(This article was originally published in Newsweek's The Daily Beast.)
We tell ourselves things and repeat them until we believe them. You know. I am trapped. My life is over. I am unlovable. I have become invisible.
I suppose that if I told myself the opposite with the same tenacity I would eventually believe it too. Your life is just beginning. Anything is possible. Inside you is everything you need.
It was early Saturday morning, and I was in my sunny, one bedroom apartment. After much practice I was stretched out in the very center of the bed, using every pillow. I was living alone for the first time in more than 15 years. And I was pondering where exactly one goes from here.
I’m afraid the story is not terribly original. I used to be married to my best friend. We moved to the U.S. together from different countries and worked in the same company for most of my adult life. This meant that every person I knew, every friend, every co-worker, every client, knew us as a unit. It felt like every road led back to him.
I had a clear sense that I needed to start over. But how does one go about doing that at 42? How could I meet people I wouldn't normally come across? How could I gain access into different walks of life?
The answer came to me suddenly. I swallowed. Online dating.
Up until now I had regarded online dating with disdain. I felt it zapped romance out of the equation, extracted serendipity and left you with something clinical and contrived and similar to a work interview.
Not to mention, I had not dated for over 20 years.
Right. So online dating would be the way to stop doing what I had always done, which might, if one follows logic, give me a shot at a different result.
On with it, then.
To keep things simple, I decided to focus on a single site and picked OK Cupid.
I found myself struggling with the most fundamental parts of the questionnaire, such as the ability to distinguish what I liked versus what “we” liked. It occurred to me that defining myself to strangers would be an effective exercise in reconstituting who I was.
After a few days of tentative practice and a slow “waiting to be discovered” approach, I arrived at a notion that took precedence over the hard to get frame of mind I had grown up with. If I waited for people to notice my profile and contact me, the universe of those I could choose from would shrink considerably. I much preferred picking from anyone I wanted, even if it meant risking sometimes not getting a reply.
Another realization: My end game wasn't finding love. What I yearned for was a new life, a fresh perspective. My criteria would have to change accordingly. Instead of asking myself "Is this person boyfriend/husband material?" I would remind myself to ask "would going out with him be interesting? Fun? Would I learn something?"
I organized my days like this: I'd get up very early and go into work. I’d leave to go to the gym. Then, I’d go out on a date. I’d be asleep before 11:30 pm.
I met someone new every day for about a month. Because I was so fed up with being in a state of emotional paralysis. Because I knew that somewhere out there was a world too rich to warrant the delusion that I was finished. But mostly because I quickly learned that everyone was interesting, and that everyone had something to teach me.
I dated a man who taught me that there is rhythm in chaos through listening to jazz, which I had previously written off as lowly elevator music. I met an engineer who spent an evening patiently proving to me that pool was infallible if I played it right (“See? It’s mathematical”.)
I reached out to a drummer and asked if he would give me a few lessons. "I will meet you at the park at 1:30" I wrote. "I will be wearing yellow sneakers". "Great!" he replied "I'll be the one with the Mohawk".
I went out on a date with a motorcycle repairman who had a Master's Degree in poetry from Yale. He offered to take me for a ride in the desert under the light of the full moon.
I saw a DNA expert who in explaining the miracle implicit in the double helix reminded me I was impossible to replicate. I met a man who started his own non-profit and claimed to be fluent in Spanish. When I switched to that language he looked irritated and said he refused to do anything on cue.
I sat on a dock overlooking the water, eating a picnic with a man who grew up in a traveling circus and was raised by mimes. I met a mechanic who specialized in European automobiles. "If foreign cars are your specialty" I reasoned "then you must have a knack for handling high maintenance women". "Are you high maintenance?" he countered. "Absolutely" I said.
I sat at a coffee shop with a man who had been sailing for seven years and had just returned to dry land. I asked him how many countries he had visited. "Visit countries?" he asked, perplexed. "Why would I do that?" "Well then" I pressed on "I bet you really got to know the people you were sailing with". "It was just two of us” he said. "One of us slept while the other sailed, so we seldom exchanged a word".
I met an artist who worked all year to spend his annual salary creating a monument sized sculpture he would transport to an art festival in the middle of a dry lake bed, only to burn it down. He said it was the constant reminder he needed of how ephemeral life is, how beautiful and how pointless.
I read a guy's profile which sounded less like he was looking for a date, more like he was trying to find religion. "Reach out" he wrote "if you think you have answers". Over tea I told him I had recently learned how futile it was to plan. “We can’t predict what we want, as it assumes we’re not going to change. The future has so many variables we can’t see that the most accurate way to live our life is to go by what would make us happy right now.”
He sat there looking at me. He then told me he had survived a terminal cancer diagnosis 8 years before, and had found out a couple of days ago that it was back. "I don't want chemo again" he said. "What should I do?" I stood and put my arms around him and we held each other there, in the middle of a French café, two strangers who had the answers to nothing.
One guy mentioned he loved cooking and couldn't live without a good chef’s knife. He wrote out a few lines of an Elvis Costello song describing a woman wearing elbow length gloves. I thought going out with someone “with a healthy relationship to debauchery and excess” would make for a fun evening. “Reach out if you think you can beat me at arm wrestling” he wrote.
“I can beat you at arm wrestling” I assured him. “And I bet you anything you can’t do a headstand”.
“That is really bold for someone who’s never met me” he replied. “What are we betting?”
“We’ll do the headstand challenge first” I said. “If I lose, I will buy you a knife. If I win, I want a pair of elbow length gloves. So I can wear them as I beat you at arm wrestling.”
He showed up to our first date with a pair of black velvet elbow length gloves that fit me perfectly.
In his version of the story I lost the bet. In my version I won, because he is here, making me coffee as I write this. We have been living together for over a year.
I've never met anyone like him. He is an original, with a sparkling, transparent heart I can see right through; a solid character with a penchant for bacon and Manhattans and what I hope is an incorrigible tendency to hog all the pillows.
What astonishes me is that I never would have found him had I not gone out of my way to reach out to people I expressly considered not to be boyfriend material.