by Alison Gazarek
Everyone becomes a writer when dating online. Consider the art of creating a profile: you have just a few paragraphs to convey your perfect, most accurate, most attractive self. I am sexy and timid. I am nerdy and inspired. I am outdoorsy and bookish. I want to find someone to date and fall in love with and someday marry and have four kids. It isn’t savvy to be so honest on a profile, so you are left massaging words and phrases to give a version of yourself that is accurate but not too accurate, lest you alienate the person who could be The One. And it goes both ways: you yourself might pass over numerous profiles without a second thought because of misspelled words, or because the books listed were obviously last read in high school.
Many of the women I know who date online also write about their experiences offline. We mention these journals at parties, or over the lunch table at work, but they aren’t for public consumption. I quickly discovered that writing about my experiences wasn’t only funny, and cathartic, helping me understand my own patterns and mistakes; it was necessary for meaning-making. Because if there was no meaning to be found in the night out with the guy who kept leaving to snort coke in the bathroom, then maybe it was just depressing. Or what about the one who talked for forty-five minutes without taking a breath (I timed him); or the one who texted me creepily in the middle of the night a month after our failed date, Remember me? Without writing them, those experiences were simply. . . unsavory. In the act of writing them down, they became both comedic and healing.
When Susannah B. Mintz, author of the memoir Match Dot Comedy, reopened her Match.com profile on Valentine’s Day, she requested “someone . . . who simply knew himself. Someone who was, and was not afraid to be, himself.” It would take a number of dates—some comedic, some painful—and some intense self-reflection, before she was ready to recognize what that might actually look like. And in the process of narrating that tale, she also exposes the differences between the storyline she expected and the very different one that emerged. Mintz embarks on the journey to find a partner as a writer might: she uses language, creates plot and conflict, is drawn to inference and subtext. But like any good writer, she also allows the narrative to be drawn along by the characters, and her themes to shift with the plot twists.
“It’s all projection at the start,” Mintz writes. When you meet a potential partner, when you read his profile, you fill in the gaps with hopes and assumptions. Sancho, a Cuban cliff diver and yoga practitioner, emerges as a potentially thrilling Latin lover. She imagines them salsa dancing together under tropical skies, exchanging platitudes in half-spoken Spanish; this despite her dubious feelings after the first date, like a character in a badly-played out classic novel: “I couldn’t help feeling let down, as if I’d gotten stuck in a Jane Austen novel . . . wasn’t something supposed to happen?” She is overwhelmed when faced with the reality of Sancho—a neat-freak who adorns his home with scented candles and old-folks furniture.
There is the man who she feels she should like because he recites poetry to her in a bar; the man who speaks in exhilaratingly witty e-mails; the multiple men who profess to love her writing. Over time, it becomes clear to Mintz that her projections, her desires, and her experiences aren’t working together. But even so, she holds on for dear life, seeking to make her hopes and her narrative fit the reality of the men in front of her. “Because the thing that haunted me was how to locate the dividing line: between the necessary compromises of a mature relationship and sacrificing one’s values and integrity, between lowering one’s idealized expectations and putting up with anyone so as not to be alone.” When she is honest with herself, and when we are honest with ourselves, isn’t that the heart of holding on to someone or something that doesn’t fit: not being alone?
This was certainly the case for me when I dated online; even more so when it came to the men with potential: the one I dubbed “The Fireman” who drove me around Brooklyn and kissed me in his fire truck, who regaled me with stories about high school and the Civil Rights case against the FDNY, but who had a secret son and suddenly stopped calling after six weeks. Or “The Filmmaker”, a sexy, dreadlocked man with a Master’s degree from NYU who shared my taste in books and music but suddenly decided he couldn’t date me because he was moving to Brazil (he never did). Without writing those stories, those characters, they were just random experiences, inexplicable and perplexing. Climax and characterization helped frame them in a way that gave the story momentum, and depth, and meaning. I wasn’t just dating; I was making sense of these men, and our stories, and in turn, making sense of myself.
