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Photo by Nick Fewings (Unsplash)

The search for love, written on the body

Essay | 23 minute read
Modern love: In the third, penultimate part of our online dating series, Grace McCleen finds her body protesting at the unceasing rejection and disappointment that her dates present

Read the first part of Grace McCleen’s essay here and the second part here

The effort ‘Singletown’ requires a diligent user to make is considerable: the continual tweaking of your profile, revising your photographs, messaging, hour upon hour of reading profiles and scrolling through photographs, while, to my mind, the rewards are non-existent. There was, on aggregate, only punishment: if there seemed to be something promising one week it would have invariably crumbled by the next. I would be chatting or had dates lined up with men I reasonably liked the sound of one moment, and none the next. While this flux is representative of life as a whole, it seemed more demoralising on ‘Singletown’ because the terrific turnover of exchanges means I was exposed to a constant and wildly unpredictable ride of emotion that in ‘real life’ occurs much less frequently.

Finding some of the neurological symptoms I had experienced in the past returning, such as jerkiness of movement and dizziness, I was now strongly considering quitting ‘Singletown’. I had heard of another online dating device which was far less labour intensive. It was called ‘Honey-Pot’, was free to download and was a left–right swipe app (right to select, left to reject); you matched if the other person had also selected you. Since I could no longer even bear to see the ‘Singletown’ logo, I decided to try ‘Honey-Pot’ instead.

The main advantage of ‘Honey-Pot’ was that men could not contact women out of the blue: the ball was entirely in female users’ court. Goodbye pervy pensioners, goodbye stinky, scary loners – and hello Mr Beefcake – or so it seemed to me within minutes of rummaging through ‘Honey-Pot’s racks; lots of these men were certainly models. After a few minutes of swiping left I summoned all my courage, selected a few who were not looking quite so Narcissus-like as the others and swiped right instead of left. Nothing happened. My stomach lurched. Ah. So they had not selected me. I flicked on, noticing, to my surprise, that the longer I did, the more the men seemed to become less chiseled, rugged and brooding; could the app have placed the most attractive men at the beginning of the selection, I wondered? It certainly seemed so.

I swiped more and more profiles right and still found no matches. My skin began to sting. Nausea licked my jaw, the back of my neck. Had all these men rejected me? The men I was selecting now seemed to be utterly ordinary in every way. Suddenly my own profile picture and one of the men’s I’d swiped right bounced giddily side by side, one overlapping the other: ‘It’s a match!’ the app yelled. My body was instantly lighter, ebullient, infused with a charge like a bolt of lightning; he liked me! Way to go!

‘Honey-Pot’ was like playing a fruit machine or the lotto. I decided I liked it better than ‘Singletown’ because it was simply less time consuming and I had already found that time outlay pointless. It also gave very important information (such as heights), showed you the distance you were from your potential match, and did not bombard with daily emails which demonstrated to me all over again just how attractive I was to men I found repulsive. I found I could easily spend hours swiping left and right of an evening, ‘shopping’ for love as I would shop for socks on amazon. The problem was that, whether due to my face, my age or despite my new profile pictures, the matches on ‘Honey-Pot’ were still few. I began to suspect ‘Honey-Pot’ may simply be an ego-boost for some of its male (and I guess, female) users, who were clearly so young and handsome they would have had no problem bagging a woman (or man) in ‘real life’.

Interestingly, over the coming month I remained on ‘Honey-Pot’, two of my few matches were the same men I had ‘met’ on ‘Singletown’, suggesting that 1) I was thorough, 2) there were only so many single men in London (a frightening thought if you are a single woman already finding it difficult to get a date), 3) that both websites possibly appealled to similar people, and 4) most worryingly, despite my revamped image I was still appealing to the same type of man – much older and (to my mind) deeply unattractive.

I went on one utterly disappointing date from ‘Honey-Pot’ with a man who was too touchy-feely and despite protesting he was no longer a polyamorist, was certainly not ready to confine his admiration to a single woman judging by the amount of time he spent eyeing up passers-by during our time together. My only other significant interaction was with a Portuguese man who I never met, whose messages were explicit from the start and soon descend into abuse when he saw (the app shows the user’s location) I was not where I said I was, when, frightened, I made an excuse not to meet him.

