Love in Cyberspace: The Pandemic Perils of Internet Romance

Updated: Feb 14


I fell in love on a dating site. Don’t tell me it’s ridiculous – I already know. The whole phenomenon of falling in love is ridiculous, whether it happens on the Internet or anywhere else. Romance is just nature’s way of fooling people into making babies; I’m past the age for that, but I guess I'm still a fool. The intoxication of connecting with someone who likes your looks, gets your jokes, and wants the same things that you do is enough to make you forget all those other times you fell in love, and landed with thump. This time, it’s the real thing.


According to the site’s screening algorithm, we’re a 98 % match. I concur; he’s fit, funny, educated, and accomplished. He has five rescue dogs and wants to live in the woods, plant a garden and maybe even live off-grid, like I do. He’s retired comfortably from a career as an engineer, and his profile says he can build or fix anything with the help of Google and Youtube (that’s a real turn on). And he has these adorable little crinkles around his eyes.


Now, I know that photographs, text and FaceTime don’t really add up to a whole person. Until you’ve actually logged a few hours side by side, until you have shared a few roadblocks, pit stops, and pile-ups on the road of life, you can’t really know somebody. But in these pandemic days of social distancing, we have to make do. We stare into our phones, read between the lines, send links and playlists, and hope for the best. Think about it: in the old days, people got engaged via mail order. Sometimes, it even worked out.


Our first text exchange had me furiously pounding my keyboard with answers to his questions, delighted by his insightful, sensitive replies. We explored each other’s histories, backgrounds and beliefs, each exchange revealing a comfortable compatibility. I don’t remember what we talked about on our first phone call, but I laughed myself sore, and when I looked at the clock, I saw we’d been talking for almost four hours.


Over the next couple of days, the wonders of modern technology allowed us to communicate constantly through our phones. Opinions and perceptions, concepts and confessions flowed through cyberspace at an astonishing rate, each one a captivating clue to the unfolding of personality. The first of our FaceTime calls occurred by serendipity, when I pocket-dialled him while at work. The sudden sight of his face on my screen, the warm tone of his voice, brought him as surely into my world as if he’d been standing right there in the room – along with an uncanny sense that we were continuing a conversation we’d been having for many years. He told me I looked cute in my mask. I wanted to take it off.


During our second “face-to-face,” we discussed logistical barriers, including the fact that he lives 1000 miles away and we are living in the middle of a pandemic. He charmingly brushed these details aside, telling me that he loves rom-coms, and everything always works out in the end. We discussed the possibility of meeting halfway across the province, in some beautiful locale, when lock-down restrictions ease. I can wait, because anticipation is a pleasure in itself.


On our third FaceTime adventure, he showed me around his house; I showed him around mine. I met his rescue dogs; he met my rescue cats. I had to get ready for work, but hated to end the conversation, so I turned the camera to the wall while I dressed. It felt completely natural to be chatting with him while I sat on the toilet and had a quick pee. I let him watch me putting perfume behind my ears and he commented on my neckline. I can’t wait to – er – meet him.

So what’s a nice girl like me doing, trawling the Internet for love? In the midst of pandemic paranoia, online dating has become a substitute for face-to-face flirting. I signed up four months ago, when social isolation started to wear on me. Since then I’ve scrolled dozens, maybe hundreds of profiles, searching for “the one.” I’ve only had four dates, mind you. I’m cautious, since this isn’t my first rodeo. In fact, Internet dating is one of the reasons I swore off men entirely, took up yoga and meditation, and got a therapist.


My divorce might have had something to do with it, too. That was nine years ago; but the failure of a marriage has a way of poisoning the psyche, making you doubt yourself, and the prospect of true love. Post-divorce loneliness can blind a person to the dangers of trying again, however; shortly after the split, I signed up for Match.com, and met Nino.


Nino – a.k.a. Nono – was a South American soil scientist with dark eyes, white teeth, and a big smile. He was bilingual, a rock climber, and an avid reader. He brought me flowers and chocolate on our first date, and took me to the mountains to see a waterfall. We went salsa dancing and star gazing together. He wore a suit when I introduced him to my parents. When my garage door broke, he said he would fix it. It was the real thing.


But then he started texting me twenty times a day, asking where I’d been and whom I was with. Phoning me at odd hours of the night to see if I was sleeping in my own bed. Sending me multiple emails explaining his suspicions, fears, and complexes. He broke down crying when I protested.


I gave him his walking papers, and then came home one day to find him in my garage (the door still wasn’t fixed). He was sitting in a lawn chair surrounded by gifts of lingerie and flowers. I called the police.


