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My Cinematic Year, Part 6: The romantic epiphany.

Let’s recap: online dating made me miserable. If I logged on to slog through my messages, that only made things worse—the “Now Online!” flag on my profile would send another deluge of messages from every godforsaken corner of humanity, including some along the rather creepy lines of I KNOW YOU’RE THERE.

I didn’t feel excited about dating; I felt burdened by it. I didn’t skip to my inbox in anticipation; I dreaded opening it. I was unhappy. Things needed to change.

But when I suspended my account, I hadn’t given up. Not at all.

My personal philosophy is that, barring really unusual circumstances like a recent death in the family, my unhappiness can be blamed not on my circumstances, but on my orientation to those circumstances. When I’ve written about this before, I’ve used the metaphor of snorkeling in the ocean: if you try to stand up or dog-paddle in your fins and snorkel, the ocean beats the crap out of you while you flail around looking ridiculous. Once you’ve oriented yourself properly to the water by floating on its surface instead, suddenly you’re a part of the waves, which lift you up and down without you noticing, and everything is beautifully peaceful.

Same circumstances. Different approach. Less work. Far better experience.

A more recent, even simpler example: I recently spent an hour cursing the violent side-to-side swaying of the BART train, which caused my upper body (and thus my line of sight) to jostle about wildly from left to right and back again while my laptop screen stayed put. I was … unflatteringly nonplussed, we’ll say, as a polite euphemism for the actual level of surliness involved. On the way home, it hit me: I needed only to sit in a seat that faced the side of the car, rather than the back or front, and my laptop and line of sight would stay perfectly aligned. I hopped up to test my theory, experienced the triumph of a proven hypothesis, and then typed merrily the rest of the way home as the sway rolled right through me.

Over time, I’ve developed a confidence that one can do this sort of thing with almost one’s entire life. The best part? The happier alternative is not usually any more work, and is often much easier.

It was time to design an OKCupid approach for myself that worked.

First, I reviewed whether OKC was really the way to go. Sure, OKC is largely populated by men who, to put it very politely, could not be trusted to realistically predict their compatibility with me, but so is the world; if you’re moderately attractive and have a vagina, walk into a bar anywhere and you will find this to be true. Sure, OKC allowed these men an uncomfortable level of access to me, but you can’t squeeze my ass through my inbox, so that’s a flat-out win for OKC. OKC also allowed me to form a crude prediction of intelligence and humor even after zero interaction with the person in question, which could potentially save me a lot of time even considering the margin of error involved.

When you consider its strengths versus the dog-eat-dog, guy-hump-girl jungle of the real world, OKC might just be the best filtration system there is. It is, by design, a brilliant tool, and yet I hated it.

So what was I doing wrong?

A huge myth in dating, and one that showed up both in my e-mail inbox and in the comments section in my previous post, is that, as someone who would like to have a relationship with someone, you owe it to yourself to explore every possible avenue. Dating is not for the weak or the lazy! Forget whether you’re becoming increasingly depressed, forget whether you’re becoming increasingly exhausted: you had better give everyone a chance, or don’t you dare complain about how hard it is to find someone.

Happiness is work, okay? So you get your skinny jeans on and you get your ass in that restaurant chair and you make sparkling conversation with every last potential suitor until your tongue wears through at the base and plops out onto the tablecloth.

After all, how can I expect to find a man if I walk around ruling people out?

The prevailing wisdom is that you’re doing yourself a disservice by reducing your chances of a relationship in any way, regardless of the quality of that relationship and regardless of whether anyone on earth with half a life really has the time to date with this level of gusto.

None of those comments or e-mails considered how much time I can afford to spend on dating. None of them consider whether it’s really healthy for me to devote my brainpower to giving 1,692 men the benefit of the doubt (and most of these men honestly could not be differentiated from one another in terms of quality, so unless my commenters have a rubric for choosing “hey LOL” over “hi whats up,” 1,692 is what I would be stuck with). All of them assume that being single is something I want to avoid at any cost.

If I have to earn love by spending all of my free time by offering chances to anyone who wants one, well, that’s just the price of finding a man.

The sad thing about this demoralizing, all-consuming effort is that it doesn’t even work any better. How on earth are you going to find the right person if you’re busy and tired and preoccupied? How are you going to find Mr. Awesome if you’re continually already dating Mr. Meh?

I also think that some of those comments echo this sulky bullshit sentiment that has soaked into society to the point that even WOMEN will criticize me for refusing to talk to total creeps: Heyyy, honey, you looking fine today. What’s up, baby? Oh, what, you’re too good to talk to me? You think you’re too good for me?

Thanks for the brainwashing, patriarchy.

Thinking you’re too good for someone. That’s this damning accusation somehow, even if I don’t really understand how; I’m choosing who gets to sleep with me, not cutting in front of people at the DMV. Of course we think we’re too good for some people—hell, most people. We are our entire point of reference regarding humanity; studies have shown that almost all of us will describe ourselves as above average. We have never been anyone else, and from where we’re standing, we are better than all kinds of people. That’s human nature, for God’s sake.

The good news is that the best of us grasp that we are making this judgment, this “who is better” judgment, according to our own extreme bias, not any sort of objective truth. The best of us realize that, no matter how superior we might feel from our perspective, it isn’t really about human worth, but about compatibility and the lack thereof.

Come on. I’m a raging intellectual do-gooder who loves poetry and literature and quantum physics. I am never going to love some guy who would hoot at me on the street, and so what?

I can want whatever I want. I can demand that my date pick me up in a yacht, wearing a banana costume, singing “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.” I can insist on a vegan, pro-life Republican Unitarian Universalist. I can demand whatever I want, with just one catch: I have to be willing to die alone if I don’t get it. I have to have performed a cost-benefit analysis that tells me that being alone is not the worst thing that could happen to me—not by far. I have to figure out where that threshold is, and as long as I do that with a decent degree of accuracy, being alone is guaranteed to make me happier than entering into a relationship that does not meet these terms.

Contrary to those commenters, I don’t think it’s in my best interest to sacrifice those standards, and I don’t want you to sacrifice your standards, either. Just be honest with yourself about what you can’t live with, and if the resulting list of demands makes you look like a prissy snob, so be it. Maybe most would say you are. Who cares?

It horrifies me that my dating rule about my own body, and who has access to it, could possibly be considered unreasonable or selfish, as if it’s my duty as a single person to remain as convenient and cooperative of a human being as possible even when it comes to sexual boundaries. Can dating, this incredibly personal process where you choose someone who will wield enormous emotional clout over you and your well-being, please be the one arena where you aren’t expected to sacrifice such things in the name of political correctness?

After thinking all of this over, I came to the exact opposite conclusion of those commenters, and I realized my error.

I, in my sweet innocence, had been looking for someone to date. The counterintuitive truth? I should have been looking for people to reject.

As inspiration dawned, I sat back down at my computer and opened a fresh OKC profile. Just like that, Operation Trapdoor Spider was born.

