Monday, October 24, 2005

I'm recycling myself. Yet another Hefty Bag Relationship (TM)

It began on the Internet as love affairs always begin. Innocently. With hope.

"If I could be anywhere...," I wrote in my online profile. "I'd be swimming hand in hand with my lover in clear blue water while the technicolor fish dance around us."

"If I could be anywhere, we would be feeling the dark, the sensuous flow of warm water, the vibrant colors of nightlife while diving amongst the reefs deep at night in Bonaire," he wrote. "... sun sparkling with the lapping waves, my mind devoid of all thought, emoting tranquility…"

A few emails, a telephone call, a dinner I'll remember forever. We snuggled in front of the fireplace until the waitstaff kicked us out, and then stumbled to Sausalito and danced under the stars. Within weeks we were on an exotic trip overseas, he was introducing me to family, it felt like love.

We were there for each other, in a sweet way, like family. It was a year of helping him buy towels at Target on a Saturday night, coaxing him to try on a hipper pair of jeans, patiently waiting as he rebuilt himself after a divorce. It was a year where he coached me through my job challenges, helped me navigate the mysteries of buying a new computer, encouraged me, in a way no man had before, to express myself in words, to be my most authentic self. Almost every night, we called each other and spoke before we went to sleep, sometimes until dawn. It was a relationship of extreme disclosure, at times too much.

And just when Devon was hitting his stride, when everything finally seemed to fall in place in his life, the space for me was smaller. He needed that space to grow, to become his own authentic self, a journey he feared would be limited by one woman and perhaps more exhilirating with several.

I had to say goodbye.

So we clicked on the next profile.

Yet another Hefty Bag Relationship (TM). Here I am, neatly tied up and tossed into the personal ad recycling bin, with my Internet profile spiffed up with a new headline and ready for the next potential suitor (who has just resurfaced after ditching or being ditched by his last.)

And so it goes. We recycle ourselves back into the online personals. And once in a great while someone gets married and goes off the market (semi)permanently. But all too often, we just swap one profile for another, trying new people on like clothes, wearing them to a party without clipping out the price tags and then returning them with the complaint: "This one just didn't fit right."

Every time we had a fight, a fear, a doubt, Devon or I would retreat to the comfort zone of The Profile, and it would come out of hiding. Then, after one particularly mediocre date, or when the indecision waned, we'd shut the profiles away again, and crawl back to each other with open arms. It was an on again, off again thing, in a way that the Internet encouraged. Before Internet dating became so widespread, my relationships had always either been "on" or "off" -- not constantly hovering back and forth between the two.

Was it this way even ten years ago, before it was so easy to find someone you might love? Now it's easier to retreat from every roadblock and argument, squabble and fear. And how many of us were doing it -- the married couples who surreptitiously correspond with strangers from afar, the straight men who dally with gay men from the safety of a screen? How many relationships had ended prematurely, senselessly, simply because there were now so many options that the pain of working things out, accomodating change, facing our demons, was no longer necessary?

It's the relationship equivalent of being downsized. We used to have permanent jobs, permanent loves. Now we are reduced to this constant cycle of being independent contractors working in the temporary agency of relationships, with our resume always out there on the web -- just in case we get laid off.

Out of curiousity I went to the place we met nearly one year ago. Revisiting the personal ad is now the modern day equivalent of walking beneath the tree where we might have kissed the first time and reading the initials a lover carved into the bark. I wanted to see what his ad looked like, now that I had officially broken up with him.

My heart sank into my bowels and I let out a cry.

"Oh no....not that one."

It was photograph of Devon I took just four weeks earlier, while we shared a precious, and to me, intimate moment on the beach. Our vacation. The last time I ever saw him.

Finally we were there, in that place we would be if we could be anywhere. We spent our day swimming hand in hand, a moment of entrusting everything to him in the waves, immersed in psychedellic beauty. He draped a pearl necklace around me while I was almost sleeping, and kissed the nape of my neck. We ate fish tacos at a little stand on the roadside. He had a shaved ice that turned his tongue blue. I coaxed him out on a perfect crescent of clean white sand at Makena beach, coaxed him out of his clothes. I beckoned to him, playfully, come into the water with me.