He left, but I had to change my phone number and email address because he continued to bombard me with pleas to reconsider. He sent me gifts through the mail, which included books on how to get over my intimacy issues. He found my sister’s workplace phone number, called her and begged her to talk some sense into me. He turned up at my door again and again, even under threat of a restraining order. It took five years and two more police interventions to make him stop.


After all that, I was glad to have Saturday nights to myself. Being single isn’t so bad; you can eat what you want, go where you want, and when you come home, everything is exactly the way you left it. It took awhile, but I’ve gotten comfortable in my own skin, and any company I allow into my life will now have to compete with the pleasure I find in my own.


When the pandemic hit, I got restless, taking long drives west and walking in the woods alone. It was probably on one of these excursions when I remembered that pleasures are greater when shared. I’m not the same person I was when my marriage crumbled, and I went looking for love in all the wrong places; maybe if I try again, I’ll choose more wisely, and have more to offer the other person.


I talked it over with a pal at work. She’s been a little distracted lately – always staring into her phone. “I joined a dating app. Everybody’s doing it,” she said, and showed me a long list of potential matches with whom she is texting daily. “I have a date next Wednesday. He’s a firefighter,” she said, displaying a pic of a shirtless dude with washboard abs and a boyish grin. She was glowing.


“What about the pandemic?” I asked.

“You can still go for a walk with somebody,” she replied. “It’s fine if you follow the guidelines. Anyway, it’s kind of fun. The pandemic makes it so you actually have to get to know somebody before you wind up in the sack.”


OK, so sign me up. The next few days found me on my phone every spare chance I got. First, I had to pick the right pictures of myself to post: recent, flattering, and approachable. Then, filling out the profile, which hopefully would attract the right prospect and filter out the rest. On the first day I posted it, dozens of “likes” came through, a rush of dopamine with every one. The trauma of Nono faded into the background as I scrolled, resolving to be more discriminating this time, to really get to know a man before I gave him my phone number or address.


There was no lack of likely, and not so likely, candidates. First, the editing process: those who provided no biographical information and considered photos of themselves without shirts to be sufficient advertisement were toast. The next to go were those whose photos included dead animals or fish. Then there were the fellas pictured with some combination of beer, hockey or football in every frame.


After that, it was time to read the fine print. Spelling and grammatical errors were a definite red flag: “Need a good wommen.” Not this one, thanks. Some profiles seemed insincere and generic: “Looking for you.” Others were bathed in gooey drivel seemingly poached from a Harlequin romance: “Let’s watch the sun set together, and kiss by the light of the moon.” Similarly, I was unconvinced by gentlemen who emphasized their ability to “Please the ladies” and/or “give good massages.” These kinds of descriptions seemed to point to quantity, not quality, and nobody is coming near my body anyway unless I first like the contents of his brain.


Then there were those whose book-length biographies, advertising their achievements, political views, or spiritual beliefs, had the unintentional effect of lulling me to sleep. Reading between the lines of others who demanded “loyalty” and slammed “liars” reminded me of the dreaded Nono, and they were put aside with a shudder. In the end I wound up with a list of potential matches with a wry and witty novelist, a sensitive wildlife photographer, an adventurous financier, and a burly ex-oilman.


The writer and I connected with ease, exchanging anecdotes via text and email, but he lives in San Francisco. We joked about the formidable barriers between us, including a closed border, a pandemic, and a sixteen-year age gap. Never mind; I was envisioning a literary liaison a la Henry Miller and Anais Nin, where each of us would be inspired to out-write each other, meeting for passionate adventures whenever possible. He mentioned Rome; well, stranger things have happened. We might write our own romance there.


Sadly, I proved less liberated than my inspiration. One night, I slapped his cyber-wrist for repartee I was afraid was leading to a request for premature cyber-sex. Also, it became clear that these sexy texts were occurring while he was hosting a dinner party for his bubble. I told him I didn’t approve of cell phones at the table, and the flame was, effectively, doused.


The wildlife photographer seemed more promising. Maybe we’d hike the West Coast Trail together, and make love under the stars. After a few texts and a phone call, we met in the park for a walk. It was uncomfortable, though; he seemed distracted and nervous. We wound up at an outdoor café, struggling through conversation about environmentalism and Thoreau when he suddenly burst into tears. “That’s my ex-mother-in-law over there,” he said, pointing towards an opposite table, where a frowning matron was eyeing us suspiciously. “I’m sorry,” he said. “My divorce papers just came through.” I drained my coffee, went home and started scrolling again.