For Mintz, after a series of failed dates and mini-relationships, some more promising than others (including Marty, who turns out to have unattractive feet, and Michael, a charming, self-possessed man who wears a kilt without warning or explanation), the author meets Laurence, who lives in a distant city. Their romance blooms, alluringly (and deceptively), through language.
He wrote back so effusively, admiringly, that I cast him on the spot as my leading man. It’s more than coy metaphor . . . I was like a woman with a pathological memory loss . . . What a romance, what plot!
Mintz is a writer who delights in words, becomes drunk with them as she sends out samples of her academic writing to potential suitors, using their approval as a gauge for compatibility. In Laurence, she finds an adoring audience for her professional writing, and someone who fits neatly into the narrative of what she might want, intellectually and physically. Through phone calls, shared writing, and e-mails, she promptly falls in love—“to the degree we can fall for someone we’ve never met.” When they meet in person, however, things go awry, and Laurence soon abandons her to “figure things out” with his wife and kids, who turn out to be much more involved in his life than he had previously let on. Mintz is left to revisit, and rewrite, the narrative of what was to be—and what really was—yet again.
Mintz’s language reveals something about her approach to love. Linguist George Lakoff writes that metaphors are not mere language, but conceptual ideas that frame our worldview. A person who speaks of a school system as a race to the top isn’t just being poetic; he is communicating his understanding of education as a competition, an expedition, with winners and losers. A lover who speaks of his relationship as lacking in affection or held together by investments and withdrawals may be conceptualizing his view of the relationship as transactional, almost like a financial institution. If a lover speaks of his relationship as a journey, he might also mention the long road or even the acceleration or detour; and when you put those metaphors together, you begin to get an understanding of how this person may conceptualize love overall as a kind of voyage.
If a couple sees their relationship as a journey, this metaphorical conception actually allows them to navigate their relationship. “Two travelers are in a vehicle, traveling with common destinations . . . the vehicle encounters some impediment and gets stuck . . . Two lovers are in a love relationship, pursuing common life goals. The relationship encounters some difficulty, which makes it nonfunctional” When I first read this study, my creative writing professor asked us to consider: what if two people use completely different metaphors for love? What if one person in the relationship is on a journey and the other is investing in something? Are two lovers, one who is driving a car and one who is making withdrawals from a bank account, doomed to fail?
In Match Dot Comedy, the metaphors Mintz uses betray uncertainty about what she wants, and eventually a sense of being overwhelmed by the options. She often speaks of the process of dating online like shopping: “I scrolled through the cache of possibilities like I was looking for shoes on Zappos, setting my search parameters for heel height and color. I’d never before felt so in charge of my romantic destiny.” She begins her journey gleefully sifting through pages and pages of potential new men, knowing that if she chooses just the right combination of size, color, and style, she will know exactly what she is bringing home, won’t have to take advantage of the free returns and shipping. As her journey continues, though, it turns out that dating isn’t like a shoe store, and the pumps you liked so much on the screen pinch when you wear them to work the next day, or might, when you open the box, turn out to be orthopedic sneakers. Romantic partners aren’t shoes, and her metaphor (or as Lakoff might argue, worldview), begins to fall apart. Soon enough, shopping doesn’t feel so fun:
Imagine Match.com as a department store filled with shoppers. Some are racing each other toward the sale bins, some making a leisurely way through the racks, fingering fabric and checking prices with an expert eye, and others returning perfectly good merchandise that they only realized didn’t suit them when they got it home.
Self-revelation ultimately comes in the form of abandoning the shopping metaphor completely, though she admits it took some time: “[B]ecause all the failed attempts, the exciting starts that sputtered and died too soon, kept amassing as evidence that my standards were dreadfully askew. If I could just get the shoe to fit, I wouldn’t have to consider so thoroughly I was doing wrong.”