Photo by Nick Fewings (Unsplash)

I was weak for days following this exchange and my muscles painful, as if I had been beaten. I felt insubstantial, no more than a piece of litter skittering along a pavement. My balance was now so poor I could not turn around quickly for fear of falling over and my gait and handwriting increasingly staccato. I quit ‘Honey-Pot’ shortly after, but not before reporting the Portuguese. The results it delivered were not really any better than ‘Singletown’, I decided, despite the initial promise. Though it was less effort; this was the main thing in its favor. And it did spare women from being contacted – at least initially – by undesirable men.

Over the next few weeks I went on a ‘Singletown’ date with a thin, ghostly Hungarian teacher who I found terrifyingly unattractive. He was so nervous when he met me in Fulham that I felt a crushing sense of despair. During the next hour talking to him, I partly lost the use of my right arm and in an attempt to put him off told him about being ill in my twenties, the recent MRI, the neurological symptoms. It didn’t. After this, frantically trying to conserve energy, I began arranging Skype dates, first with a pale, bespectacled man, with whom I knew within seconds of speaking to him that there was nothing and would never be anything between us. I deployed my tactic of disclosing my breakdown and illness to no avail; if anything, he seemed to be more fascinated by me and I began to feel nauseous, dizzy, my eyes aching, then watering. I noticed my right arm becoming increasingly weak. Because I was afraid I would have lost the use of it by the end of the conversation I attempted to cut it short after an hour, but he kept talking, opening up new subjects, asking if I would like coffee.

The second Skype date was with another academic and I debated whether to message at all because his height was stated as ‘5’9’ (my own) and in my experience online, men with this stated height or shorter had a habit of lying; what was more, over Skype there was no way to tell. The academic was curly-haired, younger than myself, based in Cambridge, and while charming and conversational during our online messages, was self-absorbed to the point of autism when I met him in person.

My three-month subscription was nearly up but I already knew the end of the road was nigh: I felt infinitely better about myself as a single (albeit desperately insecure) heterosexual woman when I encountered no men at all. The concept I had of ‘myself’ – nebulous at the best of times – was now fraying wildly. I had been experiencing sensations I thought I never would again; sensations that carry the old whiff of breakdown: night sweats from which I woke with a feeling I was coming up through deep water; a conviction I was unraveling at a furious rate of knots. All of this was undoubtedly contributing to, if not the reason for, the exacerbation in neurological symptoms.

Before my subscription ended I went on a date with an Ethiopian at a bar near the river in Putney. I was finding it difficult to think again due to the exhaustion and my tongue felt sluggish and thick in my mouth. After the drink, because I was feeling so ill I confessed to him, and he suggested we walk by the water. We walked for a little while then sat in the shade of the embankment wall. The muscles in the back of my neck felt sick and he noticed me tearing at them with my fingers. When he offered to massage my neck I let him, feeling nothing except a sulphurous heat – or rather, a nothing that burned at the centre of a sulphurous heat. There was no thought. Sun glittered on the water. People were rowing longboats. I heard him talk about his village, his coffee shop, the older British woman he had been in a long relationship with. He asked little about me even while touching my neck and I did not care. I knew he would contact me again; knew he would contact virtually any woman.

Thanking him so much for meeting but declining another drink I waited for a bus that never arrived on Putney bridge and then began to walk home to Fulham. I was tottering, finding it difficult to negotiate corners in my sandals, the sweltering heat exacerbating whatever neurological damage had already been done inside my brain and spine. Even though I had other dates set up I knew I would not go on them; I was now terrified that the illness (I did no give it a name in my head) was back for good, but the knowledge resided somewhere at a tangent to me that afternoon; was unfathomable; had receded, like my sadness, to an exhaustion that anesthetised even as it gnawed.

The day before my subscription expired a reasonable-looking man, whose profile showed him astride a motorbike ‘liked’ me. In spite of everything, I paid £32 for another month’s subscription and typed him a message. He did not reply and I lost the use of my right arm for a week.

