July 23, 2008

If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d never have met the woman I love…or needed to call in the Canadian Mounties to fend off a cyber-stalker who tried to steal my identity. Technology enabled me to spend several thousand bucks, over the years, on plane and train fare for dates with total strangers.


But it also meant I’d never have to live in Wilmington. (Every seen Fight Club? It was filmed there, and its characters’ craving to bash in each other’s brains makes no sense—until you figure out that they live in Wilmington.) For me, the Web is not so much a two-edged sword as a jagged shard of glass. Which, you know, can come in handy….


It’s no news to paleos that the Net empowers eccentrics of every sort, and helps us find each other. There are Facebook groups that summon from airless basement rooms the fans of squabbling heirs to the vacant throne of Byzantium, and dating services catering to the most peculiar tastes, and the tiniest coteries of dispossessed souls.


For instance, orthodox Catholics. No, not the folks who happened to grow up Italian-American or Irish in the wake of Vatican II, and learned a little less about their Faith than most 19th century Haitians. I mean the much smaller subset of people who have blundered somehow onto the actual teachings of the Church—and even worse, come to believe them. From a mass religion that exercised a sweaty grip on the minds of tens of millions, the American church in the past 40 years has become something very different: An exotic, almost esoteric sect of old believers, hidden inside the shell of a mainline Protestant denomination. Apart from the occasional Latin Mass full of elderly anti-Masonic activists, we typically sit through our dismal local services with teeth clenched and earlids shut, and spot each other (if at all) by secret handshakes and coded phrases. See that blonde over there, a friend might nudge you with his elbow. She took Communion on the tongue. I wonder if she’s single…. Such thoughts don’t always help you to pray.


It made matters worse that for most of my career I’ve worked from home, and missed out on all the happenstance meetings at water cooler and Xerox machine that can sometimes prove so fruitful. The casually glimpsed scapular dangling from an ivory, swanlike neck … the smudge of ash on a high, noble forehead that shows up one Wednesday every year, like a sticker reading “Marriage Material.” I found out the hard way that none of this happens by email.


So as soon as I heard about Catholic dating sites, I signed up for several of them. I wrote up a long and learned-sounding profile, posted pics I hoped were appealing, and began to send off notes to a wide array of bright-seeming, good-looking girls. I tramped off to Boston, Washington, Virginia, North Carolina, even Iowa. I learned (after more years than I’d like to admit) that phone conversations don’t always predict how two people will get along in person, and that photos can sometimes be… flattering. There are few things worse than having arranged to spend the better part of a weekend with someone six states from home… and realizing within 8 seconds or so that you want to go back to the airport. It’s worse, of course, when you’re the one still dazzled by surface attraction, and she’s staring at you like the burrito in which she found a human finger.


Of course, I had a number of wholesome and harmless experiences—and a few that flickered with a fitful mutual passion, even dragged on the requisite three months it usually takes a long-distance interest to sputter down to nothing. With most of these women I’ve retained a friendly connection; in fact, they usually pay me the compliment of inviting me to their weddings. It’s a cold and curious fact that at the past nine weddings I have attended, I was the last guy the bride had dated before the groom. That always makes for lively conversation at the reception—where eventually I began to feel that I deserved some recognition: A velvet chair perhaps, a distinctive hat—or at least a name for the role I played. Not the “best man,” but at least the last man….


I sincerely hope that the next wedding I attend will be my own, and to a woman I met online—but not through a dating site. A bit of a belle, of zany Faulknerian lineage via Dallas, she’s as likely to sign up for CatholicMatch.com as to get a tattoo on her face. We met when I published a review of the miserable movie Kinsey which she read with a margarita in hand. It must have been her third, since she sent me a tipsy fan letter. In the story, I mentioned the fact that my taste in women had been formed early on by TV’s Morticia Adams. (It’s a pity that Goth chicks didn’t exist until I was old enough to find them frightening.) To this, my Dallas fan responded: “Morticia Adams? Yuck! I look like that and I’ve always hated it!” That’s all she wrote.


And that was enough. Soon we were trading several emails a day, and talking for sometime 8 hours straight about all the things we had in common. (Favorite writer, Mauriac, check! Favorite cuisine, Cajun, check! Favorite candidate, Pat Buchanan….) It seemed that Providence had finally come through for me.


There was just one teensy problem: She wouldn’t meet me. In fact, for at least a month, she wouldn’t even send a picture. This awoke my darkest suspicions, especially when I Googled her name and came up with a plump and chinless Midwestern music teacher in her 50s. I sent that picture, with a very tactful note—and she relented. It seemed she shared a name with someone who looked very different, and I stepped up my pursuit of a woman I now knew to be a beauty. But she was spooked. “I don’t meet people this way,” she tried to explain. “I’ve never even dated anyone whose family didn’t know my family. I mean you could be anyone….”


“Fair point,” I said. “But so could you.”


And so it went on, for months. Long and delightful talks that went on until sunrise (I’d pause to go out and drain the beagles, then call her back). Frustrating discussions of when I would go to Dallas, or she’d come to Queens. Which kept on refusing to happen. I’d gone from spending hours in strange, foreign places (like Forest City, Iowa) with people I barely knew—to talking for months and months to someone it seemed I’d never meet. At last, she admitted that there was something else going on. She owned that she’d always been a little suspicious of intimacy. In fact, a counselor she’d gone to see about this issue had told her she had “special emotional needs.” And not every guy could handle that, she knew. Maybe we shouldn’t keep on talking so much….


I felt a deep and comforting certainty. In a calm and compassionate voice, I really did say the following: “Okay, you have emotional special needs, I’ll be your emotional Special Olympics coach. I’ll be there on the sidelines cheering for you—even if you have to wear some kind of helmet. And when you stumble across the finish line, I’ll be right there to hand you one of those Nerf trophies. I promise.”


After a long stunned silence, she burst out laughing. “You are the only guy in the world who would say something that insane. And you were trying to be sweet! What is wrong with you?” She was hooked. And so was I.


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