After going out on dates with not less than seven different, now nameless and faceless, men between June and July with little success toward finding The One (and, no, I am not even presuming to talk about finding a new husband but, rather, merely the prospect of meeting someone with relationship potential), I decided to give my online profiles a much needed summer vacation. When September finally rolled around, I once again dusted off my computer, uploaded a few new pictures to Match.com, briefly reworked my profile, and sat back and waited for the magic to happen. Feeling strong and refreshed, my newfound confidence intact, I took my profile out of hiding and went "live," and immediately began to peruse my inbox for contact from that one seemingly special guy. Within hours, a flurry of new emails began arriving one after the other. A wave of hope washed over me. He's out there. I feel it this time.
Then, with each opened email, with each meaningless Wink, with each cheesy comment about one of my photos, and with each notification that someone had made me their "Favorite" (but had inexplicably NOT chosen to email me), over the coming days disappointment slowly crept back in. I am destined to be alone forever, I mused. And then the email arrived. Ever so innocently, it followed yet one more seemingly gratuitous photo commentary, this time proclaiming over the vast stretch of the cold Internet universe, "You are very beautiful," at which I mechanically and habitually rolled my eyes before even getting out of bed that hot summer morning. The email immediately following, however, was from the same gentleman suitor, and had somehow seemed to now command a second glance. Still lying in bed, iPhone clutched in my hand like a crack addict who had just scored a hit, I read the email with cautious excitement and disbelief. Only a few sentences to briefly introduce himself; nothing memorable, nothing illicit. A photo of a handsome "currently separated" forty-one year old business traveler who hailed from a southern state stared at me, beckoning me to investigate further the profile of this intriguing new stranger. A subsequent email from him would reveal that he was actually divorced for six years, but had just ended a long-term relationship. He traveled to New York City for business every four to six weeks, and would be visiting in the coming few days. His profile, well written by a self-proclaimed Ivy League educated man, spoke of looking for friendship first and, "longer term, [a] best friend and partner." The profile had just the right hint of romance, describing an idyllic scenario of a couple (he and his future beloved) entering a room, eyes fixated on one another such that those watching would know the couple was "together and in love." A proverbial Venus flytrap it was, and the hopeless romantic in me was immediately caught. Perhaps too many Lifetime movies in my past, I suppose.
We exchanged just a few emails over the next couple of days, until he offered me his cell phone number to text or call. "Easier," he explained. "I've got a live one here," I congratulated myself. Too often, as the seasoned online dater knows all too well, many online interactions never even result in so much as a phone call, let alone a real live date. Unlike the "old" me who used to, before my summer dating hiatus, obsess about finding a lifelong partner, a soul mate, my weekend became filled with the busy day-to-day trappings in which contented people become happily immersed. I had actually forgotten to reach out to him. And was I proud of that feat! On a train ride into the city with my children one Sunday morning back in September, five days after his first online email, I sent a quick text to this new stranger suggesting we speak. A few hours later he responded, and we arranged a mutually agreeable time. When the phone rang just after nine o'clock that night, we were officially offline. A true online dating milestone.
A pleasant, but by no means, amazing conversation (I've actually had those before, too), ensued. He seemed a tad bit quiet for my taste, and did not seem to speak with the same edge typical of the local New York City area men with whom I had become accustomed to dealing. But that was probably a good thing, I reasoned. And yet, surprising to me, he claimed to be a public company CEO, and even volunteered the company's name of his own volition, presumably so that I could quickly and easily verify who he was and, at the same time, sate any desire I might still have to research him further. Hmmm. Does an eligible CEO need to go on Match.com in order to meet women? It would not seem so, but who was I to say? In the past year and a half since I began utilizing online dating websites to jumpstart my love life, I had conversed with, and often dated, the same Alpha males over and over again. Doctors, lawyers, traders, managing directors and, now, a real live Indian chief.
