Online Dating: The Joke's on Me

by Tessa Lavel

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I'm sitting in a restaurant and I suddenly have a strong sensation of a calculated trick being played on me.

I would be less surprised if the lights suddenly came ablaze, and cameras started snapping. I would be less surprised even as I blinked amazed in the light: “Well, yes, I did actually believe him. No, I was honestly fooled. You got me.”

I would be less surprised than I am sitting across from this version of the man I thought I was meeting. I listen to him carefully, and I am waiting to break into a smile, to feel the relief of his punch line.

I know the trend toward “reality” TV has been going strong, but I haven’t been participating. I still think a Survivor is someone who plugs away despite adversity. When I am not drifting toward the falls of despair, it is what I hope I am, paddling wildly against the current: no job, no house, dwindling community, difficult ex with NPD. Survival is the thing I’m working on.

I couldn’t identify a bachelor or bachelorette if we were in the same line at the grocery store. If asked about the Amazing Race, I’d probably refer back to the classic novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. And yet, I will admit that I have worked in start-ups enough to respect a Shark Tank, and I believe that my best refrigerator soups could compete on Chopped, and I will be forever sorry that Ahmed Hassan, who has the best smile on television, was replaced on Yard Crashers.

My son and I did go through an HGTV phase after the divorce. It may now be common knowledge (Isn’t that how it works in this communication rich era?) that my husband left four days after we sold our house. The house had huge panoramic windows that displayed the outside like a movie set. After he left, my son and I didn’t have a home, so HGTV made sense to us, and our HGTV phase included not winning a house in Serebe, Georgia or Park City, Utah - though Kiawah Island(where?) is still possible next year.

Furthermore, when the show "Halloween Stars" finally gets made, my son and I will be ready. Here are some of our best costumes:


  • 2010: Sandwich board castles with water moats and moving drawbridges for a king (my son) and a knight (his cousin).


  • 2009: Apollo 7 out of duct tape and foam.


But I don’t track the ebb and flow of reality shows. I read more than I watch TV, and when I do turn on a show, my tastes lean toward story lines, acted out.

And beyond the competitions to make the best clothes, lose the most weight, be the best model, figure out the best business decisions, and so on and so on, a retro trend going all the way back to the 1948 roots of reality TV, ala Candid Camera, seems to have appeared. It is based on the prank.

Of course these days nothing is as sweet as the original Candid Cameraand the show’s simple jokes. Modern equivalents seem to come with hundreds of thousands of dollars in props.

Perhaps it has nothing to do with reality TV and it is divorce itself that feels like a prank. As defined by Miriam Webster:

: trick:
a obsolete : a malicious act
b : a mildly mischievous act
c : a ludicrous act“

Of all the men I have communicated with online, the man in the restaurant is the one I expect to be most lively, entertaining, amusing. I read his prose to friends and family, and they are all eager for me to meet him. He is from Hawaii, a doctor, a marathoner, and his prose is a perfect blend of poetry and humor. I wish I could write as well.

We arrange to meet for dinner. I am expecting to spend the evening laughing, to drink wine, and be silly. He has picked a nice Italian restaurant with good food. I arrive a few minutes late.

He is sitting, stiffly outside. He comes over to greet me. He is attractive, and I feel a moment of hope.

“I guess I didn’t give you my number, so you couldn’t call to tell me if you were going to be late.”

I start to laugh then realize that he is serious.

I have bragged to my best friend that I can tell from a man’s prose what he is like, that it is my way of being careful, but honestly, too many people are not how they seem. I am consistently mistaken, and not every one of them can have a ghostwriter.

If my choice of husband proved nothing else, this should be clear: I’m not always a good judge of character. I wonder if it has always been true - and wonder how I will ever be able to trust myself again.

I can still see my husband tracking me around the kitchen with the beautiful views. I am hoping to avoid his anger, but I can feel it building as I take a sharp right around the marble island. I tell him, again, that it isn’t a good moment for this conversation, and I gesture toward our four-year-old son who is sitting in the living room in front of a perfect landscape background. But once he has started, my ex husband doesn’t let up - not even when our son is standing in front of us, screaming. “End of conversation!”

I am working on boundaries. I should be able to politely excuse myself from the ordeal that dinner has become as easily as I should have been able to leave the kitchen, to refuse my husband’s bullying, to better-protect my son.

It has been over two years, and I should have made progress. I should be able to express my need to escape, to stop the evening, but I can’t. No part of me seems to have whatever it would take to acknowledge that I want to leave. So instead of revealing my desire, I attempt to respond lightly, to find a glimmer of the man whose emails made me laugh, to try to appear engaged, and not show when he has insulted me.

As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that this man is struggling with something larger than I can imagine. He is blunt, humorless, and his conversation ranges from mechanical to inappropriate. An hour passes, and we still haven’t ordered (What is wrong with me?). He tells me that he has been drunk five times in his life and that he can tell me the story of each time, and he does. He tells me that it should be okay to talk to me about this because he only got sick. He tells me this means he has a good liver. He tells me that his daughter was adopted but that he could have picked any of the six babies, and it wouldn’t have made a difference. He tells me about the differences between attraction and compatibility, and breaks it down as if it were a complicated math problem - though it sounds like basic arithmetic. He tells me about the two relationships he has had since his divorce and that neither made sense. He tells me that he has no way of knowing if other men might be attracted to me, but that he is. He tells me thing after thing after thing, a conveyor belt of flatly stated words. Turn it all off.

Finally, we order, but he doesn’t eat. He tells me more. Finally, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, and when I return, he is done.

I am done too, done with online dating. No one is as they seem.

In the course of our three and a half hours, I feel myself sinking. The joke must be on me (You’re on Candid Camera!). But the lights never change, though the room seems to dim as the evening creeps along at a never-ending pace.

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