(An excerpt from Wisdom: A Love Story.)
A middle-aged person needs a strong spine to enter the contemporary dating milieu. The awfulness of it is reflected in articles with titles like “The do’s and don’ts of dating after 50,” “The 3 biggest dating deal-breakers for those over 50,” and “How to make dating after 50 more fun and less stressful.” The headlines tell of the treachery built right in. Most middle-aged daters have loved and lived and lost, whether through divorce, death, job loss, or health woes. They’ve accrued life experiences good and bad. Those with the good don’t want to get taken, and those with the bad want better. Hence advice that has the same tone as articles about avoiding financial scammers or not putting off a colonoscopy. Dating is a dangerous playground if you’re not prepared.
For women, there’s the added caution about choosing an outfit, meeting in a public place, and steering clear of first-date sex. It could almost be advice for adolescents. The irony about dating advice for middle-aged people is that, even though ostensibly you’ve lived long enough to cultivate some wisdom, it’s assumed that, if you don’t thoroughly prepare, you could blithely walk into disappointment or even disaster. A date who is actually ten years older than their stated age. Or ten years younger and thinks you have money: to wit, a scammer. He might be dangerous. She might have grown children living in her basement. Or the person is penniless.
I had read many such articles. I didn’t want to get scammed, lied to, or raped. But I also worried because while I measured my prospective online dates against the do’s-and-don’ts list, I had to assume the guy might be doing the same with me. I wasn’t exactly a great prospect, and not just because of the two divorces and the virtual poverty I found myself in afterwards. I loved my teaching job, but it paid below the median income for Massachusetts. I could barely afford housing close enough to my job to keep it. But my biggest fear wasn’t that a date would find out I wasn’t flush with cash or decide my BMI was too high. My biggest fear was that the guy would do an online search of my name and find dirt on me. Because there was dirt. The shame of it was like grit in a sandstorm. You couldn’t seal it out.
I did not yet know John was a good will ambassador, the embodiment of trusting. He assumed the best about people even when they overlooked his own best qualities. Before me, he had gone on dates with two different women, neither of whom had taken up his invitation for a second. “They had a lot going on,” he explained, young kids and demanding jobs. It didn’t occur to him that they might have been making excuses, my own somewhat jaded reaction. More relevant, his own digging began and ended at my faculty homepage, where he downloaded my photograph. That was it. He was even embarrassed when I discovered my face on his desktop and asked how it got there. “Is it okay?” he sheepishly asked, as if there could be a legitimate “no.”
For my part, I had searched his name as well, but I didn’t know that the name Tomaszewski is like Smith in Polish. There were lots of John Tomaszewskis, and none of them were him. The one photograph I did find was on LinkedIn, just a thumbnail, since I hadn’t subscribed. After we had been together for a while I found the original photograph: it was the proverbial guy-holding-fish picture, except unlike the men presenting sea bass or trout like an offering, John stood in rubberalls next to a hanging five-foot flounder. He didn’t toss a line out over a canoe when he fished. He went to Alaska with a fishing crew and a schooner and hauled in a giant. Those squidgy men-with-fish-pix on the dating website made my toes curl: the pictures were intended as testaments to masculinity, man-the-hunter brings dinner home. But John’s photograph made me tingle. He stood beaming, hands shoved in his pockets, like a kid who had won a spelling bee. He hadn’t posted the photograph because he didn’t know it was manly. He was entirely unaware of what made him attractive. That’s why he didn’t advertise.
Therein lay the limited usefulness of dating articles. They were good for the kind of dater who needed the assurance of a plan to avert pitfalls, vetted by a social worker or therapist-author, usually a woman. But a person who is trusting and withholds a picture of not just any fish but a prize fish isn’t likely to be keen on making good impressions. The advice articles didn’t apply to John.
If I had heeded dating advice, I would have dumped him after the first date. Cancer. Separated rather than divorced. Unconcerned about attire. I didn’t know about his own state of impoverishment, but soon enough, I would. All of it added up to exactly the kind of man a woman my age should avoid.
In a fish metaphor, decidedly not a good catch.