My Cinematic Year, Part 5: Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Just a few weeks after announcing my availability to the world on OKCupid, I declared the endeavor a complete disaster and deactivated my account.

What went wrong? Let’s review!

THEY DIDN’T INTEREST ME

This isn’t really anyone’s fault; it’s just the truth. Maybe they were clearly incapable of facing the fact that they were balding, which is my admittedly shallow but ironclad dealbreaker. Maybe they listed Transformers as their favorite movie. Maybe they made what initially appeared to be hilarious jokes about their giant stuffed-animal collection … except those “jokes” turned out to just be factual information about their giant stuffed-animal collection. (This actually happened.)

Regardless of the reason, I knew right away that it wasn’t going to happen with a lot of these dudes. But what about the rest of them?

THEY FAILED TO BRING THEIR A-GAME

Wasting my time with a four-word message is bad enough, but winking at me? Really? Since when does this work, even in the real world? Men, have you ever winked at a woman in public, without making any other effort at all, and had her come running after you to proposition you?

“I couldn’t help but notice that you winked at me back there,” she said breathlessly, “and I’m hooked! You had me at squeezing one eye shut while leaving the other one conspicuously open.”

You might have the best profile in the world, but I’ll probably never see it. Winking at me or sending me four words of text is like leaving your waitress a two-cent tip: we’re both going to decide we deserved more, and we’d both be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if you had given us nothing at all.

THEY INSULTED ME IN HOPES OF DRAWING ME INTO AN EXCHANGE

Nice try, but no.

THEY APPEARED HATEFUL TOWARD WOMEN AS A MEANS OF COMPLIMENTING ME

“Finally, a girl with ACTUAL intelligence who isn’t a desperate skank!”

Uh … thanks?

Having slogged through the dating trenches myself, I do have some sympathy. There were certainly times when my OKCupid inbox made me feel as if I had holed myself up in my apartment and was shoving mouth-breathing zombies back with a broom through a chain-locked door while they reached through the gap in an effort to grope at my boobs.

But listen, bitter isn’t sexy, and if you want to actually find the intelligent feminist you’re looking for, coining terms like “bar mongoloid” (true story) is not going to get you there.

THEY BLAMED THE DATING CULTURE FOR THEIR MISDEEDS

When I call men out on bad behavior, they often say, “But you don’t know what it’s like out there. A lot of women DO want me to compliment their tits, on account of their desperate appetite for validation, and to text them incessantly, because a lot of women are so needy that they insist on knowing I’m always thinking of them! I’m a well-meaning victim of conditioning who is just trying to give your gender what it asked for!”

I’m confused as to why men will claim that society is forcing them to cater to women who are nothing like me while telling me I’m the only type of woman they could imagine a future with.

Don’t call me ten times a day while telling me that you wouldn’t call me ten times a day if it weren’t for all the peer pressure from the ladies. Your behavior represents you. It is who you are, and it is your responsibility. Do what the woman you would want would want. Put even more simply: be yourself.

THEY WANTED CREDIT FOR WHAT THEY HADN’T DONE

Sometimes, nice guys finish last because they mistakenly perceive being nice as an epic accomplishment when being nice is actually just a requirement for basic human decency. Quit pouting because you aren’t getting credit for not cheating on women or beating them, and then start actively being awesome. When women discuss men they’re excited about, they don’t say, “Get this: he hasn’t stabbed me in the face with an icepick—not even once!”

THEY MADE IT SEXUAL

I have zero daddy issues, I respect myself, and nothing in my ad leaned toward anything sexual; even my story about a six-thousand-dollar sex doll was family-friendly (sort of). That means that sexualizing me before you’ve met me or gotten to know me at all is just going to seem lecherous. I cannot abide by men who Take Liberties in this regard; I’m never going to see it as anything but ignorant of the fact that sex is the least of what I have to offer.

I’m not looking for a eunuch, just someone who has the good sense to keep his fantasies to himself until they don’t seem, you know, creepy as all hell.

THEY MESSAGED ME MULTIPLE TIMES BEFORE I COULD GET BACK TO THEM

I’ve already written about this, so I’ll just quote myself, if you don’t mind:

“If there is one single, crucial dating concept that single men and women everywhere need to grasp, it’s this: WAIT YOUR TURN. The failure to apply this simple rule in dating is staggeringly universal. If you are still single after years and years of sighting that spark of interest in someone’s eyes, only to wind up baffled and empty-inboxed, it’s probably because you don’t wait your turn.

“You can’t charm your way out of it. [By sending multiple messages without waiting for a reply,] you are being impatient and disrespectful. You are communicating that you want dating to happen on your schedule, that you have no impulse control, and that you do not grasp the basic tenets of give-and-take that are so key to a relationship. The privilege of setting the pace of this interaction is not yours alone, so don’t claim it as such.

“Sometimes, they aren’t going to respond, even if you do it right and just send that one, disciplined, not-too-desperate-or-infatuated e-mail. But if they didn’t answer one e-mail, are they really going to answer five? And is the annihilation of your pride worth the slim chance that they will?”

THEY DIDN’T LISTEN

I had a few first-date rules that I communicated plainly (and, after some practice, unapologetically): everyone pays for their own stuff; everyone adheres to a casual “jeans and sneaks” sort of dress code; and no one makes a move on the first date. I won’t go out with anyone who doesn’t agree to these rules: no hard feelings, but we clearly want different things.

I created these rules to eliminate some of the awkward first-date “how is this supposed to go?” uncertainty, but it didn’t take long for another enormous benefit to reveal itself: I suddenly had a very easy way to determine whether my date was capable of following simple instructions.

If you pressure me to let you pay for dinner after I’ve made it clear that I’m a girl who goes dutch, you can’t be trusted to stick to your word or respect my boundaries … and if you imply that I’m ungrateful because I refuse to accept your money, that just tells me you like to use the guilt and doubt of good people as tools for manipulation.

Those rules turned out to be an excellent bullet-dodging method. I can’t recommend such things enough.

THEY MAINTAINED ABSURD, HOLLYWOOD-STYLE EXPECTATIONS

Hollywood has sort of screwed me over with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. You know her: she’s played by Kirsten Dunst or Natalie Portman or Emma Roberts. She’s the unique, intelligent, witty girl who is here to fix all of your problems, solve the puzzle of your previously elusive happiness, and pull you out of your broody, lonely, misunderstood shell so that you can join her on an amazing journey that redefines your life. If she has flaws, they’re harmlessly endearing, and if she has dreams or aspirations, they center around finding someone like you to offer free therapy sessions to.

The men who almost got it right, the men who were so close (but so far away), were the ones who dodged the typical mistakes only to fail miserably at recognizing that I am my own person, with my own shortcomings and ambitions and busy schedule. I hadn’t been waiting for them to find me, and I didn’t power down in their absence, staring blankly at the walls and waiting for my hero to return, the main character so necessary to breathe life into my supportive, peripheral little existence.

