Don Juan in Rhinebeck, Part One

You may wonder about all this trolling on the Internet. What was I looking for? True love? That hackneyed state of twoness known as a relationship, perhaps with an equally hackneyed partner known as a soulmate? In truth, I don’t think I had anything particular in mind beyond finding a man who would last longer than a few dates, because dating is exhausting. You may wonder also why I didn’t turn to friends or to a professional matchmaker. My friends by that point were caught up in family life or themselves searching or resigned to the single life. The one matchmaker I consulted hooked me up with a short engineer in Orange, NJ. It took only one phone call to determine we had nothing in common.

And so at some point in my 54th year, I gave up on conventional dating sites, like Match.com and eHarmony, and found one called Nerve.com, a frisky place, now apparently defunct, that posted edgy photos and blogs and inspired a little more self-expression than the generally earnest and staid meat markets on the ’net. The profile questions included “What would you do if you had a million dollars?”; “What are the five items you can’t live without?”; and “What was the last great book you read?” In response to this one, and because I couldn’t take the query too seriously, I listed both Larousse Gastronomique and Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma as two of my favorite books, though I haven’t cracked the covers of the latter in more in 20 years. A Nerve member who called himself Talleyrand wrote me asking if I realized that Stendhal suffered from bad breath and body odor.

        I was intrigued, and especially beguiled because he managed a couple of paragraphs of self-description with no grammatical errors. His photo was nothing arresting—a slender middle-aged guy in a business suit with a receding hairline, several years older than I. We got to emailing, we got to talking. I learned he was an emergency-room doctor in upstate New York, as well as a sometime financial adviser, divorced with two teenage children he adored. Things heated up enough that we made a date to meet late in May at a small museum just off Fifth Avenue, the Neue Galerie of early 20th-century German art.

        But that wasn’t soon enough for Michael, and he called me one night to see if I wanted to have breakfast around nine the following morning, when he had appointments in the city. I am not a “breakfast” person—a cup of yogurt suits me just fine—but he claimed to know a place uptown that served first-rate huevos rancheros and offered to swing by to pick me up. So, okay….even if it is a chore to put on mascara at that hour.

        When I first started dating again, after my nine-month exile in Montauk, I quickly made a couple of rules. Men who drive filthy cars are not to be trusted: if he doesn’t take care of his car, how well can he manage the rest of his life? How well will he take care of you? (This may be a lesson I learned from Jeff’s beat-up van during the Radio Daze in Seattle.) And no men over forty who carry backpacks. This is capricious and arbitrary—lots of people of all ages carry backpacks, but I still think of them as an undergraduate accessory, especially for men who claim to be in some way affiliated with the high-rolling world of finance.

        Michael showed up promptly at nine the next day and, sure enough, was driving a mud-stained Subaru Outback, its right taillight held together with duct tape. The back seat was littered with empty coffee cups, old copies of the Financial Times, and, of course, a dark-blue backpack. My heart sank, but I couldn’t very well back out at that point. And it was only breakfast.

        We drove to a little Hispanic joint near Columbia University, a kind of storefront eatery with Formica tables and a linoleum floor.  But you never know….sometimes the most unassuming of restaurants cook up wonderful food. Not this one. The huevos were nothing more than tough fried eggs with some overcooked chorizo and a little cup of salsa on the side. I dutifully managed a few bites and made polite conversation about how the neighborhood around Columbia had changed (we’d both done graduate work there, at very different times). He seemed an odd but sensitive guy, with a rather appealing face that reminded me in profile of a peregrine falcon.  After breakfast, he dropped me at a press preview I was scheduled to attend on the Upper East Side, and that, I thought, was that.

        But not so. I wrote to thank him politely for breakfast, mentioning a restaurant farther downtown that served superior eggs. Michael sent an email in response, which read in part:

Ann,

I would be pleased to join you for huevos rancheros, second round, at the restaurant you specified or by your own hands. I respond adaptively to such invitations. I realize it was not a complete invite but it's close enough. I also will help if you wish to cook yourself or will get out of the kitchen and out of your way. Simple commands work well.

