It was a typical Saturday night: I was on the couch eating peanut M&Ms and watching a show about murder. I stared at my open laptop, anxiously gnawing through a thin candy shell as I hovered over the cheery green button in front of me that oh-so-innocuously encouraged me to “Join!” I took a deep breath and clicked.
I began to fill out my OkCupid profile.
I was 35 and a year out of an epically horrible breakup. I’d been with him for five mostly confusing years. I’d learned that it’s hard to meet people in your 30s. Long gone was the era of my 20s, when single people were literally bumping into each other, genitals first, in college classrooms, dark bars and rowdy parties. Recently, I found myself regularly third, fifth, seventh, ninth-wheeling it with my coupled friends. If there were age-appropriate single men left in this city, they were certainly keeping a low profile.
So the Internet it was. Everyone I knew was tripping over themselves to assure me that there’s “no stigma to online dating!” I was skeptical. The more people feel the need to point out that there’s no stigma to something, the more you know that there most certainly is. It’s like handing someone a drink and saying, “there’s definitely no poison in this.”
But, stigma or not, there I was. Username selected, endless questionnaire completed, vital statistics entered, loins girded. I was ready to date. At least, I thought I was.
Lots of creepy messages started coming in right off the bat. I’d been warned about this, but before I even had my profile completed, one charming gentleman wrote, “You’re sexy as fuck”. I gave him points for using the correct spelling of “you’re”, but as I hadn’t uploaded any photos yet, I wasn’t sure what he was basing his assessment on. Perhaps it was the irresistible way I typed the word “podcasts”.
I had been extremely hesitant venturing into this endeavor, not knowing what I was going to encounter. But I had imagined my demands to be pretty reasonable. I told myself I only wanted to avoid the kind of gentlemen any single lady would: you know, murderers, Holocaust deniers, Juggalos, guys who brag about not owning a TV. That wasn’t actually true – I conceded as soon as I began that my deal breaker list was long. After spending about 20 minutes online, I had to expand it even further to include: anyone with the words “blood” or “ninja” in his username, in one particularly disturbing case “BloodNinja69”; anyone who listed a hundred favorite books, movies and TV shows, and not a single one written by, created by, starring, or performed by a woman (or even worse, those whose lists included just one woman and it’s Ayn Rand); and most egregious of all, 40-year-old men only interested in women aged 25 to 35. Really, dude? A woman four years younger than you is too old? Go fuck yourself.
I was feeling an odd combination of irritation and fear. All of these strange men were right there in my living room with me, flashing smiles I couldn’t read and watching me with eyes that could be hiding anything. Then I discovered the “hide” button that lets you eliminate any profiles you don’t want to see anymore, and they’re just gone. Like magic! As soon as I learned this, I went on a hiding frenzy. It was just so satisfying to watch profiles disappear from my computer screen. POOF! There goes the guy who straight up refers to himself as royalty, then rants about women who act entitled. POOF! There goes the guy advocating for eugenics. POOF! There go the 500 dudes who list Fight Club as their favorite movie. My nerves were soothed.
Why did no one tell me it could be like this? I thought. It was amazing! I felt so safe and powerful behind my computer screen, scoping out dudes from afar and eliminating anyone who seemed even remotely questionable. No actual contact required.
I clicked and clicked. I was addicted.
Like any true addict, I couldn’t see my self-sabotage. The whole point of this exercise was not to hide lots of men; it was to find one. And although a lot of the dudes I was encountering online truly were among the worst human beings ever, like the one who threatened that if I didn’t look like my profile picture, I was buying him drinks until I do, there were probably some pretty decent guys too. However, my particular approach to online dating left me unable to separate the two. In a sea of red flags, it’s hard to see anything else.
One evening during a particularly spirited hiding session, I saw him. I was gleefully eliminating pretty much everyone I saw, (with, of course, a perfectly valid reason for each and every one, like he used the word “pithy” or had a suspicious-looking hat) when his face suddenly jumped out from the rest. There he was. The man of my dreams? No. My co-star in the recent breakup from hell was looking back at me from my computer screen. Seeing his stupid face brought everything into startling focus.
I stared at his photo as my stomach dropped. For the first time, I felt the full futile weight of what I was doing. He’d been there all along of course, the ghost of boyfriends past, materializing from the shadows every time I tried to move on.
Allow me to explain something. As anyone who has ever watched the TV show The Bachelor knows, there a phenomenon that I like to refer to as “I’ve Been Hurt Before Syndrome”. On every season of the show, someone named Quinninfer or Haylington or something gets alone with the Bachelor and breaks down crying, saying she’s afraid to fall for him because she’s “been hurt before”. Every single time it happens, I want to scream at my TV, “SO HAS EVERY HUMAN BEING ON PLANET EARTH, YOU NINNY”. We’ve all been hurt. With the exception of sociopaths, every single one of us is covered in the scars of lovers past.
But in my case, the scars were not scars at all, but gooey, open wounds. At first, my ex had seemed like the man of my dreams. I fell completely and unabashedly in love, without hesitation. But then it ended, fast and brutal and ugly. It shattered me.
I swore that next time I would choose more carefully.
It’s a logical thought, I suppose, to think that if I could just get all the facts upfront, have all the information, I could get it right without getting hurt. It became an obsession, and online dating fed it. I was a glutton for information. This is good sometimes – knowledge might be power when buying a condo or voting for Water Reclamation District Commissioner – but as it turns out it’s not so helpful when it comes to finding love. No matter what you do, love is always going to be a leap off a cliff, leaving you to figure it out on the way down.
The truth is I started with a lot of information the last time, too. Here is where you can stop feeling bad for me. The truth is that my ex was a lying, cheating, manipulative narcissist who gave me every warning sign in the book. I stayed anyway. I got hurt not because I chose wrong, but because I stayed wrong. And there’s nothing the Internet can do to save me from that.
A few months after signing up, I deleted all my online dating profiles. It was too tempting to try to use them as a way to screen for heartache, even though I know that doesn’t work. The most satisfying hide of all was when I clicked “Delete Profile” on my own OkCupid account.
I don’t know where, or if, I’ll meet the next someone, but I do know I need to find him out in the wild, far from a smartphone app. When I meet him, there will be no way for me to know if he’s just another wolf in sheep’s clothing who will be careless with my heart– at least, not from his hat or words on a screen. But if he is, this time I’ll believe him.
Gina Watters is a writer living in Chicago. She has read her work at Story Club, Miss Spoken, You’re Being Ridiculous, Essay Fiesta, That’s All She Wrote, Story Sessions’ Campfire Show, and Write Club. She can be found on most social media platforms, as well as intermittent appearances on various dating apps.