These men also failed to understand that any glittery personality comes at a price. They loved how shrewd and kooky and funny I was … they just wished I could get rid of all the complications and neuroses.

Oh, man. I can’t not laugh at that.

Not only is the very best humor forged in a furnace fueled by suffering and mental dysfunction, but there isn’t an interesting person alive who doesn’t have baggage.

Relationships are inconvenient as it is; a relationship with an eccentric individual will be even more so. That’s the price you pay for all of this delicious weirdness. Dating a hilarious, brainy, original woman in hopes of a straightforward, servile relationship is like bringing home a pet tiger in hopes that he will fetch your newspaper for you every morning. Good luck with that.

THEY … WAIT, THIS ONE WAS COMPLETELY MY FAULT

The last mistake I want to talk about was the biggest one in the list … and it was mine. Recognizing it, and fixing it, may just have been the best thing I did all year.

My Cinematic Year, Part 4: In which the single, cynical protagonist takes a chance … at romance.

When I decided to return to my hometown for a year to build a roller-derby league, I only really had one social rule: Absolutely No Dating. I had good reason to avoid the dating scene; I had big plans to move to the West Coast once I had gotten rid of almost everything I owned, but knew I would get attached in the meantime and wind up in a complicated romantic situation.

You can see where this is going already, can’t you.

I’ve always avoided casual dating for a number of reasons. First of all, I just have no knack for sluttery. This is a shame, because it looks pretty fun–all those sweaty mascara-smeared strangers just sort of drunkenly flinging each other around against vehicles and cabinetry and appliances and whatnot–but I’ve never really been able to get into it. The only one-night stand I’ve ever had was very carefully selected from afar and then shamelessly pursued as such: My First One-Night Stand, as if someone were going to add it to my baby book or something.

And then that the whole thing accidentally went on for like eight months in a row as we dated some more and then became exclusive and then got pretty serious there for a while. I’m told that eight months is not at all typical length for one-night stands. Oops?

But hey, at least I tried. The road to heaven is, apparently, paved with my bad intentions.

Other attempts at moral decay include this one time, when I was seventeen, that I kissed a guy even though I had a serious boyfriend already (who was very glamorous on account of being one whole year older and who was probably going to marry me because we were in love, like Rose and Jack in Titanic). After said unfaithful kiss, I spent the next several hours vomiting with guilt. When I finally did manage to get my head out of the toilet, it was only to stare blearily at the clock, waiting for morning to come so that I could call my boyfriend to confess.

It would have been rude to call him in the middle of the night, you see.

Second of all, I was extremely jaded toward dating in general. The last date I had been on (excluding any breathtakingly choreographed eight-month one-night stands) had turned into an actual hostage situation after the suitor in question physically attached himself to me via his face and flat-out refused—and I do mean refused—to let me end the date. It would have legally counted as date rape if we were lampreys instead of people.

Where was I? Oh, yes. No dating. That was the rule.

But I had forgotten one thing: I was in Peoria, without the giant posse of amazing single and/or independent women I had played roller derby with. I loved my new derby league, and am friends with many of them today. But back then, they were first and foremost my skaters—it was my job to boss them around, and for a long time I felt I needed my credibility as a coach more than I needed friends.

So, as Saturday night after Saturday night went by without plans, my resolve weakened and then dissolved altogether, and I sat down one night to compose my own personal opus of an OKCupid profile.

Pleased that I had managed to represent myself pretty accurately, but bummed at all-too-real memories of failed Real Doll telethons (if calling officemates from your cubicle for comedic effect counts as a telethon), I fell into bed, dubious but hopeful.

I really might as well not have bothered with any of it, but I wouldn’t realize that until I had suffered enormously for your comedic pleasure.

My Cinematic Year: The end.

It all happens so fast.

When my derby league is nine months old, I realize my season here is almost over. They’ve grown up now; they can do this themselves. They look to me for reassurance once in a while, but their dependence on me is mostly in their heads. I realize I’m not doing them any favors by stepping in whenever they get confused or upset. It’s time to back off.

I feel that same old restlessness setting in, the feeling I always get when I don’t have my shoulder to the wheel, when I’m not rolling a boulder uphill.

I’m going to Portland, for real this time. I’ve been working on Operation Hobo (my project in which I aim to fit everything in my car) all year, but I kick it up a few notches. The employees at Goodwill know me now. I give away paintings, furniture, anything I can possibly live without.

Meanwhile, more in need of a distraction than ever now that my derby league is running more or less fine without me, I go on a date despite what a bad idea that is for someone in my state of flux.

I walk into a bar, just like it’s the start of a joke, mainly because it usually is.

There he is, already waiting at our table: the one solitary guy who survived the OKCupid elimination process. His name is Andy. He has a dog who is also named Andy, which is just one of the many reasons I have found myself unable to rule him out.

I’m late, flustered. But he looks up at me idly, like we’re old friends and I’ve just come back from the bathroom. Nothing in his face reminds me that I am made of meat. I approve of this.

We talk for hours, pleasantly if not avidly—this is not a story of instant chemistry, exactly, but it goes well enough. It’s the wee hours of the morning before we both stand up. I’ve confessed to seeing what I could find of him online and mentioned that I saw pictures of him on crazy high-tech stilts. As he walks me to my car, it is revealed that said stilts are, in fact, in the back of his car. Which is how I wind up wobbling around a parking deck at 3 AM, on stilts, in borrowed kneepads, making a complete fool of myself while giggling uncontrollably.

Right before I stand up on them, he holds out his hand in that same mild way. He’s not timid about it, but he isn’t hungry either—just thoroughly bemused. I take his hand without having to think about it, and he pulls me up onto my stilts, and right then is when I know for sure I’ll see him again. It’s November 17.

He lets me work my way over to him from my guarded perch on the couch over a series of marathon hangout dates. He sets mugs of tea down in front of me, lets me think it over. I can stay, or not; I can sleep in the guest room, or not; he doesn’t seem to mind one way or the other. This drives me completely crazy, but in the best possible way, because it’s not an act. He isn’t playing hard to get. It’s just my decision, like I said I wanted it to be.

No one has ever been clever enough to wait for that before, to leave me stewing on my side of the table until I’m willing to take responsibility for what’s going on, until I’m willing to show my cards.

I am impressed.

Besides, he owns a T-shirt of the grim reaper riding a unicorn and he knows the difference between rifling through something and riffling through something. Who am I kidding.

I concede the existence of our relationship via a Kindle presentation that includes a diagram of a bee’s knee, and that’s that. It’s December 2.

In the next few weeks, I look like hell. I’ve taken the walk of shame and made an entire lifestyle out of it. Half of the T-shirts I wind up wearing to dinner aren’t mine. I smile stupidly at other people, at my own hands, at cans of beans in the grocery store.

I try to hide what’s happening, but my mother is smug regardless. She can tell I’m getting my ass kicked. She has never seen a loudmouth with so little to say.