In Which I Throw Caution To The Wind, Or Takes Leave Of My Senses

I did not know what to do to offset the illness. I never really had. I only ever had hunches. I knew that my job in teaching was making it worse and was relieved that my contract was nearly up, even though I badly needed the money. The other thing taking its toll on my body was online dating; but while quitting ‘Singletown’ seemed like an option, even though I had just paid for another month’s subscription (money I did not have), I reminded myself that had been pretty unbearable before. A year or so ago I had been taking an antidepressant. While taking the antidepressant the neurological symptoms had disappeared. I decided I would have to start again; I would finish teaching in a week; I would attempt to wean myself onto the anti-depressant then.

For two weeks I slept sixteen or eighteen hours a day, ate bread when I could manage it and drank only cold water. For the space of those weeks, the corrosive knowledge of my outright failure receded into the background. All I could think of was sleep. I craved it as a drowning man craves air; I was crazed, mad, lusted for it; wept when I had to rise to go to the bathroom, and on returning to bed lay rocking and shivering before losing consciousness again. I woke, sometimes whole days later, the bedclothes cold and stiff with sweat.

In the third week I became worried that the nausea, headache, eye engorgement, exhaustion and general ‘drugged’ feeling would never dissipate. I knew from experience that round about now I simply had to start dragging myself around in spite of it and it would begin, eventually, to recede, so I put three cups of coffee beside my bed each ‘night’ and the moment I woke, approximately twelve hours later, forced myself to drink all of them. By the time I was on my feet again summer was in full swing.

Photo by Alex Boyd (Unsplash)

When I finally logged back into ‘Singletown’ my first messages were invitations (one lengthy) by two men I had previously told (untruthfully) that I have enjoyed meeting but did not want to see again; one was not even sure if our paths had crossed before. This time I knew there was nothing to be done but cast my net as wide as possible, so I began messaging every man I did not find downright repulsive. Though my messages were carefully considered, I included questions and a little information about myself that I hoped was enticing, though they felt phoney to me. I never received replies to most of them.

I began to hate the fact that I was a novelist; these men probably thought I was self-published, wrote e-books, or was some crazy, lonely, literary spinster. Of these three eventualities only the last two were possibly true; and if there was a chance of being crazy this website was driving my closer. I was beginning to despise the rows of male faces. I began to loathe not just the men but myself. I began to feel enraged; enraged that I had to contact them – men I felt nothing for; enraged I had to continually make the effort to think of something to say, out of desperation, when they were the ones who, typically, should be approaching a woman. The whole process, I thought, would be entirely empty if it did not feel so soul-destroying; if it did not feel so utterly abhorrent to my deepest nature.

Whether it was the first inklings of numbness induced by the drug or because I had simply been worn down, I began to do what I had earlier resented men for doing: contacting those whose profiles I had viewed weeks, sometimes months ago, but decided not to contact. I wrote things like: ‘Hi, I was looking through likes and am not sure why I didn’t reply to you! You seem like an interesting chap; while not socialist I am far from Tory. And have never, and will never, own a pair of Uggs J. It would be nice to hear from you again.’ Needless to say, none of these messages elicited a response.

A couple of weeks passed. May became June. I tossed the last shreds of my dignity aside and began contacting men on a large scale. ‘Hi’ I wrote, ‘I like your profile pictures (great variety!) and write-up. I also primarily value honesty. How have your experiences been so far?’

‘Hi, I liked your profile. I’m also looking for the big bang thing but am quite disoriented in this modern world of cyber-dating. How have your experiences been so far? And what is Fernando’s?’

‘Hi, I’m not a fan of Facebook either… I’m a novelist and teach creative writing. If I could do anything though, I would be a musician. What about you?’

‘Hi, I love the fact you don’t give a fuck about your job or your car; refreshing (although I guess people have to give a fuck about their jobs to a degree). What do you mean that your house is smarter than you? And what is CTL please?’

‘Hi, Congratulations on submitting your PhD. What was it on? I did an MA but that was enough academia for me! I now teach creative writing at a university and am a published novelist. Are most of your family still in Mauritius? Btw, I also dislike bananas.’

