Relationships

Mystery Date

In the pioneer days of online dating, all it took was one clever adverb to launch a long-distance love affair

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I still like calling him The Writer. He lived seven states away, in Maine. His profile read: "I'm tall, my mother thinks I'm handsome, and I always finish the Sunday Times crossword in ink."

I wrote, "Really? In ink?"

He answered, "Indelibly."

I'm not exactly proud of this, but in the pioneer days of online dating—before iPhones and FaceTime and Snapchat—one clever adverb was all it took to launch a long-distance love affair and keep it in the air. Ignoring our absurd geography, The Writer and I knocked ourselves out with how much we had in common. I'd become a good cook later in life. Him, too. He recited Yeats from memory. And there were the technical merits I was always on the lookout for. He never butchered an irregular past participle, which I didn't want to admit was a big thing but was a big thing.

Before I knew it, I was scooting out of my office abruptly at 5 PM because, in the days before smart phones, the only way I could get or receive a message from him was to sit at my desktop computer, at home, and log on. I couldn't wait to be with him every evening. So what if he was 630 miles away, and the only things we were touching were our keyboards? Our screen chats went on for hours, our timing impeccable.

We began talking by phone. His New England accent was wildly seductive. His stories, too, from the salmon almandine he somehow shriveled to hell at his latest dinner party to the juicy gossip at his newspaper. I made him laugh. We began to share secrets.

By our two-month "anniversary," we'd exchanged photographs in the mail. Mine were careful to feature my face. His were grainy and distant. Did he seem shorter than he described himself? Who cared? I started getting flowers at work—delphinium and roses, sunflowers and purple orchids.

By month three, it was official. We began and ended each day on the phone with "I love you." My friends looked at me funny, but I thought being in long marriages had clouded their ability to see the magic of the moment. So I reserved my flight, and my love would meet me at the Bangor International Airport.

"I'm going to Maine!" I told my two best friends.

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"What?" they said in unison. "No, no, no. This is not the kind of thing you do." They had a point. I had been in a long, stable marriage. Even the breakup was steady and logical. I changed my smoke detectors twice a year, and I made casseroles for neighbors when their pets died. Everything about me was a foregone conclusion. Except this.

I countered their queasiness with, "Well, when you know, you know," and other sentences just as elliptical. Before I left for the weekend, I told them to be thinking of a bridesmaid color they might want to wear. "Something understated," I added, "because, you know, second marriage and everything."

Finally, I landed in Bangor, and there he was, attempting a casual pose.

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"Wow!" he said, as he pushed flowers into my hand. The voice was right. But it was coming from the wrong mouth. Not the wrong mouth, exactly, just smaller than the tantalizing one I'd imagined all those hours on the phone. We leaned in to hug. My lips met his nose. I'd been more comfortable at every junior high dance I ever attended.

In the car, we spoke over each other's sentences, which had never happened before in our marathon phone chats. I was thankful for the dark because it was easier to say, "I'm sorry, what were you going to say, no you go first" without looking at him.

When we got to his apartment, I noticed a rash moving up his neck, about to reach his left ear. I wondered if I had one, too.

"To us," he toasted, with wine he'd mercifully thought to buy.

"To the great state of Maine!" I said, as if I were on a weekend retreat for women who'd temporarily lost their minds. I drank quickly.

When he left to go to the bathroom, it was my first moment alone. Okay, I thought, We're just nervous. Shake it off. I came up with a great plan for the morning. We'd go to the market and plan a sumptuous dinner to cook together. I pictured us chopping and sautéing in a steamy kitchen, with lots of laughter and deliberate touching and music. Just like that scene from "The Big Chill" without the extra people and the dead friend.

Maybe we could restart with a spirited discussion of his favorite chili recipe, the one he made for his hordes of friends at his famous football parties (though, looking around, I wasn't sure where he actually sat—or stood—them all). Still alone, I began opening The Writer's cupboards. And here's what I found: three plastic plates and five mismatched glasses. Here's what was missing: pots, pans, olive oil, whisks. No chicken stock, no garlic, no convection oven.

I might as well have found bodies under the sink.

In my panic, I considered grabbing my suitcase and heading for the door. Then I heard the toilet flush and the water running. And that's when I saw the pencil—with an eraser—sitting next to the unfinished NY Times puzzle. From Tuesday.

I understood. I did. The Writer wanted to be a great cook, and handsome, and tall. It was too easy for The Writer to type his hopefulness on to a blank page and think, Well, I'll work on making it true later. I know because I was doing the exact same thing back at my house, all those evenings we'd spent "together." And then we hit Send, and it all took on a life of its own.

What I wanted to do was tell The Writer we should just start over, this time with the truth closer to the top. I'd go first. Breakfast this morning was two Milk Duds. I have less energy than I pretend to have; a yellow spot on my front tooth that will never go away; an ache—deep and persistent—from the great love of my life who left a long time ago. Some days I'm flawed and regretful. I can also be optimistic and graceful. I'm still able to pull off a pretty fine boeuf bourguignon for eight. There you have it.

I stayed the weekend with The Writer. We filled Saturday driving to Acadia National Park, probably so we wouldn't have to look at each other so much. He told me he was the youngest person ever to climb Cadillac Mountain. I told him I'd won a speech contest in college. Technically, it was third place, but I don't think he got himself all the way up that mountain as a 7-year-old either.

His final email was waiting for me when I got home. Apparently The Writer had spent lots of time in the bathroom the first night trying to think of ways to let me down easy. He stopped short of using the phrase pig in a poke, for which I've been eternally grateful, but it was what he meant to say. He said he hoped I hadn't traveled home with my hopes still in place and wished me a "good life."

I'm rooting for anyone who still gets on a plane and throws caution to the wind. I'm not big on advice to people in love, but if I were, I'd tell you that very few people can finish the Sunday NYT puzzle in ink. And unless you want to hear about it into the next decade, you might want to skip the part about the bridesmaid colors.

The writer moved south and got married. My boeuf bourguignon is still killer.

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