to keep driving.
Inside we made polite conversation and exclaimed at the food. The restaurant was crowded but our dishes came quickly and within an hour we were standing to leave. In an attempt at salvage, one or other of us suggested we go and have a quick drink. We looked in vain for a small convivial bar and retired instead to the lounge of a large and ugly hotel, with Foxtel on the TV. Here, over beer and cigarettes, the vegetarian proceeded to give me a précis of his life so far. He told me that his mother had died when he was young and that his wife had died four years before, and about the circumstances of her death, and about the child he was now bringing up alone.
It was a big story and after it was out it sat uncomfortably there between us on the polished wooden bar. I said what I hoped were the right sorts of things and we smoked the last of the cigarettes and eventually pulled on our coats and left. It was still damp, and the vegetarian, now motherless, was about to head up the street to his bus stop. My car was in the other direction. We turned to each other in the street, and I made as if to shake hands, but he stepped forward and kissed me lightly goodbye on the lips. I knew the nice thing to do would be to offer to drive him home. But I couldn't bring myself to. It was all too much and not enough.
I raised my hand in a salute and turned and walked away, relieved. And then something unexpected happened. As I was walking I could hear my head talking (this wasn't unexpected; this was normal), confirming all the reasons why the vegetarian was not the man for me: the non-job, the stained tooth, the too-short trousers, the dead wife etc. etc.
So it took me a while to notice that something was happening in my body. There was a strange warmth, heat almost, emanating from behind my breast bone. I was flummoxed. I actually looked down at my chest, expecting to see, I don't know what – a small brazier perhaps. I couldn't or wouldn't understand what was happening, but I remember in my puzzlement the words that came to me, a throwback to the years I had spent reporting on local council meetings with their interminable agenda items, each needing to be voted upon or deferred.
‘Received and noted,' I said to myself politely. A startled little voice. And then I got in my car and
I did not, it has to be said, wake up the next morning and realise I was in love with the vegetarian. My brain was still clutching onto its list. The next day he emailed me. After a longish preamble, mostly without full stops or capitals, he wrote: ‘I am finding that I am quite refreshed about the world after I talk to you, and although this is almost disconcerting, because after all the last thing one expects is what one wants, it is a very pleasant kind of bouleversement (ah got there in the end!) I hope that makes a modicum of sense. x'
I WAS FURIOUS. I didn't know why but the tone of the letter – sweet and carefully careless and finally (obscurely but unmistakably) confessional – enraged me. How dare he be so – so – so what? I didn't know. So vulnerable perhaps. I felt – and I am not proud of it – as if I were being asked to care for a waif or stray.
It seems unfair for me not to record my own responses here, but I didn't keep copies of my outward mail. I know that I dashed off an ungracious rant about the fact that I had a deadline looming for a feature story I was struggling with – to do with psychosomatic illness and the ways in which some people express psychological conflicts through the body.
I saw no irony in this. Nor any connection with myself.
For a week I avoided contact. And then suddenly and spontaneously, the following Sunday afternoon, I
rang and when he answered, said, ‘I'm going to see a really crappy movie – nothing arty – do you want
And so we met a couple of hours later at a cinema in town, both wearing our overlarge overcoats, and the film (the remake of The Italian Job) was suitably crappy, and afterwards we wandered down the street and found a small convivial bar, and over the next two hours had more fun talking and laughing than I could remember ever having had. Eventually we left, at which point he realised, or at least confessed, that he had missed the last bus, so I dropped him at his place, where we kissed chastely goodbye, and then I drove back to mine alone, feeling light and happy and free.
A week later I returned to his house for a dinner party, at which he turned out not to be a vegetarian after all (he served sorrel soup followed by chicken, and later argued that he had once gone a decade without meat and was thus, in effect, an honorary vegetarian). But I didn't mind. His friends were raucous and funny and laughed like drains. He stood at the stove in the kitchen and served course after course of wonderful food. He was smart and sweet and funny and sexy and, yes, serious – at least some of the time.
Reader, I stayed.