After Kevin dumps me ostensibly for having future career goals but really because he's a cowardly closet case, I spend some time moping about my apartment alone, binge reading the Bridget Jones series and eating cookies. But after a week of this I decide I've spent enough time feeling sorry for myself, especially over someone so inconsequential and incompatible. It's time to get back out there and start dating again.
The problem is who. All of the guys in my graduate program are either married or gay. I commiserate with Sarah, the one who lent me the Bridget Jones books. She was also recently dumped for good by her long term on-again off-again boyfriend Seamus. While she claims she could never marry him because they both have red hair and she doesn't want red-haired children, I know that secretly she really did feel like he was the only one for her. Also she is being forced out of our grad program due to some very unfair politicking. The stress of all this has caused her to lose a bunch of weight and now she's hotter than ever.
We try getting dressed up in our best tattered black and going to a goth club, and while we grind with a few guys on the dance floor, neither of us actually meets anyone. I was hoping for a repeat of how I met Patrick the Fireman, but it doesn't happen.
Since meeting someone by chance seems unlikely, we turn to internet dating. I haven't really tried personal ads in almost five years, and it's amazing how much has changed. Before, I had to craft a haiku-like print ad in the Raser City Weekly and hope for the best, but now there are photos and lengthy profiles online. The best ads are attached to the website Nerve.com, which is also one of the better sex-positive kink-friendly online magazines, so it seems like a good place to find sex-positive, kink-friendly people. After spending hours perusing the ads with Sarah in the graduate lounge on campus, I decide it's time to create one of my own.
After I lost my old camera while trying to take a picture with Rollerboy in the parking lot of Six Flags, I invested in a digital camera. This investment pays off now as I take hundreds of self-portraits around my apartment, trying to get the most flattering shot that doesn't also have a toilet in the background. I settle on one super close-up where I'm looking away. Somehow I fiddled with the settings enough to create a weird blue washed-out look that strikes me as artistic. Once I have the perfect photo, I spend hours crafting clever yet revealing answers to the prompts, hoping to attract just the right kind of intellectual, soulful nerd who can also make me laugh. For "Which celebrity do you most resemble" I put Judy Garland, not because I really look like her, but because I wish I looked like her, also for retro aesthetic value. Under "Career" I write, "I'm a superspy and can shoot lightening from my fingers." It sounds better than "thirty year old graduate student with no end in sight."
What I don't put is anything about being a devotee. What would be the point? It would only alienate any able bodied guys if I explained what it was. Meanwhile I scour each ad in hopes of finding someone with a disability, but come up empty. I look at every other personals site, trying to find the magic "disabled" filter that Dorie said netted her a date with a handsome para, but the profile filters must have changed already because I come up empty there too.
So Nerve it is. I title my ad "Lucky Lucky" and cross my fingers.
Over the next few days, responses trickle in. It's kind of exciting to even get a message. I start emailing with a bunch of guys, and give some of the more promising ones my phone number. I chat for an hour on the phone with one nerdy, artistic guy whose photo is not flattering, but I decide to give him a chance anyway. He gives me the URL of his blog where he has been posting his art.
"My art really means a lot to me," he explains earnestly. "You know, like, spiritually."
Later I look up his website. It's a collection of Star Wars fan art: soulful pictures of Yoda and Boba Fett awkwardly photoshopped against a starry sky. I burst out laughing. I love Star Wars as much as the next Gen Xer but come on, have some perspective about your "art." I feel this is one of the great advantages of internet dating, that he has revealed this aspect of himself before I wasted time meeting in person. I don't call him again.
Next, I exchange a few long emails with another guy who seems more intelligent and less lame. He's a filmmaker, and we talk about the classic and foreign movies we love. But he can't help bragging that he had a short film at Cannes a few years ago, and wrote the screenplay to a big budget action film that is currently in theaters. Of course I look up the films on IMDB, and right away I see his real full name and bio. His Nerve profile says he's thirty-four, but judging by when he graduated from film school, he has to be in his fifties.
When I confront him with this data over email, he gets defensive.
"Age is just a number," he whines. "But because of the filters in the personal ads, if I put my real age, women won't even see my profile. Why can't I have the chance to get to know someone first?"
"Age is more than just a number and you know it, otherwise you would be dating women your own age," I reply. "As for getting to know someone, the first thing I have learned about you is that you are dishonest. I have no interest in getting to know you further."
I block his email and move on.