"Come's beautiful. It's so warm!"

But he remained on shore as I ran, squealing with laughter, splashing the water toward him, as I ran into the body temperature waves and danced with the tide.

Click. Click. Click. Devon, ever behind the screen, beamed his digital camera at me from shore and captured me in the waves.

Our relationship had been slowly dying since he moved away, I knew, but at that moment I took his picture I thought, perhaps, that we weren't breathing the fumes of a love affair's last gasp. It seemed too perfect, that moment, not to continue forever.

I imagined him in a future we might share, visiting all of those places we'd be if we could be anywhere, his agile mind, his love of history, his deep knowledge of the written word, the perfect tour guide to explore a new life. I imagined him, finally in his element, and wondered if I had to let him swim there alone, or if it was possible to reach that place together.

This almost perfect moment was ours alone, one of those pearls in life that I would always cherish. I wouldn't dream of sharing it with millions of strangers on the Internet, or using it to market it myself to someone new, just as I'd never wear that pearl necklace on a date. It had sentimental value. But then, that's me. Pictures hold magic for me. Objects have power. I don't open up immediately, or share my magic with others casually, recklessly.

But now here he was taking that perfect moment frozen in time, a moment that would be one of my most precious memories in life, and posting it on the Internet so he could attract another girl. To me, it was the ultimate slap in the face, the worst thing a man could possibly do to say: "It didn't mean anything to me."

Devon, can you just twist the tines of that fork in my heart and turn it one more time so it really hurts?

It doesn't hurt enough to spend thousands of hours together talking through a man's transitions, and then have him say "I don't want what you want," -- that he needs to go away in order to find himself, and that you're getting in the way.

But to have one of our last moments together captured digitally and used this way, as an advertisement on, it's just plain...tacky.

I picked up the phone and called him and vented to his voice mail. (The late 20th century new millenium way to communicate with your long distance lover.)

"You asshole!"

"What were you thinking? Did it for one moment occur to you that you might hurt my feelings by posting photographs from OUR VACATION in your personal ad? What would other women think of you if they knew the context in which that photograph was taken? Would they respect you? Of course not. Have you considered the karma of your actions?"

Ok. To his credit, at least he didn't take a photograph of us, together, and white out my face, or blur me out, or chop off my body leaving my hand dangling and a few stray hairs on his shoulder. We've all seen this so many times before on Internet personal ads and it's become a cliche.

"Please take those photos out. Now. Please."

Devon eventually called me back, and defended himself, logically.

"No. That was my vacation too. I have a right to those photographs as much as you do."

"It was a private moment!"

"We were on a beach for crying out loud. There were a hundred people there too."

"The body wasn't even cold yet."

Logically, I have to admit, it made sense. But the heart is not about logic, it's about empathy. It's about listening to the hurt in someone's voice and remembering that you once loved them. It's about caring about how they feel, even if they are no longer part of your day-to-day life.

Weeks later, the photographs are still there, photographs of Devon smiling at me on the beach in Maui, advertising him to hopeful Seattle babes who want to meet an ambitious globe-trotting man who so adroitly caresses the written word and wants to swim with her at night in the dark tropical waters of Bonaire. The words are the same ones that seduced me a year ago, the pictures, thanks to me, are a little better now.

Was any woman stupid enough, really, to believe that this image of a man, seemingly naked, similing coyly, laughing in the sun, was taken by anyone but his ex? It's sure not a photo his buddy would have taken.

What would the woman clickhng on that photograph think if she knew the truth? Or did anyone care anymore? I mean, maybe she herself is using photos taken by her ex on their honeymoon, or maybe she's really married and just looking for a fling, or maybe she's just so desperately eager to get her hands on a solvent, single, child-free mid-40s man that the photo doesn't matter at all.

I asked my friend Steven what he thought about it, a guy's point of view. Was I out of line for getting so upset?

"You have every right to feel the way you do," Steven said. "He did this to you before, remember the time you had a fight and he put your photos from your first trip together in his ad when you had just started going out? There was that one of your scarf on a chair, staring right up at you on the Internet. Only you weren't in the chair? He knew it bothered you and now he did it again. I'm so glad you finally broke up. Why are you still stuck on him?"

