It was a year ago when I started down this adventurous path of online dating. Our twelve months of separation had been completed and the settlement papers signed and sent to the court. It was time to move forward in the only way possible in the midst of a pandemic.
Don was the second guy I talked with on the phone from a dating site. New into the strange world of online dating, our phone conversation was much like the one with the first guy; it felt more like an interview than a casual get-to-know-you interaction. As a baby boomer, trying to get the hang of it at sixty-five, I wasn’t used to the directness of sizing up the potential match. Back in my day, the first conversations would be, “How do you like that math teacher?” or “Do you want to go to the early movie at the Wilrik and then get a hamburger at Hardee’s?”
In these days of dating as a ‘Young Senior’ a lot of profiles have statements like, “we don’t have time to waste.” And so with talking with these guys they get to, “what are you looking for?” “are you in good health?” at the very start.
Don had a nice voice– warm and melodic. Later, I’d find out he’d worked in radio and television–so his voice was trained. While he’d grown up in North Carolina like me, he hadn’t retained any regional accent– unlike me. We talked briefly about our careers, our children, activities we enjoyed–all things that were also on our profiles. Soon, Don made a point of our age difference; he was sixty.
“Would it bother you going out with a younger man?”
Jeez, it’s not like you’re forty-five, I thought. I’d set my age range for 60-67 after reading that most men, health-wise, are five years older than they’re age; that put both of us at sixty-five.
“No, that doesn’t bother me at all. But I won’t be the brunt of old person jabs,” I told him.
I could tell he’d done a lot of these conversation-interviews–and wasn’t sure how long he’d been on the site. I found myself waiting on his lead since he seemed so comfortable.
In the midst of his questions about health, medical history, I said that I’d had breast cancer many years ago, but that I was fine now. I wasn’t prepared for his next question.
“Did you have a mastectomy?”
I felt stunned that this stranger, whom I’d never met in person, had just started talking with on the phone, would ask me that. My male cousins, who have been like brothers, never asked that.
While people say I have courage, my response was that of a coward. I apologize, especially to those who’ve gone through breast cancer, that I was paralyzed–surprised by his candor, his unmasked curiosity, and valuing of my body. I was raised as a Southerner to be polite and tactful; you didn’t ask personal questions. When others’ didn’t exhibit the same value I was caught off guard.
“No, I didn’t,” I answered. “I had a lumpectomy.”
Look it up if you need to know what that is, I thought. I felt irritated at him, but also relieved to get beyond that question.
I probably should have ended the conversation. But I was new at the process and his general manner was not that of someone whom I immediately distrusted or disliked.
Eventually, he asked would I like to join him for a hike– one of the activities we’d both shared as interests on our profiles.
“I hike in Duke Forest every day. It’s near my house. You could join me.”
I’d done a reverse look up of his phone number–a safety measure to see if the guy was who he said he was. His address was for a neighborhood that was adjacent to the Forest–that includes 7,000 acres and stretches into three counties of central North Carolina. I considered his invitation and thought of being alone in those woods with that man. You could easily get lost in 7,000 acres– a missing body hard to find like those on Dateline.
“I’d rather meet at a park–like the Riverwalk Trail in Hillsborough,” I told him.
Better to have people nearby, a place I was familiar with and could easily escape if I needed to.
Don was fine with that suggestion and we agreed to meet for our walk the following afternoon.
I spotted him across the parking lot. He mostly looked like his profile pic–which was reassuring. He was his stated height–no averaging up, and appeared to be the 6 ‘ 2″. We greeted each other, taking off our sunglasses and starting into that initial discomfort that is meeting someone for the first time. He pointed the way to the trail entrance. When I stepped forward, he put a proprietary hand to the small of my back.
Slow down, fellow. I just said “Hello” to you, I thought. I walked faster to loosen that hand from my back. He’s just too eager. The hairs on my neck stood in agreement.
We walked up the path on what was a weather-perfect late afternoon in October. I tried to relax and just enjoy the beauty of the park and the fact that I’d taken my first step– my first meeting with an online date. Don talked about his love of nature that he captured in photography which I’d seen on his website.
We walked up a hilly section and he suddenly stopped and looked down at me.
“What?” I said, and searched his face to find a clue as to why he was stopping.
“You really do hike,” he answered.
“Well, yeah,” I responded. “That’s what I put in my profile.”
“The last woman I met here, she said she hiked, too. But she had to sit down.”
We’d reached the benches where she’d taken a break.
“That’s good that you’re in shape,” he said.
Must be surprised that a sixty-five-year old can do that, I thought. I had a long stride and even at 5′ 6″– I could match him toe-to-toe. Don’t underestimate an older woman!
We reached a grove of river birch trees, dappled in the slanting sunlight, the leaves starting to become more golden. There was a slight breeze, the air buoyant with possibility.
Don stopped again and got out his phone.
“Come stand here,” he said. “I want to take your picture.”
Oh no, he doesn’t realize I’m not fond of having my picture made–and hardly ever take selfies. What’s he going to do with my photo?
“Those are gorgeous trees. Why don’t you just take it of them?” I offered.
“No–stand right here. That light looks so good on you,” he said and gently turned my shoulders to the angle he wanted.
It felt like a moment for a couple who’d been together for a while–not one who’d just met and was taking a first walk on a fall afternoon. His eagerness, his personal questions, that proprietary hand in the parking lot all felt a bit creepy. I was starting to feel tired–not from the exertion of the walk but from the emotional exertion of getting to know Eager Don.
We walked back to the park entrance and he suggested we sit and talk at a picnic table by the trail. Sitting diagonally across from each other, he continued trying to get to know me better.
“And what is it you’re wanting from a relationship, Connie?”
By that point, I’d learned Don had been divorced for years and was ready to find someone.
“Well, I’m just getting started at this. I want to date for a while and hopefully find a new love–eventually.”
We discussed what he meant by “seeking a serious relationship” which he’d put on his profile. I’d never talked about those kind of things with any guy on a first date, a first meeting; that wasn’t what we did when I last dated at twenty-two.
After a while he said, “You’re like a breath of fresh air. Connie. You’re more honest than most of the women I’ve met.”
That wasn’t creepy; that was nice.
I thanked him for the compliment; no one had ever referred to me as “like a breath of fresh air.” How good that felt.
It was starting to get dark and time to leave. We headed back to the car and he mentioned the possibility of another walk. I found my car key in my pocket and had it in hand, ready to end our time together. When we reached my car, I immediately put the key in the door. He leaned in close and I ignored him, opening the door and getting in.
“What? No hug because of Covid?” he said, frustration in his voice.
I wasn’t expecting that. Guess our first date hadn’t seemed like it and didn’t merit that goodnight kiss at the front door like when I last dated.
“No– I guess not,” I mumbled.
I drove away, glad to end that first date with my first online guy. How awkward it had been as the newbie with a veteran who was ready to end his search. We would talk on the phone once more, schedule and cancel another walk, and then we disappeared from each other’s sites. What remained was the creepy feeling of being put on the spot, of conventional boundaries being ignored, of being evaluated for my online dating market value. But what also remained were his words that had been reinforcing, echoing in the breeze through the river birch trees– “You’re like a breath of fresh air.”