We briefly traded tales of how we both wound up online. I, a recent divorcée with three children myself, the victim of a cheating spouse who now lived overseas and visited his children for a few days every one to two months. He, divorced since 2007, the father of three children as well, had recently (two months prior) broken up with his long time girlfriend who lived in the Southwest and, similarly to my ex-husband, saw his children from his first marriage who resided out west with their mother, about as infrequently. The similarities were altogether uncanny. Ever so cautious not to become a rebound girl, I specifically inquired as to why he classified himself in his profile as "currently separated" rather than "divorced" if he was, indeed, truly divorced, and was assured by him that his long term relationship was definitely over. He was even selling a house back in the Southwest, he added, further evidencing to me his extrication from the relationship. Scheduled to arrive in the area the next morning, we set up a dinner date for the middle of the week in New York City.
Drinks first, followed by a delightful meal in an upscale restaurant, and a spontaneous first kiss on a New York City street, the chemistry was palpable by both of us. Seeming almost too good to be true, I asked, disbelievingly, "Are you sure you're not married?" The answer, a resounding, "No." Returning to his swanky hotel lobby for an after dinner drink, he flashed a boyish smile and asked if I wanted to see him again. "Yes, but you live so far away," I bemoaned. Not to worry, he reassured me, gently kissing my neck, his hand woven powerfully through my long thick hair; he was only a short plane ride away. We would see each other again. Arranging for a car service to drive me home so that I would not have to take the train back to New Jersey so late, I felt like Cinderella leaving the ball. I credited my good fortune to a new and positive change in my outlook that I worked very hard to adopt over the summer. The Universe was surely rewarding me.
Unexpectedly, less than a week passed until our second date was arranged, the iron still hot. Visiting a Pennsylvania company for a meeting, he texted me and offered to extend his trip and drive to northern New Jersey to meet for dinner if I wanted to see him again. "That would be nice," I casually agreed over text, and our next date was set.
In my experience, second dates are a slow comedown from the magic of the first date that ultimately engendered the second. Similar to gently peeling away an onion skin to reveal each fragile layer beneath, second dates are a time to sit back and gradually get to know better our new romantic interest. First over drinks we exchanged pleasantries, and spoke of the day's happenings. Still wary, I inquired again with my most playful smile so as not to appear too paranoid, "Are you sure you're not married?" to which he adamantly reassured, "I am definitely not married." Over dinner, more intimate stories were exchanged, and new similarities between the two of us revealed. Our fathers had both died young. He, too, had been hurt when his long time girlfriend was unfaithful. Both of us had difficult childhoods. A bond, albeit a new one, had been forged. Leaving his hotel room later that night, I had no regrets.
We continued to exchange flirtatious texts over the next three weeks. An intervening work crisis for him allowed me to explain away his apparent disinterest in speaking on the phone more often, and our conversations remained limited almost exclusively to text. But I was always good at accepting my crumbs, confusing such self-deprecating behavior for being appealingly "light and breezy" and altogether low maintenance. I only complained once, half-jokingly, when he did actually call.
Our third date took place three and a half weeks after our second. We arranged to meet in a city halfway between our hometowns and spend a night together in a nice hotel. Excitedly, I embarked on a four-hour drive in torrential rain to see him. And just twelve hours after I arrived, I began making my way back home to New Jersey, and he back to his office a few hours in the opposite direction. The night had seemingly gone well, and the chemistry still felt very much alive. However, even after our night together, this man still remained elusive to me. Apart from being intimate, we had slept in a bed together, which for me was perhaps even more intimate than anything else. But the physical distance between us seemed to necessitate accelerating doing so. "Does this feel weird to you?" I sheepishly whispered before drifting off to sleep. "No, it feels nice," he gently replied. On my long drive back to northern New Jersey, I replayed the night over and over again in my mind, hoping that meeting would not be our last.
