This isn’t the first time I’ve tried dating via online personal ads. I first tried it long ago – when we rode saddled dinosaurs to school, accessed the internet via dialup, and still believed man would someday go back into space – in a time otherwise known as “The 1990’s.”
In those dark days uploading highly pixilized digital photos was a rare phenomenon. The online personal ads had strict word limits, reminiscent of an even earlier era when people actually printed ads on grey wood pulp in a thing called a “newspaper.” These “newspapers” evolved into mechanisms for distributing sunday grocery coupons and car advertisements before eventually fading into nothing but a blurry memory, but the personal ads lived on via the internet.
In those primitive times, between hand weaving mammoth fur to make my own garments and reading cuneiform tablets during my first year of graduate school, I posted a few ads on the shiny new free classifieds over at Yahoo. Yes, this was so long ago Yahoo was actually a well respected company. The 1990’s were strange days indeed.
One of my first half dozen replies was from a clever, witty IBM coder with a fantastic profile. He sent me two sentences – “When and where do we meet? You sound wonderful.” Whoo hoo! (That’s what we said before “woot,” kids.) My first few random dates had been pretty dull (a primitive word for “meh”), but his profile looked fantastic. I couldn’t wait to meet.
I suggested we visit an amazing hole-in the-wall Ethiopian restaurant. They only had 10 tables and the waitstaff all knew me personally. The way I saw it, worst case scenario I’d still enjoy a good meal. Plus, I’d taken all three of my previous blind dates there. The horrified waitresses promised they’d give the police a full description of my latest date whenever they found my body, so I always tipped well.
Naive as I was, I did understand there is always a little exaggeration in the personals, but as I sat at my table near the door, I didn’t see anyone who met the physical description from the website. Most of them were other regulars I’d seen before. I was about to give up and order some takeout when the waitress brought over a short, nervous man. His pants were so tight the interior of his pockets gaped white against his thighs. This was a stark contrast to the oversized jacket he’d rolled up twice at the cuffs. Underneath, he wore a plain white t-shirt, tucked in.
He asked my name. Behind him, the waitress shook her head and drew one finger across her throat. I thought about pretending I didn’t know who he was talking to, but hey, I know coders. They can be a little fashion challenged. Might as well give the guy a chance.
“Hi, David. It’s me.” I waved at the seat opposite me. The waitress rolled her eyes and twirled a finger around near her temple in the universal symbol of Crazy White Girl. Actually, I get that a lot.
He shuffled uncomfortably. “Uh, my name’s Mike.”
That was odd. But whatever – maybe he didn’t want his coworkers to know he was on a dating site. Back in the 1990’s, dating sites didn’t advertise on television, and if you met someone via the internet, you came up with a convincing story to tell your friends and family and you stuck with it for life.”So, um, Mike, I’m glad you like Ethiopian food. This is one of my favorite restaurants in town.”
He swallowed hard. “Uh, is the food real spicy?”
The waitress came back. “You have never eaten here before.” It wasn’t a question. She took our menus away. “I know what you like.” She patted my shoulder like I was an obedient child. “Mixed platter for two, extra lentils.”
“What’s a lentil?” asked Mike.
”It is not a meat or vegetable or bread. It is the other food.” She disappeared.
I couldn’t disagree with her. I love my legumes. This guy, on the other hand, looked queasy at the thought of what “the other food” might mean.”
“So, what’s your favorite coding language?” I thought I’d get him back on comfortable ground. Instead, he looked panicked.
”I…uh… don’t really do much with computers.”
The waitress came back with two steaming hot mugs of spiced tea, no sugar. It smelled of cardamom, cinnamon, and anise. Mike stared into his like he expected a tentacle to writhe up from the fluid. He asked for some water. The waitress gave me another “don’t make us identify your body” look.
I took a drink of my tea and sighed. I may be naive, but I’m not actually stupid. “Do you even work for IBM?”
“Yes.” He looked defensive.
”What do you do?” I asked.
”Why’s it matter?”
He cut me off. “I saw your ad in the trash. David printed it out with a bunch of other ones. I write the women he throws away.”
It was my turn to be caught off guard.
Nope, Mike wasn’t the sci-fi loving coder who enjoyed spicy food, skiing and scintillating syntax. He hadn’t graduated from high school, much less college. In fact, he was a computer illiterate janitor at the IBM campus.
