by Susannah B. Mintz
The following is an adapted excerpt from Match Dot Comedy, a memoir recently released by Amazon. From author Susannah Mintz:
“Match Dot Comedy” is a comedy of errors that explores the challenge of getting out of my own way in matters of the heart. It’s also a manifesto for the possibility of love. One of my friends calls it “Eat, Fray, Love,” self-exploration without the mysticism and Neopolitan pizza. My husband describes it as “a typical girl-meets-boy, drops boy, finds other boys, drops them and finds boy again” story of online dating. The book takes a hard look at all my romantic mistakes and foibles—my obsessions, disappointments, comical dates, and wrong conclusions—but in the end it’s really a love letter to the man who offered a happy ending I didn’t expect.
When I reactivated my Match.com account on Valentine’s Day in 2007, I thought I’d learned a thing or two about how the system works. I steered clear of conservatives and ex-hippies, of the profiles that reeked of compensatory self-congratulation and the ones whose hard edge hinted at some deep woundedness that no few cups of coffee would reveal or heal. I looked for literacy, humor, some sense that a man had learned something about himself. I thought I had been through enough with men to let myself dream. To wait for exactly what I wanted, which was not having to work too hard for a sense of perfect fit.
Which was why, when my husband-to-be opened his door wearing a full-dress kilt—replete with black shoes, white knee socks, white shirt, and a sporran in which he stored his cell phone (think Mel Gibson in blueface texting his mates on the heath)—I right away began plotting my exit.
In March I met Kevin, a nonconformist with cats who studied English and psychology in college and didn’t seem put-off by my description of myself as a cranky bookworm. We’d just finished a pizza at a bar halfway between our towns when he took my hand across the table, pulled my ear against his lips, and recited all twenty-three iambic tetrameter couplets of Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress.” Impressive display of recall. I remember wondering if anyone else in the bar noticed. We must have looked so intimate, I thought. I was staring at the dulled lacquer of the table top, looking at his fingers, having the distinct feeling of being made a spectator of my own romantic maneuverings. Kevin was reciting Marvell, showing off. I was the audience. What was I supposed to feel? What did he think would happen, I wondered, when he got to the last lines of this triumph of carpe diem seduction?
I was trying so hard to quell a tendency to feel irritated by the weird things men do, to be a good Buddhist and stay in the present, to let it go, that I worked my way into liking it, this one-man show of Kevin’s at a bar in a shopping mall. He was smart, funny, ironic. He had pretty hazel eyes. He was real and he was a man.
I was on my guard against the glib and the quick, but there was something about Denis. He downloaded an article I’d written on the poet John Donne, and told me it was the sexiest thing he’d ever read. He said he’d read it like a lover, in the rush of recognition. I knew it was a lure, but it was a learned lure, and it stoked some need in me—because it was about the ideas, because Denis made me trust that he understood. I was certain of it when we talked on the phone, of window panes and teardrops and wrist bones and fleas, all the incongruous imagery of Donne’s love poetry, overwrought compressions of threshold space and loss.
But there in the flesh, face-to-face, Denis and I did not click. I knew it immediately, and I knew he could see it registering in my expression, and the disenchantment was palpable and intense. I felt with Denis something that I had missed, genuine intellectual spark, mental charge. He made me laugh so hard I literally doubled over. I wanted so much to be attracted to him. But I wasn’t, not like that. Denis was older, a little gaunt, taller than I. He had an actor’s way in his body, not so much graceful as utterly at ease being watched. His hair was a curly, graying brown, receding from a high forehead, his eyes also a kind of gray, his mouth wide and thin. A kind face, quick to conform itself to the requirements of character. He could have been a Carradine, or played one on regional stage.
But in person, some ineffable thing about him wasn’t right—so subtle, I couldn’t explain it to anyone afterwards. I knew in an instant that we wouldn’t work, not like that.
The strength of that realization, the sense that our desires can be so impossible to account for and yet so impossible to override, cast a sad pall over the afternoon. We made a sort of go of it over lunch, but we were both deflated, and we both knew it. Because Denis was an actor, he made a show of buoying us up, morphing from one character to another in a strained exhibition of skill, but the mechanics of the performance creaked with his effort, and I felt embarrassed for him, and sad. How naïve it had been, the strength of my wishing. I had no idea what to do next.
Later, Denis would ask me how they’d done it, men who had won my heart before. But I had no answer for that either.
