I can say with conviction that the only reason I made an online dating profile was because of my roommate.
Clarissa was 37, she had a job she liked, she had two dogs, and she owned the house in which I had been renting a room for the past three months in Portland, Oregon’s deep southeast side. Romance was the one thing missing in her life, and she wasn’t having any luck meeting anyone offline. This was most likely due to the fact that we spent most of our weekend nights on the couch in our living room, getting high and making fun of television infomercials while her mini-mini dachshund Bella—short for “Tinkerbella”—napped in a ball between us. (For those not in the know, a mini-mini dachshund is one size below a mini dachshund.) If not touching a human at all times, Bella would piddle on the floor.
I had moved to Portland a couple months before finding Clarissa on Craigslist, and hadn’t been dating much. This was fine with me. I moved west for the same reason any jobless Midwesterner moves west: To escape the person I had become in my last failed relationship. But when Clarissa suggested creating an online dating profile for herself, I jumped at the opportunity to help.
We stood flamingo-legged in the kitchen, sipping from glasses of red wine and hovering over her laptop, propped open on the counter. I helped her pick out her username and scoured her Facebook page for profile-worthy photos.
“What’s the first thing people notice about you when they see you?” she read aloud from the website’s prompt.
“Your hair,” I said. “Use this photo of you with that hair in the wind. Yeaahhh—that one. That’s good there’s a guy with you in it, too. Makes you look desirable.”
“That’s my brother.”
All told, we spent over an hour on her profile, and when that was finished we still had half a bottle of wine left, so with a little prodding I agreed we could create one for me too. After that, looking at the site together immediately became our new favorite hobby. Most weeknights we would come home from work, she at a local accounting firm and me at a winery’s tasting room, where I poured glasses for rich couples and made up names of various exotic fruits they should supposedly be able to taste. We would then pour the leftover tasting room wine, and scour the website together for eligible bachelors.
“Oh, okay, okay, look at this one,” she would say, as if we were online shopping for a couch. “Great coloring, super build, oh wait never mind he’s too short. Damn. Why can’t you put in ‘over six feet’ in the search criteria?”
The site worked. We each started going out on one or two dates a week. Even once we learned their real names, even if we had been out with them a couple times, we still referred to the men by their OK Cupid handles around the house.
“Who are you going out with tonight?”
“Oh yeah, totally, Bestusername. He’s cute! I’ve got BurritoFanatic.”
The men I went on dates with were, for the most part, attractive and kind. They all had jobs and took good care of their appearance, and were interesting and smart. Probably any of them would have made a good boyfriend, but at the time I couldn’t comprehend getting close to someone like that. I was honest with none of them. I would lie regularly, as a sort of secret game to play with myself—about what I did for work, what my interests were, where I was from. Even inconsequential things like my middle name. I wasn’t too creative, I just wanted to keep the men at a distance—they couldn’t reject me if I didn’t even let them know me.
It’s hard to say what exactly went wrong in the relationship I had before moving to Portland, how it gradually deteriorated over the course of the year we spent together, but in any event it ended with me drunk, screaming at him—from his front yard, and for the whole neighborhood to hear—that I wished I were dead. He let me stay the night, but I was so drunk that I pissed the bed. So, that was fun.
I met Jason about a month after I joined OK Cupid. I had grown so used to seeing a person’s credentials laid out like a resume online that it felt like a strange novelty to meet someone in real life. We met on an airplane. We were both flying down to Long Beach to visit friends. His move was to simply stare at me as I boarded the plane. He was in his seat before me, and as I walked past him to file into my seat at the back of the plane, he just silently mouthed the word, “Hi.”
After the plane landed, he waited for me at baggage claim. He said it out loud this time: “Hi.” He told me he was a rapper and that he worked for a modeling agency. He had blue eyes like a Huskie dog. I gave him my phone number.
When I got back to town, he called and suggested dinner for one night later that week. I accepted, and when he came to the door, Clarissa answered. She was staying in that night. She would later tell me that the smell of his cologne lingered in our living room for several hours after he left.
He wore a freshly ironed blue collared shirt, to match his eyes, and khaki slacks. He had gel in his hair to make it spike up, in the style of early-2000’s boy band musicians. When we got to the street out in front of my house, he motioned to a big dump truck with the words, 1-800-GOT-JUNK printed on the side. I recognized the logo from the back-to-back episodes of Hoarders I sometimes watched when I had insomnia. Jason gave me a boost up with his hands cupped together, like he was helping me hop a fence.
Once seated inside the vehicle, I received a text message from Clarissa, who was watching from the window: “Is that a 1-800-GOT-JUNK truck!?!?”
“You know it, bitch!” I wrote back. I realized then that the reason I chose to go out with most of the men I chose to go out with was for Clarissa’s sake—to make her laugh, or feel surprise, or otherwise entertain her.
In the car, I asked him what kind of modeling his agency focused on.
“Like, editorial or…?”
“It’s like an adult webcam site, you know?” he said, fingering his watch, a Rolex he had scored from a 1-800-GOT-JUNK cleanup.
We didn’t make it another two blocks before he also confessed that he is a convicted felon who spent four years in prison.