I bring over some yoga pants, a toothbrush. I’m casually given a drawer in the bathroom and the code to the garage.

A package comes to the door one afternoon: it’s a present for me. I pry it open, examine it. It’s an entire dictionary of the word “fuck,” a word that I’ve likely uttered more times than just about any other.

I have to sit down with it immediately, astonished. He laughs knowingly at the look on my face when I crack it open.

There is a bird called the windfucker. This is yet another thing I didn’t have before that I have now.

I stop talking about going to Portland. He starts talking about where he should look for work now that his contract is expiring.

We realize we have an awkward problem: if Andy gets a job here, he’s stuck here for quite a while, where I don’t want to be. But if he gets a job elsewhere, surely I can’t just come with him after a month of dating. That would be ridiculous. Right?

An opportunity presents itself in Phoenix. Unwilling to say what I mean, I make up stories about the bloodthirsty zombie gnomes that plague the city. I send him pictures of the Brown Cloud, Phoenix’s seasonal haze of pollution. I also casually mention that I hear the West Coast is really nice this time of year, or any time of year.

A job comes up in California. He asks me what I think.

I pause. “San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the world,” I say.

He understands the way I talk around things. He decides he’ll take it if they’ll have him. It’s December 21.

While we’re waiting to hear about the job, an enormous opportunity arises for the roller-derby league: the chance to play a real arena, something many leagues never accomplish. It’ll be a massive undertaking of ticket sales and advertising and frantically trying to find a halftime act, and we only have a few weeks to pull it off.

We decide to do it, because we’re insane, as per usual. Plus, we plan to donate 100% of the proceeds, so we figure we can raise a little money for cancer research.

Andy hears back about the job, and it’s a go: we’re moving to California.

It is January 14, almost our whopping two-month anniversary.

I don’t want to get married or anything, though. “I like to wait for the big three-monther for that,” I tell him.

Never in my life will I have whistled louder or longer through a graveyard than I’m about to, and I’ve traversed some very large metaphorical cemeteries in my time.

On January 22, the big bout comes. We have nearly given ourselves ulcers scurrying around with the planning, and I’m just frantically hoping we pull the whole thing off, as we’ve slapped the entire event together with duct tape and a prayer; up until the last moment, we aren’t even sure our event insurance has been approved or whether we’ll have to cancel.

By now, everyone has heard that I’m moving to California with some guy I barely know and they’ve barely heard of. People are startlingly supportive, probably because I clearly already know this is the worst idea ever, which seems to reassure them that I won’t be crushed if it doesn’t work out. It dawns on me that people don’t so much mind foolhardy romantic decisions as long as you don’t sugarcoat those decisions into some kind of fairytale. Most people politely fail to mention those hundreds of thousands of times I swore I’d never live with anyone again. This is nice of them.

The biggest thing everyone is hung up on is how on earth I’m going to manage to get all the way to California in a car. I find this both hilarious and sadly poignant. I keep telling them, “It’s just like a road trip, but longer.”

I’m announcing this bout, just like the last one. When I signed up for it, I didn’t realize it would be good-bye, but it’s one hell of a way to go.

Three thousand people come to see us. Many of the faces are familiar, family members and friends who are seeing roller derby for the first time. When the game comes all the way down to the last moment, the entire stadium roars in a way that will later put goosebumps on my arms when I’m reviewing the footage.

Oh, and in the end, we do manage to raise a little money for cancer research. In fact, when I see the total, I exclaim, “Holy SHIT!” and then hastily check to make sure my microphone isn’t on. (It isn’t.)

We present the total while cancer survivors in the stadium stand up and everyone within a mile radius of that giant check weeps into their shirtsleeves, myself included.

It is one of the proudest days of my life.

When the whole thing is over and the stadium is nearly empty, I pull my earpiece out and marvel that I’m really done; I will stay for the one-year anniversary party, but right now is really the moment that I am done with this endeavor, that I can rest. I spend the afterparty with my head on Andy’s shoulder, exhausted.

We drive Andy and some of his stuff out to California. As we cross the bay bridge and San Francisco rolls by, we can’t stop laughing. Thanks to the wonders of Glympse, my family watches from home as we cross that threshold, and they cheer me on via text message. We hang out our heads out the window, amazed at the gorgeous weather and even more amazed that some people are actually wearing gloves and hats as if it’s cold outside; as two people who grew up in a place where the inside of your nose freezes in the winter (quite a weird feeling, if you’ve never experienced it), we find this hilarious.

We go to the beach, we drive around town, and then we find an apartment. When we’re sitting in the leasing office, I wonder for the billionth time just what the hell I think I’m doing.

I sign on the dotted line and fly back to Illinois to finish Operation Hobo.

I go to the league anniversary party in a car that already has everything I own in it, packed and ready to go for the next morning. I fight tears while my rollergirls say incredibly nice things about me. Walking out to my car from the party, I look up at the night sky and feel my first thrill of this-is-really-happening excitement about leaving the next morning. Just a few more hours.

But when morning comes, I don’t feel excited at all. I feel downright awful, frankly, almost incapacitated with doubt and anxiety. I have forgotten this part, how it feels to really say good-bye. I can scarcely bear the sight of my mother crying in the driveway, and for a minute I want to just call the whole thing off. But I program my GPS, pull into the street, drive away, and proceed to sob brokenheartedly all the way through Illinois. I’m not sure why I expected anything else.

Everything is going to be fine—much better than fine, actually. I’ll settle into the Bay Area, get a job, and walk to work each morning while reminding myself that today is a stunningly beautiful day—not because I’m grouchy, but because on my spot on the bay, almost every day is stunningly beautiful, and you forget to notice that after a while if you aren’t careful. I’ll learn my way around the trains, the streets. People will ask me for directions, and my ability to answer them will please me enormously.

Six months from now, California will feel like home.

Awhile after I get there, Andy will tell me about something he did when he was little, when people were being mean to him. It will be a funny story, but I’ll also feel an anger rise up in me. Is someone being mean to a wee version of Andy sometime back in 1983? Because I will claw my way back in time and rip their limbs off. Don’t think I won’t. Don’t you even TRY it, 1983.

A beat after that flash of rage has subsided, I will recognize that protective instinct for what it is. Andy will have become one of mine. He will have become home, too.

On my way west, I don’t know any of that yet. But as the miles roll by, I start to feel a little lighter. When I get to Iowa, I merge onto I-80, the road I will be on for the next 1,789 miles.

I turn the music up, and I start to sing.

THE END

Thanks to the amazing David Vernon for all images except the cheering little boy (courtesy of Hillary Wasson) and the photobooth collection (courtesy of a couple of dorks in San Francisco).

Just don’t call me a tramp. It confuses my mother.

The day I bought that car, I knew what I was going to do with it: I was going to fit my entire life into it, and I was going to drive it a very long way, all by myself.

Right after I let my mom talk me into a variety of cheesy poses, of course. First things first.