Now, the dating app I use shows when your potential match also has it open, via a little green dot that appears beside his name; it seemed my writer friend in San Francisco was scrolling too. I didn’t begrudge him, especially after I was contacted by the dashing Rafael. His profile stated that he was a retired businessman and former fencing champion who spoke five languages and spent his spare time cave diving.


Our first phone conversation had him offering gentlemanly advice on maintaining my vehicle for winter safety - sure evidence of a chivalrous heart. We met for a stroll in an indoor garden, where I discovered him to be well read, highly intelligent, and utterly charming, with a strong Italian accent and a sophisticated sense of humour.


He showed me pictures of his 60-foot sailboat, which has been docked in Thailand since last year, when Co-vid had brought his maiden voyage around the world to a halt. He also showed me pictures of his first mate; she wore a string bikini and a big smile. “We are looking for a second mate,” he said, winking. Tempting, but maybe too much of a good thing. I went home and started scrolling again.

By now, in addition to the actual dates I’d had, I’d also invested several hours messaging those fellas who didn’t make the cut for a face-to-face. There was the anti-masker and conspiracy theorist; the lonely widower; the alcoholic cowboy; the art-snob gallery owner, among others. My finger was getting sore from scrolling.


Maybe my standards were slipping, but I allowed myself to get embroiled in communications with a fellow I damn well knew wasn’t my type – the ex-oilman, who is all about fast cars, footwear, and designer labels. Feeling a little like a slut, I wore high heels when we met for a beer at a local pub; he turned up looking about ten years older and thirty pounds heavier than his photographs.


I felt weird. I hadn’t been to a bar since the start of the pandemic, and nobody seemed to be social distancing. He tried to play footsie while name-dropping a string of famous people he hangs out with, and wondered aloud what I’d look like in Lulu Lemon. He gave me advice on keeping a man: “Always make him feel wanted.” He said he knew how to keep a woman: “Always make her feel safe.” He insisted on holding my hand as I walked back to my car; I sanitized, went home and started scrolling again.


But the fun has kind of gone out of it. Maybe dopamine is like heroin; after a while, the same dose just doesn’t deliver the same hit. The green dot told me that my writer friend in San Francisco was still on the prowl; I wished him well, hoping he was having better luck than me. I scrolled more profiles, but adopted a policy from my friend at work, who by now is also experiencing dating-app fatigue: “If it’s not a HELL YEAH, then it’s a NO.” Actual days have gone by where I haven’t even opened the app. Maybe I’ll meet him while I’m walking in the woods, I was thinking. Or at the grocery store. Or maybe I won’t meet him at all. That’s OK. I have my cats.


And then, I got a message from Him. The real thing. I reviewed his profile, which I’d “liked” some time before, and then forgotten. The pictures weren’t much – but I could see character and experience in his face, and lots of trees in the background. I like trees. And I liked him, right off the bat; we’ve been blowing up each other’s phones ever since. He challenges my intellect, strokes my ego, and gets my references. So what if he lives a thousand miles away. In a rom-com, everything always works out in the end.


I drove to work yesterday humming to myself. We can do this, I was thinking. We’ll visit via FaceTime every day, and meet as often as we can until the pandemic is over. By then, we’ll have a plan. We’ll buy a piece of land - someplace beautiful, of course. We’ll watch sunsets and kiss by the light of the moon and give each other massages. We’ll build a house and plant a garden and sit by the fire at night, reading. Maybe we’ll even go off-grid; after all, he can build or fix anything. I can’t wait to see him in a tool-belt.


I sent him a bunch of photos yesterday afternoon, just to make him smile. He didn’t reply, though; maybe he was busy. I wasn’t really worried, until I opened the dating app a few hours later and noticed the little green dot beside his name. Well, that’s okay; I still have a few threads hanging out there in cyberspace too. I don’t own the guy, after all.


But I checked first thing this morning, and there was that little green dot again. Four hours later, he’s still cruising, and he hasn’t gotten back to me. I reviewed his profile again; the little crinkles beside his eyes are still there, but I can’t tell what he’s thinking. And wait a minute – didn’t he say he was born in 1961? On his profile, it says he’s 53. Who is this person – really?


I’ve got to get going. My garage door is broken again, and a guy is showing up here any minute now to fix it. I found him on the Internet, and I hope he doesn’t overcharge me. Last time, it cost a couple hundred bucks. Maybe he’ll turn out to be cute; stranger things have happened.


After that, I have a date with a frozen pizza. I'm going to enjoy it in front of the TV, watching Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck fall in love on their “Roman Holiday.” Then I’ll probably start scrolling again.



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LESLIE ALEXANDER

WRITER, MUSICIAN & NURSE.

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