”David goes out with a different girl each week.” Mike looked bitter. “It ain’t fair. I got a buddy with a computer at home. I get him useful stuff out of the trash and he writes to David’s rejects for me. If you’re not good enough for him, you’re probably like me, right?”
I was stunned. “Did you even read my ad?”
The waitress had sat down at the table behind us during his revelation. She and the couples at the tables nearest us weren’t even pretending not to listen in. As soon as he finished, she quickly whipped around us with our shared tray of spicy delights.
”Uh, we don’t have any forks,” said Mike. “And where’s my water?”
The waitress ripped off a piece of injera, deftly snatched three things on the platter into one neat bite, and popped it into his mouth. “Like that. Eat with the bread and your hands.” The bite fell out of his mouth and onto his lap. The people behind us coughed in disbelief. I ripped off a piece of injera and scooped up a bit of lamb and lentils. He just glared.
The food was great. Lamb, carrots, lentils – all a little spicier than I usually ordered. I’d have to kick it up a notch next time. Mike looked like he’d been poisoned.
”So, do you like being a janitor?” I really wasn’t sure where to take the conversation.
”I’m more like a spy.” His face lit up for the first time. “I know everything about everybody in that building. I see what they throw away. I see what they hide in their desks. I could testify against any one of them, secretary to veep.”
Alright, creepy but he still showed a hint of creativity in there. Plus, dinner was really good. I might as well make the best of it while we ate. Well, while I ate. He wasn’t touching any of the food.
”What’s the best thing you’ve ever found?”
“I get some hard drives and cables every week. People also throw away a lot of candy bars. Dunno why. They’re just fine.” He shrugged. “It’s seasonal. After a big conference, the trash is full of t-shirts and squeezy toys. Best thing is when they throw away ski passes.”
Wow. He was right. He really would be good at corporate espionage if he had the tiniest bit of ambition. Who knows what was on the hard drives he gave away to his friends.
”When you’re not dumpster diving, do you like history?”
“Made straight D’s.”
“I’m working on a Master’s degree.”
I tried to think of other potential common interests. Surely if this David had a stack of discarded ads, something in mine must’ve caught Mike’s friend’s eye. Books – no, he wasn’t a reader. Photography – no, he didn’t own a camera. Maps – why the hell would anyone be into maps?
He sighed. The attempts at finding a common interest were getting on his nerves. “Look, I give my buddy a stack of David’s rejects every week. He says the same thing to all of you.”
Mike knew how to make a girl feel special. “So how many dates have you been on this week?”
“You’re the only one who wrote back.”
“But…” I was genuinely perplexed. “If your friend knows you don’t like history or spicy food or reading or anything in my personal ad, why write me at all? He knew we wouldn’t have anything in common.”
I noticed the people behind him had turned their chairs around to watch. You don’t normally get this kind of free entertainment at a 10 table hole in the wall.
He was so matter of fact. “Women all say you want a walk on the beach and a candlelit dinner, but if you weren’t desperate, you wouldn’t need to beg for a man. I mean, look at you. If you could do better, you wouldn’t be out here with me.”
The waitress magically appeared with a single check which she handed to me. He hadn’t touched the food. “She has a boyfriend. You should go now.”
I looked at her. I looked at him. I looked at our rapt audience. “She’s right,” I sighed. “You should go.”
He looked around, realized we were being watched, and bolted. As soon as the door shut, everyone in the restaurant was spontaneously fascinated by something on their platter. The people who were done eating were suddenly fascinated by the tables themselves. I didn’t want to look at them, so I stared into my food.
The waitress ducked into the kitchen. She returned a few seconds later with a pair of to-go boxes. As I went to load in my leftovers, I discovered she’d slipped in a generous extra helping of injera and my beloved lentils. She’d only billed me for one dinner. I handed her enough cash for both, plus a 20% tip. She slipped it into her apron without looking.
”If you don’t come back next week, I will call the police to identify your body.”
I was scarlet with embarrassment over making a scene. It was nice of her to remind me I was still welcome. “You might not see me. I only order takeout when I’m eating alone.”
“No. You should eat in.” She laughed. “Sunday night is slow. Bring another date.”