After years alone, on the cusp of my 35th birthday, I was serious. I'd learned that letting myself kiss the wrong guy set in motion a sort of unwitting hormonal bonding stronger than rational thinking. If I was going to meet the right man, I decided, I needed to remain chemical-free, to think clearly, to get to know him first.
I didn't understand this in my 20s. Back then, I'd followed the Hollywood movie model wherein men and women tend to tumble into bed, then into love, and finally into marriage. The string of breakups I endured demonstrated that, for me at least, this strategy wasn't working.
My frequent experiences with the Wrong Man also taught me what I wanted this time around. I was looking for someone who could see my best self despite my imperfections. A gentle but strong man with the capacity to become as deeply devoted to me as I would be to him. In a word: available. I suspected it might take awhile to find him in greater Los Angeles, and I was right.
To get started, I posted an ad on an online dating site. I asked a girlfriend to take a picture of me bathed in late afternoon sunlight and wore the most glamorous smile I could muster. I stated that I wanted a man who "somehow manages to strike that tricky balance of being both dependable and spontaneous. Or who can happily tolerate both of these aspects in me."
I got a lot of responses right off the bat. Some were ludicrous, like the 50-something guy in a Hawaiian shirt who offered to fly me to Vegas for the weekend. I deleted far more than I answered. But Week One still found me on dates with 14 men at local coffee shops. In Week Two, I slowed down to seven. I shook hands with a Danish architect and an hour later zoomed across town to meet a swoony soap opera actor. The next day was tea with an airfreight handler, followed that evening by a walk with a real estate lawyer. I dated aerospace engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, an oceanographer, film animators, a romantic man who lived impecuniously on a boat, and a self-proclaimed gazillionaire who resided atop a mountain.
"Are you insane?" my astonished girlfriends said, laughing.
I was overwhelmed but exhilarated. And I overdid it. At the end of Week One, I startled friends and myself by bursting uncontrollably into tears. A lifetime of pent-up loneliness came unglued all at once. Then I hit a groove. No matter how the date went, I reminded myself I was taking a stand for what I wanted.
And I tried to relax. I steadied myself right before each new hello. Nothing was worse or more exquisite than my date's first flicker of disappointment or approval. If he clearly wasn't interested—like the swing-dancing entertainment lawyer or the Harvard-educated wine expert—then he was simply another woman's catch. I got out of her way. I knew I'd meet someone else tomorrow. Even if a first date wasn't fantastic, I tended to accept second dates to make sure I hadn't been too hasty in my judgment. About four or five men survived through fourth or fifth dates before I said goodbye. The thing I liked best about my whole dating project was that it validated that nagging sense I'd had for years: Every Saturday night I'd spent alone or with girlfriends, I'd believed there had to be several thousand potential dates out there for me, somewhere. It turns out I was right.
To date so many men, I needed to be honest in a new way. In my 20s, when the wrong man asked me out, I usually lied. I was either (a) busy, (b) dating someone else, or (c) moving to Siberia for a year. Sensing my fib, some men refused to let go. A few talked me into dates or, worse, relationships. I marvel to think I left the nest without ever learning how to verbalize my own needs and desires.
One of my earliest electronic dates taught me about honesty. "It was really nice to meet you," the tall, good-looking athlete wrote me in an e-mail after Date Number Two, "but I didn't feel that indescribable something that would tell me we're a match."
I sat there looking at my computer screen. He had found the words to describe my own sentiments. I didn't feel rejected. I felt liberated by his courage. Better yet, I stole his line.
A handsome telecommunications executive I met over a drink at a restaurant one evening looked and sounded far less alluring to me a few days later in the sober light of day. In a subsequent telephone conversation, my whole body tensed while I told him that I didn't get the sense he was the right one and that I didn't want either of us to waste precious time. I wished him well. He sounded a little startled. But the discomfort was short-lived. We were both free.
It's embarrassing to admit that I was learning the very basics about personal boundaries at the age of 34. But it was also a thrill. Like a suit of comfortable, lightweight body armor, my newly declared boundaries kept me safe.
At times my faith flagged, like when the well-spoken National Guard pilot bought me a single California roll for dinner and called for the check. Phew. Rejection in a bit of raw fish. The best remedy was always the next date. When the soap opera actor or the triathlete didn't call—both of whom had looked deep into my eyes and proclaimed their attraction to me—I did nothing. I let them go. I wanted a man whose actions matched his words.
The initial frenzy mellowed to a couple of dates a month, and one sunny Sunday afternoon in late summer, I met Johanne. I had, by this time, trained myself to listen closely to what my deepest instincts said in the first nanosecond of meeting a man. "Hmm...maybe," I thought when I spied him waiting across the Art Deco lobby of a seaside hotel. With every subsequent date, the voice grew surer.
I never expected my man would come from a faraway continent where he was raised on a tea plantation, but he does. We can talk and play and work things out together. We have each finally found a home in the other.
Johanne says he's more confident in my feelings for him, knowing I looked long and hard to find him. He's right. The parade of men who preceded him helped me know myself better. They repeatedly tested my ability to speak up or to stay quiet when I needed to. They certainly taught me to appreciate the man who, in the end, answered not only my ad but my dreams.
Finding—and keeping—the love of your life