Sancho, a Cuban metallurgist, could keep a conversation rolling with tales of ice climbing, scuba diving, mushing, and walk-a-bouting. He seemed to speak in exclamation points, especially about extreme yoga. “It’s all about torque,” he kept enthusing, which didn’t sound like something bodies were supposed to do; I thought that term was reserved for car engines, but what do I know about physics? I was starting salsa classes, so I maneuvered Sancho into place, thinking, This is it: hot Latin dancing in perpetuity, competitive levels, gold trophies on my mantel, Strictly Ballroom American-style. I would go to his house, practice our moves in his kitchen, fall deeply in love, learn Spanish, smoke cigars. It unfolded in my mind in cinemascope precision.
Except that when I got to his house, he had scented candles burning, as if the house had been staged for a broker viewing. He took me on a tour, pointing out the floral wallpaper he’d applied. On purpose. But okay, I thought, people have different tastes and styles; I could hardly fault him for this. The house was tasteful. Well appointed, one might say, like a Bombay Company catalogue.
But all those Victorian furnishings! A piece I think is called a settee, though I’ve only ever seen that word in print and I don’t really know what it looks like, only that the “couch” in Sancho’s living room seemed hardly big enough for two little girls to have tea on. Throw blankets were folded meticulously over the edges of wing-back chairs. The colors seemed pulled from a Little Mermaid palette: lots of teal, buttercup, maybe some peach. And cushions, lots and lots of cushions.
The pièce de resistance was a collection of nineteenth-century women’s fans. They were hand-painted silk, larger than any fan I’ve ever seen, meticulously wrapped in tissue paper in specially sized boxes. I don’t remember how many there were, just one in particular, deep black decorated with ornate filigrees of red and pink. Lovely, I had to admit, but I don’t think I quite understood. Sancho told me, laughing, “If I hung these up on the walls the way I want to, my friends would have to stage an intervention!” He sounded kind of gleeful when he said it. He added, “Other women have told me they think I’m gay.” No kidding, I thought. Really?
I perched on the aquamarine settee and watched a nature show about ocean life on his plasma TV, gulping white wine like a fish out of water. Then he turned the music on and we danced a little in his kitchen. He wasn’t that good, despite his own promises. Worse, he kept assuring me I’d get better—which made me want to brandish one of his Colonial American fire pokers. 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.
My last date with Marty was a dinner party at his house. Something pulled me toward Marty’s real life, a vibrant life with grown-up socializing, the kind I felt I’d only read about in books, where close-knit circles of friends gathered at rental cottages in places like Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod for clam bakes and hot buttered corn.
I loved Marty’s friends. There was a whole gaggle of them, at least a dozen, milling about Marty’s back deck, drinking liberally, sizing me up without being obvious or uncharitable about it. They moved around one another easily, with a fluid choreography that comes from knowing others’ bodies in small kitchens or camping tents or holiday tables—these friends were a tight-knit group. They obviously cared about Marty. They showed me his prized sunflowers, and asked me how we’d met, and offered up their amiability and unpretension along with the hummus and carrot sticks like the balm that would cool my every fevered longing for a real man.
I loved Marty’s friends, but I knew in the moment that I liked them more than I liked Marty. And there was something awry, I also thought, in being presented as if I were Marty’s new girlfriend—intended or hopeful, anyway—when we hadn’t even slept together. So I determined that this was it. Now or never. I stayed late after the party and cornered him on the back porch, while friends of his lingered over brandy in the living room, to tell him to get rid of the friends, and what I wanted him to want to do with me. I knew he wanted something; he begged me to stay, but he couldn’t figure out how to get the friends out of his house, and I couldn’t figure out how to get him to be the person I wished he were, which I was starting to think was the first and last chapter of any story of romance.
We were kissing up against the counters in the kitchen over greasy plates and the scraps of salad and green beans in casserole dishes while the friends chortled and swirled their liquor from the other room. I couldn’t believe they were still there—everything seemed off. We’ve done this backwards, I thought, as we finally closed the door on the last of the guests and Marty and I stood in the foyer of his house like the settled old couple we weren’t.
We made our way to the bedroom at last. I remember noticing the rich stain of the banister and stairs as I walked up, placing myself in that house, with the man who owned it, had those stairs. It was a way of testing the fit. I could have lived with those stairs.
But I couldn’t have lived with Marty.
Nor did I know what to say, many months later, sitting in a park after lunch, when Marty told me he had feelings for me still. And I cared for him too, but by then I was deeply in love with another man, with the man in the kilt.
Susannah B. Mintz earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and a PhD in Literature from Rice University in Houston. She is the author of three scholarly books, most recently Hurt and Pain: Literature and the Suffering Body. Her creative work has appeared in such journals as Ninth Letter, Epiphany, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Life Writing; “The Dirty Little Secret of Sabbatical” was cited as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2010. She is Professor of English at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.