A Field of Feisty Unicorns

My adventures in the world of online personal ads.

Most of what I wrote about myself in the Nerve personals was untrue. I won’t say that what I wrote was “lies” because that’s a little harsh and if I’ve learned one thing from my time with online personals it’s that you can’t expect others to love you until you’ve learned to love yourself. That, and: It’s important to live each day as if it were your last, although truth be told, I’ve never really understood that expression. What—drunk, six cigarettes in my mouth, sobbing down the phone at all the relatives I haven’t called in years? It would get tiring after a day, let alone every day for the rest of my life, for them if not for me.

Excuse the flipness. It’s just my natural defense against an activity as irony-flattening as online dating. You can try being meta- about it. I don’t usually do this sort of thing. Or: I can’t believe I’m doing this. Hey, guess what: nor can anyone. Online dating is one of those things nobody wants to admit to a natural proclivity for, or being an old hand at—like being an old hand at urine samples—and yet they are very much a form unto themselves, a species of fiction, really, wherein wannabe Romeos dash off lightly fictionalized, Gatsbyesque versions of themselves in a tone halfway between come-hither foxiness and plangent entreaty, as if forever posed in some doorway, blowing smoke rings and delivering unrehearsed zingers, before disappearing into the night to work in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

I am an outlaw, a troubadour, a world traveler, a born again romantic. I am grounded yet prone to flights of fancy and / or midnight cupcake hunts. I am athletic yet like oysters and know how to eat them. I am easy-going yet firm in my beliefs (high fiber, good scotch, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Yes I liked that speech, too). I like to laugh at myself as often as I can and once cooked blue spaghetti for 12 people. I think that road trips can be a transcendental experience, if unplanned. When I say “let’s pack our bags and move to a farmhouse in Tuscany” I want someone who will reach for the closet and start packing. A friend and confidante, a partner in crime, a co-pilot in secret explorations. A thinker, a doer, a lover, a fighter, a laureate. Also, must love porridge and power-tools.

 The key, it seemed to me upon first entering this strange alternative universe of spontaneous road-trips and brightly colored pasta, where coy exteriors belied deep reserves of untapped silliness and nobody is ever allowed to plan for anything, ever, seemed to lie in those all-important conjunctions “yet,” and “but.” Thus armed, the author could advance an admirable trait (groundedness), then, spotting the possible negative connotations of that trait (dullness), pivot onto its opposite (fanciful), in an act of triangulation that would bring tears to the eyes of Bill Clinton himself, then launch into a series of Whitmanesque paradoxes: Easygoing yet firm. Grounded yet romantic. Shy but adventurous. Athletic but oyster-loving. Everyone seemed to be “easygoing” and “down-to-earth” and liked to “laugh a lot,” mostly at themselves. “Favorite Books” featured a lot of Haruki Murakami and Stieg Larsson, with maybe some Augusten Burroughs thrown in to suggest the liveliness of the author’s Saturday nights, and then something Tibetan to reassure you they weren’t a complete alkie.

“Favorite Onscreen Sex Scene” tended to be a lot of rough, up-against-the-wall numbers from 9½ Weeksor Damage. “Celebrity I Most Resemble” elicited a lot of Maggie Gyllenhaals, closely followed by “moi.” “If You Could Be Anywhere Right Now,” on the other hand, was an opportunity to kick free of the Gradgrindian exactitude demanded of you by the preceding questions and make good on your profile’s nascent kinship with the headiest flourishes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Strolling along the cobblestone streets of Prague. Picking berries in Port Townsend. Looking for tortoises in the Galápagos Islands. To judge by their personals, a date with your average New Yorker consisted largely of trying to keep up with some pith-helmeted Maggie-Gyllenhaal lookalike, laughing madly to herself as she leapt like a mountain goat from rocky outcrop to cupcake shop, pausing only to have sex in the nearest alleyway before dusting herself down and leaping back into the madcap three-ring circus that was her life, her quest for her own zest-filled quiddity undimmed.

