*Sometimes, Dalia feels as if she’s seen it all. Almost daily, in the span of a couple of hours, she can witness both the bright and tender ascension of hope and the unsparing, muted crush of disillusionment.
At 29, she’s learned more than she thinks fair to know regarding the beguiling allure of Maybe and the fleeting fickleness of love at first Like.
Make no mistake, the girl bows down to the unyielding power of love. But she absolutely despises the baiting ambiguity of “I’ll call you.” For Dalia, it’s a tricky phrase that prompts meditation on the mechanics of communication, monogamy and the reality of “coincidence.” On a daily basis, she considers these and associated thoughts from her distinctive station in life: Dalia works at a Los Angeles Starbucks.
And, as anyone dating in the 21st century well knows, Starbucks is modern culture’s way station of lust and love for the Internet dater.
Figures. After all, you can’t just invite a total stranger–to whom you’ve been texting your life information and photos for a week–over to your place or go to theirs, although you’d be surprised at how many people do that. And it’s downright inhumane to arrange to meet someone in, say, the parking lot of a strip mall, covertly drive by, check them out and then decide whether or not you want to reveal yourself, although people do that, too.
No, there are social rules of thumb, rules that existed way before the Internet, when patronizing personal ads in newspapers was seen as a perversion. And those rules are: when meeting someone from a dating site for the first time face to face, you (A) rendezvous in a public place that is (B) conveniently located for both parties. The ridiculously ubiquitous Starbucks is public as can be for two strangers looking to meet inconspicuously.
But Dalia can spot them. After almost three years of peddling the world’s favorite drug, caffeine, she’s developed a discerning eye for the lonely, hopeful heart.
They are men and women of all hues, from varied backgrounds, mostly in their early 30s and beyond, whose eyes, when they enter, have in common a telling, cautious anticipation.
They survey the place for a certain description. If first to arrive, they quickly order a drink and take a table strategically off the beaten path but in plain view of the entrance.
And then they wait.
Sometimes they’ll try reading a book or nurse their smart phone. But it’s clear they’re not into it; their attention is too easily broken every time someone comes through the door, as they hope THAT might be their date, instead of the person bringing up that person’s rear.
In any case, Dalia knows all will be revealed with the introduction. The elongated pronunciation of a name–“Marrrrrk?” “Sarrrrah?” –speaks volumes. Yep, those two are strangers from a dating site, meeting for the first time.
What happens after that depends on how both feel. But when Dalia sees one of them with forlorn face, she knows that through artful phone conversation, entrancing emails and photos from the stone age, someone has somehow been hoodwinked. Indeed, misrepresentation–of age, height, weight, name, hairline, intentions and thus, character–is the bane of the sincere online dater’s existence.
Dalia knows that pain personally. Through various dating sites, she’s met her share of ugly egoists, handsome Mama’s Boys and Boring Guys Who Lie About Everything. She’s encountered men suffering from acute arrested development; newly single men locked for so long in nonfunctioning marriages that they no longer know how to relate to women as people; married men who lie that they are single, or worse, “separated” and any variety of frogs which, when kissed, morph into rabid sex fiends. Unemployed sex fiends.
Before she worked for the chain, Dalia knew where all the Starbucks were in her neighborhood and just beyond. She’d rendezvoused with men she met online in many Starbucks, with most of the meetings ending in Ima-blow-my-brains-out exasperation.
It wasn’t being contacted by yet another savvy, charismatic would-be serial killer that left her vexed. Rather, it was his inability to communicate using more than five emailed or texted words at a time that felt like slow, agonizing death. She was relieved to hear from men who wrote wonderfully enticing emails. And then she learned that some of the most wonderfully enticing emails are written by emotionally unbalanced men.
During her online dating experience, Dalia came to the conclusion that people generally have given up on the chance “Hiya doin'” at the sporting event snack bar, the car wash or the local deli. Increasingly, out in the world we breeze right past potential loves of our lives to make our way home, get out of our clothes and unwind over a glass of merlot while checking our online dating inbox.
Dalia found out that the online search can become a job in itself, a task that can leave one surrendering to the crestfallen resolve that maybe I’m simply going to be the hip, eternally single aunt/uncle who travels a lot.
However, for all its particular psychosis, online dating can offer yet another experience. Dalia knows that feeling, too.
It began one evening, after yet another grown ass man had opened his response to her profile with, “‘Sup.” Ugh. Dailia decided she would delete her profile the next day. About to log off for the night, she was interrupted by an email informing her that someone had contacted her through her dating profile.
The inquiry was polite. Thirty-three and a sturdy 6’2, he sounded smart and purposefully witty. Sane. Others had started like that.
Nevertheless, the next day Dalia–a vegan–responded to him, a man who said he managed a meat packing firm in the San Fernando Valley. In a week’s worth of emails and texts, he never once asked a “serious” question about sexual preferences, nor uttered one joke about his “meat.” Expansive, tantalizing phone conversations ensued regarding the arts, domestic desires, politics, religion and dreams for the future.
Dalia knew what he looked like; they’d exchanged photos. But not immediately meeting–a first for her–allowed them to get to know one another from the inside out. Unable to be distracted by physicality, the two were compelled to explore their emotional selves.
And so, one afternoon nearly a month after that first email exchange, Dalia sat in a Hollywood Starbucks, nervously waiting to meet a man she believed she knew. However, an hour passed and he still hadn’t shown up.
She panicked. This man was supposed to be part of a new life she’d laid claim to, a courageous new chapter that called for a new job after being laid off as a supermarket checker a week earlier. One monkey–the one she sat there waiting on–wasn’t going to stop her show. Already at Starbucks, Dalia collected herself and decided to look into a position with the company.
Dalia was behind the wheel of her six year old German economy car and about to start its engine when she was startled by a knock on her front passenger window. It was him. She lowered the window exactly one inch and glared. Sheepishly he explained: On his way over the hill, along a stretch of Laurel Canyon, he’d witnessed a major car accident.
He pulled over, he said, called paramedics and then allowed a shaken passenger from one of the wrecked vehicles to use his cell, already low on power. In fact it went dead against the man’s ear, leaving him without a way to call that he’d be late. Dalia reasoned that talking through her window was a hero OR one unimaginative liar. Either way, she found his dimples irresistible.
All that was a little more than two years ago. It is the story Dalia says she tells, at least in her mind, to every disappointed Latte-sipping online dater that slinks out of her Starbucks. Have patience, she yearns to plead; if you truly believe you deserve love, then never give up. Ever. She wants the men and women who pass through her way station to know there is hope.
Dalia, not her real name, has finished telling all this to a stranger–me–as we share a bench in the afternoon sun at The Grove, L.A.’s chic retail people-watching destination. She’s about to say more when she is approached by a man. He’s tall, smiling–the kind of guy who looks as if he’d enjoy a good steak–and carrying a J. Crew bag. She introduces him, but she doesn’t have to. I recognize the dimples.
In seconds they’re off, in search, she says, of a libation. What would you like? I overhear him ask, as he takes her hand. Anything, I imagine she answers, but coffee.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].