Michael

       I found myself increasingly charmed by this and other of his letters, and the email exchanges became progressively more revealing. About his ex-wife, Elaine, he wrote: “I wandered into foul territory because life with her had ceased to be an adventure. Everyone likes her. Predictions are dangerous, but you if you were to meet her if you come up here, I would guess your reaction might be positive.” (I’ve always liked it when romantic prospects speak well of their exes—I have a solid friendship with mine. Carrying around a lot of bitter baggage seems to me a sign of unresolved “issues” and an inability to remain open to new attachments.)

        We exchanged names of favorite writers (he was a 19th-century kind of guy and loved Saki, O’Henry, and Maupassant). His great hero was the bearer of the name under which he advertised online and sent emails:  Talleyrand, the 19th-century French diplomat. At the time I was reading Laura Kipnis’s Against Marriage, a brilliant but dyspeptic polemic dissing the institution and most other liaisons between men and women.  He was a great fan of the book, and in response to my uneasiness in reading it, wrote, “All (all, all, all, all) the comforts of marriage can be adequately replicated by a good butler and a large account at Morgan without any of the disadvantages. Keep reading Kipnis and report to the class later.”

         So maybe there was more to Michael than the crapped-up car and bad taste in restaurants. Given my rocky history since divorcing almost 15 years earlier, I had my own reservations about the possibilities of domestic bliss, and at least he had proved that rarity among the men I meet online—a book lover and a voracious reader. We made a second date to meet at the museum and have lunch afterward. 

         Since he was driving into the city, I asked him if he would mind stopping by my apartment first to help box up a teak table I’d bought on eBay, which had somehow been shipped with only three legs (though the seller vehemently claimed she’d sent it with all four). When he arrived, he took a look at the table and offered to have the leg turned for me by a carpenter near his home upstate. That seemed an incredibly sweet gesture from someone I barely knew, even if it meant losing the $200 in insurance money promised by FedEx.

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        We wandered around the Neue Galerie, which had a show of German photography from the 1920s and ‘30s. In front of a portrait of the painter Oskar Kokoschka, I told him the story of Kokoschka’s steamy romance with Alma Mahler, a famed seductress in her day. After she broke off their relationship, he had a life-sized doll made to look like her, going so far as to order expensive clothes and underwear for her and take her to dinner parties (the Mahler surrogate was finally destroyed by drunken guests who lopped off her head and spilled wine all over her fancy dress). This certainly got his attention.

        As did his cell phone, which went off in one of the galleries.  I heard a girl’s voice shrieking, “Pick up the phone now, Dad. Pick up the phone!”  After silencing the phone when a guard hurried over, he told me his daughter’s voice was his ring tone. Was that weird, or just evidence of a strange sense of humor? I couldn’t tell.

        The museum restaurant had a long line of people waiting for tables, so we headed over to a French bistro on 86th Street.  I ordered a Niçoise salad, and he had steak tartare with a glass of rosé. I told him about my plans to enroll in cooking school in a few weeks; he talked about his kids, a freshman and a junior in high school. As the conversation grew warmer, I asked to see family photos. He didn’t carry any, saying that he found it pathetic when divorced dads whipped out pictures of their children. (Later he gave me a photo of himself with his daughter, Lisa, when she was a baby, and I scanned that for him and sent it to him via email.) I picked up the check, grateful that he was having a table leg made for me.

        After lunch, we returned to the museum for coffee. He ordered some goopy Viennese confection with whipped cream, and offered me a spoonful, diving toward my lips with an oddly intense expression on his face. It seemed a rather too intimate gesture for a second date, in broad daylight, and I’m not one to gleefully accept offerings of food from other people’s utensils.  But all in all, I was liking him better and better. Later he wrote to me: “I'm still thinking of your mouth for those thirty-seven milliseconds that it was part of the floating world.” And the email flirtation continued.

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Top: Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (1914), a portrait of the artist and Alma Mahler