It all sounded exhausting. Just reading about it was exhausting, let alone actually traipsing around after these human lightning bolts, picking up cupcake wrappers and berry cartons, explaining to anyone who will listen, “she’s actually very grounded … very down to earth, normally, it’s just … too many oysters … she gets a little … .” It couldn’t be true, any of it. The only place anyone really seemed to tell the truth was in the “What I Am Looking For” section, which was supposed to be the place where you outlined your ideal mate but more often turned into the place to rag on your last boyfriend. It was basically the elephant’s graveyard of the whole site, the place your last relationship went to die, amid a rattle of old peeves and niggles. No workaholics, passive-aggressive, brainwashed Stepford men or Republicans, wrote one. No cynics or assholes, and you know who you are, another. Reading that, I leapt back from the screen as if stung. But how ridiculous, I thought, indignantly. No man self-identifies as an asshole and the ones that do are precisely the sort who would respond to a dog-whistle like that. The girl’s ad was a self-fulfilling prophecy: She had written the one thing that ensured she would get responses only from assholes. I’d almost written to Nolita657 to point all this out, but something had stopped me—a sudden weary premonition that I would simply be slotting into place behind the last guy, picking up the argument where he left off. Plus, by my own logic, that would make me the asshole.

Instead, I filled out the questionnaire myself, trying to keep smart-alecktry to a minimum while gently hinting at the deep ridiculousness any reasonable man of my accomplishments would feel in this position. “Most Humbling Moment: “filling out this questionnaire.” “Hobbies & Interests.” What kind of person has hobbies and interests? Almost everyone else on the site, it seemed, so I put a tick next to “yoga” and “baking.” “Celebrity You Most Resemble”:Seabiscuit. Rereading the whole thing, I was reminded of a stew I once cooked in college, into which I had piled the leftovers of the previous night’s dinner, together with as many other ingredients as suggested themselves from the fridge, plus a few of the condiments my roommate once bought and never used, so many, in fact, that they all ended up canceling each other out and reconstituting themselves in the form of a thick brown porridge that tasted of nothing very much at all. I zipped through it one last time to inject a note of artless spontaneity and hit “publish.”

The first response I got was an e-mail from my ex, D. We’d broken up just a few months earlier. It read: “Like the personal ad on Nerve. Glad to see you’re feeling a bit more ‘chipper’ these days.”

Ouch. That was embarrassing. “Word That Best Describes Your Current State of Mind.” I’d been trying to strike a note of cockney insouciance —cheeky-chappy kind of thing. Allow them to infer how dumb I thought the question, while hinting at the interesting word choices that came with dating a Brit. The note from D was just awful, outrageous, humiliating. I hadn’t intended for it to be read by the one person who could see through all that crap.

“It’s not what you think,” I explained when we spoke later that day, in an attempt at damage-limitation. “It’s just window-shopping.”


“Yes. You know. Fantasy. Pretend.”

There was a pause.

“Ah. I see,” she said. “Well. That would explain why you put yoga as a hobby. After all the times I asked you! I mean, if the question had been: things my last girlfriend asked me to do but I never got around to, that would have been an honest answer. As a profile of me that would have been an honest answer—”

This was true. D had frequently asked me if I wanted to attend yoga classes with her, and I had frequently expressed an interest, seeing as how attractive I found the slightly mystical air it lent her, but by the time the date of the class had swung around, I always found myself asking whether one person with a mystical air was enough for the relationship. Wasn’t that the point? They completed you. Now that we’d broken up, I needed completing again, so when it came to the “Hobbies & Interests,” I’d ticked “yoga.” And “baking.” I’d always wanted to do more baking since arriving in New York.

“I am interested! That makes it an interest!”

“—and baking! OK, here’s a tip, Tom. If you’re going to put baking as a hobby, then when they then ask you about the items you have in your refrigerator, don’t put ‘a bottle of Champagne,’ and ‘a chocolate bar.’ You can’t bake with Champagne and chocolate.”

I thought hard for a recipe that used Champagne and chocolate but came up short. Something was bothering me about this conversation, something nagging at the periphery of my consciousness that I couldn’t put my finger on. Suddenly it came to me. But of course!

“How come you were reading my profile?”

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“A friend of mine is a member,” said D—finally.

“Ah. A friend,” I cried, jubilantly, feeling the power of my newfound victimhood surging up beneath me, like a submarine beneath the feet of a drowning man. “Of course. Right. How silly of me. A friend.”