I called it Operation Hobo: a quest to pare down my possessions to a scant 75 cubic feet of cargo, give or take the passenger seat.

I spent a year on it. I didn’t just downsize; I peeled myself like an onion, shedding previously unarticulated misconceptions about how much I needed to own to be happy. I said good-bye over and over again. I gave away the paintings on my walls, any fixture I could pry away, even the bed beneath me.

I even got a smaller toothbrush holder. Yes, really:

I threw out cards, notes, letters, and two entire garbage bags full of photographs (relax—I scanned my favorites). I did keep one card, from Kerri Anne, delivered to me at a very dark time, when my life was in a stomach-churning state of collapse:

The above is now the only framed image I own, but I hope you will agree that I chose wisely.

The joy of Operation Hobo caught me off-guard, I think. The most ordinary tea mug has a precious heft in your hands when you’ve chosen it so deliberately, when you’ve eyed a cluttered box of them on the floor of your kitchen, picked it up, and thought, this.

If you’re willing to forsake all else, you can build such refreshingly, sweetly nascent memories around what little remains. You can reconnect with what it feels like to have potential, to own more possibility than anything else, rather than accidentally transitioning into a routine of maintenance as the curator of your own maxed-out life.

I don’t mean to be condescending about people who own shelves of china and candles and … I don’t know, those decorative balls of glass that look like Christmas ornaments but are not Christmas ornaments. I don’t mean to sound as if someone’s life is pointless and suburban because they enjoy a good tealight holder and a nicely painted fruit bowl. It’s not like reducing my T-shirt count to four (yes, four) resulted in an automatic cure for cancer or anything.

All I can tell you is that I, personally, as an individual, was deeply unsatisfied with the way things were. I spent far too much of my time dusting my crap, arranging my crap, painting my crap, finding more crap I needed to go with my other crap, and suffering under the illusion that I would feel fulfilled and satisfied and happy just as soon as my life looked like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog and I were wearing the right pair of ballet flats and the most whimsical brooch.

If you have had a different experience, I will not only salute you, but I may also ask to borrow your flour sifter sometime.

I wanted everything to feel simpler. But, while a lot of wonderful discoveries came about as a result of Operation Hobo, I’m not sure simplicity was one of them.

The less you own, the harder it is to hide from everything still wrong with you. All of the dreams you have yet to realize, even now that your childhood is startlingly far behind you, are suddenly so much more starkly visible once you can’t distract yourself by petting fabric swatches or rearranging your bookshelves.

We’re always saying life is short, but honestly, if you stop staring at paint chips and shopping for throw pillows and arranging vases, if you have so little clothing (let alone accessories like scarves, necklaces, or earrings, of which I own none) that choosing an outfit is hardly an artistic endeavor, you would be surprised at how much time you have and how absolutely terrifying it can feel to have nowhere to put that energy.

You become almost the only particularly notable thing you own, and experimenting with rearranging a bookshelf into a rainbow pattern, it turns out, is far easier than experimenting with rearranging oneself. Where does one even begin?

I’m still figuring out what to do with myself now that my life has less to do with material things, and the alien, paradigm-shifting brain-meltingness of that task says a lot about our culture. It’s hard, but I’m still working on it, because I sincerely doubt that on their deathbeds, many people’s last words are, “I should have bought more stuff with sparrows on it. Oh, and that rug in the CB2 catalo—glaaaargh!”

The day I did it, the day I could finally fit everything I owned into my car, I climbed behind the wheel and laughed hysterically for about five minutes. It was hilarious and surreal and immensely satisfying to be able to carry all of myself everywhere, all at once, to steer it left and right and point it wherever I wanted it to go, and to have rid myself of more fear than I had ever known a person could keep within four walls.

And then, yes, I did drive it a very long way, all by myself.

Just a cat.

Nito, my cat, died last week.

On Tuesday, I found myself alone in an exam room with his limp, sick body in the crook of my arm and his head under my chin and I spread out a beach towel on the metal table, so he wouldn’t be cold when he died. It’s funny, how you just automatically do those things. I’ve never thought of myself as maternal in the traditional sense, but there I was, unthinkingly smoothing the terrycloth out even though I was crying so hard that I could barely see.

And then I paused with my gigantic fourteen-pound cat, with the boneless weight of him, because this would be the last time I held him. There is something sacred in that heft, like the way your shoulder feels under a baby’s head or the way your thumbs feel hooked into the belt loops of someone you love, pulling them closer. I used to pick him up every time I came home, to greet that reassuring weight that belonged to me, that I had tended.

I looked down at his enormous paws, just dangling toward the ground–whether in illness or in trust, I don’t know, but to be honest, at that point, it was probably more of the former–and I can still see them when I close my eyes, in contrast against the white tiles. That is the last thing I saw before I relinquished him–not by watching him die, but by easing him onto the table and away from me.

That was good-bye, at least for me.

Then the vet came in, and I petted his head and told him what a good boy he was, and he died, and that was it. I walked blindly out of the office with his empty carrier and fumbled my way into the car while my sister stayed behind and paid the bill.

And when I got home, after I unlocked the door and almost said hello to him, I climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling for hours, and all I kept thinking was not Nito is dead or I’ll never see him again but just What now? What now? What now? because I already felt lost–not sad as one who has lost something very dear, but thunderstruck by baffled horror, as one whose shadow has been flayed off.

Terrible, yes. Painful, yes. But mainly, so disconcertingly goddamned impossible.

Oh, I know. He was just a cat. I don’t mind. I think that’s what makes an animal lover–we don’t mind you small. We don’t mind you stupid. We don’t mind you simple. We are humbled, rather than frustrated or scornful, at your ability to be all of those things. We know that you still have gifts to give, however unknowingly, and that it is our honor to receive them. If some of us do not have babies, it has less to do with how small and stupid and simple they are (as is the common misconception) and much more to do with the fact that babies don’t stay that way. Their lessons become tangled for us the bigger they get, convoluted, nonexistent. They become mysteries, as we are mysteries. You put them in our arms and we fear them, and sometimes even mourn them, not for what they are but for what they will be in fifty years.

But Nito, thankfully, was just a cat, and perfect at it, sitting on the top of the toilet tank with his tail curled neatly around his feet while I read in the tub, or resting against my ribs while I worked on manuscripts.

This is the end of his story, and his story wasn’t anything profound. But that is the art and the joy of being just a cat.

After he died, I stepped over sweatshirts that I thought were cats. I reached down to pet the air. I said hello to no one an embarrassing number of times upon unlocking my deadbolt and stepping into my house. I lay awake each night, crying, because I couldn’t remember how to power down without a purring cat to stay still for.

I’ll get a new cat in a few weeks, a month, I said. I shouldn’t do it now. I should wait. It makes more sense to wait.

I don’t think anyone believed me, which is why on Friday, after three days of pathetic foundering, I received a brisk phone call from my mother telling me to come down to Petsmart and sign for this cat she was going to get me. And I want to tell you I rolled out of bed and pulled on some pants because it is impossible to argue with my mother. But that’s not why I got up, not really.

