n my birthday my freeloading guests are eight laughing gulls that shudder and heckle at my expense. White-flannel hyenas, they rasp around the midday sky.
Friendlier (and prettier) is the ladybug, a tiny dome of red-flecked porcelain that camps on my chest until, tiring of that hot cavity, it pads over the pages of my book as if prospecting for Braille.
I fidget with the hardback — Herodotus as remembered by the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski — and escape from sun to computer. My online urge recalls a disembodied admonishment by the narrator of an ancient American TV program called “The Outer Limits.”
Do not attempt to adjust the picture, warned the narrator. “We” are now controlling the transmission. Mesmerized, I calmed my sticky fingers. I was 12.
But deference grows calluses. (What “we,” I ask now, controls any one transmission?)
The computer beckons because I’ve joined a dating service. I call this an experiment in romantic sociology.
I’ve paid to post a profile and photograph. My profile, according to vigilant software, has been “viewed” 62 times. It’s a paltry number in a community of thousands. I do have five “winks.” A “wink” is an icon forwarded to the “winkee” — one of many headless torsos in the virtual world. Whether you wink back is up to you. My “winks” are from China, Iceland, New Jersey, Texas, and Toronto. I do not respond.
Instead, I trawl profiles. What, I ask myself, am I looking for? Romance? Marriage? A middle-aged volleyball player with a penchant for basset hounds?
My Achilles Heel, I recognize, is my lack of immediacy. I’m distant and — by American age standards — hopelessly shopworn. I’m less interested in mating than in involving myself in the sentimental condition of men and women: what they think, how they express themselves, the ways and means of arranging anxiety into love’s purpose.
But what unfolds startles me: A factory of single mothers, once-broken but not yet twice-shy, a heart’s vast hardware store with yearning to spare.
Honesty coasts. Online protocols encourage moats and shields. You reveal what you wish. Lying (mostly about age) is commonplace. Posted photographs usually give digital proof of the desirable: women smiling, at their self-styled best; men fixed up to suit notions of poise. The goal — urgent at times — is to mean something.
To circumvent the pretty-face auction I decide at first only to read, my hand awkwardly covering the snapshots. Words, I figure, should lead me to a face.
This is when I fall to earth.
Most of what I read is banal and reflects the tips offered by the site, which in fairness satisfies the practical needs of its audience. Be specific, says the site’s advisory voice (“What makes you unique? Do you rock climb?”) Come up with a catchy headline, it adds: “Try a headline like ‘Moonlight and Margaritas’ and ‘Nature-loving Lawyer Seeks Trail Mate.”
These are two headlines, not one. “Or,” not “and,” is the word they want. But date language is shamelessly adolescent, which is to say approximate.
Most profiles are first-person (“I love to laugh…”, “I am a nice gal…”, “I am warm and insightful…” “I am sweet, funny, pretty and fun to be with.”) Many are gentle, freewheeling clichés.
From Vermont: “Am looking for a longterm relationship maybe could lead to marriage if things work out well, one I could spend the rest of my life with without getting hurt.”
From New York: “We are a product of all we experience and those persons special in our lives. I still believe in the fair tale…could you be the one who could sweep me off my feet?”
From Chicago: “It’s a challenge to find a good man(and vice versa), but I am all about the challenge and I don’t mean games.”
From California: “I love my tennis shoes, running shoes, a good pedicure, a good steam, a good deep tissue massage, merlot, sushi, and dogs!!”
Then there’s the brittle — though profile-writing advisors recommend against it. “Players and Pathological Lyers and lost souls please stay away,” says one.
Others manage poignancy unaware: “I miss waking up with someone, you know, before you open your eyes and you move your leg around the bed, fishing for a body other than that of a 10 year old.”
Words, meanwhile, can be mangled into obtuse charm: “I was born in Queens and my grandparents were born in Italy. A providence near Naples.”
Time and again, mini autobiographies bemoan life’s brevity and defer to pets (New Jersey: “I have a new rambunctious little puppy who is three months old, and I adore! He should like you, too!”; Connecticut: “I have 2 French Bulldogs — who are great watchdogs!”). They mix nonsense (“Trust the universe after all the details are secure!!!:):)” with dime-store whimsy (“Rather than reading any romance novels, I prefer to live them!”)
I have a “winker,” my fourth.
She’s a 31-year-old hairdresser from Finland. “I like playing video games and poker,” she writes. “Oh and i love going dancing to any kind of music…”
Under the category “Last read,” intended to mean books but apparently interpreted more loosely, she says: “I just basically want to find someone who is compatible with me to spend the rest of my life with so if you want to get to know me than heres your chance…”
But today at least I’ve decided to share my peculiar “providence” with the gulls. Call it a birthday concession. Who knows: Maybe someone told them to laugh.