One guy manages to keep it together long enough to progress from messaging to email to phone conversation to a real life date, without seeming like an irredeemable creep. His name is Franz. He's German but has lived in the US since he was a kid, so he barely has an accent. He's quite handsome--tall and blonde, but somehow we never move from small talk to anything physical. He's interesting enough; like everyone else these days he works in IT, and we have some common interests. Still, it's like that spark isn't quite there. Is it because he isn't disabled? Or am I being too quick to judge?
For a second date he takes me to a bar where trans women serve drinks and dance on the bar top for Midwestern tourists come to gawk at our sinful big city ways. This is not really my idea of a good time, but the show keeps us from having to talk to each other over dinner. Franz seems just as lukewarm about me as I feel about him, but even though this relationship is going nowhere fast, he can't seem to let go.
The next week he calls me while he's at the supermarket. Because I'm at home doing nothing, I sit there and listen to him wander the aisles and debate what to buy. Occasionally the conversation gets more interesting but any real topic quickly gets derailed by shopping. After an hour of this I put down the phone and wonder what the hell just happened. Is this all I can expect of internet dating, this noncommittal sort of nothing? Why is he even calling me? Is he really that insecure that he needs a random chick to keep him company over the phone while he does the weekly shopping? I decide to stop taking his calls.
Sarah and I comb through the ads more carefully, looking for any guy close to our age who seems remotely interesting. There's a guy with the screen name Tommy Crown who has a great photo and a ton of charisma, but based on his profile, he seems like an insufferable asshole. I resist contacting him, even though his name keeps popping up at the top of every search. Another guy has set his screen name as "Add to Cart." I think it's funny, but Sarah just sighs.
"It really just is online shopping," she says.
On Yahoo Personals, after an exhaustive search, I turn up one profile of a para dude. He's reasonably good looking in his photo, but he's more than ten years older than I am, and it's clear from what he wrote that we have absolutely nothing in common. Also he lives about two hours south of Raser City. He seems more mature than Rollerboy, but in every other way it feels like I would be making the same mistakes over again. I feel guilty about forcing myself on some unsuspecting para. For his sake, it's better if I just leave him alone. I look at his profile over and over, but eventually decide not to contact him.
Just as I am starting to feel like I will be single forever, Kara and Nam, my best friends from college, fly out to Raser City for a visit. My apartment is so tiny that I have to sleep on an air mattress in the living room while they sleep in my double bed, but it doesn't matter because we're all so happy to see each other again.
To scratch my dev itch since being dumped by Rollerboy, I have been reading Moving Violations, a memoir about life as a para. Nam sees it on my bedside table and picks it up himself, which surprises me because he's usually squeamish about anything disability related. My dev itch get scratched even more as I talk with him about all things SCI, comparing my experiences with Rollerboy with the book. So many of the stupid, insensitive things people said to us and the thousand tiny indignities are the same.
Kara, on the other hand, seems relieved that I'm not limited my dating pool to only disabled guys. "Keep all your options open," she urges me.
We spend most of our time together watching stupid movies or Star Trek reruns and riffing on them. We also spin out future plotlines for Betty DeLuxe, a fictional character we have been collaboratively writing over email for the past six years. Betty is a superspy on a series of bizarre, absurd adventures borrowed freely from X-Files, Dr Who, kung fu movies and any other nonsense we feel like adding, with a liberal dash of Lovecraftian mysticism, courtesy of Nam. Sometimes we even write our friends into the story as characters. We talk about someday rewriting it for actual publication, but as much fun as it is to write, it's probably too irredeemably silly for anyone else to read. But it doesn't matter. I love Kara and Nam, and I love writing with them. Their visit goes by far too quickly.
At the same time, I'm also busy with twice weekly rehearsals for The Marriage of Figaro with the Raser City Lyric Opera. I can still hardly believe my luck in being cast. There are only eight sopranos in the chorus including me, and most of them were vocal performance majors. I haven't been in a full staged production since high school. It feels like everyone has more experience than I do. Even though the chorus only sings a tiny bit, the director has given us a lot to do. To play up the comedy, he's given us all kinds of business onstage, and in the wedding chorus he has the women dance as we sing. I practice every day at home, exhilarated but also terrified I might make a mistake.
In spite of my nerves, every part of the process is thrilling to me, from rehearsing in the warehouse in a sketchy part of town to getting fitted for costumes and wigs to long Sunday afternoons practicing staging. Unlike the chorus I just quit, everyone in the Raser City Lyric Opera company is really friendly, even the leads, who are professional singers. The soprano who sings the part of Suzanna is especially nice, although I'm too much in awe of her to talk to her much. She's about my age, with long, springy corkscrew blond curls and blue eyes. She has a powerful voice that is clear as a bell, but unlike most divas who arrange themselves stiffly onstage to be admired, she throws herself into the comedy without the slightest embarrassment. All of the leads are so good in their parts. I'm practically pinching myself to be in such a high quality production.