While Mintz’s journey is sympathetic, and delightful to read, it isn’t actually very funny; but she doesn’t exactly mean it to be. Her title is a pun: not only does it play on the name of the website she uses, but the book cover lettering is composed of a series of kitchen matches, unlit, perhaps waiting to be set on fire. Maybe because of the title, or because of readers’ expections when the subject is dating (thanks for nothing, “Sex and the City”), reviews of Match Dot Comedy on Amazon have been mixed. Many reviewers comment on how much they appreciate her candor, and how much they relate to her story and honesty; just as many, however, write about their disappointment upon discovering that this “comedy” wasn’t the light-hearted, hilarious romp they were expecting: “Not really something . . . that will have you laughing out loud,” and “a Carrie Bradshaw who takes herself even more seriously, if that’s possible.”
The comedy that does come through relies on Mintz’s linguistic play. Consider an all-out mixed metaphor like this one, when she finds herself tangled with Sancho, the imagined hot Latin lover, who turns out to be more of a tame metrosexual adorning his home with scented candles and hand-painted women’s fans.
Somehow (the wine, the hope) we ended up kissing a bit on the living-room floor, from which vantage point I truly felt like Ariel at the bottom of the sea, about to drown, wrestling in the weeds with a guy who kept sitting up and grinning at me, breathing hard and stretching his legs, as if he’d gotten his wires crossed and thought I was his competitive-porn-yoga instructor on a house call.
In this sense, Mintz’s metaphors not only provide some comic relief, they also betray her mounting confusion and desperation as she attempts to find the perfect match. When you are so anxiously attempting to align your idea of the person you imagine with who he really is, and you walk into a home filled with candles and ladies’ silk fans instead of the mojitos and salsa lessons you were expecting, metaphors can get dicey. You can begin to feel like you’re drowning—you’re Ariel, losing her voice, and even as you flail you realize you’re not meant to be in water at all. You look into the eyes of your lover and recognize that he doesn’t even see who you are.
There’s also something inherently funny in Mintz’s revealing her out-of-whack standards as she fixates on Marty’s “bony and pale” feet, or her vision of hot, salsa-dancing Sancho wafting up in smoke as if from his collection of scented candles. This is comedy in the sense that one might expect from the title, perhaps, but it’s no Carrie Bradshaw getting dumped by post-it note. This is a woman who embarks on an odyssey to find what she thinks is something like the perfect pair of shoes, and in the process of confronting herself finds something more meaningful—the map that she might use to travel. The shoes become something she might merely need for the journey.
In the end, this is the metaphor Mintz settles on when she comes to her senses and realizes that Michael—yes, the one who, devoid of self-consciousness, donned a kilt—is the one who actually fits what she had requested when she opened her profile in the first place: “[S]omeone . . . who simply knew himself. Someone who was, and was not afraid to be, himself.”
I was searching for the real in the most surreal of venues, online profiles and my own fantasy hodgepodge of tragic romantic-comedy. What if Michael had been the more authentic person all along?
As she returns to Michael, Susannah speaks in the language of maps. While he is away on business, she completes a puzzle of a giant map on her dining room floor, and Michael recognizes it for what it is—a symbol of her “putting things together” and creating a course. They hang up other maps in the same room, some from his past life, some from hers, some that they acquire together, and turn their dining room into a Map Room. Love isn’t a shopping trip anymore; it is a road trip, with multiple maps and pieces, and an ability to be “where you aren’t, an invitation to descend . . . to see the world head-on”—much like the plot of a story, with its unseen stops and detours, finally reaching a true and inevitable ending.
Alison Gazarek is a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University. She is currently a high school English teacher and teacher-coach at a small, portfolio-based public high school in the South Bronx. She has recently led workshops on creating authentic assessments for students and “real world learning” for the Coalition of Essential Schools, the iZone initiative, the NYC Common Core Literacy Pilot, and the Children First Network 106.