January 28, 2004: Perspective

Illustration by Mark Matcho

Technology drives the heart afield
Looking for love, online

By Van Wallach ’80


Van Wallach ’80, a freelance writer and frequent PAW contributor, lives alone in Stamford, Connecticut.

After meeting through an online dating site, I finally arranged a real-world encounter with a woman I’ll call Spacy Stacy. We set a 7 p.m. rendezvous on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The vibe turned strange that afternoon, as I walked to the train station near my apartment in Connecticut. She called my cell phone to nail down the details, then said she’d had “a rough day” and “too many margaritas” the night before. Finally she said we could get coffee “and if it worked out, maybe dinner.” The words and tone rang alarm bells, but I shrugged them off.

I arrived first at the appointed Starbucks and grabbed a table. I recognized Stacy when she came in – hair a little shorter than in her picture, but the same cute pug nose. She sat down and abruptly asked about a grueling work project I had endured that week. We complimented each other on how we resembled our profile photos. We talked about her job search, and smiled through strained silences. I offered to get some drinks. She waved me off. “Just get one for yourself.”

“Do you want to go someplace else?” I asked.


Returning with my Tazo iced tea, we spoke about her relations with her ex, her dancing classes, get-to-know-you stuff. Finally Stacy declared, “I don’t sense this is a love connection, so I’m going to go. Good luck with your search.”

I was stupefied. We had been together 30 minutes, if that. “OK, then. I guess I’ll talk to you later,” I muttered. That sounded moronic. “No, I guess I won’t be talking to you later.” Stacy strode into the New York night, leaving me speechless. Finally, I took the dregs of tea and hit Broadway, now swarming with happy couples touching, strolling, snacking, laughing — or so my eyes told me. On this night, I was not among them.

So it goes with online dating, as technology transforms the way people seek, meet, and, sometimes, meet again. Until about five years ago, the technology of romance had changed little since Babylonian singles exchanged cuneiform calling cards at village wells. Introductions were personal, random encounters at parties or on subway platforms, or via cumbersome and thinly informed ads in places like New York magazine.

Then the Internet exploded opportunities for browsing and contact, driving curious hearts across multiple time zones in the search for what Chana, an intriguing contact from Latin America, called the “media naranja,” a Spanish colloquialism for your “other half.” Some sites are general, such as match.com, while others like Jdate.com (one that I used) serve a particular religious or ethnic slice. Rightstuffdating.com focuses on graduates of the Ivy League and similar schools. Living on my own since October 2002 as part of a divorce, I hadn’t dated since 1987, long before technology turned dating into a form of interactive direct marketing. Returning to the dating world, I found I liked the online channel’s choices and depth of information. Scanning a full profile reveals more facts — along with a surprisingly good sense of a woman’s personality — than a half-hour of tortured conversation. As a writer, contacting women online suits my style far better than jostling for attention as one more bald middle-aged guy at a bar or party.

My batting average hovers around .250, meaning that from about 100 contacts, 20 to 30 have led to something other than my being ignored, getting a polite thanks-but-no-thanks (or sending the same type of response myself), or having a bland instant-messaging chat. The others led to an exchange of e-mails through the dating site, with a progressively smaller number moving to swaps of personal e-mail addresses, phone calls, and even real meetings, which is, of course, the goal.

From the churning mass of possibilities, contacts emerge in thematic waves. There were the Latina therapists (adorable, and durable if sometimes infuriating friends), the little white liars (regarding age, location, number of kids, Clinton-era photos), and the creative collective of designers, P.R. mavens, writers, and event planners. Lately I’ve surfed the Princeton wave, through women whose son, brother, or cousin graduated. The Tiger connection on my profile definitely catches attention – no coy “Ivy League graduate” description for me.

Online contacts can swell quickly into rainbow-colored intensity, enveloping a man and woman in a virtual intimacy of nightly gossip and revelation. But like a soap bubble, what feels like the start of a real friendship or even romance can pop and vanish, leaving only a filmy residue in memory. Sandi, for example, called me “very special” during one of our lengthy conversations and e-mailed photos of her kids. I was ready to drive hundreds of miles to meet her, out of surging curiosity. Then, abruptly, Sandi avoided my contacts. She never explained why, but the friendship tanked immediately after I called her cell phone when she was at dinner with a man she termed the “competition.”

Unlike traditional romances, where, when the door slams, subsequent contacts are easily avoided, the online channel remains open and intact. The lovelorn can follow the objects of their thwarted desire across several Web sites. Jdate saves messages and lets me know when somebody has looked at my profile or “hot-listed” me. I know when Sandi is signed in, and can even tell when her Web cam is plugged in. We used our Web cams to goof around and wave to each other during our chats. She’s still waving – but not to me. For reasons of hope or lethargy or masochism, none of us delete these digital mementos. Sandi and others remain on my instant-messaging lists, perched like Poe’s raven on my laptop, forever croaking, “Nevermore.”

And yet, warmth and affection can take root online as two people grope for common ground in the space between romance and acquaintance. That describes my relationship with Chana; it glistened and grew and shrank and shuddered, but never quite imploded. We kept in touch despite hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and bouts of online hide-and-go-seek, finally settling into a comfortable rhythm. Now, I call Chana “mi brujita,” my little witch, because of the spell she cast on me, and she teases me about my “cyber-novias,” or online sweethearts. Chana and I may never meet, but we’re fun company for each other as we search for the media naranja.


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