When I moved to Toronto, divorced and delighted, I initially stayed with my brother’s family. It was wonderful. I got to spend some quality time with my nephews. But it wasn’t enough. After a few weeks, I realized I needed to get out. I needed to meet grownups, people who would agree that six hours of Guitar Hero is excessive. And preferably people with long legs, flaming red hair and tattoos on the smalls of their backs.
I’d heard about Lavalife and Matchmaker and this Internet dating phenomenon, but I’d never been on any of the websites. I met my future ex-wife back when Internet dating was still a novelty. I’d been told that Internet dating was no longer an embarrassment. Sure there were disaster stories, but there were success stories too. And one of my closest friends married the woman he met on JDate, an Internet dating site that caters to Jews. It seemed like a lot of harmless fun to me.
Now, I’m not a particularly good Jew. I’d dated only one Jewish woman in my life. So I figured that if I’m going to try Internet dating, I owed it to my mother to do it through JDate. So I set up an account, uploaded a couple of pictures of myself, and what happens? You know that old episode of The Twilight Zone where an entire town wakes up to discover they’ve lost a week of their lives because some aliens had kidnapped them and placed them in suspended animation?
That’s what JDate did to me.
You may as well have removed that week from my life, because I can barely remember it. All I know is that during this period, I did not work, I did not go to the gym and I did not leave the house. I did not even go on any actual dates. I just sat in front of my computer reading Jewish women’s profiles, responding to emails and eating too much cereal.
Have you ever played a video game for the first time against a friend who’s been playing it for weeks? You know that moment where the game has just begun – and you’re trying to figure out which button does what – and suddenly your friend comes running up behind you and blows you up with a rocket launcher? You’re pleading for a grace period to learn how the controls work but every time you’re reborn, he immediately shoots you. That’s what JDate is like for the uninitiated. Within seconds of activating my profile, I was attacked. Instant messages were popping up like Bouncing Bettys. By the end of the first minute, I’d received three “flirts” and been “hot-listed” twice. I was overwhelmed with the attention.
I received over 50 emails in that first week. I didn’t actually have time to meet any of the authors, because I was too busy writing back. I had not yet learned the appropriate etiquette so I was responding to all inquiries – and I do mean all. I exchanged flirty email banter with everyone from a 54-year-old divorcée with two 17-year-old twins to a 290-pound student who was trying to decide her major. I just didn’t know how to say no.
By week two, I had learned that I didn’t need to know how to say “no” – not when I could simply ignore the email. This freed up some time for me to actually go on dates.
One thing I can safely say I have learned from those first few dates is that everybody has at least one good photo. Another thing I learned is that this is usually the photo that is shown on JDate. Some of these photos can be a bit dated. I learned this the hard way, when I sipped coffee one afternoon with a 65-year-old retiree. I really should have said no, but she looked so cute in the photo. I hadn’t noticed the horse and buggy in the background.
My initial dating experiences were also tarnished because it took me some time to learn that there was a completely different language used among online daters. For instance, in the world of JDate there is no word for “fat.” In each member’s profile, there is a scroll-down menu with several possible descriptions for body-type, none of which actually reads “fat.” Once you understand this reality, and have taken the time to learn the appropriate JDate diction, then you will do just fine. My tastes gravitated towards women who had selected lean/slender, athletic/fit or firm & toned. Even then, I had some surprises. Athletic/fit for the typical Jewish girl means she wears Lululemon when she’s shopping.
There were also distinct rules of engagement, specific to Internet dating. One lesson I learned quickly is that you had better want to be a father. When filling in the profile, I was asked if I planned to have children? I mistakenly chose “maybe.” I learned afterward that this was the wrong answer. One aspiring mom told me she could not go out with me unless I was more certain. I vehemently defended my “maybe,” because how could I “plan” to have children if I had not yet met the right woman. I even offered to leave my condoms at home on our first date, to prove my sincerity about impregnating her.
I finally started to get the hang of it. And while my dating life improved, I never came close to meeting that next love of my life. These so-called dates felt like job interviews. And while I got pretty good at expressing the top three reasons I’d make a good father or turning my weaknesses into strengths, there was never any real connection. It just wasn’t fun.
Certainly not as much as fun as simply exploring the website. The truth is, emailing all those potential mates was far more exciting than actually meeting them. The possibilities were exhilarating, the reality less so. What these sites were really offering was the dream. And sometimes the only way to keep the dream alive is to keep your eyes closed.
One night while I was sleeping, I had a dream of a different sort. In my nightmare, I saw dozens of angry female faces floating over my still and silent body. Which brings me to instant messaging, the bane of any new user’s existence. Picture this: you’re minding your own business, trying to think of something clever to say in your next email, when suddenly out of nowhere, a little box floats across the computer screen. Inside the box is a picture of a woman, say FLOWER4U123, with an attached flashing caption:
“FLOWER4U123 would like to instant message you. Do you accept?”
You’ve got two choices: “yes”or “no.” If you choose nothing the box eventually will go away, but it takes a very long time. I always felt my pulse racing when that box appeared. I never had the heart to click “no” because then the sender would receive an automatic message, saying that I refused her instant message. So I did nothing. The worst part about it was that the picture in the box was usually a cropped close-up of the smiling woman’s face. So it looked like some disembodied, cackling head floating on my screen.
Sometimes, I’d open up another window to get away but the head actually followed me to the next page. On one particularly stormy night, I had three heads floating across my screen. It was like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I ran from the room.
About a month after I started using JDate, I had a rude awakening. I’d received emails from over 50 women in that first week alone, but after that initial flood of interest for the new boy in town, the excitement wore off. No new emails came my way. I’d log onto the site looking for new faces, trying to stir up some interest, but it was no use. I now recognized many members, and they recognized me. We’d been down this road before. For a while, I kept emailing my initial “relationships” to keep the dream alive. But it wasn’t the same. I’d lost them: my angels, my flock, my girls.
In the beginning, I felt invincible, omnipotent, like I was the king of the world. The dates may have been uneventful, but the potential was always there. But now even that feeling was gone. JDate left me broken, a shadow of my former self. Perhaps it was truly time for me to move on.
Still, I was grateful for the experience. Internet dating may have been a tease, but in giving me that taste of celebrity, it gave me a glimpse of the past, memories of greatness, memories I did not even know I had forgotten: birthday parties as a child, catching that fly ball in the bottom of the ninth and being kissed by a first love. And while I recognized that those golden years were gone forever, I was still left with some hope. There was life after JDate after all. For starters, there was Lavalife, Matchmaker and, of course, Plentyoffish.
Bruce Freedman is a Toronto-based consultant and writer. The above is a work of fictional non-fiction. In other words, the content is true except where it’s not. Hopefully, you can tell the difference. The story is included in his recently published humour collection, You Don’t Look Young For Your Age, available on Amazon.