Alie Benge signed up to a dating app with a sense of dread. What she found restored her faith in people – and in love itself, she writes, in the first instalment of a new series following her dating journey.
I went into the first lockdown a hardcore introvert, one of those annoying people talking smugly about how much they’d read and how much bread they’d bake. I emerged two months later, having spent my idyllic evenings weeping audibly on the kitchen floor, desperate for interaction, hollowed out by loneliness.
Over the next few weeks, I couldn’t fill my time with enough people. I was still alone at the end of each day. No matter how much I crammed into a day, there was always that awful moment when someone would say, “Oh well, better let you go” and I’d stop myself from replying, “Don’t let me go. Don’t ever leave. Come live with me in the bush in my tiny house.” The desperation was coming off me in waves. I was afraid of myself. So I finally did the thing I’d been putting off for years. I downloaded Bumble.
My dating history has mainly been periods of high activity between long recoveries. I make terrible decisions. I’m attracted to dismissive men who can’t text, people who’d forget to tell me they were married, or gay. One guy ducked into the dairy mid-date to buy a porn magazine, asked if he could put it in my bag, and later assaulted me just to cap the evening off nicely. By 23 I felt old and jaded, worried my ultimate turn-off was being liked back. When a year-long relationship ended I decided to take a break from dating. I moved to New Zealand, built a house, got two degrees, wrote a book then threw it out and wrote another one. Suddenly it had been eight years and I still couldn’t bear the thought of getting back in the game. I’d believed the Buzzfeed articles about the kinds of messages men send women, and thought as soon I looked at a dating app I’d be batting away dick pics and requests for nudes.
Then just before lockdown, I’d suddenly realised that all the men in my life are actually really cool, and maybe I didn’t need to be so scared all the time. So I did the sensible thing and dove head first into a three-month situationship. Every time he sent me a photo I was scared that this one would be the dick pic. It was often just a view of the harbour from his deck. You might say it was a deck pic. Just as I started to feel safe, like maybe I’d found a good one, he ghosted me and I thought I’d never get over it.
The grief wasn’t really over him. I barely knew him. It was more that he had lifted me out of my isolation long enough to be able to look down and see how alone I’d been, moments before dropping me back in it. It wasn’t just that I missed talking to him, it was that I now recognised my endless days as a gaping silence, and that silence rang in my ears like tinnitus.
I started swiping through photos of men holding fish. I matched with a few people who gave off safe vibes but was too scared to talk to any of them, so my friend Joan came out for coffee and moral support. We picked two matches and spent 20 minutes coming up with “Hey, how’s your weekend?” The first to reply told me he’d been “working on some documents”. I wrote several iterations of “What am I supposed to do with that information?” before backspacing and unmatching. The second was a very nice Italian who for the purposes of this essay we will call “Italy”. Italy and I got coffee after work. He had a 10/10 beard. He was interesting and a little sad, and I enjoyed our conversation even though he didn’t ask me a single question. When I checked my phone on the train home, my friends were in a chat group timing how long the date had been, surmising after a few hours that it must be going well. I told the committee of friends that it had been fun but I didn’t particularly need to do it again.
After the requisite 2-3 days, Italy texted to say he was sorry for being weird and rambly. He’d been nervous. He doesn’t date very often. He was nervous? I hadn’t been able to pick up my coffee for the first ten minutes because my hands were shaking. I’d assumed I was one of many women he’d been talking to, that he was rushing off to dates every week and wouldn’t miss me if I never texted again. I typed and deleted several times “Hey, you want to be friends?” I asked the friend committee, all more prolific daters, if that was an OK thing to say. The committee decided it was a little weird, and would be an impossible friendship to maintain. I figured that now I was a “casual dater” I couldn’t go around adding everyone on Facebook. Besides, I had another date lined up that night. I didn’t send the message.
The second date was American. We talked about morality, religion, whether perfection is possible, the dot in the yin yang symbol, and whether we’d renounce our beliefs to save our own lives. A brief glance at my phone showed the committee saying, “It’s been four hours!” I texted America a few days later, having decided not to defer to them this time, but to do what felt right to me: “Hey, you want to be friends?”
I started asking everyone I met about their experiences of dating over apps – even people I was on dates with. I had come to this late and felt like the new kid at school, trying to catch up on the social dynamics to find where I fit. The last time I was actively dating, there were no apps. I met people by walking into a new workplace/church/class and thinking, “Right. Who should I fall in love with?” I wanted to know the average users’ experience. How many matches was normal? How many conversations do you have going at one time? How many dates do you go on before having “the conversation”? The average users all seemed to agree that dating on apps leads to a kind of misanthropy, and tired resignation; you suffer through multiple awkward dates, you try so hard, and nothing ever works.
By this time, I’d gone out with a Kiwi, would have happily met up with a Croatian had he not turned out to be my friend’s brother, and finally delved into second date territory with an Aussie. In three weeks, I’d been on more dates than Italy had been on in two years. I couldn’t reconcile my experiences with the ones I was hearing. I’d not been sent a single dick pic or abusive message. I’d had so much fun with each person. Was this not normal? Where was the awkwardness, and the giving up, and the crying on the way home? I could barely remember what I’d been so afraid of. I wanted to ask my dates if they were tired of this, and if they’d had to drag themselves out to meet me, and if they’d go home feeling, once again, like there was no one out there. I also want to tell them I don’t feel that way, that I’m not nervous anymore, and that I kind of love them. How could I not? Maybe it’s just that I’m new to this and it’s still shiny to me. Or maybe it’s that everyone is smart and interesting and it’s such a joy to meet them.
Dating columns too seem peppered with despair. Sometimes I can sense that despair, at the edges of my vision, when I wonder if anything will stick, or if I’ll ever learn to like what’s good for me. And sometimes I worry that dating is unsustainable for me because I’m so deeply attached to everyone I’ve been on dates with, even if I never see them again. I hate the idea that I might be another sad Friday night to someone; just a picture in an app of someone whose name they can’t quite remember. If I’ve been on a date with someone, they’re memorable to me, they’re special and I hope they never get sick of my friendship. I still see and talk to most of them, and regularly wonder if, months on, it isn’t too late to message Italy to see if he wants to be friends.
The ghoster who started all this walked past me in the street yesterday. I kept my eyes forward and breezed past, flicking my hair, high-fiving myself for a being a strong female character. But really, I wanted to run back, to shake his shoulders and say, “You know me! I’ve had pictures of you in my phone. You’ve been to my house, and you’re just going to walk past?” But I also want to not yell. I want to forget that he hurt me and ask how his flatmates are, and if he still has to work those crazy hours, and if his sister got that house. I hate the idea of moving backwards from any level of intimacy, so I would forget everything he did, wipe the slate clean, for one more moment of friendship. If dating is unsustainable, it’s because I can’t go through life caring so deeply about so many people who I may never see again, and who might not care back.
If I could say anything to the ghoster, I’d say that I’d needed for us to work because I thought there was no one else, but I was wrong. There are so many lovely people, and I’ve been so lucky to meet the ones I have, and I haven’t yet reached the bottom of the barrel. Everyone is so easy to love.
Dating is such a generous thing, it’s such a kindness that people want to meet and listen to each other for a few hours. I want to know everyone, I want to know what you’re obsessed with, and how you got that scar. Tell me about your family. Fill me up with stories. Let me make you laugh.
This is part one of a new series on online dating. Read all instalments here.