Hanging up, I no longer felt so victorious, merely flat and kind of washed out in a way that left nobody looking good. A friend consoled me: This sort of thing happens all the time, he said. Online dating sites are the first port of call for anyone who’s just been through a breakup—they’re a great pick-em-up, a brave foot forward, a reminder there are more fish in sea, etcetera and so forth. He’d spent several months during the summer circling, and being circled by, his ex on one of the dating sites, his heartbreak over seeing her on the thing in June matched only his heartbreak when she disappeared from it in late August.

“So people actually use these things to meet people, then?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he said, distant look in his eyes. I’d lost him. “You should definitely stick with it.”

So I did. I went on a few dates, avoiding the ones that asked for a “good cristian man” but couldn’t spell Christian, or which promised to “be good to u”: Those were Russian mail-order brides. I also learned to give a wide berth to anyone describing themselves as “feisty,” which turned out to mean someone who has parlayed every last gram of their perceived sexual power into a combative conversational style which mistakes obstreperousness for screwball-era badinage. I should have known from her statement that “feisty” liked to sing out of car windows, even when they were stopped at lights. At least it only got as far as one late-night telephone conversation that, after a few minutes of tedious verbal badminton, which I’m guessing to her ears sounded tricksy and sophisticated, I attempted to steer toward an exchange of more basic information. What did she do, I asked?

There was a pause. “Is that the best you can do?” she asked.

“I’m sorry?”

She sniggered. “Is that the best you can do. ‘What do you do?’ That’s your idea of a great chat-up line?”

“I was just …. We’re not … in a bar, I’m just … .”

I was trying to make conversation, not win an Ivor Novello Award, is what I should have said. The more dates I went on, in fact, the more I realized that the qualities you wanted in a date had very little to do with the unicorns you had so lovingly described in the “What I Am Looking For” section. Those you would only meet once, theoretically. The vast majority of your time was going be spent making appointments to have awkward coffee dates with people who looked like they might be right for you on paper, but turned out, after one or maybe two dates not to be, through no fault of their own, or yours, but just because it’s damned hard to get a feel for someone from a blurry 5-year-old photo and 10 minutes’ worth of tortuously self-advertising, self-deprecating prose. Such a set of circumstances put a high premium on kindness, and courtesy, and a reflexive feel for the other person’s feelings. The process wasn’t there to help you find some paragon. You were looking for someone to help you survive the process.

Which funnily enough, did turn out to be what I was looking for. I was just beginning to suspect that the whole dating scene was a sham, designed not to enable people to settle down, but the opposite, to keep them in a state of roving dissatisfaction not unlike a game of musical chairs whose ultimate aim was the continuation of its own perpetual motion, when I met the Absolute Luck. That was her handle: the Absolute Luck, so named, I have just been informed, after a line in the song “Absolute Beginners” by The Jam.

A warm-hearted Midwestern girl, “prone to handbag envy” and kind to waiters, she said she smelled “nice” and had a thing for pens. And stationery. “If blue and ballpoint are all I have to choose from in this room, I’ll travel to others until I find one that’s sufficiently black and extra fine. I’m a fervent proponent of good stationery.” She said she was looking for someone who “helps old ladies across the street and roots for underdogs, who knows that love is a decision and a privilege and who forgives me for saying things like that on a site like this. You’re nice to your parents, regardless of history. You like great films and bad TV. You have good manners. You’re generous in the best sense of the word. And you’re out there somewhere.”

As Bill Murray says in Groundhog Day: me, me, me, me, and—I’m awfully close on this one—me. We went on a date, during which I told her which bits of my profile were outright lies and which were not. She laughed, not seeming to mind my weaseliness, but neither so enchanted with it that eventual disenchantment would provide us with some third-act plot complication. Or so it turned out. We went on a second date, and then a third, and two years later we were married in a church on 16th Street. The invitation stationery was excellent, the place mats handwritten by her with a beautiful copper-nibbed pen. She smelled really nice.

A lightly fictionalized, Gatsbyesque version of the events described in this article appears in Tom Shone’s forthcoming novel, In the Rooms.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.