We communicated by text that afternoon, each affirming that the night had been an enjoyable one. The texts continued every few days from him, welcome proclamations of missing me and thinking of me, almost all softened with a smiling emoticon or three. But as the days wore on, the phone call I wished for never came and the texts began arriving with less intensity. I tend to be shy and, as a result, I am not typically the initiator of contact. However, when I did, he was usually quick to respond. "He's keeping you on the back burner for when he needs you," my mother scoffed, always the skeptic (and usually correct, I might add). The days quickly turned into weeks, and by week three since our short getaway, I still had not heard from him except by text. When five days had elapsed since his last "miss u," text, I began fearing the worst−it was a case of the slow fade away.
It was on that gloomy Halloween afternoon as I sat in front of my kitchen computer that I made a decision. I had been warned by single friends of mine, as well by the copious relationship articles I had read, that it is wise to do "some" research (somewhere short of an FBI probe) on the strangers we meet online. Yes, I had heard tales of con artists, murderers (remember the Aurora movie theater shooter had a Match.com profile?), cross-dressers, addicts, and your run-of-the-mill freaks all looking for love and companionship online. But although I recognize the value in being careful, I do still believe there is a fine line between caution and intrusion that should not be crossed. A true romantic, I prefer to learn about my future love over time, rather than knowing all of the answers to questions I have yet to ask.
I had, in fact, done a limited amount of due diligence before and after our first date. Without even spending so much as a dime, I was able to search his full name along with the different cities in which he had told me he had lived using a people search website, and view a listing of his relatives within seconds. From his parents to his ex-wife, from his siblings to a woman whom I presumed to be the once upon a time live in girlfriend who bore a different last name, everything he had told me seemed to check out. Yet something about his story never sat quite right with me, from his "currently separated" online dating status when he claimed in actuality to be divorced, his age (he was really forty-seven, not forty-one, although not as egregious a lie given today's less than forthright online dating habits), the disappearance of his profile from Match.com even before our first date, and donning sunglasses in his original profile picture. In isolation none of these instances would necessarily be cause for alarm, and he always had an explanation on the tip of his tongue as I asked all of the "right" questions. However, as time went on, it was ultimately his sporadic texting pattern that left me feeling unnerved. Scarcity on the weekends, early Monday morning texts, and the vagueness with which he described his "busy" days, or his weekends "just trying to relax."
On that day, I plugged in the name I presumed belonged to his long time girlfriend into the free people search website, and like magic her middle and maiden names manifested themselves almost instantaneously. As I entered different combinations of her names into my Facebook's search box I held my breath, hoping that my suspicions would ultimately be quelled. But by my third try, I knew with certainty that my fears had been realized and my suspicions justified−he and his long-time girlfriend were either still together, or had recently reconciled. Looking out at me from my unforgiving computer screen was the face of a very attractive woman smiling cheek to cheek with the same man I had dated, spent a night, and exchanged flirtatious texts with every few days for nearly two months. As I scrolled through her timeline, I noticed that she had just a few days earlier spent a romantic weekend visiting him in the East Coast city where he lived for work. I asked myself as I clicked on her Facebook's "About" link, "Who is this woman?" The answer? His second wife.
On that gray Halloween day, when I should have been looking forward to enjoying an afternoon of trick or treating with my young son, feelings of hurt, betrayal, anger and disappointment whirled around inside me like a furious hurricane still unsure of its path. I texted him soon after. "I wanted to thank you, babe…" I taunted. "For what?" was supposed to be his reply, giving me my desired opening to tell him what a lying cheater he was. To tell him how he used me. To tell him how I did not deserve to be treated so badly. That I had already been through so much and was finally beginning to heal. Instead I received, "Hey. Happy Halloween." I goaded him again, that familiar heartache welling up inside me. "Haven't heard from the busy boy lately. Relaxing weekend?" I spat his own words back at him like an overtired child. "Was busy. Been wound up. But am ok," he answered. "Yes, busy weekend with your WIFE," I wanted to scream. Instead, I tried provoking him even further. "I know you have a lot of things to keep straight. Must be exhausting. So how does one unwind Mr. [CEO}?" But to that there was no reply. For hours. "Just call him," a friend advised. And so I did.