Nothing. Nada. Rien. Nichts. Zilch. Diddly-squat.

I agreed to a second date with a man who carries a rucksack everywhere and wore climber’s sandals. The first date had been as empty as I could imagine, because the man seemed – what? – alright? During the second date it became apparent that either he was feeling as little as I was, or did not know how to behave around other human beings; he stared everywhere but at me as we ate in Wahaca. He seemed jittery, eager to get away but once outside he suggested a walk. As we headed further and further (it seemed to me from civilization) towards the end of Wimbledon High Street, my right foot began to scrape the pavement and my stomach lurched in dread. My sandal-clad companion did not notice but continued to talk about – what? – I honestly have no idea.

I saw his legs toddle left and right, the chunky sandals appear and disappear beneath his little body; I saw the lights of the shops; the lights of passing traffic; drunken passers-by and the pink of the evening sky – all of which seemed to me now to be phantoms conjured from some underworld where the horror consisted of nothingness, emptiness, rather than definite threat; though the threat here was real enough: it was that the great and beautiful and everlasting being that I felt I must somehow be, was being eroded and drained and sifted away like chaff with each step and each breath.

When he asked if I wanted to come back to his flat I warmly declined. When we hugged goodbye at the tube station I knew that when he contacted me later to arrange another date I would explain it was best we become friends (‘friends’ here meaning ‘strangers’). In fact I said in my message that if he was honest with himself, I was sure he did not feel enough for me to take this further. Even if he did, it seemed a diplomatic way to end things; made it easy for him to agree, which he did. He seemed as lost as I was, I thought; or perhaps he was simply desperate to get laid, and this intent made him seem impersonal. How such unhappiness could be created and exist between two people who had, at least on the surface, spent a pleasant evening at the cinema and a restaurant, was staggering to me; that such misery – so palpable I felt it as a compression in my chest – yet existing in such ordinary surroundings, was terrifying.

The last date I went on surpassed every other. I can say nothing about the man I met that day except that he looked at least twenty years older than his photographs and one thousand times uglier; in fact if there was a prize for magically flattering pictures it would go to whoever took those photos of this particular human being. Nor did I receive any idea from the messages we exchanged online how ineffably lifeless, depressing, depressed, and downright deathly this ‘44’-year-old was in reality.

I did not recognise him when we met outside Barbican tube station and he came up to me with an expression of resigned vacancy that seemed to suggest that he was used to people being surprised upon meeting him; he was used to introducing himself; used to the looks of horror. He had grey hair, a face hard to describe without being offensive, and was wearing grey, brown and black from head to foot. It was his aura that devastated me however; within moments of walking beside him I felt plunged into a pit; into deep, fetid, unutterable shadow. I cannot link my revulsion (which was so great it mounted quickly to panic) to any particular thing he did or said. I only knew that this date would be a feat like no other.

We sat in the Barbican café. I insisted on buying the coffee (perhaps from some subconscious guilt at the depth of my aversion), then hunched over my mug so that my back curved and my breasts (perky beneath my ballet top, stupid things) morphed into my torso. Even so I was aware of him glancing at them; at my lips, my hands; which I found myself attempting to hide, futilely. We talked about the benefits of orthodontistry, Southampton, his mother’s ill-health; the family semi. I began to get a migraine; dual vision first, then the messy constellation of sparks and I hung onto the table so I would not sway on the stool. Later we sat beside the water outside and he explained the difference between broadsheets and tabloids while picking his nose and flicking the detritus into the water where I watched it float for a moment before sinking with a gentle wave of regret into the gloom.

About an hour into the conversation I stopped asking him questions, then stopped replying, or, rather, stopped trying to form interjections to his monologue, and wondered how long it would take him to notice. It took a considerable time; but finally the soliloquy ground to a halt, and blinking, a note of mild surprise in his voice, he said: ‘What did you say you did again?’ Instead of answering I suggested a walk, although the exhaustion I had felt all morning was now affecting my balance and once more I could feel de-realisation dawning. I thought if I could steer us back to the tube station it would be something. The tube station appeared and disappeared and I found us walking down a side street. My head did not feel connected to my body any longer, and neither did my legs.