But sadly, Devon and I are not the only victims of the Hefty Bag Phenemenon out there, not by far. Jake, a guy I had been talking to, again, now that our profiles were both back up out of hiding, had just been recycled. And he wasn't even dating on the Internet.

"I met her at work, at the company picnic. We were just dating casually, sort of a friends with benefits thing. At first, neither one of us thought it had potential. But after time, I developed strong feelings for her.

"And then, one day, she just called me and said: 'I met someone on the Internet, we've been on one date, and I just know he's the love of my life.' And she left me, just like that. I was very hurt. I'm still hurt."

Eric had been divorced for a year, one child, actively looking for an adventurous woman to ski and hike with. But then, during our first (and last) lunch, he somehow let it slip that he had been dating for three years.

"I thought you had been divorced for only one year," I said.

"Well, actually," he admitted, "My wife were best friends, buddies, and we wanted to stay together for our daughter, but I was never in love with her, and over time, the pain of that was unbearable. I was meeting women on Craigslist and having affairs. At first, I was terrified, thinking, what kind of diseased woman would be out here looking for sex? But I was astonished -- these were beautiful, desirable, interesting, educated, high-caliber married women. I had some fantastic experiences -- I even fell in love with one for a while. But now I'm divorced and, to be honest, dating hasn't been as fun." This one definitely belongs in the Hefty Bag, I thought, as I clicked on to the next.

Another recycled man I spoke to, Arthur, was recoiling from the loss of his 20-year marriage. His wife was studying French and would practice her language skills in chat rooms. His wife started taking trips, alone, to visit her new friends in Paris. It turned out that one of her new "friends" was a hunky French fireman (tres chaud!) (who else was up after midnight when it was still mid-afternoon in America?) and she'd been carrying on the steamy affair for months.

It seems to me that even five years ago, couples negotiated these transitions -- when you couldn't just order up a new date like a book on But now that Internet dating has become so widespread, so pervasive, you can just punch in your requirements -- age, zip code, hobbies. There's always someone new to try on for fun, to take to a party, just click on the next profile, and she's there.

And you can test the waters from the privacy of your own home -- right under your girlfriend or spouse's nose -- and then jump immediately from the comfort of one relationship to the next without ever having to endure the painful self reflection that might happen if "you tried to work things out in therapy together" or if you had to endure the loneliness of even one day of downtime between your relationships.

Is anything private anymore? Do moments from our most intimate life have any meaning? Or are they as Devon says, just images that we have a right to. Just photographs. Or just words in a blog like this one.

It's time for a new copyright: "This is an image from my life and you can't use it to meet a new woman. All rights reserved."

But if that was true, then would there be the corrolary: "This is a moment from my life, and you can't write about it, or I'll sue your ass."

Would all of the world's literature suddenly dry up? And as Devon says, does it really matter who took that photograph, or when? It's just a picture. It's just the past. This moment, and the next are the only ones that matter. It's just four million pixels, pinpoints of light, ephemeral, fleeting.

Obviously my feelings are no longer as important at the value that photograph now has in attracting the next woman. After all, smart marketing is what it's all about these days when you're a product competing on the overcrowded shelves in the Internet love superstore. And Devon, ever the saavy Internet guy, has even turned himself into the human equivalent of an "endcap" in Fry's -- paying a little more money for a "Gold" membership so his profile would show up as the first hit in his zip code.

Our last moment together is here in an personal ad, beckoning to new women to fill my void. It's a fitting beginning and ending for love in 2005. It's a world created by computer geniuses like Devon, a world they can confidently conquer and excel in, where smart, articulate men with computer skills finally have an edge over the jocks, where artistic and tech savvy women who are handy with Photoshop have an edge over the genuinely beautiful ones, where ad copywriting skills matter more than flirtatious charm, where we have all reduced ourselves to a commodity that can be rated like a movie, or auctioned off like someone's old toaster on eBay.

But that door is closed now. Find an open one. Just click on the next recycled profile. And maybe, just maybe, one woman's discarded Hefty Bag man will be my new treasure.

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