I caught him on his cell phone during his drive home from work. "Hey, it's Sophie," I said as lightly as possible. He actually did not sound unhappy to hear from me. We exchanged a few platitudes and then I began addressing the real impetus for my call. I asked first if he thought of me as a nice person. "Of course," he emphatically agreed, even sounding surprised at the question. I proceeded to explain how devastated I felt when my then already shaky marriage dissolved, and how the catalyst for its demise was interference by another woman. He listened intently. "Now I am going to ask you a question," I stated. "But please understand that I already know the answer." I paused, taking in a breath, hoping to myself that there could possibly be some other explanation for the information I had garnered only hours earlier. "Are you, or are you not, married?" The words were weighted with my own self-condemnation as they left my mouth. "Have you been checking up on me?" he hastily retorted. "And so what if I had?" I thought sarcastically. "Aren't I entitled to protect myself?" He paused, considering his words. "Yes, I'm actually married." Finally, the truth. I sighed, feeling some strange sense of vindication. "You lied right to my face," I stated matter-of-factly, my voice still holding strong and steady. "I don't remember that," he said. "Um, yeah, I asked you how many times if you were married? Now you've put me in the position of doing to someone else what was done to me. I will NOT be made a hypocrite."
Nearly two years ago I made the shocking and devastating discovery that my own husband had been unfaithful to me. Undeniably, my own marriage had been fraught with problems. Living on two separate continents, all it took was for another woman showering my then husband with attention to stray. On the surface, we appeared happy. A family photo reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting taken while on vacation only weeks before my husband left me serves as hardcore proof that a picture is worth a thousand words. Engaging in an extramarital relationship with a woman who resided in the city where he worked while living apart from myself and our children−yet another unfortunate consequence of the financial crisis−our sixteen-year marriage ultimately culminated in divorce. Like the handsome stranger I met online, my then husband, too, had told others, including his paramour, that we were separated. At the time, however, I was aware of no such arrangement.
"You should know that my wife and I are actually separated," my online friend professed. He explained how she had cheated on him during their marriage and even before. She was needy, he complained, and sought attention wherever she could get it. She did not hold an advanced degree, as I did, he compared. His own kids hated her, he added, drawing yet another parallel to my own situation; my children remain to this day less than fond of their father's significant other. The list of her flaws and infractions rolled on. In trying to further ease my suspicions he told me that he is, in fact, available, and went out on dates before me and also after we began seeing each other. We, too, he suggested, should go out again in a week from the coming Saturday when he would be in New York. Dinner, maybe a Broadway show as well. I accepted.
I am not a religious woman. But if temptation could be personified, he would have been it. It would have been all too easy to fill my loneliness and yearning for attention by latching on to a man who belonged to another woman. To be selfish and look the other way. To accept the little he could offer me. But having seen his wife's face, her recent pictures of laughing children (hers from a previous marriage), weekend visits and a visibly happy couple, I knew in my heart what I had to do, although my own selfishness had, if only for an instant, guided me to consider otherwise.
My final communication resounded with every difficult lesson of love and life for which I had become a most devoted scholar. And as I carefully typed each word, I was freed, freed not from him but from what had been holding me back from fully living my life−my damaged self-esteem. I am better than this.
"Sorry for not returning your texts sooner,” I began. “Please know I write this with disappointment, but I have decided that it is probably best if we do not communicate any further. Although I liked and was interested in getting to know better the person you initially represented yourself to be, now that I know you are married I need to gracefully step away. My ex-husband's infidelity was extremely hurtful to myself and to my children, and I am just not willing to place myself in a position to similarly cause someone else such pain. Likewise, I am looking for someone who is available now−someone who may one day be devoted to me and to me alone. I deserve that, too. With all of that said, I truly do wish you every happiness in the world."
"I understand," he wrote back. "Sorry. Wish you the best." And with just seven words he was gone.
Mr. CEO, you had no right. You lied to me. You deceived me. I did not go looking for you. You found me. But I want to tell you that I forgive you. It was you who forced me to look inward and finally recognize that I have value. Because of you I will hold out for more.
For that gift I will be forever grateful.