We visited an ancient chapel tucked behind a Tudor façade where lay the remains of William Wallace. There would have been four or five pieces, I reckoned, since he was hung, drawn and quartered. While I read the plaque describing the execution, he watched me; complimented my on my sunglasses, then wandered away to sit on a bench. Walking back towards the Barbican I had the idea of saying I had to meet a friend and left him at a pub, where he was going to ‘relieve himself’. ‘It was fantastic to meet you,’ I told him and then walked back to the Barbican. I found a room used for functions filled with only a table draped in a white cloth, crawled beneath it, curled in a ball and fell asleep thinking how it would feel to be divided into four or five pieces. When I woke it was dark.

The last date I almost went on was with a pleasant-looking 42-year-old single father who described himself as ‘a bit of a firework’. He replied to my messages with lengthy, flowery and keen passages. He said he could not wait to meet me and would think of somewhere ‘nice’ for us to go. A week later, and two hours before we were due to meet I still had not heard from him so called to find out if the date was still on; he sounded vague, suggested Euston station; ‘Is that ok?’ he said, ‘Or maybe we shouldn’t go there…’ His voice was flat, squashed and thin. My heart sunk as soon as I heard it. It was a voice at odds with the healthy, dynamic-looking man in his pictures. Now it trailed off. I said Euston was ok, but tried to think of a pub or café nearby that was a little less shitty. He said: ‘yeah, don’t know, maybe you’re right… I don’t know anywhere round there.’ I suggested St Pancras instead; said there were some decent bars and cafes on the Eurostar side. He did not know, he said; he supposed so. He said: ‘sorry…’ He sounded bored, somewhere else – on some distant planet in some distant galaxy.

I decided for him – for us – on Starbucks; there was obviously no point going somewhere decent with this no-hoper; I would just meet him and get out of there. He agreed, apologising again for not having arranged something, saying he was sorry but something in the airiness of his voice suggested indifference. I agreed, and hardly able to keep the anger – which now barely veiled the sudden well of grief that I did not understand, that came from nowhere – from my voice, and put down the phone. I had showered and was about to blow dry my hair and put on makeup but I stopped, my knees bent and I sat down on the bed.

Why was I doing this? I asked myself. And how much more of it will I do? How much more energy would I waste in this way; meeting people, in this case, I already loathed; that had made my feel so worthless; trekking across London in a packed tube train feeling lonely, feeling stupidly ‘dolled-up’? To come home again, dissolved, drained, eroded to a whisper, an hour or so later. To take off the clothes and the heels, climb into bed too tired to wash, eat or brush my teeth and try to burrow down into the folds of oblivion; shrug consciousness of existence off until light comes again. How many more times could I – should I – do this? This – every ounce of this – so far removed from who I was; from what I wanted; from anything that gave love or light or hope to my life.

Of course there was always the possibility I would finally meet someone worth meeting; it was just a question of how long my stamina sustained me; just a question of where and when I drew the line. The whole process reminded me, once again, of gambling. Which everyone knew was a losing game. In this instance, at least, I already knew the line had been crossed, I thought. It occurred to me that no good had ever come of compromising, of selling myself short; which, in a way, I had been doing my whole life. However desperate I was, however low I was sinking, I decided I had some standards left.

I picked up the phone again and called him back. I told him exactly how I felt: he had not put any effort into finding a place to meet. He sounded dull, unconcerned and uninterested. Why should I travel across London to see him? I didn’t want to see him, I said. What did he expect? And inside I was thinking: what do they all expect? ‘Yeah… I’m sorry… I can hear you’re upset…’ came the toneless voice… It did not sound concerned – and the more it apologised, the more enraged I got. ‘You’re right to be angry…’ he mumbled, ‘I guess I screwed up…’ ‘Yes, you did,’ I said, my voice shaking, I put the phone down. ‘Bit of a firework’? I thought; more like a limp squid.

I sat panting, unaware I was rocking, clenching and unclenching my hands beneath my knees. What was I to do? I thought. I felt, as I had done countless times in my life before, that I had no option but to go on doing the very thing I was doing, though that thing had finally become untenable.