I met him with a disproportionate amount of fear in my mouth, considering that a sock-footed, pink-nosed, gray-striped tabby cat is not typically a very intimidating sight. And the rest of the story goes the way it has gone every single time an animal needing a home has found its way into my lap.

I woke up this morning with a cat in my armpit, is what I’m telling you: head up under my chin, paws stretched across my chest, butt in the crook of my elbow.

He isn’t Nito, and he isn’t ever going to be Nito. He is just Winston.

I’m realizing all over again, though, that just is more than good enough.

Top Ten Signs You Might Be Dating an Ex-Wife

1. She’s flat-out terrified.

2. She has no game whatsoever. This girl not only fails to remember to wear hot underwear, but she will also strike up a conversation while perched on your toilet (just to PEE, of course—she’s still a lady). She may also discuss her cycles with you, regardless of whether you happen to be trying to eat lunch at the time. Come to think of it, this girl is not really for the faint of heart.

3. She doesn’t want to get married. She doesn’t want to get married. She doesn’t want to get married. Do you hear her? Because she doesn’t. And if you want to, like ever, like even when everyone involved is ninety-eight years old and a marriage would be really beneficial purely for estate distribution purposes, you can just move along, buddy. You may think you don’t want to get married. But deep down, you might. You might. Don’t you go getting all mushy in the eyes, because she’s watching you as one watches that possibly zombie-bitten, expendable character in the mall, waiting for you to turn.

4. Every story she tells involves this one guy who occupies her every mental diorama in a neutral but persistent manner. It’s like that game where you add “in bed” to everything, except you add “with my ex” to everything. “This one time, in Iceland (with my ex) …” “So I was at Baskin Robbins (with my ex) …” “And anyway, so there I was, wearing my wedding dress and standing in front of a pastor, ready to exchange eternal, lifelong vows (with my ex) …” Sorry. It’s not intentional. You’ll probably have to get used to it. If it helps, pretend that [FILL IN EX’S NAME HERE] was a … I don’t know, a golden retriever or something. Doesn’t that make it more fun? “This one time, I was at a bar, making out (with a golden retriever) …” Okay, so it doesn’t work in every context. Or maybe it does, depending on the bar.

5. She loves her cat. Listen, that cat may be a dumb little critter incapable of actual emotion, but that cat was THERE for her. Don’t judge. Bonus points if you feign affection for the cat even when the cat is clearly resentful of your very existence. Oh, man, the divorced ladies love their cats. If you have any idea what you’re messing with, and if you value this relationship at all, you’re a cat person now. Aren’t you. AREN’T YOU. Are you sure? Because if not, she could just shut the cat in the bathroom so he doesn’t bother you … No? Good answer. Goooood answer. Now lie still … very still … shhhhh. The cat doesn’t like it when you interrupt the nap he’s taking on your face.

(She loves her rabbit, too, but he is not the resentful type and he does not nap on faces, so it’s not really an issue.)

6. Did she mention she doesn’t want to get married? She is just checking.

7. She hesitates to admit to you. The next time she and you run into someone out in public that she knows, could you crawl under the dinner table a little faster? And next time make sure the toe of your shoe isn’t sticking out under the edge of the tablecloth, will you? Otherwise, people will think you’re her boyfriend, and then they will ask questions, and honestly, she can barely ask herself those questions right now, much less field them from someone else. How are you at imitating a potted plant when cornered? Fantastic!

8. She’s … a little oversensitive to domestic conflict, and possibly somewhat paranoid. Did you just look at the wet towel she left on the floor in a disparaging manner? Did your nostrils flutter slightly with disdain? What do you mean, you don’t know what she’s talking about? Your eyes definitely shifted toward it a little. More like a twitch, really. Your eyes TWITCHED toward it. And your nostrils, they flared … or at least they opened slightly, oh so very slightly, just one tiny and almost undetectable step in a time-lapse photo collection of a flower blooming. And she saw. SHE SAW.

9. She is highly averse to planning for the future. What do you mean, what does she want for lunch? Are the two of you even going to be dating by lunch? It’s only ten-thirty. You want her to be your date to a wedding in two months? Oh, that’s precious. She could be eating monkey brains out of a bowl in some third-world country in two months for all she knows. Life is unpredictable! You never know! Just trust her on this one!

10. Her expectations can be a little … unreasonable. What, you didn’t know that you’re supposed to bring her a fork with her grilled cheese? You didn’t even MAKE her a grilled cheese? You keep forgetting that she doesn’t watch television? You don’t stick her keys in the fridge next to her lunch so she doesn’t forget her food in the morning? You didn’t realize she can’t sleep under a mere SHEET like some kind of … an animal … in the woods … who has found a sheet and is sleeping under it? You didn’t realize that she vastly prefers Cherry Coke to plain old Coke? Good grief, you are TERRIBLE at this game. What’s your name again? Actually, scratch the “again,” just … what’s your name in the first place? Nevermind–the two of you can talk about this later, once you’ve run to the store for tampons.

In which I become that cat lady.

So, like literally six days after my life fell apart, I decided to get a cat.

I think you will agree that there is never a better time to make such a decision than when you are romantically heartbroken, with an utterly uncertain future and nowhere to live. This is truly the ideal time for a visit the Humane Society; it says so right in their pamphlet. When Jeff and I were negotiating everything, I actually ASKED, as in, on my LIST OF DEMANDS, if I could get a cat, because having a cat to snuggle with would make me “feel better about this whole divorce thing,” especially since I was leaving the bunnies behind for the foreseeable future. No red flags there! Carry on!

Technically, I did have somewhere to live; it just didn’t have anything in it yet, seeing as I had just received the keys from my landlord about two hours prior. Jeff by no means had pressured me to leave, especially considering that he was never home anyway, but at some point in the proceedings, I had locked onto the idea that I would find a sunny studio somewhere with hardwood floors. You know the kind–with crown molding and crystal doorknobs and darling little keyholes. I had always wanted to live somewhere like that, with a cat.

And guess what? I totally made it happen! I’m … just not sure it turned out to be the hottest idea to fulfill both aspects of that fantasy in the same day.

I walked into the Humane Society, completely dazed. You know that beginning to a movie, the one where some disheveled girl who’s been through some as-yet-unrevealed zombie-invasion hell wanders into a charming little gas station with the tinkling of a doorbell, and you can tell she’s not quite right? That something has clearly Happened, even before the cute gum-cracking cashier with the Southern accent recognizes the severity of the situation? I think that was probably me. I was all, “I am here to get a cat,” as if this was the only English sentence I knew. (Come to think of it, there’s another dead giveaway that you’re about to watch an unpleasant killer-cyborg type of plot unfold: a stranger who quite suspiciously appears to be programmed to just say a few key sentences over and over again while trying to act normal.)

