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In Search of Magic: Online Dating at Midlife

How to handle fleeting connections in the virtual world.
Illustration by Britt Spencer.

A while back, I joined Match.com. In my fifties and divorced for a few years, I’d been seeing commercials about successful matches and thought, why not?

Suddenly a gallery of eligible men appeared on my computer screen, most emphasizing how much they exercised. No strained joints here! I began critiquing the candidates. Some made the cut, some didn’t. There were no hurt feelings. No one knew how harshly or favorably I was judging him.

The ones posing beside their cars fell quickly off my list. The guy who wrote prolifically about himself but whose profile photo was of a dog? Gone. Mind-boggling were those who sought companionship from distant places. The Chicago physician who liked “spontaneous” visits to farmers markets. The Seattle economist who escaped “weekly” to his cottage on Puget Sound. Didn’t they consider the impracticality?

Eventually I found someone promising. He was an attorney, and our one phone chat felt comfortable enough that we agreed to meet at Starbucks. At the appointed time, I sat by the window with my latte and spread out my paper to make it look like I was more interested in the news than in him.

There he was stepping out of his car. Right on time and as advertised—gray hair, glasses, khaki slacks, light-tan sweater. Entering the shop with purpose, he looked more handsome than his photo. I smiled and said in the coolest of voices, “Hi.”

He smiled lightly and then, instead of introducing himself, quickly stepped into the coffee line. Okay—he just wants some caffeine before we chat. As the line moved toward the register, we exchanged glances, during which I smiled again ever so softly. He reached for his coffee. I put my newspaper down. He gave me one more look, nodded, and then, with the same purpose with which he’d entered, walked out the door.

I was stunned. What a fool I was. Could the other people tell I was there for a meet-up with a man who decided to pass? The only way to throw them off was to sit and finish my coffee, as though that was the reason I was there all along.

As I took my last sip, a different man walked in—khaki slacks, tan sweater, gray hair, glasses. He looked straight at me and with extended hand apologized for being late. He seemed years older than his photo. I felt no connection whatsoever. Now what?

After a modest, awkward chat about his acid reflux and sciatica, we parted. I left feeling as though I’d chased a mirage. There’d been no authenticity—it was all so objectifying. He was a commodity, and it seemed I’d become one, too. This encounter, even if it had been successful, lacked the spontaneous energy that imbues your spirit when an unexpected potential partner enters your life. That’s magic.

I fear we’ve become a virtual society, not truly talking to anyone, as though our lives take place not in tangible connections but inside our minds.

I’m proud of having conveyed my old-fashioned appreciation for the first of the two men who walked into the Starbucks that day. Somewhere in Washington, there’s a 60-ish man with gray hair and glasses who favors khaki slacks and light sweaters. Maybe for a minute I made him feel like magic.

Theana Kastens (tkastens@nvcc.edu) is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College and associate editor of Zeteo: The Journal of Interdisciplinary Writing. She lives in Fairfax Station.

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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