It's a rare and unwelcome surprise when a man on the cusp of turning 40 finds himself revisiting the feelings of alienation and exclusion that plagued adolescence.
Online dating gifted me just that experience recently. It happened because I wanted to hide from the digital dating pool an inescapable reality of my life: my physical disabilities.
I don't know much about the congenital birth defects that left me, among other things, regrettably short and reliant on crutches to walk. The damage happened before I emerged from the womb and life since has been learning to live with it.
It hasn't been so hard. My amazing parents were fierce about treating me like any child, and taught me to see myself the same way. I'm good at my job, love my city, and have strong, meaningful friendships. Dating, though — that's been a problem.
Early on, my romantic experience consisted mostly of professing love to close friends who suffered a kind of emotional whiplash when a relationship they thought was platonic swerved in an unexpected, and unwanted, new direction.
By my early 30s, I took up a friend on his recommendation that I try something different, and created my first online profile. It was a breakthrough. I dated, experienced my first serious relationship, and found I could hold up my end of an adult partnership. Good things happened, but infrequently.
For a single person in the 21st century, online dating is the most ready way to go about meeting a partner. Unfortunately, whether someone gives you a shot on apps such as Tinder or Bumble depends very heavily on what you look like. With my visible deformities, I'm seriously handicapped right from the start.
I write this with the important caveat that online dating has at times worked, and some women from my life might say with a weary laugh, "Yeah, his disabilities definitely weren't the problem."
I have as many personality flaws as anyone and it's almost a relief when my romantic failures can be blamed on me and not my body.
There are also things that have to be present for a relationship to spark. Shared values. Attraction. Chemistry. There are people I rejected, and who rejected me, because after one date or several, it was obvious those were missing, and that's just the way it goes.
That said, though, it's hard to escape the thought that my disabilities play a role in my being single.
Earlier this year, after going weeks without a match, much less a date, I removed from my dating profiles any pictures that made my disabilities apparent. It was an experiment to see how I would do if I presented myself as just a normal guy.
I reactivated the apps and started swiping. The results were shocking.
After weeks without a match, I made several within an hour. Some of them messaged me first, something almost unheard of previously. I asked one what she was up to and she responded, "talking to a cute journalist."
I have had my share of dates, but the conversations that preceded them tended to be nice but polite, somewhat earnest. These chats were light, flirty, tinged with sexuality. I had entered an alternate universe.
Growing up, I so often thought I was missing out on an unobtainable normalcy, as if there were a door to the life everyone else experienced that was locked to me. I could see and hear the good life beyond, but I couldn't participate.
On these dating apps, my physical limitations erased, I got a hint of what normalcy felt like. That locked door I had imagined did exist, and, as I felt in adolescence, I knew the only way through it was by ridding myself of things that can never be shed.
I was furious that it was so basic. All the years of fearing I was saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, was angst for nothing. I also felt euphoria. I was role-playing, joyfully anonymous, participating with ease in a world I had so struggled to enter.
Inevitably, I had to ruin the illusion. It would be unfair to not let these women know how I looked before we met, so I explained my situation. Some were cool with it, and we ended up going on dates that mostly went nowhere because they weren't into me or I wasn't into them. All good.
Others admitted they did not want to date someone with disabilities. I respect them for being honest.
The ones that hurt, though, were those who said they were OK with my condition, but began responding to messages less frequently. They agreed to meeting up in theory but wouldn't be specific about when. Their schedules were unmanageable, they would finally say, and maybe they weren't in a good place for dating right now, period.
It probably was true in some cases. In others, I doubt it. Regardless, there was agony in a once-friendly, welcoming face slipping away. My experiment with online dating fed an ugly thought, that the things most essential about me just don't matter when weighed against how I look.
Unfair, right? Except in truth I'm no better. I have swiped left without a second thought because I thought someone was overweight, or had tattoos I found unattractive. I'm sorry to admit I've ghosted a few people. I have no moral high ground to stand on.
"They were careless people," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the mega-rich couple the Buchanans in The Great Gatsby.
There's something in the structure of dating apps that encourages carelessness. They reduce complexity and quirks to a few curated pictures and clever blurbs, and make people so very easy to dismiss.
As unique as the specifics of my situation are, I can't escape the feeling there are plenty of people who can relate. A single parent who is told, "I don't date people with kids." Someone who suffers from depression and finds a date suddenly distant after revealing that condition. Those searching for a partner, through apps or otherwise, must sometimes wonder whether anyone can accept them as they are.
I took a break from online dating about a month ago, but I'll probably try again. Whether I'm up front about my handicaps or keep them hidden, inevitably women I meet will decide whether they could be with a man who doesn't look like anyone's idea of the guy they thought they'd bring home to Mom and Dad. It's happened before, and I believe it will again.
(Hopefully, soon —because, my God, am I ready to be done with online dating.)