February 26, 2015
by Jodie Shupac
When I first began dating people from the Internet, I did so preciously, holding too close each dashed hope and perceived humiliation.
I feigned apathy, intoning, mantra-like, “I have no expectations” before delicately arranged dates with strangers. I’d say this to whoever was around as I prepared to go out, smudging my eyeliner to suggest indifference.
But the relentless self-exposure online dating seemed to demand, the pressure I felt to artfully distil and present myself on my profile so I appeared unique yet normal, the tedium of not connecting in the way I craved—I saw this whole process as a drudgery I’d have to endure until released by the acquisition of love, or something equally sweet.
With the first stranger, I was overeager, impossibly patient. I could sense his growing trepidation as the hour of our in-person meeting drew near. Before we’d nailed down a date, he’d spent two weeks bewildering me via text message, asking what I was “up to” only to ignore my game responses for days at a time. “Sorry, I fell asleep,” he’d write. “My phone died.”
The morning of our scheduled mid-afternoon coffee, he texted me to say he was running late, then, again, to say even later, and finally, as I was putting on my shoes, to say he’d been struck by a migraine and had gone home.
My irritation was briefly followed by a sense of disproportionate despair. This was how the world operated now, I thought bitterly. It was a new kind of cruel. But even as I thought this, I knew it was false. The world had been cruel before, ungracious.
I also could not help but deeply empathize with what I assumed was this stranger’s crippling social anxiety, something I’d once known well. That, or he didn’t want to be seen with me. Also fine.
So I dove back in again and again, enduring a crush of dull and forgettable dates, or dates that were heady and promising but followed by the person’s disappearance, all of which left me almost, but not quite, jaded. There was always someone new to click on, was the thing.
I dated the first stranger I wanted to keep seeing (and who wanted to keep seeing me) on and off, torturously, for months. When we met, he’d just broken up with his girlfriend of seven years and was, he explained, exploring polyamory. It sounded complicated and sexy; I wanted to try my hand.
On our first date, a muggy summer’s day, we bought coffees in disposable cups and walked westward through the city for hours. We eventually stopped at his apartment, which felt conspicuously bare, the remnants of his recently conjoined life evident in the stripped down walls, in a comb set gently on the bathroom counter, its tines encircled with a woman’s long, dark hairs.
We sat on his tattered wrap-around sofa and sipped whiskey he’d poured for us into tumblers. He perched at an awkward distance from me, telling me later it was because he didn’t know how to behave in the tense preamble to intimacy, but only after a breach of personal space had occurred. I understood completely.
After we ended our relationship (for the first time), I returned to the Internet and found something in me had shifted: my sense of expectation, but also some other constraint, had shaken loose.
In caring less, I was no longer diffident but curious, expansive. There was an absurdity I began to relish in meeting a stranger for a long chat in a bar, a fuck, a walk—a beauty to people’s variations on strangeness and vulnerability.
I mentally chronicled my experiences, but also mined my friends and people I met at parties for theirs.
Nearly everyone had them, it seemed, moments of bracing honesty, of intimacy, with people they’d never before met and often encountered only once. It wasn’t just sex—though often it was—but unlikely collisions of humanity that interested me. Not those who’d achieved such tender milestones as falling in love, but those who’d had encounters more prurient, ungainly, or raw.
One of my friends uses the Internet to find people to cuddle with. The people he meets online often don’t believe him; they assume cuddling must be code for sex. Sometimes he has to let them down gently. Others are incredulous, thinking him some kind of superhuman. “But don’t you … get frustrated?” they ask.
One woman he met online came over to his apartment for what they’d agreed would be a cuddle while listening to music.
She came into the house and they exchanged pleasantries and chatted as he finished eating a bowl of chili over the kitchen counter (he offered her some; she’d already eaten dinner). They went into his bedroom and put on some music, lay down on the bed. They held and nuzzled each other in different positions for close to an hour.
At that point, she murmured, “So, does cuddling also mean making out?”
He hesitated. “No, not really … not for me.”
They continued to cuddle but she grew visibly more fevered, restless, eventually sighing that she was extremely frustrated. He asked her if she would like to “take care of herself.” She said she would, and did, there in the bed next to him.
Afterwards, they made plans to see each other again.
I met a man for a drink on the outdoor patio of a bar. He was studying a subject that was close to me, and as we got tipsy we began to argue, both defensive, presuming the other’s ignorance.
When we’d paid the bill and stood up to leave, he paused and shook his head heavily. “I fucked that up.” I asked if he had a cigarette as it seemed a conciliatory thing to say.
Neither of us was a smoker, so I bummed one from a couple in front of the bar and we passed it back and forth, walking along a dark side street until it was time to part ways.
My close friend who lives in a different city desperately wanted to get laid without strings. “There’s this married guy I’ve been chatting with online,” she told me. “It’s an open relationship.”
Several days later, she went over to his house to sleep with him and it was passionate, uninhibited.
“He kept saying my name,”she marvelled over the phone to me the next day. “This total stranger just kept saying my name.”
I got off the phone. I was in a laundromat and realized my clothes had failed to properly go through the washer. The machine was broken or, more likely, I had inserted the money but absentmindedly forgotten to press Start. The door had sprung open while I was gone, my clothes exposed and bone dry, still dirty.
“Do you know what happened?” I turned to the girl at the machine next to me futilely. “I just got here,” she said. And then, “I know you.”
Embarrassed, I smiled at her, an acquaintance I knew from parties and overlapping friend groups, and explained I’d been distracted by the phone call.
“My friend had sex with this married guy she met online,” I said. “She was telling me about it. He’s in an open relationship.”
She nodded. “Is there anyone actually good online these days? I’ve taken a break.”
“I think, maybe? I don’t know,” I shrugged before pulling my dirty clothes out of the possibly faulty machine and moving them, for good measure, into a new one.
Jodie Shupac is a journalist and writer. She lives and works in Toronto.