Just as rehearsals move to four times a week, two things happen with my personal ad on Nerve. First, a new guy messages me and we hit it off right away. He's a fan of comics and sci fi and all the nerdy things I love, and he's into BDSM in a big way. I'm swooning by the time we move from messaging to talking on the phone. Second, a few days after the new guy contacts me, my profile gets selected to be a featured ad on Nerve, meaning my photo is on the front page of the website and all its affiliates for over a week.
Suddenly, I am flooded with messages. Not all of them are from guys who want to meet me either, some are just mean-spirited jokes and criticisms of my photo and profile. Seriously, do these guys really have nothing better to do with their time? I delete all the messages without answering, the good with the bad, because they are all too late. I have already met the one I have been waiting for.
The new guy's name is Skip. When I ask if this is his real name or a nickname, he just says, "I'm from the South."
We arrange to meet for the first time on the campus of Lester State University. I try not to think about the fact that he parks his car in exactly the same spot where I first met Rollerboy, and suggests going to the same restaurant. I instead recommend we sit outside instead, since it's such a nice day. We get drinks at the Starbucks on the corner then wander over to the building that houses my department, and climb up to sit on the grass embankment nearby. It's an odd little patch of green over a high retaining wall, so we are actually about five feet above the sidewalk. Sitting there on a sunny warm afternoon creates an oddly detached feeling, like we are watching everyone but not really part of the same world.
Skip is not that tall and kind of squarish shaped, but I think he's really cute. He has bleached his short hair a silvery blond and spiked it up, setting off his blue eyes. His teeth are a little crooked, with an underbite, which gives him a charming kind of bulldog expression. The way he smiles when he looks at me is heart-meltingly adorable. He's thirty-two, and just got divorced about a year ago (no kids, thank god). He and his wife moved to Raser City from Atlanta not too long ago, but he started getting seriously into the SM scene, and it just wasn't her thing. Eventually they realized they were sexually incompatible.
"It sucks when you split up over SM," he says. "I can't tell my family the real reason we got divorced. They thought she was great, and I'm just being an immature jerk. I can't tell my mother 'We split because she doesn't want to tie me up and spank my ass.'"
We talk more about our experiences with BDSM (experience level: moderate; we both want to do more), what toys we own, what we'd like to do. I start off talking about medical fetish things, how I still have a drawer full of casting materials given to me by Patrick the Fireman and never used. Then I spill my guts about the whole devotee thing, K, Rollerboy, Paradevo, all of it. I figure, why not? He understands kink, and we're both in a place where we don't want to hide who we really are anymore.
As it turns out, Skip has a fetish too--he's a furry. But because there's so much prejudice against furries, he never actually comes right out and says the word. Instead, he asks if I have ever been to Disney World.
"Yeah, once when I was a kid," I say.
"Well you know, almost all the people inside the costumes are women. Like Chip n Dale, those are totally women."
"How can you tell?"
"I don't know, some people who are into that kind of thing can tell it's a woman in the costume and they, like, look at photos of them online."
"I know, weird! Haha!"
To my shame, it's not until much, much later that I finally figure out that he is talking about himself. He is totally into mascot costumes, among other things.
Despite my so ineptly fumbling at taking in this veiled confession, he is not at all bothered by my own revelation about being a devotee.
"There is a fetish for everything you can possibly imagine," he tells me. "Popping balloons, sneezing, everything. Yours is no biggie."
Well, being a devotee does feel like a big deal to me, but I'm happy and relieved that I can share that part of myself with him and not be judged.
The conversation moves on from sex to comic books.
"I'm a huge fan of Daredevil," I say. "Because, you know, blind guys are my thing."
Skip laughs. "Daredevil is awesome!"
"I know, right? Best superhero ever! I read Born Again so many times. I used to read all the new issues when I was a kid. X-Men too. I used to go to the comic book shop every week when I was in high school, but I stopped reading when I was in college, I guess around 1994 or so."
"Well yeah, because Marvel was still good in the 1980s but in the 1990s they sucked. But you know, they've brought in a bunch of indie writers and it's getting good again. You should pick up the new run on Daredevil. I'll lend you my copies. You'll love it."
"Thanks, that would be great." I smile at him, buzzed on my soy chai latte. Just like that, three hours have passed, and as the late afternoon sun turns everything golden, my heart is overflowing with joy at sharing my greatest passions with this guy with spiky silvery hair who is obviously equally smitten with me.