“Me and my friends were trying to dine and dash from this restaurant, right? We were like 16. But the manager ran outside and chased us, and I accidentally—accidentally—ran over her foot, okay? And then I got tried as an adult for attempted vehicular manslaughter.”
“So I spent the years 18-22 in jail.”
I felt bad for him. I told him those were the same years I spent in college.
“Yep. No college for me. But I read all the time in there. That’s how I got my education. I read a book a day.”
I fell in love with him a little bit in that moment. I pictured a cinematic montage of him alternating between doing pull-ups with the bars in his cell, and lying on his back on a jail bed reading the great philosophers, and big ambitious novels by Dickens and Tolstoy. Maybe Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
“My favorite was Dean Koontz,” he said, with a grin.
It was about at this point I realized we had been driving for quite a while, and that we were no longer within Portland’s city limits.
“Where are we going?” I asked, hoping to sound casual.
“This place—Bridgeport Village. It’s where all the restaurants are.”
Hmm. The Portland I knew had restaurants on every corner, and smoky little whiskey bars, tapas places and dessert places. And I’d never been anywhere outside the city limits in the months I’d been in town. This man either had some secret intel on Portland restaurant dining, I realized, or he was taking me somewhere to kill me.
To this day, sitting in that 1-800-GOT-JUNK truck, cruising down 1-5 South was the one and only time I’ve ever seriously contemplated jumping out of a moving vehicle.
I texted Clarissa.
“Have you ever heard of ‘Bridgeport Village’???”
“Haha—classy. Unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks on the first date?”
Relieved by her obvious familiarity, I eased my grip on the door handle.
Indeed, once we got to our destination, the neon Olive Garden sign loomed large. It was on the perimeter of a forest of chain restaurants that also included Chili’s, the Macaroni Grill and Joe’s Crab Shack.
“We can go around and look at the menus outside, then pick which one we want.” He had a big grin on his face, and expectancy in his eyes, like he’d taken me to a tucked-away street in Paris, or Italy, where a man and a woman would stroll around and look at the menus, maybe stop and listen to a violinist playing some concerto on the street.
He took my hand, and we strolled across a couple vast parking lots to check out the menus, all advertising roughly the same entrees: flatbread pizzas, grilled chicken, margaritas. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant we eventually picked, but I ordered a large and mediocre salad, and he had macaroni and cheese.
I was 23 years old at the time, right at the tail end of the period where I felt I needed my parents’ approval for who I dated. Even if I had been able to look past his felony conviction and budding porn empire, I knew they wouldn’t. The date was over before it began. And because of that, because I knew I would never see him again, I was able to loosen up a lot more than I did on most of my OK Cupid dates.
I did what I always want to be doing, all the time, with everyone: I grilled him about his past and his deepest inner wounds.
“Do your parents love each other?”
“I don’t know; I never met my dad.”
“Are you mad at your web-cam model ex-girlfriend for stealing your money?”
“No, not really.”
“Did prison make you racist?”
“What, on this Earth, are you most afraid of?”
He contemplated this for a moment, then made a cringing face and answered, “Spiders.”
I inhaled red wine through my nose, laughing at this. “The man who spent four years in prison is afraid of spiders,” I said.
“You know, they have really bad spiders in prison.”
He didn’t ask me too many questions, but told me he liked me at the airport because I was wearing glasses. “I could tell you’re intelligent,” he said. I built off that, lying to him and telling him I was applying to graduate schools and didn’t have much free time for dating in the next few weeks.
“What are you going to take?”
“Probably Ancient Mayan Studies. That or ballet. I can’t decide.”
The only true thing I told him was that my most recent relationship hurt me badly. “All men are jerks,” I stupidly muttered.
“Yeah, but all women are liars,” he said, grinning. Then he asked me if I wanted to see a movie, at the giant megaplex just one parking lot away. Why not, I figured. Rather than bowing to my regular crippling anxiety about revealing any preferences whatsoever on an early date, I told him immediately that I wanted to see It’s Kind of a Funny Story—the Zach Galifianakis movie about a children’s mental health unit.
“I think I’ll relate to it,” I told Jason.
“Because I’m crazy.”
As long as someone’s not completely terrible, it’s always nice to be sitting in a dark movie theater next to a guy. I let him hold my hand, and talk throughout the duration of the movie, which allowed his pasta breath to waft into my ear. I didn’t mind too much, but made a mental note to rent the movie on Redbox when it came out on DVD, so I could watch it in peace, with a glass of wine and Bella trembling on my lap, the way God intended.
When we got to my house around 11pm, Clarissa was still up, watching workout infomercials with Bella wedged between the back of the couch and her thigh.
“How was it?” she asked.
I had been waiting all night for the chance to get home and lay my winning hand out on the living room coffee table: convicted felon, runs a porn website, drives the junk truck. I had imagined her reaction, and the laugh we would have, and the ensuing hour we would spend on the site, looking for my next date. But I was tired. Of dating, lying, running from myself—all of it.
“Eh, not the one,” I said with a wry smile, then excused myself to go to bed.
That night, in my sleep, I saw Jason in my dream. His blue eyes looked right at me—not the character of me acting in my dream, but the actual me, the sleeping watcher watching the dream.
“You need to stop objectifying men,” he said.
Then he got in his JUNK truck and drove off, into the sunset.