In my defense, I am famous (some would say notorious) for spoiling my pets, and I don’t think any of the friends who were too polite to argue with me at the time really expected me to do any harm to some poor homeless animal by, like, squeezing it too hard while staring blankly into the distance, JUST AS AN EXAMPLE, HA HA HA HA. Also in my defense, I HAD asked a Humane Society employee, over the phone, whether I was required to take the cat home that same day. I was reassured that this was not the case.

I was given a number and directed to the cat area. I studied each animal in turn, looking for signs of hardiness. After all, this poor feline would be expected to serve as the sole emotional outlet for a woman who was still crying at stoplights, so “rugged” seemed like a fairly key adjective. Not to hate on the available cats of the Humane Society, but frankly, none of them seemed like sidekick material. Most of them were sleeping, for instance; I think you will agree that this was not exemplary of the kind of roll-up-your-sleeves gusto required of a divorce sidekick.

Crushing disappointment had already set in by the time I turned around and saw him. He was the only cat I hadn’t seen yet, and you guys, he was PERFECT:

This gigantic cuddly tabby won me over in about a second. He was strong; he was handsome; he had personality. People, he was cat-boyfriend material—we’re talking the kind of cat-boyfriend who will don a varsity letter sweater in order to put a corsage on your wrist and take you to the dance. There was alert gazing! There was purring! There was the kneading of my sweater! I immediately had the most mature and well-adjusted reaction possible, which was to plonk down in a chair right in front of his cage and glare at everyone while clutching my paper number in one hand and petting him through the bars with the other. “You really … like that one, don’t you?” people would ask politely. And I was all, “What was your first clue? MOVE ALONG, PLEASE.”

By the time my number came up and I jabbed my finger in his direction rapidly and repeatedly, like, THAT ONE, I WANT THAT ONE, AND YOU BETTER GO GET HIM FOR ME NOW, RIGHT NOW, BEFORE SOMEONE TAKES HIM AWAY, the getting-to-know-you process was really more of a formality. They handed him to me, he head-butted me hello and then commenced kneading my shoulder with his paws, and I said, “I’ll be back for him on Wednesday.”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” the attendant responded. “We don’t allow anyone to reserve an animal.”

Alarmed, I explained that I had called and asked beforehand. She repeated their policy and politely explained that whoever I had talked to obviously had their head up their ass (though not in so many words). After a moment of back-and-forth, it became obvious that I had to decide whether I could live with the possibility that he might be gone when I came back in a few days. And really, since I was quite objectively aware that he was the most perfect and wonderful cat that had ever existed on this earth, that outcome seemed like a strong possibility.

“Well … I … guess I’ll take him now!” I said brightly, as if I had so much as a piece of furniture back home. Or, you know, a litterbox, even. About three seconds later, they took my picture, standing there, holding him. I don’t know how it turned out, but I’m sure I looked terrified. Very newly single girl clutches the cat that she is utterly unprepared to take home and stares into the lens with a tremulous smile: yet another successful adoption story in which a cat finds its forever family!

Lest you think I’m exaggerating my state of mind, I give you this: once they put him in a box and handed him to me, I just walked right out the door with him, without paying a dime. You guys, I actually STOLE a CAT. (Please join me in my childish delight when I observe that one might call this … catnapping.)

I walked out to the parking lot, put him in the front seat, and sat behind the wheel without moving for a good seven minutes. Then I drove to PetSmart. You haven’t lived until you’re dragging a box with a cat in it around the pet store, flinging litter liners and cat food and cat toys and cat litter into an overflowing cart. At some point, I realized I had not adopted the cat in question, but stolen one, but by then it was way too late to go back. Who knew when this thing was going to poop? I WAS IN A DESPERATE RACE AGAINST THE POOP.

Inconveniently (and rather cinematically, if I do say so myself), it began to pour down rain, which is how I found myself soaking wet in front of my building with two armloads of cat accoutrements and a meowing cardboard box. I learned a lot that day: mainly, to never, ever buy the forty-pound tub of litter, as someone who lives in a third-floor walkup. I walked into my utterly empty (and by utterly empty, I mean devoid of so much as a roll of toilet paper) apartment, threw everything down, let my new and horrified cat-boyfriend out of the box, and started apologizing profusely.

Did I mention I was going out of town that weekend, and was in fact already late?

I poured him like nine bowls of cat food to tide him over for the next two days and got ready to leave; he kept cowering and trying to climb into my lap. Finally, I just called my parents, told them I was going to be late getting home, and sat against the wall, on the floor, with him curled up in a lap that was too small for him. We sat like that for a long time, both new here, both thoroughly freaked out. In a flash of inspiration, after taking in my empty surroundings, I named him Finito Garante, which is really terrible Italian for “guaranteed to be over.” (Jeff, may I remind you, is severely allergic to cats.) The whole day just had that feel: There’s no going back now, is there. “I’ll call you Nito!” I told my cat-boyfriend. Then I headed to my hometown to see my family for the first time since the Decision had been made, in order to reassure them that I was all right.

When I returned home about forty-eight hours later, I had about nine messages from the Humane Society telling me I had stolen a cat and—I am not making this up—THREATENING TO SEND AN OFFICER TO THE PREMISES if I did not contact them immediately and turn myself in. And I was all, listen, if you took your job that seriously, you wouldn’t have given someone like me a cat in the first place.

But that cat has slept in the crook of my arm ever since then, so I’m glad they did.

He can, at times, be convinced to sleep away from me, on his side of the bed, like so:

Good night, Nito.

Yet … somehow … in the morning, when I wake up, it’s more like this:

Oh, good MORNING, Nito. I don’t even know how we wind up like that without me waking up.

He also loves to help me work. Sometimes, he can be cajoled into a reasonable helping position, from which he can review manuscripts and offer creative input. (Well, when he actually has his eyes open … which is never.)

Most of the time, though, he is … rather unhelpful.

No, Nito, that’s perfect. You’re not in the way at all.

Usually I just give up and work around him, which is why my work space looks like this a lot of the time:

Not that he’s, uh, a spoiled little cat-prince or anything.

It’s ridiculous, how much having him has helped me. I would slog through a confusing day of realtors and insurance papers and God knows what else, and then I would crawl into bed and hug on his big furry self like a little kid lost in the woods with a teddy bear. And he would start purring immediately, and his tail would start patting me in a slow, sleepy rhythm, and we would fall asleep like that, content if not always particularly victorious. Even now, he greets me when I come home every day, and there is something profoundly healing about that, even if he is just a grubby little parasite when you get right down to it. Hey, who isn’t?

Anyway, it’s a good thing I don’t send out Christmas cards, or I would have some choice words for you: Nito, me, Olan Mills, matching sweater vests. Don’t act like that wouldn’t be awesome.

Types of Personal Ads: A Reference Guide

PRETENDING TO BE TOO COOL FOR PERSONAL ADS BUT PROBABLY JUST LAZY
I am too amazing and complex to be summed up in paragraphs so I won’t even try. You should similarly recognize the futility of this exercise and just message me, hopefully with considerably more effort than I just exerted.