Wanting to extend this moment and much as possible and share even more with him, and ok, to impress him as well, I tell him all about Betty DeLuxe, the story I am writing with Nam and Kara. It doesn't occur to me that this is something private, more along the lines of an in-joke, a shared fantasy and alter-ego, that should not be opened to just anyone. But I can't help myself. I want him to inhabit this fantasy with me, and he does. He gets it immediately, riffing on the same b-movie tropes.
I spin out the image of Betty DeLuxe, superspy, with her red hair in pigtails and wearing a skin-tight red leather catsuit. I don't have to say it, but he gets that Betty is me-- not the nerdy, frumpy grad student I really am, but the glorious avatar I aspire to, equal parts silly and sexy. In the story, Betty has a girl sidekick named Lacuna Exposition, but it seems to me there is room for another sidekick.
"You could be Skippy, Boy Genius!" I blurt out.
He tilts his head down and looks up at me with puppy dog eyes. "But I'm not a genius," he says with a trace of embarrassment. "I never even went to college." Then he puts on a Forrest Gump voice and says, "I'm not a smart man."
I wave my hand. "Of course you're smart, what are you talking about? Anyway it's just a character. Betty's a kind of 'shoot first ask questions later' type, so she needs a boy genius to help with the details. All the best characters have a boy sidekick."
"Sure, ok." He gives me that winning, bulldog smile.
As much as I want to tie him down and make him beg for mercy right then and there, I restrain myself. After all, we only just met. I walk him back to his car and we promise to meet again soon. Just as he's about to get in the car, he suddenly leans in and kisses me, a hot, hungry kiss right on the mouth. A second later, he pulls back.
"Ok, I better go while I still can," he laughs.
"Ok, bye." I stand on the sidewalk waving, feeling like I've just been shot with a bolt of electricity.
A few days later, we go out for dinner, to my favorite Korean restaurant. Skip spent seven years in the army, part of the time stationed in South Korea, instead of going to college. He was in an artillery unit, which according to him was mostly about studying weather patterns, to figure out how wind would affect the trajectory. It turns out we were both in Korea at the same time, although in very different places, of course. We spend a long time over dinner reminiscing about our time there.
After dinner, he takes me back to his apartment. He lives in a gorgeous, super mod high rise right downtown, the 25th floor with an amazing view. It's a smallish studio he moved into after the divorce, and it's packed with comics and sci fi figurines, toys, posters and all kinds of cool junk. In a small glass bowl is a betta fish that he got for company. He named it Eric the Fish, after the Monty Python sketch.
On the wall is a huge poster of Wonder Woman stepping on Batman's face, a close-up of her boot crushing him as he grimaces. It's amazing.
Skip gestures at the poster with a trace of embarrassment. "I used to have that up in my cubicle at work. I got a lot of funny looks for that."
"No way, that's awesome!"
The poster gives me an idea. I take out my digital camera and take some pictures of him lying on the floor with me stepping on his face with my bare foot. I want to send the pictures to Kara and Nam with the caption, "My new boyfriend!"
Skip shows me some of the SM gear he has. I put leather cuffs on his wrists and spank him a bit but neither of us is up for a big scene yet, so we just end up having vanilla sex, because we can't keep our hands off each other.
Afterwards, as we're lolling around in his bed, he suddenly turns all serious and says, "I have to tell you something."
"Oh no, what?" My heart stops for a second. This can't be anything good.
Looking very unhappy, he confesses, "I've been laid off of work."
"That's it? Oh my god, you had me all worried. I thought it was something serious."
"This is serious. As of next week, I'll be unemployed. I can't pay the rent on this place, so I have to move out at the end of the month. I'm looking for another job but it's really hard without a college degree. I don't know what I'm going to do."
I wave my hand airily. "I'm sure you'll find something." His soon to be ex job is in web design. There are a million IT jobs in Raser City, and if he found one, he must be able to find another.
But he still looks miserable. "I actually found out a little while before we met in person, but I was afraid if I told you, you wouldn't want to meet me."
I sit up on one elbow so I can look him right in the eye. "It doesn't matter to me. Why would you even think that?"
"Most women don't want to date a deadbeat with no money."
"Well, I'm not most women. I seriously don't care. I'm working on my own career. I'm not looking for a man to support me. And besides, you're not a deadbeat. I'm sure you'll find something soon."
Skip blinks up at me as if he can hardly believe his ears, relief flooding his face. "You really don't care?"
I roll over on top of him, wrapping my arms around him tightly. "I think you're awesome."
"I think you're awesome too."