ALMOST COMICALLY INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM ANY OTHER HUMAN BEING ALIVE
I like fun. I enjoy going out, staying in, and eating food that tastes good. I also enjoy snuggling and laughing. Sometimes I watch movies. I live in a house and have a job. The first thing people usually notice about me would have to be my smile, my eyes, or my unique inability to pick myself out of a lineup. (My friends could, though, and they claim I am attractive, with a great sense of humor.)

PRETTY OBVIOUSLY TRAUMATIZED
I’m looking for a girl who won’t use me as a sugar daddy, cheat on me, lie to me, steal from me, send me a breakup video of her peeing on my toothbrush, later reveal herself to actually be a tranny, or kill my cat and hang it from the light fixture for me to find when I come home. NO GAMES. Please reply with subject line “I’m real” or I will just assume you are a spam-bot.

NOT REALLY MAKING ANY SENSE
27/M/yourtown HWP DDfree LOL EOE sound good hit me up peace j/k

WILDLY AND ALMOST POIGNANTLY OPTIMISTIC
I am looking for a woman to come over to my house and give me a blowjob while I’m playing video games. Please arrive dressed in a trenchcoat with nothing underneath (garter belt will be provided). When you are finished, don an apron and high heels, bake me a cake, frost it with a personal message (just make it out to Jerry), and then leave immediately, leaving only several nude Polaroids of yourself behind, preferably ones of you making out with the optional stripper I am willing to hire for the occasion. I will consider all applicants but I am more likely to select you if you send me your phone number, a good picture of you, an in-depth essay on your merits (resume also acceptable), and $50. Good luck.

SHAMELESSLY WORKING SOME KIND OF POSSIBLY OCCASIONALLY EFFECTIVE MARKETING ANGLE
I can’t wait to find a woman to spoil. I’m looking for someone who likes to be showered with rose petals like the queen she is. I love buying expensive gifts, giving daylong massages, and making dinners from scratch to serve by candlelight. Compliments to you will stream endlessly out of my mouth, even when I am sleeping, because I will dream only of you. The only thing I ask in return is that you allow me to occasionally stop painting your toenails just long enough to bask in your glow like an ancient South American sun worshipper.

NOT PARTICULARLY FAMILIAR WITH THE THEORIES OF DR. FREUD
I’m just looking for a girl who is attractive enough to meet my standards. I work out constantly while simultaneously sitting on a motorcycle that I have attached to a parachute so that I will have something to rev loudly while skydiving. My hobbies are cars, muscles, protein, and shark-wrestling. I’m so virile that I have to use custom-made lead condoms, not that the regular ones would be big enough anyway. You can only see me kissing one bicep in the picture but I assure you that the other one is bigger. If you know how to handle a real man and you aren’t fat or ugly, hit me up.

SHOULD MAYBE NOT EVEN BE HERE RIGHT NOW
I am looking for someone to restore my belief in love and teach me about the power of second chances now that my marriage has fallen apart. Or at least it will probably fall apart, because she not only told me it’s over and walked out of the room a few minutes ago, but I can also hear her packing a suitcase right now and rounding up the kids to take them to her mother’s house. My ideal woman will be patient, forgiving, and willing to help me put the pieces of my heart back together right after we mop them up off the floor they are currently splattering onto.

PROBABLY BLUFFING SO DON’T EVEN WORRY ABOUT IT
Hey, you. Yeah, you. I can see you. Are you her? Are you the one? I’ve been looking all over for you, and I know you must be out there. It isn’t creepy that I’m addressing you directly, is it? Because I feel as if I have known you all our lives, and I know that you must be looking for me too. Message me, and let’s see where this goes! I can’t wait to meet you, and I do mean YOU, the one sitting right there, looking at her computer screen.

ACTUALLY PRETTY DECENT
I find a creative way to demonstrate that I am smart and funny, rather than requiring you to take my word for it. While I know what I want, I’m happy to demonstrate my reasonable expectations by avoiding gagworthy phrases like “the one” and “soulmate.” My picture is larger than four pixels and also from this decade, I trust you to get my jokes, and I don’t mind poking fun at myself. I am rare, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be smart enough to pick up on that without me begging you to believe me. I don’t take any of this too seriously, and I’m aware that the odds of this working out aren’t great, but I do not consider myself too good to put forth a reasonable effort, nor do I demonstrate a pathological fear of wasting my time, so I’m happy to give it a go. I am clearly okay with it not working out anyhow, seeing as there is obviously a lot more to me than my love life. Unfortunately, this amazing impression of me you’re getting has more to do with my innate writing ability and shrewd approach to representing myself well than any of my actual attributes as a person, but … well … it’s a start. Isn’t it?

I love you.

“My love of [you] is in me, moving in my heart, changing chambers, like something poured from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed.” –Sharon Olds, “High School Senior”

I build the version of you that I love inside of me, even though you’re right in front of me. I think everyone does, often without knowing it, and they get upset when that inner version disagrees with the truer, fleshier version, which has the advantage of being incarnate but is, quite frankly, unknowable, unstable, and unpredictable. I get upset, too, like anyone, when I am stung by disappointment or surprised by some mismatch between the working model of you that I carry within me and who you are being, to me, right now.

But even in the worst and most devastating of partings, the consolation prize is incomparably valuable: a new imaginary friend, made out of the best parts of you, that can walk with me for the rest of my days, saying exactly what you would say and doing exactly what you would do, were you ever and always your very best self.

The beauty of you, the things you do well, your areas of mastery: they are mine now. I have not stolen them from you, but I have copied them over months and years, and I will faithfully keep them on file.

I know the joke you would make, here, and it makes me laugh. I know the advice you would give, here, and it calms me. I stand up for what’s right and you agree with me, and even if no one else can see or hear you, it makes me stronger; it lends me power. Long after you are gone, your companionship remains one of my most treasured possessions. You let me see myself; you keep me company; you remain my true friend.

Regardless of where the real you has gone next, regardless of the harm you will do or the mistakes you will make, you are safe with me. I protect you in defiance of the things that are wrong with all of us, the things that we cannot help, and it is an honor to be your steward.

You are the smirk on my face as I walk alone, on the sidewalk. You are the rueful shake of my head when I make that habitual mistake, the one you hated, you know the one, and then I have to laugh, because oh my hell, it drove you nuts. You are the smile around my toothbrush in the morning, punctuating some passing thought that touches down to rest with me for a moment, a welcome visitor, before flitting away again. You are my party anecdote, a man made legend, and deservedly so. I share you, and in that sharing, your past efforts–those valiant efforts that nonetheless could not fix what needed to be fixed–can now at last be made victorious, as a toast, as a punchline, as a celebration.

Loving you has made me more than myself. It has made me us.

And despite my hopeless humanity, I will try, upon our meeting years in the future, to have lived up to those good parts that you kept, so that you can recognize me, the way I promise to recognize you.